A few weeks before launching his campaign to overthrow the Ukrainian government, Russian President Vladimir Putin implied that he would use nuclear weapons to repel a NATO-backed effort by Ukraine to retake Crimea from Russian occupation.
A year later, U.S. officials and policymakers still aren’t sure if he would pull that trigger, but the uncertainty hangs over American decision-making about the war.
“I don’t really, truly know what his red lines are or are not,” a senior State Department official told the Washington Examiner. “And I don’t think we have a State Department — I don’t think there’s one view on that. But, you know, we’re prepping for every possibility.”
Putin’s nuclear threats have not thwarted U.S. assistance to Ukraine, but they have pressed President Joe Biden into a “cautious approach,” as a senior European official put it, that has left Ukrainian and allied officials uncertain of the American strategy for the war. That ambiguity has bred a corollary doubt about whether Biden is willing to provide the weapons necessary to achieve that victory that the Ukrainian people seek — a question that could find a battlefield answer in the months to come.
“I myself was wondering whether the United States has a strategy,” senior Ukrainian lawmaker Oleksandr Merezhko, the Ukrainian parliament’s foreign affairs committee chairman, told the Washington Examiner. “I don’t see signs that there is a certain strategy with a defined goal.”
Western leaders maintain that it is “basically up to” Ukrainian leaders to define victory in the war, but that offers less reassurance than it might seem. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky needs U.S. and Western aid to pursue Kyiv’s theory of victory, meaning that the gap between Ukrainian ends and American means could have a decisive influence on the progress of the war.
“They are still not sure what will be the definition of winning for Ukraine,” a senior European official based in Kyiv told the Washington Examiner. “It has been, for a long time, that the win for Ukraine, in the U.S. view, the ‘win’ is not to [allow] Ukraine to lose, but that is not the win that Ukraine would like to see, as well.”
While central and Eastern European states hastened to deliver heavy weaponry to Ukraine from the earliest weeks of the war, NATO’s westward powers have tried to calibrate the flow of aid in a way that would avoid triggering a Russian retaliation. Biden’s calculations about the risks and benefits have shifted throughout the war, but his wariness of Putin’s response remains constant.
Even his stentorian pledge that “Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia,” as he said in Warsaw after returning from Kyiv this week, echoes the reservation that he offered in the first weeks of the war. “Although we will not fight the Third World War in Ukraine,” Biden said in March, “Putin’s war against Ukraine is never going to be a victory.”
That risk aversion contrasts with the approach favored by Ukrainian strategists, who have proven willing to brave the threat of Russian escalation in order to liberate occupied Ukrainian cities.
“There were really big concerns and even fright, in the air, in summer, that if Ukraine will take the western bank of Dnieper River and Kherson, Russia will nuke them there,” recalled a senior European official based in Kyiv. “They really believed that in Ukraine. And they said, ‘So, f*** them. We will do it anyway.’”
In that context, there is a looming dispute between Washington and Kyiv, one that could come to a head if the spring fighting season proceeds as U.S. and Ukrainian officials hope. Zelensky’s team maintains that they will seek to oust Russian forces from Crimea, which has been occupied by Russian forces since 2014 following an annexation process that Kyiv and most world leaders deem illegitimate.
Yet American officials, in Merezhko’s estimation, still fear that “Putin might start a nuclear war” if Biden gives Ukraine the weapons needed to take Crimea. “They want us to defeat Russia, it’s absolutely clear, but at the same time, they’re trying to balance this goal with preventing nuclear escalation,” the Ukrainian lawmaker said. “They give a little bit of weapons, then they see what happens — if it goes well, if they see that we continue to win, they provide us more advanced, with bigger range weapons. So they are moving in a careful way.”
That caution emanates from Biden’s closest advisers. White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan “is viewed as a ‘Mr. No’” in Kyiv, according to Merezhko, in a sardonic reference to former Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko. “Sullivan seems to be a realist in terms of international relations theory,” Merezhko said. “Nobody knows what he really thinks about this.”
That cautious inscrutability has led some analysts to suspect that Biden’s team has made a hard-headed choice to limit military aid to Ukraine, such that Zelensky will face a choice between a hopeless war of attrition or an unpalatable peace. Putin has claimed sovereignty over four regions of eastern Ukraine, including huge swathes of territory that Russian forces do not hold, for the explicit purpose of securing “a reliable land transport corridor” between Crimea and Russia.
“The United States does not want to ‘provoke Russia,’ and winning would provoke Russia, so right now, I do not believe that we are willing to let Ukraine win,” said retired four-star Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, who was the NATO supreme allied commander when Putin began the war in 2014. “We are keeping them on the battlefield, and we are seeking to move them to negotiations, whereby they will trade more Ukrainian land in order to secure a peace.”
Yet the Russian atrocities in Mariupol and Bucha have left Zelensky with scant “margin for maneuverability” in such talks, as the senior State Department official acknowledged. “Any government which would sign such a peace deal with Russia and sacrifice Crimea or the east of Ukraine — it will be just swept away from power,” Merezkhko said in a stark concurrence. “It’s just impossible, politically or legally.”
If the Biden administration hesitates to endorse an explicit theory of Ukrainian victory, it is more forthright about its distaste for a “phony off-ramp” from the conflict.
“Ukraine is not going to be safe unless Crimea is, at a minimum, demilitarized,” State Department undersecretary Victoria Nuland said at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There are command-and-control sites in Crimea that are essential for Russia’s hold on all of the [occupied Ukrainian] territory, including the land bridge. There are mass military installations on Crimea that Russia has turned into essential logistics and back-office depots for this war. Those are legitimate targets.”
That target list points to a military and diplomatic scenario that Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s team has identified as a potential middle way between unsavory territorial concessions and a risky struggle for control of Crimea.
“You can envision where [they] come to an agreement on certain battle lines with an agreement that allows for negotiations for the rest, through negotiation and not battlefield operations,” the senior State Department official told the Washington Examiner. “But if Ukraine is not economically viable, if Russia is still in a position where it can relaunch attacks at its whim in the future, it seems to me that would be a very difficult position for Zelensky to be in to negotiate a settlement.”
“They need [ATACMs] for eliminating those logistic hubs on the Russian side, or, well, both within eastern Ukraine and Crimea and the Russian side of the border,” a second senior European official told the Washington Examiner. “We must stop [being] scared of so-called escalation risks and trust Ukrainians and let them do the job.”
The debate about whether and how to equip Ukrainian forces to threaten Russian positions in Crimea gets to “the essence of that balance between managing escalation … and supporting Ukraine,” as Blinken’s team acknowledged.
“It’s exactly that line,” the senior State Department official said. “And there’s a fine balance there. … I think we’re getting the balance right, right now.”
For Breedlove — who emphasizes that “every time a well-supplied Ukrainian force meets a Russian force on the battlefield, the Ukrainians win” — Biden is in danger of “rewarding bad behavior,” just as Western powers did when they flinched in the face of Putin’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014.
“The other option is that we take a stand, which entails risks, which I will not explain away; there will be risks out there,” the former NATO supreme allied commander said after noting that Putin has drawn unenforced red lines throughout the war. “We need to figure out whether the people around him are willing to take those risks with him if he steps over the line. I mean, if all of this was easy, we wouldn’t be working with people so hard to learn how to make these decisions … There is no riskless option.”
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Original Author: Joel Gehrke
Original Location: US seeks strategy for Ukraine war that manages fear of Crimea showdown