The costs of stalemate in Ukraine

Apparently the administration is letting Ukraine hit military targets in Russia, though still with some restrictions.  This is way overdue. 

It seems clear that Russia under Putin is an expansionist power.  Only a decisive defeat will prevent brutal ethnic cleansing in Ukraine.  Defeat may also lead Putin to refrain from further aggression against his neighbors, and even get him to accept a vision of Russia as an ordinary European country that stands to prosper by living in peace with its neighbors.  Thinking more broadly, if the administration is so worried that our very cautious support for Ukraine will trigger escalation by Putin, why should Xi think that we and our allies would stand up against an attack or blockade aimed at Taiwan?  And letting Ukraine twist in the wind after Biden has given such public backing to Zelensky makes Biden seem ineffectual.  That’s not a good look at a time when the world seems (and is) a chaotic and potentially dangerous place.  Finally, victory by Trump would quite likely be a disaster for Ukraine and for Europe, but the scale of the disaster can presumably be limited by helping Ukraine do as well as possible before January 2025.  All of this suggests we should long have had much more of a sense of urgency about helping Ukraine.

Of course, there could be issues not apparent to outsiders and non-experts, as indicated by a recent story in WAPO that the administration is worried about damage to the radars Russia uses to track incoming nukes, which could be destabilizing.  But my guess – I’m just reading the tea leaves here, and have no special expertise – is that this temporizing and trimming is in large part characterological.  Biden is a consensus seeker.  This is a very commendable trait in general, and an important reason to support Biden.  But it can lead to an overly protracted decision-making process (over two years for ATACMS!) with an emphasis on coalition management and a split-the-difference approach to policymaking.  Again, this is just a guess; we’ll see what the historians say.

In my most optimistic moments I hope that a clear defeat in Ukraine could bring Russia back into the European fold – and out of China’s orbit – perhaps with some kind of partial EU membership.  Pulling Russia back into Europe should be our overarching goal for the war.  Obviously this will be very difficult to achieve, if it is achievable at all.  But if this is where we want to end up we should articulate it and do what we can to maximize our chances of success.  And it seems to me that Putin needs to be faced with the prospect of a decisive loss to accept a future for Russia as a normal European country that he evidently does not find appealing.  Putin has no reason to turn westward unless he is clearly defeated and needs to give up his grandiose empire building. Of course, even then he may choose to ally with China.

I’ve never been a hawk before, but Putin (and Xi) have changed that.  The gains from clearly defeating Putin’s Russia are potentially quite large, and the costs of a loss or even a stalemate are frightening.

Addendum:  Lawrence Freedman has some characteristically thoughtful comments here, and reaches conclusions that are somewhat more nuanced and temperate than mine.