Premature self-congratulation won’t help the US in Ukraine

To hear the Biden administration talk, Ukraine’s war is nearly won — and the United States wants some of the credit for winning it.

“Russia is failing. Ukraine succeeds”, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said last month.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III went one step further. The United States doesn’t just help Ukraine win, he said; it uses the war to undermine Russia’s status as a world power.

“We want Russia to be so weakened that it can no longer do what it did by invading Ukraine,” Austin said.

Last week, US officials announced that: US intelligence helped Ukrainian forces kill as many as 12 Russian generals and sink the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet – humiliating setbacks for Moscow’s once-proud armed forces.

It is, of course, good news that Ukraine is holding out against the Russian invasion. And yes, the United States and its allies deserve credit for helping the Kiev government survive.

But there are a few things wrong with this photo.

For starters, Ukraine hasn’t quite won yet. The pounding in the chest is premature.

Russian forces are close to taking full control of the port city Mariupol† that will give it a prize it has long sought: a “land bridge” between the Crimean peninsula and Russia. The Russians could also expand their territory in eastern Ukraine, where fighting is fierce. If that happens, Kiev’s “victory” may soon look less impressive.

On the other hand, it is unusual for US officials to claim credit, even anonymously, for successfully sharing information. The problem is not that they are revealing state secrets; Russia already knew that the US was helping the Ukrainians target.

The problem is that President Vladimir Putin has tried to gain support – both from his own people and from other countries – by portraying Russia as the victim of an American plot. We just helped him with his case.

“The war in Ukraine has nothing to do with Ukraine,” a commentary on Russian state television said last week. “The war in Ukraine was meant to trigger a regime change in Moscow.”

The commentator was Tucker Carlson of Fox News.

More importantly, the United States has quietly escalated its goals into the war, but without much clarity as to what exactly they are.

That’s a phenomenon known as “mission creep,” and it’s a recipe for trouble. Just ask former President George W. Bush, who led the United States to over-ambitious wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“You don’t want to pressure yourself to do more than is sensible,” Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations, a top State Department official in the Bush administration, told me.

One of the reasons the US-led alliance in support of Ukraine has held up so impressively is that its original purpose was clearly and widely shared: to help the Kiev government defend itself.

Now the goals are getting blurry, and that’s starting to create divisions among US allies.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu recently complained that some members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization “want the war to continue. … They want Russia to get weaker,” a clear reference to Austin’s announced goals.

Meanwhile, Britain’s combative Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said her country is determined to “drive Russia out of all of Ukraine,” a more ambitious goal than even the Biden administration has embraced.

“I don’t think we have a shared definition of success,” Haass said. “That is a problem.”

Expanding the goals of the war could strengthen Putin’s determination to keep fighting or prompt him to escalate, perhaps resorting to chemical or nuclear weapons

“Austin’s statement reinforces Putin’s belief that this is an existential threat,” Haass warned. “You don’t want to push him into an angle smaller than the one he’s already painted himself in.”

One day Russia and Ukraine will decide to stop fighting. At that point, negotiations for a ceasefire will have to take place and, perhaps, negotiations for a peace settlement. US diplomats may even want to dust off the concept of “offramps” — offers to make it easier for Russia to compromise.

And once the war is over, the United States and Russia will still have to negotiate a wide range of issues.

Escalating goals and premature victory claims won’t help us get there any faster.

In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt described his foreign policy as “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Last month, President Biden said he wanted to use the same approach in Ukraine. “We will speak softly and carry a large spear,” he said.

Now would be a good time for him to take his own advice.

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