With approximately 100,000 Russian forces stationed near Ukraine's eastern border and reports that Moscow might be planning an incursion as soon as next month, a casual observer can be forgiven for thinking war in Eastern Europe is just around the corner. U.S. officials are taking the threats of a Russian operation extremely seriously.
A session between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last week did little to calm bilateral tensions over Ukraine. Neither did a two-hour video conference on Tuesday between President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, which at first glance appeared to be more of an airing of grievances than a conflict-resolution strategy session. At present, the U.S. and Russian positions on Ukraine are nearly irreconcilable, even as both pay lip service to a diplomatic process that has made little progress beyond a shaky ceasefire. Putin wants assurances Ukraine will not be swallowed up in the Western orbit, insisting on "legal guarantees" to this effect (a point he reiterated during his video call with President Joe Biden on December 7). Washington, meanwhile, demands Russia withdraw its forces from Ukrainian territory, sever support to the separatists in the Donbas, and hand back full control of the Ukrainian border to Kyiv.
In Washington and the West more broadly, the inclination is to get tougher with Moscow over the latest act of Russian brinkmanship and buttress Ukraine's defense. The argument is as follows: if the West is unwilling to read Putin the riot act or enact even stronger sanctions against the Russian economy to ward off another invasion, then it's catering to the Kremlin's worst instincts. The Biden administration appears to be following the same logic; the White House is discussing sending additional lethal military equipment to the Ukrainian army, which would come on top of the $2.5 billion in U.S. security assistance already provided to Kyiv since 2014. "I will look you in the eye and tell you, as President Biden looked President Putin in the eye and told him today, that things we did not do in 2014 we are prepared to do now," National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters at the White House immediately after Biden's call with Putin. Those options include leaning on Germany to cancel the Nord Stream II natural gas pipeline in the event Russian forces begin pouring across the border.
Those assumptions, however, simply don't square with Moscow's behavior over the past seven years. U.S. weapons shipments to Kyiv have done nothing whatsoever to push Russian forces out of Ukraine or alter the Russian political leadership's calculus as it relates to the conflict. Indeed, in most cases, the Russians have simply responded to U.S. weapons shipments with weapons shipments of its own—something experts monitoring the war have warned about for years. Russian-manufactured arms continue to flow to the battlefield in Eastern Ukraine, and there is no indication this will stop anytime soon. It defies reason to believe more of the same will have different results.
If the United States genuinely cares about Ukraine, it needs a markedly different approach. That means sitting Ukrainian officials down—as Biden should do during his upcoming Thursday call with Ukrainian President Voldomyr Zelensky—and giving them some tough love about what the U.S. is and isn't willing to do. Three messages come to mind.
First, under no circumstances will U.S. combat forces deploy to Ukraine for the purposes of deterring a conventional Russian invasion. As much as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wishes otherwise, Ukraine is not a NATO member entitled to the privilege of NATO (and U.S.) protection, and it's highly unlikely Kyiv will be afforded this status in the foreseeable future. In fact, bringing Ukraine into NATO shouldn't even be considered, for it would put U.S., NATO, and Russian troops into immediate conflict, risk spoiling whatever opportunities the West has to stabilize its relationship with a nuclear-armed Russia, and add yet one more security dependent on Washington's shoulders for no benefit.
Second, U.S. officials must make it abundantly clear to Kyiv that further fighting with Russia or the separatists is not an appealing option. While the prospect of a renewed Ukrainian military offensive in the Donbas is likely overstated by Russian officials, the Zelenskyy administration should think twice before even putting such an idea on the table. While the Ukrainian military is more professional, battle-tested, and experienced today than it was in 2014 when Moscow annexed the Crimean Peninsula, Kyiv is still the weakest party in this dispute. The fact that Ukraine could cause significant damage to the separatists is largely immaterial, for Russia would never allow the separatists to be defeated militarily. Ukraine will not win a conventional war against Russia, which spends ten times what Kyiv does on its military. More fighting will likely result in more territorial losses for Ukraine.
Third and finally, the U.S. should tell Kyiv to redouble efforts toward realizing a comprehensive diplomatic settlement with Moscow and the separatists, something Zelenskyy has largely sidestepped except for a few prisoner exchanges in the beginning of his tenure. That Zelenskyy recently acknowledged direct talks with Russia are unavoidable is a good first step and a hint the Ukrainian government may be accepting the unpleasant reality it finds itself in. But Ukrainian officials will need to go beyond offering talks, which means getting down to the nitty-gritty and actually implementing the admittedly unpopular Minsk II accords—a diplomatic package that trades a full Russian troop withdrawal and the handover of Ukraine's eastern border back to Kyiv in exchange for a measure of political autonomy for the Donbas.
None of this will be easy, and a peaceful ending to the war in Eastern Ukraine will take determination, patience, and sincerity from every party with a stake in the outcome—including Russia and its proxies in the Donbas. If Moscow insists on a conventional invasion, the political space in Ukraine to meet the Russians half-way on a diplomatic settlement will be somewhere between small to nonexistent.
But the U.S. can do its part by incentivizing Kyiv to operate through the prism of reality rather than fantasy. Giving Ukraine the false hope of unconditional U.S. backing does the country no favors.