What Can We Learn From Our Forever War in Ukraine?

It has been a while since the United States won a war.  It looks as though we are about to lose yet another one – the war in Ukraine.  This is a proxy war justified as an effort to “weaken and isolate” Russia.  Our strategic defeat in this effort now leaves us with three unpalatable alternatives.  We can continue to support Ukraine as Russia grinds it to bits and reduces it further in size and population.  We can escalate the war, as French President Emmanuel Macron has advocated, despite the Russian threat to answer us with counter-escalation, possibly to the nuclear level.  Or we can face up to failure and save what we can of Ukraine by negotiating with Russia.  I know which of these choices I would prefer, and I suspect you do too.  And, however this unwise and unnecessary war ends, we need to ensure that there are no more like it in future.

They say that a mistake is only a mistake if you don’t learn from it.  Our country has recently made a lot of mistakes in its foreign policies.  Sadly, we don’t seem to be learning much of anything from this experience.  We have instead invented something uniquely American called a “forever war.”  Such wars routinely fail.  Still, we keep launching them.

I want to speak to you this evening about why we do this, why we shouldn’t, and how we can stop doing it.  My focus will be the forever war with Russia in Ukraine.

Forever wars can take many forms.  They can be economic or technological, like the one the Trump administration kicked off against China and that the Biden administration has enthusiastically doubled down on.  They can be military, like our twenty-three year “global war on terrorism.”  That has taken us into combat in over eighty countries, killed over 900,000 people, and cost us an estimated $8 trillion.  Forever wars need not be direct, as our proxy war in Ukraine illustrates.  They can even be covert, as our multiple barely concealed interventions in Syria demonstrate.

What America’s forever wars have in common is that they involve:

  • muddled, open-ended objectives,
  • movable goal posts,
  • an intensely propagandized narrative to mobilize support for them,
  • no quarter for those who challenge that narrative,
  • no benchmarks for judging success or failure,
  • no limits on the level of resources we must feed into them,
  • no defined end state that would justify ending them,
  • no strategy for their termination, and
  • no vision of a feasible order if and when they end.

Sunzi argued that wars should implement strategies that achieve specific national objectives with the least destruction.  Carl von Clausewitz described war as the expedient continuation of politics by other means.  William Tecumseh Sherman said that the purpose of war was to produce a better peace.  Fred Iklé said every war must end.

But what if domestic political dysfunction prevents the definition of specific national objectives?  What if a country’s political culture dictates that the only effective way to impose its druthers on other countries is coercively, through warfare – economic or military?   What if such a country measures the success of punitive measures not by the extent to which they achieve desirable changes in foreign behavior but by the pain they inflict on foreigners?  What if such a country believes it can resort to the use of force with impunity whenever it judges that  less violent methods of bending foreigners to its will are less likely to do so?  What if that country’s wars routinely lead not to peace but to turmoil or anarchy?

Our “forever wars” are the product of applying hubris to two related national ambitions vis-à-vis the world beyond our borders: (1) the consolidation of a global American sphere of influence and (2) the foreign regime changes needed to realize this.  The Ukraine war exemplifies both elements of this hegemonic behavior.  It has been accompanied by wall-to-wall propaganda that confuses self-righteousness with truth, demonizes our adversary, and replaces analysis with wishful thinking and denial, leaving nothing certain and everything plausible.  As always, the most destructive lies are those we tell ourselves.

The Ukraine war is not – as is claimed – about democracy vs. authoritarianism.  It is about delineating the post-Cold War U.S. sphere of influence in Europe.

Our country invented the modern sphere of influence.  In the Monroe Doctrine and the Roosevelt Corollary to it, we asserted a right to limit the freedom of maneuver of the countries of the Western Hemisphere and to demand their deference to our political and economic interests.  After World War II, Americans expanded our sphere of influence to include Western Europe and Northeast Asia.  In the post-Cold War period, Washington adapted the hegemonic principles of the Monroe Doctrine to the unipolar moment and extended our sphere of influence to the entire world beyond the borders of Russia, Iran, China, and North Korea.  In the end, the only countries bordering Russia other than those of Central Asia not in our sphere of influence were Georgia and Ukraine.  American neoconservatives saw these neighbors of Russia as vacuums to be filled by U.S. military power.

During the Cold War, NATO was a purely defensive alliance that effectively protected Western Europe from a predatory Soviet Union and its restive satellites.  But twenty-five years ago, at the end of the 20th century, after the USSR had disappeared, NATO began to launch offensive operations – first against Serbia, then in Afghanistan, later in Libya.  And as NATO expanded toward Russia’s borders, American troops and weapons aimed at Russia routinely established a presence on the territory of its new members.

At the 2007 Munich security conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin bluntly warned the United States and its European allies that his country would feel obliged to act if NATO – the instrument by which the U.S. has long exercised dominant politico-military influence in Europe – were further expanded.  His warning echoed that of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin as early as 1994.

In 2008 as in 1994, Washington ignored these warnings and persuaded NATO to offer membership to Georgia and Ukraine, both of which border the Russian Federation.  As the Russians habitually say, it was no accident that shortly thereafter, war broke out between Georgia and Russia.  This was in part due to Georgia’s exuberant reaction to apparent open-ended American support for its nationalist ambitions.  More to the point, it was a calculated Russian signal of resolve to resist encirclement by the United States and NATO.  We dismissed the signal and portrayed Moscow’s defeat of Georgian adventurism as wanton Russian aggression that vindicated our determination to bring Russia’s neighbors into NATO.  Someone summed this up by declaring that the reason NATO still exists is to handle the problems that NATO’s continuing existence creates.

Coincident with the war in Georgia, the United States and NATO escalated the effort to re-equip, restructure, and retrain the Ukrainian armed forces to be ready for combat with Russia.  In 2014, Washington helped engineer a coup in Kyiv that overthrew the elected government and installed handpicked pro-American, anti-Russian successors in its place.  The new ultranationalist Ukrainian government then banned the use of Russian and other minority languages in education or for official business.  But almost thirty percent of Ukrainians are native speakers of Russian.  Russian-speaking secessionists in the Donbas region resisted forced assimilation and began a civil war with Ukrainian ultranationalists.  This soon became a proxy war between Russia and the West.

The United States reaffirmed its intention to bring Ukraine into NATO and stepped up our aid to the Ukrainian armed forces.  But if Ukraine entered NATO while Crimea was still part of it, the 250-year-old Russian naval base at Sevastopol would fall under the control of the U.S. and NATO.  In large measure to preempt this, Russia annexed Crimea.  It was able to do so without violence because Crimeans had made it clear on several previous occasions that they did not want to be part of Ukraine.  In 2014, a Russian-organized referendum revealed that the views of most Crimeans had not changed.  If they could not be independent, they preferred to be part of Russia.  It is utterly unrealistic to expect them ever to agree to place themselves again under Ukrainian sovereignty.

By 2021, with our help, Ukraine had acquired a NATO-trained and equipped army larger than the armed forces of Britain, France, and Germany combined.  Not surprisingly, Moscow viewed this huge hostile force on its western borders as a serious national security threat.  Recent attacks deep into Russia by Ukrainian forces have inadvertently validated Russia’s concerns about the consequences of Ukraine joining an alliance hostile to it.  Just as Soviet forces stationed in Cuba in 1962 menaced Washington, U.S. forces stationed in Ukraine could reduce the warning time of a strike on Moscow to about five minutes.

So, in December 2021, Moscow massed troops on the Russian border with Ukraine and demanded negotiations to resolve its security concerns.  It insisted on Ukrainian neutrality, respect for the rights of Russian speakers in Ukraine, and a discussion of a new European security architecture that would threaten neither Russia nor the members of NATO.  The U.S. and NATO responded by rejecting negotiations while warning – in an instance of self-fulfilling paranoia – that Russia planned to invade Ukraine.

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general, put it this way: “President Putin … sent a draft treaty that they wanted NATO to sign, to promise no more NATO enlargement.  That … was a pre-condition for [Russia] not invad[ing] Ukraine.  Of course we didn’t sign that.”  In fact, the U.S. and NATO refused to discuss it at all, leaving Russia with the choice of either accepting NATO membership for Ukraine and the eventual deployment of U.S. forces there or using force to prevent this.  This unwelcome choice was the proximate cause of Moscow’s fateful decision to invade Ukraine on February 24, 2022.  The Russian invasion of Ukraine was clearly illegal under international law, but to say that it was “unprovoked” defies credibility.

Could a negotiation with Russia have prevented war?  We have at least two solid pieces of evidence to suggest that it might have.  Despite Moscow’s sympathy and support for the Russian-speaking secessionists in the Donbas, it agreed in the Minsk accords of 2014 and ’15 that their region should remain part of Ukraine, provided their linguistic autonomy was guaranteed. (The Minsk accords were subsequently repudiated, not by Russia but by Ukraine, France, and Germany.)

Then, too, six weeks after it invaded Ukraine, Moscow agreed to a draft treaty with Kyiv by which it would withdraw from Ukraine in return for Ukraine renouncing NATO membership and proclaiming neutrality.  This treaty was to have been signed on April 15, 2022, but the U.S., U.K, and NATO objected to it.  In early April Ukraine repudiated its earlier agreement to the terms of the treaty.

As the war has ground on, Russia has repeatedly reiterated its willingness to talk, and the U.S., NATO, and Ukraine have consistently rejected doing so.  The refusal to discuss a formula for peaceful coexistence between Ukraine and Russia, between NATO and Russia, and between Ukrainian and Russian-speaking Ukrainians has had grave consequences, most of all for Ukraine.

The war has not only imposed huge costs on Ukraine but also greatly weakened its bargaining power in any future negotiation with Russia.  If there is an agreed end to this war, it will be on largely Russian terms and vastly less favorable to Ukraine than the peace the U.S. and NATO persuaded Kyiv to reject in April 2022.  Ukraine, the U.S., and NATO are now in the final stages of a humiliating strategic defeat.

In 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine, the population of Ukraine was about 32 million.  Since then, it has fallen to about 20 million.

One-third of Ukraine’s people have been dislocated.  Over 2 million have fled to Russia and 6 to 8 million to the West and elsewhere.  The number of Ukrainian casualties is a closely guarded secret, but indications are that it may be around half a million.  Ukraine’s industrial base and infrastructure have been devastated.  As the war began, Ukraine was the poorest and most corrupt country in Europe.  Now it is even poorer and more corrupt.

The Biden administration has regularly described the proxy war with Russia as designed to “isolate and weaken Russia” and pledged to support Ukraine for “as long as it takes.”  Prominent American politicians have extolled the benefits of having Ukrainians rather than Americans fight Russians.  Ukrainians have done so with remarkable bravery.  But so many have died that Ukraine can no longer mount an adequate defense, let alone go on the offensive.

The war has devastated Ukraine without either isolating or weakening Russia.  It has cut Europe off from Russian energy supplies and reoriented Russia toward China, India, Iran, the West Asian Arab countries, and Africa.  Russia’s economy has grown, not contracted.  Moscow’s defense budget has doubled, and its armaments production is now three times that of the US and NATO combined.  Like Ukrainian casualties, those of Russia are hard to estimate.  But with a population four to five times larger than Ukraine’s, Russia can sustain many more casualties than Ukraine can.

The U.S. and NATO expected an easy victory over Russia.  But both now face a humiliating military defeat.  The war has greatly weakened Ukraine’s bargaining position in any future negotiation with Russia.  Germany now feels sufficiently threatened for it have begun a debate on whether to acquire nuclear weapons.

As a result of U.S. sanctions and the sabotage of Russia’s undersea gas pipeline to Germany, Europe has lost its access to cheap Russian energy supplies.  These have been replaced by imports from the United States that are as much as four times as expensive.  European energy-intensive industries are no longer internationally competitive.  Germany, Europe’s core economy, is being deindustrialized.  Current trends are raising disturbing questions about the future of the EU.

The Ukraine war, combined with other bellicose actions, has cost the United States and the West the moral argument internationally.  We cannot have it both ways – condemning Russia’s illegal actions in Ukraine while actively supporting Israel’s even more lawless and lethal actions in Palestine.  The West has inadvertently put its hypocrisy and double standards on dramatic display.

We are told by our leaders and their political straphangers that Ukraine and other current and potential “forever wars” are about defending democratic values.  But as we build a domestic national security state to support our wars, we are sacrificing ever more of the civil liberties and respect for due process and the rule of law that are central to constitutional democracy.  As Benjamin Franklin wisely pointed out, a nation prepared to trade its freedoms for its security puts both in jeopardy.  And, in this case, it is not even our security that is at stake but that of others.  The “domino theory” was nonsense in Southeast Asia.  It is equally fallacious in Eastern Europe.  Our wars are wars of choice, not necessity, and have little or no direct connection to Americans’ security and wellbeing.

It is said that U.S. credibility with allies and adversaries is at stake in Ukraine.  But our policies and actions there have not bolstered confidence in American steadfastness so much as shaken confidence in our judgment and cast doubt on the efficacy of our military doctrines and weaponry.  The West now suffers from “forever war” fatigue.  American and European taxpayers are becoming reluctant to keep sending money to a cause that they increasingly perceive as both futile and corrupt.  And we are being reminded that, as the 20th century demonstrated, there can be no peace in Europe based on ostracizing Russia or any other European great power.

As the war proceeds, Russia’s bargaining position continues to strengthen.  If there is ever an end to this war, it will be on terms far less favorable to Ukraine than the peace the U.S. and NATO persuaded it to reject in April 2022.  Meanwhile, inept American diplomacy continues to push Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea together in a loose anti-American entente and to increase the danger of one or more nuclear wars.

Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty stipulates that “an armed attack against one or more [NATO member states] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.”  This is an unequivocal commitment to defend any and all NATO members against attack.  But the United States and other NATO members have already demonstrated that we are not in fact prepared to respond directly to an armed attack on Ukraine by Russia.  In response to just such an attack, we have resorted to evasions and a proxy war pitting Ukrainians – but not us – against the aggressor.

If Ukraine were a member of NATO, Article 5 would require the president to ask Congress to declare war on the world’s most formidable nuclear power.  Vladimir Putin has threatened to conduct such a war at the nuclear level.  He may not be the demonic figure our propaganda makes him out to be.  But bravado aside, calling his bluff is an insane risk for us to take for ourselves, our allies, and the world at large.

As in other “forever wars,” we have inhaled our own propaganda about Ukraine.  Our quixotic attempt to exploit Ukrainian nationalism to “weaken and isolate” Russia or engineer regime change in Moscow has been a catastrophe for Ukrainians and a strategic defeat for the West.  It has brought the U.S. and NATO to the point at which we must either enter the fray directly, watch Russia grind Ukraine to bits, or accept a negotiated outcome that addresses Russian interests and objectives.

Moscow has described those interests and stated those objectives clearly and consistently.  They do not include invading NATO territory.  Claiming that they do is threat mongering designed to mobilize popular support in the West for our proxy war in Ukraine, to boost U.S. and NATO defense budgets, and to fatten the profits of the military-industrial complex.  Moscow has conducted a limited war – a so-called “special military operation” – in Ukraine.  It has not marshalled the forces necessary to subdue, occupy, or annex all of Ukraine.  Russia’s battlefield performance has not demonstrated any capacity to invade the West, and Moscow has expressed no ambition to do so.

It is time to stop attributing objectives to Russia that it has not stated and does not have.  Moscow’s professed aims have been and remain: (1) to restore the neutrality of Ukraine and prevent the deployment of U.S. and other NATO forces and installations to Ukraine; (2) to restore and ensure the linguistic and other rights of Ukraine’s large Russian-speaking minority; and (3) to negotiate a new European security architecture that can alleviate the threat Russia and other European states pose to each other by crafting a durable peace between them.

In the absence of diplomacy, the use of force has once again failed.  Far from weakening Russia, the Ukraine war has strengthened it.  Far from isolating Russia, the Ukraine war has forced it into the embrace of China and Iran and boosted its ties with India, the Arab world, and Africa.  Ukraine’s economy has been eviscerated, its population reduced, its military capacity gutted, and its territory diminished.  If the war is allowed to continue, this will only wreak more havoc in Ukraine, kill more Ukrainians as well as Russians, and further shrink Ukraine’s territory, possibly leaving it landlocked.

The proponents of our militarized foreign policy asked us once again to give war a chance.  We foolishly did.  This has now left us with no alternative to trying diplomacy.  We cannot hope to regain at the negotiating table what we have lost on the battlefield, but we must now strive to compose a peace with Russia that enables Ukraine to be both a buffer and a bridge between Russia and the rest of Europe.  That – not NATO membership – is the prerequisite for the emergence of a prosperous and democratic Ukraine, untainted by corruption.  And that – not NATO membership for Ukraine – is the prerequisite for peace and stability in Europe.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. chairs Projects International, Inc. He is a retired US defense official, diplomat, and interpreter, the recipient of numerous high honors and awards, a popular public speaker, and the author of five books. He was a former US Assistant Secretary of Defense, ambassador to Saudi Arabia (during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm), acting Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, and Chargé d’affaires at both Bangkok and Beijing. He began his diplomatic career in India but specialized in Chinese affairs. (He was the principal American interpreter during President Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972.) Reprinted with permission from his blog.