Opinion: Western aid isn't prolonging the war in Ukraine. This is

Protesters gather to condemn a recent Russian attack on Ukraine's cities in Prague, Czech Republic, Monday, July 8, 2024. Officials in Ukraine say a major Russian missile attack has killed at least 31 people and injured 154 across the country. One missile struck a large children's hospital in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and emergency crews searched the rubble for casualties. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
Protesters gather in Prague, Czech Republic, to protest Russia's missile attack on Monday that killed at least 39 people in cities across Ukraine and struck a children's hospital in Kyiv. (Petr David Josek / Associated Press)

We hear this refrain a lot these days: "America is only prolonging the war by helping Ukraine. We need diplomacy."

To Ukrainian ears, however, "diplomacy" sounds like a euphemism for “Ukraine surrendering and ceasing to exist.”

Admittedly, an honest question underlies the refrain: Why can’t Ukraine seek peace with Russia?

But here’s how the question could be rephrased: Why not give away huge swaths of sovereign territory to a brutal and corrupt regime? Why not stay away from NATO, allow the Russian sanctions to be lifted, create a demilitarized zone (sacrificing more territory, of course) and aspire to mutual trust?

Read more: Russia's heaviest bombardment of Kyiv in 4 months hits a children's hospital

The answers are obvious, given the reality on the ground and in the fevered mind of Vladimir Putin, especially this week, after Russia bombed the children’s hospital in Kyiv in a massive daytime missile attack that killed at least 39 across Ukraine.

For a decade, Russia’s President Putin has played the West’s fear of a European war like a master. The West initially gave in to his threats and persistently kept Ukraine out of NATO (God forbid we trigger a war!) and thus made the invasion of 2014, and the ongoing full-scale war, starting in 2022, inevitable. Ukraine was barred from the world's most successful defense alliance and was vulnerable to major aggression, which is exactly what the Kremlin wanted.

Since then, exercises in "escalation management" and major restrictions on defense aid to Ukraine have not brought Putin to reason as he carries out the largest European war of aggression since Adolf Hitler. Instead, those limits have cost Ukraine a chance to disable Russia, and instead enabled a long war of attrition.

Read more: Ukraine’s army retreats from positions as Russia gets closer to seizing strategically important town

Half-measures of support have helped Putin to recover from his military’s early failure in northern Ukraine, as well as helping him to adapt to sanctions, to make the war profitable for his elites, to find allies and new markets, and to prepare Russia for perpetual war.

Until very recently, Ukraine was strictly banned from using the West's weapons to attack military targets inside Russian territory, a red line that effectively tied Ukraine’s hands. Did the Kremlin appreciate the gesture? It did — the Russian military used its safe haven status to prepare new offensives and devastating bombing campaigns unchallenged.

Starting last fall, the chorus demanding a “diplomatic solution” grew louder on the know-nothing right in America, and defense aid foundered for six critical months in Congress, creating a gargantuan shortage of munitions in the Ukrainian military.

Read more: Biden apologizes to Ukraine's Zelensky for Congress' holdup of weapons as Russians advanced

The lack of U.S. help did nothing to precipitate a halt in hostilities or bring about the "compromise" that Putin hypocritically chatters about in his periodic surrender ultimatums to Ukraine.

Instead, it expedited Ukraine's tragic loss of the city of Avdiivka to the Russians in early 2024, as well as Moscow’s overconfident spring offensive in Kharkiv. Ukraine’s front line did not fall, as many predicted, thanks to the valor and inventiveness of the Ukrainian military.

Russia responded to the delay of aid from the U.S. by tripling its missile attacks on Ukraine's electricity and heating infrastructure, exploiting Ukraine’s under-resourced air defense. Now the lion's share of Ukraine's energy production and distribution system is destroyed. Ukrainians go most of the day without electricity, and only heaven knows what nightmare awaits us in the winter to come.

Read more: In Ukraine, relief over U.S. aid vote — and fear over what an angry Russia will do next

Decision-makers in Washington keep following the same dangerous script over and over. Ukraine asks for weapons and the response comes back: providing X ammunition or Y missile system would cross a red line and cause an escalation. Months-long deliberations follow; the situation in Ukraine worsens. Belated permission is granted and the weapons — artillery, armored vehicles, rocket systems, missiles, air defense, fighter jets — arrive late. Then the whole scenario is repeated, as Ukraine plays catch-up and suffers.

When Ukrainian troops finally got HIMARS rocket launchers in the summer of 2022, they were able to stunningly derail Russia's logistics, undermine Russia's immense artillery power, halt a Russian offensive and help precipitate the liberation of Kherson later that year.

The U.S.-made PATRIOT air defense system was an absolute no-go until late 2022, when it could finally be used against Russia's air force. The long-belated arrival of ATACMS missiles, declared off limits for more than two years, eventually did devastating damage to Russia's airfields and air defense systems in occupied Crimea. All without “escalating” blowback.

Read more: Editorial: Speaker Mike Johnson's Ukraine aid bill is better late than never

After tallying up the red lines crossed and the consequences, the Kremlin’s nuclear saber-rattling begins to sound a bit tinny, doesn’t it? As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has noted, Putin may be crazy, but his instinct for self-preservation is alive and well. We need to be brave enough to call his bluff.

Placating Putin is not the way to peace; it's an open invitation to eliminate Ukraine as a nation, absorb its territory and its resources, and install Russian aggressors directly on Europe’s borders.

Putin will stop only when he is made to, with a proper and powerful response that defeats his ability to fight on. Ukrainians held off Russia’s attempted decapitating blitz on Kyiv in February and March 2022 with just that kind of all-out effort.

Read more: International court seeks arrest of Russian officials over attacks on Ukrainian power plants

Commentators, politicians and decision-makers in Congress and elsewhere in the West need to stop ignoring the reality of what is needed to end the Russian war in Ukraine. Either that, or openly admit that they are working to aid the Russian aggressor's victory.

Providing Ukraine with the support and weapons it needs is not about prolonging the war. It is about stopping Putin by speaking the only language he understands.

Illia Ponomarenko is a former defense and security reporter at the Kyiv Post and subsequently a co-founder of the Kyiv Independent. His book “I Will Show You How It Was: The Story of Wartime Kyiv” was published in May.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.