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America’s Ukraine Problem

When your friends threaten you, they aren’t your friends.

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Credit: Mil.gov.ua

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was back in Washington earlier this week begging for more money and guns. President Joe Biden offered his typical assurances of support, but otherwise, Zelensky’s reception was different than it has been in the past. 

At the beginning, he was widely feted across the U.S. and Europe; politicians couldn’t wait to get their pictures taken shaking his hand. Fast forward through busted victory predictions, endless costly subsidies, bloody failed counterattacks, and mass Ukrainian casualties. Increasing burdens for the allies combined with diminishing prospects for Kiev have diminished support for Zelensky on both sides of the Atlantic. Backing Ukraine is no longer a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Instead, American and European officials are focusing more on their own peoples, and the importance of ending the conflict. 

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For instance, before Zelensky arrived the Republican Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio was blunt: Kiev is going to have to negotiate and likely will lose territory. Accepting this outcome is in “America’s best interest,” he explained. Such sentiments still trigger wailing, gnashing of teeth, and rending of garments on a Biblical scale among Ukraine’s high-profile advocates. However, ever more members of the foreign policy establishment recognize that Vance is right, even if they still won’t publicly admit reality.

Washington’s influential Kiev lobby is running out of options. Plans to disable the Russian economy flopped. Hopes to oust Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, democratize Russia, and even break up the Russian Federation proved even more fantastic. Demands that China abandon its partner were ignored. Pursuit of global backing against Moscow crashed and burned amid the West’s many hypocrisies, including support for Israel’s oppressive occupation and indifference to Gaza’s mass civilian casualties

Hysterical warnings that a victorious Russia would next conquer Europe and perhaps the rest of the known world, failed to rouse the public, belied by Moscow’s difficulty in defeating Ukraine. Bizarre attempts to sell military aid to Kiev as a jobs-creation program for Americans failed miserably. After all, almost any expenditure on anything else in the US would provide a bigger economic boost than sending bombs to Europe.

Now Ukrainians are warning that if Americans don’t agree to write checks to and risk soldiers’ lives for Kiev, Ukrainians won’t like us. They might turn against us. And who knows what might happen then. For instance, Denys Karlovskyi of the Royal United Services Institute warned:

A seeming failure of the Western allies to shield Ukraine from a second butcherous war is likely to make Ukraine’s population feel resentful and expended for the sake of ‘great powers’, just as the 1994 Budapest Memorandum is perceived by Ukrainians today. The task for NATO policymakers is to avoid making post-war Ukraine’s public sentiments grow anti-Western or, worse, isolationist. They must build a mutually beneficial security cooperation framework with Ukraine’s government and maintain current levels of Ukrainian public support for NATO and the E.U.

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Although insulting, this is a truly wimpy threat. Ukrainians might grow “isolationist”? Does that mean they would stop asking for financial aid, military support, and security guarantees? That sounds a lot like Ukraine’s position before the allies backed the 2014 street putsch against the Yanukovych government. Ukrainians didn’t ask for anything special from Washington. The country looked east and west economically, held elections that flipped east and west, and avoided military commitments east and west. Corruption was rife and politics were ruthless, but, by refusing to commit themselves to either America or Russia, Ukrainians lived peacefully in a united country. That seems almost utopian compared to today.

Peace was good for the allies as well. The reason NATO never acted on the ill-considered 2008 Bucharest promise of alliance membership is because no one believed Ukraine was worth fighting over: a position evident even as Russia invaded. Ukrainians continue to request an invitation to join the alliance, which the U.S. and Europeans continue to withhold. The European Leadership Network recently explored Ukraine’s desire—or, more accurately, demand—for firm security commitments from the U.S. and Europe. NATO membership was preferred, but other options were considered. However, all would be dangerous for the West. For instance, “the Japan and South Korea models” or “the Israel model,” if rigorously implemented, would impose potentially substantial military burdens on the U.S.

Karlovskyi also posited an “anti-Western” Ukraine. That would be an ironic response after receiving substantial financial and military support against Moscow. However, while hostility toward the West would be unfortunate, the possibility is no reason for the allies to offer a defense commitment. Surely a defeated Kiev is unlikely to partner with Russia and attack the rest of Europe. Resentful Ukrainians could turn away economically. However, even though greater integration with Russia would be possible, the violent antagonisms unleashed by years of brutal warfare would persist. Europe would remain the most likely source of aid, investment, and trade for Ukraine. Indeed, Kiev is likely to be as dependent on the West after the conflict ends as during combat, whatever Ukrainians think about allied policy.

Yet Zelensky explicitly threatened Europe with ill consequences should it reduce support for his government. Ukrainian refugees there have so far “behaved well,” he allowed. Cutting assistance, however, could “drive these people into a corner.” In the Economist’s paraphrase, he warned that stopping the gravy train “would create risks for the West in its own backyard. There is no way of predicting how the millions of Ukrainian refugees in European countries would react to their country being abandoned.” 

Is he suggesting that those dependent on Europe for refuge—meaning safety and support—would endanger their status by, say, rioting across the continent? There would likely be little tolerance for such behavior. After all, diminishing government assistance for Ukraine reflects falling popular support for Ukraine. Already countries like Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia are putting the economic welfare of their own citizens before that of Ukrainians. Populism is again on the rise across Europe, and immigration is perhaps the top issue. The welcome mat for Ukrainian refugees could be swiftly removed.

Zelensky’s bizarre threat against those whose assistance he is seeking is yet another reason for the U.S. and its allies to base Ukraine policy on their own interests. When your friends threaten you, they aren’t your friends. 

Nor is this the allies’ first such wake-up call. Last year, Zelensky attempted to lie NATO into war with Russia based on a Ukrainian missile strike on Poland. The American and Polish governments knew that the missile came from Ukraine. So, assuredly, did Zelensky. His desire to drag the U.S. into the conflict was predictable, even understandable, but highlighted the need to apply Ronald Reagan’s famed “trust but verify” dictum against Kiev as well as Moscow.

It is time for Washington, with or without its European allies, to begin pressing for an end to the war. That requires negotiation. The likely outcome, as Vance observed, would be Ukrainian concessions. The latter almost certainly would include some loss of territory and a form of committed military neutrality. 

It is not Washington’s place to impose an agreement on Kiev, a process that undoubtedly would create enormous resentment. Rather, the U.S. and Europe should inform Zelensky of limits on Western aid and the consequent need to end the fighting. The allies should affirm to Moscow their willingness to accept Ukrainian neutrality, restore Russian funds, and reintegrate Russia as part of a reasonable settlement. After impeding peaceful negotiation at most every turn, such a process won’t be easy for the U.S., Europe, or the combatants. However, years more of conflict, in which Kiev suffers an increasing disadvantage, would be worse. 

The Ukraine-Russia war is a tragedy, a crime committed by Russia, but only after the allies recklessly ignored Moscow’s oft-expressed security interests. Zelensky’s visit didn’t salvage Kiev’s fortunes, nor will Ukrainian threats against those who have spent nearly two years underwriting Ukraine’s military efforts. The allies need to turn from fueling conflict to promoting peace.

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