The US must close the gap between ends and means in Ukraine
Success in war is measured not by level of effort but by the degree to which a country achieves the policy goals set by its senior political leaders. Regarding Russia’s war in Ukraine, the United States has four policy goals — two grand strategic and two theater strategic. Achieving these goals is not guaranteed. And without changes, the U.S. could yet achieve little.
Using public statements and speeches of senior U.S. leaders, America’s primary grand strategic policy goals appear to reinforce the rules-based international order’s sanction against aggression. By making sure that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s illegal, unjustified aggression does not pay, the U.S. seeks to deter others from using force in similar ways. Its second grand strategic goal is to return America to a trusted position of global leadership. Coupled with these are two theater strategic policy goals: strengthen NATO and assist Ukraine in defending its right to self-determination.
All four of these policy goals are important and achievable, but without succeeding in both theater strategic goals, the U.S. is unlikely to achieve its grand strategic aims.
The U.S. seems to be measuring success in Ukraine by level of effort: tonnage of ammunition supplied, number and type of arms and equipment delivered, amount of money spent. But the proper metric is progress toward achieving stated aims. And with respect to Ukraine specifically, it means delivering military goods that facilitate successful Ukraine military operations — defensive and offensive. Against this metric, the effect of allied logistical assistance is mixed.
Part of the problem has been how the U.S. and allies are operating: an ebb and flow logistics pipeline, rather than a continuous flow. This approach was enough to defeat the initial Russian attempt to quickly defeat Ukrainian forces and replace the Zelensky government. And it has been enough to stall Russian advances. But it has not been, and will not be, sufficient to allow the Ukraine military to conduct major counter-offensive operations — which are necessary for both Ukraine to beat back the Russians and the U.S. to achieve its goals. Ebb and flow logistics is not how the U.S. would supply its own forces.
Without a continuous, reliable flow of logistics, Ukraine cannot defend, which includes carrying out local counter-attacks while setting conditions for and conducting counter-offensives against created or existing Russian vulnerabilities. Both are necessary to push back Russian forces and put Ukraine in the strongest possible negotiating position when that time comes. Without the confidence that the supplies are present and available — not “trust me, they’re coming” — Ukraine’s political and military leaders are likely less to risk any major counter-offensive. It would be imprudent for them to do otherwise. The U.S. must lead the allies in fixing this logistical-operational disconnect or risk losing the opportunities that Russian weakness presents and lowering the probability of achieving Ukraine and American goals.
So far, strengthening NATO — America’s second theater strategic policy goal — has gone relatively well. NATO members are increasing their military spending, the eastern flank is reinforced, and two new allies are coming aboard. These actions can prevent Putin from widening the war, and they demonstrate united resolve against Putin’s illegal aggression and his use of war crimes as a method of war. Part of strengthening NATO included improving its nuclear deterrence posture, which has told Putin that escalation is a risk that he should not take.
Taken in concert, NATO’s actions, as well as those of other allies, contribute to the grand strategic goal of reinforcing the rules-based international order, but there is a risk of global fatigue as the war drags on. Putin likely will test Europe’s unity and resolve this winter, even as the U.S. and NATO have begun taking steps to mitigate Putin’s use of fuel as a weapon. And China, North Korea and Iran may take actions to test the strength of rules-based order, as well as American leadership, in their geographic areas. One could argue that these actions already have begun. So what the immediate future may hold remains part of “the fog of war.”
As it has been since at least the beginning of World War II, American resolve and leadership is on display. The stakes are high, and they’re not limited to Ukraine. Once again, like it or not, the world is depending upon U.S. leadership. America cannot succeed by taking counsel of its fears; it must decide and act to achieve its policy goals, mitigating the risks inherent in such leadership as best it can.
In the Ukraine war, the U.S., NATO and other allies must provide Ukraine what it needs to succeed via a consistent, reliable logistics flow. Continuing ebb and flow will drag out the war. There remains the risk of widening or escalating the war, but Putin’s capacities have been so diminished that the probability of his acting on that desire is low.
To tip the balance even more favorably, U.S. industrial capacity must expand. Further, the U.S. must work with NATO allies to improve energy preparedness, preventing Putin from gaining a winter advantage. Globally, America must work to reduce tensions in the Far East and Middle East while it focuses on Europe. Finally, internal to the U.S., senior political and military leaders must shake off the hubris of the post-Cold War and post 9/11 periods and see the global security environment for what it is: an environment from which a war no one wants could emerge.
James M. Dubik, Ph.D., a retired lieutenant general of the U.S. Army, is a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War. He served in military command and operational roles in Bosnia, Haiti and Iraq, and helped train forces in Afghanistan, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Honduras, and many NATO countries.