Thinking about the end game in Ukraine
Ukraine needs a quick path to European integration. Putin needs a reason to seek a way out.
With public support for assisting Ukraine slipping in the United States, and a faction developing within the House Republican caucus that favors abandoning the country, those who advocate continuing aid need to think and speak more clearly about a possible end game. And the Biden administration needs to recalibrate the military capabilities it wants to provide Ukraine.
I’m in the camp advocating continuing aid, even though I usually favor a much less interventionist foreign policy. In general, I think the United States involves ourselves in international disputes beyond what is in our interests, and assumes security responsibilities in places where other developed democracies should be shouldering the burden.
Nevertheless, I see assisting Ukraine as an actionable security interest for the United States for two reasons.
First, the developed democracies in Europe have stepped up to the security challenge. They have provided military assistance to Ukraine. They got lucky with a warm winter, but were willing to run the risk of severe hardships to wean themselves off Russian natural gas. They are beefing up their own military capabilities.
The developed democracies of Europe should be able to provide for their own security. They have ample population and economic resources. They have just lacked the will and sense of necessity. That may be changing, and the United States should nurture it. But democratic Europe, at this juncture, can’t independently provide the military support Ukraine needs to keep from being overrun. U.S. assistance is required, not only to keep Ukraine from being overrun, but also to nurture the movement in European democracies to increase their own security capabilities.
Second, global geopolitics are aligning into a competition for influence between democratic capitalism and authoritarianism. The world will become a much more dangerous place if authoritarian regimes believe that they can gain territory and influence through the use of force, or the threat of the use of force.
Ukraine has become the critical testing ground for this question. The bravery of its people and leaders in repelling the initial Russian invasion puts the question plainly before the world, with stakes reverberating far beyond its borders. The people and elected leadership of Ukraine clearly want to join democratic capitalist Europe. The only thing that will prevent that is the use of force by an authoritarian regime.
So, how can, and should, the conflict end with Ukraine’s sovereignty intact and U.S. security interests served?
There is a strong component in the continue-to-assist-Ukraine camp who assert that the only option to achieve those things is to give Ukraine the military capabilities necessary to unambiguously defeat Russia, ejecting it from all seized Ukrainian territory, including that taken in 2014, most notably Crimea. A ceasefire in place, they maintain, will just allow Putin to regroup and then recommence with his original objective of swallowing Ukraine whole.
There are reasons to question that. Putin’s position is much degraded from when he first launched the invasion. The myth of Putin as the invincible strongman has been thoroughly punctured, both internationally and domestically. Even he has to have doubts about the capability of his military. And to worry about his hold on power within Russia proper.
I suspect that it is only the threatened loss of Crimea that might cause him to do something even more reckless. Crimea is that important, strategically and historically, to Russia. In the right circumstances, everything else would probably be negotiable.
The Biden administration’s current approach isn’t leading to the right circumstances. Its military assistance seems calibrated to be enough to ensure that Putin cannot overrun Ukraine now with conventional forces but not enough to give Putin sufficient reason to seek a way out. The fear is that the latter might provoke him to use unconventional force, such as a tactical nuke.
Again, I suspect that it is only the potential loss of Crimea that might trigger such a Russian escalation. I don’t know nearly enough about weaponry to know what the right combination would be to give Putin reason to seek a way out without threatening the loss of Crimea. But it does appear to require more than the Biden administration heretofore has been willing to provide.
There is an understandable reluctance to urge Ukraine to accept a ceasefire in place or territorial concessions. And the previous pro-Russian sentiment in parts of eastern Ukraine seems to have dissipated under the reality of Russian occupation, meaning that they would become a captive people.
Britain, France, and Germany are proposing NATO security guarantees in hopes that would give Ukraine’s political leadership confidence that a ceasefire in place wouldn’t be just a pause for Russia to regroup and return to an attempted conquest. Any path to peace probably includes a quick path to full Ukrainian integration into democratic Europe, including membership in the European Union and NATO.
Providing that path now and recalibrating military assistance sufficiently to give Putin reason to seek a way out might not be the end game. But it would set the conditions for the end game to be found.
Reach Robb at email@example.com.