U.S. pundits: Please stop trying to concede on Ukraine's behalf
There's every reason to keep backing Ukraine.
The Ukraine War has entered a new, slower phase. Russian forces withdrew from the north and concentrated in the east and (to a lesser extent) the south, and started bombarding the Ukrainians with artillery more instead of just trying to drive in with tanks. As a result, the pace of the war has slowed down; the Ukrainians are still stopping most of the Russian advances, and not much territory is changing hands.
In response to this situation, a number of American pundits have started to call for a negotiated settlement that gives Russia some of Ukraine’s territory. For example, here’s the New York Times editorial board on May 19:
[A] negotiated peace may require Ukraine to make some hard decisions…A decisive military victory for Ukraine over Russia, in which Ukraine regains all the territory Russia has seized since 2014, is not a realistic goal. Though Russia’s planning and fighting have been surprisingly sloppy, Russia remains too strong, and Mr. Putin has invested too much personal prestige in the invasion to back down…
Mr. Biden should also make clear to President Volodymyr Zelensky and his people that there is a limit to how far the United States and NATO will go to confront Russia, and limits to the arms, money and political support they can muster.
The venerable Henry Kissinger said much the same in recent remarks at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Christopher Caldwell, writing in the New York Times on May 31, went even farther, blaming the U.S. for prolonging the war. And while Ross Douthat didn’t go as far as these others in a June 4 NYT op-ed, he did express doubt about the U.S.’ current strategy:
[F]or all their defensive successes, we have not yet established that Ukraine’s military can regain significant amounts of territory in the country’s south and east…
[O]ur plan cannot be to keep writing countless checks while tiptoeing modestly around the Ukrainians and letting them dictate the ends to which our guns and weaponry are used. The United States is an embattled global hegemon facing threats more significant than Russia.
These sentiments also seem to echo the recent words of France’s President Macron, who called on Western powers to press for an end to the Ukraine War that doesn’t “humiliate” Putin. Presumably this means letting Russia keep some of the Ukrainian territory it has seized.
This view is madness cloaked in reasonable-sounding language.
First, let’s be clear about some of the facts that these op-eds try to sugar-coat or quietly omit. Russia launched an unprovoked invasion of its neighbor; thus, allowing it to keep some of its conquests would constitute a Russian victory and a Ukrainian defeat. International relations professor Paul Poast explains this quite clearly in a recent thread:
So the NYT editorial board, Macron, and various other pundits suggesting that the U.S. lean on Ukraine to let Russia take its territory are calling for the war to be resolved as a Russian victory.
Also, it’s important to realize that the U.S. is not a combatant. We have provided the Ukrainians with weapons, training, and financial aid, but we have not sent our forces to do any of the fighting. The Ukrainians themselves are deeply committed to pushing Russia out of their territory. Thus, for the U.S. to bring about a “negotiated settlement” in Ukraine means for the U.S. to threaten to withdraw support from Ukraine — thus hamstringing the Ukrainian war effort — unless Ukraine concedes territory to Russia. The various op-eds tend to tiptoe around this fact, but that is what it would require.
Another fact the make-Ukraine-concede advocates tiptoe around is the human cost of Russian occupation for the Ukrainians living in the conquered territories. It is by now common knowledge that these conquered people are being subjected to mass rape, confiscation of food, deportation to Russia, and other atrocities. To suggest that the U.S. hold back from liberating these territories is to suggest that the U.S. abandon those innocent people to their horrific fate. So we should make that crystal-clear as well.
Anyway, those are the stakes. Now let’s talk about why having the U.S. force a Ukrainian concession is a bad idea.
The appeasement strategy was tried before, and it failed
The most obvious reason that the proposed concession strategy is a bad idea is that it has been tried before, and it catastrophically failed. In 2014, Putin seized Crimea and effectively seized a chunk of the Donbas region. Ukraine didn’t cede these territories, but it was unable to take them back, and no one really expected the territories to return to Ukraine. Presumably, if this was all Russia wanted, Putin would have stopped there.
But he did not stop there. Instead, he sent a massive force to the border of Ukraine and invaded, without any provocation on the part of the Ukrainians. Rather than issuing any sort of reasonable demands for the Ukrainians to meet in order to avoid an invasion, Putin simply sent in the tanks. He tried to conquer the Ukrainian capital and seize most or all of the country.
That attempt failed, thanks to the valiant Ukrainian defense and to timely Western aid. But it revealed Putin’s true intentions. The fact that he tried to seize all of Ukraine means that he won’t be satisfied just by carving out another small piece of the country; he wants it all. And the fact that he invaded without any provocation means that as soon as he rebuilds his damaged army, he’ll make another attempt.
In other words, although the U.S. pundits who urge appeasement may fancy themselves the voice of level-headed reason, they are explicitly calling for us to double down on a failed strategy. The burden of proof is on them to explain why appeasement would succeed in 2022 where it failed in 2014, and they have not made that case.
The Russians are not winning
The second reason that urging defeat on Ukraine is madness is that Ukraine is not being defeated. The calls for Ukraine to concede follow a series of small Russian breakthroughs in the east — a bulge in the Ukrainians’ defensive lines at Popasna that threatens to cut off a contested town called Severodonetsk, and the Russian seizure of a town called Lyman. Those minor Russian successes apparently convinced a few U.S. observers that Ukraine’s early victories are done.
But the Russian breakthroughs in the East stalled even as the New York Times was publishing its editorial. This June 4 thread by Phillips P. OBrien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews, explains the situation:
You can see the huge Russian losses associated with the beginning of the Donbas campaign (most famously including a disastrously failed river crossing).
Russia has lost so many armored vehicles that it has been forced to deploy T-62 tanks and other outdated equipment. The T-62 is an obsolete tank that was first deployed in 1961, which says a lot about how many usable modern tanks Russia has left. It’s also having to deploy equipment from its most distant bases in the Russian Far East.
There’s also a good chance that due to sanctions, Russia will struggle mightily to produce new equipment. According to the Russian government’s own numbers, the country’s production of cars and consumer durables has cratered:
Given these struggles, it seems unlikely that military vehicle production is doing much better. There are also reports that Russia’s tank factories have at least temporarily shut down for lack of parts. Russian manufacturing is, in general, extremely dependent on Western components and machinery, from which sanctions have mostly cut it off.
Meanwhile, in addition to grievous losses of heavy equipment, Russia is losing a lot of manpower — 20,000 killed according to NATO’s most recent estimate, 31,000 according to Ukraine’s. The total number of casualties (including wounded) is undoubtedly several times that. Russia’s decision not to declare a general mobilization has left it struggling to find recruits willing to die for Putin’s misadventure. Ukraine, on the other hand, has no such limitation, and is continuously mobilizing and training large amounts of manpower from its smaller but far more motivated population.
The one remaining question, as Douthat writes, seems to be whether or not Ukraine has the offensive punch to retake the territory the Russians have conquered. The Ukrainians have retaken small bits of territory in the northeast (near Kharkiv) and the south (near Kherson), but so far the only big rollback of Russian gains has been the Russian pullout from the north almost two months ago. It remains to be seen whether new long-range artillery systems from the U.S., combined with Russian attrition and Ukrainian mobilization, can force the Russians to pull out of major parts of the east and/or south.
But most wars last more than a couple of months. There are often long periods of stasis before big breakthroughs. To conclude, after two months of stasis and a couple of very minor (dearly bought) Russian advances, that the war is unwinnable for Ukraine is just kind of laughable, given military history.
Now of course, if more months go by and there’s no sign of progress toward liberation of the conquered territories, this outlook will have to change. Doubtless the Ukrainians themselves, if they fail offensively, will look for a negotiated solution themselves, and if they do so, we should support that. But it’s way too early to be calling for Ukraine to offer up a quarter of its country when Russia is performing so poorly.
Weakening Russia weakens the New Axis
The pundits urging appeasement seem to be under the illusion that after the Ukraine War ends — or at least, after a cease-fire is achieved — that Russia and the West will go back to having stable, peaceful relations. But looking at the changes in Russia’s domestic policy and society since the war began, it’s clear that Putin is reorienting his entire country toward a protracted confrontation with the West. That means that no matter how the Ukraine War resolves, there is going to be a long-term, Cold War style confrontation with Russia — possibly even after Putin is out of power, depending on who succeeds him.
Every Russian tank and missile launcher that the Ukrainians destroy, therefore, weakens Russia’s hand in this eventual confrontation. The U.S. and Europe are achieving the destruction of their enemy’s military without taking a single casualty of their own. All they’re sending is spare equipment and money. And not even that much money, really — the recent $40 billion aid package announced by the Biden administration sounds big, but it’s only 0.67% of the federal budget. That’s approximately as much as the U.S. was spending on the war in Afghanistan up until last year. And Afghanistan was a low-intensity occupation — for a great-power conflict to be prosecuted so cheaply is unprecedented in our history. The Korean War, in its final year, cost about 14% of America’s entire GDP; the Ukraine War is costing 0.17%.
As for restoring productive, peaceful relations with Russia, it is now clear that this will only be achievable once Vladimir Putin is out of office. Whether he is removed, steps down, or dies, we will have to wait for his successor in order to reach out an olive branch with any realistic hope of a negotiating partner — just as detente with the USSR had to wait first for Khruschev, then for Gorbachev. The weaker Russia is militarily when Putin is gone, the more incentive his successor will have to blame the war on Putin and make peace with the West.
Finally, there’s the issue of China. Douthat is obviously referencing China when he talks about “threats more significant than Russia”. And he’s right — China is much more powerful, and the U.S. does need to focus its resources on that rivalry.
But stopping Russia is extremely helpful for stopping China. If China sees Russia successfully conquer a quarter of Ukraine, it will be emboldened to attack Taiwan. If China’s leaders see a Ukrainian defeat come after U.S. pressure forced the country to concede, it will raise serious questions about America’s resolve in defending the liberal international order.
Also, Russia is China’s most important ally by far. Before the war, it seemed as if the two were going to unite in a New Axis in order to overthrow the U.S.-led order. But Russian military failures have caused China to distance themselves from Russia a bit; Xi Jinping has little desire to be “shackled to a corpse”, as Germany was tied to the incompetent Austria-Hungary in World War 1. Continued Russian losses and failures will make China feel even more keenly that it has no powerful partners in its drive to remake the world. And going it alone might prove too daunting.
So a successful outcome in the Ukraine War — meaning Ukraine driving Russia out of all the territory it has seized since February — will do much more than simply save a bunch of Ukrainian lives. It has the potential to short-circuit the clash of liberal vs. authoritarian great powers that was shaping up just a few months ago.
Protecting the innocent people of Ukraine from atrocity is important. Enforcing the norm of fixed international borders is important. Weakening Putin’s Russia is important. But if there’s even a small chance of preventing World War 3, I think that’s easily worth a few tens of billions of dollars.
Stay the course.