Today British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to encourage him to continue the fight against Russian forces, which had scored major successes in previous days in the eastern Donbas region. “The Prime Minister said the world was behind Ukraine,” a Downing Street spokesperson said, “and he believed President Zelensky’s military could retake territory recently captured by Putin’s forces.”
This was not the first time Johnson has urged the government in Kiev not to negotiate with the Kremlin. In April, he joined forces with the U.S. administration to scupper complex negotiations conducted under Turkish auspices, in Istanbul. Those negotiations were broadly based on the Ukrainian pledge of permanent neutrality in return for the withdrawal of Russian forces and an internationally guaranteed and supervised security arrangement. But Johnson went to Kiev posthaste, probably with some encouragement from Washington, to urge Zelensky not to negotiate with Putin.
The torpedoing of the talks in Istanbul prompted Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu to note acerbically, on April 21, that some of Turkey’s NATO allies want the war to continue in order to weaken Russia. A month later, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi insisted that “a cease-fire must be achieved as soon as possible.” To that end, he put forward a four-point plan: (1) a ceasefire followed by (2) Ukrainian neutrality, (3) broad autonomy for disputed territories, and (4) an EU-Russian peace deal that exchanges a Russian withdrawal for the easing of sanctions.
This also proved to be a nonstarter. In subsequent weeks, a number of former U.S. diplomats expressed dismay at the apparent unwillingness of officials in Washington (not to mention their reliable abettors in London and in some smaller East European capitals) to consider a diplomatic solution to the conflict. Such reluctance may have been understandable, in a raw Hobbesian sense, while the war appeared to be going badly for Russia. As we near the end of the conflict’s fourth month, however, the time has come for Washington to make a sober reassessment of the score and to adopt a new, more nuanced strategy.
The argument for sanity was presented with eloquence and clarity 10 days ago by Michael Brendan Dougherty, a senior writer at National Review. Over the past eight years, he has argued repeatedly that we should not get too involved in Ukraine, because “in the end Russia will expend more political will, take more risks, and suffer more consequences to determine the final outcome there.” Ukraine is clearly a playground of choice for the Beltway Swamp, but it is an existential issue for the Russian leadership. Now that the war has entered a slow phase of brutal attrition, it becomes clear that by “assisting Ukraine,” the U.S. is playing a geopolitical game that it does not have the will or resources to finish in a favorable way. Dougherty writes:
Having failed to get what it wanted from Minsk II, Russia decided to take a military option. In other words, deterrence failed. Russia accepted the high risks and costs of switching to a strategy of compellence. And in three months Russia has done in Ukraine what the Pentagon could not do in Afghanistan over two decades: settle on a reasonable set of goals and develop an effective strategy for annihilating its opponents.
In the aftermath of the NATO summit in Madrid in late June, it is clear that the Biden administration is still hoping for Russia’s utter defeat: Washington has imposed on the NATO Alliance the strategy of doing more of the same. Addressing the meeting, President Biden said he did not know “how it’s going to end, but it will not end with a Russian defeat of Ukraine in Ukraine.”
In practice, this means supplying Ukraine with enormous quantities of weapons and hoping that its armed forces can hold their own east of the Dnieper River, letting most of Europe sink into a wintry recession and much of the Third World into hunger, and hoping that the rising cost of Russia’s war effort and the effect of sanctions will weaken Putin’s resolve. As Dougherty notes, however, one risk of making your rivals’ wars more costly is that you just might make their eventual victory even larger:
If the Ukrainian army fails to make a crucial strategic retreat, and is broken in the cauldrons of the Donbas, the United States will have made Russia’s victory much costlier, but also much more significant than it otherwise would have been. Putin will be able to claim he defeated not just the nationalists in Ukraine, but the Western powers that funded and trained their army from 6,000 to nearly half a million men.
This scenario is becoming a distinct possibility. Contrary to its gung-ho tone of earlier months, even The Washigton Post was forced to admit recently that while “U.S. officials have downplayed [Russian] gains, calling them halting and incremental,” the Ukrainians have also sustained heavy casualties: “The scrutiny is fueled by U.S. government assessments of other wars, notably in Afghanistan, where officials habitually glossed over widespread dysfunction and corruption and sidestepped questions of whether battlefield successes were not only achievable but sustainable.”
Recently, the Netherlands’ Prime Minister Mark Rutte went so far as to tell Sky News that it would be “very problemsome” [sic!] for everyone if Ukraine is defeated by Russia. He then urged every country in Europe and NATO to deliver more heavy weaponry to Kiev. It remains uncertain, however, whether Ukraine’s military will be able to train the personnel needed to operate and integrate its new arsenal, tactically speaking, in the next few weeks.
In the end it probably cannot, says the grand old man of geostrategy, Edward Luttwak. He suggests that the war should end “with a weak and contemptible compromise” that sees the Russians keeping the Crimea, being offered “a properly supervised plebiscite in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts.” Luttwak continues:
To have a plebiscite you have to have first a negotiation, which requires an armistice. To have an armistice you have to have a cease-fire. The moment there is a cease-fire, you lift all the sanctions, so that the Russians have a reason to respect the cease-fire. Lift them all at once. And that’s how we get out.
Luttwak is adamantly opposed to the “victory party” vision of uber-hawks in Washington, wherein the Ukrainians kick out all the Russians, Putin falls, and then we carve up (“decolonize”) Russia and put its generals on trial. Such nonsense is still prevalent, tragically, as demonstrated by Biden’s foreign policy team … and by Boris Johnson.
In the end, “a weak and contemptible compromise” will be cobbled together because Ukraine cannot defeat Russia and Russia cannot occupy all of Ukraine—or keep it occupied for ever—even if its advance units could reach the Polish border at a horrible cost.
The only question is how many people—mostly decent, patriotic young men on both sides—will have to die before this compromise is effected, how many solid economies will have to collapse by then, and how many millions of families will be pushed into penury in the name of “punishing Putin” or “upholding our values” or “defending the rules-based international order”?
Image: President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson walked around the center of Kyiv. (Office of the President of Ukraine)