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America’s Ukraine policy needs a Jack Keane

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Retired Gen. Jack Keane, former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, testifies during a hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee January 15, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on “A False Narrative Endangers the Homeland,” focusing on the administration’s narrative on the threat from al Qaeda.

Fox News viewers know General Jack Keane as a wise and experienced national security commentator. Keane, a distinguished infantry officer and Silver Star winner in Vietnam, retired as the U.S. Army’s vice chief of staff in 2003. Keane declined Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s request to become the Army chief of staff for personal reasons. 

Three years later with the war in Iraq going badly, Keane intervened with President George W. Bush, ultimately persuading him that a new strategy was essential if the insurgency was to be defeated. The president finally agreed. In 2007, the “surge” was implemented and the course of the war altered.

Today, at best, the war in Ukraine appears to be a stalemate. The current Western strategy, such as one exists, is piecemeal in supplying Ukraine limited military and other support even given the billions of dollars appropriated. The  aim is to keep Ukraine in the fight but not to “win,” however defined, and provoke a Russian escalation, possibly with nuclear weapons. The expectation is that negotiations will end the war.

But that is not a strategy. Nor do the U.S. and its allies have a coherent plan of action for the immediate and longer terms to execute any strategy that links ends and means. Yet, despite a large cohort of experienced observers, including members of Congress and retired senior officials, raising these deficiencies and flaws in the administration’s Ukraine  policies, the White House seems impervious to considering any outside recommendations.

Where then is today’s Jack Keane to convince, cajole or co-opt the president to embark on a new strategy with a specific plan of action? There is none. In theory, the Pentagon should be the department charged with the responsibility of advising the president on the state of the war. But after the Korean War, that did not happen in Vietnam or Afghanistan. And it was General Keane and not the Department of Defense who changed the president’s mind on Iraq.

The success of any strategy rests on setting achievable, not aspirational, aims and developing a plan of action that is executable within resource constraints. One such strategy follows. 

The aim is to ensure that Ukraine will be a secure, safe and sovereign state able to defend itself in the future with certain guarantees from its allies. The strategy’s center of gravity is Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin must be convinced, persuaded or coerced into understanding that continuing the war is too costly and not in Russia’s interest. 

To achieve that end, the West must commit to the long-term defense and security of Ukraine. While NATO membership may be a bridge too far, a Taiwan-like Relations Act with the U.S. might be a surrogate. The sub-strategic goal is to threaten to cut off the land bridge to Crimea and, as needed, to reoccupy Crimea, providing Ukraine the military wherewithal for that task. That threat is leverage on Putin to end the war.

A plan of action with specific military systems, equipment, training and logistics delivered over a certain time period is essential. That plan must be closely coordinated with Ukraine, the U.S. and NATO. And the plan must include contingencies in line with President Dwight Eisenhower’s dictum that “plans are worthless — planning is everything.” 

Developing a strategy and plan of action is easy. The difficult part is convincing the White House that, as in Iraq, Ukraine is not “winning” and that over time, the prospect of Russian superiority in size, population and military infrastructure over Ukraine favors Moscow. Putin is also counting on breaking alliance cohesion and actively working to that end.

The burning of a Koran in Stockholm, Sweden, almost certainly a Russian conspired provocation, infuriated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, threatening his approval of NATO membership. The alleged Russian plot to overthrow Moldova’s government was no accident.

The crucial question remains: Who is today’s General Jack Keane? To whom will President Biden listen? There is no Colin Powell. Henry Kissinger may be too old. Perhaps former Presidents Clinton, G.W. Bush or Obama could play that role, however unlikely.

But make no mistake: On the current course, the outcome of the war in Ukraine may not be in Kyiv’s favor. We cannot take that risk. Mr. President: Are you listening?

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and the prime author of “shock and awe.” His latest  book is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.” Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.

Tags Defense Department Donald Rumsfeld George W. Bush Iraq War Iraq War troop surge Jack Keane Jack Keane Russia-Ukraine war surge Ukraine war US-Ukraine relations Vladimir Putin

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