opinion | What is America’s strategy in Ukraine?

The Senate passed a $40 billion emergency aid package for Ukraine on Thursday, but with a small group of isolationist Republicans loudly criticizing spending and the war entering a new and complex phase, continued bipartisan support is not guaranteed.

Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, recently warned the Senate Armed Services Committee that the next few months could be volatile. She said the conflict between Ukraine and Russia could take a “more unexpected and potentially escalating course,” with Russia increasingly threatening to use nuclear weapons.

These are extraordinary costs and grave risks, however, and there are many questions President Biden still has to answer for the American public regarding the United States’ continued involvement in this conflict.

In March, this council argued that the message from the United States and its allies to Ukrainians and Russians alike should be: No matter how long it takes, Ukraine will be free. Ukraine deserves support against Russia’s unprovoked aggression, and the United States must lead its NATO allies to demonstrate that NATO is willing and able to resist its vengeful ambitions.

That goal cannot change, but in the end, it is still not in America’s interest to plunge into an all-out war with Russia, even if a negotiated peace might require Ukraine to make some tough decisions. Distinguishing US objectives and strategy in this war has become more difficult, as the parameters of the mission appear to have changed.

Is the US, for example, trying to help end this conflict, through a settlement that would allow for a sovereign Ukraine and some kind of US-Russia relationship? Or is the US now trying to permanently weaken Russia? Has the administration’s goal shifted to destabilizing or removing Vladimir Putin? Does the United States intend to hold Mr. Putin responsible as a war criminal? Or is the goal to try to avoid a wider war—and if so, how could bashing about offering American intelligence to kill the Russians and sink one of their ships accomplish that?

Without clarity on these questions, the White House not only risks losing Americans’ interest in supporting Ukrainians – who continue to suffer the loss of lives and livelihoods – But it also jeopardizes the long-term peace and security of the European continent.

Americans were touched by the suffering of Ukraine, but popular support for the war far from American shores will not last indefinitely. Inflation is a much bigger problem for American voters than Ukraine, and the turmoil in global food and energy markets is likely to intensify.

The present moment is a chaotic moment in this struggle, which may explain President Biden’s and his government’s reluctance to establish clear positions of purpose. Adding to the reason, then, is that Mr. Biden is making the case to American voters, long before November, that supporting Ukraine means upholding democratic values ​​and the right of nations to defend themselves against aggression — while peace and security remain the ideal outcome in this war.

It is tempting to see Ukraine’s stunning successes in the face of Russian aggression as a sign that with sufficient American and European assistance, Ukraine is getting close to pushing Russia into its pre-invasion positions. But this is a dangerous assumption.

A decisive military victory for Ukraine over Russia, in which Ukraine regains all the territory occupied by Russia since 2014, is not a realistic goal. Although Russia’s planning and fighting were surprisingly sloppy, Russia is still very powerful, and Mr. Putin has invested much of his personal prestige in the conquest to retreat.

The United States and NATO are already deeply involved, both militarily and economically. Unrealistic expectations can further drag them into a costly and protracted war. Russia, however battered and incompetent, still capable of inflicting untold destruction on Ukraine remains a nuclear superpower with an oppressed and fickle tyrant who has shown little inclination toward a negotiated settlement. The Times reported that Ukraine and Russia “are now appearing farther than ever in the nearly three-month war”.

Recent hostile statements from Washington – President Biden’s assertion that Mr. Putin “cannot remain in power,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s comment that Russia must be “weakened” and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s pledge that the United States will support Ukraine “until victory is achieved” – Statements of support may provoke, but they do not bring negotiations closer.

In the end, the hard decisions must be made by the Ukrainians: it is they who fight, die and lose their homes to Russian aggression, and they who must decide what the end of the war might look like. If the conflict does lead to real negotiations, Ukrainian leaders will have to make the painful decisions about the territory that any settlement requires.

The United States and NATO have proven that they will support the Ukrainian fight with great firepower and other means. Regardless of the end of the fighting, the United States and its allies must be ready to help Ukraine rebuild.

But as the war goes on, Mr. Biden must also make clear to President Volodymyr Zelensky and his people that there is a limit to how far the United States and NATO will go against Russia, and a limit on weapons, money, and political support. can muster. It is essential that the decisions of the Ukrainian government be based on a realistic assessment of its means and the extent of the damage that Ukraine can bear.

Facing this reality can be painful, but it is not calming. This is what governments should do, not chase an imaginary “victory”. Russia will feel the pain of isolation and debilitating economic sanctions for years to come, and Putin will go down in history as a butcher. The challenge now is to let go of the euphoria, stop the cynicism and focus on defining and completing the task. America’s support for Ukraine is a test of its standing in the world in the twenty-first century, and Mr. Biden has both an opportunity and an obligation to help determine what that will be.

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