The U.S. Needs to Change Course Right Now in Ukraine

We are now more than seven months removed from Vladimir Putin’s regrettable incursion into eastern Ukraine and Crimea. But despite that elapsed time and all the various developments since then, the United States’ formal position on the conflict has changed markedly little. That overly simplified and Manichaean position, in short, is one of Ukrainian maximalism: Putin is evil, Volodymyr Zelensky is noble, and—here is the big logical leap—the United States will thus support the Ukrainian effort to retake every square inch of territory in the Donbas and Crimea from its nuclear-armed adversary, seemingly no matter the cost to the U.S. taxpayer.       

The formal White House “readout” of President Joe Biden’s Tuesday call with Zelensky aptly summarizes the U.S.’ position: “President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, spoke today with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to underscore that the United States will never recognize Russia’s purported annexation of Ukrainian territory. President Biden pledged to continue supporting Ukraine as it defends itself from Russian aggression for as long as it takes …” (Emphases added.) Translation: We will defend your war to retake every square inch of historically contested and ethnically mixed territory no matter what the people living there say they want, no matter the cost and despite the fact that the fate of Zelensky’s regime in Kyiv is secure.       

At this stage in the war, virtually all of this pablum is asinine and counterproductive to the actual U.S. national interest in these contested areas. Our national interest in the Ukrainian theater is not coterminous with Zelensky’s absolutist stance; our interest is for de-escalation, détente, and peace. But if we want to achieve those ends—especially as the threat of nuclear warfare is bursting out into the open, many in the West recklessly double down on calls for Ukraine’s ascension to NATO, and the war-hungry Zelensky is himself calling for a NATO-led “preemptive strike” against Russia—Biden needs to recognize reality and change strategic course immediately.      

From day one of Russia’s incursion, this column has argued that 1) Ukraine, like Russia, is a deeply corrupt and oligarchic country, and Zelensky is a highly flawed leader; but 2) despite his myriad flaws and status as a pawn of the Davos/NGO globalist class, Zelensky remaining in power in Kyiv is preferable to the obvious alternative of a Belarusian/Alexander Lukashenko-style Moscow puppet state. But Russia, with the exception of few nearby flare-ups here and there, retreated from Kyiv and its surrounding areas all the way back in May. Put another way, it is clear beyond any reasonable doubt, at this point, that Zelensky isn’t going anywhere; he and his government are here to stay. The fate of Kyiv is secure.

At this juncture, the fighting—and in Russia’s case, the recent (likely sham) annexations—is taking place in four far-eastern subregions of Ukraine, and, to a lesser extent, Crimea. Those are the disputed lands that the Biden administration, and “liberal Western democracy” types more broadly, have deemed to be so existentially important to Ukraine and the integrity of “the West” that reconquering them is worth seemingly any military, economic and humanitarian cost—up to, and very much including, the harrowing specter of open nuclear warfare between NATO and Russia.       

Even worse, when it comes to the disputed lands themselves, reputable Gallup polling from 2014—the year Putin first marched into Crimea—showed that 73.9 percent of Crimeans thought becoming a part of Russia would improve their lives and their families’ lives (only 5.5 percent disagreed). As for the various enclaves of the Donbas, such as Luhansk and Donetsk, they are very much divided between ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians; Luhansk, for instance, has a nearly even, 50-50 demographic split.      

Let’s be as clear as possible: The median American citizen does not, and should not, care whether an ethnically divided, strategically unimportant, historically contested Slavic subregion or two in eastern Ukraine ultimately takes orders from Kyiv or Moscow. Elon Musk, in a much-criticized tweet earlier this week, had the right idea: “Ukraine-Russia Peace,” he argued, can best be achieved by “Redo(ing) elections of annexed regions (such as Luhansk and Donetsk) under UN supervision,” and “Russia leaves if that is will of the people”; “Crimea formally part of Russia, as it has been since 1783 (until Khrushchev’s mistake)”; “Water supply to Crimea assured”; and “Ukraine remains neutral (between Russia and NATO).”       

One can certainly quibble with Musk’s details—the United Nations, for instance, cannot be a trusted, neutral arbiter or supervisor of anything. But this is certainly the right idea for what the U.S., and by extension the West, should be doing and should be aiming toward. The Biden administration, if it had any common sense, would use any and all leverage to get Zelensky and Putin to the negotiating table as soon as possible, thus unequivocally taking the threat of nuclear catastrophe off the table and extricating the United States and NATO from the harrowing prospect of something no Cold War-era president would have ever countenanced: open and direct military confrontation with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. That certainly involves disavowing the possibility of NATO membership for Ukraine.  

That our present ruling class demonstrates no interest in common sense de-escalation, and instead demonstrates a seemingly interminable interest in escalation and Ukrainian territorial maximalism, speaks volumes about how out of touch that ruling class is. If nothing else, hopefully the American people speak up and begin to rein in our sordid, war-hungry ruling class at the ballot box next month.   


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