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Biden must resist calls to give Zelensky all that he wants

The Ukraine president's interests are not the same as America's — which is to discourage direct military confrontation with Russia.

Analysis | Europe

One year into the war and Ukrainians are understandably seeking all the help they can from their Western partners to push Russian forces out of their country. 

That this support could potentially lead to a direct NATO intervention in the conflict and war between NATO and Russia does not seem to trouble the Ukrainian government — in fact that might be welcomed. But this marks the sharp divergence with American interests in this war and the core policy of the Biden administration, which is to avoid just such a direct intervention.

This signifies that it is high time for the U.S. and its allies to confront the reality that they need to find an exit strategy before it’s too late.  

At a press conference on the one year anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked the American people for their support but also warned against the growing sentiment among Americans that the U.S. is giving too much aid to Ukraine. He boldly stated that the U.S. would lose its position of leadership in the world if it does not defeat Russia in Ukraine. He said — without any evidence -— that if assistance weakens and Ukraine loses, Russia would enter the Baltic states and the U.S. would then have to send their sons and daughters to fight for the defense of NATO member states. 

An edited version of his statement went viral on Twitter as U.S. critics of unlimited funding to Ukraine expressed outrage at Zelensky’s suggestion that Americans might have to send their sons and daughters to fight in Ukraine. While his statement was taken out of context, such a scenario is in fact within the realm of possibilities — only not as a result of failing to achieve "total victory," but as a result of continued escalation of the war. 

It is precisely on this point that American (and Western interests more broadly) diverge from those of Ukraine — because absent a NATO intervention, a total victory in Ukraine isn’t possible. Yet even with a NATO intervention, “victory” would only arise after a costly, possibly even nuclear, confrontation where no real victors would emerge. 

Russia and Ukraine are currently stuck in a grinding war of attrition, and Russia is making incremental gains. If this war carries on in its current form, the outcome is likely to be contingent on the actor that would benefit from playing the long game, and unfortunately that actor is most probably Russia, with more than three times Ukraine’s population and a far larger economy.

Instead of ramping up weapons supplies and encouraging Ukrainians to push back the Russian army to Ukraine’s 1991 borders, we need to understand that doing so would likely incite severe Russian escalatory measures, particularly if Crimea is at stake; and that this escalation could lead to NATO intervention and war between Russia and the West. President Biden appears to be following this guidance. 

A few scenarios that could make an intervention likely include horizontal spillover such as an attack on NATO territory to target supply lines to Ukraine; or an accidental spillover into NATO territory as has already happened in Poland and near NATO airspace in Moldova. Another scenario could be vertical escalation such as the use of a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine to which NATO would surely respond. This could occur should Russia suffer defeat in the event of a Ukrainian offensive on Crimea.

Other scenarios include Russia escalating the war through other means that would also require a NATO response, such as cutting underwater sea cables or targeting NATO infrastructure with plausible deniability, as was done by an unknown state actor with the Nordstream pipelines. 

It appears that these concerns are growing among allies and domestic constituencies in Europe and the United States. In fact, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz just flew into Washington D.C. on Friday to discuss Ukraine with President Biden. France and Germany have expressed more willingness to end the war through peace talks than other allies. Their meeting also came amidst rising concerns about China’s alleged plans to send military aid to Russia. Commenting on potential Chinese aid to Russia, Zelensky told German newspaper Die Welt that if China allies itself with Russia, there will be a world war; not a very desirable prospect from anyone’s point of view.

China may supply Russia with lethal aid if it assesses that doing so would help Russia end the war faster, or if Russia appears to be losing in a new Ukrainian counter-offensive with the help of a new influx of weapons from the West. Even with the likelihood of Russia having the advantage in a long-war scenario, it would be in China's interest to see the war end faster for reasons of global stability and to ensure their strategic partner does not deplete all its military resources. A stronger Russia makes for a better partner for China to balance the power of the U.S. than a weakened one.  

If China starts to supply Russia with weapons this would create an even costlier situation. Such aid would help tilt the balance in Russia’s favor on the battlefield. The U.S. would surely respond by further arming Ukraine and imposing new sanctions on China, pushing its partners to do the same. This would create renewed escalation in the war and a bifurcation of international relations in the context of a cold war, where a hot war has more chances of erupting between the great powers. 

Before letting matters get to that point, we should make concerted efforts to end the war by encouraging a ceasefire and negotiations before Ukraine loses any more territory and before the war turns into a global conflagration that can only end in disaster. Ukraine’s Western partners appear to be willing to support a new defense pact with Kyiv, and the European Union has accepted Ukraine as an EU candidate. These are positive outcomes and can be part of a long-term settlement that will ensure Ukraine’s development as a nation as well as lasting peace in Europe.  

Contrary to Zelensky’s warning that a failure to achieve ‘total victory’ would lead to a wider war in Europe, it would be wise to adjust our logic to current realities and realize that it is precisely if we do not seek an end to this war through a long-term settlement that NATO may have to fight a larger war in Europe.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky holds a US national flag during his address to the US Congress at the US Capitol in Washington, DC on on December 21, 2022. (Salma Bashir Motiwala/Shutterstock)
Analysis | Europe
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