Washington’s anti-Russia rhetoric is an obstacle to peace in Ukraine
With Ukraine’s fortunes on the battlefield significantly improved, Washington has amped up its anti-Russian rhetoric, making a negotiated settlement more difficult and a longer and/or wider war more likely.
To the chagrin of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the delight of NATO, Ukrainian armed forces have not only withstood the initial Russian onslaught but driven the invaders back from Kyiv with heavy losses. The Ukrainians have killed an estimated 15,000 Russian troops and destroyed more than 3,000 tanks, armored personnel carriers and other vehicles. They have shot down 26 aircraft and 39 helicopters and sunk the guided missile cruiser Moskva, the flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet.
In addition to the tenacity of its soldiers and the endurance of its citizens, Ukrainian success resulted from a massive influx of NATO weapons. The United States and its allies have already supplied the Ukrainians with thousands of anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons. More equipment is on the way. A new aid package will include additional Javelin and Stinger missiles as well as drones, heavy artillery and armored fighting vehicles. Poland has already sent Soviet-era T72 tanks. Heavy losses and the growing strength of the Ukrainian military have forced the Russians to change their strategy. No longer able to overrun the country and impose regime change, Moscow now seeks to control the Donbas region and Ukraine’s Black Sea Coast. However, the advance in the east appears to have stalled, and many analysts doubt the Russians can take Odesa, Ukraine’s major port.
A strategic stalemate often provides an opportunity for a negotiated settlement. Under such conditions, Washington might have made every effort to get negotiations back on track. Instead, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin made a needlessly provocative statement that changes perceptions of the war and may escalate the crisis. At a press briefing in Poland following his visit to Kyiv, Austin stated, “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”
Washington has not treated this statement as an off-the-cuff remark by a maverick official but as indicative of a new direction in U.S. and NATO policy. Asked to comment on Austin’s assertion, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who went with him to Kyiv, said, “I think the secretary said it very well.”
We certainly want to diminish Russia’s capacity to harm its neighbors, but stating that goal so blatantly could have negative consequences. Until now the United States has held the moral high ground, supporting a threatened state facing an unprovoked act of aggression. Austin’s comment paints the conflict more cynically as a proxy war between the United States and Russia waged at the cost of Ukrainian blood.
During the Cold War, both superpowers operated under the assumption that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The Soviets backed North Vietnam against South Vietnam and its American ally. The United States returned the favor, supporting the Afghans during the Soviet invasion of the 1980s. We have revived that strategy.
Austin’s remarks reinforce Putin’s narrative on the war. On the day of the invasion, Putin delivered a speech detailing Russian grievances against the United States and its NATO allies since the end of the Cold War. Those grievances boil down to a simple assertion: The Western allies have taken every opportunity to weaken Russia and expand their power at its expense.
Most Russians are accepting Putin’s version of events. His approval rating has risen from 64.3 percent to 78.9 percent since the invasion. As sanctions bight harder and casualties mount, that support may wane. Bellicose statements from the Biden administration, however, will help him maintain his popularity.
Moscow has responded to Washington with its own inflammatory rhetoric. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the west of “pouring oil on the flames” in Ukraine, said that Russia would target weapons supplied by NATO and warned of the risk of nuclear war, which, he said, “should not be underestimated.” In an April 25 speech, Putin accused the West of trying to destroy Russia.
President Biden has done a superb job in rallying support for sanctions against Russia and aid to Ukraine. Whether the allies agree on the broader goal of weakening Russia remains to be seen. The Kremlin has already tried to weaken the alliance by cutting off gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria. This move serves as a warning to nations such as Germany, which depends heavily on Russian imports of gas and oil.
If the strategic stalemate continues, the war could become a frozen conflict in which neither side can gain a decisive advantage. The two armies would slug it out over a matter of months or even years. Casualties would mount for both armies, but civilians would suffer the most. The war has already displaced 11 million people, a quarter of the country’s population. Widespread destruction of housing and infrastructure will leave the country dependent on foreign aid for years. The disruption of world food and energy supplies will spread the suffering to other continents.
Alternatively, the war could end in a negotiated peace. Ukraine would lose the two breakaway Russian republics and Crimea as well as the land bridge between them. That would be a bitter pill to swallow, but since it has little chance of recovering the territory, Kyiv would be recognizing a fait accompli. Ukraine would lose Mariupol but not Odesa and it would have to declare neutrality. Russia would have to accept Ukrainian independence and withdraw troops from some occupied areas. Putin could claim a victory of sorts, but the world would know that David had defeated Goliath.
Moscow may not be willing to negotiate if it sees a chance of winning on the battlefield, but heated rhetoric from the West will make peace talks even less likely. The United States has backed the Russian bear into a corner. Poking it with a stick is a bad idea.
Tom Mockaitis is a professor of History at DePaul University and the author of “Conventional and Unconventional War: A History of Conflict in the Modern World.”
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