Ukraine’s Vain Search for Wonder Weapons
Recognizing that Ukraine might not win its war with Russia is the first step to formulating a better approach for America.
Even when President Joe Biden was visiting the fire-ravaged Hawaiian island of Maui, his attention was mostly on Ukraine, for which he was asking another $24 billion in assistance. His proposal hints of desperation. With Kiev’s highly anticipated counteroffensive running down with minimal success, Ukrainian officials are more loudly demanding more arms with which to revive their fortunes.
Indeed, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sounds a bit like the Germans in 1944, who put their declining military hopes in “wunderwaffen,” or wonder weapons. German engineers achieved some notable successes, deploying jet aircraft and ballistic and cruise missiles, but technological miracles could not stem the irresistible flood of American, British, and Soviet forces. A Biden administration official addressed Ukrainian demands for F-16 aircraft and longer-range missiles: “The problem remains piercing Russia’s main defensive line, and there’s no evidence these systems would’ve been a panacea.”
The Zelensky government’s likelihood of achieving its stated aims, the defeat of Moscow and recovery of Ukrainian lands, including the Donbass and Crimea, looks increasingly small. For instance, reported the Washington Post: “The US intelligence community assesses that Ukraine’s counteroffensive will fail to reach the key southeastern city of Melitopol,” which, “should it prove correct, would mean Kyiv won’t fulfill its principal objective of severing Russia’s land bridge to Crimea in this year’s push.” Another news account found U.S. officials “increasingly critical of Ukraine’s counteroffensive strategy and gloomy about its prospect of success.” Ukraine’s efforts faintly echo the Battle of the Bulge, Nazi Germany’s last gasp offensive which consumed precious weapons, fuel, and manpower that could have helped delay the Red Army’s advance in the east.
At least Berlin didn’t suffer from allied armchair generals belittling its efforts. Kiev’s losses have been enormous, presumably greater than those of Russia, whose forces are displaying improved tactics, remaining on the defensive in prepared positions backed by superior artillery and air support. (Washington has long claimed that Russian casualties are higher, but allied assessments are dubious, relying on Ukraine’s carefully crafted estimates.) Especially gruesome has been the number of Ukrainians who have lost limbs, reminding observers of World War I.
Yet, unnamed U.S. officials complain that the Ukrainian authorities are too caring of their soldiers’ lives, unwilling to push mass attacks through mine fields and beneath artillery barrages. This despite recognition that Kiev’s forces were ill-prepared and ill-equipped to achieve their objectives: “When Ukraine launched its big counteroffensive this spring, Western military officials knew Kyiv didn’t have all the training or weapons—from shells to warplanes—that it needed to dislodge Russian forces. They hoped Ukrainian courage and resourcefulness would carry the day.” This sounds like a bizarre throwback World War I’s costly “cult of the offensive”.
The judgment that Ukrainians have been insufficiently aggressive, made in safety from across the Atlantic, is chilling:
American officials say they fear that Ukraine has become casualty averse, one reason it has been cautious about pressing ahead with the counteroffensive. Almost any big push against dug-in Russian defenders protected by minefields would result in huge numbers of losses. In just a year and a half, Ukraine’s military deaths have already surpassed the number of American troops who died during the nearly two decades US units were in Vietnam (roughly 58,000) and about equal the number of Afghan security forces killed over the entire war in Afghanistan, from 2001 to 2021 (around 69,000). … And across Ukraine, in big cities and rural villages, almost everyone knows a family that has lost someone in the fighting. Dry flowers from funerals litter quiet roads, and graveyards are filling up in every corner of the country.
Now even Kiev’s strongest partisans, who continue to insist on their country’s ultimate success, are talking about a conflict that will run into early next year and beyond. The Wall Street Journal reported: “Ukraine’s current campaign to retake territory occupied by Russian forces could still have many months to run. But military strategists and policy makers across the West are already starting to think about next year’s spring offensive. The shift reflects a deepening appreciation that, barring a major breakthrough, Ukraine’s fight to eject Russia’s invasion forces is likely to take a long time.”
This is perversely presented as a positive for Kiev, yet the war is destroying Ukraine. The war’s cost climbs daily, the economy is a wreck, the population has been depleted by mass refugee flows, the government survives only on Western handouts, the military has consumed much of its original Soviet-era arsenal, as well as the technological menagerie gifted by the allies, and the army has promiscuously sacrificed manpower both trained and raw. Finding replacements is becoming difficult, with a declining population, corrupt recruiting officers, and determined draft evaders. For all the wishful Western talk of a Russian collapse, given Moscow’s evident manifold challenges, catastrophic failure seems more likely in Kiev. Washington’s objective increasingly looks focused on doing ill to Russia rather than good to Ukraine.
Despite Washington’s and Brussels’s continued determination to defend their increasingly bedraggled party line that Kiev will set its own political objectives, win the military fight, and determine the peace, dissent is increasingly emerging. Observed Ted Galen Carpenter: “As yet, there are only a few trial balloons conveying that message, but they hint at the onset of an effort to prepare the American public for possible abandonment of a U.S. client.”
For instance, NATO members maintained their refusal not only to fight for Ukraine today but also in the future, rejecting alliance membership for Kiev. More dramatically, the chief of staff to the NATO secretary-general suggested that Ukraine trade territorial losses for alliance membership. That triggered wailing, gnashing of teeth, and rending of garments on a biblical scale, followed by the inevitable abject recantation of the proposal. However, with rising popular reluctance to spend more in both the U.S. and Europe on continuing large-scale aid to Ukraine, which Kiev’s partisans insist must quicken to ensure final victory over Russia, more pragmatic officials appeared to be searching for a diplomatic out.
Washington’s Ukraine partisans contend that Moscow is not ready to negotiate. But most of them actually oppose peace. Going to war was Vladimir Putin’s terrible decision. However, allied officials spent decades pushing Russia into hostile opposition and ultimately toward war. The expansion of NATO, dismemberment of Yugoslavia, promotion of “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine, and support for a street putsch against the elected Ukrainian president in 2014 were not about American security but domination, the desire to impose a reverse Monroe Doctrine up to Russia’s border.
The process helped turn a once civil Putin, who indicated his willingness to accommodate the West in his 2001 Bundestag speech, into a hostile critic, reflected in his contentious address to the 2007 Munich Security Forum. The allies share the blame for causing a conflict which has caused horrendous human losses in Ukraine and Russia and created global economic havoc. Indeed, Washington’s reckless aggressiveness led to the Biden administration’s refusal to negotiate with Putin before the invasion and apparent allied effort to derail early negotiations between Kiev and Moscow, guaranteeing continued fighting.
Rather like in World War I, bloody combat has caused both sides to escalate their demands. Today, Kiev insists that Russia surrender all captured territory first. There also has been much talk among both Ukrainian and allied policymakers about making far more dramatic political demands—essentially regime change, nuclear disarmament, and de facto surrender. However, none are likely, especially after the failure of Ukraine’s latest military operations. With Kiev evidently unwilling to negotiate, the Putin government would look weak asking for terms.
Washington should make the first move. Which would be to recognize that America’s interests do not necessarily coincide with those of Ukraine—as the Rand Corporation observed, they “often align with but are not synonymous with Ukrainian interests.” The administration should quietly inform the Zelensky government that seemingly unlimited allied support has come to an end. Although Kiev is entitled to decide its own future, it is not entitled to allied support for whatever it chooses.
The U.S. has an interest in helping to preserve Ukraine’s independence. However, the latter’s final borders are of little interest to Americans, and not worth carrying on a proxy war-plus against a nuclear-armed power that is both expensive and dangerous. Especially since there is good reason to believe that a majority of Crimeans would prefer to stay in Russia.
The allies should engage Moscow over creating a realistic security structure for Europe, which respects essential Russian interests and reintegrates Moscow into the West while preserving Ukraine’s sovereignty and economic freedom to go west or east. It is essential not to allow the imagined perfect to be the enemy of the practical good.
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More broadly, Washington’s failing attempt to use Ukraine to wreck Russia should spur a broad rethink of America’s destructive foreign policy. U.S. sanctimony is world class, with successive administrations wailing about democracy and aggression while invading Iraq based on a lie and arming Saudi Arabia in its unprovoked attack on Yemen, in both cases resulting in more deaths than caused by Russia in Ukraine. Washington’s wretched geopolitics degrades American security, pushing Moscow and Beijing together while encouraging nuclear proliferation among smaller states. And Uncle Sam’s international hubris threatens the country’s fiscal future. The U.S. is functionally bankrupt, its debt to GDP ratio now approaching the record set after World War II and heading toward nearly twice that level by mid-century.
No wonder the Biden administration is having such a difficult time articulating a convincing justification for squandering precious resources and courting war with a nuclear-armed power over peripheral stakes. Kiev’s political allies dismiss complaints that the average American household already has provided nearly $900 in Ukraine aid. After all, the CARES Act, presented as an antidote to the COVID pandemic, spent some $2 trillion, much of it conspicuously wasted. So what’s a few tens of billions more for Ukraine even if, predictably, the Europeans are yet again backtracking on their promises to do more for themselves?
The Russo-Ukraine war is terrible for many reasons. It is also dangerous for U.S. Washington policymakers to only see through a glass, darkly, relying on Kiev, which is ever-ready to drag America into the conflict by means both fair and foul. Recognizing that Ukraine might not win its war with Russia is the first step to formulating a better approach for America. Then reality might finally force itself on even the most deluded Washington policymaker.