Like many people, I’ve been mesmerized by images coming out of Ukraine. Miles of Russian convoys, Russian missiles deliberately targeting schools and hospitals, Russian troops shooting women, children and old people whose only crime was queuing up for bread. A brave, articulate Ukrainian hero president leading his army and fellow countrymen to defend against the cruel Russian invaders. I know which side I’m rooting for. I know how I want this to end. But can someone tell me how this is likely to end?
America has just fought and lost two wars in part because for twenty years, we never had clear or realistic objectives. It is Ukraine’s opinion that matters, of course, not ours, but it’s worth thinking this through now. At a certain point, things could escalate, presenting the U.S. and NATO with some difficult decisions we would have to make very, very quickly.
What are our goals in the Russia/Ukraine war? Is there anything the U.S. can do now to help achieve them? How can we separate what we might want from what is possible?
- Is our goal Putin’s utter defeat and withdrawal? But Putin could not survive politically if he brings the troops home in humiliation. Before that happens, he will escalate to weapons of mass destruction, including chemical or even tactical nuclear weapons.
- Is our goal regime change in Moscow? A palace coup orchestrated by Putin’s inner circle is unlikely given his paranoic control of everyone around him. The oligarchs are unhappy with Putin, especially because their own fortunes have been confiscated or sanctioned. But they’re not politically powerful in Russia – most of them live abroad. We may hear anecdotal stories of disgruntled Russian citizens, but that’s a long way from hoping for a national anti-Putin uprising. It’s more likely that Putin will launch a Stalin-like purge of his enemies, given his call to strengthen the country with a "cleansing" of traitors and promise to "spit them out like gnats."
- Putin’s goal is to do whatever it takes to bring Ukraine to heel. Would we be willing to sit on the sidelines while Putin levels Ukraine like he did Chechnya in 1999, and bomb Kyiv to smithereens like he did Grozny? If Ukraine becomes a killing field, it would be a stain on the soul of the world. It would also unravel the international system that has kept the world at peace since the end of World War II, the longest period since the fall of the Roman Empire. Biden has called Putin a war criminal and warned that the international community will treat him like a pariah. But that threat is unlikely to have much effect in changing Putin’s behavior. Does anyone seriously think he cares what they say about him at diplomatic cocktail parties?
- Is our goal a stalemate followed by a negotiated solution, where neither side gets everything it wants, but both sides can get enough that they can live with? What could such an agreement look like? Zelenskyy now says NATO membership is off the table for Ukraine and hinted that the fate of two eastern provinces might be negotiable. Those were Putin’s main demands before the invasion. Will they be enough for Putin now? Can he spin that to his own people as a victory and bring his troops home? Or will he demand all of eastern Ukraine?
No matter what Putin agrees to now, he’ll be back. He will rebuild his military and return for the rest of Ukraine in a few years’ time. But a few years would also give Ukraine a unique opportunity to rely on western investment to rebuild, strengthen its economic and political ties to Europe and North America, and wean itself off Russian energy. Even if sanctions are dropped, Putin’s Russia is unlikely to get much western investment. Ukraine, on the other hand, will.
What is our role in all of this? President Biden has so far shied away from doing anything that might draw the U.S. into the conflict or give Russia an excuse to escalate. Biden wants a diplomatic solution. But history shows the most effective diplomacy is backed up by a strong economy, strong military and solid alliances.
No matter what Putin agrees to now, he’ll be back. He will rebuild his military and return for the rest of Ukraine in a few years’ time.
The best weapon the U.S. has to stop Putin and help Ukraine, and the other countries Putin might be eyeing down the road isn’t military. It’s economic - unleash the U.S. energy industry. If Biden is willing to end or delay his "war on fossil fuels," the U.S. could produce more oil and natural gas. That would drive energy prices back down to where they were under President Trump.
That would cut Putin’s export revenues in half. He wouldn’t be able to afford a costly occupation, or further invasions. Biden’s sanctions may punish Putin for invading Ukraine, and that’s all well and good. But taking away his piggy bank would prevent him from going to war again.
I visited Ukraine in spring 2014, a few weeks after the Maidan Square Revolution, when the people rose up and ousted pro-Russian president Yanokovich. The political, military and business leaders I met with were euphoric, but I knew the Russians would be back. As I drove along the Dnieper River that runs through the center of Kiev, I wondered if it would someday be the border between Ukraine and Russia. Let’s hope not.