Before the summer, we had the broad outline of what the endgame of the war in Ukraine would look like: Kyiv would train and build up its forces, launch a summer offensive, reclaim as much territory as it could, and finally enter peace talks with the strongest negotiating hand possible and bring the war to a close.
Now, two months into that offensive and with summer’s end nearing, that scenario looks increasingly unlikely. The Ukrainian offensive has by all accountsstalled, as often exhausted, inexperienced, and hastily trained troops are running headfirst into dug-in and heavily mined Russian defenses, at horrific human cost.
Ukrainian forces are expending materiel at an unsustainable rate, using up 90,000 shells a month when the Pentagon is only producing a third of that, while 20 percent of the NATO weaponry it deployed was damaged or destroyed in the first two weeks. In light of the limited gains made by the offensive, President Joe Biden is now asking Congress for $20.6 billion more in aid for Ukraine, stressing that “the United States is committed to maintaining strong global opposition to Russia’s illegal war.”
The question is, where is all of this going and how is it going to end?
Earlier reporting from the Washington Postindicated that U.S. officials had told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky he likely had until the end of summer to make as much progress as possible before U.S. support for military aid dried up and he’d be forced to negotiate.
But at the same time, the White House continues to insist it will support the Ukrainian war effort “as long as it takes,” with an unnamed senior official telling CNN on Aug. 10 that “we don’t know how much longer this war is going to go on,” but that the White House “won’t be bashful about going back to Congress beyond the first quarter of next year if we feel like we need to do that.” This would fit with a leaked Defense Intelligence Agency assessment back in April that concluded that peace talks were unlikely this year “in all considered scenarios.”
Perhaps the administration simply wants to publicly exude resolve. But there is also the chance that this is more than just posturing.
Partly because of the hyperbolic rhetoric the administration and NATO allies have deployed to sell the urgency of continued military aid, the public has been led to believe the outcome of the war matters not just to Kyiv and its recapture of lost territory, but carries existential stakes for U.S. security, the entire global order, even democracy itself.
Over the last few days, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby urged those worried about the price tag of continuing aid “to consider what those costs — not just in treasure but in blood, perhaps even American blood — could be if Putin subjugates Ukraine and then sets his sights on our NATO allies,” and warned that “if we just sit back and we let Putin win, we let him take Ukraine, where does it stop next?”
Extricating the United States from the war, in other words, will require the administration to abruptly pivot away from claiming the very future of global peace and democracy hinges on Russian defeat — or, as President Biden said while visiting Poland this February, that “what literally is at stake is not just Ukraine, it’s freedom.”
After a year of such talk, the White House will have to suddenly persuade the public that the stakes involved are, in fact, substantially more modest than what it’s been claiming.
Yet such maximalist talk is now conventional thinking in the U.S. political landscape. Republican presidential contender Chris Christie recently met with strong agreement from the liberal hosts of MSNBC’s Morning Joe when he charged that, should the United States “cut and run” from Ukraine, it would trigger a Chinese invasion of Taiwan (which, he argued, would inevitably necessitate sending “American men and women” to fight Chinese troops) and lead currently friendly governments in the Middle East to abandon the United States for China.
It’s not a leap to hear in these words — and those of NATO officials — the echoes of the Cold War-era “domino theory,” the discredited doctrine that led the United States to get pulled into the disastrous Vietnam war.
Even if officials don’t truly believe U.S. and European security is on the line, it’s clear something else might be: The prestige and credibility of the United States and NATO. Just as the support for Ukraine has re-energized and, at least publicly, unified the alliance, bringing the war to a close after a failed offensive and with Ukrainian control over its territory far from restored, could have the opposite effect.
Worse, any Russian successes — whether real or perceived — could be viewed as politically unacceptable or even humiliating for NATO’s leadership, along with exposing divisions that have until now been largely suppressed. Fear over loss of prestige and credibility was one of the factors that kept U.S. involvement in Vietnam going and going, as it did for Iraq, Afghanistan and other wars.
Meanwhile, reporting suggests that, rightly or wrongly, the president views the outcome on the battlefield as important to his chances of reelection next year. Yet recent polling has a majority of Americans, including 71 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of independents, opposing further military aid to Ukraine, while it’s Democrats that are most supportive.
This may put the White House in a difficult bind: Move to end the war on terms less favorable to Ukraine than earlier promised, and the administration will face an onslaught of criticism not unlike that which followed the Afghanistan withdrawal, including from his own base; but keep the war going in the hope of later success, and the public mood may further sour on the war, hurting his reelection chances anyway. In addition, as Poland’s build-up of troops on its border with Belarus reminds us, a prolonged war carries umpteen chances for the kind of escalation that could force NATO states to decide whether or not to make good on their Article V commitments.
One thing is for sure: The longer the administration waits to lay the groundwork for ending the war diplomatically, both publicly and behind the scenes, the harder it will be to do, with the steepest costs borne by the Ukrainian people. Let’s hope that if a plan B does exist, the White House is simply keeping it close to the chest.
Branko Marcetic is a staff writer with Jacobin magazine and the author of Yesterday's Man: the Case Against Joe Biden. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Guardian, In These Times, and others.
Journalists in the press room watch as Republican presidential candidate and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and fellow candidate and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy discuss an issue during the fourth Republican candidates' debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign hosted by NewsNation at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, U.S., December 6, 2023. REUTERS/Alyssa Pointer
It's as if the Ukraine War has all but ended — at least for American politics.
If the Republican debates had occurred last year, they would have been consumed with talk over whether Vladimir Putin was readying to roll across Europe and how weak President Biden was for not giving Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky our best tanks, our most powerful fighter aircraft, the longest range missiles we had — maybe even access to nukes.
But Zelensky wasn’t anywhere near the debate stage in Alabama last night, his name not even invoked. Fitting, we guess, since the Senate failed to pass an aid package yesterday that would have sent another $60 billion to Ukraine. This, despite administration claims that the war effort is literally running out of money. Biden even took to the airwaves Wednesday to warn of a NATO war if the funding wasn’t approved.
Republicans have been souring on the aid for months now, which might account for Ukraine’s diminished importance in the conversation. It was outweighed last night by the conflict in Israel, which in itself only drew three questions: Do we send in special forces to get the eight remaining American hostages back from Hamas? What kind of punishment could be slapped on university presidents who allow “pro Hamas” protests on campus? And how do we “get” Iran for purportedly being behind it all?
Ukraine was wielded, albeit briefly, as a blunt instrument. At the very least it gave us the tiniest of glimpses into the competing world views of the hawks on the dais (Chris Christie and Nikki Haley) and their chief agitant, Vivek Ramaswamy.
Haley raised the issue (without being asked about it) by fitting it into her usual stream of Domino Theory conciousness:
“The problem is, you have to see that all of these are related. If you look at the fact Russia was losing that war with Ukraine, Putin had hit rock bottom, they had raised the draft age to 65. He was getting drones and missiles — drones from Iran, missiles from North Korea. And so what happened when he hit rock bottom, all of a sudden his other friend, Iran, Hamas goes and invades Israel and butchers those people on Putin's birthday. There is no one happier right now than Putin because all of the attention America had on Ukraine suddenly went to Israel. And that's what they were hoping is going to happen. We need to make sure that we have full clarity, that there is a reason again that Taiwanese want to help Ukrainians because they know if Ukraine wins China won't invade Taiwan. There's a reason the Ukrainians want to help Israelis because they know that if Iran wins, Russia wins. These are all connected. But what wins all of that is a strong America, not a weak America. And that's what Joe Biden has given us.”
Vivek Ramaswamy responds:
“I want to say one thing about that tie to Ukraine. Foreign policy experience is not the same as foreign policy wisdom. I was the first person to say we need a reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. Now a lot of the neocons are quietly coming along to that position with the exceptions of Nikki Haley and Joe Biden, who still support this, what I believe, is pointless war in Ukraine. …One thing that Joe Biden and Nikki Haley have in common is that neither of them could even state for you three provinces in eastern Ukraine that they want to send our troops to actually fight for. … So reject this myth that they've been selling you that somebody had a cup of coffee stint at the UN and then makes eight million bucks after has real foreign policy experience. It takes an outsider to see this through.”
To which Chris Christie retorted:
“Let me just say something here, you know, his (Ramaswamy’s) reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. He made it clear. Give them all the land they've already stolen. Promise Putin you'll never put Ukraine in Russia, and then trust Putin not to have a relationship with China.” (Christie then essentially calls Ramaswamy a liar for suggesting he never said that.)
"These people are lying. These are the same people who told you about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify that invasion didn't know the first thing about it if they send thousands of our sons and daughters to go die. The same people who told you the same in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is still in charge. Twenty years later, seven trillion of our national debt due to these toxic neocons. You can put lipstick on a Dick Cheney, it is still a fascist neocon today."
That was basically it. After $130 billion in U.S. taxpayer money since 2022, most of which we are being told has been spent in Ukraine. After hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians dead and maimed, Ukraine’s economy in such a state that the West has to prop it up, and NATO pledging more troops and weapons it doesn’t even seem to have, the issue was afforded a scant few minutes, and used only in the broadest of ways to pound each other. Gone was even the ghost of the old argument that the free world was at stake or that our obligation to Ukrainians was a moral imperative. It’s been reduced to a political cudgel, which is the first step to being memory holed in Washington. It happened to Iraq and Afghanistan in prior president debates 2012 and 2016.
The gist seems to be, maybe if we ignore it, it will just go away?
Discussions of Pentagon spending in Washington routinely ignore the fact that at $886 billion for next year, the military budget is already at one of the highest levels since World War II. With better management and a more realistic strategy, that sum would be far more than is needed to provide an effective defense of the United States and its allies.
Unfortunately, the Pentagon, the arms industry, and their allies in Congress have failed to make a careful assessment of America’s defense needs. Instead, they’re pushing an ill-considered plan to supersize the weapons production base at the expense of other urgent national needs.
The main argument used by Pentagon budget boosters is that the United States is in danger of falling behind China in developing and deploying next-generation systems, like unpiloted vehicles controlled by artificial intelligence. This approach would also include taxpayer subsidies for the building of new weapons factories, which could lead to a permanent expansion of the arms sector. Doing all of this could push the Pentagon budget well over $1 trillion in the next few years, a huge and unnecessary spending binge that would further militarize our economy at the expense of investments in addressing major challenges like climate change and outbreaks of disease.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks unveiled the Pentagon’s new approach in a speech to the National Defense Industrial Association in August of this year:
“To stay ahead [of China], we’re going to create a new state of the art… leveraging attritable, autonomous systems in all domains which are less expensive, put fewer people at risk, and can be changed, upgraded, or improved with substantially shorter lead times," she said. "We’ll counter the PLA’s [People’s Liberation Army’s] with mass of our own, but ours will be harder to plan for, harder to hit, and harder to beat.”
Building new systems, based on complex new technologies, able to be produced in large numbers in short order would be a daunting task. It would run counter to the record of the Pentagon and the arms industry over the past five decades, which is rife with examples of cost overruns and schedule delays. The Pentagon’s dream of new high-tech systems that are affordable and quick to produce is unlikely to be fulfilled.
A forthcoming reportfrom the Pentagon on the nation’s “defense industrial strategy” suggests that the solution is to fund smaller, more nimble arms firms, because “the traditional defense contractors in the [defense industrial base] would be challenged to respond to modern conflict at the velocity, scale, and flexibility necessary to meet the dynamic requirements of a major modern conflict.”
Regardless of who takes up the challenge of building next generation systems, the notion that new technology can solve the array of security challenges facing America is a dubious proposition. Every generation brings hopes of a new, miracle technological fix that will allegedly dramatically increase U.S. military capabilities. From the “electronic battlefield” in Vietnam to the “revolution in military affairs” that was touted in the 1990s, this approach has produced some systems that are more accurate and better networked.
But the existence of this technology has not enabled the United States to actually win wars — in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. That’s because technology cannot overcome a determined adversary engaged in irregular warfare on its home turf, and that the goal of reshaping entire societies by force was wildly unrealistic in the first place. The idea that emerging technologies will do any better and increase the ability to “win” a war with China is misguided at best. War with China would be an unprecedented disaster for all concerned, and the goal of U.S. policy should be to prevent such a conflict, not spin out scenarios for “winning” a war against a nuclear-armed power.
In addition, contrary to the claims of the Pentagon and the arms industry, China’s military is not 10 feet tall, nor is its arms industry. As I note in a new paper for the Brown University Costs of War project, however one chooses to measure it, the U.S. spends two to three times what China spends on its military. The U.S. also has large advantages in numbers of basic systems, including nuclear weapons, aircraft carriers, advanced combat aircraft, nuclear-powered submarines, and transport aircraft.
In fact, as Dan Grazier of the Project on Government Oversight has noted, China’s military strategy is “inherently defensive.” When it comes to emerging military technology, the relative strengths of the U.S. and China are harder to assess given a lack of transparency on research into these areas. But the best course is not to run an arms race with China in the development of AI-driven robotic weapons. As Michael Klare has noted in a report for the Arms Control Association, there are real concerns that “AI-enabled systems may fail in unpredictable ways, causing unintended human slaughter or uncontrolled escalation.”
The best hope of fending off a war between the U.S. and China over Taiwan rests with smart diplomacy, not “smart” weaponry. A good start would be to revive the “One China” policy, which calls, among other things, for China to commit itself to a peaceful resolution of the question of Taiwan’s status, and for the U.S. to forswear support for Taiwan’s formal independence and maintain only informal relations with the Taiwanese government.That approach has kept the peace in the Taiwan Strait for five decades.
There is no good reason to expand the U.S. arms production base to accelerate the development of dangerous, next generation weapons systems. But unless Congress and the public act soon to rein in these efforts, we may soon enter a brave new world that will make the current security landscape look benign by comparison.
To punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, Western governments froze the assets of the Russian Central Bank, Russian financial persons, and officials in the amount of approximately $330 billion. They are now seeking to use these funds to help pay for the reconstruction of Ukraine and help compensate for some of the enormous costs incurred by the West in this war.
From the outset, the seizure of these assets has raised serious legal concerns that have made their use to fund reparations both difficult and controversial. The ensuing legal battles will no doubt last decades, while doing nothing to actually help people in Ukraine. Moreover, since most Russians find the idea of using their purloined assets to serve Western geopolitical objectives “highly offensive,” it will add yet another body blow to a relationship already fraught with recriminations.
I would therefore like to present an alternative approach that, while it may not satisfy the lust for vengeance, might actually serve to promote both reconstruction and reconciliation.
Expanding on ideas that Ted Snider and I recently proposed for a negotiated settlement in Ukraine, I suggest that seized Russian assets be restored to Russia, de jure. This would be an essential first step in restoring the faith of investors in the legal underpinnings of the international financial system. Beyond that, de facto, and as an essential part of healing the wounds of war as quickly as possible, Russia should then be invited to invest these resources in rebuilding Ukraine.
Historically, Russia has always been Ukraine’s largest investor, dwarfing the EU. Dmitry Medvedev, then Russia’s prime minister, put the cumulative value of the tariff waivers, trade preferences, and gas subsidies that Ukraine received from Russia between 1991 and 2014 at roughly $250 billion. Over this same period, Western financial institutions promised Ukraine $62 billion in aid, but actually disbursed less than half this amount. The loss of Russian investment was thus a terrible blow to the Ukrainian economy, especially since comparable Western investments never materialized.
Since 2014, Russia has committed significant resources to the reconstruction of Donbass and Crimea, and is making ambitious plans to do so again in the newly annexed territories of Ukraine — a strong indication of its interest in investing in the Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine. Conversely, Russia is as unlikely to want to rebuild those regions of Ukraine that are openly antagonistic to it, as the West has been to rebuild Donbass and Crimea. But while Russia and the West already have plans to invest in their preferred parts of Ukraine, it has proven difficult to raise the enormous sums of money needed — by some estimates, as much as one trillion dollars.
This problem would be much easier to solve if the task of reconstruction were regarded as a joint endeavor. Perhaps as part of a final and comprehensive peace settlement, a UN fund could be set up for the reconstruction of Ukraine as a whole, under which both Russian and Western aid and investments could be managed and coordinated — a good model, potentially, for post-war cooperation in other areas. A symbiotic division of labor might then ensue, whereby the West could use its funds to rebuild western and central Ukraine, while Russia could use its funds to rebuild eastern and southern Ukraine.
This proposal stems from my conviction that any successful Ukrainian reconstruction program should conceive of assistance to Ukraine not as a vehicle for punishing or manipulating Russia, but rather for healing and reintegration. This approach should be applied first within Ukraine itself, to help heal its persistent regional divisions (which are still very deep, as President Zelensky himself recently acknowledged), and eventually expanded to encompass Ukraine, Russia, and all of Europe.
Since Ukraine is, in any case, destined to remain an object of geopolitical competition, it is important to find creative ways for this competition to manifest itself in constructive, rather than destructive ways. If, as both sides claim, they are competing for the hearts and minds of the people, then let them compete in generosity.
Some might object that such a division of labor would create mutually exclusive economic dependencies that could lead, ultimately, to Ukraine’s partition. I would argue, however, that such a partition is far more likely under the current approach to post-war reconstruction, which envisages using Western funds to assist only those regions of Ukraine that are under Kyiv’s control. By contrast, if cross-border trade is allowed to serve its natural function of encouraging mutual interaction, partition would become far less likely. It is worth recalling that it was Kyiv’s refusal to resume full commercial and banking ties with Donbass, despite these being a key stipulation in the Minsk-2 Accords, that contributed to the grievances that led in turn to the present conflict.
But the internal re-knitting of Ukraine through commerce would be only the first of many potential benefits. The positive impact of the restoration of trade ties would soon be felt over the entire European continent, especially if Ukraine (or at least its most damaged regions) were afforded a special economic status that allowed both EU and Russian/CIS goods to pass freely between Europe and Eurasia.
Of course, extremists on both sides will immediately object to such a compromise. Those who say, “punish Russia, come what may,” will argue that justice must triumph over all other considerations. Meanwhile, those who cry, “to Hell with the West, our cause is just,” will argue that sovereignty must prevail at all costs. But those who can tolerate some untidiness in their world should welcome such a compromise, since it offers both immediate and tangible assistance to those who need it most—the long-suffering people of Ukraine.