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Clarify America's Goals in Ukraine
But ignore the drumbeat of elite defeatism
Another day, another call for Ukraine to accept defeat.
Defeatism seems to be particularly acute these days in America’s elite foreign policy debates. For every voice acknowledging Ukraine’s military success in repelling Russia’s premeditated and unprovoked invasion, there’s another prominent voice advising the United States and its allies to be “realistic” and appease the Kremlin by forcing Kyiv to let it keep the Ukrainian territory its army has seized by force.
Take the New York Times editorial board: its recent editorial on the war goes through the usual litany of reasons to limit American support to Ukraine’s war effort. Putin cannot be called a “war criminal” because it might undermine negotiations, and heaven forfend that anyone suggest Russia might be better off without his leadership. Providing intelligence that allows Ukraine to sink Russian warships risks a wider war between the United States and Russia – despite the fact that it has done no such thing in reality. The Times editorial board declare that Ukrainian attempts to seek a military victory over Russian invaders to be “unrealistic,” based mainly on unfounded notions of enduring Russian military strength and tender concern for Putin’s own personal prestige.
Of course, the Times editorial board denies that it’s arguing for appeasement. But it’s hard to see its counsel as anything other than a call on Ukraine to surrender to Moscow what the Russian military cannot win on the battlefield. In its view, “real negotiations” cannot but lead to “painful” concessions by Ukraine, likely in the form of territory within the country’s internationally recognized borders. Why any responsible political leader or government official in Kyiv would or should listen to this advice when Ukraine’s military has fought as well as it has – and Russian troops have performed as poorly as they have – remains a mystery.
Peace at any price – including the near certainty of future conflict – is certainly a legitimate political and policy argument, one worthy of serious debate. But the positions taken by the Times editorial board and others don’t exactly make that case, in no small part because their arguments seem divorced from both the balance of military power in Ukraine and the course of the conflict to date. They make ominous but vague warnings about the potential for escalation, but both Russia and the United States have made their own thresholds for escalation – direct American and NATO military intervention against Russia in Ukraine on the one hand, Russian attacks on NATO member states on the other – fairly specific and relatively clear. Both sides have respected these red lines so far and given no indication that they will breach them in the future.
Likewise, it’s hard to square the inordinate fear of a perceived Russian military juggernaut still expressed in some quarters with the Russian military’s performance thus far in the war. It’s suffered significant losses in equipment and personnel, losses that cannot be replaced easily or in short order. The sweeping Russian offensives promised in eastern Ukraine after the failure to capture Kyiv have not materialized, and instead Ukrainian forces have counterattacked and seized back territory lost in the early days of the war. If anything’s keeping the war in Ukraine going, it’s the Kremlin’s delusion that it can somehow salvage a military victory of its own out of its massive strategic blunder.
By contrast, Ukraine’s military continues to receive equipment and ammunition from the United States and its allies. American artillery and shells continue to pour into Ukraine as well, while Denmark announced on Monday that it would send Ukraine shore-based Harpoon anti-ship missile launchers to help keep the country’s coast clear of Russian warships. A “decisive Ukrainian military victory” seems far more realistic at this point than any sort of Russian military success.
Still, the United States can afford to be more explicit about what it seeks to achieve in Ukraine – at least in discussions behind closed doors with Kyiv. To that end, the United States has three main goals in Ukraine, two of them primary and the last secondary:
Restore Ukrainian sovereignty to pre-war lines of control at minimum and pre-2014 internationally recognized borders at maximum, either by force or through diplomacy.
End the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports and allow grain to flow freely to global markets.
Weaken the Russian military sufficiently enough to prevent Putin from launching wars of aggression for the foreseeable future.
First and foremost, the United States should make clear that it will support the restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty to the pre-war lines of control at minimum and Ukraine’s internationally recognized 2014 borders at maximum. That doesn’t mean the United States should encourage Ukraine to fight until it controls every inch of its pre-2014 borders, but that admittedly ambitious goal instead serves as an upper bound to American support – it’s as far as we’re willing to go with Ukraine, and we should make clear that we’re prepared to accept outcomes short of evicting the Russian military from all the territory it’s taken from Ukraine since 2014.
It's also important to note that even this maximal goal does not require Ukrainian troops to roll into the Donbas and Crimea, seizing territory from Russia by force. Negotiations could very well yield the same result (or something similar), as unlikely as that may appear at the moment.
Second, make ending the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports a top priority. The United States should insist that an end to the blockade – or at least the creation of an internationally-supervised and -protected safe passage corridor – be included in any negotiated agreement, whether a temporary cease-fire or a more lasting deal. Here, it will be helpful to have credible military options available for breaking the blockade if the Kremlin refuses to meet minimum conditions that would allow Ukrainian grain to reach world markets without disruption. The provision of anti-ship missiles to Ukraine can be an important part of this diplomacy, but it’s unlikely on its own to be able to reopen Ukraine’s sea lanes. Even just beginning discussions on this potential mission with other nations would be an important signal to the Kremlin that the United States takes this issue seriously.
At the same time, however, it will be important to keep in mind that Russia uses diplomacy primarily as a way to buy time and gain military advantage. The world has seen how Moscow operates in Syria, for instance, and should be prepared to make sure the Kremlin abides by the terms of any agreement it strikes that either lifts its blockade on Ukraine or establishes a corridor for the export of grain to an increasingly hungry world.
Finally, the United States should make clear that it sees weakening the Russian military as a secondary goal best achieved by a robust Ukrainian defense. It’s a goal that should remain in place, however, as the best guarantee against future Russian aggression in the near and medium terms remains depriving Moscow of the capacity to launch wars against its neighbors – or anyone else. The effectiveness of this approach can be seen in the inability of the Kremlin to make good on repeated threats to interdict supplies of American and allied material into Ukraine.
Put simply, Putin won’t invade his neighbors if his military can’t do it. That remains a worthy strategic goal for the United States, albeit one best achieved by helping Ukrainian troops further grind down the Russian military in combat.
The United States should also prepare for diplomacy in the event of military stalemate. Talks won’t yield results right now given Ukrainian successes and Russian failures on the battlefield. Kyiv has every reason to try its luck and see if its military can’t expel or exhaust Russian troops, and it has good reason to believe it can succeed – especially with the level of external support it’s received. However, these counter-offensives may not go as well as planned or hoped and result in a military stalemate. If this impasse does occur, the United States should be ready and willing to jump-start negotiations that can end the fighting and remove Russian troops to at least their pre-war positions.
Here, it will be important for the United States to have its own objectives and priorities in line – above all, American diplomats must refuse to recognize any Russian territorial claims made since 2014 in exchange for a ceasefire or wider peace deal. At minimum, the United States should insist on Russian withdrawal from territory taken since the start of the war in February as well as verifiable mechanisms to prevent Russia from massing troops on Ukraine’s border in the future. Think a demilitarized zone on the Russian and Belarusian borders with Ukraine.
It'll be equally important to coordinate negotiations with Kyiv, which will remain understandably suspicious that other countries will seek to negotiate over its head. American and Ukrainian interests do not necessarily align, so American and Ukrainian diplomats will need to establish the parameters of what they will and will not accept from a negotiated ceasefire or settlement. The same goes for America’s European allies, though given differences between these allies – in particular France and Germany on the one hand and Eastern European allies like Poland and the Baltic states on the other – it’s probably for the best that the United States takes the lead on this front.
Ultimately, the best policy for the United States in Ukraine looks a lot like the current policy: robust material and intelligence support for the Ukrainian military as it defends its country and seeks to expel the Russian aggressors. More support of higher quality could and probably should be offered, but the Biden administration remains in the ballpark of where U.S. military aid to Ukraine should be.
But ongoing support to Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression should be shaped by flexible war aims and a willingness to kickstart diplomacy when battlefield conditions dictate – not before. This range of goals and their limits should be clearly communicated to Kyiv, and they should be made contingent on the Ukrainian military’s progress on the battlefield. There’s no reason to force preemptive concessions on Kyiv, but by the same token there’s no obligation to back counteroffensives should they become futile.
The United States should not lock itself into war aims that are too expansive or, more importantly, too limited. American diplomacy needs to reflect conditions on the battlefield and refuse to cede important questions of principle to the Kremlin, not preemptively appease Putin and his cronies out of fear of a wider war that’s unlikely to come. In short, America should let Ukraine try to win – Kyiv has certainly earned the that right - and make sure that Putin loses.