What are the United States’ goals in the Ukraine war? Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently announced that the United States wants “Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” The U.S. commitment toward that end has been substantial. Congress passed the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act by near-unanimous vote, invoking the “arsenal of democracy” we provided to Britain during World War II. President Biden is seeking $33 billion in additionalaid. When the defense ministers of some 40 countries gathered at Ramstein Air Base in Germany last month, the focus was not a peace settlement but outright Ukrainian victory or at least the “permanent weakening” of Russia’s military power.
But as the violence continues, the war fever rises, and we had better be clear about our objectives. A commitment to a long, grinding proxy war with Russia would have severe consequences not only for the Ukrainian people but also for the security interests of the United States and its allies.
Ukrainians’ stirring resistance to the Russian invasion should not blind us to the horrendous cost in lives and property. A staggering 28 percent of Ukraine’s population has reportedly been displaced, either internally or abroad. If the war drags on, that share will grow.
About one-third of Ukraine’s basic infrastructure — roads, rail lines, bridges — has been damaged or demolished. Such destruction will continue. Ukraine’s economy is projected to contract by nearly half this year. Even if the war were to stop tomorrow, rebuilding and returning to pre-war levels of production would require years and hundreds of billions of dollars.
Moreover, at a time when the world economy was already wracked by the coronavirus pandemic, this war and the sanctions imposed on Russia are adding to global dislocations. Last year, Russia was the world’s largest exporter of natural gas, the second-largest exporter of crude oil and the third-largest exporter of coal. It leads the world in enriching uranium for nuclear power plants. Not surprisingly, the price of fuel has soared since the invasion. Our allies in Europe are particularly hard-hit. U.S. citizens, meanwhile, suffer from rising prices in the global markets for steel, aluminum, car batteries, computer chips and much more. Inevitably, this will begin to erode support for the war — as will the growing cost of sustaining it.
Russia and Ukraine together supply 30 percent of wheat and 20 percent of maize to global markets, according to the U.N. World Food Program, as well as three-quarters of the world’s sunflower oil and one-third of its barley. Russia is also a key producer of the products that go into fertilizer.
In this hemisphere, many Latin American countries are already facing shortages of fertilizer, with Brazil’s crops particularly at risk. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, 14 African nations depend on Russia and Ukraine for half their wheat, with Eritrea (100 percent), Somalia (more than 90 percent) and Egypt (nearly 75 percent) topping the list. A continuing war could condemn an additional 47 million people to acute hunger, experts estimate.
Inevitably, the continuing conflict strengthens hawks in both the United States and Russia — and makes any settlement more difficult. To justify the growing costs, each must rouse patriotic fervor and emphasize the stakes. Nuclear arsenals loom in the backdrop. For the decades of the Cold War, Washington and its allies worked to avoid a war with Russia, standing by even as Russia suppressed independence movements in Czechoslovakia and Hungary. So for officials to now comment about permanently weakening Russia is reckless in the extreme.
If Biden gets his $33 billion, the United States will have dedicated $47 billion in weapons and aid to Ukraine since the invasion began. That is, as William Hartung and Ben Freeman noted in the online magazine Responsible Statecraft, almost as much as the entire State Department budget and more than the Biden administration is committing to address climate change.
This is why it is vital to step back from the emotions stirred by war and assess our real security priorities. We have far greater security challenges — including the pandemic and global contagion, climate change, the challenges posed by China, and the imperative to rebuild our economy and our democracy. Ukraine’s resistance has captured our attention and our sympathy, but its importance might be better calculated in relation to these other matters.
If Russia conquers the whole of Donbas, as now seems Vladimir Putin’s intent, Moscow may well be readier to talk about a settlement. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the United States and NATO would have to decide whether to encourage negotiations. Zelensky put forth elements of a compromise settlement in the first week of conflict; as the violence has continued, his position has hardened. Washington may need to drive toward its own interest in ending the war, rather than toward resistance at all costs.
Any settlement would no doubt demand withdrawal of Russian forces, probably in exchange for Ukrainian neutrality and territorial integrity, recognition of Russia’s control of Crimea, and some kind of federated status for the separatist provinces in Eastern Ukraine. And sanctions would no doubt need to be lifted.
The United States and its allies should make clear now to Zelensky, Russia, China and India — that is, acknowledging the geopolitics of a future security architecture — that we welcome a settlement that preserves the sovereignty of Ukraine but that also ends the war sooner rather than later. That is our real security interest.