It’s Time to Stop Backing Ukraine

There is no victory in this war. There are only bad and worse outcomes.

Sep 24, 2023
Chris McGrath / Getty Images

Last February, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine entered its second year, President Biden visited Poland and pledged the United States’ eternal support for the Ukrainian military. “Our support for Ukraine will not waver,” Biden declared. “NATO will not be divided, and we will not tire.”

A few days before, Vice President Kamala Harris had made the same promise. “The United States will support Ukraine for as long as it takes,” she told an audience in Germany. “We will not waver.”

“If Putin thinks he can wait us out, he is badly mistaken,” the Vice President went on. “Time is not on his side.”

But that’s not what the United States’ top military officer appears to believe. Two weeks ago, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley told the BBC that the vaunted Ukrainian counteroffensive has only until the autumn weather turns, and the cold and the rain impede the maneuverability of Ukrainian forces, to achieve its goals. Time is running out for the Ukrainian army’s best and perhaps only chance at driving the Russians out of Crimea and the Donbas region.

For months, analysts and media pundits hyped the Ukrainian counteroffensive as the campaign that could finally turn the momentum of the war against Russia. “This assault could turn the tide of the battle for Ukraine, just as the Allied assault on the Normandy beaches altered the trajectory of World War II,” trumpeted Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. The counteroffensive would “achieve significant breakthroughs and accomplish much more than most analysts are predicting,” former General David Petraeus told Washington Post columnist Max Boot. Russian forces may “collapse over broad areas,” Petraeus further speculated.

Privately, the Biden administration was less optimistic. A top secret intelligence document leaked on Discord anticipated only “modest territorial gains” by the Ukrainian army. That bleak prognostication appears to be materializing. Ukraine has thus far failed to break through Russia’s defenses, and U.S. intelligence agencies do not expect the Ukrainian army to capture Melitopol — a key objective of the counteroffensive, as doing so would put the Ukrainian army in a position to cut off the land bridge to Crimea, severing Russia’s supply lines.

In his BBC interview, Milley insisted that the counteroffensive is making “very steady progress,” a talking point that Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also recited. And indeed, late last month, the Ukrainian army punctured the first of Russia’s three defensive layers in Southern Ukraine. But even the best-case scenario, described to The Economist by a Defense Intelligence Agency official, doesn’t put Ukrainian soldiers past the third line of defense until the end of the year, deep into the season Milley expects to stymie Ukrainian progress, and with winter around the corner.

Even if, by some extraordinary turn of events, the counteroffensive broke through Russia’s defenses this year, Ukrainian forces would likely be so depleted as to be in no position to push beyond that point and take back Crimea. For months, the Ukrainian government has struggled to conscript troops, as fighting-age men have hidden from recruitment officers, bribed them, or simply ignored summonses. In January, rates of desertion and disobedience among Ukrainian soldiers forced President Zelensky to sign a bill increasing prison sentences to a decade or longer. Though Russia, too, is facing similar problems, it has a larger population to draw on.

If the counteroffensive fails and Russia maintains control of Crimea, the only way Ukraine could prevail over the long term would be with NATO troops directly in combat — a suicidal situation that would invite a global nuclear confrontation. And even then, a victory for Ukraine that comes years rather than weeks from now could come at the price of the total destruction of the entire country.

In interviews, Ukrainians have characterized the counteroffensive as a “disappointment.”

“I want the price they paid to be reasonable,” the wife of a combat veteran told The Washington Post in August. “Otherwise it’s just useless, what they went through.”

Her husband, who lost a leg to a landmine, told the Post that soldiers on the frontline are unprepared and unmotivated. Another Kyiv resident said that new soldiers last just two to three days on the front.

And yet, the Biden administration is pushing for another $24 billion aid package for Ukraine. “There’s no alternative,” President Biden said about continued financing of the war.

Ukraine is turning into the proxy version of Afghanistan or Iraq: an endless conflict in which victory is always around the corner, in which the Pentagon and the defense industry push for escalation after escalation regardless of the reality on the ground, in which deaths mount and a country is destroyed only to end in defeat or a Pyrrhic victory years later, once enough American voters have had their fill of war.

But Biden is wrong: there is an alternative. It’s time to stop backing Ukraine and force an end to the war.

War Games

Evan Vucci / Getty Images

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Categories: Geopolitics, Military

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