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Blinken rocks out on a road to nowhere

Blinken rocks out on a road to nowhere

The secretary of state delivered remarks to Ukraine this week that paint a rosy scenario defying reality

Analysis | Europe

Last night Secretary of State Blinken played Neil Young’s bitterly ironic protest song, “Rockin' in the Free World” in a Kyiv bar. His speech Tuesday laying out the U.S. plan for a “Free, Secure, and Prosperous Future for Ukraine” was full of ironies as well, although he’d prefer that we be oblivious to those too.

After almost two and a half years of war, the speech announced a “stay the course” approach for Washington’s Ukraine policy. Rather than use the recent $60 billion aid package to lay the groundwork for a feasible plan to end the conflict, the speech promised continued U.S. support for unconditional victory and continued efforts to bring Ukraine into NATO, one of the issues that helped to trigger the war in the first place.

One irony is that Ukraine won’t be permitted to join NATO as long as the war continues. The U.S. and other NATO countries — which could bring Ukraine into the alliance today if they wanted to — won’t make a defense commitment that requires them to risk nuclear conflict by putting their own troops on the Ukrainian front lines and fighting Russia directly. President Biden began his State of the Union speech a few months ago by comparing the war in Ukraine to World War II and calling it critical to the future of freedom, but immediately afterward hastened to assure the public that “there are no American soldiers at war in Ukraine. And I am determined to keep it that way.”

Without a massive and risky escalation by outside powers, the best case scenario for Ukraine seems to be a bloody stalemate into the foreseeable future. Ukrainian territorial control has barely budged since their initial advances against the Russian invasion almost two years ago in summer 2022, even as hundreds of thousands of casualties have been incurred by both sides. U.S. officials admit that it won’t be possible for Ukraine to even attempt offensive operations until 2025, and even then, there is no guarantee that a new offensive won’t just repeat the bloody debacle of Ukraine’s 2023 counter-offensive.

Blinken tried to paint the picture of a thriving and prosperous Ukraine even as the war continued. But he had to distort the tragic situation on the ground to do it. He touted a 5% growth in Ukraine’s economy in 2023, but without mentioning that the Ukrainian economy is still 25% smaller than it was before the war, when it was already one of the poorest countries in Europe. And this economic growth is only achieved by massive infusions of foreign aid — the $115 billion committed by the EU and U.S. to Ukraine so far this year is more than two thirds the size of Ukraine’s own GDP.

Blinken’s speech claimed a sustainable Ukrainian prosperity could be achieved by “the growth of Ukraine’s burgeoning defense industry.” But Russia is hardly likely to permit Ukraine to become a defense production superpower while the two countries remain at war. Whatever you think of arms sales as the foundation for national prosperity, Ukraine can hardly build a globally competitive arms production industry under the disadvantage of having to shoot down a constant rain of Russian missiles aimed at its industrial plants.

The reality is that as long as the war continues Ukraine’s future is as a heavily subsidized battleground for a proxy conflict between the U.S. and EU and Russia. The kind of economic opportunities created by that future are grim at best. In a press conference later in the day, Blinken touted his visit to a Ukrainian “company producing world-leading prosthetics.” No doubt the company is world class, since it has to supply the demand from fifty thousand Ukrainian amputees (and counting) created by the ongoing conflict.

The $60 billion in aid offered by the U.S. is expensive in an absolute sense, but Americans barely notice it against the background of a $27 trillion economy. It’s Ukraine that bears the true cost of the war. With elections in Ukraine canceled for the foreseeable future as the conflict continues there are few mechanisms for the Ukrainian public to call for an alternative path.

We now know that there were serious Russian-Ukrainian peace talks taking place two years ago, soon after the Russian invasion, when Putin realized that his attempt at regime change in Ukraine had been thwarted. Those talks failed in part because Western powers refused to support the combination of compromises and practical security guarantees that Ukraine needed to make a peace agreement work. If the U.S. truly wants to support Ukraine’s future, we need to break from our current policies and champion a practical path to peace today.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken performs "Rockin' in the Free World" with members of The 1999 band at the Barman Dictat bar as he visits Kyiv, Ukraine, on May 14, 2024. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/Pool via REUTERS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

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