It is in the interests of Ukraine and the West to end this war as soon as possible | Christopher S Chivvis
Hawks in Washington continue to pressure Joe Biden to get even deeper into the war in Ukraine. They want more military equipment for Kyiv and more maximalist military and political goals, which range from completely push back Russia of Ukraine, to cut out russiato impeachment of President Putin himself. They are right to say that Russia should lose the war and that Ukraine should win. But they are wrong about how to get there.
Ukrainian and Russian forces are now engaged in a slow and bitter war. Both suffered significant losses, but Ukrainian casualties were particularly high. In the coming weeks, Russia could consolidate its position in the eastern region of Donbass, Ukraine could recover a little more territory or the fighting could stop.
I am tempted to hope that Ukraine will continue to fight at least until it regains its February borders, and perhaps beyond, recovering all the territory it lost in the war of 2014. But the former intelligence analyst in me sees risks everywhere. Under the best of circumstances, regaining significant amounts of territory will almost certainly require a long and protracted fight. Risk of escalation would be ubiquitous. The costs for America and Europe would increase.
And that would be particularly bad for Ukraine. The fact is that Ukraine will not win this war with an interminable and exhausting struggle to recover a few more hectares of territory from Russia. Ukraine’s real victory is not on the battlefield, but in its post-conflict renaissance. The earlier it starts, the better.
Ukraine wins by seizing the opportunity, while it still can, to immediately begin a massive Western-funded reconstruction effort that accelerates its political and economic integration in Europe, strengthens its security and accelerates it on the way to a democratic future. Ukraine wins by demonstrating to the world the extraordinary resilience of political and economic liberalism and starting this process as soon as possible, not five years from now when the country is destroyed and the world has moved on. Ukraine wins by preventing Russia from extinguishing its independence, which so far has been miraculously preserved, but remained in danger until the fighting stopped. Ukraine wins by channeling the national energy generated by the war towards a better peace and a stronger and more prosperous nation.
Western support for Ukraine has so far been extraordinary, reaching levels almost no one could have expected just days before the war began. But today’s high levels of support won’t last forever. food and fuel costs are skyrocketing around the world. NATO was unified during the first 100 days of the war, but over time divisions will emerge. Ukraine’s cause is widely seen as just today, but the longer the war drags on, the greater the risk that moral clarity will fade.
Ukraine should prefer to spend the goodwill it currently enjoys on rebuilding its economy, infrastructure and democracy, rather than buying more weapons. Reconstruction is already a colossal undertaking which, under the best of conditions, will take a decade or more and require hundreds of billions of dollars in Western aid. The longer the war lasts, the more Ukraine will be destroyed and the more it will cost. Meanwhile, a protracted war increases the risk of deepening corruption and further centralization and personalization of power in Kyiv, both of which have plagued Ukraine in the past and run counter to the primary objective of strengthening Ukrainian democracy.
Certainly, de facto acceptance of a divided Ukraine, even if not de jure, means a hostile and potentially disruptive Russia on the border. This obviously presents challenges for Ukraine’s reconstruction, especially if Russia controls Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea. But a Russian presence on the Ukrainian border is inevitable without a coup in Moscow or a wider war; the transition to reconstruction now presents fewer challenges than an endless war that sees many more cities in Ukraine razed to the ground and millions of its citizens living as refugees abroad.
It will be difficult to convince Ukrainian leaders that this is their best option, now that their nation has suffered so badly at the hands of Putin. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is unlikely to see his country’s long-term interest in a prosperous European future unless the United States and Europe use the influence they have as a lifeline. economic and military rescue of Ukraine to encourage it to do so.
Accepting a limited victory will also require diplomatic leadership from Washington to overcome resistance in some Allied capitals, and commentators who are eager for revenge on the Kremlin. Indeed, in the zero-sum logic that prevails in many circles, Ukraine can only win if Russia receives a humiliating and decisive blow. Unquestionably, Putin will have to pay dearly for the havoc he has wreaked on Ukraine and the resulting damage to European and global security. Justice also requires it. But the sanctions, diplomatic ostracism and heavy losses suffered by the Russian military are real costs that will increase over time. The Russian elites, meanwhile, have seen their assets seized and their doors slammed in their faces around the world. These costs will plague Russia and its leaders for years to come.
Perhaps the most famous strategic saying is that war should be a continuation of politics by other means. Western leaders should therefore remember: Ukraine is not winning this war on the military battlefield. Neither does the west. It wins when Ukraine becomes a healthy and prosperous democracy. It is already a challenge. A prolonged war will not make things easier.