Spurred on by the atrocities in Bucha, NATO allies have begun to shift from crisis management to a focus on the prosecution of war. Like the downing of Malaysian Airlines MH-17 in July 2014, the mass murders in suburban Kyiv and the evidence of far worse slaughter elsewhere have impelled allies to reassess their understanding of the gravity of the threat confronting Ukraine and the wider implications for Europe if it is not removed.
Yet the paradigm shift is stuck at midway point at the very moment when the Alliance needs to be seized by a spirit of urgency. No one should doubt that Russia’s Donbas offensive could decide the fate of the country.
At least at a conceptual level, NATO now grasps the necessity of supplying Ukraine with the heavy weapons it has been demanding from the time the war began. But hesitancy still conspires with technical and bureaucratic obstacles to inhibit delivery in quantity and in good time. Certain vital enhancements to Ukraine’s capability, notably attack aircraft, are still off limits. When it comes to intelligence sharing, the envelope has expanded but only partially.
No less significantly, a further challenge, intellectual even more than political, remains. What is our definition of success? What end state is Western support designed to produce? At least until recently, Washington’s aims have been ‘support for Ukraine’, ‘punishing Russia’ and ‘maintaining Alliance unity’. These are causes rather than strategic objectives. The inelegance and speed with which the ex tempore conclusion of President Biden’s 26 March Warsaw speech (‘this man cannot remain in power’) was ‘walked back’ revealed a well-founded apprehension that ‘regime change’ would take the United States into perilously uncharted waters. That apparent gaffe provided the perfect opportunity to set out a clear alternative and define the West’s collective goals. No such statement emerged. Instead, the fear was expressed that the administration could ‘lose control of the message’.
At the time of the Warsaw speech, the main preoccupation of Western decision-makers was ‘off ramps’. One day after Biden’s peroration, even a ‘senior British official’ underscored the importance of ‘creating space for an off-ramp for Putin’. Since Bucha, such sentiments have become less vocal, but they are still pervasive. One is reminded of Charles King’s observation at the height of the 1992-5 Bosnian war: ‘the exit strategy has become the mission’. Has an off-ramp for Putin become the mission? Does ‘stopping the war’ take precedence over the diminution of the threat that Russia poses? Is controlling the message more important than aligning policy instruments to achieve a strategic goal? The closer the end game approaches, the more unavoidable these questions become. Yet still they are avoided. The imprecision is perilous. It weakens the confidence of Ukraine and emboldens Russia. It raises the prospect of an unsound peace that will provide the raw material for a renewal of conflict.
There would appear to be five reasons for this imprecision. First, the sooner clarity appears, the sooner the self-congratulatory unity of the Alliance will come into question. At the February Munich Security Conference, Boris Johnson stated that ‘Russia must be defeated and must be seen to be defeated’. Before Bucha, no other NATO ally west of Poland echoed this sentiment. Defeating Russia, as opposed to ‘punishing’ it is still a bridge too far for certain allies. ‘Stopping the war’ commands an overwhelming consensus. Apparently, winning it does not, and to judge from their absence, the terms ‘war aims’ and ‘victory’ remain taboo in many quarters.
The second reason, as noted at the outset, is that most allies are still locked inside a crisis management paradigm. Between March 2021, when Russia initially mobilised its forces and February 2022, crisis management was our proper business. On 24 February the ‘crisis’ ended, and war began. From day one, it was clear that for Ukraine to survive, Russia would have to be defeated. But if you believe in crisis management, then Russia cannot be defeated without its consent. If crisis management is the aim, then off-ramps are the mission.
The third reason is that adherents to the maxim, ‘park Russia, focus on China’ have not lost their influence in Washington. Yet the soundness of this maxim becomes less explicable by the day. China has been as surprised as any country by Russia’s baleful military performance in Ukraine. Up to now, China’s methodical and undeviating goal of displacing the ‘hegemonic’ Western (and US led) ‘rules-based order’ has been predicated on confidence that its junior partner, Russia, would preserve its position as a stable and potent great power. Moreover, to a significant extent Xi Jinping has modelled China’s own scheme of military modernisation on the reforms of Russia’s former defence minister Anatoliy Serdyukov and his successor, Sergei Shoygu, now shown to be so deficient. The likelihood is that Beijing is not only surprised by events, but shaken. Far from emboldening China, the war in Ukraine is deepening its proverbial instinct for prudence, and it is time that Washington drew appropriate conclusions.
The fourth reason is the paucity of strategic thinking and strategic thinkers in national capitals. Where are today’s George Kennans and Dean Achesons? Where are the contemporary equivalents of the Long Telegram, the Truman Doctrine and NSC-68? The answer is that there are none. What used to be great departments of state are now dominated by policy managers rather than strategic thinkers. In the wider intellectual space, the more prolific exceptions to this rule — self-styled ‘realists’ such as John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt and Thomas Graham — have their feet firmly planted in the accommodationist camp. Less visible amongst the commentariat are classical realists who view rival powers as adversaries and believe in treating them accordingly. Such as there are — and the author has no difficulty naming them — are astute and experienced individuals. But today they are policy critics rather than policy makers.
The fifth reason is that whilst the word ‘deterrence’ is repeated like a mantra, the concept itself has not been subjected to doctrinal revision since the end of the Cold War. Decades of focus on ‘soft security’, ‘humanitarian intervention’ and ‘war on terrorism’ have allowed the culture of deterrence to atrophy. If escalation, the risk of which resides in war itself, becomes a phobia, the adversary will set the rules of the conflict. It is he who will deter us.
Since 2021 Putin has spoken of Ukraine, the ‘anti-Russia’, as one might speak of the Antichrist; on 3 April, former President (now Deputy Chairman of the Security Council) Dmitry Medvedev stated that Ukraine ‘has mentally transformed itself into the Third Reich and is destined to suffer its fate’. This is the language of total war. If we do not want Russia to employ the weapons of total war, then it must be made to fear our response.
If Ukraine’s victory is in NATО’s interest, how should we define that victory? What strategy is required to secure it? What stages demarcate progress from today’s perils to ultimate success? Three suggestions follow.
The military objective must be the expulsion of Russian forces to the lines they occupied before 24 February. Any cease-fire agreed before then will cede new territory to Russia. It will enable Russia to regroup its forces on this territory and deepen its occupation. It is indicative that in its bilateral negotiation with Ukraine brokered by Turkey, Russia officially renounced any territorial claim beyond the administrative borders of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts; nevertheless, in the oblasts of Zaparizhiya and Kherson, which it largely controls de facto, it is installing civilian occupation administrations, Russifying educational curricula and preparing transition from the hryvnia to the rouble.¹ Not once during Putin’s tenure in office has ‘temporarily occupied’ territory been relinquished, be it South Osetia, Abkhazia, Crimea or the pseudo republics of Donbas.
A cease-fire along new ‘lines of contact’ will simply grant Russia the privilege of new ‘frozen conflicts’ and put the resolution of old ones even more out of reach than it is at present. In reality, such conflicts have never been frozen. They have enabled Russian forces in South Osetia to gnaw away at Georgia’s borders. In Donbas, more Ukrainian servicemen died after the Minsk ‘accords’ than during the months before them. Russia’s annexation of Crimea has not only enabled Russia to militarise that peninsula and sustain its forces in Syria; it has substantially advanced its historic aim of transforming the Black Sea into its own maritime territory. The only thing frozen about these conflicts has been the process of conflict resolution. In practice, a premature cease-fire would bring Russia one step closer to achieving yet another strategic objective: the partitioning of Ukraine.
The longer-term political objective must be the restoration of Ukraine’s internationally recognised borders, the return of the territories it lawfully possessed before 2014 and the restoration of its sovereignty de facto as well as de jure. In addition, tens of thousands of Ukrainians deported to Russia (including 150,000 children) must be repatriated and pensions and social funds, as well as property and assets returned or compensated.² Russia should be afforded no say in Ukraine’s internal affairs and no veto over its partnerships and alliances. This inevitably protracted enterprise will require the continuous employment of diplomatic, economic and military instruments until it is realised. There should be no question of diminishing, let alone removing Western sanctions until these aims are accomplished.
Finally, the ultimate strategic objective must be elimination of the threat that Russia poses — to Europe as well as to Ukraine. That objective cannot be secured by military means. It will require a revolution of the mind in the policy elites of Russia. Without long-term, persistent containment and pressure that revolution will not take place. To expand Boris Johnson’s definition of success, the Russian state must fail and be seen to fail inside Russia itself. If that goal is achieved, Russia will take care of regime change on its own. This was the ultimate goal of Cold War containment, and its wisdom was vindicated between 1985 and 1992. Once it is underway, that process inevitably will proceed by stages, with disruptions and even dangers. Until it is consummated, the West will need to resign itself to an armed peace. Diplomacy and ‘dialogue’ also will need to take place. But they cannot substitute for a favourable correlation of forces.
The Bottom Line
On 17 December 2021, Russia submitted a draft treaty stipulating that NATO should withdraw all forces deployed on Alliance territory since 27 May 1997. In Western capitals, the demand was met by a chorus of disbelief and was immediately rebuffed. But the point was missed. Moscow’s provisions represented a statement of war aims, not a judgement about what NATO would accept before the war took place. Had Ukraine swiftly crumbled, as the Kremlin expected, then NATO might have been impelled to treat these provisions ‘seriously’, as ‘a basis for negotiation’ at least. Eventually, it might have been driven to accept them as well. Whatever further reverses Russia suffers, if Ukraine is finally ‘demilitarised’ and ‘denazified’, then Russia’s sacrifices will be vindicated, and Western support for Ukraine will be seen to have accomplished nothing. Russia will be one giant step closer to securing what it has long demanded: a recognised sphere of influence and a ‘grey zone’ between the ‘Russian world’ and the ‘historical West’. Ukraine’s defeat will be presented as Russia’s greatest triumph since the victory of 1945. The magnitude of the costs will only underscore the magnitude of the victory. No revolution of the mind will take place then.
In that eventuality, what will remain of European security as we have come to know it? What confidence will Bulgaria, Romania, Poland and the Baltic states have in their allies after thirty years of support for Ukraine ended in failure? Will the US, France and Germany continue to oppose ‘reformatting the security architecture of Europe’? Today, we cannot know the answer to these questions. What we can assume is that nothing will be gained from adding these new dilemmas to those we already face.
This possibly is the last moment to understand that the West is not in a competition for plaudits or virtue. If we fail to preserve Ukraine as a sovereign and independent state, we fail. ‘Alliance unity’ will not diminish the consequences of that failure. Muddle — the failure to define aims and bring them into alignment with means — will bring failure closer and consign recovery to the realms of speculation.
¹ Vladimir Socor, ‘Russian Occupation Policy Takes Shape’: Pt 2-3’, Eurasia Daily Monitor, Vol 19, Issues 52-53, 12-13 April 2022.
² On deportations, pensions and social funds, CDS Daily Brief, Centre for Defence Strategies, Kyiv, 14 April 2022.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).