- - Wednesday, May 25, 2022

In the latter years of the Roman Republic, the river Rubicon that separated the province of Gaul from Italy was a defining line. Roman Promagistrates, normally a general commanding an Army, were not permitted to cross south of the Rubicon. If they did, the Senate of Rome would regard the general and his troops as having committed a capital offense, condemning them to death. 

In January 49 BC, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon from Cisalpine Gaul into Italy with his army to advance on Rome. According to Roman historian Suetonius, Caesar understood that crossing the Rubicon was a point of no return for him, saying then “alea iacta est” (the die has been cast). Caesar’s bold action forced his rival for power, Pompey, and the Roman Senate to flee Rome. Caesar would seize power, making his escalating action unhesitatingly clear.

Since then, “crossing the Rubicon” has been the term that signifies no turning back. And we are seeing that condition emerge in Ukraine as NATO and the U.S. make it ever so clear to Russian President Vladimir Putin that his naked aggression will not stand. At first, this was less clear as President Biden and his advisers fumbled the strategic message both before and after Mr. Putin’s unjustified invasion. 

Preceding the war, Mr. Biden almost seemed to condone a Russian “minor incursion,” a ham-handed blunder that could be taken as tacit approval of military action by Mr. Putin. For weeks following the invasion, Mr. Biden and his flimsy inner circle struggled to summon the words “Ukraine must win this war.” It was as if they were rooting for some degree of success by Mr. Putin in the hope that such would sate the beast. Nowhere in their lexicon could they locate the words “Russia must be defeated,” fearing that would escalate the situation.

But the only escalation that resulted was Mr. Putin’s threat to employ nuclear weapons in the conflict if the West continued to support Ukraine. It was balderdash, and soon the European members of NATO would find the spine to stand up to the Russian dictator.

Shortly thereafter, many Americans would agree that Mr. Biden’s facile support for Ukraine, initially offering to evacuate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was ridiculous. Unlike Afghanistan’s leadership, Mr. Zelenskyy wanted to stand and fight to the death. In time Mr. Biden would be dragged into providing the weapons and supplies Ukraine would need to address Russia’s lopsided force advantage. Ukraine would then turn the tide, destroying huge tank columns with U.S. and NATO anti-tank shoulder-fired weapons. 

Unchecked, however, was Russia’s enormous inventory of artillery and rockets to pummel Ukrainian forces and the civilian population. After much protest from Ukraine and other voices demanding that the West provide more artillery to counter this threat, the U.S. agreed to provide a substantial amount of cannon artillery and counter-fire radars to help even the score. Yet this is not enough. More is required.

Recently, Mr. Biden ballyhooed the passage of a $40 aid package that followed a $13.6 billion one passed in March. Much of that aid has resulted in a substantial influx of military assistance, including more artillery capability. But White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan has misgivings that the provision of too much firepower to Ukraine might provoke Mr. Putin to do more than threaten the use of nuclear weapons. As one Baltic official is reported to have recently said, “The U.S. wants Ukraine to win, but … they’re not pushing with the full force so that Ukraine could win.”

In particular, White House officials are hesitant to provide the very lethal High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) that would allow the Ukrainian artillery to devastate Russian tactical formations. But the administration fears that providing HIMARS “could be seen as an escalation by the Kremlin,” according to a Politico report last week. On the contrary, Ukrainian Presidential adviser Andriy Yermak recently rejected that thinking before the Atlantic Council. “In the first critical stage of the war, we spent too much time negotiating supplies, searching for these weapons. Meanwhile, people stopped tanks with bare hands in our cities. Now that we have a chance to completely liberate Ukraine from the aggressor, it is inadmissible to delay.”

The time for hesitancy in providing Ukraine with HIMARS is over. This accurate conventional system can launch its standard payload from 17 to 45 kilometers containing deadly sub-missions that can defeat both armored and thin-skinned targets. The U.S. has already provided HIMARS to other friendly nations including Ukraine’s neighbor Romania. So, there should be no hesitation in doing so for a friend opposing Mr. Putin’s bloodletting butchery that threatens both world peace and U.S. national interests.

We have clearly crossed the tactical Rubicon in supporting Ukraine. It is time to quell our rigid fear of escalation. Why? Alea iacta est.

• L. Scott Lingamfelter is a retired U.S. Army colonel and author of “Desert Redleg: Artillery Warfare in the First Gulf War” (University Press of Kentucky). He also served in the Virginia General Assembly from 2002 to 2018.

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