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The March of Folly Continues
America and its allies need to steel themselves for a long struggle as Putin's war in Ukraine enters a new and dangerous phase
It’s fair to say that Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine hasn’t gone as smoothly as he’d expected.
Ukrainian troops have put up a valiant defense of their country against advancing Russian columns, delivering more than a few stinging setbacks to elite Russian units in the early going. In an inspiring example of wartime leadership Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky rallied not just his own countrymen but much of the free world as well. More nations have pledged military support for Ukraine, and deliveries of arms and equipment proceed despite Russia’s invasion. NATO members have rushed military reinforcements to the alliance’s eastern flank and pledged to ramp up their defense spending, while G7 nations and the European Union have imposed exceptionally harsh sanctions that effectively decouple Moscow from much of the global economy.
Still, the military odds remain heavily stacked against Ukraine. Despite low morale and logistics problems, Russian forces still outnumber and outgun the Ukrainian military. Their initial plan for a swift victory thwarted by stalwart Ukrainian resistance, Putin and the Russian military have turned to the brutal tactics perfected in Syria: the use of indiscriminate aerial bombing and artillery fire to pulverize Ukrainian cities into submission. We’ve already begun to see these appalling tactics put into practice in the ongoing battles for the major eastern city of Kharkiv and the capital of Kyiv.
In short, matters are only likely to get worse for Ukraine as the war proceeds into a new and even more terrifying phase - one with global consequences.
No exits in sight
There’s been a lot of talk about the need to offer Putin so-called “off-ramps” or exits from his war against Ukraine. However, it’s unclear at best what sort of off-ramps Putin might in fact accept to end his aggression. The fact that the Kremlin was provided multiple exits before choosing war should give us pause that he’s willing to take any now or in the immediate future.
But there’s a more fundamental problem with talk of diplomatic exits and off-ramps: Putin has repeatedly and clearly articulated extravagant strategic goals and geopolitical objectives since the start of the crisis late last year. His draft treaties with the United States and NATO effectively called on both America and its allies to hand over what Moscow sees as its rightful sphere of influence in Eastern Europe – an obvious non-starter for both the alliance and the United States. Similarly, Putin’s pair of chilling and unhinged speeches justifying his war in Ukraine relied on dubious history and made preposterous claims about Moscow’s geopolitical victimhood.
More telling and indeed disturbing was an article accidentally published by Russian state media. In apparent anticipation of a quick and easy conquest of Ukraine, the authors laid out the Kremlin’s underlying thinking – as well as its fundamental detachment from reality. The piece lauds Putin for solving the “Ukrainian question” once and for all, gushing that the war has restored Russia’s “historic unity” and reversed “the tragedy of 1991” – that is, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the sovereign independence of Ukraine. Thanks to Putin’s naked aggression, its author confidently proclaims, a “multipolar world has become a reality” and “the era of Western global domination can be considered fully and definitively over.”
Given such extreme and absurd goals, it’s hard to see how the United States and its allies could build a viable off-ramp for Putin. Moving forward, it will be crucial for the West to keep diplomatic channels open with the Kremlin – something French President Emmanuel Macron has done at the behest of the Ukrainian government. But there’s little reason to expect success any time soon; it’s hard to negotiate an end to wars, even when that’s what all parties to a given conflict want. It’s next to impossible to do so when a central player has no interest in a negotiated settlement, much less when that party’s in the midst of active aggression in pursuit of fantastical goals.
More fundamentally, the strategy scholar Lawrence Freedman observes, Putin has set his sights on “political objectives that cannot be translated into meaningful military objectives.”
In other words, this war isn’t likely to end any time soon.
The time to think ahead and reinforce our alliances is now
It’s extremely tempting to focus on the crisis at hand to the exclusion of anything and everything else. The images of death and destruction coming out of Ukraine make it difficult to consider much else. But the United States and its allies now face require need to engage in more expansive thinking about what they should do next.
Take economic sanctions: they’ve been imposed as much to cause pain and show that the Kremlin’s aggression will not go unpunished as to change Russian policy. Putin’s unlikely to take any off-ramp the United States or anyone else offers him any time soon, but it’s still important to lay out the conditions that would lead the United States and European Union to lift at least some sanctions against Russia. In all likelihood, any removal or suspension of sanctions will require Moscow to withdraw completely from Ukraine – and it’s unlikely that all sanctions recently imposed will be lifted given the desire to reduce American and European exposure to Russian corruption and influence.
When it comes to political and military moves, there are several moves that the United States and its NATO allies should make moving forward – first and foremost among them, making it crystal clear that the alliance will defend its airspace and territory against Russian trespassers. In practical terms, that means that if a Russian military aircraft flies into NATO airspace, for instance, and will not depart it could be shot down. It’s highly unlikely that such a skirmish would automatically lead to nuclear war, as some fear might result from any military encounter between NATO and Russian forces. At the same time, President Biden and NATO political leaders should continue to make clear to all that the alliance will not actively risk open conflict with Russia through proactive military measures like establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine itself.
NATO should also establish a large, permanent military presence on its eastern flank to deter further Russian aggression. In part, that means formally acknowledging, as French President Macron has suggested, that the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997 is a dead letter as well as admitting Sweden and Finland to the alliance if they choose to join. It will also require substantial investment toward construction of new facilities in countries like Poland, Romania, and the Baltic states, as well as the assumption of greater military responsibilities by allies like France, Germany, and the UK. The alliance should also develop and deploy cruise missile batteries to counter Russian deployments of similar weapons on NATO’s borders; these weapons would amount to a good diplomatic bargaining chip in future negotiations, but for the present they fit into the defense and security logic Russia’s invasion has imposed on Europe as a whole.
Looking beyond Europe, the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia should expand and strengthen their political, economic, and security ties. That’s already underway, at least in part, with the G7’s agreement on sanctions against Russia, the participation of East Asian allies in semiconductor export controls, and Australia’s decision to send arms to the Ukrainian military. Moving forward, the goal for the United States should be to transform these crisis moves into a more permanent system of trans-oceanic cooperation across the board – through the creation of a NATO-Pacific Council, for instance, or expanding the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council to include East Asian allies like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.
Finally, the U.S. government and its allies around the world – especially NATO and the EU – need to start contingency planning for a number of scenarios in Russia over the near-to-medium term. The current combination of grinding war and harsh economic sanctions could have a variety of potential consequences for Russia, ranging from a palace coup that changes little of substance to the outright collapse of the Putin regime itself. It’s hard to say that any of these scenarios look particularly likely any time soon, but the political and social reverberations of economic hardship and inconclusive conflict are not predictable. Already we’ve seen significant and courageous protests against the war across Russia, and Putin’s own domestic political legitimacy remains founded on his alleged ability to deliver economic prosperity. It’s not hard to imagine how things in Russia might go south, as unlikely as that might be at the moment.
This list is far from complete or comprehensive, but it gives a sense of the issues and problems that the United States and its allies around the world need to start thinking about and working on very quickly. It will be critical for the United States to fashion a greater foreign policy consensus at home, something President Biden intimated in his State of the Union address and that recent polling indicates just might be possible.
There’s no easy way out here; we’ll be dealing with the global ramifications of Putin’s aggression against Ukraine for at least the rest of the decade. We need to start preparing for that reality accordingly, and start doing so now.