Why the West is losing Ukraine

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Not so dynamic duo

Beyond fear, diplomats and experts pointed to the dynamic between Scholz and Biden as a driving force behind the West’s overriding strategy of incrementalism and escalation management, rather than a focus on strategic outcomes, in dealing with Ukraine. Despite a 16-year age difference, both men came of age politically during the Cold War and its widespread fears of nuclear armageddon. Both are deeply wedded to the U.S.-led international order and NATO protections for Europe. Both are men of the left who are instinctively suspicious of armed intervention and, temperamentally speaking, risk-averse and uncomfortable with geopolitical gamesmanship, experts and diplomats argued.

“Biden, we know, has always been ideologically opposed to the idea of intervention and war — see his chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan,” said the first diplomat. “In this case, he is doing everything possible not to have a confrontation with Russia. America used to be strong on strategic ambiguity. But Biden has gone out of his way to telegraph moves in advance throughout this conflict. In this sense, he has found commonality with Chancellor Scholz, who is also cautious by nature.”

A former far-left activist who traveled to Moscow in his youth and rose through the ranks of a German Social Democratic Party known for its historic sympathy toward Russia, Scholz wasn’t naturally configured to be a Russia hawk. “He has come a huge distance, but nobody knows to what extent that legacy [of deference toward Russia] is still with him.”

U.S. President Joe Biden meets with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the White House | Win McNamee/Getty Images

Experts also pointed to the key role of advisers, namely U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Scholz’s advisers Schmidt and Jens Plötner, a foreign policy adviser, in shaping their bosses’ approach. Diplomats and experts consulted for this article described Sullivan as being “highly intelligent,” “not deeply experienced on national security,” “ultimately career-driven” and “a bit short on emotional intelligence.” Schmidt gets “inseparable from Scholz,” “very cautious,” “basically terrified of Russia,” “not as big a foreign policy expert as he thinks he is.” Plötner, in turn, is described as “a super close confidante,” “Russia-friendly,” “unconvinced by the narrative that an attack on Ukraine is an attack on all of us.”

“Together these two [Sullivan and Schmidt] engineered the idea that Russia would eventually get ground down and be discouraged,” said Hunter Christie. “That may have avoided nuclear war, but it has trapped us between two suboptimal outcomes: a bigger war with Russia or the collapse of Ukraine, which would be a shock and a humiliation and a demonstration of Western weakness.”

The role of other leaders in shaping Western policy is not to be under-estimated. Ukrainian sources tend to identify the United Kingdom, under both ex-Prime Minister Boris Johnson and current PM Rishi Sunak, as a staunch ally that helped to break Western reticence on delivering certain weapons. They credit acting Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte with having broken a taboo on the delivery of Western fighter jets, as the Netherlands is currently preparing to deliver 24 F-16s to Ukraine at some point later this year, according to the Dutch Defense Ministry. Nordic, Baltic, Central and Eastern European states, namely Poland, win high marks from Ukrainian officials for the depth of their commitment to Ukraine’s victory — exemplified by Denmark’s recent decision to send all of its artillery to Kyiv.



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