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The Biden Administration Has No Definition of Victory in Ukraine

The Biden Administration Has No Definition of Victory in Ukraine

The Russo–Ukrainian war continues. Although Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has indicated an interest in negotiation, the Biden administration has escalated the fighting, most recently by permitting the use of American weapons to strike targets within Russia. Europe’s vocal war party is pushing for even more.

The blame for starting the conflict falls squarely on Putin, who decided to invade his neighbor. Nevertheless, allied officials created the incendiary circumstances which led to the war. Indeed, Western leaders well understood that their aggressive policies after the Cold War made confrontation likely. 

For instance, in 2008 the George W. Bush administration pressed its allies to expand NATO to Georgia and Ukraine. National intelligence officer Fiona Hill, who later served on the Trump National Security Council staff, briefed Bush, predicting “that Mr. Putin would view steps to bring Ukraine and Georgia closer to NATO as a provocative move that would likely provoke pre-emptive Russian military action.” William Burns, Bush’s ambassador to Russia and President Joe Biden’s CIA director, sent a famous cable warning the administration that “Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin).” Such a step would “create fertile soil for Russian meddling in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.”

The stakes were evident when Putin expanded military forces along Ukraine’s border in late 2021. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg admitted: “The background was that President Putin declared in the autumn of 2021, and actually sent a draft treaty that they wanted NATO to sign, to promise no more NATO enlargement. That was what he sent us. And was a pre-condition for not invade [sic] Ukraine. Of course we didn’t sign that.… So he went to war to prevent NATO, more NATO, close to his borders.” 

In March 2022, even Zelensky acknowledged as much: “Security guarantees and neutrality, the nuclear-free status of our state. We are ready to agree to it. This is the most important point. This was the first fundamental point for the Russian Federation, as far as I remember. And as far as I remember, they started a war because of this.” Yet the U.S. helped torpedo Russo–Ukrainian negotiations.

The continuing war is an obvious disaster for the participants, most importantly Ukraine, since it provides most of the battlefield. Blustery predictions in late 2022 and early 2023 that Ukraine could liberate the Donbass, retake Crimea, push Putin from power, force regime change in Moscow, and perhaps even break up the Russian Federation are now long-discarded fantasies. Wistful hopes that the Zelensky government can rebuild for a renewed offensive next year seem unrealistic in view of Ukraine’s serious manpower shortage, which has led to draconian conscription measures.

Contra Zelensky’s grand claims, Ukraine is fighting for itself, not the West. In security terms, Ukraine never much mattered to America or Europe. The continent suffers economically from the war, but the U.S. has barely been affected. Although the conflict is a humanitarian disaster, it has caused fewer civilian casualties than Washington’s illegal invasion of Iraq and murderous support for Saudi Arabia’s attack on Yemen. 

These days there is much bloviation about the supposed danger of a victorious Putin turning into Hitler reborn. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Zelensky promotes the most radical vision: “At the moment, it’s us, then Kazakhstan, then Baltic states, then Poland, then Germany. At least half of Germany.” Yet what would Moscow gain from such an attempt? A quarter century into his reign is a little late for Putin to try to amass an empire. He never said he wanted to reconstitute the Soviet Union, instead explicitly rebuffing such claims. Anyway, such a campaign is improbable if not impossible, given the cost of Russia’s war with Ukraine. 

Most importantly, as Stoltenberg admitted, Putin went to war to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO because the alliance offered a security guarantee from the United States. To claim that he would now attack multiple members of the transatlantic alliance is bizarre on its face. Of course, Europe should not take its security for granted, but the Europeans are well able to protect themselves and finally are spending more to do so. 

Some analysts fear that a diminished American presence might lead to a return of intra-European conflict. The unwillingness of the continent’s major powers to rearm even 80 years after the end of World War II demonstrates a lack of will for war. Only now do we see broader, albeit limited, military efforts, with Moscow having unintentionally unified the continent.

Finally, a Russian victory, it is claimed, would encourage China to attack Taiwan and more. Yet aggression is determined by local interests and conditions. In Europe, the US has refused to fight. Washington’s willingness to instead provide arms to Ukraine is unlikely to convince Beijing that Americans are willing to risk nuclear war over Taiwan.

In any case, waging a proxy war is not cheap for Western governments. Moscow’s so far unfulfilled threats of escalation have caused some allies to dismiss the possibility. Nevertheless, numerous NATO governments are active participants in the war, openly if indirectly killing thousands of Russian soldiers and destroying enormous quantities of Russian materiel. American officials have anonymously but publicly claimed credit for killing Russian generals and sinking Russian ships. Only because the Putin government believes it is winning does it have good reason to exercise restraint, accepting the indignity of the West’s indirect participation in the conflict.

But the escalatory risks are constant. The Biden administration has authorized limited Ukrainian use of U.S. weapons to attack within Russia. NATO military personnel are engaged in military operations in Ukraine. France has suggested direct involvement of European troops in combat. Apparently Paris and Kyiv are discussing the dispatch of French trainers to Ukraine, a step which Ukrainian commander Gen. Olexandr Syrskyi said he hoped “will encourage other partners to join this ambitious project.” This step, opined the Washington Post columnist Lee Hockstader, “would represent a quantum escalatory leap—not just heavy metal to buttress Ukraine’s defenses but manpower and the potential for casualties among European troops.” 

Add to that the pressure on Biden to facilitate expanded Ukrainian attacks within Russia, even after Kiev struck part of Moscow’s nuclear early warning system. Zelensky continues to push for much more, including direct allied air support. Although NATO membership will not be offered to Ukraine at the upcoming alliance meeting in Washington, the Biden administration has signed a security treaty making Kiev a de facto ally. 

More broadly, by placing Moscow and the West at increasing odds, the war has turned Russia into an enemy of America’s global interests and pushed Moscow into the arms of the West’s foes. Russia is tightening its embrace of China, trading arms with Iran and North Korea, actively combating U.S. influence in Africa, and building support within the Global South. Moscow also warned that it might arm other adversaries of America, such as Yemen’s Houthis. 

Imagine if Ukraine begins winning. Moscow would then possess the incentive as well as means to escalate, potentially dramatically. The U.S. and USSR emerged from the Cold War without a direct battle, though with a near miss in the Cuban Missile Crisis and another with the Able Archer exercise. It would be utterly reckless to chance a clash today with Russia. 

It is in the interests of the U.S. and Europe, as well as Ukraine and Russia, to end the war as swiftly as possible. That does not mean forcing Kyiv to accept any particular outcome. Rather, allied states should set their policy to advance their interests and allow Ukraine to respond accordingly.

Sober Western officials increasingly acknowledge negotiation will ultimately be necessary, so for many the Western objective has shifted to strengthen Ukrainian negotiating leverage. Indeed, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently admitted the same in congressional testimony. This objective, however, requires a strategy other than simply continuing the war.

Allied officials insist that Putin must be forced into talking, but he was willing to do so even before invading, as Stoltenberg admitted. Ukrainian officials acknowledge that Kiev and Moscow negotiated in Istanbul shortly after Russia’s invasion in a process undermined by the U.S. and allied governments. And Putin recently reiterated his interest in holding talks, though he insisted that Kiev must recognize “new realities” after two and a half years of war. The only way to learn if Moscow is serious is to test it.

In contrast, Kyiv has ostentatiously refused to consider negotiation, with Zelensky effectively banning such discussions, insisting on what amounts to a Russian surrender first. However, realism increasingly appears to increasingly influence some top Ukrainians, who acknowledge that Crimea and the Donbass are best recognized as lost.

 Another common contention is that Putin cannot be trusted, hence any agreement would be worthless. However, combatants rarely embrace one another even when making peace. And, frankly, the allies have proved they cannot be trusted, having violated multiple pledges against expanding NATO and admitted that they never intended to comply with the Minsk accords. 

Anyway, such objections ignore the state of the war. Kiev is unlikely to be in a stronger position next year. Russia is calling up more troops and producing more weapons than Ukraine. Ukrainian war weariness is evident as draft resistance grows and Zelensky’s popularity falls. Indeed, with his term expired and elections postponed, the government’s legitimacy also is declining.

The allies should lay the groundwork for negotiations today, when Ukraine’s position is strongest. It is still possible to preserve that nation’s independence and sovereignty, while accepting military restrictions and territorial losses. How much would depend on talks.

Washington and Brussels should discuss possible economic and security arrangements with Moscow. For example, Ukraine could be nonaligned militarily—with Russia assured that it would not face a hostile state allied with America on its border—but still free to form economic and political ties with Europe. If Russia makes peace, it could be free to reengage economically and politically with the West. The allies could offer the return of frozen funds and property to Moscow and individual Russians. 

The ongoing war is a human catastrophe. Simply giving more aid in hopes that something good will result is not a strategy. This approach ensures continued death and destruction and risks military escalation and expansion.

Instead, the U.S. and its European allies should focus on ending the Russo–Ukrainian war. That means winding down allied military assistance and creating a stable, peaceful order. Doing so won’t be easy. However, it is the only course that offers hope of a positive future for Ukraine, Russia, and the rest of Europe.



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