The best possible US endgame in Ukraine is not what you may think

In the first days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, America and its allies reacted promptly and appropriately, imposing severe economic sanctions on Russia and expediting military supplies and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. Yet it would be foolhardy for U.S. policymakers to assume that simply prolonging such measures over the next few weeks, months or years will be sufficient to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty or avert risks to other important U.S. moral and geopolitical interests.

However valiant and well-equipped the Ukrainian resistance is, it is impossible to believe that it will be capable, at least in the short to medium term, of triumphing over such a powerful and determined foe. All the more so when one considers Russian President Vladimir Putin’s longtime conviction, shared by many Russian leaders, that his country has an existential interest in keeping its large Western neighbor out of the West’s geopolitical orbit. Russia is likely to maintain control of large chunks of Ukraine despite painful economic and military losses.

Consequently, the best, most realistic policy for the U.S. and its allies is to muster their newly acquired military leverage over Ukraine and economic leverage over Russia to pursue a negotiated, compromise political settlement. Such an agreement should preserve the essence of Ukrainian sovereignty, while finding the right words to assure Russia of what the U.S. and its allies have admitted privately since 2008: NATO will not admit Ukraine in the foreseeable future. 

This political solution would serve a range of U.S. geopolitical and moral interests. It would uphold Ukraine’s basic independence. It would avoid implicating America in a fight with an uncertain end that could kill thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people. And it would prevent a purposeful or accidental military confrontation between the U.S. and the world’s second nuclear power.

An important building block for this peace process already exists: the 2015 Minsk 2 agreement. This accord was brokered by France and Germany among Russia, the Ukrainian government and eastern Ukraine separatists whom Russia supported following what it viewed as an anti-Russian revolution in Ukraine. It would have restored Ukraine’s sovereignty over the eastern Donbas region while granting the latter significant autonomy and permitting it to engage in cross-border cooperation with Russia. The idea was that a Russia-friendly bastion within Ukraine would informally restrain the country’s gravitation toward the West and NATO. 

Unfortunately, the accord was not implemented largely because of disagreements over the sequencing of its provisions. Nevertheless, to this day, the U.S. formally supports Minsk 2 even though it implies a limit on Ukraine’s foreign policy. And Russia backed it prior to its invasion.

For diplomacy to advance, however, it may be necessary for some U.S. policymakers, including members of Congress, to abandon the myth that with military help from the U.S., particularly the CIA, resistance movements often have defeated powerful governments and foreign invaders. In late December, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Soviet general that while the Russians could “probably roll over” Ukrainian forces, that would be followed “by a bloody insurgency similar to the one that led to the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan more than three decades ago.” Scholars previously had demolished the general’s reference to the CIA’s 10-year paramilitary operation in Afghanistan. The decisive factor in the Soviet’s withdrawal was not their military difficulties and the loss of 15,000 lives, but President Mikhail Gorbachev’s political agenda for domestic economic reform, including cooperation with the West. Yet Putin and Russia’s political elite today have no such reform agenda. 

Several years ago, according to the New York Times, an internal CIA study concluded that past attempts to arm resistance movements had had a “minimal impact on the long-term outcome of the conflict.” President Obama subsequently acknowledged, “I actually asked the CIA to analyze examples of American financing and supplying arms to an insurgency in a country that actually worked out well. And they couldn’t come up with much.” After studying five major CIA paramilitary operations in 1975-76, the Senate’s Church Committee concluded, “On balance … the evidence points towards the failure of paramilitary activity as a technique of covert action.”

Since 2011 the U.S. has passed up opportunities to support negotiated political solutions to conflicts in which it has been engaged in Libya, Syria and Ukraine. Such compromises, however imperfect, likely would have been far better for all concerned than the outcomes to date. For example, the war in Ukraine most probably could have been avoided had the principals — with critical support from the U.S. — implemented the Minsk 2 accord.

The U.S. is right to fervently oppose Russia’s unprovoked attack on a sovereign country. But it would be politically and morally irresponsible for it to cling to a historical myth and disdain a possible political solution that satisfies the essential interests of all concerned and steers them away from a dangerous crossroads.

Stephen R. Weissman is the author of “A Culture of Deference: Congress’s Failure of Leadership in Foreign Policy.” He was formerly a subcommittee staff director with the House Foreign Affairs Committee, senior non-resident associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, senior governance adviser with USAID, and an associate professor of political science and political economy at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Tags Barack Obama Mark Milley Minsk II accord NATO Russian invasion of Ukraine Ukrainian crisis Vladimir Putin

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