Russian invasion of Ukraine, one year later

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.

When Russian tanks rolled across Ukraine’s borders one year ago today, initiating a second Russian invasion of Ukraine in less than a decade, the Kremlin considered a quick Ukrainian collapse and regime change in Kyiv to be a fait accompli.

Few in Moscow, in the capitals of Europe, or in the United States believed that Ukraine could defend itself against the full weight of the Russian army. Even Volodymyr Zelensky had his doubts, telling assembled European leaders via videoconference in the first hours of the invasion that it “might be the last time you see me alive.”

Vladimir Putin’s plan was simple enough: repeat his 2008 intervention in Georgia and his “little green men” strategy in Crimea in 2014 but on a much larger scale. After a lightning advance on multiple axes deep into the interior, with Russian armor established in central Kyiv and Russian paratroopers patrolling the streets, with the elected Ukrainian government fleeing into exile in the West, Putin’s most consequential neo-imperialist goal — buttressed by his arsenal of nuclear arms — would be all but accomplished. He would have reunited the Great, White (Belorussian), and Little (Ukrainian) Russias. He would have reversed what he had called the “geopolitical catastrophe” of the Soviet Union’s collapse, refounding the Russian Empire in all but name, with Putin of course as its latter-day czar.

Unfortunately for the Kremlin and its plans for a quick victory parade, the only people who had not already acquiesced to the fait accompli were the Ukrainians themselves. Amid the snowy trenches of the Donbas, in the forested outskirts of Kyiv and Kharkiv, in the shadow of ruined villages and the shattered steel works of Mariupol, Ukrainians refused to submit. In an amazing feat of arms — one worthy of the praise and admiration of free people everywhere — soldiers on active duty, mobilized reservists, and common Ukrainian citizens fought back, halted the Russian advance, and saved their country.

No, it wasn’t supposed to happen this way. And despite a brutal occupation, an indiscriminate and murderous campaign of missile and rocket attacks, and severe economic privation, the Ukrainian people have fought on through twelve long months of hardship.

Now, as Ukrainians gird themselves for a second year of battle, the question before the American people is nearly the same today as it was one year ago: How far should the United States go in aiding Ukraine in resisting this invasion? What is an achievable end state to this war, and what is its relationship to our grand strategy, especially with regards to the growing threat in the Pacific emanating from Beijing?

That these questions are still open to conjecture is a searing indictment of the leadership of President Joe Biden.

Yes, Biden’s handling of the Ukraine war has had its successes. U.S. intelligence anticipated the Russian invasion, and our diplomats warned our friends and allies of the coming storm. The Biden administration rallied NATO and the EU to provide diplomatic, economic, and moral aid to Kyiv and levy a punishing, though ultimately non-decisive, sanctions regime on Moscow. It has provided tens of billions of dollars in crucial weapons and ammunition to Ukraine. It has kept the United States out of direct armed conflict with Russia, such as when it brushed off early calls for the U.S. to establish a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine. The symbolism of Biden’s personal trip to Kyiv delivered a salutary message and was well-timed to counterprogram Putin’s petulant propaganda speech this week.

But despite the administration’s self-congratulations and the bromides of its media friends, the failures run deep. The debacle of Joe Biden’s humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan, his administration’s general fecklessness, and his jaw-dropping pre-invasion statement that NATO might tolerate a “minor incursion” into Ukraine surely fed the Kremlin’s thinking that it could get away with an invasion relatively cost-free. Then, Biden’s military aid to Ukraine has come piecemeal, slowly, and only after much hedging. The repeated pattern has been one of Biden’s being led down the path toward doing more by Britain and our Eastern European allies until he reluctantly agrees to whatever aid he promised last month that he wouldn’t supply. Finally, and perhaps most consequently, Biden has failed to explain to the American people what his policy is, why it’s so important, and why America should shoulder this load.

Indeed, it was conspicuous that Biden’s State of the Union speech last month mentioned the war in Ukraine practically as an afterthought. For a man who likes to claim that the Russian invasion motivates his pursuit of a second term and will define his legacy, Biden has been rather uninterested in highlighting his foreign policy in venues in which the American people might hear his message.

Since Biden has been reluctant to explain his strategy and its aims directly to Americans, let us discuss the facts explicitly and in reference to what rightly should be most important and most fundamental to any American government: the interests of the United States and its people.

First, the U.S. should pursue an end to the war as soon as is practicable so long as it’s on favorable terms to Ukraine. This will almost certainly mean continued and even increased U.S. and allied support through 2023.

While a total Russian defeat and withdrawal from every inch of antebellum Ukrainian territory would be entirely just and morally satisfying, most wars end at the negotiating table on terms that do not provide all parties with full satisfaction. If, however, the U.S. and its allies provide Ukraine with the materiel support necessary to establish a favorable-enough position on the battlefield to begin negotiations from an advantage, the U.S. will have supported its ally prudently and with honor.

It’s a calumny to saddle all Americans who argue for a quick negotiated end to this war as “Putin apologists,” as some Democrats have charged, but it would be wise for all Americans to relieve themselves of the idea that a swift end to the war would be on any terms other than those favorable to Moscow. As this month’s Russian winter offensive and Vladimir Putin’s fiery speech this week made clear, the Kremlin has every intention of fighting on long into 2023 and beyond in pursuit of victory. Whatever we might wish, Putin will not sign on to a durable armistice unless it gives him what he wants or unless he is defeated and sees the cost of continuing the war to be too high.

Second, Americans should not discount the cost of a Russian victory in Ukraine, an error increasingly prominent on the right. It’s true that the continued provision of assistance to Ukraine has added to our already-strained government finances, but we should remember that there will be no peace dividend in the event of a Russian victory, only further and ruinously expensive geopolitical destabilization. Whatever mistakes the West might have made in the post–Cold War era, it is a fact that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is now an implacable foe of the United States and the American-led international order. In victory, a vindicated, hungry Russia would look to capitalize on its conquest. It would rebuild and reconstitute its military, financed on the profits of a petrofuel-based economy freed from the restraints of Western sanctions, the lifting of which would of course be a precondition for a Russian-accepted peace deal. In one or two or five years’ time, there would be further Russian provocations, more Kremlin claims on disputed border lands, more chances for Putin’s little green men to ply their trade inside the frontiers of Russia’s neighbors.

Third, while there are some who argue that the growing Chinese threat demands that peace be bought in Europe now, at near any price, Americans should not make the mistake in thinking that the European and Indo-Pacific theaters are disconnected. Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have been unambiguous in asserting that China and Russia, combined with Iran in the Middle East, are allies united in a common goal: breaking the American-led order. Just this week, the U.S. warned that Beijing is readying itself to supply weapons and munitions to Russia while Putin’s security chief, Nikolai Patrushev, reaffirmed Russia’s “invariable support for Beijing on the Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong issues, which the West is exploiting to discredit China.” It brings us no joy to point out that the United States finds itself in a perilous position, faced with a coalition of revanchist powers who wish us ill. But we are in such a position.

If Biden’s weakness in the winter of 2021 was a failure of deterrence that gave a green light to Putin to invade Ukraine, in 2023, the premature withdrawal of American support to Kyiv and a negotiated peace on the Kremlin’s terms would be a deterrence failure repeated and amplified. What lesson would the rational actors in Beijing take to such events and to so transparent a display of American weakness and lack of resolve?

War is a horror. But there are worse things than war.

All men of good will wish that this war would end quickly, but America owes it to her people and her interests to ensure that the war in Ukraine ends not simply quickly but justly and to the strategic advantage of the West.

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