Tell me how this ends. General David Petraeus famously posed this question at the outset of the Iraq War in 2003.
In retrospect, to say that the Bush administration’s expectations for the war proved too optimistic would be a vast understatement. The White House anticipated a democratic and prosperous Iraq that would catalyze liberalization in the authoritarian regimes dominating the Middle East and drain the swamp of Islamic radicalism.
Instead, Operation Iraqi Freedom removed an important counterbalance to Iranian power and plunged the region into decades of instability, the ill effects of which are continuing to resonate for the United States, Europe, and the world.
In our outrage over Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and determination to counter Moscow’s aggression, many are debating what we should do, but few are pausing to ponder the question of how this war ends. As the Russian operation has stumbled on the battlefield, some prominent U.S. and British officials and many erstwhile cheerleaders for the war in Iraq are talking more and more openly about victory over Russia, decisively debilitating the Russian military, and even regime change in Moscow. Dare we hope that Putin’s blunder in Ukraine could poetically produce the very outcomes he wished to prevent: an expanded and invigorated NATO alliance more deeply ensconced along Russia’s periphery, Russia’s marginalization in the world, and even his own fall from power?
Perhaps. Ukraine’s military effectiveness to date suggests that a battlefield victory over Russian forces is not inconceivable. Perhaps the Russian military will be outmaneuvered and enveloped in the Donbass. Perhaps Russia’s war machine will run short of weapons and munitions. Perhaps if Putin resorts to a national war mobilization, it will spark overwhelming popular opposition as Russian troop losses mount and economic deprivation deepens.
Perhaps, as some have hoped, Putin will somehow be overthrown, violently or otherwise, replaced by a successor more amenable to the West. Our 1990s-era vision of Europe whole, free, and at peace may still be within our grasp.
But perhaps is seldom a strong basis for policy planning. Russia may not be capable of outright victory in Ukraine, but it almost certainly has the means to ensure that if it loses, all other parties will lose, too, in what might be called a “Samson scenario.” Just as we should have done in the case of Iraq, we would be wise to consider some alternative — and all too imaginable — ways this war might end, in order that we make prudent choices about the course of action we pursue.
One of the most disturbing possibilities is escalation into a genuine military crisis between the United States and Russia. The Biden administration has wisely resisted political pressure to put American troops on the ground in Ukraine or impose a no-fly zone over its airspace, steps that would mean direct fighting between the world’s foremost nuclear powers.
But escalation can nonetheless occur in other ways. If the United States and NATO seek Russia’s unconditional defeat by unconventional means — proxy and economic warfare — can we reasonably expect Moscow to acquiesce to terms of indirect conflict that play to our strengths? How long will Moscow refrain from direct retaliation against the West, particularly if the Russian operation in Donbass starts to falter?
Moscow has repeatedly warned against Western military supplies to Ukraine, calling them legitimate military targets. It has attacked supply lines and depots inside Ukraine, and it demonstrated in 2014 that it is willing to strike supply facilities on NATO territory, having used intelligence operatives to blow up a depot in the Czech Republic providing arms to Ukraine at that time. Putin certainly understands that direct Russian strikes inside NATO territory would be fraught with escalatory risk. But if he sees the alternative as defeat in Ukraine, with all the attendant implications for Russia’s influence in the world and stability at home, he could well decide such a step is necessary.
Strikes could also serve Putin’s cause in rallying Russian popular support for the war, which he has from the start depicted as an existential conflict between Russia and NATO, not between Russia and Ukraine.
Where crossing the line into direct military engagement between Russia and the West might lead is difficult to anticipate. The Biden administration’s caution in avoiding a clash with Russian forces might start to erode as political pressure to respond to Russian strikes grows. Some form of Western retaliation against facilities on Russian territory would be likely. Low-level skirmishing that has long pitted U.S. and Russian cyber warriors in the digital arena could erupt into genuinely destructive acts of sabotage against critical infrastructure. Russia might be tempted to target vulnerable U.S. satellites on which our economy, as well as military and reconnaissance operations, depends. At what stage — if any — might the prospect of a spiral toward nuclear war sober Moscow and Washington into seeking an end to hostilities?
Another possibility is that we find ourselves in an extended period of unsettled standoff with Russia in which there is no agreed end to the war in Ukraine, but neither side wishes to continue active conventional combat. Western economic warfare against Russia would continue. Russia would fall far short of achieving its initial aims of occupying Kyiv, removing the Zelensky government, and ending Western military involvement in Ukraine. But Russian forces would nonetheless occupy all or most of the Donbass region and control a land corridor linking Crimea with the Donbass and Russia.
This would render Ukraine a divided state with unresolved geopolitical status, while leaving Europe with a festering, open wound. Unlike the division of Germany and Europe during the Cold War, however, this new simmering confrontation would have few rules of engagement to mitigate its dangers, as most of the arms control treaties, executive agreements, and informal understandings that served as guardrails during and after the Cold War have disappeared, with little prospect for their revival or revision in the near term.
Finally, this war may end in a negotiated settlement, as most conflicts historically have ended. But finding a compromise that all parties can live with will be no small feat. Zelensky has indicated that Ukraine might agree to official neutrality, but only on condition of stringent security guarantees, the terms of which both the United States (which has long refused to defend Ukraine with its own forces) and Russia (steadfastly opposed to U.S. or NATO presence in Ukraine) might find objectionable.
Ukraine has understandably ruled out territorial concessions, but Putin would almost certainly not agree to any settlement in which Russia were forced to leave the Donbass, and separatist groups there would be loath to live under Kyiv’s rule after years of war. And it is hard to imagine that Putin will compromise if the United States and Europe refuse to ease economic sanctions as part of a settlement or insist that he and other Russian officials face prosecution for war crimes.
This menu of potential endings in Ukraine has little appeal. If we aim for a win-lose outcome for the West against Russia, however, we may well find ourselves in a perilous lose-lose scenario. The time to answer the Petraeus question is now.
George Beebe spent more than two decades in government as an intelligence analyst, diplomat, and policy advisor, including as director of the CIA's Russia analysis and as a staff advisor on Russia matters to Vice President Cheney. His book, The Russia Trap: How Our Shadow War with Russia Could Spiral into Nuclear Catastrophe (2019), warned how the United States and Russia could stumble into a dangerous military confrontation much like the situation we face over Ukraine today.
Irpin, Ukraine - 5 March 2022: Ukrainian soldier stands on the check point to the city Irpin near Kyiv during the evacuation of local people under the shelling of the Russian troops.|Editorial credit: Kutsenko Volodymyr / Shutterstock.com
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.