There is a dawning realization that the war in Ukraine is not going to end with the Ukrainian counteroffensive. It is not going to end with a military victory for Ukraine, and it is not going to end by attaining the goals necessary to force Russia to concede Ukraine’s key demands at the negotiating table.
The war is not going well for Ukraine. The counteroffensive has won little at the price of a lot: hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded, unexpectedly massive loss of NATO supplied equipment and continued devastation of Ukraine’s economy and infrastructure. There is even the risk of further loss of land.
The White House is receiving “sobering assessments” from the intelligence community that for the Ukrainian armed forces “to really make progress that would change the balance of this conflict . . . [is] extremely, highly unlikely” and that “Ukraine’s counteroffensive will fail to . . . fulfill its principal objective. . ..” The Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, Valeriy Zaluzhny has reportedly told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky much the same.
But despite the realization that plan A has likely failed, there is a depressing lack of imagination and diplomacy regarding a plan B. Anatol Lieven has described how former French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been denounced and vilified for suggesting a diplomatic plan B. Stian Jenssen, chief of staff for NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, apologized under outraged pressure for suggesting that a compromise diplomatic solution might be an option for a plan B. The New York Times ran an article on September 1 with the headline “As Ukraine’s Fight Grinds On, Talk of Negotiations Becomes Nearly Taboo,” reporting that some analysts say there is “a closing down of public discussion on options for Ukraine just at a moment when imaginative diplomacy is most needed” and that those who do discuss it face “criticism and abuse.”
But having doubling down on plan A as your only plan B creates two serious risks: one for Ukraine and one for the world.
The risk for Ukraine is that prolonging a failing plan A likely means only continuing the massive loss of Ukrainian lives and NATO equipment. The risk for the world is that doubling down on plan A means escalating the war in ways that risk widening the war in ways that neither NATO nor Russia wish to widen it.
Such escalations have already included sowing the fields of Ukraine with cluster munitions and making them toxic with depleted uranium. The UK has already sent depleted uranium ammunition, and the US is poised to send “controversial armor-piercing munitions containing depleted uranium to Ukraine” for the first time.
Ukraine has also intensified drone attacks inside Russia. But the attacks are becoming increasingly provocative and dangerous. On August 29, Ukraine launched a drone attack on Pskov airfield, a Russian airfield very near the Estonian border. The significance was not in the damage done but in the location of the airfield. It is only 38.1 miles from Estonia, a NATO member, but 500 miles from Ukraine.
That geography seems to lead to only three possible launch points. The drones could have been launched by infiltrators in Russia or Belarus. They could have been launched from Estonia. Or they could have been launched from Ukraine, but that would require help.
Using infiltrators to strike inside Russian territory would be dangerous enough as provocation for Russian escalation. But Estonia is a member of NATO. Drones launched into Russia from Estonia risks drawing NATO into the war. So might drones fired from Ukraine. To fly that far, military analyst Stephen Bryen explains, a drone would need “special communications capabilities,” and Ukraine “does not have drones like these.” Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said at a press briefing that “Ukrainian drones could not travel such a distance without a carefully planned route based on information obtained from Western satellites.” That degree of US involvement in Ukrainian strikes inside Russian territory, if true, would also risk drawing the US and NATO into a war with Russia.
But that may not be the only, or even the most provocative, US involvement in recent Ukrainian drone attacks given the significance and sensitivity to Russia of Crimea and the Kerch Strait bridge that links it to Russia. On September 1, Ukraine reportedly attempted, once again, to blow up the bridge. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, Russia successfully repelled the attacks. The ministry said that “At 11:15 p.m. Moscow time on September 1, the Kiev regime attempted a terrorist strike on the Crimean Bridge with a semi-submersible uncrewed surface vessel. The Ukrainian sea drone was timely detected and destroyed in the waters of the Black Sea.”
But, as in the drone strikes on the Pskov airfield, the significance is not in the attack but in who may have facilitated the attack. A couple of unconfirmed reports claim that western intelligence provided aid in the attack. Stephen Bryen says that there are reports that “the Ukrainian attempt to destroy the bridge was aided and abetted by US overhead assets coordinating the Ukrainian operation.” He lists several US “platforms” that “were intended to support the Ukrainian attempt to probe vulnerabilities in Russia’s defenses adjacent to and on the bridge.”
If true, these reports about a US aided drone attack on the Kerch Strait bridge add to the provocations that doubling down on plan A create. There is a need for a better plan B than unimaginatively simply continuing and doubling down on plan A. And the best available plan B may be the plan before plan A.
The tragedy of the war in Ukraine is that any diplomatic settlement that has survived the war is worse for Ukraine than the diplomatic settlements available before, or in the early days of, the war. Russia’s security proposals to the US and NATO prior to the war and Ukraine and Russia’s talks in the very early days of the war would have left greater territory inside Ukraine’s borders in exchange for a legally binding promise that Ukraine would not join NATO. At the end of the war, a negotiated settlement is likely to look much the same, but already with less territory. The people of Ukraine have paid the price of hundreds of thousands of lives and limbs, a wrecked country that will take nearly half a trillion dollars to rebuild and the further loss of land only to arrive at the same settlement they could have had without all the pain, all the loss and all the cost had the US and UK not pushed them to fight on when they had come to an agreement with Russia that satisfied Ukrainian goals.
Doubling down on plan A will likely only further wound Ukraine in life and land without forcing Russia to concede any more than it already will at the negotiating table. Tragically, the best plan B is the plan that was always on the table before plan A. Plan A has failed. If the interest of Ukrainians is what any of this was ever about, it is time to start talking about plan B.
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.