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Opinion Blinken ponders the post-Ukraine-war order

Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a news conference at the State Department on Jan. 17. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The Biden administration, convinced that Vladimir Putin has failed in his attempt to erase Ukraine, has begun planning for an eventual postwar military balance that will help Kyiv deter any repetition of Russia’s brutal invasion.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken outlined his strategy for the Ukrainian endgame and postwar deterrence during an interview on Monday at the State Department. The conversation offered an unusual exploration of some of the trickiest issues surrounding resolution of a Ukraine conflict that has threatened the global order.

Blinken explicitly commended Germany’s military backing for Ukraine at a time when Berlin is getting hammered by some other NATO allies for not providing Leopard tanks quickly to Kyiv. “Nobody would have predicted the extent of Germany’s military support” when the war began, Blinken said. “This is a sea change we should recognize.”

He also underlined President Biden’s determination to avoid direct military conflict with Russia, even as U.S. weapons help pulverize Putin’s invasion force. “Biden has always been emphatic that one of his requirements in Ukraine is that there be no World War III,” Blinken said.

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Russia’s colossal failure to achieve its military goals, Blinken believes, should now spur the United States and its allies to begin thinking about the shape of postwar Ukraine — and how to create a just and durable peace that upholds Ukraine’s territorial integrity and allows it to deter and, if necessary, defend against any future aggression. In other words, Russia should not be able to rest, regroup and reattack.

Blinken’s deterrence framework is somewhat different from last year’s discussions with Kyiv about security guarantees similar to NATO’s Article 5. Rather than such a formal treaty pledge, some U.S. officials increasingly believe the key is to give Ukraine the tools it needs to defend itself. Security will be ensured by potent weapons systems — especially armor and air defense — along with a strong, noncorrupt economy and membership in the European Union.

The Pentagon’s current stress on providing Kyiv with weapons and training for maneuver warfare reflects this long-term goal of deterrence. “The importance of maneuver weapons isn’t just to give Ukraine strength now to regain territory but as a deterrent against future Russian attacks,” explained a State Department official familiar with Blinken’s thinking. “Maneuver is the future.”

The conversation with Blinken offered some hints about the intense discussions that have gone on for months within the administration about how the war in Ukraine can be ended and future peace maintained. The administration’s standard formula is that all decisions must ultimately be made by Ukraine, and Blinken reiterated that line. He also backs Ukraine’s desire for significant battlefield gains this year. But the State Department, Pentagon and National Security Council are also thinking ahead.

Crimea is a particular point of discussion. There is a widespread view in Washington and Kyiv that regaining Crimea by military force may be impossible. Any Ukrainian military advances this year in Zaporizhzhia oblast, the land bridge that connects Crimea and Russia, could threaten Russian control. But an all-out Ukrainian campaign to seize the Crimean Peninsula is unrealistic, many U.S. and Ukrainian officials believe. That’s partly because Putin has indicated that an assault on Crimea would be a tripwire for nuclear escalation.

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The administration shares Ukraine’s insistence that Crimea, which was seized by Russia in 2014, must eventually be returned. But in the short run, what’s crucial for Kyiv is that Crimea no longer serve as a base for attacks against Ukraine. One formula that interests me would be a demilitarized status, with questions of final political control deferred. Ukrainian officials told me last year that they had discussed such possibilities with the administration.

As Blinken weighs options in Ukraine, he has been less worried about escalation risks than some observers. That’s partly because he believes Russia is checked by NATO’s overwhelming power. “Putin continues to hold some things in reserve because of his misplaced fear that NATO might attack Russia,” explained the official familiar with Blinken’s thinking. This Russian reserve force includes strategic bombers, certain precision-guided weapons and, of course, tactical and strategic nuclear weapons.

Blinken’s refusal to criticize Germany on the issue of releasing Leopard tanks illustrates what has been more than a year of alliance management to keep the pro-Ukraine coalition from fracturing. Blinken has logged hundreds of hours — on the phone, in video meetings and in trips abroad — to keep this coalition intact.

This cohesiveness will become even more important as the Ukraine war moves toward an endgame. This year, Ukraine and its allies will keep fighting to expel Russian invaders. But as in the final years of World War II, planning has already begun for the postwar order — and construction of a system of military and political alliances that can restore and maintain the peace that Russia shattered.

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