Russo-Ukrainian Outcomes for America

We are now a year into the Russo-Ukrainian War, with no end in sight. Assessments have been all over the board. Early on, the consensus held that the Russians would win quickly. Then the narrative shifted: Ukrainian resilience and Western aid combined with Russian incompetence now favored Kyiv.

Then Russia sought to raise the cost of the war for Ukraine. Having repeatedly failed at the operational level of war—the conduct of campaigns to achieve strategic success in a theater of operations—Putin embraced the “Russian way of war,” which relies on brute force, making no distinction between military and civilian targets. Indeed, attacking civilian targets, especially those tied to Ukraine’s energy infrastructure was considered a feature, not a bug, in Putin’s strategy. As David Goldman suggested several months ago, Putin seemingly sought to “ruin and depopulate Ukraine, the way Richelieu reduced large parts of Germany to cannibalism during the Thirty Years War.” 

Now, the conflict has become a stalemate, bearing an eerie resemblance to the Western Front in World War I. So where do we go from here? There seem to be three possible outcomes: a Russian victory; a Ukrainian victory; or a negotiated settlement of some sort, including a Korea style armistice/cease-fire with a political settlement to follow. But these all suggest a first and more important question: What does it mean for either the Russians or Ukrainians to “win?”

A Russian victory would entail, at a minimum, the retention of territory that it has seized—Russo-phone regions of Eastern Ukraine and Crimea—and assurances that Ukraine will not become a member of NATO. A Ukrainian victory would entail, at a minimum, the expulsion of Russian troops from Ukraine. A more extreme version, favored by some in the United States, includes punishment of Russia and war crimes tribunals, perhaps even regime change.

The Ukraine victory narrative seems to be dominant in Washington, D.C.. It holds that with enough military aid, the United States and NATO can deal Russia a devastating defeat. Its advocates claim that “All the momentum is with Ukraine now and there is no doubt in my mind that they will win this war, probably in 2023.” But despite the wishful thinking of those who seek a Ukrainian victory, Russia is better positioned to prevail. The ability of the Ukrainian army to launch local counterattacks as it has at Kharkiv and Kherson does not translate into the ability to execute a massive counteroffensive that inflicts a crippling defeat on Russia. The advantages adhering to the defense and Russia’s dominance in tube and missile artillery suggest that Ukraine would have to pay a very high price to liberate all its territory. That’s a price that seems well beyond Ukraine’s ability to pay.

And although in war, non-quantifiable moral factors such as morale and esprit d’corps have made it possible for a combatant to prevail over an enemy with materiel superiority, quantitative factors still matter. The Russian Federation commands far greater resources than Ukraine. It is 30 times the size of Ukraine with three times the population and nine times the GDP. Moreover, Russia has made it clear that it is willing to absorb tremendous casualties. But it has inflicted heavy casualties as well, casualties Ukraine cannot afford in a war of attrition, which is what the Russo-Ukrainian War has become.

And the cost to Ukraine extends far beyond the battlefield. Millions of Ukrainians are leaving the country. The Ukrainian economy is in shambles. Putin has inflicted trillions of dollars in damage to Ukrainian infrastructure. The country is beginning to resemble 1918 occupied France and Belgium. As the recent critical infrastructure attacks illustrate, the fact is that for all of its operational, personnel, and logistical shortcomings, Russia still has escalatory options that Ukraine does not.

The desire to aid Ukraine in repelling Russian aggression is understandable, but our policymakers have to ask themselves if we, like the European leaders of 1914, are sleepwalking into a war, the possible consequences of which are disproportionate to U.S. interests, especially in light of threats to these interests in the Pacific.

Pro-Ukraine optimists believe that granting Kyiv a blank check will shift the advantage to Ukraine. It is understandable that Americans generally support Ukraine in its effort to repel Russian aggression, but open-ended material support has its own risks. By supplying weapon systems to Ukraine, we have depleted our own stockpiles of weapons such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) and air defense systems. This has created problems for the United States, especially in the Indo-Pacific region where we face our primary strategic challenge from China. For example, the Japanese newspaper Nikkei reported in early October that some parts of planned joint drills between Japan’s ground forces and U.S. Marines were canceled due to a lack of shells for the U.S. HIMARS launching systems.

Given the unlikely prospect of either a Russian or Ukrainian victory, the best outcome in terms of U.S. interests is a ceasefire agreement that freezes the existing battle lines, leaving political arrangements to some later date. This would reduce the main threat to the security of the United States: the creeping escalation between the U.S.-led NATO and Russia.

The Biden Administration has refused to help negotiate an end to the conflict, despite the vast suffering of the Ukrainian people and the possibility that the United States might be drawn into a war with Russia. Instead, members of both parties seem open to a blank check for Ukraine, sending advanced Western weapons systems—including tanks, missiles, and now possibly latest-generation fighter aircraft—to Ukraine. What is lacking is a coherent strategic vision justifying such a blank check. What U.S. interests are at stake in Ukraine and how do they relate to U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific region?

Ukraine has the right to appeal to the United States for assistance in repelling Russian aggression, but American citizens have a legitimate expectation that Ukrainian interests do not come at the expense of U.S. interests. Giving Ukraine a blank check, as some wish us to do, is the very opposite of a prudent U.S. foreign policy.

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About Mackubin Owens

Mackubin Thomas Owens is a retired Marine, professor, and editor who lives in Newport, RI.

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