With the Ukraine war in a stalemate, it’s decision time for Biden

Has the war in Ukraine reached a dead end?

A recent essay by Ukraine’s top general, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, in The Economist magazine seems to suggest so. In a sobering read that has led to some tension with President Zelensky’s office, Zaluzhnyi argues that in important ways the two militaries have settled into parity. Short of significant technological advances by either of the two sides, dramatic advances seen earlier in the war are unlikely.

Consider Russia’s offensive efforts around Avdiivka in recent weeks, which have run into obstacles symmetrical to those faced by Ukraine in its offensive earlier: minefields and thick defenses that have not been overcome by the usual Russian tactic of pushing an ever-greater number of recent recruits through the meat grinder.

War of attrition?

Now, the war has not been completely static even if the much-anticipated Ukrainian offensive has failed to secure large territorial gains. Ukrainians have successfully degraded Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Recently, Ukraine has also made an impressive push across the Dnipro river close to Kherson, exposing Russian resupply lines — potentially endangering Crimea.

Still, in a long war of attrition, time seems to be on Russia’s side. Ukraine’s Western supporters, particularly in the United States, are already growing restless. Human losses weigh far more heavily in the calculus in Kyiv than in Moscow.

This is not simply because of Russia’s larger population but more importantly because Ukraine needs and values the lives of its younger generation, which has been building Ukraine’s democracy and a vibrant, innovative market economy since the Maidan Revolution of 2014.

It is impressive that Ukraine’s outright defeat is outside of Moscow’s reach, especially given that the West has been too slow and too reluctant to provide Kyiv with needed weapons.

Some still might make a difference — think more and better air defenses, NATO-grade fighter jets, or German-made Taurus missiles.

If Ukraine does not regain its legal, internationally recognized territory — in large part due to the West’s fecklessness — President Biden and his European colleagues must think carefully about what comes after the war.

“Effectiveness of our military aid to Ukraine cannot be measured,” a French national security official told me recently, “simply in terms of regained territory. We need to strengthen Ukraine’s hand for the coming negotiations.”

While infinitely clearer than the muddled thinking of the Biden administration, that point is not entirely correct. For one, it is unlikely that the conflict will be brought to an end by a negotiated settlement, at least not until Russia fully renounces its war aims, which include Ukraine’s “denazification” and “demilitarization.”

We have yet to see evidence that the current occupant of the Kremlin is able of making such a U-turn after dragging Russia so far down the path of aggressive, militaristic imperialism. Until Russia’s regime changes in fundamental ways, no Russian promises can be trusted as any “cease-fire” or “peace agreement” is simply an opportunity for the Kremlin to regroup and attack again.

Future deterrents

Instead of preparing for future negotiations, therefore, focus must be on deterrence — something at which both Ukraine and the wider West failed at spectacularly in 2014 and in 2022.

Regardless of when and how the current fighting stops, Russia must be kept from trying to attack Ukraine ever again.

Strikingly, the French are among the most vocal supporters of Ukraine’s membership in NATO — an alliance that has been successful in keeping Putin’s Russia away from countries formerly dominated by Soviets. Yet, American politics does not favor that option, as neither President Biden nor leading Republican candidates seem to be interested in bringing Ukraine in any time soon.

Plenty of questions

That is a mistake — but it does not obviate the need to keep Russia from attacking again in the future. Perhaps an Israel-like Ukraine, armed to the teeth and equipped with latest Western technology can provide a sufficient deterrent against Russian revanchism. Yet, notwithstanding Ukraine’s impressive successes on the battlefield, building and sustaining a military of the size and the quality that the country needs is going to be exceedingly costly.

A Ukrainian military build-up, in conjunction with the possibility that Kyiv will have unfinished geopolitical business in the region, may well be a source of future instability.

What are the alternatives? A commitment to defend Ukraine by a coalition of the willing? A large multinational force stationed in Ukraine? Can any country other than the United States successfully underwrite Ukraine’s future security?

Lest the ongoing conflict become a permanent fixture of the global landscape, we may need President Biden to provide compelling answers to such questions very soon.

Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC. Twitter: @DaliborRohac.