As horrific as the conditions are in Ukraine, I am also worried that we have failed to think through the longer game. Given the death and destruction, it is imperative that the United States stands for a resolution of this crisis, rather than running the risk of a widening war, especially as even more advanced weaponry from the United States and NATO are headed into the war zone—a step Russian President Vladimir Putin has roundly condemned.
A full military victory for Ukraine is a satisfying and lofty goal—but how sustainable can it be, given Russia’s considerably greater military capability—as yet unused? Unfortunately, we have little “gut” understanding of what kind of sacrifices the Russian state might be willing to undertake to avoid a devastating loss. News today from Reuters indicates that the Russians now think the United States’ real objective in this war is to bring about the collapse of the Russian Federation. “It means Russia must be humiliated, limited, shattered, divided and destroyed,” said former Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, a one-time Kremlin moderate. This comes as Joseph Biden today called for even more severe sanctions on the country.
Some people in Washington DC think that Ukraine will never be secure until the Russian president is gone. This may be part of the motivation behind the unprecedented sanctions imposed on Russia in the aftermath of the invasion. If our goal is to see a democratic replacement for the Russian president, however, then we may have undermined our own objective. In this gripping piece, “The New Exiles,” the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute researcher Izabella Tabarovsky quotes a number of people on the ground who assert that the United States and the West may have played into Putin’s hands and contributed to the very thing the Russian president was trying to achieve himself: the utter destruction of democratic forces in Russia.
The future of a free Ukraine is also complicated by other factors as well. Public opinion is at the heart of this squeeze. While the American people have become emotionally invested in a Ukrainian victory, many also remain uninformed about the factors that drove this conflict. Our elected officials and the news media have focused almost exclusively on Vladimir Putin, but this is a one-dimensional explanation for the origins of the crisis. Since the time of the Soviet Union’s demise, the national security elites in Moscow have been vehemently opposed to NATO expansion.
This war began because of outside pressures and two nations’ security vulnerabilities, as well as their own unresolved political and cultural contradictions. Some scholars argue that the internal factors in Ukraine may be most decisive in whether it can emerge from this war as a unified nation. This thesis may be perhaps controversial among talking TV heads who assert that Ukraine has been united already by the Russian attack. But, others say that Ukrainian national identity must be forged for the long haul by more than just unity against an outside threat.
So, what are the long-term prospects? Some in Washington argue that the only peaceful, lasting resolution for Ukraine is if the war includes NATO and the United States’ greater participation, including a “no-fly zone” and the transfer of more sophisticated weaponry—to achieve ultimate victory. An unanticipated incident, for instance, such as the shooting down of Russian aircraft, would most probably draw in other actors and could lead ultimately to the use of tactical nuclear weapons or a strategic nuclear exchange. The risk-calculation of Western escalation, then, is dangerous and irresponsible. As a colleague of mine recently pointed out, this is the first time in history that four, possibly five, nuclear powers are engaged directly or indirectly in what has become a “proxy war” with Russia: The United States, Russia, Britain, France, and possibly China. Threatening China with US retaliation if they support Russia does not help in finding a way out of this mess.
That is why many of us have argued for finding a settlement, and time is of the essence. Given the nuclear dimension of this conflict, such an agreement would require not just Ukrainian assent, but also the full force of Russian and American commitments. It is time for the Biden Administration to stop hiding behind the negotiating efforts of other countries and take part in finding an urgent solution to this uncontrollable crisis. It may take some creativity, as well as sincere diplomacy, but too much is at stake to do otherwise. In making this war a cause of “good against evil” President Biden has cornered the Russian president and in doing so he has also trapped himself.
I wonder if President Biden has the courage to recalibrate his approach, given the rising dangers to America’s own national security. For Biden to champion a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement will require the kind of presidential leadership that this country so desperately needs. We must encourage him to show that fortitude.
With best wishes,
Strategic Alert for the Week:
President Joe Biden is expected to stand back from the Polish proposal to deploy “NATO Peacekeepers” to Ukraine. Nevertheless, he also says that he will defend every inch of NATO territory. This contrived and contradictory “distance” from the war does not fool the Russians. NATO peacekeepers represent a unique danger to securing a cessation of the conflict.
Any deaths among these peacekeepers in Ukraine or especially in the borderlands, accidental or otherwise, could also draw the United States into the war directly. What ever happened to the United Nations and the United Nations peacekeepers? (Or another neutral group that is not part of the conflict?) NATO is seen by the Russians to be off-stage combatants. Given the hardening of respective positions, the Russians will never see NATO peacekeepers as anything other than a way for NATO to infiltrate Ukraine. (If you doubt this please refer to Putin’s written demands months before the invasion occurred.)