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The American people deserve to know how the war in Ukraine will end

In two weeks, the United States heads to the polls for the midterm elections. Undoubtedly, the economy and inflation will top the list of issues concerning voters. Yet, the state of the world and America’s involvement in Ukraine will almost certainly be on their minds, even at the back. 

Rather sensibly, the administration has largely avoided engaging substantively with the Ukraine issue in the campaign. Foreign policy is rarely a vote winner and certainly not in this contentious domestic political environment.  

Yet, elections have consequences and if America is to continue its critical support to Ukraine, as it should, the administration would do well to better communicate with the country on the importance of the fight against Russian aggression. It must frame this fight in terms of American strategic national interests, and in defense of the rule of law against naked and illegal aggression. This also necessitates moving beyond simplistic clichés and bumper sticker slogans and asking some very hard questions.   

Perhaps the most important question to be asked is how does this war end? It is unsurprising that the United States and its allies have largely left such questions unanswered. The oft-used refrain is that it is Kyiv’s decision as to how and when the conflict with close. While not wholly wrong, it is a politically convenient and expedient fiction to leave that question open. 

Indeed, it is Ukraine’s decision how the war terminates, but to suggest that the United States or the West more broadly do not have agency in this conflict is to ignore reality — it is very much a party to this conflict and the sooner that the fiction that it is not is jettisoned, the better. The West has interests in this conflict and to suggest that it is merely loading a gun and handing it off to Ukraine is disingenuous at best and dangerous at worst.  

Allied capitals do not wish to answer this question as asking it alone risks exposing very real schisms in support of Ukraine — support that is fundamentally critical to the success of the recent offensive, and indeed offensives to come. Were it not for the West’s substantive support Ukraine would likely not have achieved the success that it has met with thus far, the bravery of Ukraine’s fighters notwithstanding (or Russia’s attendant abysmal performance.)  

Leaving it “up to Kyiv” allows each country that is providing support to labor under the illusion that it too is not a party to this conflict. If Germany and France do indeed differ on an outcome in Ukraine from Estonia and Poland, and again from the United States and United Kingdom, that necessary unity risks fracturing, opening avenues for Russia to exploit.  

Kyiv has been impressively controlled and successful in its control of the messaging of this information war. The West, at least publicly, has very little insight into Kyiv’s aims and intentions, or indeed its losses or battlefield performance beyond that which is conveyed via social media and journalistic accounts. Even raising questions related to these critical factors is tantamount to heresy within the present geopolitical and cultural environment — as if asking the questions themselves is akin to supporting Russia. It is not. It is simply prudent interrogation of geopolitical realities that have significant policy implications.  

War and diplomacy occur simultaneously. Battlefield developments shape conditions for the political resolution of conflict. One cannot merely wait for battlefield outcomes to be sufficiently propitious before articulating objectives or end states. It is equally foolish to believe that articulating objectives will somehow cede the initiative to Russia or capitulate to Russian aggression. Rather it is merely the first step in a complex and violent waltz toward ending the war.

America, historically, has a poor performance of conducting limited wars with unclear aims, and we presently find ourselves in a proxy war with an unclear end. One can infer possible aims or intentions — e.g. draining Russian military power, evicting Russia from occupied territories, etc. — but these are only inferences, not stated policy objectives. Is it any wonder, then, that in the absence of clarity, many Americans are questioning the open-ended nature of Washington’s support to Ukraine?  

Failing to ask what Kyiv’s aims are or what the West’s aims could or indeed should be creates conditions where the latter could well be drawn into a situation that is neither viable nor sustainable or that is even outright escalatory. Ukraine has demonstrated a willingness and capability of launching attacks into Russian territory. Indeed, it is suspected of carrying out the assassination of Daria Dugina — daughter of ultra-nationalist polemicist Alexander Dugin. That the administration exposed the hand of Ukraine in the killing suggests that the United States is unhappy with the transparency Kyiv is providing and wishes to avoid being drawn into something to which it cannot and does not want to be a party.  

How far is the United States willing to back and support Ukraine? Not in its present fight for national survival or reclamation of its territory, but to what strategic end? If Kyiv desires to reclaim Crimea, will the United States provide the aid and support necessary for that campaign? What if Ukraine determines that launching greater strikes into Russian-held and indeed Russian territory proper is necessary? Will the West provide the long-range arms necessary for that offensive? Or will that be a redline for Washington, London and Brussels? Hyperbolically, what if Kyiv demands nothing less than regime change in Russia? Will the United States support that outcome?  

Equally too, we must ask what a post-war Ukraine looks like. How much money will it take to rebuild Ukraine’s infrastructure and rehabilitate its economy? Will NATO and the European Union foot the bill? Will it join NATO or the EU? If not now, in the future? If so, what conditions will those organizations ask of Ukraine for national reform and institutional reconstruction? How sustainable is this aid and support at a time of national economic pressures?  

Supporting Ukraine is the right fight, but being the right fight does not mean one abjures asking the hard geopolitical and strategic questions that affect American national interests. Failing to ask these difficult questions now is tantamount to failing to plan — and if we fail to plan we should not be surprised when reality strikes back. 

Joshua C. Huminski is the director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. There he co-chairs the center’s program on strategic competition, with a specific focus on Russia and the Euro-Atlantic. He is also a book reviewer for the Diplomatic Courier and a fellow at George Mason University’s National Security Institute. He can be found on Twitter at @joshuachuminski. 

Tags 2022 midterm elections Politics of the United States Reactions to the 2021–2022 Russo-Ukrainian crisis Russo-Ukrainian War US aid to Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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