The last two months have been good for Ukraine. In what once looked to be a war of attrition, Ukraine’s army has appeared to have turned the tables on Russia, making considerable gains on the battlefield while Russia looks to be in disarray.
Two counter offenses have been waged by Kyiv. The one in the northeast has recaptured approximately 2,300 square miles of land, including the cities of Izyum, Kupiansk, and Lyman. And the one in the southeast has reclaimed territory in the Kherson region, which was one of the provinces illegally annexed by Russia.
And there is also the recent explosion of the Kerch Strait Bridge, whose symbolic importance to Moscow cannot be underestimated.
Meanwhile, things do not look great in Russia.
The army is suffering from poor morale and needs more manpower, yet many Russians do not seem interested in fighting this war. After Putin ordered the mobilization of 300,000 men, which included many who had no prior military experience, Russian citizens responded with anti war protests, armed attacks on recruiting centers, or simply leaving the country altogether.
Reuters, for example, has reported that 700,000 men have opted to leave Russia rather than fight in Ukraine.
There is also evidence that some of Putin’s allies are starting to grow impatient with the poor performance of his military, as some have started to both openly and privately criticize the botched invasion.
There can be little doubt that America has played a role in all this. America has provided tremendous amounts of military equipment, financial aid, CIA personal and military intelligence, and issued some of the most sweeping sanctions in its history, all in an effort to protect Ukrainian sovereignty. It is hard to think that all this support did not have at least some effect on Ukraine’s success.
But does this mean that America’s support for Ukraine was the correct thing to do? It would be tempting to suggest it was. Russia is the aggressive power and waged an illegal war against its much smaller neighbor. But with American support, the Ukrainians have been able to defend their homeland, often doing so heroically.
Yet, to think funding Ukrainian resistance has been wise is to ignore the fact that America is fueling a conflict it lacks a vital interest in, all while ordinary Ukrainians bear the brunt of the conflict’s costs.
While there has been some talk about protecting Ukrainian democracy, America is primarily motivated by the strategic threat Russia poses to the liberal world order. Russia, it is argued, is a revisionary power whose behavior in Ukraine will upend the rules and norms that have governed the world for the past 70 or so years. And unless America steps in to help Ukraine, the order could very well fall apart.
As put by Francis Fukuyama, "If Putin succeeds in overthrowing democracy in Ukraine and replacing it with a puppet regime, he will have set a terrible precedent for the use of naked force. China will take a cue from this, as it contemplates options for re-incorporating Taiwan. The US and NATO will have been humiliated, and a signal will go out across the world that American promises of support are hollow and cooperation among democracies non-existent."
This sort of argument is popular among American hawks, and you see it used often, yet it is seriously wanting. They never explain how the liberal world order is so fragile it relies on the fate of single country, especially one that America has admitted is not worth directly defending. They also never explain why the order can sustain the illegal wars waged in Iraq and Libya, yet not Ukraine. It’s just a slippery slope argument that ignores how hard it is to defeat a people on their own land as well as the tendency of states to ally against aggressive powers.
If anything, the recent developments should discredit their argument instead of being evidence for them to double down on supporting Ukraine. The past 8 months have clearly demonstrated how inept Russia’s military is, and if Moscow could not even conquer Ukraine, which borders Russia and is also the poorest in Europe, why would anyone think it could somehow conquer more strategically important countries, like Poland or Germany? The entire thing is fanciful and is frankly just an excuse for elites to justify their desire for war.
Yet, it is not just a lack of vital interests that makes American policies mistaken, but how the costs of these policies are distributed. For America, the cost of supporting Ukraine has been entirely financial, totaling to almost 65 billion dollars with undoubtedly more to come. But for Ukraine the costs have been far more tragic, and include torture camps, civilian casualties (including at least 350 children), a massive refugee problem, rolling blackouts, and approximately 113 billion dollars’ worth of damage to Ukraine’s economy. These human and property costs are the responsibility of Russia, not America, and in a more just world Putin would be in prison. But we cannot ignore the fact that were it not for America, Ukraine would have already have made the sort of unsavory but necessary compromises that are part of any peace package, and therefore avoiding most of this suffering.
America should not be confused about the dramatic change of events in Ukraine. Yes, Ukraine has made considerable gains while Russia seems to be in retreat, all of which seem to justify America’s policies towards Ukraine. But there is still no clear endgame in sight, and in can be all but certain that Putin will continue escalating the conflict until a negotiated peace is a reached. Instead of continuing to fund this conflict for "As long as it takes," America should be pressuring Kyiv to seek peace talks that lead to an end in hostilities. And the first step in doing this is to scale back its support for Ukraine.
Brian Clark is a foreign policy analyst with a research interest in American Grand Strategy. He has been published in The National Interest, 19fortyfive.com, and The American Conservative.