It's No Time To Go Wobbly On Ukraine

It's No Time To Go Wobbly On Ukraine

Notwithstanding the concerns of some Americans about U.S. commitments to Ukraine, the case for NATO support against Russia remains a strong one.

In August of 1990, as then-President George H.W. Bush considered whether the United States should send troops to expel Iraq from Kuwait, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher urged him forward with the candor that made her memorable: this was “no time to go wobbly.”

It is now apparent to most observers that the war between Russia and Ukraine will continue for an indefinite period of time with little likelihood of a decisive victory by one side or the other. As the costs of war in blood and treasure go up, the probability of “wobbling” on the part of political leaders in NATO member countries, including in Washington, also increases. Already in the United States, some members of Congress, media commentators, and research analysts are questioning either the significance of the American commitment to Ukraine or the increasing costs of weapons and other means of support.

Some skeptics have limited their criticism to the current administration’s choice of strategy and tactics while contending that they support Ukraine’s self-defense in principle. Others are more expansive, questioning the motives behind the U.S. support for Ukraine’s self-defense. Included in the latter critique is the argument that the war is really about re-establishing NATO as an indispensable politico-military powerhouse, as in the halcyon days of the Cold War before NATO became distracted by “out of the area” missions such as Afghanistan. Other Ukraine-skeptics suspect the Biden administration and its supporters of using a proxy war in Ukraine to deal a decisive blow against Russian President Vladimir Putin, possibly including an embarrassing military setback that could lead to regime change in Russia.

Many Americans are, based on our experiences from the Vietnam War to the so-called “forever wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan, understandably concerned about the costs, duration, and expected endgame from U.S. and allied NATO commitments to Ukraine. Although American troops have not been committed to combat in Ukraine, U.S. military and civilian advisory personnel support the Ukrainian war effort, and the United States bears the largest share among NATO members for the costs of advanced military equipment and other requirements for high-end conventional warfare.

In addition, the myriad facets of this kind of war, both on and off the battlefield, understandably are difficult even for addicts of television news networks to follow. The conflict combines conventional and unconventional warfare, including special operations (saboteurs and guerrilla fighters), political warfare of various kinds, and ample use of twenty-first-century technology (drones and cyberwar) alongside slugging matches that resemble the engagements of World War II (indeed, sometimes on the very same terrain fought over on the Eastern Front between 1941 and 1945). Additional complexity is added by the extension of fighting to air and sea domains to support ground operations or other purposes.

Another aspect of the war that confounds some Americans is the allegations of corruption against Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukrainian politicians in general. The implication is that the regime in Kyiv might not be worth defending if its version of democracy is light on integrity and accountability. On the other hand, allies come in all varieties, and some may never meet American democratic standards (as seen by us). Alliances in wartime are subject to the discipline of necessity as well as the appeal of popular sovereignty. The United States and the Soviet Union fought World War II as allies. After the war, they fell into opposition for the next forty-five years. Geostrategy often rearranges the distribution of balls on the billiard table of international politics, political affinities notwithstanding.

For counterpoint, there is the critique of U.S. and NATO expansion after the Cold War by Professor John Mearsheimer and others who argue that NATO’s post-Cold War enlargement was a dangerous maneuver that inevitably aroused Russia’s suspicions. From the Russian perspective, there is some truth in this analysis, but the argument is prone to overstatement. In contrast to Russian fears and Putin’s rhetoric, NATO enlargement was not necessarily the same thing as NATO military encirclement or adventurism. NATO was, and remains, an alliance of democratic states whose military objective is stability and deterrence, not preemptive war against Russia. The historical track record of invaders of Russia is not impressively favorable: Charles XII of Sweden, Napoleon, and Hitler all found defeat in Russia’s vastness. Putin’s resentment of NATO is not based on realistic fears of military attack but on his own ambitions to redraw the map of Europe in Russia’s favor. Autocrats, like Putin, often exaggerate the fears of foreign intervention to prop up their regimes on the home front.

Another possible counterpoint concerning U.S. policy debates about American commitments to Ukraine is the concern as to whether the United States can maintain deterrence and defense in Europe while keeping other military and security balls in the air at the same time. The attack by Hamas against Israel on October 7, 2023, immediately engaged U.S. diplomatic, military, and humanitarian efforts to support our strongest ally in the Middle East while urging restraint and working to deliver humanitarian aid to address the dire needs of both Israelis and Palestinians. The war between Israel and Hamas has the potential for horizontal escalation (more state or non-state actors involved) and vertical escalation (more destructive and prolonged fighting than hitherto). In addition to the fighting in the Middle East, the United States must also maintain diplomatic engagement and military deterrence with respect to China and its menacing of Taiwan. The continuing buildup and testing of North Korean nuclear weapons also provide additional distraction in Asia.

Notwithstanding the previously cited reasonable concerns by some Americans about U.S. commitments to Ukraine and possible distractions, the case for NATO support for Ukraine against Russia remains a strong one. NATO is defending peace and security in Europe against an effort to forcibly change territorial state boundaries on a scale not seen since 1945. For the rules-based international order as well as for Ukraine, the conflict is existential. As to whether the United States can handle more than one global crisis or challenge simultaneously, the answer is yes, provided that political leadership and military performance rise to the challenges of twenty-first-century complexity.

The issue for Americans is to define our political and military objectives relative to this conflict, as well as for the strategy that connects the two. Putin’s aim is clear enough: a shrink-wrapped Europe inside a matryoshka doll, enhancing his legacy and grip on power. We need to ensure that our objective of preventing that from happening is clear as well.

Lawrence J. Korb is a senior fellow at American Progress. Previously, Dr. Korb served as assistant secretary of defense (manpower, reserve affairs, installations, and logistics) from 1981 through 1985.

Stephen J. Cimbala is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Penn State Brandywine, an American Studies faculty member, and the author of numerous books and articles in the fields of international security studies, defense policy, nuclear weapons and arms control, intelligence, and other fields.

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