Should the United States Keep Supporting Ukraine?

U.S. Military M1 Abrams Tanks
February 1, 2024 Topic: Russia-Ukraine War Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Russia-Ukraine WarUkraineNATOWar

Should the United States Keep Supporting Ukraine?

What are President Biden’s wartime goals today? The longer the war continues, the less coherent such goals seem.

Sleepwalking into modern conflict is never a good strategy. The Biden Administration remains rather vague as to what end state specifically the Ukrainians are fighting for. At the moment, the United States claims the war goal is the ejection of Russian forces from Ukrainian territory taken since February 2022. There might be good reasons for the Administration to avoid proscribing any other end-state goals for the war in Ukraine or to identify acceptable bargains, such as preserving the flexibility of securing an interim ceasefire to allow a subsequent peaceful return of Ukrainian territory with a post-Putin Russia. The problem is that Ukraine may run out of weapons or men by then.

Since neither Kyiv nor Moscow is likely to be overrun, the conflict (or at least the fighting) is likely to end with both governments in power. Therefore, expecting either side to be vanquished and their government deposed by a foreign military is unlikely. The current situation begs the question, ‘Does the Biden Administration want Ukraine to win, or just for Putin to lose? And what does either mean? What, in short, is the wartime end state goal beyond Russia out of territory acquired since February 2022?’ The President is at risk of ‘losing’ the war if he cannot define what winning is.

To date, the U.S. and NATO’s Ukraine war strategy has achieved some good things:  revealed the corruption of the Russian polity; proved once again that authoritarian regimes are incompatible with Western liberal democracies; demonstrated NATO defense technology and superiority of joint warfare; exposed China as hostile to Western liberal democratic values and amenable to violence to achieve political ends; revealed Iran (and North Korea) as an implacable enemy; created (a few) divisions within the Russian populace; and weakened the Russian military.

However, since the United States is a party to this conflict, it makes sense to apply the fundamentals of conflict to perceive of and move toward a coherent end. That is where most analysis simply evaporates. And that is where the Administration seems stymied or indifferent (or purposefully quiet).

Here are the fundamentals of conflict:

  1. Conceive a desired political end (war termination). 
  2. Have a clear military objective and a sense of superior diplomatic/informational legitimacy.
  3. Coordinate diplomatic and military moves.
  4. Confine military moves to clear demonstrations of resolve and clear objectives.
  5. Identify acceptable bargains and pursue them.

How many of these fundamentals have been answered by the Administration? What is the war goal for the Biden Administration, for instance? U.S. policy is, ostensibly, ‘victory,’ interpreted as ‘Russian forces must withdraw from all of Ukraine.’ But then what? Reparations? Return of all Ukrainian citizens the Russians have taken hostage into Russian territory? Ukraine joins NATO? War crime tribunals for Russian attacks on Ukrainian civilians, as well as individual killings? Putin indicted by the International Criminal Court? Putin travels internationally again as before (or is arrested in a third country)? And what about Russian forces on the border, poised to return to fighting?

The Biden Administration seems to have had originally an unstated war aim of getting the Putin regime to fall to a nominally more liberal democratic regime. But it has never stated this explicitly. And if so, this unstated goal seems to have evaporated.

Most private analysts make only surface-level observations about the war and offer no vision:

  1. Defeating the Russians will be hard
  2. Escalating the conflict is dangerous
  3. A frozen, prolonged conflict is likely
  4. The West may not have much of a choice but to work with Putin and his regime again

The Biden Administration wants to win through slow attrition – as long as Putin is not threatened with a humiliating defeat. There is an obvious contradiction here. This has encouraged a strategy of providing weapons to shoot attacking and occupying Russian forces but nothing beyond that seems clear. The strategy of the United States seems to be to supply weapons to the Ukrainians to shoot occupying Russian forces to attrit so many Russian soldiers that Russia withdraws from Ukraine out of exhaustion. (But then what? What about reparations? Ukrainian children held hostage by Russia? What to do about war crimes?) The Russian strategy seems to be to attrit enough Ukrainian soldiers that the country’s defenses will weaken and surrender parts of Ukraine to Russian occupation out of exhaustion.

Both sides are pursuing the same strategy, which may be (also) the overarching U.S. strategy. That is what happened in Afghanistan – the U.S.-backed government held the cities, and the Taliban held the countryside. The two sides then waited each other out. The U.S. eventually gave in (and gave up!) to that mutual strategy of attrition. (In such cases, historically, liberal democracies tend to give up first; autocracies can demand more sacrifice and tolerate more loss and ambiguity from their people.)

The danger here is that the United States and Ukraine will eventually lose or give up – principally because they cannot envision or seize ‘victory’ and the American people will become impatient with an Administration that cannot achieve or conceive of victory or a ceasefire. That would be a disaster:  spend billions of dollars and achieve no coherent goal. In short, current strategy lacks a coherent, explicit ‘theory of victory.’

The U.S. Administration seemed to expect internal dissidence inside Russia to produce some sort of coup or political change or war compromise. Yet modern authoritarianism is extremely tenacious, using the surveillance state (cyberspace) to monitor and quash any hint of political opposition before it has any chance of organization. Putin has been able to appeal to traditional Russian fears of invasion to defend his aggression and control the information narrative inside Russia. His popularity has risen in Russia.

Political change is likely to happen in Russia only when Russians feel the military sacrifice and economic sanctions touch them directly and Russians conclude that Putin is not strengthening Russia. More specifically for authoritarian Russia, internal regime change (by Russians) will occur only when Putin is viewed as having severely weakened Russia and thereby threatened the internal security service of its wealth, privilege, and status.

Yet the Biden Administration has not seemed to have developed an information operations campaign to frame the war correctly (e.g., ‘the Ukraine invasion has weakened Russia and made Russians more vulnerable’). Nor is it framing Chinese Chairman Xi’s support for naked aggression as evidence of his opportunistic hostility toward the rule of law. Further, at present, Putin seems more emotionally committed to victory than does President Biden. That is also a problem since victors are usually those more committed.

The Russian military and Russian people must conclude that Putin threatens them and their survival because of his adventurism and aggression. Autocrats own victory but also own defeat. They succeed by allegedly bringing success to the state but if they bring destruction or weakness, they lose legitimacy. Unlike elected officials in free democracies, autocrats are not representing their people; they are commanding them. The Russian people must conclude that Putin led them into foolish, ruinous destruction, a middle-class brain drain, isolation, criminality, and a weaker, more vulnerable state.

It was a mistake of the Clinton and Bush administrations to allow Putin to rise unimpeded. The United States likely knew Putin and the KGB successor organization were behind the Moscow apartment bombings; the U.S. Government likely knew that Putin and his cronies killed Russian citizens to create a crisis to propel an obscure KGB officer into national prominence to take over the state. Both U.S. Presidents saw Russia’s deep state – the siloviki (former members of the security and military services) -- return and dominate the Russian government, turning the state into a mafia state, much like the CCP has in China. Both U.S. Presidents should have retreated from cooperating with Putin as his authoritarianism grew.

Putin likely believed the nonsense his intelligence yes-men analysts told him about Ukrainian political weakness. His goal in Ukraine was likely not to occupy the entire state, but to intimidate the Ukrainian military; eject the Zelenskyy government (have it flee to Poland); and install the pro-Moscow Ukrainian President again (who was sitting in Belarus, waiting to return to Kyiv). His goal was another 2008 Russo-Georgian-like war:  brief, regime-targeted, and low-cost.

Putin also likely has a poor understanding of joint military doctrine. His military advisors were likely afraid of him and likely assumed his approval numbers were legitimate. They overestimated their capabilities and are likely not part of his political deliberations. Putin, therefore, thought ejecting the Kyiv Government would be as militarily easy as ejecting the Ukrainian Government from Crimea. Putin likely assessed the United States and NATO would stay out and that the Ukrainian military would defect or become largely frozen, much like Ukrainian forces did in and around Crimea in 2014.

Before the war, Biden told Putin that U.S. forces would not become involved in Ukraine – just what Putin wanted (and expected) to hear. Biden fashioned an economic sanctions package that he threatened would be implemented if Putin were to invade. Biden resisted sending weapons before the conflict began. All these signals paint a certain, manageable picture of the United States, which Putin counts on.