Last August, the Biden Administration led a disastrous exit from Afghanistan, under the justification that the US could no longer take responsibility for a war with no end point in sight. Eight months later, the same administration is ramping up engagement in the Ukraine conflict — a conflict with no realistic end point on the horizon.
Of course, there are obvious differences between the 20-year, vaguely defined counter-terrorism effort directly involving American and NATO forces and the situation in Ukraine. But both the White House and bipartisan members of Congress seem to think trips to Kyiv and open-ended commitments to Ukraine in the context of a war engaged with an adversary with extensive lethal power is virtually risk free.
And it’s not: the longer the conflict goes on, the greater the chance Russian leader Vladimir Putin sees the situation as an existential threat to his power, and with that the chance of escalation — potentially of the nuclear kind — rises.
To avoid an Afghanistan situation of open-ended conflict, the US and its partners need to be thinking about how to end the conflict sooner rather than later. The most likely outcome: a partition of Ukraine, with Russia controlling some aspect of the Donbas and the NATO and EU nations backing the western part of the nation.
No, that’s not something that Ukraine, nor some of its more active supporters in Europe, will be happy with. But realism is needed in a situation involving nuclear warheads. Hoping for the democratic coup in Russia is not policy. Political objectives need to be clear for your nation and, while taking into account the concerns of your allies, partners, or adversaries, cannot be driven by their desires. But that is what is precisely happening in Ukraine.
The challenge of negotiation was well laid out in a recent piece by the distinguished British historian Max Hastings. As he wrote in an op-ed in The Times on April 11: “only a sordid bargain will end Ukraine’s war.”
If one is to accept that partition is going to happen — and I believe it will — a number of still-unanswered follow-on questions appear. Here are three that need to be sorted out quickly.
First, who should be at the negotiating table? The US and UK have been among the biggest supporters of Ukraine’s fight, but they are also not part of the European Union, the body which is most likely to be the host of discussions around economic, civil and commercial support for Ukraine after a war.
The US, one could argue, should have no real role in those discussions; Washington’s interest in checking Russia may not mean it will align with Ukraine’s interests. And having the US be the lead negotiator will only fuel Russia’s propaganda efforts that DC is using Kyiv for its own interests and that the Zelensky government are simply puppets. The Russians and the Chinese clearly want to make their conflicts with the liberal democracies about their relationship with the United States. It is not in our interest to play their game. (I write more about this in my new book, now available.)
Second, what is the role of the non-Russian controlled Ukraine in the Western power structures? Despite efforts from Kyiv in recent years, there has been little support among either EU or NATO member states to let Ukraine in. While the EU now appears more open in the wake of Putin’s invasion, nothing is certain there, and Ukraine’s economy — the key factor for many nations’ EU membership — will likely be a shambles for years to come as a result of the invasion. And as part of negotiations, will Russia attempt to block Ukraine for being able to join either the EU or NATO — and should those member states accept that, even over Ukraine’s wishes, in order to end the conflict?
Third, what happens in terms of arming Ukraine and how Ukraine can use that military capability? It’s nice for the US to sit back and say we are simply arming Ukraine for its own defense, but that’s going to be a sticking point during negotiations. Statements by senior officials in the UK and the United States suggesting that Ukraine was free to attack Russian territory with the weapons being provided does nothing to help lower the risks.
The Ukrainian people should be commended for the fight they have put up. In the lead up to the invasion, few gave them much chance of lasting more than a few weeks; almost 80 days later, they have clearly bloodied and embarrassed Putin, whose forces have committed war crimes that, in a just world, would see them all sent to a dark prison forever.
But we don’t live in a just world, and the reality remains that the longer this conflict grinds on, the greater the risk of miscalculation, misunderstanding or simply a dead-eyed assessment of how Russian forces are doing will lead to the first use of nuclear weapons in anger since 1945. Now is the time to try and end this war. Hopefully leaders around Europe are thinking through the logical steps to do so.
This article was published by Breaking Defense on May 13, 2022.