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Time to Lay Out America's Aims in Ukraine
Muddled goals and objectives only undercut U.S. geopolitical strategy and diplomacy
Over the weekend, Saudi Arabia hosted a peace conference in Jeddah designed to help Ukraine promote the ten-point peace plan first outlined by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at last November’s G20 summit. It’s the second such gathering convened to advance Kyiv’s peace proposal, the first having been held in Denmark in June. These talks are mostly informal, intended to give Kyiv an opportunity to make its case directly not just to the United States and its NATO allies but countries like Brazil, China, India, and South Africa as well. It’s all part of Zelenskyy’s push to blunt Russian influence and win support in the so-called Global South, an effort that’s achieved at least some success with Riyadh’s somewhat surprising willingness to host this conclave.
It's a meeting that comes amidst a Ukrainian counteroffensive that’s proven more difficult and made slower progress against entrenched Russian defensive positions so far than many had hoped. What’s more, the United States has been less than clear about its own long-term vision for America’s relationship with Ukraine and Ukraine’s relationship with NATO. Instead of bringing Ukraine into NATO—the best long-term option for everyone involved, as Brian Katulis has argued—the Biden administration has floated an unrealistic “Israel model” that bizarrely neglects the fact that, among other things, Israel possesses a nuclear deterrent. Nor is Israel exactly secure, facing chronic threats from Iran and various terrorist groups ensconced along its borders. What’s more, Israel continues to occupy Palestinian territory, while Ukraine has been invaded and occupied by Russia since 2014. All in all, an Israel model would leave Ukraine vulnerable to future Russian depredations.
This fuzzy approach to strategy had some logic in the war’s first several months, when it was uncertain whether or not Ukraine’s military could stop Russia’s invasion in its tracks—much less push Russian forces out of Kharkiv and Kherson. Today, however, it creates needless points of friction between the United States, its NATO allies, and Ukraine, as they hash out—sometimes rather publicly—their next steps. Worse, it could prolong the war by giving the Kremlin reason to believe that it can simply wait for the United States to grow bored or tired of supporting Ukraine. It also opens up space for freelance diplomacy by former U.S. officials that, intentionally or not, sends Moscow much the same message.
It's time, in other words, for the United States to clearly outline its own war aims in Ukraine—not as a combatant, of course, but as a nation with a direct and vital interest in Ukrainian victory and Russian defeat. Lacking the diplomatic muscle and geopolitical influence America can bring to bear, President Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian government can only get so far with their own peace initiative. Detailing America’s own goals and objectives would eliminate any uncertainty or ambiguity that encourages Moscow to keep fighting in the hope that the United States will quit. It can also give the United States an opportunity to address indirect issues raised by the war, like the Kremlin’s repeated implicit nuclear threats and its blockade of Ukrainian grain.
Kyiv should be consulted about the substance of these aims; as American officials from President Biden on down have repeatedly insisted, there can be no discussions about Ukraine without Ukraine. It’s crucial that the United States, its European allies, and Ukraine present a united diplomatic front, something that’s been made more difficult by the absence of American and allied war aims—witness the tension surrounding Ukraine’s potential NATO membership at the alliance’s summit in Vilnius last July. Above all, the United States should carefully frame this statement to make absolutely clear that neither America nor its allies are negotiating or speaking on behalf of Ukraine, but rather in concert with it.
Some of that will come down to substance as well as structure. American war aims will invariably echo key elements of Zelenskyy’s own ten-point peace plan—indeed, America should deliberately structure its own proposal to do so—as well as historical statements of American war aims like President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Atlantic Charter.
As to substance, the following ten points provide a rough indication of what America’s war aims in Ukraine should entail:
Complete Russian withdrawal from Ukraine’s internationally recognized territory—including Crimea and territories seized by Russia since 2014. Russia renounces any and all claims to Ukrainian territory within its internationally recognized borders as part of an agreement formally ending hostilities.
As part of an agreement formally ending hostilities, Russia formally and explicitly recognizes and reaffirms Ukraine’s freedom to choose its own alliances and geopolitical alignments—explicitly including potential Ukrainian membership in NATO and the European Union.
A de-militarized zone is created along the Ukrainian-Russian border, overseen by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The precise parameters of this zone should be cleared with Kyiv before the publication of any American war aims document.
The full, immediate, and unconditional release and return of all Ukrainians now held by or deported to Russia, including prisoners of war, civilians, and the more than 700,000 Ukrainian children Russia has abducted from Ukraine.
Russia ceases its threats against the territorial integrity and political independence of all OSCE member nations—in particular Baltic and Eastern European states—in accordance with its obligations under the Charter of the United Nations.
Removal of all Russian nuclear weapons from Belarus. Russia refrains from implicit and explicit threats of nuclear weapons use and nuclear war. Nuclear arms control talks including but not limited to Russia and the United States recommence at the earliest possible date.
The United States, the European Union, and Turkey guarantee the free flow of Ukrainian grain and other agricultural products via the Black Sea. Russia formally pledges not to interfere with Ukrainian agricultural exports.
The reduction and removal of certain sanctions against Russia, not including those on military equipment, goods, and technology or on Russian energy exports.
A certain portion of Russian frozen financial assets will be seized or surrendered to help pay for reconstruction of Ukraine. The exact details of this point should be negotiated with relevant European allies and cleared with Kyiv.
These ten points are illustrative, not determinative. They’re meant to give a sense of what a brief statement of American war aims in Ukraine could look like, not set what those goals and objectives should or must be in stone.
Nor should they be seen as rigid, take-it-or-leave-it propositions. Some points—like explicit Russian acknowledgement of Ukraine’s freedom to choose its own geopolitical destiny or the return of Ukrainian civilians—ought to be non-negotiable. Others will depend on Kyiv’s positions on, say, temporary territorial compromise or on wider diplomatic arrangements between the United States and its allies. It’s likely that any settlement that actually brings the war to an end will fall short of these goals, but that makes it all the more important to give the world a more definitive sense of what America seeks in this conflict.
The time for constant fine-tuning of America’s support for Ukraine is over. From Javelin anti-tank missiles and HIMARS rocket artillery to Leopard 2 tanks and F-16 fighters, weapons once deemed too escalatory or provocative to Moscow have eventually found their way into Ukrainian military service. (A similar song and dance now seems to be underway with long-range missiles, despite the fact that France and the UK have already supplied Ukraine with Storm Shadow cruise missiles.) It’s also become transparently clear that the Kremlin’s bluster about American and NATO military aid to Ukraine is just that: bluster, intended to frighten America and its allies away from backing Kyiv. More importantly, this steadily increasing support has bound the United States and its allies to Ukraine’s cause in ways few would have imagined before the war. As the British strategist Lawrence Freedman put it recently, Ukrainian victory—or at least obvious Russian failure—has become “a vital interest of the West.”
It’s time America acted like it.