We should continue to strongly back the Ukrainians, while being realistic about what can be achieved

The Ukraine war is now well into its second phase. After getting defeated in the Battle of Kyiv, the Russians are making incremental gains in the east based on remorseless artillery barrages.

The West has been remarkably cohesive and stalwart in response to Russia’s invasion, while Vladimir Putin has badly miscalculated and suffered serious strategic setbacks. But the situation is still in flux, and there’s no guarantee that it will look as unfavorable to Moscow in a few months as it does now. Nor is there any guarantee that the unified Western response will endure as the war drags on.

We should continue to strongly back the Ukrainians, while being clear-eyed about what we can achieve.

The latest flash point in the policy debate has been whether to provide long-range rockets to the Ukrainians. President Biden hesitated before finally relenting last week, when the administration announced it is providing the Ukrainians four High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS. The administration says it has Ukraine’s assurances that it won’t use the rockets to launch attacks into Russia. It makes sense to be mindful of escalatory steps the Russians might take in response to the provision of Western arms, but Ukraine isn’t looking to invade and annex parts of Russia; it is fighting a wholly defensive war against a larger neighbor that originally sought to topple its government and occupy its capital. We should provide the Ukrainians whatever arms they need, within reason, to defend themselves against a Russia that is pursuing a neo-imperial project threatening to the wider European order.

That said, the odds are against the Ukrainians winning back every inch of their territory. Perhaps the Russian military, severely depleted and poorly motivated, simply collapses. Short of that, it is hard to see the Ukrainians getting back all that the Russians have gained since February, let alone what the Russians grabbed in 2014. This makes the outraged reaction to Henry Kissinger’s suggestion of a deal around a return to the status quo ante bizarre. In sheer territorial terms, such a deal would be favorable to Ukraine, which would otherwise have to make significant gains to fight its way back to the pre-February lines.

It also doesn’t make sense for the U.S. to promise, as President Biden did in his New York Times op-ed last week, not to pressure the Ukrainians to make any territorial concessions. We aren’t at this point yet, and perhaps we never get there, but the time may come when we want an end to the war on what we consider tolerable terms while the Ukrainians want to fight on. In that circumstance, we shouldn’t hesitate to push the Ukrainians — our commitment has to be to our own interests, and the fact that the Ukrainians are almost completely dependent on our support should give us major influence on their deliberations.

If there is a redline we should prioritize, it is not the 2021 or 2013 borders of Ukraine but its survival as a sovereign state, free of dictation from Moscow, with direct trade links to the outside world, and capable of defending itself against future aggression. While restoring the pre-invasion borders is desirable as a war aim, it is not essential. Ukraine’s continued sovereignty is. Its continuance would mark a defeat for Putin’s maximal war aims and a warning against future Russian revanchist adventures.

It shouldn’t be forgotten, though, that the war itself carries heavy costs. Beyond the lost and ruined lives, there is the economic wreckage of Ukraine; the massive U.S. expenditures involved in underwriting the Ukrainian military, government, and economy; the global food crisis; and the risk of miscalculations — or Putin’s desperation — leading to a wider and more dangerous war.

It is Russia, of course, that bears the responsibility for all this. If there were justice in the world, every last Russian tank and rocket launcher would be ground to dust and Vladimir Putin chased from power. Realistically, though, that isn’t going to happen. We should back the Ukrainians, who have fought so bravely, to the hilt, but with the understanding that the war is likely to end with an unsatisfactory, and perhaps only temporary, diplomatic deal.

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