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Want a Diplomatic Settlement in Ukraine? Keep Arming Kyiv
Negotiations won’t succeed until Ukraine stymies Russia on the battlefield
It’s been a busy - and hot - summer around the world, with the drone strike that took out al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s planned trip to Taiwan this week coming fresh on the heels of President Biden’s much-ballyhooed Middle East sojourn last month. Negotiations to revive the Iran nuclear deal continue to go nowhere fast, while the contest to succeed outgoing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as leader of the country’s Conservative Party has narrowed down to the final two candidates.
All the while, Russia’s war against Ukraine grinds on with no end in sight, prompting some in the Beltway foreign policy crowd wring their hands about the potential that American military support to Kyiv might cause the conflict to spiral out of control. No less a figure than National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan explained that the United States wasn’t providing Kyiv with long-range rockets that could strike beyond Ukraine’s borders because a “key goal [of the Biden administration] is to ensure that we do not end up in a circumstance where we are heading down the road towards a third world war” – ignoring the fact that Russia fires artillery into Ukrainian towns and cities from across the borders, has set up firebases next to Ukrainian nuclear power plants, or that the United States could impose limits on just how far Ukraine can fire into Russia.
This inordinate fear of escalation encourages a debilitating form of self-deterrence, and it actually makes it even harder to bring about a negotiated end to the war. Indeed, arming Ukraine to repel Russia’s invasion represents the least costly, least risky policy available to the United States and its NATO allies. Such a policy keeps Russia as far away from NATO’s own borders as possible, reducing the risk of potential conflict between the alliance and Moscow both now and in the future. Most importantly, it keeps open the possibility that real diplomacy – not giving the Kremlin preemptive concessions in the forlorn hope that it will finally end its aggression – can eventually bring an end to the conflict.
It's a policy option that carries with it only a minimal risk of escalation. For all the colossal miscalculations he made in deciding to invade Ukraine – sincerely believing that Ukraine wasn’t a real country, thinking the Ukrainian government would crumble almost instantaneously, and wagering that NATO would not respond in as united and effective a fashion as it did – Putin does at least appear to understand the enormous, potentially catastrophic risks involved in a direct armed clash with NATO. He has given little if any indication that he would cross President Biden’s redline and, for whatever reason, attack a NATO member state.
Nor have President Biden or other NATO leaders given any indication that they would violate what Putin himself articulated as his own threshold for escalation: direct U.S. and NATO military intervention against Russian forces in Ukraine. Indeed, Biden himself publicly rejected President Zelenskyy’s plea for a NATO-led no-fly zone over his country, a policy that would almost certainly have seen Russian and NATO fighters tangle in the skies over Ukraine. For its part, Moscow has done little to staunch the flow of heavy arms to Ukraine beyond issuing public complaints and levying vague threats that seem more intended to induce second-guessing and self-deterrence among NATO members than anything else. Needless to say, the continued provision of heavy weapons – including devastatingly effective U.S.-supplied HIMARS rocket systems – to Ukraine has not provoked much if anything in the way of escalation from Russia.
Still, minimal risk of escalation does not equal no risk of escalation. But the form that escalation might take is less a conventional Russian military attack against NATO forces or territory than covert attempts to sabotage or derail – literally in some cases – the flow of arms and ammunition from NATO member states to Ukraine. We may already be seeing this sort of clandestine warfare; an ammunition depot belonging to a Bulgarian arms merchant involved in supplying weapons to Ukraine exploded in the early morning hours of July 31. This isn’t the first time Russian foul play has been suspected in the destruction of eastern European arms depots, either: investigators from open-source intelligence outfit Bellingcat fingered GRU operatives as the culprits behind explosions at Czech arms dumps in 2014.
More importantly, and perhaps paradoxically, continued U.S. and allied military support to Ukraine will keep the window for a diplomatic settlement of the conflict open as long as possible. The war itself will continue as long as both Putin and the Ukrainian government believe they can win, or at least so long as they think they can obtain an edge at the negotiating table. Diplomacy does not occur in a vacuum, and it can only be successful if it takes conditions on the battlefield into account. Good intentions aren’t enough, even when all sides want to negotiate an end to a conflict – and they’re certainly inadequate when at least one side thinks it can win or gain advantages from continued fighting.
In Ukraine, diplomacy can end the war on terms acceptable to the United States under two main battlefield conditions: a durable military stalemate or a credible Ukrainian military threat to destroy Russian forces in the field. We’re a ways away from the first condition; while the Russian military has suffered significant losses in personnel and equipment in exchange for minimal territorial gains in the Donbas, the Kremlin continues to broadcast maximalist war aims like regime change in Kyiv and annexation of Ukrainian territory. Ukraine, for its part, hopes to launch a counteroffensive against the Russian occupation in Kherson – and the war could very well hinge on the results. It will take time for this counteroffensive to play out, however, meaning the space for diplomacy may not open for quite a while.
Even if this counteroffensive proves as successful as Ukraine might hope, the Ukrainian military remains a long way from threatening to destroy Russian forces in the field. An analogy to the American diplomacy that helped end the 1973 Arab-Israeli war is useful here: the United States did not pressure Israel to make concessions to Cairo while its military was still reeling from Egypt’s surprise attack across the Suez Canal. Instead, the United States backed Israel to the hilt and waited until the Israeli military had the bulk of Egypt’s forces surrounded before it swooped in to negotiate a cease-fire.
A similar situation vis-à-vis Ukraine and Russia looks extremely unlikely now or at any point in the foreseeable future; Ukrainian forces probably won’t be encircling Russian formations anywhere any time soon. But the point here is that the time for the United States to urge this sort of military restraint on Ukraine is well in the future, not now or even probably before the end of this year. If and when Ukraine manages to find itself in an obviously advantageous military position, the United States can intervene diplomatically to encourage a negotiated settlement favorable to American interests and Ukrainian sovereignty.
Looking ahead, then, there are three steps the United States should take to support Ukraine and make sure the door to diplomacy stays open:
Keep arming Ukraine. The best way the United States can help create space for diplomacy to end the war is to keep supplying Ukraine with arms and ammunition necessary to resist and repel Russian aggression. Over time, the Ukrainian military will either force a stalemate, opening the door to potentially constructive peace talks, or it will turn the tables on Russian forces, opening the door to a potentially constructive U.S. diplomatic intervention that at minimum secures a Russian withdrawal to pre-war lines as well as an end to the fighting.
Ramp up defense production at home. Concerns abound that the United States will run out of ammunition - HIMARS rockets, for instance - that it can supply to Ukraine at some point in the future, even taking considerable existing American stockpiles into account. To keep Ukraine’s military in the field and thereby increase the odds of a negotiated end to the war that satisfies U.S. interests, the United States will need to ramp up its defense production at home.
Keep an eye out for opportunities to address specific, acute problems through diplomacy. The recent agreement on grain shipments out of the Ukrainian port of Odessa represents the promise and peril of diplomacy that addresses specific problems created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine - including the fact the Kremlin can’t be counted on to abide by the deals it strikes. While this sort of diplomacy won’t end the war in and of itself, it can ameliorate some of its more harmful wider effects.
While the conditions for successful diplomacy to end the conflict don’t yet exist, the United States can do its best to bring them about by continuing to arm Ukraine. Opportunities for diplomacy on issues related to the conflict should of course be vigorously pursued where and when they arise. But while America should stand ready and willing to negotiate a real and enduring end to the war in Ukraine, diplomacy in a vacuum won’t work – and might just it even more difficult to bring the conflict to an acceptable end.
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