The past two to three weeks have seen a spate of new signals in Washington about the conflict in Ukraine, now entering its tenth month. With winter approaching, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, posed the possibility that a pause in the fighting might afford a new opportunity for diplomacy to stabilize the situation and halt the unending destruction of the country, with damage estimated by the World Bank at $350 billion. After gaining a majority in the midterm elections, some House Republicans have warned that they will try to curtail U.S. funding for Ukraine once the new Congress is seated in January. Other reporting has noted high-level U.S. efforts to prevent escalation that could lead to direct U.S.-Russia hostilities.
Kyiv’s adverse reaction to suggestions of freezing the conflict now may have persuaded some that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, while courageous and indomitable, is staking out an unrealistic, untenable position by vowing to expel Russian occupation forces from all of Ukraine, including Crimea. Washington’s national security community, schooled in the lessons of the Cold War, reflexively seeks to contain conflicts and resolve differences through diplomacy, all the more urgently as great power involvement risks escalation to the threshold of nuclear war. As Russian president Vladimir Putin and his lieutenants have issued repeated nuclear threats, the caution underpinning Washington’s support for Ukraine’s defense should surprise no one.
However, this crisis is qualitatively different from India-Pakistan, Greece-Turkey, Armenia-Azerbaijan, and other inter-state conflicts. Putin’s army is not fighting, to reference the classic motives often cited by LTG H.R. McMaster, for “honor” or “interest”; Russia has no legitimate claim to Ukraine’s territory or sovereignty. Its soldiers’ primary motive is “fear”—they kill Ukrainians wantonly because they themselves are exposed and ill-supported. The institutional neglect of the Russian military, on vivid display this year, makes clear that Putin cares little about his country’s armed forces. There is no evidence that he is deterred by manpower and equipment losses. As liberated areas expose ever more Russian war crimes, Ukrainians can see only one path to national survival and a secure future: expel the Russians.
The more apt comparison is a school shooting. When an active shooter is victimizing schoolchildren and teachers, there is nothing to negotiate: every life is in imminent danger. Russian troops are killing civilians as well as soldiers in Ukraine. Its cities and towns—including apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, train stations, and nuclear power facilities—face the daily prospect of indiscriminate bombardment. With temperatures plunging, Russia is systematically destroying the power infrastructure. Ukraine’s crisis is, in short, a geopolitical “Uvalde,” the one distinction being that the Ukrainians say they can expel the Russians themselves if provided sufficient weapons and funding.
A bipartisan delegation of six senators and three House members, along with military and civilian officials and a charter planeload of Washington policy experts, were comprehensively exposed to Ukraine’s perspective throughout the recent Halifax International Security Forum, where attendees from democratic countries heard from Zelenskyy and several senior advisors, parliamentarians, and representatives of the Ukrainian civil society and the private sector. Zelenskyy’s 10-point peace plan requires that the UN Charter be implemented, with the complete withdrawal of Russian forces, a cessation of hostilities, and confirmation of the war’s end.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin left no doubt in his expansive keynote address that he shares Ukraine’s view of what is at stake. Calling Russia’s infrastructure attacks “atrocities,” Austin said the war’s outcome “will define security in this young century.” Were Putin to succeed, other aggressors could conclude that possessing nuclear weapons would give them a “hunting license” against their neighbors. With the caveat that the United States will not be drawn into a war with Russia, Austin said that Washington must support Ukraine because Beijing, like Moscow, seeks “a world where might makes right.”
In his 1966 treatise Arms and Influence, Thomas Schelling distinguished between brute force and coercion. Genghis Khan, he said, initially pursued “the war creed of the Mongols: the vanquished can never be the friends of the victors,” only to learn over time “how to use his power for diplomatic ends.” This latter mindset better describes Putin. On February 24, he assumed that “the threat of damage, or of more damage to come,” in Schelling’s parlance, would cause Ukraine’s leaders and population to capitulate and yield to Russian political control. As Ukrainian forces withstood the Russian invasion, enduring fearsome casualties and damage, they concluded, like the Mongols in Genghis Khan’s day, that their survival depends on vanquishing the Russians: “their death is necessary for the victor’s safety.”
At Halifax, Hanna Hopko, chairwoman of the Ukraine-based Democracy in Action Conference, asserted that 90-95 percent of Ukrainian public opinion today favors trying to defeat the Russian occupation rather than suing for peace. This was the stance of all Ukrainian participants in and out of government and, incidentally, pro-democracy Russian attendees. “Don’t be afraid,” counseled former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko. Learn from Ukraine; “we are stronger” than the Russians. The prevailing mindset was perhaps best expressed by General Rajmund Andrzejczak, chief of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces: “Ukraine has to win. That’s the mission. Full stop.”
Lincoln P. Bloomfield, Jr., is a former Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Stimson Center.