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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

What Ukraine Hawks Miss About the War

Hakeem Jeffries showcased the errors of the “as long as it takes” faction.

A,Kalashnikov,Rifle,In,The,Hands,Of,The,Military.,War
Credit: Vlasov Yevhenii

Hakeem Jeffries’s recent appearance on 60 Minutes was a perfect encapsulation of present discourse on the war in Ukraine.

The House Minority leader condemned both his Republican counterparts and a major fraction of the country for being “pro-Putin” on account of their aversion to sending further aid to Ukraine while the situation on the U.S. border continues to deteriorate. According to this argument, there was no rational reason to oppose the previously stalled $61 billion funding package, outside of directly supporting the Russian government. 

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Jeffries specifically discounts Senator J.D. Vance’s argument that the new aid will simply prolong the war. Kiev does not have access to the productive capacity nor the manpower requirements to seriously alter the strategic dynamics of the conflict. Nonetheless, Jeffries offers a convenient if less than erudite counterargument that mixes equal parts gambler’s and sunk cost fallacies: Kiev has been able to hold off Russian forces for more than two years, so they must be able to do it indefinitely. 

“This has been a strategic success by any definition,” Jeffries concluded.

More astute military observers than I have discussed the Russian strategy of total war, which is enabled by that nation’s immense industrial capacity and outright supremacy in integrating all of the various branches of modern combat into coordinated offensive and defensive capabilities on the battlefield. Often summarized as “attrition warfare,” this strategic approach relies on the ability to replace materiel and rotate newly trained troops in with more experienced forces in order to maximize combat efficacy. 

Russian forces have thus consistently adapted to the situation on the ground in Ukraine, resulting in the steady attrition of Kiev’s warfighting capacity. Despite ignoring this reality, the type of argument that Jeffries makes—as well as its prevalence, and general receptivity in the mainstream press—is nonetheless revealing of how certain events are de-contextualized and used in an outright distorted manner in order to support partisan decision-making that is directly averse to any identifiable American interest. 

Pointing back to early Ukrainian victories is a constant refrain among Western pundits in order to discount the aptitude of Russian commanders as well as prove the general incoherence of Moscow’s strategy. But while the Kremlin undoubtedly hoped to force a quick negotiation in early 2022, the failure to capture Kiev at the outset of its military operation or Russia’s large-scale strategic withdrawals in late 2022 were not nearly so debilitating as often presented. 

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For instance, the defiance of Ukrainian forces in light of the often-cited expectation that Kiev would fall in 3 days is presented as proof of the requisite skill and capability to repel Russian forces indefinitely. Yet, that totally ignores the fact that this prediction never came from Russian sources but rather Western ones, most prominent of which was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley.

Further, the retreat of Russian forces from Kherson and Kharkov was additionally in keeping with the attritional strategy of war, which is predicated on destroying materiel rather than capturing territory. The latter is only considered as important in the context of its ability to increase the prospects of the former. 

Jeffries notably said nothing of the much-vaunted spring counteroffensive that failed to achieve its major strategic aims. Nor did he mention the fact that the rate of Russia’s territorial gains has significantly accelerated as of late across the entire line of contact. Rather than holding needless ground, the capture of these territories is representative of a grinding war machine that is chewing up Western provided materiel—and, sadly, Ukrainian men. 

More weapons may slow that spread, but it is much harder to provide a coherent explanation of how further aid will provide Ukraine with the capabilities to reverse those Russian gains, particularly in consideration of the fact that both Russian weapons systems and military doctrine have proved more adept at adjusting to the current battlefield conditions.

Perhaps most importantly, Jeffries also says nothing of the unsustainable casualty rate of Ukrainian forces. Even the Washington Post was recently forced to admit that the 31,000-figure offered by Ukrainian sources was put forward out of practical considerations pertaining to public morale and continued Western funding; in reality, the number of killed and injured is much higher. 

This is particularly worrying for Kiev, as the number of troops is the crucial factor in the current war. Russia has three times the population to pull from and will continue to overwhelm Ukrainian forces. The recent initiation of the offensive taking place in the north towards the direction of Kharkov is currently having the effect of diverting some of Ukraine’s most effective combat units from other crucial areas on the front, such as Chasiv Yar in Donetsk oblast and around Krynky in Kherson. A large-scale breakthrough in any of these areas would be a major strategic setback to say the least.

Of course, the most dishonest argument presented by Jeffries is that this state of affairs is subsequently in the American interest. Providing Ukraine with further offensive capabilities that allow it to strike deep into Russian territory risks Moscow expanding the scope of what it considers Western logistical and operational support to Kiev. That means a correlative increase in the scope of that which Moscow classifies as a legitimate target to strike. Greater offensive capabilities provided by longer range ATACMS will exacerbate this, as will the impending arrival of F-16s. That says nothing of the possibility for future deployments of NATO troops to Ukraine—again, the only factor that would actually make possible the prospect of Kiev reinstituting the 1991 borders—with Western countries (France most notably) suggesting that there are indeed as-of-yet murkily defined redlines whose violation would precipitate direct involvement of its forces. 

It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world; so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it; for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements. I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy.

These are the words of George Washington’s Farewell Address. The current U.S. policy in Ukraine, besides being anything but honest, is directly predicated on forming (yet another) permanent alliance with a nation-state that is rife with competing territorial claims and is located in a geopolitical hotspot thousands of miles away, all in order to perpetuate an “exceptionalism” which no longer corresponds to the balance of forces in the world. To say that this is a distortion of the approach to foreign policy envisioned for the American nation by its Founders is an understatement.

An individual may yet believe that providing the means for the Ukrainian state to continue its resistance is a noble cause. However, sticking to that course when it can be demonstrated that it is prolonging an unwinnable conflict short of taking actions that will significantly increase the chances of initiating a larger scale war is the opposite of effective statesmanship.

One may yet argue that the prospect of escalation is exaggerated and should therefore be largely discounted in the deliberation of American policy in Ukraine. Some Western pundits subsequently present the current war as a strategic success for the U.S. specifically since a geopolitical rival—Russia—has been weakened. If Kiev is left an empty husk of its former self, such is the price of great power politics. This viewpoint, of course, is premised on the open admission that Europe is indeed a vassal of the United States, and its currently decimated economic situation is nonetheless a victory since it serves the interests of the imperial center. 

At the same time, one may also argue that despite the economic situation in Europe, defense interests have been served by the present conflict through the expansion of NATO, increased military expenditures, and greater force integration; since economic interests are subordinated to security, the attempt to weaken Russia through the support of its Ukrainian proxy has therefore still resulted in a strategic victory for the general West.

The actual state of affairs in fact demonstrates the opposite. 

For one, weaknesses and apparent vulnerabilities in Western-supplied materiel have now been exposed to any future geopolitical competitor, most notably China. Abrams tanks, German Leopard IIs, Bradley fighting vehicles, a gamut of NATO produced APCs, and Western air defense systems have been steadily degraded. Besides the confidence boost that the entire non-transatlantic world has received, from the sight of destroyed American and European weaponry in proud display on Red Square, the technological limitations and complicated operating processes of such weapons systems have likewise been shown to be problematic for the conditions of modern war. 

One might argue that the ongoing Western support of the conflict allows integrated NATO command to study and troubleshoot those various problems. Nevertheless, such a prospect has an obvious diminishing rate of marginal returns, and also provides other militaries with the same opportunity to learn, essentially resulting in a net draw on the capabilities front.

But most important of all, deficiencies in the United States’ defense industrial base have been laid bare. This too could be rectified, if the political will existed; but the entire philosophical framework regarding political economy that currently exists in the West, as compared to Russia (and, so one would assume, China) makes that prospect unlikely. 

The often-cited situation regarding the production of 155 mm artillery shells is an excellent example of this. Whereas Russia currently produces about three times as many shells as the United States and Europe combined, new initiatives for the United States specifically to increase production capacity would result in the potential to produce still less than half of Russia’s current output by the end of 2025 (reaching about 100,000 shells/month, as compared to Russia’s current level of 350,000/month). 

The recent appointment of Andrey Belousov to the position of Defense Minister with the stated intention of further integrating the Russian economy with its defense industrial base further exemplifies Moscow’s determination to pursue its Special Military Operation to completion, regardless of how many aid packages the West commits to sending. 

The war has subsequently also laid bare the fact that, if other countries refuse to play along with the game, the type of financial capitalism upon which the economies of Europe and America are built simply fails to provide the means to sustain itself. Fractional-reserve banking, the creation of asset bubbles, technological innovation with no aim outside of increasing individual consumption, and a saturated services-sector do not equate to the type of geopolitical influence previously envisioned by American policymakers. Rather, the only thing that has thus far enabled that system has been the production of debt, its export, and—most importantly—the willingness of others to buy it. 

Multipolarity has therefore only been accelerated by the transatlantic response to the war. Nowhere has this been more clearly exemplified than the massive shifts in the energy trade, the failure of the sanctions regime, and the stiff refusal of other countries to go along with the punitive measures aimed at Russia. China is of course the greatest example of this. Price caps on Russian energy continually fail to have their intended effect, and Moscow is currently seeing its state budget stuffed with nearly twice as much revenue from oil sales as before. For instance, total oil and gas revenues in April increased by a whopping 90% year-on-year, according to Bloomberg. 

Putin’s two-day visit to Beijing reaffirmed the strengthening of the Russia-China relationship. Meanwhile, Antony Blinken’s unceremonious recent trip to Beijing in particular highlighted the diminishing clout of America and its diplomatic finger-wagging. The threats leveled against Xi for his ostensible support of Russia fell on deaf ears. Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen’s trip a month earlier, in which she admonished China to divest itself from an economic growth model based on industrial production, also failed to deliver any favorable results.

It is certainly still true that the United States in particular exerts disproportionate influence on global banking. This was temporarily on display in China, where American-based major banks inhibited payments for transactions being conducted with Russia; but Beijing has nonetheless found a way to circumvent such pushback by using smaller regional lenders that are normally focused on providing credit for agriculture and construction.

These developments perfectly coincide with the announcement that the BRICS grouping will be creating an independent payment system with blockchain technologies. The purported decision to avoid seizing around $300 billion in frozen Russian assets currently in Europe (although Congress okayed the seizure of the $1 billion currently held in U.S. banks) was probably influenced by the undeniably negative impact this would have had on foreign capital flows and the future economic prospects of an already diminished Europe. Even the most progressive of the overwhelmingly progressive neoliberal news corps are slowly admitting the fact that the old order is ending (although the suggestions that they come up with as a response to that state of affairs totally miss the root causes of the current decline). 

Also indicative of this shift will be next month’s massive St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, in which major players in the international business community meet to make deals and discuss future cooperation. This year’s primary theme is likewise no coincidence: “Transition to a Multipolar Economy.”

Jeffries addressed none of these issues. Instead, the congressman attributed any opposition to the current course as nothing less than Russian disinformation: “There is a growing pro-Putin faction in the Republican party that does not want to support Ukraine and believes for some reason that Russia is not an enemy of the United States of America.” Yet, as shown, U.S. policy has abjectly failed to confront Russia, and instead served to directly strengthen it through our leaders’ ideological intransigence and general incompetence.

Jeffries nonetheless went on to state that those “pro-Putin Republicans” that are attempting “to convince the American people that the Ukrainian effort has been a failure are promoting Vladimir Putin’s propaganda because the facts say the exact opposite, which is why it’s important for us to finish the job. It’s a Churchill-or-Chamberlain moment.” 

This “Churchill-or-Chamberlain” comparison is central to the narrative that is used to justify perpetual war: A threat to democracy anywhere is a threat to democracy everywhere, and anyone who says otherwise—i.e., refuses to believe that liberal democracy is the teleological end for every regime on earth, and that America’s foreign policy must subsequently be predicated on actualizing the end of universal justice—is appeasing the equivalent of Hitler. The logical corollary is that Putin (or any other world leader that is deemed in opposition to that righteous march) can never be trusted, and indeed should not even be treated as a regular human being, but rather historical backwardness anthropomorphized. 

Hence, the central premise of the argument parroted by Jeffries: “We can’t let Ukraine fall because if it does, then there’s a significant likelihood that America will have to get into the conflict—not simply with our money, but with our servicewomen and our servicemen.” 

Many arguments have been made as to why Putin neither wants, nor has the means to expand beyond eastern Ukraine. Jeffries accuses Putin of attempting to “recreate the Soviet Union” as evidenced by the 2008 war with Georgia, the 2014 annexation of Crimea, and the military invasion launched in 2022. This is a tired establishment talking point that totally ignores the geopolitical circumstances of each of those moves and the provocative Western actions that precipitated each. But that is of course the point. 

Any realistic assessment of the actual state of affairs leads to the exact opposite conclusion: the current approach of the United States to the war is unproductive to peace, and contrary to its national interest in every conceivable way. Our political class must therefore write off such assessments outright as “Putin’s propaganda” so that they can continue pursuing a strategy that aligns with their preconceived ideological understanding of how the world works. America is the “indispensable nation” for the impending global victory of liberal democracy over authoritarianism—humanist secularism over backwards superstition. 

But the continued support for the currently failing approach in Ukraine is of course not simply the result of ideology, ignorance, or institutional pressures. In this regard, Jeffries’s 60 Minutes interview was a masterclass in the interplay between domestic and foreign policy. George Washington’s quote on permanent alliances mentioned above is partially based on the fact that politicians can subsequently contort international events to present moral imperatives for acting in the interests of specific domestic political factions to the detriment of the nation as a whole. This is exactly what the war in Ukraine has become for U.S. domestic politics.

Jeffries openly admits that the aid question is inextricable from the presentation of Donald Trump and his supporters as wannabe authoritarians and submissives to Vladimir Putin. Lest readers forget the former president’s tenure in office, the collusion narrative was the general framework by which the political, media, and social opposition understood Trump’s administration. Returning to that premise fires up the Democrat base and makes good political sense for the Democrat Party to play on. Mainstream reporting on the war in Ukraine feeds into this as well, as most Americans are likely not interested in realist arguments or strategic evaluations, but simply see an aggressive Russia invading a peaceful democratic neighbor and Republican opposition to the bill. There is a reason why the qualifiers “unprovoked” and “war of choice” are mandatory in discussing the current conflict in all Western reporting of the conflict.

It is therefore also no coincidence that there is now a sudden outpouring of articles admitting that the Ukrainian resistance is approaching a point of serious collapse in the near term. This is undoubtedly motivated by the desire of the American political class to insulate itself from being proven wrong—and to simultaneously use that impending collapse to its own political advantage. Each article is therefore also sure to attribute the increasing likelihood of a Ukrainian defeat as the direct result of the delay in passing the recent aid bill. The fault is subsequently laid at the feet of House Republicans, despite the fact that this does not correlate to the actual strategic situation on the ground. 

It is possible that Trump may have given his eventual support to the aid bill through Mike Johnson as a way to preempt the Democrat attempt to further present the former president as pro-Russia and a foreign policy knave. No one should doubt that the Trump-Putin narrative will return with a vengeance this election cycle. It will certainly feature prominently in the recently announced presidential debates. Trump will point to the fact that the invasion happened on Biden’s watch, while the latter will decry the former president as a Putin apologist who will abandon the transatlantic order. Biden will also continue to attribute Ukraine’s impending defeat as the fault of MAGA Republicans.

For his part, Hakeem Jeffries probably knows little of modern combat and even less about Eastern Europe, but he most certainly does know a great deal about the cut-throat war that is U.S. politics. Unfortunately, that political maneuvering comes at the cost of effective statecraft as the United States’ geopolitical position deteriorates as a result of its policy choices. Such maneuvering also increases the likelihood of dragging the nation into a bloody conflict as each side supports escalatory policy in order to outflank their domestic opponents.

Perhaps most lamentable and yet overlooked of all: This political game also comes at the cost of real human lives. One hopes that if Trump should win the presidency again and move past the messiness of electoral politics, his main focus will be what he is so proud of: deal-making in the interest of the American people.