No one is engaging with the need for a sustainable endgame in Ukraine
During the first few weeks of September, Ukrainian forces have carried out a spectacular counter-offensive to the west of Kharkiv. Defying conventional wisdom both in the West and apparently among the Russian leadership that the military conflict was “frozen” until winter, the Ukrainians have advanced more than 40 miles into the Russian rear, capturing key supply centers, and forcing a Russian withdrawal from more than 1,800 square miles of territory. These Ukrainian successes are important – disproving charges on both the left and right that Ukraine was near defeat and that Western support was merely prolonging a conflict that Kyiv could not win.
The wave of military successes has led to jubilation among supporters of Ukraine, while Russian sources, both on social media, and even local politicians in Moscow and St. Petersburg, have taken to blaming Vladimir Putin for the failures. Ukraine’s success has also justified continued support from the West, at least in terms of preventing a Russian victory.
Nonetheless, even if Ukrainian forces show that victories are possible, those victories do not solve the fundamental problem of American policy toward Russia. The United States leadership has not decided what it wants from Russia. This lack of a clear policy vision helped undermine American interests when the U.S. was dominant after the end of the Cold War, and it contributed to the outbreak of war this time. Even assuming Ukraine can win the war, that still requires figuring out what sort of peace America wants. It appears almost no one, including the Biden administration, which has been silent since it walked back calls for regime change in Russia back in the early spring, is giving much thought to the question.
Both “realists” and “hawks” have chosen to ignore a serious discussion of this question. “Realists” have ignored it because they have insisted that Ukraine cannot win no matter what happens. If Ukraine cannot win, support for Ukraine can only prolong the conflict and delay the inevitable, imposing costs both on Ukrainians and Western economies. Realist calls for peace are based upon the premise that victory is impossible, and the terms they advocate for are based on what Europe and America can live with in the event of a Russian victory, not what Russia can live with in the event of a defeat.
On the other side, neoconservatives have long been defined by a belief that military success will somehow produce answers to political questions. They assumed, for example, that if the U.S. overawed the Iraqi factions through “shock and awe” this would not only magically persuade them to reach a settlement among themselves to establish a functioning democracy and present it to the United States, but also cause Iran to change its behavior and democracy to spring up throughout the Middle East.
In the case of the war in Ukraine, neocons seem to take a similar approach. They assume that the defeat of a Russian effort to accomplish whatever it is Putin is trying to do in Ukraine will bring down Putin (which it might), break Russian power, and somehow secure NATO’s Eastern flank. Maybe, they hope, it will even secure Taiwan from a Chinese attack. Little thought is given to how exactly Ukrainian military victories are supposed to achieve these ends.
Putin may well fall, but it is far from clear his successor will be a pro-Western democrat rather than a nationalist seeking revenge. Assuming Russia still exists, all of the same problems of a weak and humiliated Russia which neoconservatives and liberals failed to solve in the 1990s would reappear, and as long as fossil fuels remain key to energy, eventually a Russian state with enough money to pay for modern weapons would sort itself out and again threaten the Baltic States and Ukraine.
What if Russia were to collapse and vanish as a state? This is what some Russian nationalists fear, and a few D.C. think-tankers have begun to fantasize about in their seminars, and even a Washington Post op-ed. The Post asks whether breaking up Russia might be the only way to “end Russian imperialism” without considering what sort of political entity would control that territory, or its natural resources. Would the U.S. prefer China to fill that gap by seizing Siberia? What about an independent Chechnya led by Ramzan Kadyrov exporting terrorism around the world? It is an impressive demonstration of cognitive dissonance that the same thinkers who believe that Russians are so intrinsically “imperialist” that they will always be aggressive and unable to govern themselves democratically will, if divided arbitrarily into smaller units, somehow embrace democracy rather than fight over control of Russia’s vast resource wealth.
What is needed is a synthesis of these worldviews. An America First framework which recognizes that America does have interests in the world that it cannot ignore but that ultimately, it must husband its resources to best advance the welfare of the American people. On one hand, this means that the United States cannot realistically allow a Putin regime that is aligned with China and Iran to invade and occupy Ukraine which is perceived as an American ally, lest American prestige take a larger hit than it suffered during the botched flight from Kabul. To do so would be to encourage Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and India to see the United States as an unreliable partner, and instead make their own arrangements with Putin, Xi Jinping, or both. Nor can the United States abandon the Baltic states or Poland either on moral or strategic grounds, having made the commitment to defend them by bringing them into NATO.
At the same time, however, there needs to be a longer-term examination of how the United States allowed a situation to develop in which the stakes were so high. Much as how there would have been little damage to American prestige if Kabul had fallen to the Taliban or anyone else in 2004 had the U.S. made clear it was going into Afghanistan to destroy Al Qaeda and then get out, the reason why a Russian defeat of Ukraine would have inflicted so much damage on the United States is because the Obama administration pursued a policy of identifying Ukraine with the U.S. in such a way that a defeat of Ukraine would be seen as a Russian defeat of the United States.
It is possible to recognize, as anyone who puts America First must, that, as things stand in 2022, a Russian defeat of Ukraine is an American defeat, and a Ukrainian defeat of Russia is an American victory. But those same patriots need to ask whether the policy that led us here strengthened America or weakened it by creating a hostage. How much, even in the best-case scenario, did America stand to gain from Obama’s policy of provoking Russia in Ukraine, even if it worked? By contrast, by creating a situation where, if Russia invaded Ukraine the United States was forced to either allow Russia to win and suffer global damage, or incur enormous costs to prevent a Russian victory, Putin (and by extension Xi Jinping) gained the ability to force the United States to react at a time and place of their choosing. Putin and Xi – not the President – controlled U.S. policy and priorities. That is not a situation that should have ever arisen.
Rather than asking “what can we get?” in the event of defeat or without fighting (as the realists do), or “what can be achieved militarily, assuming infinite time and resources?” (as the hawks do), we should ask what we want. Here’s what U.S. leaders should want:
- Defend the prestige of America and its system
- Security in Europe which will allow us to pivot to China
- Energy Security
The first of these will be accomplished by Russia’s military failure in Ukraine. It is a vindication of American weapons and American training, but also, unlike Afghanistan, of America’s commitment to support its allies and friends. Having ensured Russian failure, America’s interests can only be undermined by further conflict without a clear political objective, much as whatever benefit the U.S. gained from the defeat of the Taliban and Saddam was undone by the collapse of the occupations. The prestige won on the battlefield can likely only be risked in future conflicts, not enhanced.
That brings us to the second point. If victory only reestablishes the status quo ante bellum—a resentful Russia, sanctioned, eager for revenge, and willing to accept help from whoever is willing to offer it, no matter how ill-advised in the long-term (China) —then the U.S. has gained nothing, other than the certainly noble aim of saving Ukrainian independence. In the event of a total Russian defeat, Russia’s isolation and poverty will leave it even more dependent on China. Xi Jinping could use this leverage to urge Russia to launch a new invasion of Ukraine whenever was convenient for Beijing, including to cover a move on Taiwan, and the U.S. would be forced to respond. Having defeated Russia once in Ukraine, the U.S. would stand to lose far more prestige if it now allowed Russia to win a rematch.
Hence, the United States not only needs to win this war but to ensure that Russia has as little reason as possible to launch a new one. Breaking up Russia, despite what the Post writes, is not a solution absent an invasion of a nuclear power that spans nine time zones and would just require the U.S. to defend dozens of new Russian states, much as it has been forced to defend Ukraine’s borders. The solution then must be in the form of a Russia which has more to gain from cooperation than from being a tool of Chinese policy.
This brings us to energy security. Russia will end this war, even in defeat, controlling not just some of the world’s largest energy reserves but the infrastructure to deliver them cheaply to Europe. President Trump was correct in calling out Germany’s dependence on Russian energy as a strategic weakness, but it is a liability only in the event of conflict with Russia. Absent such a conflict, Germany and all of Europe have an interest in cheap energy, and Russia has an interest in selling it. Green alternatives remain a long-range boondoggle.
That common economic interest was destroyed by the Obama administration’s policy toward Ukraine and the sanctions which followed the Russian seizure of Crimea, which created a dead-end in which investment became weaponized on both sides in a Cold War the United States had no idea how to end or even an interest in winning. One reason Putin could not simply return the Donbass to Ukraine before the invasion is that it was clear that hawks in the United States, having concluded that sanctions “worked,” would then insist they be maintained or even increased until Putin returned the Crimea, and then until he repealed Russia’s anti-LGBT laws, or held elections in which woke liberals won. In turn, any politician, like Donald Trump, who tried to trade sanctions relief for concessions from Putin would meet headwinds.
The reason the United States should offer an end to sanctions in any deal with Russia is not because it is in Russia’s interest but America’s. The sanctions and the endless demands on Russia helped provoke this conflict and will provoke another. An actual end to the conflict is more valuable than territory on either side. The United States should back Ukraine in recovering its claimed territories, with the status of Crimea a judgement call, but whatever borders we settle on, there must be no more disputes, no more frozen conflicts. Russia has lost as much from the disputed status of its Western borders, including Crimea, as the West has. It is in everyone’s interests to ensure borders everyone can live with, even if they don’t like them.
The United States must also be willing to recognize that arguments over human rights and fair elections in Russia, or chasing various Russian officials, including Putin himself, in order to drag them to the Hague to face Dutch judges, is a cause of further conflict. Peace, not perfect justice that destabilizes the world, should be the ultimate goal.
There is of course no guarantee that this sort of settlement will hold. It would require rationality on both sides, a commodity which is sadly in short supply among 21st-century politicians. But it has a chance of working, which is more than can be said for “realists” who want to hand global leadership to Beijing, and hawks, who give no thought to what they hope to achieve by winning the wars they start.
The war must continue until Russia accepts that it cannot use force against its neighbors and expect to succeed. But it means that American officials must be willing to end the war when that is achieved and put aside delusions of regime change in Russia, much less redrawing the map of Asia, or the sort of nation-building nonsense which cost so much over the last two decades. This is a war we had to fight, but we should ensure it is the last one we need to.