How to Lose Big in Ukraine

Are we going to lose a second U.S.-funded army in two years?

Back in 2015 at the Munich Security Conference, Senator Lindsey Graham argued for aggressively arming Ukraine in what was perhaps the least inspiring fashion imaginable. “I don’t know how this will end if you give [Ukraine] defensive capability,” he explained, “but I know this: I will feel better because when my nation was needed to stand up to the garbage and to stand by freedom, I stood by freedom. . . .  They [the Ukrainians] may die, they may lose, but I’ll tell you what . . . if somebody doesn’t push back better, we’re all gonna lose.”

For nearly eight years now, I’ve made one simple argument over and over and over and over again: We should not get too involved in Ukraine, because in the end Russia will expend more political will, take more risks, and suffer more consequences to determine the final outcome there. In short, Ukraine is peripheral to us, and dear to them. So, in the meantime, our politicians and policy-makers should not put their own, and their nation’s, credibility on the line there. These high-flown promises were, I wrote, “the credit-default swaps of national security, a moral hazard that jeopardizes more than our retirement plans.”

When the Russians spread their attack too thin across all Ukraine and were driven back from Kyiv, the foreign-policy blob fantasized that, with further investments from the United States and Europe, Putin would not only be defeated entirely in Ukraine, but NATO was reinvigorated, and that, ultimately, Putin would lose power in Russia.

There’s less in the news lately about the war in Ukraine because the war has entered a slow phase of brutal attrition, and because Lindsey Graham’s slightly macabre wish that he would “feel better” while Ukrainians die and lose a war to Russia seems to be coming true. Only, it’s worse than he thought. It’s precisely by assisting Ukraine as we have — by playing a geopolitical game that we don’t have the will or resources to end in a favorable way — that “we’re all gonna lose.”

When we started sending arms, Ukraine was said to have just 6,000 combat-ready troops. By the time the war started, Robert Zubrin marveled at Ukraine for having the largest armed forces in Europe, 450,000 active-duty servicemen.

Writing seven years ago, Casey Michel argued: “The point of increasing arms to Ukraine is not, as Bloomberg’s editorial board claimed, to simply ‘escalat[e] a fight that it’s almost certain to lose.’ Nor is the aim to deter any form of immediate Russian retreat. The point, rather, is to inflict more casualties than the Russian government is willing to stomach. As noted in the Brookings report, ‘Only if the Kremlin knows that the risks and costs of further military action are high will it seek to find an acceptable political solution.’” That rather seemed to confirm the point that there was no reasonable strategic goal the United States could achieve there.

Now, the Kremlin did eventually seek a political solution in Minsk II, an agreement that joined a cease-fire to Russian demands of some local autonomy for Donetsk. Although Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky had run on finding a resolution to the conflict with Russia, he could not get Ukraine to implement Minsk II. He faced the fierce objections of the far-right Ukrainian nationalist militias on one side, and the international-foreign-policy borg and the press on the other. Nobody, it turned out, was willing to assist Ukraine in ending the frozen conflict. Or helping its president overcome the resistance of ultranationalists to do it.

Having failed to get what it wanted from Minsk II, Russia decided to take a military option. In other words, deterrence failed. Russia accepted the high risks and costs of switching to a strategy of compellence.

And in three months Russia has done in Ukraine what the Pentagon could not do in Afghanistan over two decades: settle on a reasonable set of goals and develop an effective strategy for annihilating its opponents.

Even after Western powers unveiled the mother of all sanctions, Vladimir Putin is giving major public addresses confidently predicting that Russia will get through it, and announcing that the sanctions, like most Western sanctions, were failing to achieve their political objective of humbling Russia, while at the same time they were extracting a significant price for Westerners themselves. And by the way, revenues to the Russian state were surging because of high oil prices.

Meanwhile, according to a report at the Washington Post, the White House and foreign-policy blob has no idea how to extricate itself from this conflict with its honor or credibility intact.

We are going to face a global recession and see food shortages throughout the third world, in part because it would be awkward to tell the Ukrainians that we aren’t going to support them to the point where they could recapture not just the Donbas but Crimea as well.

Here’s a telling excerpt:

Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO who now heads the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, said the battlefield impasse leaves the United States with a stark choice: either continue to help Ukraine sustain a potentially bloody status quo, with the devastating global consequences that entails; or halt support and permit Moscow to prevail.

“That would mean feeding Ukraine to the wolves,” Daalder said, referring to a withdrawal of support. “And no one is prepared to do that.”

A senior State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe ongoing international deliberations, said Biden administration officials had discussed the possibility of a protracted conflict with global spillover effects even before February, as U.S. intelligence suggested Putin was preparing to invade.

The Biden administration hopes that the new weaponry, in addition to successive waves of sanctions and Russia’s diplomatic isolation, will make a difference in an eventual negotiated conclusion to the war, potentially diminishing Putin’s willingness to keep up the fight, the official said.

This mismatch is quite clear. Consistent with the theory that Russia ultimately cares more about this conflict, it is acting vigorously to achieve an acceptable end. Meanwhile, the United States, unable to rally the deep passions of the American people to take significant risks in this conflict, must satisfy itself with hoping that more of the same failed strategy will yield a marginally less humiliating outcome. Our policy-makers in the executive branch and across the blob of NGOs are cut off from the people whom the Constitution authorizes to declare war through their elected representatives. Cut off this way, these policy elites have involved American honor, treasure, and credibility in a conflict the American people are unwilling to take charge of themselves and end victoriously.

One risk of making your rivals’ wars more costly is that you just might make their eventual victory even larger. If the Ukrainian army fails to make a crucial strategic retreat, and is broken in the cauldrons of the Donbas, the United States will have made Russia’s victory much costlier, but also much more significant than it otherwise would have been. Putin will be able to claim he defeated not just the nationalists in Ukraine, but the Western powers that funded and trained their army from 6,000 to nearly half a million men. After the humiliation in Afghanistan, it would be the second massive U.S.-funded and trained army to be defeated in the space of two years. That is the real risk we are taking. And it’s not one that is going to leave NATO “reinvigorated” in the end. More like panicked and on the run. That is what I meant by becoming “pot-committed” in Ukraine. By so proudly and loudly raising the stakes, Western policy influencers such as Ivo Daalder now face impossible choices that “no one is prepared” to make. Is it a good thing for NATO to have two American-funded, NATO-supported armies destroyed in two years?

In the end, the policy-makers will try to blame the American people for the policy failures they authored because they were incapable of thinking more than two steps ahead. They’ve already started. Skeptics like me were slimed as people who ultimately sympathized with Putin and who saw strongmen as vigorous and democracies as weak. This was a lie. I believe nothing is so fearful as a democracy that has truly gone to war. But our people have not gone to war. Only a policy elite has done that, using money they borrowed from us.

In fact it is worse than a lie — it’s projection. It is the foolish hawks who have said that this “is a contest not just of armies but of societal wills” between democracies and authoritarianism. And now they are retreating into decadent fantasy. Casey Michel now writes that to “avoid more senseless bloodshed” (the bloodshed his last idea failed to avoid), the West must “decolonize Russia” — that is, break up the Russian federation into perhaps more than a dozen different ethnically divided republics. Do we really think the American people are anxious to study up on, fund, or bleed for the Tuvan People’s Republic? Has Adam Kingzinger started rehearsing the line, “We are all Mordovians now”? Will we blow trumpets for Komi sovereignty over Syktyvkar? Well, our policy elite is hoping to save its failure of deterrence in Ukraine by casting us in such fantasies.

At least these dreams make Lindsey Graham feel better.