Last week brought some clarity to the fog of the war in Ukraine: The key date of May 9, the celebration of the Soviet Union’s victory over Hitler’s Germany, came and went without altering Russian strategy.
When Vladimir Putin came out to inspect the military parades and intercontinental ballistic missiles, there was no declaration of pseudo-victory or an announcement of escalation that would have put all of Russia on a war footing and started massive conscription to the front. More of the same, then, appears to be Russia’s plan — that is, a continuation of the protracted war in southern and eastern Ukraine, essentially abandoning regime change in favor of preserving territory that could eventually become integrated into the Russian Federation.
From an American perspective, this looks like strategic justification. Despite some reckless boasting about our role in taking down Russian targets, we have steadily ramped up our support for Ukraine — including the $40 billion package likely to be approved by the Senate next week — without launching a reckless escalation from Russia in response. to lure. The risk that a proxy war would encourage Moscow to climb the ladder to a bigger conflict has been evident in the constant saber-clattering on Russian state television, but so far not in the Kremlin’s actual picks. Obviously Putin doesn’t like our weapons pouring into Ukraine, but he seems willing to wage the war on these terms rather than gamble with more existential stakes.
However, our success presents new strategic dilemmas. Two scenarios loom for the next six months of war. In the first, Russia and Ukraine trade territory in small increments, and the war gradually cools down to a ‘frozen conflict’ in a style familiar from other wars in Russia’s near abroad.
Under those circumstances, any lasting peace deal would likely have to grant Russian control of a conquered territory, in Crimea and the Donbas, if not the land bridge now largely held by Russian forces in between. This would give Moscow a definite reward for its aggression, despite everything else Russia lost during its invasion. And depending on how much territory was ceded, it would leave Ukraine maimed and weakened, despite its military success.
So such a deal may seem unacceptable in Kiev, Washington or both. But then the alternative – a permanent stalemate always ready for a return to a low-grade war – would also leave Ukraine maimed and weakened, dependent on flows of Western money and military equipment, and less able to rebuild with confidence.
And already the pro-Ukraine united front in the United States is cracking up at the sheer magnitude of what we’re sending. So it’s not clear whether the Biden administration or the Zelensky administration would be wise to invest in a long-term strategy for a frozen conflict that requires continued bipartisan support — and perhaps the support of a Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis administration soon. .
However, there is another scenario in which this dilemma diminishes as the stalemate breaks in Ukraine’s favour. This is the future that the Ukrainian military claims to have within their grasp – where with enough military aid and hardware they will be able to turn their modest counter-offensive into a big one and push the Russians back not just to the pre-war lines, but potentially. completely out of Ukrainian territory.
Obviously, this is the future America would want — save for the all-important warning that it’s also the future where Russian nuclear escalation suddenly becomes much more likely than it is now.
We know that Russian military doctrine provides for the defensive use of tactical nuclear weapons to turn the tide in a losing war. We must assume that Putin and his circle view the total defeat in Ukraine as a regime-threatening scenario. Combine that reality with a world where the Russians are suddenly routed, their territorial gains evaporate, and you have the most nuclear-shadowed military situation since our naval blockade of Cuba in 1962.
I’ve turned these dilemmas around since I moderated a recent panel at the Catholic University of America featuring three right-wing thinkers on foreign policy: Elbridge Colby, Rebeccah Heinrichs, and Jakub Grygiel. On the wisdom of our support for Ukraine thus far, the panel was essentially unanimous. However, as far as the war’s endgame and nuclear peril are concerned, you can see that our challenges have been distilled – with Grygiel emphasizing the importance of Ukraine’s recovering territory to the east and along the Black Sea coast in order to be plausibly self-sufficient in the future. but the more aggressive Heinrichs and the more cautious Colby sparring over what our stance should be in the event that rapid Ukrainian advance is met with a Russian tactical nuclear strike.
That question is not the one directly before us; it only becomes a problem when Ukraine starts to make substantial profits. But given that we are arming the Ukrainians on a scale that seems intended to facilitate a counter-offensive, I sincerely hope that there is some version of the Colby-Heinrichs going back and forth in the highest echelons of our government – for an issue that is Matters on academic panels is becoming the most important question in the world.