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.
Marcus Stanley is the Director of Studies at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Prior to joining the Quincy Institute, he spent a decade at Americans for Financial Reform. He has a PhD in public policy from Harvard, with a focus on economics.
Handout photo shows Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy meets with Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, during her visit to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, Ukraine, on May 1, 2022. Pelosi is now the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Ukraine during the war, with the surprise visit adding to the growing momentum behind the West’s support for the country's fight against Russia. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.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%.