In this commentary, the Emeritus Chair in Strategy explains the need for the United States to shape and implement an effective grand strategy for the ongoing war in Ukraine.
No one can ignore the grim realities Ukraine faces this winter and spring. Ukrainian forces did well with outside support in 2022, and Russia suffered important losses both on the battlefield and from the economic sanctions imposed by Europe, the United States, and other powers. Nevertheless, statements such as those made by General Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggesting that Russia is losing needs to be put in careful context.
General Milley stated
in a recent speech that “Russia is now a global pariah, and the world remains inspired by Ukrainian bravery and resilience. In short, Russia has lost. They’ve lost strategically, operationally [,] and tactically. He further stated
in Financial Times
that “It will be almost impossible for the Russians to achieve their political objectives by military means. It is unlikely that Russia is going to overrun Ukraine. It’s just not going to happen.”
Such statements may be intended to build morale, but they grossly understate the challenges Ukraine now faces, as well as the challenges that the U.S. and its European partners face in creating a new security structure in Ukraine and in Europe. Promises made by the leaders of a number of countries at the Munich security conference in February 2023, including the president of the United States, cannot substitute for prompt and effective action. As Joseph Borrell Fontelles, the senior foreign policy official of the European Union, said at the end of the Munich meeting
, “There needs to be less applause and better supply with arms . . . much more has to be done, and much quicker.”
Russia has suffered some tactical defeats and has lost a substantial amount of its armor—including up to half of its most modern tanks. It has suffered from economic sanctions, cuts in foreign investment, and limited access to export markets. However, Putin has not conceded defeat in the war or halted his efforts to dominate the security structure in Europe. In fact, General Milley pointed
this out: “It is also very, very difficult for Ukraine this year to kick the Russians out of every inch of Russian-occupied Ukraine. It’s not to say that it can’t happen . . . But it’s extraordinarily difficult. And it would require essentially the collapse of the Russian military.”
Optimistic Political Rhetoric Is No Substitute for Grand Strategic Realism
There is currently no way to predict when and how the war between Russia and Ukraine—which has become a proxy war involving the U.S. and its strategic partners – will end. Ukraine has not sustained its counteroffensives against Russia and has made some gains in the recent fighting. More importantly, Ukraine has not recovered most of the territory it lost in 2022, and Putin’s Russia is conducting a major military build-up. The result is that Ukraine now faces a bitter war of attrition against steadily growing Russian forces, facing ongoing missile and air attacks on Ukraine’s military and civilian infrastructure as Russia seeks to win through superior mass.
Over-optimistic rhetoric aside, the United States and its strategic partners recognize this. They are rushing to try to provide the right kind of military and financial support Ukraine needs to survive and have any chance of pushing Russian forces and occupiers out of Eastern Ukraine. No grand strategy for the Ukraine war can have meaning unless Ukraine can win its near-term battles at the military level, and this is only part of the story.
The immediate need is for Ukraine to win the fight, or at least check Russian advances, but it is all too clear that Ukraine may need sustained military and civil aid for years to come. In addition, it will need massive aid in economic recovery once the fighting ends. NATO needs to make a massive effort to rebuild its forces to deter Russia from any further military adventures.
The only time Ukraine and the West will be able to seriously claim a true victory is when, and if, the fighting ends in an acceptable peace. This means the United States and its partners need to look beyond the current battlefield. They need to determine what grand strategy they should pursue to shape the longer-term course of the war and its lasting outcome. Ukraine may need years of continuing military and civil aid to survive and years of further civil aid after any halt to the fighting.
The United States and its allies also need to be far more realistic about how long a war could last and how long Ukraine will need major amounts of aid. The West needs to clearly recognize that one key element of an effective grand strategy is to support Ukraine with the aid it needs for as long as it takes. Today, focusing on the short-term aspect of the fighting, and on Ukraine’s near-term military needs, has created a growing risk that legislature and public opinion will cut aid to levels Ukraine cannot survive.
At the same time, the need for an ongoing effort to shape and implement an effective grand strategy for the war in Ukraine goes far beyond the fighting in Ukraine. The war in Ukraine has become a proxy war between Russia and the United States and its European allies. This ensures that the course and outcome of the war will affect every aspect of U.S. and European relations with Russia and that success in aiding Ukraine cannot be separated from Russia’s broader ambitions in dealing with Belarus, Moldovia, and NATO European states—especially those nearest Russia and Belarus. More broadly, the course of the war and its outcome will have a major impact on Russia’s nuclear build-up, its rejection of arms control, its ties to China, and its relations with states outside Europe and the rest of NATO.
It is far from clear that any form of end to the fighting can prevent a new Cold War that will last at least as long as anyone like Putin leads Russia. Nevertheless, an effective grand strategy must still end the fighting and achieve real peace. Such a search offers at least some hope. More than that, it will do much to convince the world—and many Russians—that the United States and its allies are doing what they can to create a more stable world. It will also show that Russia has a clear and far better alternative to Putin’s ambitions, confrontation, and war. Moreover, such an effort will help mobilize public opinion in the West to continue supporting Ukraine and rebuilding NATO’s military strength if this proves to be the only option.
U.S. Grand Strategy and the Civil Dimension of Warfare
The United States has already done much in working with its partners to support Ukraine and check Putin. Ukraine has also shown that it is a much stronger partner than Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. It has its own internal failures, as its recent anticorruption drives have shown. However, Ukraine has shown that it is more united, better governed, and more able to fight on its own.
So far, however, the United States has failed to lead effectively in several key areas of grand strategy—repeating some aspects of its failed approach to grand strategy in its other recent wars. In Korea, U.S. efforts to push a military victory too far into North Korea without considering the grand strategic impact on China forced U.S.-led forces to fight a longer war that ended in a stalemate where the outcome was a ceasefire, rather than a true peace. North and South Korea remain on the edge of a far more dangerous war some seventy years after the Korean War began.
The U.S. defeats in Vietnam and Afghanistan demonstrated all too clearly that Colonel Harry Summers was correct in noting that winning every battle without creating the necessary level of political unity, building military and security forces that can stand on their own, and forging effective civil governance, economic benefits, and rule of law made U.S. and ARVN military victories irrelevant.
In Vietnam, the United States exaggerated its civil and military successes in shaping an effective South Vietnamese government and military forces that could stand on their own. It reached a peace settlement with North Vietnam after an apparent U.S.-driven military victory based on false assumptions about a broader level of grand strategic success. It then left a fragile South Vietnamese state and phased out it much of its aid, creating an outcome where South Vietnam’s military and civil weaknesses prevented it from surviving.
In Afghanistan, the United States lied to itself about both its levels of military and civil success, its ability to create Afghan forces that could truly stand on their own, and its civil failures in developing and unifying an Afghan state. It did so over the entire length of the war from the seeming collapse of the Taliban in 2002 to U.S. withdrawal and the collapse of the Afghan government and forces in 2021. The nature of these U.S. failures changed over time, but they cumulatively proved to be far more important than the Afghan war successes in battle—almost all of which were U.S. or allied-driven.
Toward the end of the war in Afghanistan, the United States only focused on a peace process after its real objective became withdrawing from the fight. Both the Trump and Biden administrations did so in ways where they had no real peace plans to propose, but where two administrations largely decoupled the U.S. efforts in dealing with the Taliban from those of the Afghan government that peace negotiations were supposed to preserve. The chaotic collapse of Kabul may have taken days, but the collapse of the Afghan government and its forces was triggered by U.S. failures in strategy and leadership over two decades and four years of peace efforts.
In Iraq, the United States and its European and Arab partners decisively won the battle to liberate Kuwait in 1991 but did so without any clear plan for conflict termination or for creating a stable Iraq and lasting peace and ending the fighting. The United States invaded again in 2003 without any serious plan to deal with the fall of Saddam Hussein or provide effective governance and security in the aftermath of military success. Some two decades after the invasion in 2003, the United States is still trying to deal with a deeply divided and fragile Iraqi state some twenty years after what once was a massive military success.
In all three of its most recent wars, the U.S. focus on the fighting also led the United States to underestimate the degree to which a prolonged war led to deep internal divisions and tensions within the side the United States had backed. The United States never successfully came to grips with the fact that winning the civil “battle” at the political and economic level required a U.S. strategy and approach to warfighting that could deal effectively with the divisions between internal factions, self-seeking leaders, poverty, and failures in development, and the alienation of key aspects of the population over time.
The United States did talk about going from “winning” at the tactical level to some broader success in both Iraq and Afghan wars through what came to be known as a “win, hold, and build” strategy. However, the United States never properly implemented a program to build up Afghan and Iraqi forces that could really be effective on their own or create an effective government that could unify the Afghan or Iraqi people. The United States also failed to realistically assess how, or if, it could win a form of victory that could create a lasting peace without leading to future wars, the return of the “defeated” enemy, or the creation of a failed state.
Ukraine’s Courage and Unity Are Not a Substitute for Continuing Aid and Support and an Effective Grand Strategy
Ukraine has already shown it has far more unity, effective governance, and capable military forces than Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and it is a different case in many ways. At the same time, it remains vulnerable and is fighting a war where military realism and grand strategy will be far more important than in other recent wars. This time, the United States is fighting a proxy war with Russia that directly affects U.S. security and that of many of its closest and most important strategic partners.
The fact that the United States and its European partners are fighting a proxy war against Russia—rather than engaging in direct combat with Russian forces—scarcely means that the war in Ukraine is not the de facto equivalent of a political, economic, and military war between Russia and the United States and its allies. The outcome of this war will determine the security of vital American and partner national interests in all of Europe for years to come.
It will have far more impact on America’s status as an effective global power than America’s direct wars against nations in areas that were relatively remote and of tertiary strategic importance. It cannot be divorced from its impact on a revived nuclear arms race and the impact of Russian threats to use nuclear weapons.
Regardless of the emphasis on China in both the Trump and Biden administrations’ national and defense strategies, the Ukraine war demonstrates that Russia remains a threat that is as real as China. In fact, U.S. national strategy needs to be revised to reflect the fact that the outcome of America’s proxy war, and its efforts to rebuild a more effective approach to “integrated deterrence” in Europe, are just as important as its efforts to strengthen its forces and collective defense efforts in Asia.
The outcome of the war in Ukraine may well have a more strategic impact than a war over Taiwan given the fact that the future status of Ukraine will have a critical impact on all states in Europe and the credibility of NATO and the United States, while Taiwan is relatively isolated in comparison.
The Need for Continuing Military and Civil Aids
Russia may have its military limits, but it remains still a far more formidable political, economic, and military enemy compared to those encountered in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and Ukraine shares a common border. It is not enough to have prevented a sudden Russian military victory in 2022, and no one can now predict how much military and civil aid Ukraine will need to keep fighting until there is some kind of end to the fighting, and then recover.
As bodies like the UNDP and World Bank have made clear, there is no present way to estimate the ultimate cost of recovery, or how Ukraine may have to modify its economy to deal with any lasting loss of territory or its agricultural and industrial export capabilities. It is notable, however, that the UNDP has already stated
that Ukraine must eventually deal with millions of displaced citizens and issued a preliminary briefing on the possible total cost of rebuilding the civil structure of Ukraine that first appeared in October 2022 that reached $600-750 billion euros.
At the same time, this estimate came early in what became a steadily intensifying Russian missile campaign. Some later estimates
in December 2022 talked about costs over a trillion dollars, and these costs will continue to escalate until the fighting ends.
Looking beyond the Ukraine’s Initial Success
Russia did make major military mistakes at the start of the war, and its initial offensives were failures. Putin seems to have assumed that Ukraine had only made limited progress in improving its forces since 2014, and that Russia could repeat its success in occupying Crimea. As noted earlier, however, Ukraine is now fighting a different war. Ukraine now faces a massive Russian military mobilization and effort. Russian forces are learning through bitter experience, and Putin is clearly still prepared to fight a brutal war of attrition on the ground.
Russia has now mobilized and conscripted some 300,000 more soldiers, some of which have rapidly committed to battle and have helped hold its remaining gains and potentially scored some limited victories. Others are being better equipped and better trained for a spring 2023 offensive. Reports of its tank losses and limited missile and ammunition reserves seem to be uncertain, and Ukraine has only received limited amounts of the weaponry it states it needs, and the U.S. and Europe have their own problems with ammunition, weapons stocks, and production.
As the UNDP data shown earlier indicates, Ukraine now must actively defend against sustained missile attacks on its economy and civil structure and against a Russia that seems willing to attack its civil population and wage the equivalent of political and economic warfare. If Russia continues to expand it targeting and military pressure on Ukraine’s export capabilities, it may succeed in destroying much of Ukraine’s remaining ability to maintain a functional economy.
This does not mean that anyone can dismiss the possibility that Ukraine can score serious gains on the battlefield this winter or spring. However, a possibility is scarcely a probability. Putin’s grim determination to keep building up more forces and expand attacks on civil targets make any true form of Ukrainian victory a very uncertain proposition. An authoritarian Russia is showing that it may be capable of mobilizing enough mass to cope with its own military weaknesses and may succeed in systematically weakening Ukraine’s capability to support its population with effective services and infrastructure and keep functioning as a state.
Moreover, Russia has other options. It can step up operations in the Black Sea and Belarus. It is already putting pressure on Moldova. Its attacks to date on Ukraine’s civil facilities have had a serious impact but have not yet had the character of systematic efforts to cripple key civil systems and functions and do so on a nationwide level. Russia has also shown more skill in dealing with sanctions and economic warfare than the U.S. and other planners estimated when they imposed them. If the war continues into the next fall and winter, Russia may find it easier to ride out the current patterns of economic warfare than a democratic Europe.
The good news is that Russia has not yet shown it can become a fully effective opponent. Wars of attrition are also so costly that they sometimes end with little strategic warning. All too often, however, they turn into enduring struggles, and wars of attrition like the war Russia is now inflicting on Ukraine involve far more than military casualties.
Russia has established a pattern of missile strikes and other forms of warfare that affect every aspect of civil life in Ukraine. At a minimum, even the most courageous and unified people will need the kind of U.S. and allied grand strategy that provides clear guarantees that the necessary military and civil aid will keep coming. This is vital to both allow and motivate Ukraine to keep fighting.
In short, it is reckless to plan on victory—or even claim it is highly probable—until victory is won. Some recent statements that exaggerate Ukraine’s military successes to the point of claiming that the current military aid process will allow Ukraine to defeat Russia are yet another case of when limited military victories are given far too much importance. So is the assumption that current civil aid efforts will be adequate.
Shaping a Grand Strategy That Both Guarantees Continuing Civil and Military Aid to Ukraine and the Rebuilding of NATO
This means that any grand strategy for Ukraine that offers a serious hope of success—and of convincing Russia that some kind of acceptable end to the fighting is necessary – must make it clear to both the Ukrainians and to Putin and Russia—that the current U.S., NATO, and other efforts to aid Ukraine will not only continue but will counter any Russian efforts to further escalate the war.
It must also be clear that any steps Russia takes to escalate the fighting will be countered, and the range of weapons and aid delivered to Ukraine will be expanded accordingly. So far, the military aid effort has been largely reactive and has reacted too slowly. It initially tended to assume that Russia would be far more vulnerable to sanctions and further Ukrainian military victories than proved to be the case.
As a result, the current flow of military aid and weapons has been too small and too slow, and the United States and its partners have failed to develop and implement a coherent approach to deploying new systems and weapons and to match Russia’s willingness to expand its strike and targeting. An effective grand strategy requires planning for at least another year of major combat and the possibility of further years to come. Rushing in new weapons, equipment, and ammunition can accomplish a great deal, but the United States and European states need to take a much harder look at how to support and sustain Ukraine’s forces and civil population over time.
The same longer-term planning and continuing flow of aid are needed to support civil aid for both war fighting and recovery. For the same reasons, bodies like UNDP, the World Bank, and European Union need to create a recovery and development plan for Ukraine. The United States and its allies need to make sure that the implementation of immediate humanitarian and other civil aid is linked to overall nationwide efforts to ensure that the civil structure of Ukraine can sustain the fighting and meet Ukraine’s economic and social priorities. A visible level of U.S., European, and other donor unity and commitment to planning and aid will be critical to both building Ukrainian morale and convincing Russia that it cannot outlast such support. Giving Ukraine the necessary long-term mix of civil support and aid requires at least as much planning and outside commitment as does military aid.
More will also be involved than aid to Ukraine. An effective grand strategy may well require the United States and Europe to commit themselves to conducting the equivalent of political and economic warfare against Russia over a period that could last years. It may also entail the seizure of Russian assets to help finance both the fighting and recovery. The Ukraine war is a proxy war only to the extent that U.S. and European forces do not directly engage in combat, and even those limits may be impossible to sustain if Russia escalates to major strategic attacks or even the most limited use of tactical nuclear weapons.
Equally important, creating an effective grand strategy must go far beyond aid to Ukraine. Fully supporting the current effort to rebuild and expand NATO has at least the same grand strategic priority. The “end of history” has decisively ended, and the United States and its NATO partners must deal with the consequences of taking excessive “peace dividends.”
The war in Ukraine has exposed the fact that Russia’s conventional forces have serious limits, but it has done an equally good job of exposing NATO’s lack of war reserves, standardization and interoperability, modernization, and readiness. Germany alone remains a critical power vacuum, but most of the nations in NATO have major problems in war fighting and forward deployment capability and uncertain plans for modernization. Most at best have limited recent combat experience, and even the United States is far more trained and ready to fight another Afghanistan or Iraq conflict than a war in Europe.
A wide variety of unclassified official statements and media reports show that NATO and member country military planners are focusing on the right priorities. At present, however, these planning efforts rely more on political promises than the availability of actual resources. This challenges any firm commitment to implementing programs and contracts needed to provide the personnel, readiness, modernization, and war reserves they require.
Russia may have shown that its forces became hollow in many ways after the break-up of the former Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. Nevertheless, Western military critics of Russia’s performance in Ukraine need to start looking in the mirror.
NATO’s real-world military image is scarcely all that different from that of Russia. Russia at least has the advantage that it can pursue a consistent approach to force modernization, interoperability, adopting “emerging and disruptive” technologies, joint all-domain operations, and strategy and tactics. NATO also needs to work together to create joint, mission-oriented forces tailored to given regions. These forces should include forward defenses that are not tied to aging Soviet weapons systems, and that deal with Russia’s growing precision strike forces—many of which can carry both conventional and tactical nuclear warheads.
Put bluntly, a workable Western grand strategy means that the political leaders in the United States and its NATO partners need to make good on their political statements and efforts. They must create and actually implement
an effective overall plan for arming, training, and supplying Ukraine, as well as strengthening NATO.
Far too much of the current mix of sporadic military efforts to improve national military forces is, ad hoc, poorly coordinated, and uncertain. The U.S. talk about integrated deterrence also remains an all too vacuous slogan. It does not show that such aid must be part of a continuing plan, call for public support of a coherent effort, or communication to Russia that it cannot outlast the aid effort if it keeps fighting.
Creating, or At Least Seeking, a Credible Peace
At the same time, much depends on the ability of the United States and its partners to find some approach to grand strategy that can negotiate an acceptable end to the fighting and create a stable outcome to the war. Here again, the United States has failed to form effective grand strategies for achieving successful outcomes for its recent wars.
In the current context of a conflict and broader tensions between the United States, its key allies, and the world’s two largest powers, talking about a “rule-based order” appears to be an even hollower slogan than “integrated deterrence.” Any real form of “rules-based order” in Europe requires a grand strategy that can both create a stable end to the war in Ukraine and some form of stable and lasting relationship with Russia. As is the case with China, these goals may not be achievable in the near to mid-term, but the United States and its strategic partners must at least try, and—at worst—lay as much groundwork for future success as possible.
A Post Modern “Peace to End All Peace”
The United States and its strategic partners clearly face major challenges in doing so. As noted earlier, Russia and Ukraine are both preparing for another major period of actual conflict, and neither is even rumored to be seeking a peaceful outcome on terms the other side can accept. Russia seems committed to seizing more of Eastern Ukraine as well as to keeping the territory it seized in 2014. It is also unclear whether Putin will accept even an agreement or ceasefire that gave him at least some claim to victory, rather than the “greater Russia” which was his initial strategic objective, or whether he is ready to restore the kind of economic and political relations he had with other European states and the before the invasion.
Ukraine may also have to make bitter compromises. It has called for a return or recovery of all its territory, and for reparations and war crimes trials for what Ukrainian claims in January 2023 already indicated could exceed 60,000 cases. None of these Ukrainian demands may prove to be practical even with a massive level of continuing outside aid to Ukraine. Even with such aid, it is all too possible that Ukraine will not recover large amounts of its newly occupied territory in the East or be able to produce anything like its past industrial and grain exports as long as Russia keeps fighting.
It is even more uncertain that Ukraine can gain back the territory Russia seized in 2014, fully secure export routes through the Black Sea, and get any serious Russian aid to deal with the critical cumulative damage the war did to its civilian infrastructure, housing, and its ability to restore back to its prewar level of development. As for humanitarian or war crime trials, these seem unlikely to affect more than a few low to medium-level scapegoats—or even take place—as long as Putin is in power. Ukraine might at least be able to repatriate some of its citizens and children who have been taken into Russia and are being forced to become Russian citizens.
At present, it seems all too likely that the fighting will only end when both sides are so exhausted that one side makes enough military gains to actually “win,” or both accept an awkward and unstable ceasefire. Even “winning” seems likely to produce a victory where the end results are highly unstable. A Russian “victory” would leave Russia so divided from Europe that Russia would face a major ongoing confrontation with the West. A Ukrainian “victory” that does not result in massive political upheavals and changes in Russian goals could still leave Ukraine half crippled, and without regaining the territory, it lost in 2014.
In practical terms, neither outcome would produce a stable peace or form of conflict resolution. Such an outcome would end the current fighting without reducing the tensions that led to the Russian invasion in the first place without restoring any broader level of stability between Russia and Europe and the United States. It would also leave NATO and Russia in a state of military confrontation like the Cold War. The United States and Europe would conduct rival arms races and military build-ups with Russia while in a state of political and economic confrontation and competing for influence on a global level.
A war where both sides fight to the point of exhaustion might be no better. The alternative would be a ceasefire along some line based on the progress of the fighting to date, where both sides would agree to stop fighting but remain deployed. Historically, this kind of cessation of hostilities would have to be secured by creating some kind of security zone along the ceasefire line, and possibly the Belarus-Ukraine border as well—if the war had not already expanded to include Belarus. Given the probable level of mutual tension, it might require a demilitarized zone (DMZ) and a UN or independent peacekeeping force. Even if such a zone were created, both sides would also continue to build up their military capabilities and positions on the edge of any ceasefire line or DMZ.
This kind of unstable settlement has worked with the two Koreas, but only at the cost of constantly being on the edge of another war. It would also do little or nothing to stabilize the overall security of Western Europe and particularly the European states along the Russian border. It instead would create the equivalent of a “rules-based disorder” where European states found their own solution to securing their position relative to Russia along different lines. Some European states would carry out new military build-ups, and others would do more to ease tensions with Russia.
Such a settlement would almost certainly trigger an ongoing arms race. It would leave NATO with a clear need to keep improving its forward defense capabilities and take measures like creating more effective missile and air defenses and competing with Russia in the broad range of what NATO has come to call “emerging and disruptive” technologies, and in the capability for joint, all-domain operations.
Given the pattern of missile attacks to date, and the development of hypersonic and other potentially dual-capable, long-range strike systems on both sides, it might well lead both sides to deploy larger longer-range precision strike systems to deter or pressure the other side. It might well revive reliance on active theater nuclear forces at the same time. It would probably leave sanctions and trade barriers intact and fail to give Russia and Europe any clear basis for pulling back from a posture of mutual distrust and conducting at least the low-level equivalent of economic and political warfare.
Such a settlement or “peace” would reinforce Putin’s well-established fears of the West and the United States and their all too well-justified fear of Putin. Given the virtual breakdown of the nuclear arms control talks and the current irrelevance of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, it would also create a lasting source of tension in the form of a nuclear-conventional precision strike arms race. In short, such a settlement could easily become the post-modern equivalent of a “peace to end all peace.”
Focusing on a Real Peace
There is no question that the current state of the war is scarcely favorable to negotiating a serious and lasting peace or a major improvement in U.S. and European relations. This does not mean, however, that the United States and its European allies do not start now to work for the kind of settlement that might lead to real peace.
The details of any actual settlement will have to be determined by the course of the fighting in 2023 and any years beyond, and as much by the ability of the U.S. and Europe to achieve a broader political and economic accommodation with Russia as by Ukraine’s willingness to reach a compromise settlement with Russia. However, laying the groundwork for a serious effort to negotiate real peace offers at least some chance of changing Russian and Ukrainian positions over time.
There are risks in advancing formal peace proposals too soon. The United States should avoid prematurely pressuring Ukraine to compromise on terms and territories and refrain from unilateral actions that may mostly affect its European partners rather than the United States. The United States could, however, with its partners, create an international group of experts to examine peace options, which could become part of the grand strategy for ending the war.
Yet, the United States does not have to take a formal official position to create the proper groundwork. It can create a variety of unofficial forums that include its partners and publicly examine the options that offer the best real-world chances in negotiating peace. By determining their relative risks and benefits, the United States can develop a negotiating strategy that might influence Russian and Ukrainian behavior over time.
The United States and its partners could then publicly endorse specific peace proposals when this seems timely or make them a subject of international review and debate without formally agreeing on a given set. If the fighting drags on, as it well may do, making peace negotiations a major priority might help convince Russia that peace is possible, and that Russia might receive more benefits than letting the war continue. Such an effort would also allow the United States and its partners to link some broader solutions to improving U.S. and European relations with Russia to the progress of increasing peace between Ukraine and Russia and to move toward a stable working relationship with Russia instead of military confrontation.
There is no doubt that the success of such efforts is highly problematic given Putin’s conspiracy theories about the West and desire to restore a greater Russia. At the same time, Putin has shown he can be pragmatic in the past, and Russia is already under serious political and economic pressure because of the war. Offering Russia a positive exit strategy seems better than simply hoping for total victory.
Putting clearly defined options on the table for improving U.S./European relations with Russia might lead to more Russian willingness to accommodate Ukraine in at least some aspects of territory and economic relations. More generally, Putin will not last forever, and presenting such options moves the focus away from a relatively narrow focus on the war to a focus on its outcome. It would show that the West is committed to creating a more stable and peaceful relationship with Russia, effectively seizing the high moral ground. The current U.S. and European focus on war to the near exclusion of peace fails to do this.
This strategy also allows the United States to fully examine peace options, work with its allies to meet their concerns, and wait to push options forward when the time is right. It is also clear that even compromised real peace will be better for all sides than a bad war. And leaving Russia with no apparent options but Putin’s determination to fight is not the way to pressure Russia to move in the right direction or to mobilize as much support from the rest of the world as possible.
U.S. Strategy, Strategic Triage, and the War in Ukraine
Finally, the United States needs to carry out a grand strategy based on a far sounder form of strategic triage that it performed in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. In all three wars, the United States became far too committed to wars of marginal strategic importance. Unlike these wars, Ukraine has a vital strategic location and involves a Russian strategic challenge that affects all of Europe and the U.S. transatlantic partnership with both NATO and the European Union. This time, there is no question about strategic triage: Ukraine is a case that requires immediate and persistent strategic effort.
The outcome of the war in Ukraine will affect vital U.S. strategic interests for years to come. It is also a clear example that for all the talk of an integrated strategy and a rules-based order, the United States at present only has a limited integrated strategy even for dealing with Europe. Anything that approaches a rules-based order is limited to some developed countries.
Our European allies, including some that still maintain ties to Russia, will judge their own security, U.S. leadership, and value of the United States as a strategic partner, to at least some extent by how well America works with them to secure Ukraine and help it recover. European states also face even more challenges in dealing with the costs of the war than the United States, and at least as much popular and domestic political resistance to aiding Ukraine and rebuilding the real-world security structure of NATO. They also face a potential return to many of the tensions of the Cold War in terms of a Putin-led and hostile Russia, regardless of the outcome of the fighting.
Other strategic partners in Asia, the MENA region, and the rest of the world will see Ukraine as a test of U.S. capability beyond military terms. They will see the war as a test of U.S. capability to compete at a diplomatic and economic level. At least some will also see the war as a test of just how much the United States is focusing on China to the point where its commitments outside Taiwan and dealing with China have far less importance.
As for China, any American failure in dealing with Ukraine and in helping to rebuild an effect NATO will give China a major boost in strategic influence and make it even more reluctant to agree on any kind of “rules-based order.” It will undermine U.S. successes to date in creating anything approaching “integrated deterrence” and help China find bases and create new security relations in Asia and the rest of the world. If the United States falters in dealing with Ukraine, it will lose security and influence relative to two great powers by failing to pay the price of dealing with even one.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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