What to do about Ukraine is a current, burning question in Washington. The Biden Administration wants an additional $61 billion on top of the $113 billion the United States has already given Ukraine in support of its war against Russia. Proponents of the spending argue that Ukraine must win this war if Russian President Vladimir Putin is to be kept from attacking NATO countries. President Joe Biden on October 19 warned that the United States was “at a real inflection point in history” with regard to its support for Ukraine and Israel. A recent WSJ editorial argued that if Ukraine were to lose the war, “[o]ne result would be an unstable Europe.” It raised the specter of an “overrun Ukraine” if the United States fails to provide the requested support.
Yet, despite all this urgency, the Biden Administration has yet to articulate what it constitutes “winning” in Ukraine. According to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine must restore its 1991 borders, retaking not only all eastern Ukraine but also Crimea. He appears to have found little support for that position or his funding request during his December 2023 visit to Washington, D.C., perhaps because the positions of Russia and Ukraine in the east have changed very little from 2022 to 2023. As Senator J.D. Vance (R-OH) put it: “The idea the Ukraine was going to throw Russia back to the 1991 borders was preposterous…So what we’re saying to the president…is you need to articulate what ambition is. What is $61 billion going to accomplish that $100 billion hasn’t?”
Early on, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the goal was to degrade Russian military capabilities. That goal then receded into the mist. For long, Biden promised to do “whatever it takes” to support Ukraine. He has now shifted his stance, saying the United States would be with Ukraine “as long as we can.” Again, what is striking is that there’s no mention of what would constitute “winning.”
The ties between Ukraine and Russia have been intertwined for centuries. U.S. diplomat George Kennan noted in 1948 that “there is no clear dividing line between Russia and Ukraine, and it would be impossible to establish one.” Ukraine is also important to Russia from a security standpoint, as it has been a route of attack from the West in the past. For years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, both Russia and Ukraine maneuvered carefully to avoid open conflict. That ended in 2014: the Maidan revolution in Ukraine overthrew pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, and Putin responded by annexing Crimea and sending Russian forces into eastern Ukraine.
After two failed peace agreements in 2014 and 2015, low-grade warfare with mounting casualties has continued for years. It is difficult to discern a realistic U.S. goal in such a situation. Zelensky’s goal of retaking Crimea is even more problematic, as Crimea houses the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. A 2010 controversial Russian-Ukrainian accord allowed the Russian headquarters to remain there until 2042; Russia revoked the agreement after it annexed Crimea in 2014. In the course of the war, Ukraine has attacked a number of Black Sea Fleet assets, including a missile attack last September on the Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Crimea. Does the United States really want to be sucked into that confrontation? The Biden Administration’s October 2022 national security strategy condemns Russia’s “imperialist foreign policy” and pledges support for Ukraine but certainly does not suggest that the United States take on the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
While ignoring the concrete questions of what constitutes “winning” for Ukraine, U.S. officials and pundits repeatedly raise the Russian threat to NATO. In arguing for the supplemental funding, Biden warned: “If Putin takes Ukraine, he won’t stop there…If Putin attacks a NATO ally…Then we’ll have something we don’t seek and that we don’t have today.”
This assertion is in striking contrast to a Newsweek story of last July that CIA chief Bill Burns reportedly reached a deal with Putin in November 2021 before the outbreak of the current war: “The United States would not fight directly [against Russia in Ukraine] nor seek regime change [in Russia], the Biden administration pledged. Russia would limit its assault to Ukraine and act in accordance with unstated but well-understood guidelines for secret operations.”
In other words, Putin allegedly promised not to attack a NATO country, while Burns accepted a Russian attack on Ukraine. If true, this deal undercuts all the U.S. declarations of support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity (and could possibly explain an early Biden declaration that this would be just a little war). It also directly contradicts the Administration’s very public argument that an attack on Ukraine threatens Europe in general.
NATO certainly figures large in Putin’s view of Ukraine. As he stated prior to the invasion: “We cannot but be concerned about the prospect of Ukraine’s possible admission to NATO because this will undoubtedly be followed by the deployment of appropriate military contingents, bases, and weapons that threaten us.” Ironically, the war led to the expansion of NATO to include Finland and, most likely, Sweden. Putin then threatened Finland; subsequent to that threat, Finland signed a Defense Cooperation Agreement with the United States.
Despite his obvious antagonism, Putin has yet to take any direct military action against a NATO country, suggesting that he regards NATO as a “hard border” to be respected. Thus, a U.S. warning that failure to provide additional funds to Ukraine will lead to a Russian attack on NATO seems farfetched.
If a Russian attack on NATO is as unlikely as a negotiated settlement for either eastern Ukraine or Crimea, what is the U.S. goal in this war?