Ukraine’s Interests Are Not Our Own
Monday Notes
Ukraine’s Interests Are Not Our Own
That’s why we should help them try to win their war, even if it’s a long shot.
Published on: Apr 18, 2022  

As we approach the two month mark of the Ukraine War, it is time to take stock. There have been a lot of predictions, both pessimistic and optimistic, as the fighting has gone on. The most pessimistic predictions have come up quite short, and Ukrainian heroism on the battlefield, bolstered by Western military aid, is now fueling a round of optimism about Ukraine being able to "win" its conflict with Russia. Could Russia's army be completely routed? What seemed like a crazy fantasy weeks ago is at least plausible today.

The pessimistic prediction was that Russian troops would quickly roll the Ukrainian defenders, at worst besieging Kyiv and successfully occupying the entire east of the country, up to the Dniepr River, and at best toppling the government outright and installing a puppet in its stead. I recall thinking in the run-up to the war that this seemed like an awfully ambitious agenda, but was assured by people getting the briefings that this was, indeed, what Russia was poised to do. Not being a military analyst, I shrugged and wrote off my misgivings. If serious analysts thought it was likely, maybe it was. And surely the Kremlin had reason to think it could pull such a maneuver off.

Our pessimistic prediction was, of course, Russia's optimistic prediction. In retrospect, it appears that the commanding heights of the Kremlin—Putin himself and an unknowable number of sycophantic advisors around him—fully believed this. More telling is that it appears they never told anyone lower-ranked of their plans. Testimonies from captured Russian soldiers suggest, anecdotally, that they were given the sketchiest of briefings before being sent in to fight. Many appear to have thought that this was just yet another routine military exercise. This, incidentally, suggests that Western intelligence was based either on signals intelligence, or even human intelligence, directly connected to Putin himself. We wouldn't have known they were planning such an invasion, as my contacts insisted they were, just by listening in to the chatter of troops arrayed on Ukraine's periphery. We must have had unprecedented access to Putin's most intimate deliberations.

The Kremlin, of course, badly miscalculated. Instead of being greeted by a passive populace—if not as liberators, at least with mute acceptance—Russia found the Ukrainian nation awakened as never before in its history. Invading forces have been abused and harried by civilians in the predominantly Russian-speaking territories in the east, and have been absolutely devastated by a disciplined and well-trained Ukrainian army, especially in the northern approaches to Kyiv. Though all figures should be treated with skepticism in a time of war, some estimates now put Russian dead as high as 20,000. And though (once again) I am not a military analyst, those I trust seem to agree that the loss in materiel has also been quite high. Whatever the actual amount of losses, however, the Russians have clearly been forced to swallow a big setback: in the last two weeks, they have completely pulled back their forces menacing the capital Kyiv and are now refocusing their remaining energies on capturing territories in Ukraine's east.

This unexpected turnaround, from the most dire predictions of Ukrainian collapse to the sight of Russians retreating, has induced vertigo in some analysts, myself not excluded. Whereas weeks ago I was saying that we need to do what we can to help the Ukrainians hold out for as long as they can, with as much territory under their control as they can keep, for as long as they are willing to fight, today I'm starting to wonder whether my old professor Eliot A. Cohen was not asking the right question a month ago: "Why can't the West admit that Ukraine is winning?" The destruction of Russia's prized missile cruiser, the Moskva, last week in the Black Sea only underscores this giddiness. Maybe the Ukrainians can win it all?

The majority of the Washington policy community supports throwing a lot behind the Ukrainians to try to achieve this "win." Those that bother specifying what they mean by "winning" are usually much more sweeping in their hopes than I ever dare to be. They envision a possible Russian military collapse, with Kyiv reclaiming all of the territories occupied by Moscow since its initial invasion in 2014, including the Crimean peninsula, the home of Russia's Black Sea fleet. Such a defeat, these dreamers dream, could even trigger Putin's downfall in Moscow. Sure, it's not likely whatever regime comes next would be particularly democratic, but Russia under new management will be weaker no matter what. That's good enough for now.

Colleagues in Europe, as well as prominent domestic critics, have called this stance immoral. "We must not fight to the last Ukrainian," these critics say, pointing out that it's easy to be a hawk when so little is at stake for us personally. Indeed, they are right that Ukrainians themselves stand to suffer grievously, especially if the war doesn't lead to a quick rout of the Russians. A stalemate in Ukraine's Donbas could quickly become a meat-grinder. And they are right that by funneling weapons to the Ukrainians, we are potentially willing just such a scenario into being. Without Western support, Ukraine would have to sue for peace.

For my part, I stand with hawks, but perhaps for less sentimental and more pessimistic reasons than the average DC analyst. I think letting the Ukrainians keep going is worth a shot—even if victory, however defined, is not a sure thing. There are risks of the conflict spiraling out of control, but as long as NATO forces are not directly involved in the fighting, those are manageable. But from a U.S. strategic standpoint, the war has thus far been a "teachable moment" for our European allies, many of whom simply could not imagine a hot war with Russia breaking out just over their borders. Defense spending going up means more equitable burden-sharing on the European continent is more likely today than ever before—a necessity if the United States is to successfully face off with China in the coming decades. The war has also refocused minds in NATO on war-fighting, a positive development in an organization that had in recent years been dabbling in topics adjacent to NGO work as a means of justifying its existence.

Furthermore, Ukraine's interests are not our own. If Ukrainians remain convinced that they want to keep going despite the dangers, and we see an upside in them doing so, we are under no obligation to save them from themselves. Indeed, the Ukrainians seem to be aware that continuing the fight may even lead to battlefield nukes being used against them—and still they persist. What more is there to say on that count?

Finally, it's important to remember that war and politics exist on a spectrum, and are indeed inseparable from each other. Carl von Clausewitz famously noted that "war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means." That cuts the other way, too: the end of a war needs to be politically tenable when the shooting stops. At least for now, it appears that Russia has been disabused of its delusions of being able to occupy and hold all of Ukraine. The Kremlin, however, still seems to think Russia can hold a quarter to a third of it. For their part, the emboldened Ukrainians feel like they could liberate large parts of their country from Russian occupation in the coming weeks and months. And given the recent civilian massacres perpetrated by retreating Russian troops, no amount of negotiation and mediation will convince them otherwise. Only war itself can do that.