US President Joe Biden’s policy in the war in Ukraine has been clear from the beginning: to put Ukraine in the best position “on the battlefield [to] be in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table” while being careful “not fight the third world war in Ukraine.” There has been a lot less clarity on the meaning of “best.”
On the battlefield of Ukraine, “best” is defined – or should have been defined – not as best imaginable, but as best attainable. Best imaginable lies in some unrealizable future; best attainable has already passed. And that was Biden’s first mistake.
In November 2022, Ukraine recaptured massive amounts of territory, and military analysts warned of an inflection point at which Ukraine could likely not capture more territory if it pressed on but could lose more territory and more lives. Some military analysts at the time suggested that Kherson was likely the last Russian held ground that Ukraine will be able to retake in the foreseeable future. Some officials “wonder[ed] aloud how much more territory can be won by either side, and at what cost.”
There were reports that the “inflection point” view was shared by other NATO militaries. According to those reports, Germany and France believed that “parity will not last long and that now is the optimal time for Ukraine to start talking.”
Most importantly, on November 9, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley said, “There has to be a mutual recognition that a military victory is probably, in the true sense of the word is maybe not achievable through military means,” he added, “and therefore you need to turn to other means.”
The US did not encourage Ukraine to turn to other means. And since then, Ukraine has had no more major victories on the battlefield. The next opportunity to gain land was the current counteroffensive. But little land has been won and some land, along with tens of thousands of lives in just a couple of months, have been lost. A critically depleted Ukrainian armed forces now faces, not a better attainable position on the battlefield, but the prospect of a massive Russian offensive.
The Biden administration missed the moment when “best” was realized on the battlefield. The counteroffensive has put Ukraine in a much worse, not a better, position at the negotiating table at an enormous price of dead and wounded.
On August 18, Milley said, “If the end state is Ukraine is a free, independent sovereign country with its territory intact, that will take a considerable level of effort yet to come. And this is a long, very difficult, high casualty-producing war that’s ongoing. You can achieve those objectives through military means. That’s gonna take a long, long time, but you can also achieve those objectives maybe possibly, through some sort of diplomatic means.”
The top US soldier told the politicians that nine months ago, but the politicians didn’t listen. The price is that Ukraine is now in a much worse position in everyway, including on the battlefield and at the negotiating table.
That was the Biden administration’s first mistake. And that missed call hurt Ukraine badly. Ukrainian soldiers who were encouraged by the US to fight on even into the teeth of expected, but acceptable to the US, massive casualties paid for it with their lives, their limbs and their mental health. Ukrainians paid for it with the devastation of their economy and infrastructure and the loss of land.
The second mistake was Biden’s oft repeated promise to stand with Ukraine for “as long as it takes” and the sister promise of “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.” “As long as it takes” is an undefinably long time, and “nothing without Ukraine” is a big abdication when US security and tens of billions of dollars are the stakes.
The political rhetoric of “as long as it takes” sounded good. But the US intelligence community has now told the White House that Ukraine’s counteroffensive will fail to attain its “principal objective.” With the reality setting in in the Biden Administration that “as long as it takes” may now mean investing billions of dollars more in Ukraine for a return of more lost lives, more lost land and more lost equipment, there may be pressure to suggest negotiations that may win Ukraine a worse outcome than they could have had before the war or in the early days of the war.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has begun to worry about a “difficult autumn” for Ukraine in fending off demands for peace talks. “These voices that are beginning to be heard in different countries of the world, saying that there are problems and that negotiations are needed. These voices are getting louder,” Kuleba said.
With elections on the horizon, a Biden administration push for a weakened Ukraine to negotiate could hurt Biden and the democrats by being seen as an abandonment and betrayal of Ukraine. It could be exploited during the campaign as a breaking of the promise to stand by Ukraine for “as long as it takes” and to do “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine” and could lead to questioning of what it was all for. It could also further damage US credibility internationally by further raising questions about its ability to stand by the benefactors of its promised aid.
The third mistake was Biden’s defining his administration by the generational struggle between democracy and autocracy and his administration’s framing of the war in Ukraine as a war for “universal . . . core principles.” That raised the stakes considerably, metamorphosing a preventable war between Ukraine and Russia into a global war between the values and worldview of the political West and the values and worldview of Russia that would define the future international order. Failing to achieve a decisive victory in that war seriously hurts NATO and the political West.
In raising the political stakes in the war, the Biden administration made three avoidable and costly policy miscalculations. The first miscalculation, the promise to win Ukraine an ever better position at the negotiating table, badly hurt Ukraine. The second, the promise to stand with Ukraine for “as long as it takes,” could hurt Biden and the US. The third, the promise to be victorious in the generational battle between democracy and autocracy, could hurt NATO and the political West. Continuing the war risks continuing the swelling of each of these miscalculations.
Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.