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Diplomacy Watch: Washington’s ‘wishful thinking’ on Ukraine

Diplomacy Watch: Washington’s ‘wishful thinking’ on Ukraine

Russia hawks have no shortage of unrealistic assumptions underlying their views on the conflict.

Analysis | QiOSK

The Washington Post editorial board declared on Wednesday that the United States must steel itself for a “long struggle in Ukraine.”

“No end to the carnage is in sight, and calls for a negotiated solution are wishful thinking at this point,” the Post argued. “As [Russian President Vladimir] Putin invests in Russia’s war economy, he shows no signs of giving up his fantasy of Russian neo-imperial glory.”

After 18 months of grinding war, there is indeed reason to think that the war will continue far into the future, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest American predictions that Ukraine could win in the near term were overly optimistic. But, in its endorsement of a long-term approach to the conflict, the Post leaves out all the “wishful thinking” on which a theory of decisive Ukrainian victory relies.

One such rosy assumption is that Ukraine can continue fighting more or less indefinitely so long as it continues to enjoy firm backing from the West. That claim ignores evidence pointing to high casualty rates among Ukrainian troops, not to mention a recent New York Times report suggesting that 70,000 Ukrainian soldiers have died and an additional 100,000 have been injured since the war began, according to U.S. officials.

While the Post does cite the Times’ reporting, it misses one of the piece’s most important revelations: Casualty data suggests that the war has escalated dramatically over the past year. While total casualties for the first nine months of the war were estimated at 200,000, an additional 300,000 soldiers have been killed or injured since. In other words, the rate of combined casualties went from 20,000 per month to more than 33,000 per month in the war’s current phase.

Ukrainian leaders have acknowledged this sharp uptick in casualties and jettisoned Western tactics in order to slow the blood-letting, leading some U.S. officials to accuse Kyiv of being excessively “casualty averse,” as the Times notes in its article. 

Macabre undertones aside, it’s worth considering that Ukraine, which has refused to share casualty data with the U.S., likely has a better picture of the demographic realities that it faces in its battle with far-larger Russia than Washington does. Officials in Kyiv are also more acutely aware that their efforts to conscript new soldiers have been increasingly undermined by widespread corruption and draft dodging.

Another bit of magical thinking put forward by the Post is the claim that, if Washington had simply moved faster and supplied Ukraine with better weapons (and more of them), then the current offensive would have surely been a success. The corollary to this line of thinking is that the U.S. simply needs to increase the quality and quantity of its military aid, and battlefield success will ensue.

But, as Branko Marcetic recently noted in RS, this theory goes against the broad view of military experts, who argue that “no weapon would be a ‘magic bullet’ against the dug-in Russian defenses.” It also ignores the political realities facing the Biden administration. The U.S. has already given Ukraine more than $43 billion in military aid since the war began, and Congress is now considering a new spending package that includes an additional $13 billion in weapons for Kyiv. 

This generous support represents one of the largest security assistance programs in American history, but recent polling suggests that voters have become increasingly skeptical of the need to continue it, raising the specter that Ukraine could factor into President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign.

Other prominent examples of supposedly pro-Ukraine magical thinking include the widely-held belief that Kyiv will emerge from the conflict as a strong, democratic state, as well as the dubious theory that Ukraine’s stalwart defense is the only thing stopping Russia from attacking NATO directly.

“In the event that Mr. Putin succeeds in subjugating Ukraine, there is reason to believe his next targets would include NATO front-line members that the United States is obligated by treaty to defend — not only with weapons but also with troops,” the Post argued, without deigning to explain why a war-weary Russia would like its chances in a fight against the world’s most powerful military alliance.

Of course, none of this is to say that a diplomatic push would be guaranteed to succeed. But, while the U.S. continues to argue that there is no partner for peace in Russia, it’s hard to ignore the fact that, as far as the public record shows, Washington has yet to make any attempt to tie its strong support for Kyiv with a clear plan to get Moscow to the negotiating table. Perhaps it’s time to give a new kind of wishful thinking a try.

In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:

— A growing number of U.S. officials have started to wonder whether Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was right to call for peace negotiations with Russia last November, when Ukraine had momentum on the battlefield and fighting was set to slow due to wintery conditions, according to Politico. “We may have missed a window to push for earlier talks,” an anonymous official told Politico. “Milley had a point.” Notably, the official added a caveat that few policymakers believe Russia has been serious about peace talks at any point since the war began. And National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan played down the increasing concerns about a potential quagmire on Tuesday, telling reporters that Kyiv’s slow advances in the east are part of a “methodical, systematic” retaking of territory.

— Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Sweden, Denmark and Greece over the weekend in a trip aimed at shoring up diplomatic and military support among Ukraine’s smaller European backers, according to the Guardian. Zelensky secured a promise of a new military aid package from Croatia’s prime minister following a meeting in Athens and posed for photos with the Danish prime minister in an F-16, symbolizing Copenhagen’s decision to give Kyiv 19 of the advanced fighter jets.

— Ukraine is in talks with insurers to create a safe shipping corridor through the Black Sea following Russia’s decision last month to rip up an agreement that allowed Ukraine to export its grain via the waterway, according to the Wall Street Journal. The tentative plan would have Kyiv take on some of the liability for any damage caused to grain ships, which would bring down the cost of insurance for shipping companies to a more manageable level. The vessels would travel via a new shipping lane that starts in Odessa and hugs Ukraine’s shore until it reaches parts of the sea belonging to NATO member states Romania and Bulgaria.

U.S. State Department news:

The State Department did not hold a press briefing this week.

Analysis | QiOSK
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