by Paolo von Schirach —
WASHINGTON — If we look at the whole Ukraine drama, the US did not and does not shine. True, America is now the main source of military and financial support for Ukraine. Significant military training to Ukrainian soldiers has been provided, with more underway. And this is coupled with large amounts of weapons, ammunition, and financial aid. Furthermore, America has worked and is working with various European allies, pressuring them to contribute to this major war effort. It is clear to all that, without Washington’s help, the Russian forces, even if badly equipped and poorly led, would have prevailed against the outgunned Ukrainians at this point. And yet, if we look at the whole picture, from the beginning of this drama back in 2014, America has done rather poorly overall.
The Obama years
If we go back to the Obama years, it was obvious that the US administration did not consider the invasion of Crimea –by any measure a blatant infringement of Ukrainian sovereignty– a serious enough matter that would warrant a robust American response. The clear signals given by Washington at that time were that America did not want to have anything to do with this conflict affecting Ukraine.
True, Washington protested loudly after the Russian occupation and then swift annexation of Crimea. But that was that. When then Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko came to Washington begging for weapons after the Russian started the insurrection in the Donbass Region, in the east of the country, Obama offered him –and this is no joke– blankets, and meals ready to eat, (MREs). Yes, Ukraine was in big trouble. But Washington obviously did not believe that this regional conflict rose to the level of a national security threat to America. The Russians invade a sovereign country; Washington sends blankets.
The Biden deterrent failed
Years later, at the beginning of 2022, when it became obvious that Russia was about to attack Ukraine, the Biden administration’s reaction was: “Please do not do this”. And when this plea proved to be insufficient, Biden threatened to retaliate against a Russian invasion with –he claimed– the most devastating economic sanctions in modern history. Supposedly, this was our deterrent: “Mr. Putin, you do this, and we shall cripple your economy. Mark my words: you will be very sorry”.
Well, that did not work either. The Washington threat of turbo-charged, devastating sanctions did not deter Moscow. And, indeed, in hindsight we know that Putin calculated well. No doubt the sanctions hurt Russia, but not badly enough. The sanctions are not preventing Russia from continuing its military operations in Ukraine –and this was the goal when the supposedly devastating sanctions were enforced. Down the line, the Russian economy, deprived of Western inputs, capital and supplies, will be weakened. Yes weakened, but not crippled. Russia has other suppliers, while many countries are willing to buy the oil and gas that Europe now refuses. Russia may be limping a bit, may be quite a bit; but it is still a viable country, very much capable of continuing this bloody war, horrible human and economic losses notwithstanding.
Moving on, after realizing that the threat of sanctions did not deter Russia, while the enforcement of the sanctions did not stop Moscow in its tracks, what did Washington do? Certainly a lot, as indicated above. But not nearly enough. And here is the problem.
Washington reluctance and delays
For more than a year we have watched the painfully disappointing show of the Ukrainians begging for more weapons, with truly lethal weapons in the mix, while Washington dithered, delayed and delayed any decisions that involved a substantial increase of Ukrainian battle field capabilities. It took months and months before long range artillery and missiles were given to the Ukrainians. More months to agree to send them battle tanks, and additional political and diplomatic contortions to agree to send them F-16 fighters –from NATO Allies, mind you, not from the US.
The net effect that this reluctant US-led, ally posture has yielded is the military stalemate that we all can see. Led by incompetent generals relying on untrained troops, the Russian invaders cannot win. They are manifestly unable to conquer Ukraine. However, they still hold on to large portions of Ukraine’s sovereign territory. Helped by the US, Poland, the UK, the Baltic countries and other European nations, the Ukrainians bravely hold the line. But they cannot win; because the quantity and quality of hardware they have at this time (even including future deliveries) is insufficient to organize the formidable offensive force they would need to break through and crush the Russian defensive positions, regain all their territory, and win the war.
The purpose of war is victory
Oddly enough, America once again fails to remember that the purpose of war is not a stalemate. The purpose of war is victory. As Karl von Clausewitz put it long ago: “The military power [of the enemy] must be destroyed, that is, reduced to such a state as not to be able to prosecute the war.” Got this? The sole purpose of war is to deprive the enemy of the means to continue its military operations. And this happens only after its armed forces have been destroyed by superior military strength. It is palpably obvious that we are not pursuing this strategic objective.
The fiction of western unity
At regular intervals, the US and other NATO countries publicly congratulate one another, extolling the unity of purpose, the joint efforts, and the steadfastness of their nations in this mission to help Ukraine. But this is mostly fiction. In reality, most NATO Allies are doing little or nothing to help Ukraine, while others are doing some, and only very few a lot. Still, if we looked at the combined financial, military and technological resources of the West and what is actually been done to help Ukraine, it is clear to all that we could do at the very least double of what we are doing.
There will be no nuclear war
I fully understand the legitimate apprehensions related to any unwanted consequences of a major military escalation that could get out of control. Nobody wants to do something that might trigger nuclear war. However, supposedly both sides –Moscow and Washington– know that a nuclear war is unwinnable. The sobering reality of Mutual Assured Destruction, MAD, has not been superseded by a new strategic doctrine that posits victory for one side in an all out nuclear exchange. If this is so, then why should we be deterred by Russian threats of nuclear escalation if we committed much more to this conflict, while the Russians can sleep comfortably knowing that we would never go there? Self-deterrence is a bad policy choice.
The truth of the matter is that this is a nasty regional conflict that Ukraine could win, provided a significant increase in our military contributions. Giving to Ukraine enough to survive, but not enough to win is an inconclusive policy that betrays the fact that the US has no clear strategic objective.
Russia must be defeated in Ukraine
The strategic objective should be the quick obliteration of the Russian invaders. Not the destruction of Russia, mind you. But the complete defeat of the invading army, until what’s left of it turns around and runs for the border. Remember the mighty Iraqi army in 1991, rushing out of Kuwait, pursued by US ground attack aircraft? That’s what we need to see in Ukraine. This outcome is not a dream. Europe and the US, acting jointly, can give the Ukrainians all what they need to accomplish this objective. But this will not happen unless the US states that this is our goal, and acts accordingly.
Paolo von Schirach is the Editor of the Schirach Report He is also the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC.