Defense Secretary Austin’s plan to weaken Russia could be a Ukraine game changer

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On Monday morning in Poland, after his visit to Kyiv, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin laid down a new take on Russia with these six words: “We want to see Russia weakened.” 

Wow. Austin is the first senior cabinet member to state the intent to weaken Russia’s military.  Usually they talk about deterrence.

Looks like the Pentagon finally found its sense of urgency, and then some. On Tuesday, Austin hosted 40 nations at Ramstein Air Base in Germany to line up more military aid for Ukraine.

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But as Austin’s statements make clear, this is not just about helping Ukraine. It’s about grinding down Russia as a land power, too.   

Defense Secretary Austin's plan to weaken Russia could be a Ukraine game changer

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
(Office of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy)

“We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine,” Austin said.  Russia has lost “a lot of military capability” and troops, according to Austin. He wants to make sure Russia can’t “very quickly reproduce that capability.”

“I think the secretary said it very well,” echoed Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was standing right beside Austin in front of shrink-wrapped pallets of military assistance bound for Ukraine.

As Winston Churchill said, Americans will do the right thing after they’ve tried everything else. 

Now Austin must deliver on enough military assistance, training and tactical coaching for Ukraine to maul Russia’s forces.   

What changed? Credit Ukraine’s success on the battlefield and Zelenskyy’s leadership.  Russia’s brutality is an equally important factor. From the devastation of Mariupol to the graves of Bucha, Putin has unleashed horror not seen in Europe since World War II. 

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Taking down Russia’s military capability is the only way to ensure it won’t happen again.

Austin has quietly moved U.S. policy to a stance almost unthinkable two months ago. 

    Defense Secretary Austin's plan to weaken Russia could be a Ukraine game changer

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    Tetyana Boikiv, 52, right, meets and hugs her neighbour Svitlana Pryimachenko, 48, during a funeral service for her husband, Mykola Moroz, 47, at the Ozera village, near Bucha, Ukraine on Tuesday, April 26, 2022. Mykola was captured by Russian army from his house in the Ozera village on March 13, taken for several weeks in an unknown location and finally found killed with gunshots about 15 kilometres from his house.  ((AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti))

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    Local resident Oksana walks through the destroyed second floor of her multi-generational home while searching for salvageable items on Monday, April 25 in Hostomel, Ukraine, outside of Kyiv. ((John Moore/Getty Images))

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    A Ukrainian serviceman walks amid the rubble of a building heavily damaged by multiple Russian bombardments near a frontline in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Monday, April 25, 2022.  ((AP Photo/Felipe Dana))

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    An armed serviceman of Donetsk People’s Republic militia walks past a building damaged during fighting in Mariupol on Wednesday. (AP/Alexei Alexandrov)

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    A fallen rocket that was fired from Kherson but got intercepted by Ukrainian forces remains unexploded in the street in Mykolaiv, Ukraine on April 4. (Andre Luis Alves/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Perhaps it was that train ride from southwest Poland to Kyiv and back on an Orthodox Easter Sunday somber with “despair and blood” as the Washington Post headlined it. 

Or maybe it was the actual meeting with President Zelenskyy, where Blinken and Austin came face-to-face with a Ukrainian leadership team they’d greatly underestimated. 

Defense Secretary Austin's plan to weaken Russia could be a Ukraine game changer

In Kyiv, the Americans “expressed our deepest condolences for the loss of so many civilians, and, of course, the loss of those courageous troops that have done such a magnificent job of pushing back Russian forces,” Austin said Monday. 

Now Austin must deliver on enough military assistance, training and tactical coaching for Ukraine to maul Russia’s forces.   

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Apparently that’s the plan. On Friday, the Pentagon’s new chief weapons buyer Dr. William LaPlante sent out an urgent request to U.S. industry for ideas on weapons systems or commercial capabilities for Ukraine, including air defense, anti-armor, coastal defense, counter-battery radar, drones, secure radios and satellite internet. 

Zelenskyy won’t get U.S. ground troops. Ukraine’s never asked for them. So a lot is riding on heavy artillery, lethal drones, better battlefield intelligence, and taking advantage of the Russian army’s limitations in maneuver and command and control. 

Defense Secretary Austin's plan to weaken Russia could be a Ukraine game changer

Of course, victory for Ukraine comes first. “They have the mindset that they want to win; we have the mindset that we want to help them win, and we are going to do that,” Austin said. 

Still, to my mind, Austin is the first U.S. defense secretary who has a chance to do more than deter Russia. If Ukraine defeats Russia’s invading forces, Austin can reset U.S. and NATO security for a generation. 

Plenty of challenges remain, like Russia’s expanding nuclear arsenal and their ties to China. 

On that point, Austin’s new goal of weakening Russian forces  – and hampering Russia’s efforts to rebuild its military losses – pays off double. A degraded Russian military, thrashed on the battlefield, won’t be such an attractive military partner for China, either. 

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Maybe this is the Austin doctrine – weakening Russia’s military to enhance world security.

Churchill would approve. 

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