There has been a lot of hype, language that has been used recently about the war in Ukraine. The message being sent is that the United States is committed to the long term and will not abandon its friends to a brutal aggressor like Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It’s a poignant show of solidarity, including last week’s visit by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to the White House, especially as it comes against the backdrop of 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers and 40,000 civilians killed or wounded, according to the Pentagon, since Russia invaded Ukraine in February. . .
“We will stay with you as long as it takes,” President Biden told Zelensky.
But does he mean it? And even if it does, can the United States be trusted to do it?
Nicholas Goldberg served 11 years as editor of the editorial page and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and the Sunday Opinion section.
For this reason, it should do we encourage the war indefinitely, helping Ukraine prolong its struggle in the hope of a decisive military victory?
The war in Ukraine raises complicated questions. Of course, we want to support our allies, who are fighting fiercely to protect their country and their territorial integrity against foreign invaders. But it’s unclear how long “as long as it takes” will take, or whether the US government and its NATO allies will actually stick with it.
Ukraine has persevered, defying the odds and expectations, for nearly a year, fueling the hopes of some that it can actually prevail on the battlefield. It has pushed the Russians, who no doubt expected an easy victory, back from Kyiv, out of the Kharkiv region and the city of Kherson.
But what happens? Some analysts believe that Ukraine can and will drive Russia out of Ukraine entirely. Others worry that the cost in dollars and lives is becoming unacceptably high, that the threat of a dangerous military escalation is growing, or that the Russians could turn the tide of the war.
The latter group believes it is time to think seriously about negotiating peace.
I’m torn, like a lot of people. I totally agree that Putin is dangerous and irresponsible, and I would like to see his army kicked out. Occupying the territory of another country by force is unacceptable. And I am not deaf to the argument that if the world today allows this behavior, it encourages Putin to go further and others to emulate him.
The ideal message to send is that we are united in our irrevocable commitment to oppose Russian atrocities and imperial conquest.
But I know us.
It’s all very well for Biden to say we’re with you “as long as it takes,” but Biden is in no position to make that promise; faces re-election in 2024. Moreover, history suggests that Americans are no inclined to stay involved indefinitely in distant crises if costs grow too high.
Republicans, who will take control of the House of Representatives next week, are already complaining that Ukraine should not receive a “blank check.” (With the signing of the budget bill this week, US aid to Ukraine since February will reach more than $100 billion.)
NATO allies in Europe may also be reeling, as war costs rise, gas prices rise in winter and millions of refugees arrive.
For Ukraine and its supporters in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, deciding when to go to the negotiating table to try to end the military phase of the conflict is a matter of pragmatism, strategy and timing.
Many factors must be considered. Which side is in the strongest position on the battlefield? What benefits from the continuation of the fight? Is a decisive Ukrainian victory possible or could there be a reversal of fortune? Could the war spread geographically or escalate from conventional to nuclear weapons? How committed is NATO? How long will the Ukrainians be willing to fight, as the casualties mount? Will Russia be serious about negotiating and can it be trusted to keep its word?
And are there settlement terms that meet both parties’ minimum requirements?
Charles A. Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, says that even if we help Ukraine, it’s time to think seriously about what a negotiated end might look like.
“So far the administration has gotten it right: giving the Ukrainians the weapons they need to defend themselves, hitting the Russians hard with sanctions and boosting NATO’s eastern flank,” he says. “But I think the prospect of a war continuing into the indefinite future runs the risk of escalation because you just don’t know what the Russians are going to do.”
(On Monday, Ukraine launched its third strike this month deep into Russian territory, apparently unconcerned about the possibility of escalation.)
Kupchan says a Russian withdrawal from every inch of Ukrainian territory, including Crimea, which it occupied for eight years before the February invasion, is neither a realistic nor a necessary starting point for negotiations. And he believes that Ukraine should consider abandoning its bid to become a member of NATO.
There have apparently been no meaningful negotiations for months, and Ukrainian officials said this week there won’t be until Moscow withdraws its troops and faces a war crimes tribunal. Russian officials, including Putin over the weekend, insist they are open to talks. But Russia has put forward unreasonable conditions – including accepting its illegal annexation of four Ukrainian territories in late September – and US officials doubt they will negotiate in good faith.
The world is left with a terrible status quo. Ukraine is fighting fiercely as if the war – and allied aid – would continue indefinitely. Russia continues to destroy Ukrainian towns and cities, and may be planning a further escalation, with little sign of a dent in Putin’s power.
We are left searching – so far in vain – for swarms, escalators and mutually acceptable compromises that will end the carnage and ensure a free and independent Ukraine. It is not time to cut our support to Ukraine, but it is time for both sides to start laying the groundwork for talks.