AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Roman
With Russian forces having failed to take Kyiv after four weeks of effort, the Biden Department of Defense was willing to do a victory lap. “What we’re seeing is a near-desperate attempt by the Russians to gain some momentum and try to turn the course of this in their favor,” Steve Kirby, the Pentagon’s spokesman told the press corps Monday. “ And doing so could simply be… an attempt to improve their position at the negotiating table, to get some kind of leverage because right now, it doesn’t appear like they have a lot of leverage to negotiate with.”
All well and good, if true. But Kirby’s description illustrates a major, if not the major weakness of Biden’s entire approach to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Kirby describes it from the perspective of a bystander. His tone was reflective of a fan describing a sports game. Kirby and the Biden administration are keeping score, rooting for the Ukrainians, and shipping them weapons of course, but the idea that “negotiations” might not be an effort for Russia to extract itself seems lost on them. Biden and his team seem to have no vision for how they want this resolved other than dead Russians, a collapsed Russian economy, and a geopolitical humiliation for Vladimir Putin. They have in the process failed to define what the United States wants from any sort of settlement, and therefore what “winning” would look like.
Before the war, foreign policy “realists” warned that rightly or wrongly, Russia had interpreted NATO expansion as a threat, and that the United States, by pushing that expansion was creating the conditions for a conflict over something neither Washington nor its allies actually wanted (Ukrainian membership in NATO), and in the process, the West was pushing China and Russia into a dangerous alliance. The “neo-conservative” or interventionist wing of the American establishment countered that Ukrainians had the democratic right to choose their political and cultural orientation, they had chosen the West, and the West has an obligation to support them because of that. The former group views the outbreak of the war as a political disaster, but vindication for the latter group has been in the realm of public opinion alone. They have certainly rallied most Americans to the cause of supporting Ukraine against Russia, but have failed to define any positive way this could reasonably end.
The great Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz once said that war is the continuation of politics by other means. By this, he meant that military force could be used to successfully advance political objectives, but military success was ultimately worthless without a viable political goal. Napoleon could win any number of battles, but as long as he lacked a vision of the peace he wanted to achieve, it could only could lead to more war. More war meant that he could win any number of battles, but one defeat would undo him.
Russia’s problem in the Ukraine, beyond all the tactical and organizational flaws of the Russian army that have been revealed, or the dire state of its logistics system, is that Putin, like Napoleon, embarked on a military campaign not to achieve a specific political objective, but rather in the hope that the conflict itself would provide one. Having failed to achieve any of a long list of goals over his 20+ years in power – equal partnership with the United States in a global order during the Bush years, a sphere of influence under Obama, a modus vivendi under Trump, or even promises regarding NATO expansion from Biden, Putin was faced with the prospect of retreating again or rolling the dice with use of force, and he chose to gamble.
Whether the goal was a puppet government, an agreement with Kyiv to keep Ukraine neutral and out of NATO, annexation, partition, or an agreement with Washington, the expectation was that military success was more likely to produce at least one of those than continued diplomacy. Yet by failing to set a political objective, Putin also failed to set a military one. If his goal was negotiations, he should have targeted the Ukrainian army in the East. If it was a puppet regime, he needed to seize Kyiv. He tried to do both and accomplished neither.
It is important that the U.S. does not repeat the same error. There is a lot of discussion about what terms may be acceptable to Kyiv, but not what terms will be acceptable to the U.S. But the U.S. is not a bystander, no matter what Biden administration officials sometimes seem to imply. The U.S. and its NATO allies are Ukraine’s major suppliers of weapons. The nature of Ukraine’s “neutrality” in any agreement will have a lot to do with what weapons the U.S. rushes to Kyiv afterward. The sanctions which are crippling Russia’s domestic economy are orchestrated by the United States. The boycotts of Russia are largely by American and European countries. Zelensky cannot lift sanctions or boycotts he did not impose.
Would the U.S. be willing to lift sanctions regardless of what Russia does? It is unclear. Suggestions from Joe Biden that Vladimir Putin is a war criminal and from other officials that the Russian President and his entourage should face war crimes trials imply that it is unlikely the sanctions will ever be lifted on the current Russian government. This alone risks providing Putin with dangerous incentives for further escalation. If the sanctions will remain in effect regardless, then the value of a deal with the Ukrainian government goes down for Russia. Instead, the value of the Ukrainian people as hostages goes up. Defeating the Ukrainian army will not lift sanctions, nor will pulling out. But, as unthinkable as it may be, causing enough suffering and death to Ukrainian civilians, maybe even using chemical weapons (as the Biden administration has warned), might well lead Washington to reconsider and grow desperate to end the war.
This is not an argument against sanctions. They are vital to pressuring Moscow to end the war. But they will only work if there is a prospect they will be actually be lifted if Moscow does end the war. Without that, they merely provide Moscow a reason to kill more and more people until the West comes to the table.
It is also worth asking whether the long-term isolation of the Russian state and economy is even in the best interests of the United States. Many realists argued that the U.S.-Russian conflict is not just a distraction from the need to counter a rising China, but aiding China by pushing Moscow into an alliance with Beijing. While it seems unlikely that Russia could have been as easily wooed as some think, there is truth to the argument that the failure to build a modern, successful, and prosperous Russia during the 1990s contributed to the defeat of those in Russian politics who wished for an alliance with the West. A Russia which is bankrupt, with its independent media gone, internet firewalled, and intelligentsia long since forced underground will be a satellite of Beijing.
Furthermore, while alarmist, worries that the sort of sanctions inflicted on Russia will undermine the position of the dollar and the dominance of Western financial systems such as SWIFT are not entirely without merit. Those sanctions are producing a public relations backlash in India and Africa, and the longer they are in effect the more incentive there is to develop alternatives. On the other hand, if they are lifted relatively quickly, Russia will have incentives to return to Western institutions out of familiarity and inertia.
For all these reasons, the Biden administration should not be reveling in the current stalemate as any kind of victory and mocking Russia’s lack of leverage in talks. Rather, the U.S. should take advantage of this to figure out what settlement it can live with, one which brings this war to a close. Looking at from the distance of history rather than the horror of the moment, we may ultimately look back and see that the United States has potentially gained quite a lot by Putin’s miscalculation. NATO is rejuvenated with increased spending commitments across the board. The prestige of Western military doctrine and technology has been redeemed after the fall of Kabul. A new unified Ukrainian national identity has been forged which might well see the country transformed for the better if the war does not utterly destroy it.
It is time to look for an exit ramp which will let us end this before it gets much worse. Allowing Ukraine to turn into Syria will risk everything that has been achieved both by the Ukrainians and the West over the last month. It will subject the Ukrainian people to untold suffering. It will only push Russia closer to China. It will lead much of the developing world to blame the West should the fighting grow more desperate—already there are those accusing the West of being willing to “fight to the last Ukrainian”. The only winners will be in Beijing. The Biden team needs to lead.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.