The Western support for Ukraine in its war against Russia is unlikely to achieve a Russian defeat. Moreover, it has become an enormous burden, putting at risk the West’s ability to attain its other critical strategic objectives.
Everybody understands that the war will not end with restoring Ukrainian territorial integrity, as its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, demands. Crimea and the Donbas region, populated by ethnic Russians, are unlikely to revert to Ukrainian rule. The staying power of Russia is more substantial than Ukraine’s, and thus despite economic difficulties and military problems, Russia will not likely submit to Ukraine’s conditions. Moscow will probably continue its war of attrition, exacting a high price from Ukraine’s infrastructure and army.
Putin is unlikely to accept defeat. Moreover, an attempt to humiliate Russia is not wise and is likely counter-productive. Therefore, the Ukrainian-defined victory is not attainable.
In contrast, the West has already attained the strategic objective of weakening Russia, making NATO’s eastern flank more secure. Moscow cannot swallow Ukraine under the present circumstances.
While upholding the principles embodied in the moral support for Ukraine’s courageous struggle matters, the continuation of the war is harming the West and endangering its battle to maintain superiority over autocracies. Jens Stoltenberg, secretary-general of NATO, recently stated a more modest goal: denial of a Russian win. That less-clearly defined objective opens room for negotiating a compromise, which should become the primary concern of American diplomacy.
The war in Ukraine is diverting attention from the central strategic challenge facing the U.S. and the West: China. Pivoting to Asia—the strategy advocated by the last three U.S. presidents—remains an empty slogan as Ukraine devours Western attention and resources. Beijing is looking with satisfaction at the Western imbroglio in Eastern Europe, as a Western alliance lacking a strategic focus serves Chinese interests: It weakens Moscow and strengthens its alignment with Beijing. The Ukraine war also unites Iran and Russia in an anti-American position.
The fighting in Ukraine is an example of a high-intensity war that many strategists believed was a phenomenon long past. Nevertheless, it is here, consuming considerable military assets and vast amounts of expensive munitions.
It is unclear how long the West can continue supplying Ukrainian combat troops. Western ammunition stock is quickly depleting. Current production lines cannot promptly replenish the war materiel sent to Ukraine, so the Ukrainian capacity to resist Russia will dwindle. Moreover, Western involvement considerably reduces its ability to fight a war elsewhere.
A critical consideration for finding a diplomatic solution to end the war is the risk of nuclear escalation.The West mostly adheres to the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine, whose central tenet maintains that crossing the nuclear threshold leads to an all-out atomic war of unimaginable destructive character. This doctrine significantly inhibits the use of nuclear weapons. In contrast, Russia’s nuclear doctrine allows for a gradual use of nuclear weapons within a large-scale conventional war. Therefore, the West should take Russian nuclear threats seriously, especially when its conventional military fortunes take a turn for the worst.
Moreover, maintaining the war against Russia amounts to further investing effort to weaken a secondary opponent. While Russia has an impressive nuclear arsenal, its GDP is slightly higher than Brazil’s (not a world power) but about a tenth of China’s. The GDP of NATO nations equals 45% of the world economy, around 18 times larger than Russia’s, so any further attempt at debilitating Russian military capabilities hardly impacts the European and global balance of power.
The continuation of the war only magnifies the destruction Russia brings upon Ukraine, particularly its economic infrastructure. The longer the war lasts, the more money the West will need to reconstruct the devastated state when hostilities eventually conclude.
We have also begun to see small cracks in the NATO alliance due to the duration of the war. There are differences of opinion about arms production policies and the desired outcome. A cold winter will amplify transatlantic tensions.
The understandable American reluctance to put boots on the ground will become morally questionable as the war drags on and its tragic features become even more pronounced. American hesitation to fight another “just” war could be overturned by unforeseen events on the battleground.
For all these reasons, a wise Washington should do its best to find a formula to end the war in Ukraine. Gentle pressure on Kyiv to accept a compromise is needed, as well as resisting punitive impulses against the Russian aggressors. Western leaders should overcome the tendency to look at the sunken costs and concentrate on the risks and the meager marginal profits to be achieved if the war continues.
The template for a compromise still needs to be clarified. The “Finlandization” of Ukraine—an option that should have been pursued before the war—is probably the most promising. Alas, no state can escape the constraints of geopolitics. In a noble and expensive gesture, the West has given Ukraine some leeway. Being a neighbor of a giant bear such as Russia carries consequences. Ukraine ignored its predicament and is paying heavily for this mistake.
Efraim Inbar is president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.