The dangers of letting blustery rhetoric dictate US policy in Ukraine
If you were worried that the Biden administration’s strategy toward the war in Ukraine has us drifting closer to catastrophic escalation in service — not of core U.S. interests — but of unrealistic dreams of an outright battlefield victory for Ukraine, I have bad news: it may be worse than that. Biden and company may be steering toward trouble they see clearly, but for whatever reason will not avoid, as a recent article in the Washington Post detailed:
Privately, U.S. officials say neither Russia nor Ukraine is capable of winning the war outright, but they have ruled out the idea of pushing or even nudging Ukraine to the negotiating table. They say they do not know what the end of the war looks like, or how it might end or when, insisting that is up to Kyiv.
If accurate, this quote means that the administration’s take on the war is similar to that of most experts: that despite the impressive weakness Russia has shown lately, it could manage to dig in, and with the help of locals and draftees, prevent Ukraine from retaking the rest of the Donbas region, at least anytime soon. But Ukraine’s chances of success there are far greater than in Crimea, which is easier for Russia to defend and more likely to elicit defense by tactical nuclear weapons.
The quote, again if accurate, would also mean the Biden administration shares the view of its dovish critics, who contend that the effect of U.S. policy toward the war in Ukraine is to prolong it. With billions in aid, we could be encouraging Ukraine to try to win outright rather than use its presently strong battlefield position to negotiate the war’s end, with the sacrifices of some territory, certainly Crimea, and neutrality that will almost inevitably entail.
That deference will please Ukraine, but, as much as opponents of pushing diplomacy may shout about giving Ukraine agency, deference to friends isn’t a virtue when you judge they are dangerously erring, especially when they might suffer nuclear consequences. To put it in another context, France, for example, would not have been doing the United States a favor in 2003 by agreeing with George Bush’s push to invade Iraq.
If the Biden administration is indeed pushing Ukraine to pursue a victory it knows it can’t win with no plan to push a settlement, there are two possible explanations.
One — the Biden team feels trapped by its own rhetorical excess in declaring a Ukrainian victory vital to global democracy and U.S. security, and the emotive views of pundits and allies like Sanna Marin, Finland’s prime minister. Marin’s claim that “the way out of the conflict is for Russia to leave Ukraine; that’s the way out of the conflict” went viral last week, suggesting widespread support, at least among pundits, of letting blustery pronouncements serve as a policy.
That’s easy to say when you are neither fighting the war nor funding it. But the administration, stuck in politics that make pressuring Ukraine verboten, may feel all it can do is tap the breaks — such as by refusing to provide long-range strike weapons that would hit Russia and prevent further political assassinations.
Second — the administration may judge that the war is going well for Americans, and the dangers are manageable. This is not exactly to say the American plan was always to use Ukraine to bleed Russia and prolong war, but perhaps that things just worked out that way. Ukraine wants to fight, and Russia getting weakened is, sort of, an explicit U.S. goal. Putin is probably bluffing about using nukes in Donbas. Why not let Russia get deterred from future adventurism and reap the whirlwind?
Neither explanation to me is fully convincing. On the first, a politician as experienced as Joe Biden — who after all got out of Afghanistan and outraged the Beltway’s armchair warriors — knows pundits go mostly unheard by voters. And, with $60 billion in and Russia on its heels, he can still rightly claim to be standing up for Ukraine as his rhetoric demands, even if he changes course on negotiations and perhaps privately encourages it.
The second explanation makes more sense, but I doubt the Biden administration is so blasé about the war’s costs — not just the direct spending, but economic losses from sanctions and Russia’s response, the risk of wider and even nuclear war, and of making Russia into a generational antagonist, that seeks opportunities for vengeance by frustrating U.S. diplomatic goals or worse. Running these risks to weaken Russia, when it is already weakened and punished for the world to see, seems less pragmatic than what I’d expect from this White House.
It is also possible that the quote from the Washington Post is wrong — or at least it is only right for now — and the administration is biding its time before encouraging talks to end the war. The administration may judge that the sides are just too far apart to usefully talk now. War is a form of bargaining where antagonists have to see a similarly likely outcome before they settle, and that sort of agreement, tragically, will take more fighting and dying.
So why press Ukraine to settle and take political heat when it won’t work anyway? If escalation risk can be controlled, why not let Russia’s losses erode its demands and get Ukraine a better deal? I hope this is what the administration is thinking, and that they’re seriously considering the size of that “if.”