Analysis | The argument for why the West should change course on Ukraine


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The war in Ukraine, at least for some policymakers in Western capitals, can be measured in deliveries of weapons. Their response to the brutal onslaught unleashed by Russia last February has been a parade of armor and steel: Javelins, howitzers, drones, strike vehicles, antiaircraft systems, HIMARS and, most recently, battle tanks. At every stage, Kyiv has clamored for more to throw out the invading Russians, and at almost every stage, the West has acceded to Ukrainian demands, though perhaps not at the speed Ukraine would like.

The next round of wrangling may center on Ukraine’s desire for scores of multipurpose fighter jets, which Kyiv wants as it prepares to repulse a rumored forthcoming Russian offensive and reclaim Russian-held territory in the country’s southeast, as well as the Crimean peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014. “Give us your weapons, and we will get back what’s ours,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told the global elites in Davos last month.

When asked this week if he would send F-16 jets, President Biden flatly said “no,” while British officials said it was “not practical” to send such strike craft. But French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters that, “by definition, nothing is excluded” in terms of delivery of aid to Ukrainians. Such is the Western rhetorical commitment to the Ukrainian war effort. The West seems to fully embrace Ukraine’s fight for its sovereignty, as well as Kyiv’s maximalist vision for victory.

Western officials recognize that the war should (and probably can only) end diplomatically. But every time a reporter asks a Western politician or diplomat on the record what the endgame looks like, they almost always offer the same set of responses: It’s up to Ukraine to determine the conditions of the peace (even though without foreign help, they would likely not be able to hold their own); Russia is not interested in good faith negotiations; and the important task now is to arm Ukraine sufficiently so that its hand at a theoretical future negotiating table is as strong as it can be.

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A new report takes issue with this position, warning that it puts the United States on the path toward open-ended conflict that could escalate even more dangerously. Avoiding a long war: U.S. policy and the trajectory of the Russia-Ukraine conflict,” published recently by the influential RAND Corporation, a Washington-based think tank, argued that the longer the war dragged on, the more likely the risk of an escalation that could pit Russia in direct conflict with NATO and possibly see the Kremlin deploy nuclear weapons on the battlefield. Instead of enabling the war to sprawl onward, Western powers should do more to push the warring parties toward talks, it advised.

This is an argument that has been made before — including by Henry Kissinger, a venerable fixture of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. But the RAND report marks perhaps the most systematic case for a shift in policy put forward by a Washington think tank, the vast majority of which have hailed the war in Ukraine as a good and necessary fight, as well as a moment to reassert U.S. leadership on the world stage. In a departure from the Beltway script, the report does not reference “democracy,” “rule of law,” or Western “values” once.

In sober terms, the report’s authors, political scientists Samuel Charap and Miranda Priebe, spell out the troubling structural factors of the war: Neither Russia nor Ukraine has a chance to secure “absolute victory” in the way they see it, yet both countries feel optimistic about their ability to win out in the longer run and are pessimistic about what may follow a cease-fire or uneasy peace.

Whatever the political rhetoric, uncertainty looms over how long the West can sustain its flows of aid and weapons to Ukraine. A new Pew poll shows that more Americans already believe the United States is giving too much to Ukraine, while the RAND report’s authors point to the obvious reality that an extended war would see more Ukrainian suffering and more economic havoc in Europe.

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Then there’s the question of nuclear weapons. For months, Ukraine and its allies have urged their supporters to ignore Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sporadic attempts at nuclear brinkmanship.

“It’s a scare tactic,” Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, recently told my colleagues in Kyiv. “Russia is a country that you can expect a lot from but not outright idiocy. Sorry, but it’s not going to happen. Carrying out a nuclear strike will result in not just a military defeat for Russia but the collapse of Russia. And they know this very well.”

Even then, Charap and Priebe point to the reality of the risk of “a hot war with a country that has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.” An escalation in hostilities, perhaps even triggered by targeting errors or other tactical miscalculations in the fog of war, could quickly pull NATO countries into an open clash with Russia.

“Keeping a Russia-NATO war below the nuclear threshold would be extremely difficult, particularly given the weakened state of Russia’s conventional military,” they wrote. “Some analysts are doubtful that Russia would attack a NATO country since it is already losing ground to Ukrainian forces and would find itself in a war with the world’s most powerful alliance. However, if the Kremlin concluded that the country’s national security was severely imperiled, it might well deliberately escalate for lack of better alternatives.”

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Why court such a scenario, they argue, when even settling along the current lines of the conflict would mark a significant Russian defeat? “The war has already been so devastating to Russian power that further incremental weakening is arguably no longer as significant a benefit for U.S. interests as in the earlier phases of the conflict,” Charap and Priebe wrote. “It will take years, perhaps even decades, for the Russian military and economy to recover from the damage already incurred.”

In a separate essay for the Economist, Christopher Chivvis, director of the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, made a similar claim: “If the negotiations froze the battlelines where they are now, Putin would have paid a very high price for very limited gains,” he wrote. “His armed forces have displayed their incompetence to the whole world. Russia is now a pariah state and its relationship with Europe — for centuries its most important — is destroyed. Sanctions will slow Russia’s economic growth for years to come, even if they are eventually moderated in return for concessions from the Kremlin.”

The RAND authors advise, among other things, that the United States should offer a road map to Russia for what the conditions for eventual sanctions relief would look like. Chivvis contended that embarking even on an imperfect, fitful process of negotiations or talks about talks would be preferable to buying into the idea that Russia can be wholly dislodged from Ukrainian territory.

“Yes, it would be nice if Ukraine clawed back some more territory,” he wrote. “But at what cost and for what strategic gain? Even in the unlikely event that the West were to back Ukraine to the hilt for many years and were eventually to force Russia out of all Ukrainian territory, Russia would probably restart the war at some point to salvage its lost gains and its reputation.”

Charap and Priebe acknowledged in their introduction “that Ukrainians have been the ones fighting and dying to protect their country against an unprovoked, illegal, and morally repugnant Russian invasion.” But that still, in their view, does not mean that Ukraine’s interests are “synonymous” with those of the United States.

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