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Base American Policy in Ukraine on American Interests 

The Russo-Ukrainian war, in which Washington is doing everything short of active combat to kill Russian personnel and destroy Russian materiel, is the most dangerous international situation confronting America. Nowhere else are the U.S. and its treaty allies so close to conflict with a nuclear-armed power.

This fearsome reality, with the Biden administration tying America’s future and very survival to the military ambitions of another nation, is ignored by the “Ukraine Firsters” who are outraged that Washington has limited support for Kiev. For example, Frederick Starr of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Russian political commentator Andrei Piontkovsky recently accused CIA Director William Burns of “treasonous” conduct for possibly negotiating bilateral limits to Washington’s role in the ever-fiercer proxy war.

For them, backing the Zelensky government evidently is more important than protecting the American people. They are angry for what they call an “artificial and self-destructive taboo” that, they charge, has cost Ukrainian lives. They criticize restrictions on airplane and missile transfers as “this cruel state of affairs.” They would unabashedly put Ukraine first.

The Biden administration has not confirmed the existence of such an accord, which Starr and Piontkovsky suggest grew out of reported conversations between Burns and Russian officials. If true, this effort to prevent expansion of the ongoing conflict may be the only recent good news about Washington’s involvement.

American conduct has indeed cost Ukrainian lives, but the fault is not inadequate backing for Kiev. Rather, Washington and its allies have repeatedly fueled an unnecessary conflict.

First was the determination to dominate Europe by expanding NATO up to Russia’s borders, contra multiple assurances given Moscow’s leaders and repeated warnings of the furies that might be unleashed. This issue was the casus belli for Vladimir Putin last year, as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently acknowledged.

Second was trampling on the newly established Russian Federation’s geopolitical interests and treating it as a power of no account, especially in the Balkans. The illegal attack on Serbia had a hugely negative impact on public as well as elite opinion in Russia. (The Serbian public has returned the favor, overwhelmingly looking toward Moscow rather than Brussels.)

Third was cynically treating the Minsk agreements, negotiated to resolve the Donbass conflict, as a tactic to win time rather than a solution to restore peace. Western leaders accused Moscow of violating an agreement they now admit they themselves broke and never intended to keep.

Fourth was refusing to treat seriously the Russian leader’s threats to respond to growing military ties between Ukraine and the West, which essentially took NATO into Ukraine rather than Ukraine into NATO.

Fifth was disrupting the Russo–Ukrainian negotiations early last year that might have yielded an accord ending the conflict after weeks rather than months or years.

Finally, sixth was inflating Ukrainian military ambitions in a fight that increasingly looks like a battle against Moscow to the last Ukrainian. Starr and Piontkovsky imagine that the U.S. could have enabled Kiev to painlessly sweep aside the Russian hordes. Why, they exclaim, “had there been a hundred or more F-16 fighter jets in the Ukrainian skies a year ago, this cursed war would now be history.” However, technology rarely determines a war’s outcome. Eight decades ago Germany’s Nazi regime desperately hoped that Wunderwaffen, wonder weapons, would turn the tide of battle—to no avail. Moreover, deploying and using F-16s might not have been so simple; Russian countermeasures might have exacted a hefty toll, and Moscow might have escalated its operations in other ways.

None of this minimizes Moscow’s responsibility for the war, an illegal preventive conflict that has unleashed enormous death and destruction on Ukraine, killed tens of thousands of Russians, and spread serious economic hardship throughout Europe and around the globe. Yet Washington and the European governments not only share responsibility for this terrible conflict but are using Ukrainian blood to advance their own ends.

For instance, the Washington Post columnist David Ignatius called the conflict “a strategic windfall.” In his view, at a very small cost—meaning to the U.S., of course—Washington is degrading the military capacity of Russia. Longtime Russophobe Senator Mitt Romney of Utah similarly termed America’s involvement an “extraordinarily wise investment.” Yet this is a dubious benefit, since Moscow was not threatening America. The conflict also has revealed Russia’s military weaknesses to Putin’s government and stimulated Russian military production, which ultimately might strengthen Moscow’s military position.

Moreover, Russia could escalate, adding targets, expanding strikes, and introducing nuclear weapons. No doubt, Vladimir Putin does not want war with the U.S. and NATO. And, so far, Kiev has repeatedly struck Russian territory without triggering a massive response. Alas, Moscow’s past forbearance does not indicate future quiescence, especially if the stakes rise.

Ukraine is an existential interest for Russia, meaning that in extremis the latter will be much readier than America to engage in a game of foreign policy chicken. While Moscow has not been willing to use nuclear weapons in an attempt to win, it might employ them to ensure that it does not lose. Putin’s government also could respond indirectly. For instance, the revival of Russian–North Korean relations creates the possibility of Moscow assisting North Korea militarily, including miniaturizing nuclear warheads, improving missile targeting, and more, which would better enable the North to incinerate American cities in a renewed Korean conflict.

Even if Starr and Piontkovsky are right that Burns successfully negotiated conflict guardrails, such an agreement is not enough to ensure that Moscow and Washington do not end up at war. Allied paeans to Ukrainian heroism barely disguise a cold-blooded willingness to bleed Ukraine dry in order to hurt Russia. The U.S. already is responsible for thousands of Russian deaths, including of top commanders. And Washington’s oft-stated end is not so much to empower Kiev as to weaken Moscow. Indeed, some American officials offer increasingly expansive objectives. “For the war in Ukraine to end on terms consistent with American interests and ideals, Ukraine must be seen to have won, and Russia’s invasion must go down in history as a decisive failure,” insisted former State Department official and congressman Tom Malinowski. Additional U.S. steps which threaten Russia’s forces and campaign could spark an escalatory spiral.

Last year the U.S. had reason to provide Kiev with modest assistance to help maintain its sovereignty and independence in the face of Russia’s initial assault. Washington has no similar cause to underwrite Ukraine’s desire to take back lost territory, especially when such objectives appear to be well beyond its ability. Of course, Ukrainians already facing devastating assaults on their cities and infrastructure might view the risk of Russian escalation to be acceptable. However, the U.S., with no important, let alone vital, interests at stake, should discourage such escalation.

Claims that Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, and maybe others will engage in an orgy of aggression if Washington does not take the globe to the brink over Ukraine make no sense. The character of geopolitical confrontations and American commitments vary dramatically. As for European security, Moscow’s inability to swiftly subdue Ukraine demonstrates weakness, not strength, and will leave Russia with enormous reconstruction costs after the Ukraine conflict ends. Moscow could ill afford to launch new wars; perhaps, more importantly, it has shown no interest in doing so. Putin also has demonstrated that he understands attacking NATO members would trigger a far different response than invading Ukraine—which is why he acted before Kiev joined the transatlantic alliance. Finally, Europeans are capable of taking over responsibility for their own security irrespective of the formal outcome of the Russo-Ukraine war.

The U.S. and Europe should prioritize strategies to end the war. The purpose of any additional aid should be to help Kiev enter a negotiation in which it, rather like Finland after World War II, can preserve its independent and democratic institutions if not its preferred borders and foreign policy. Doing so won’t be easy: As in World War I, the fighting has radicalized both sides, polarizing combatants who now demand more than at the start of the fight. Suggesting that Kiev might not get everything it demands or, even worse, might have to accept the loss of territory triggers anger and outrage. Washington shouldn’t try to impose such a settlement: Ukrainians are entitled to set whatever objectives they wish. Nevertheless, the Biden administration should inform Kiev that there will be no support for expansive objectives such as recapture of the Donbass and Crimea. And there will be no provision of weapons to expand Ukraine’s strike capability in Russia.

Vladimir Putin bears responsibility for starting what is a criminal war. However, Washington and its allies irresponsibly helped create the circumstances that spawned the conflict. Their reckless conduct has consigned tens of thousands of Ukrainians to death. Today the best hope for peace is for talks between Moscow and Washington to halt the allies’ growing march toward a potentially much larger and deadlier war.

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The American Conservative

The American Conservative is a bimonthly print and daily digital magazine of measured, principled conservatism. We believe in ideas over ideology and principles over party.

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