Cut the Baloney Realism

Russia’s war on Ukraine need not end in negotiation.

A recursive illustration in which a red stop sign features a speech bubble, which features a red stop sign, which features a speech bubble, etc.
The Atlantic

In recent weeks, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, created alarm among Ukraine’s friends by suggesting in several forums that Ukraine has fought Russian forces to a “standstill,” and that given the emerging stalemate on the ground and the onset of winter, the time may be ripe for negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow.

Other news reports indicated that the United States was denying Ukraine long-range Predator unmanned aerial vehicles, and the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to at least signal openness to talks with Russia. As criticism of Milley’s remarks and the administration’s seemingly qualified embrace of talks erupted, backpedaling immediately ensued. Milley, anonymous officials told The New York Times, was ahead of the rest of the administration. In public, the Biden administration insisted that any decision to turn to diplomacy would be Ukraine’s, and no deals would be made behind its back.

Milley is a man of strong views, candidly expressed in private and in public but not always carefully prepared in advance. It is a reasonable guess that he was not all that far out from where the administration is. But intentionally or not, he amplified a view that has risen from whisper to murmur: that it is time to think about how to bring the war in Ukraine to a close. On television and in foreign-policy journals, similar—indeed more pronounced—versions of these views may be heard.

There is a large dose of what one might call “baloney realism” in the judicious declarations by those—most of them tepid at best in their support of Ukraine’s cause to begin with—who say that all wars must end in negotiations. No, they do not have to. These self-styled foreign-policy adults evidently failed to notice that America’s protracted negotiations with the Taliban had nothing to do with the Biden administration’s ending of that war with a skedaddle rather than a deal.

Russia’s Afghan war ended the same way, although it executed its withdrawal more brutally and more skillfully than America’s. The 1991 Iraq War ended with a cease-fire negotiated (badly, on the American part) at gunpoint; the 2003 war in surrender. One need not reach for Winston Churchill’s refusal to negotiate with Adolf Hitler or Abraham Lincoln’s refusal to negotiate with Jefferson Davis to realize that not all wars end in a diplomatically arranged peace. Ukraine is fighting for its survival as a state and as a distinct people. In some sense, for that matter, this is a similarly existential conflict for the Putin regime, whose survival (though not Russia’s) requires victory.

The argument for diplomacy now is wrongheaded. Those who have systematically underestimated the will of Ukrainians to fight to the death, their skill in making use of what they have, their ability to absorb a bewildering array of modern military technologies, and their operational and tactical cunning are likely making yet more tactical misjudgments. The long, increasingly dug-in Russian front line is not comparable to the Western Front in World War I. At a length of 1,000 kilometers, even after the dispersal of Russian forces west of the Dnipro River, it is far less densely held than the trench lines of France and Belgium in 1915.

The assertion that winter makes operations difficult to the point of near impossibility is baseless. The United States has not fought a winter campaign since the Korean War 70 years ago. The Ukrainians have been fighting them every year since 2014, when Russia invaded the Donbas. In this, as in other respects, it would behoove Western experts to acknowledge that there is more that we can learn from the Ukrainians about crucial aspects of modern war than they can learn from us.

The calls for negotiations, like the strategically inane revelations of our fears of escalation—inane because they practically invite the Russians to get inside our head and rattle us—are dangerous. It is the nature of a small, embattled ally to look over its shoulder at those who support it today but may lack the grit required to do so over a long period of time. These calls telegraph a lack of strategic patience and staying power that only encourages Russia. Moreover, an official, understated discussion of talks can take a particularly disingenuous form: The decision to negotiate is yours, but we won’t give you the weapons to go any further than you have gone.

Such hypocrisy is the norm in international politics, but this is one of those moments when the stakes are too high for normal foreign policy. To his credit, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin gave a ringing depiction of the Western stake in the Ukraine war in his speech at the Halifax International Security Forum. He made it clear that Russia’s aggression is a threat to European security and to NATO, and that it is an assault on our fundamental values as well as the international order. The question is whether the Biden administration will have the nerve to follow through on the implications of those declarations.

Still, one might say, we need to have some notion of how this war could end or will end. One possibility—unlikely but not completely out of the question—is that at some point Ukraine will sue for peace, accepting the loss of more territory than it already lost to Russia in 2014. Absent a battlefield collapse or a cruel limitation by the Western powers of the arms supply and economic aid on which Kyiv depends, this is conceivable, but highly unlikely.

More important is our goal, and our theory of victory. The West cannot intend merely to “help Ukraine defend itself”—a mushy phrase for a mushy idea. We must help Ukraine defeat Russian aggression and expel Russian forces from within Ukraine’s recognized international borders. How does this lead to success? Ukrainian tank armies will not roll into Moscow to dictate peace, of course. But throughout Russian history, defeat on the periphery—Crimea in the 1850s, the Russo-Japanese War in the early 20th century, and Afghanistan in the 1980s—has led to political change domestically. It is perfectly reasonable to see that as our objective.

The means to that end are clear: extensive and unstinting arming of Ukraine with all weaponry short of nuclear bombs, and a crushing and comprehensive system of economic sanctions on an isolated Russia.

Although the Western states have begun to increase their arms production, they have yet to pursue the kind of bold industrial mobilization needed to arm Ukraine, rearm Western Europe, and build the arsenals that strengthen our posture in Europe and the Indo-Pacific. In the immediate term, the United States and its allies should provide Ukraine with long-range ATACMS missiles, which would allow Ukraine to hit with devastating effect all targets within its recognized territory, and finally sever the Kerch Strait Bridge, which is vital for Russian resupply. The West must push a lot harder to cut off Russia from the global economy, applying secondary sanctions as needed. And the United States needs to lean harder on allies and neutrals than it has so far.

In particular, the time has come to begin the comprehensive reequipping of Ukraine with a tank fleet superior to that of Russia. The easiest measure would be to tap the large numbers of mothballed German-made Leopard tanks held not only in that country but in others that have indicated their willingness to supply them to Ukraine. The United States should help reequip the Ukrainian air force—remarkably, still flying and flying effectively in the teeth of Russian air defenses—with F-16s from our own and others’ large holdings of inactive planes. And the U.S. must pressure laggard allies and clients—Israel, most notably, which desires our help against Iran but has disgracefully refused to do enough to help Ukraine defend its civilian population from waves of Iranian drones—to provide effective assistance, particularly with air defense.

There will be talks at some point. But they are less likely to resemble the Congress of Vienna than the palaver that American Marines had with Taliban forces surrounding the Kabul airport on their way out. In the meanwhile, time to pass the ammunition and to stop talking about talking.