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US contractors in Ukraine: Another 'red line' crossing?

US contractors in Ukraine: Another 'red line' crossing?

This is going in the wrong direction, Mr. President

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The Biden administration is reportedly considering allowing US military contractors to set up shop inside Ukrainian borders, with the aim of strengthening Kyiv's ability to maintain and repair weapons systems that Washington has provided to help it fight off Russian aggression.

It is too soon to tell whether such a move, if enacted, would bring the United States closer to having its own troops participate in the war effort more directly, at least in some fashion. President Biden has, wisely, made it clear that he will not send US troops to Ukraine. But these latest reports nonetheless highlight the tensions — and risks — at the heart of the administration's current strategy.

Undoubtedly, the Kremlin would view a full-fledged contingent of Western troops on Ukrainian soil as intolerable, and it is difficult to assess the precise threshold at which Moscow will consider one of its red lines to be crossed. Irrespective of the purpose for which they are being sent, a Western military presence in Ukraine risks establishing "facts on the ground" which would block Moscow's ability to realize its war aims. (The latter have less to do with territory and more to do with Ukraine's security orientation and the concomitant implications for foreign troop presence on its territory.)

Russia is all too familiar with such a strategy, having imposed "facts on the ground" itself in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 in an effort to block both countries' paths into NATO. The result would almost certainly be an escalation of the conflict that would directly threaten the security of Western countries.

The Biden administration has thus far carefully — and gradually — scaled up its military assistance to Ukraine. The benefit of this approach has been the ability to probe Russian red lines, seeing how Moscow reacts to the deployment of each new weapons system or each new Western green light.

This is certainly a better approach than the one proposed by hawks to surge military equipment into Ukrainian hands to ensure Kyiv's "victory" at all costs, ignoring both the risk of military escalation and Ukraine's manpower deficit.

However, Biden's strategy still faces a dilemma: with Russia making gains under status quo conditions, and a scaling down of support being unthinkable due to the high stakes identified by the administration (i.e., nothing less than the survival of the "rules-based international order" itself), the only politically palatable option left is to escalate Western involvement and go further down the rabbit hole. And if rising populism in Western societies is any indication, this option will only remain politically palatable for so long.

There is a fourth option, however, and it is to embrace genuine diplomacy. Yesterday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with his newly appointed Russian counterpart, the first call between American and Russian defense ministers in over a year. But keeping lines of communication open, while necessary, is insufficient. There is no substitute for finally resolving the question of Ukraine's security status to the mutual satisfaction (or mutual dissatisfaction) of Moscow, Kyiv and the West.

The forthcoming NATO summit in Washington will no doubt make clear once again that Ukraine has no realistic prospects of joining the alliance, irrespective of the promise made in Bucharest in 2008 and endlessly repeated ever since. Indeed, the fact that allies have been dragging their feet on this question for the past 16 years means that any extension of Article 5 to Kyiv would likely not be credible. Moscow could easily choose to test any Western commitment to come to Ukraine's defense, forcing Washington and its allies into a binary choice between starting World War III or undermining the credibility of allied deterrence across the board.

Any further territorial gains are unlikely to prove more beneficial to Ukraine than the economic and human costs of continued war. Nor have more than two years of war turned Russia into any less of a threat to Europe or Ukraine. One might hope for Western sanctions to bite even further and for the Russian economy to overheat over the coming years, but hope is not a strategy.

The status quo approach has left Ukraine in a position where it will likely have to settle for terms worse than those proposed in Istanbul in the spring of 2022, and certainly worse than those on the table in Minsk a decade ago.

No Ukrainian president wishing to keep his job will easily swallow such a bitter pill, but this does not mean that the process of rebuilding some kind of pan-European security order cannot begin through discrete dialogue, even as the fighting continues.

Pixel Shot/Sutterstock

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