The massive new $40 billion U.S. aid package to Ukraine has made something obvious to everyone. Ukraine has become America’s war too, a proxy conflict between the U.S. and Russia.
As though an invisible signal had gone out, what was once controversial is now consensus. The New Yorker announced that Ukraine is now America’s war. CNN pointed to a “new realization” that the war has transitioned from resistance to Russia’s vicious invasion to a “potentially years-long great power struggle.”
Meanwhile, influential congressmen like Seth Moulton told interviewers that “we've got to realize we're at war, and we're not just at war to support the Ukrainians. We're fundamentally at war, although it's somewhat through proxy with Russia”. A flood of leaks from Administration sources on the direct U.S. role in striking back at Russian invaders added to the case.
The sheer scale of aid to Ukraine makes the centrality of the U.S role clear. Between the $13.6 billion March package and the pending new $40 billion infusion, the U.S. will have provided Ukraine over $50 billion, almost one-third of Ukraine’s pre-war GDP. That’s the equivalent of a foreign country providing the U.S. with $7 trillion. Ukrainians are on the front lines doing the fighting, but when it comes to material resources, Ukraine is effectively a U.S. protectorate.
The package also indicates that many in Washington are settling in for an extended war —many funding authorizations in the bill extend through September 2024.
But there’s one exception to the U.S. willingness to play a central role in the war — achieving a negotiated peace. There’s an enormous discrepancy between the vast resources available to arm the Ukrainians and efforts made on the diplomatic front to end the war. That won’t change until there’s real domestic political pressure to match our military assistance to Ukraine with a realistic diplomatic strategy to end this war. Such a strategy is essential to realizing the U.S. interest in a sustainable and peaceful European security order, and avoiding the destructive impacts of a protracted conflict.
We’re a long way from that now. In sharp contrast to the stream of bold statements about the need to weaken the Russians and ensure their strategic defeat, questions about a possible U.S. role in bringing about a settlement are typically met with a dismissive shrug. Secretary of State Blinken’s exchange with Senator Rand Paul in late April is typical:
“Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY): War very rarely ends in complete victory by either side….So there may well be a negotiated peace. Would the US, would President Biden, be open to accepting Ukraine as an unaligned neutral nation?
Secretary Blinken: We, Senator, are not going to be be more Ukrainian than the Ukrainians. These are decisions for them to make. Our purpose is to make sure that they have within their hands, the ability to repel the Russian aggression and indeed to strengthen their hand at an eventual negotiating table. We've seen no sign to date that President Putin is serious about meaningful negotiations.”
Secretary Blinken’s implicit claims here — that there is no openness to any negotiated peace on the part of the Russians and that achieving such a peace is a purely Ukrainian affair — are drastic oversimplifications. Direct Russia-Ukraine talks were taking place as recently as the end of March on the basis of a combination of Ukrainian neutrality, security guarantees for the country, and territorial settlements over the Donbas and Crimea. At his recent meeting with UN Secretary General Guterres, Putin claimed that Russia wanted to continue negotiations but the talks broke down due to Ukraine abruptly withdrawing their offer to negotiate on territorial settlement around Crimea and the Donbas.
One doesn’t have to (and shouldn’t!) take Putin’s claims at face value to see that Russia has enormous incentives to seek a face-saving way out of what is rapidly becoming a debacle in Ukraine. According to estimates by the UK government, Russia has lost up to fifteen thousand dead already — as many losses in a few months as the country suffered in the entire nine years of the war in Afghanistan. The maximalist aims of the initial invasion, which appeared to include overthrowing and replacing the government of Ukraine, are now unattainable. Instead, Russia is bogged down in a brutal conflict in eastern Ukraine where it is struggling to achieve even its minimal goals of pushing back Ukrainian forces from formerly pro-Russian areas of the Donbas. Sweeping sanctions also continue to severely damage the Russian economy.
On the front lines, Ukraine too has reasons to favor a rapid end to the war. Last month, Ukrainian President Zelensky commented that “any mentally healthy person always chooses the diplomatic path, because he or she knows: even if it is difficult, it can prevent the loss of thousands, tens of thousands, and with such neighbors — hundreds of thousands and maybe even millions of lives.”
More recently, Zelensky’s chief of staff “stressed that it is important for Ukraine that this war does not become protracted, because by exhausting Russia, it will at the same time take the lives of Ukrainians and destroy our cities and infrastructure.” A protracted war would be an even greater disaster for Ukraine than the catastrophe already created by the conflict, which has displaced almost 30 percent of the population.
The U.S. might have the least incentive to end the war quickly. From a crude perspective that seeks simply to weaken Russia, extending a brutally destructive war on its borders can seem to make sense. Despite the vast sums being spent, the cost of this war to the U.S. is small compared to its impact on Russia, Ukraine, and even our European allies.
As the Republican Congressman Dan Crenshaw recently put it, “investing in the destruction of our adversary’s military, without losing a single American troop, strikes me as a good idea.” Admit it or not, despite the brutal toll of the war in Ukraine many in Washington likely agree.
In the absence of a clear commitment to a diplomatic strategy by the United States, this attitude may already be having a direct effect on the likelihood of settlement. In reporting on Russia-Ukraine negotiations, the Kyiv-based outlet Ukrayinska Pravda has claimed that in early April, Boris Johnson communicated to President Zelensky that the “collective West” was not ready to sign agreements with Putin supporting the Ukrainian negotiating effort. According to their sources, Russia’s weakness had moved the West away from the idea of settlement — “there is a chance to press him [Putin]. And the West wants to use it.”
Without active U.S. support and investment in a diplomatic solution, there is little chance that Ukraine alone can find its way to a reasonable settlement. The U.S. is the key player in numerous aspects of any potential peace agreement. These include control of the sanctions strangling the Russian economy, the ability to provide meaningful guarantees for Ukrainian neutrality that would satisfy Russia, and the ability to provide meaningful guarantees for Ukrainian security that would satisfy Ukraine.
A negotiated peace process would clearly require difficult compromises. The two sides are far apart, and it’s hard to negotiate with a country that has invaded and ravaged Ukraine. A successful peace agreement would also require the U.S. to give up on maximalist aims of crippling Russia permanently, and to address issues we were reluctant to meaningfully negotiate in the lead up to the war, from NATO membership to territorial issues.
But however arduous negotiations are, a pro-active effort to achieve peace serves long term U.S. interests. Extending the most destructive European conflict since WW2 involves numerous risks, from escalation to an even broader and more dangerous conflict, to the chance that Russia will be able to seize even more Ukrainian territory before negotiations take place. A peace settlement offers the opportunity to pursue a more sustainable European security order, rather than a continent mired in permanent conflict.
Moving from war to peace is never easy, but without full U.S. engagement the path will be impossible.