Should the West Keep Arming Ukraine or Push for Peace?

Emma Ashford: Aloha, Matt! I’m here on vacation in Hawaii, but glad we can still chat. Of course, I hadn’t expected the eyes of the world to be on Hawaii when I booked my holiday, but it’s been a horrifying week for the people of Maui, where wildfires ripped through the town of historic Lahaina, destroying most of the community and killing more than 100 people.

Things are going on as normal here on the other Hawaiian islands, but Maui will take a long time to recover from this disaster. It’s a reminder of the perils of climate-induced weather shifts and the dangers that can result.

Matt Kroenig: The Maui fires are truly tragic. Combined with the extreme weather in Europe and recent wildfires in Italy, Greece, and Canada, this is becoming a story of the summer. We should devote a future column to a debate on climate change.

I hope you and your family are staying safe. And you are really showing your devotion to this column by taking time away from your Hawaiian vacation.

EA: And miss an opportunity to tell you when you’re wrong? Never. (And dear readers, if you want to help those on Maui, you can donate to the Red Cross or to other reputable charities.)

MK: Ha. Well, what topic should I be wrong about this week? We have news on the stalled Ukrainian offensive, the Biden administration putting in place restrictions on outbound investment to China, and much else to discuss.

EA: I think it’s time we talked about the Ukrainian offensive. We’ve been resisting discussing this for a while. Like a lot of folks, I think we were keen not to dismiss Ukraine’s chances without giving it enough time. But now that Ukraine itself acknowledges that the offensive is proceeding far more slowly than initially hoped, and it’s being widely reported in the press, we need to talk about the poor progress of the offensive, the Western choices that played into the situation, and what the future of the conflict looks like.

First up, do we agree on the facts? Ukraine has taken relatively little territory; has been forced to commit its reserves without any major breakthrough; and while I wouldn’t call the offensive a failure, it’s not a stunning success either.

MK: We agree on those facts, but I think part of the problem was not Ukraine’s performance, but unrealistic expectations in the West. Given recent history, like the smashing of Saddam Hussein’s regular military in 2003, Americans tend to think of offensive military operations as something done with overwhelming force and lasting only a matter of weeks.

But in Ukraine we are talking about Russia, a dug-in great power playing defense against a less powerful foe. What is the better historical comparison? The last time the free world tried to dislodge a European great power was arguably World War II, and it took the United States and its allies almost two years from the start of the Italian campaign, after Germany occupied much of Italy, to the end of the war to defeat the Nazis.

We probably should have expected that this was going to take some time.

EA: Or that it might not be possible. There’s a reason that commentators are harkening back to the first and second world wars looking for a parallel here. An entrenched enemy, a heavily mined battlefield; it bears little resemblance to America’s more recent wars.

As Barry Posen, one of the best military and strategy analysts around, wrote here at Foreign Policy a few weeks back, “military history suggests the challenges here are also more daunting than have been commonly understood—at least among the public in the West.” Russia has had months to entrench and build fortifications; it has at least three fortified lines known as “defense in depth,” with significant swaths of minefield for Ukrainian forces to clear as they move forward. And both sides are increasingly relying on undertrained conscripts, where defense is much easier to learn than offense. Ukraine is fighting an uphill battle here.

So Posen is right about the naiveté of Western policymakers and publics, who genuinely don’t understand—or, rather, don’t have the historical or military background to understand—that fights of this kind are difficult at best and impossible at worst, particularly when air superiority is not available. There’s been this idea in European capitals and in Washington that if they just provide Kyiv everything it asks for, then it can retake territory. There is no need for tough choices in that world! All it takes is willpower on the part of Western elites to support Ukraine.

But what this offensive is showing is that with all the will in the world, there may still not be a way for Ukraine to retake all its territory.

MK: So, we agree that the counteroffensive was not as easy as many expected. The real debate I suspect will be what to do about it now. If at first you don’t succeed, should you give up or try harder?

The give-up camp might argue that the stalled counteroffensive proves that reclaiming all of the taken Ukrainian territory is impossible and that Kyiv should negotiate a cease-fire that would leave Russia in control of large parts of Ukraine. I think this would be a mistake as it would essentially reward Russian aggression, give it time to lick its wounds, and relaunch a further invasion of Ukraine in the near future.

I would put myself in the try-harder camp. The Western support has been halfhearted, and it has forced Ukraine to fight with one arm tied behind its back, by denying Ukrainian requests for military equipment at each stage of the conflict. You are correct that the counteroffensive is suffering due to a lack of air superiority, but Western powers can help fix that by providing aircraft, longer-range weapons, and air and missile defenses.

The reason they held back is that they feared Russian escalation. You appealed to Posen’s authority. Let me invoke the authority former U.S. national security advisor John Bolton, who has argued this was an overly cautious approach. Russian President Vladimir Putin does not want a war with NATO and is bluffing about nuclear use at this stage in the war.

 EA: Now you’re just trying to bait me. The only thing Bolton is an authority on is growing a mustache.

MK: The White House wrongly thought it could follow a Goldilocks approach. It would provide just enough military support to help Ukraine win, but not enough to provoke Russia into escalating. That did not work.

I think now we are at a time for choosing. If the West truly wants Ukraine to win, as it has essentially said in several recent statements, including at the G-7 summit, then it will need to start acting like it.

EA: No, I’m sorry. That argument just doesn’t cut it. You say Western support has been “halfhearted”? Maybe in some European capitals, but Washington has emptied its stockpiles of arms and sent hundreds of billions of dollars of equipment to Ukraine. At times, the White House has been cautious about sending new military equipment because of the risks of escalation, a fear that I think is entirely justifiable. After all, the Ukrainians promised that they wouldn’t use U.S. weapons systems to hit targets inside Russian territory and now are regularly targeting Moscow.

And need I remind you that Washington sent so much artillery ammunition to Ukraine that stocks are running low, worrying Western officials, and the U.S. had to resort to sending cluster munitions instead?

The U.S. government has done more than anyone would have imagined at the start of this war. The simple fact is that there are practical limitations here. It cannot provide the Ukrainians with air superiority, although it can start the—very slow—process of training their pilots on better planes. Washington cannot provide Ukraine with a constant stream of new, modern ammunition if the factories can’t actually make it fast enough—or if it is needed elsewhere in the world. And it cannot conquer the simple reality that offense is harder than defense.

So given that, what is the best approach? A long, grinding war of attrition, or an attempt to find a cease-fire? Both have downsides. But I don’t think we should be kidding ourselves that there are other options here.

MK: You present a false choice. The other option is to actually help Ukraine win. And, yes, I do think Washington’s support has been halfhearted. President Joe Biden was against sending HIMARS, and then he was for it. He was against sending tanks, and then he was for it. He was against sending aircraft, and then he was for it. He was against sending cluster munitions, and then he was for it. Now he is against sending ATACMS, but by the time this column is published, he may be for it. And, as you point out, the White House is still prohibiting Ukraine from striking inside Russia with American weapons.

If America….

EA: I need more specifics than that. What other weapons will the United States be sending? Say Biden sends ATACMS. What’s left—the F-35? Where is the ammunition coming from? We don’t have the stockpiles.

MK: If America were fighting this war, how would it have done it? It would have used everything at its disposal from day one. What if it had helped Ukraine do that from the start instead of the drip, drip, drip of assistance over the past 18 months? So, I hope it is not too little, too late, but Washington should provide Ukraine everything it wants except nuclear weapons.

And the stockpiles are running low, not because the West provided Ukraine with so much assistance, but because the stockpiles were insufficient. This was a good wake-up call to defense experts, Congress, and the defense industrial base. As we enter a world in which the West will need to deter, and God forbid, possibly defeat China and Russia at the same time, leaders need to shift from a defense industrial base designed for sufficiency to one optimized for capacity.

EA: But America isn’t fighting this war for a reason. Two reasons, actually: Biden doesn’t want to get in a nuclear war with Russia, and U.S. interests in Ukraine aren’t enough to actually warrant a direct war there.

If America were fighting this war, it would have retooled the economy for military production over the last 18 months to the extent possible and likely would have reinstated the draft. But it didn’t do these things, because the country is not actually at war. And I cannot see the American people choosing to build a war economy in order to supply Ukraine with ammunition. Especially not when a majority of the public now opposes sending significant further funds to Ukraine!

Again, it’s a question of constraints. The United States cannot provide Ukraine what it needs to retake all its territory without significant risks to its own interests and costs to its own economy. There are no good choices here, but I just don’t see what you’re proposing as feasible in reality.

MK: The American people chose to spend an average of 6-7 percent of GNP on defense during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Now it is entering a second cold war with both China and Russia, and the United States is only spending 3.1 percent of GDP on defense. This should be increased to at least 5 percent immediately.

You cited two reasons the United States is not fighting this war with its own troops, but you overlooked the single most important one: The United States can smash the Russian military without risking a single American life. The war is of course a tragedy for Ukraine and the world, but Russia’s recklessness also creates an opportunity to advance U.S. security interests, and it should seize it.

My feasible proposal is to lift the artificial restrictions on Ukraine, give it what it needs, and let it do what it wants to do to win the war.

What is your proposal?

EA: That everyone in D.C. take a step back from the sunk-cost fallacy and consider whether the goals that Ukraine has laid out are feasible, and then structure future U.S. support for Ukraine based on that assessment.

Let’s not forget here that Ukraine has already won a tremendous victory of the kind rarely seen in history. It fought a great-power neighbor to a standstill, preventing Russia from toppling its government, retained its sovereignty and democracy, and reclaimed something like 50 percent of its lost territory. What we’re talking about now is a smaller amount of territory in the east of the country, including territory taken in the 2014 conflict. This is already a clear victory not just for Ukraine, but for U.S. foreign policy and for the democratic West.

Washington should be looking for ways to consolidate that win, stabilize Ukraine, and make sure that it can defend itself in the future. Right now, there aren’t really any active peace talks, but this would be a good time to figure out if there are any possibilities to pursue a cease-fire after this offensive is over.

MK: Good points. Maybe we should be content with what we have already achieved. Speaking of which, since we are at the end of the column, I assume you will agree to cede to me all the remaining points of disagreement.

EA: Touché. But here’s the thing: If we wrap up now, I can save up my best arguments, build a strong defense against your future arguments, and get more time at the pool. Strategic thinking at its best.

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