As more Russian troops pour into eastern Ukraine and more Russian jets are stationed closer to the Russia-Ukraine border in what is likely to be a renewed offensive on the eve of the war’s one-year mark, Ukraine’s partners in NATO were discussing how to accelerate shipments of ammunition and air defense systems to Kyiv.
The Ukrainians can use all of the weapons they can get. Russian President Vladimir Putin is throwing additional bodies into the war in the hope that sheer mass can chip away at the Ukrainians’ defensive lines. The larger Russia’s ground presence is, the more stretched Ukraine’s ammunition stocks become. Kyiv’s backers in the West recognize the problem and are trying to nudge their respective defense industries to produce more shells around the clock.
For Russia and Ukraine, time is a critical factor. Russia wants to grab as much territory as it possibly can before U.S. and European tanks make their way to the front; Ukraine wants to bog Russian forces down into slow, exhausting, and painful battles before those tank reinforcements finally arrive.
Through it all, President Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg are assuring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that the West will stand by his country “for as long as it takes.” The affirmations will come as welcome reassurance for Zelensky and his advisers at a particularly bloody stage of the war.
But one must ask whether Biden, Stoltenberg, and other Western leaders grasp the full meaning of that declaration. What exactly does it mean to support Kyiv for as long as it takes? What is the United States actually trying to accomplish: a total Russian withdrawal from all Ukrainian land or setting the table for a peace settlement when the time is right? Are there any time limitations on how long the U.S. and NATO will help defend Ukraine, or is the timing open-ended?
These are fairly obvious questions for observers of the war, but it’s not at all obvious that policymakers in Western capitals have actually asked and answered them. It’s abundantly clear that U.S. and European policymakers want Russia’s war of aggression to end in unambiguous, total, and complete failure. The U.S. wouldn’t be funneling about $30 billion in military aid to the Ukrainian army, assisting Kyiv with the targeting of Russian positions or coordinating a comprehensive sanctions campaign against the Russian economy if Washington felt otherwise. Indeed, the collective West is treating the war in Ukraine as not only a fight for Ukraine’s survival as a sovereign state, but as a common fight on behalf of the amorphous rules-based international order.
To put it bluntly, though, Ukraine’s fight is Ukraine’s fight. It is nobody else’s. We would certainly like Ukraine to win and Putin to leave with his bloody tail tucked between his legs, yet we shouldn’t pretend that the outcome of the war itself will determine the fate of Europe, let alone the world. The U.S., for instance, won’t be any less powerful if Putin miraculously turns the war into something that can be called a success back home. The European Union, with 10-times the size of Russia’s economy, with three-times the size of Russia’s population, won’t be any less prosperous or technologically advanced. Regardless of the result, Russia will emerge a weaker power than it was before it decided to bombard Ukraine’s cities and towns with missiles and artillery. The balance of power in Europe has gotten worse for Russia, not better.
Therefore, it’s more than fair for the U.S. to engage in critical thinking about how this war evolves.
To date, the Biden administration has successfully navigated the line between helping Ukraine’s war effort and avoiding escalation with Moscow. This juggling act, however, shouldn’t be taken for granted. If Ukraine eventually finds itself in a position to credibly retake Crimea, the White House will discover just how difficult it is to maintain a sense of balance in its policy toward the war.
Abutting the Black Sea and home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, Crimea is a strategically important piece of real estate for Moscow. The Russians have controlled the peninsula since they illegally annexed the area in 2014, and they have had nearly a decade to solidify their military presence there. Just as importantly, Crimea holds a special status in Putin’s eyes; the 2014 annexation was the high point of his nearly quarter-century rule and is synonymous with his own legacy. There is no scenario in which Putin wouldn’t fight hard to hold onto the region.
While the U.S. foreign policy establishment frequently dismisses the idea of Russia using nuclear weapons, nobody can say with absolute certainty that Putin, in a desperate bid to avoid defeat, wouldn’t in fact use them. As Samuel Charap and Miranda Priebe of the Rand Corporation write in a recent report, “if Ukraine does push beyond the pre-February 2022 line of control and manages to retake areas that Russia has occupied since 2014 (particularly Crimea, where the Russian Black Sea Fleet is based), the risks of escalation—either nuclear use or an attack on NATO—will spike.” Even full-throated advocates of a Ukrainian military victory, such as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, acknowledge that Crimea’s defense is likely a red-line for Russia.
If Biden and Stoltenberg’s own words are taken at face value, none of this would matter. Kyiv would be able to rely on Western military support for an offensive to recapture Crimea. Unfortunately, this course of action is highly likely to lead to the very escalation both are wisely concerned with preventing. No land in a foreign country is worth a potential nuclear exchange with the world’s biggest nuclear weapons power or an enlarged war that could drag the U.S. and NATO into a direct military confrontation with Russia. This is particularly true when that land, Crimea, has already been in Russia’s hands for nine years and doesn’t impact U.S. security interests in the slightest.
One hopes Ukraine won’t take the rhetoric emanating in Washington and Brussels too literally. U.S. and NATO leaders would do well to sit their Ukrainian partners down and clarify that, yes, there are in fact limits to what the West will support.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a syndicated foreign affairs columnist at the Chicago Tribune.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.