Clarify American Goals as Ukraine’s Progress Slows

Photo Credits: 2014 Stamp of Ukraine, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

By George Barber

Since the Russian invasion that began on February 24th of last year, the United States has led the response to support Ukraine with over $75 billion invested in their war effort. U.S. and Russian analysts believed that Russia would strike a decisive blow to Ukraine fairly quickly. Over a year later, Ukraine suffers from the invasion with millions of refugees, thousands dead, cities that have been turned to rubble, and the loss of a considerable amount of territory with dim prospects to be able to win it all back. The longer this war continues, the likelihood of escalation, overwhelming costs to America and further devastation to Ukraine only grows. 

America’s unrealistic policy towards the conflict ultimately damages American and Ukrainian interests. The United States’ deep involvement weakens itself at home and abroad, increases the prospect of nuclear escalation, and even benefitted Chinese national interests. Key State Department officials boldly claim that Ukraine will soon join NATO while also sustained by “unprecedented” long-term support from America. There is little change in rhetoric almost a year and half into the war. Policymakers must conduct a calculated and realistic debate in Washington about how this war is going to end, and soon. 

Uncertain endgame 

Currently, U.S. policy is not to simply push Russia out of Ukraine but rather “the strategic defeat of President Putin in this adventure.” On the other hand, the Ukrainians’ end goal is to push Russia out of Crimea, reclaiming more territory than they started this war with. 

Both of these positions lead to a longer and more drawn-out war, further draining American and European resources. As the war has escalated, so have the stakes. Both Russia and the West continue to invest more into the conflict, and both sides are increasingly committed to securing victory at ever higher costs.

The nature of war tends to produce escalation. In the words of Harvard Professor Stephen Walt, “It’s much easier to start a war than to end it.” The scope of wars tends to appreciate due to several reasons: the tendency to underestimate the power of nationalism, the problem of sunk costs, and the heightened hostility and desire for vengeance. As a result, the capacity and desire to negotiate decline, despite the grinding costs of a war of attrition.

Policymakers rarely acknowledge how it remains possible that Russia will conquer more territory than it already has. While the ongoing counteroffensive may yield positive results for Ukraine, there is also a considerable chance that it stalls. Both sides struggle to gain decisive amounts of territory. In a prolonged conflict in which neither side makes substantial gains, Russia’s clear advantage in manpower only becomes more pronounced over time.

Only a severe escalation in the form of Western soldiers reinforcing Ukraine on the front lines would be an effective counter to this problem. The dire escalation risks of such a policy determine that time favors Russia as things stand. Ukraine’s position isn’t getting any stronger. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote that “Ukraine’s military capability and economy are now dependent almost entirely on lifelines from the West — primarily, the United States.”

Russia has already conquered a substantial amount of territory, and the continuation of this conflict could lead to them taking even more, displacing more Ukrainians and destroying more of its infrastructure. The weaker Ukraine becomes, the weaker of a position it will have at the bargaining table. 

Strengthening our adversaries 

Furthermore, a prolonged war in Ukraine will drive Russia closer to Iran in their “full scale defense partnership”. The greater risk is a similar relationship with China as Moscow announced a friendship of “no limits” just before the war began. As Professor Valerie Hudson points out, “China has become indispensable to Russia’s survival, and that offers China significant leverage over its neighbor.” 

The United States struggles to recover from two decades of costly misadventures in the Middle East both financially and diplomatically, and the American capacity to support Ukraine is limited. Aid packages increasingly deplete stockpiles of weapons and munitions that will take years to replace, weakening its position relative to China. Xi Jinping can sit back and watch, not plagued by this type of foreign intervention. These endeavors sink the United States further into staggering long-term debt, which prominent American national security leaders warn “is the single greatest threat to our national security.”

Ultimately, the United States is safer when Russia is not growing closer to Iran and China. It is not reasonable to claim that the United States will simply support Ukraine in its war with Russia for “as long as it takes.” The United States must determine its end goal for the war in Ukraine, one that properly explores the tradeoffs, opportunity costs, and unintended consequences that its Russia policy could bring about. The pervasive idealistic rhetoric must be replaced with options that come from a place of realism and prudence to ensure the long-term safety and prosperity of the United States. 

George Barber is an undergraduate student at the University of Georgia, where he studies International Affairs and History. He is also a Research Analyst at London Politica.






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