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Mon. May 27, 2024
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The West’s strategy on Ukraine: with faults despite the good intentions
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It is not just understandable; it is profoundly wise that the United States (and the Western alliance it leads) does not want the invasion of Ukraine by President Putin’s Russia to lead to a thermonuclear holocaust. It is also principles-based as well as in the best interest of the United States (and its allies) to support a young democracy, such as Ukraine, in its defense against the imperial war of conquest unleashed on it by Russia‘s despotic regime that rubbishes the UN Charter, which prohibits “use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state” (2(4)). Yet the strategy of the US and of its Western allies seems faulty and unproductive on its own terms, i.e., vis-à-vis achieving the above goals. It will be argued that nuclear confrontation in the world has become more likely by the strategy followed by the United States and its allies; wars of conquest have been encouraged; and autocratic leaders have taken heart and ideas from President Putin’s apparent successes. The strategy thus needs to be adjusted in some of its parts.

Russia is estimated to be still occupying about 17-18% percent of Ukraine, roughly 105,000 square kilometers. For comparison, the land mass of Ukraine currently occupied by Russia is nearly the area of the US states of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Maryland put together. The area is also well over 3 times the size of the EU member state Belgium. In other words, Russia has conquered, and actually declared as “annexed”, a very significant amount of territory. It should be noted that all these parts of Ukraine occupied by Russia are contiguous with each other and, importantly, with Russia’s previous borders. Moreover, Russia has come to occupy the biggest part (above 60 percent) of Ukraine’s 2,782 km shoreline. In addition, it has created an entire ‘Russian sea’ out of a part of the Black Sea called the Sea of Azov (about 39,000 square kilometers), sovereignty over which Russia previously shared with Ukraine.

Despite the optimistic language of many articles and news reports appearing in Western media about the achievement of the West in holding Russia back by helping Ukraine, the honest truth is that the West has only managed to help Ukraine limit its loss to a staggering one fifth of its territory. And given the size of gains so far from the two-month-long summer 2023 Ukrainian counteroffensive, it looks like the Russian army has had enough time to ‘dig itself in’ well and to become capable of tenaciously holding on to the big majority of the territories Russia currently occupies.

At the same time, the support for and popularity of President Putin within Russia seems very high with 4 in 5 Russians said to be approving of his activities; and one cannot wishfully dismiss this finding simply because of the repressive aspects of the Putin regime. True, President Putin has not captured the entirety of Ukraine, but he has made the above very solid conquests and additions to Russia’s territory, which he has been in a methodical process of consolidating militarily and politically. He has become, not only a ‘wartime president’ with all the natural rallying behind him that that involves, but also a leader who is currently on a de facto successful path to amass significant swaths of territory for Russia trying to emulate figures such as Ivan the Great and Peter the Great. These are things that most Russian citizens are likely to find difficult to reject.

The Russian people have become accustomed from their history to bear the high cost of things, including the cost of war, of anachronistic serfdom, of collectivization, of “building socialism”, of transitioning to an oligarchic market economy, etc., and to do so over very long periods of time. In addition, it is commonly held among many—if not by most Russian citizens—that “Russians need a leader with a strong hand”. The values and institutions of liberal democracy do not have deep roots within Russia. While some part of the Russian people had come to expect differently from their political system, the autocratic rule of President Putin has to a large extent ‘dealt’ with them. Thus, there is not as much, as is made out in Western media, for President Putin to worry about: so far, the war on Ukraine has been profitable to him and has also given him an excellent environment to consolidate his autocratic rule and annihilate any democratic opposition to him inside Russia.       

And, of course, President Putin and the majority of the Russian people believe that sooner or later the biggest country in the world—which Russia of course is—cannot but be welcomed back into the fold and the Western world will want to do business with her, economically and politically. In their minds it is simply a matter of time: the territorial gains will remain and their annexation by Russia will become a historical fait accompli, while ‘pragmatic’ approaches will prevail in the West to ‘turn the page’ and reestablish/normalize relations with Russia to deal with what will be then the current, pressing global and regional issues and to take advantage of business opportunities in Russia.

Thus, as long as the territorial gains from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine remain—as long as the ‘3+ Belgiums’ remain with Russia as the spoils or trophies of President Putin’s war—the war will, on balance, be positive for President Putin and Russia, and it will be a loss for the West and the United States—the West’s leader—in particular. Only if all the Ukrainian territories are taken back from Russia, including Crimea, and the so-called Peoples’ Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, only then will the war become a loss for the Putin regime.

The strategy of the United States (and its Western allies) of helping Ukraine with resources has, so far, not been consistent with Russia and President Putin losing this war of conquest and of Russian imperial resurrection. There were and continue to be three fundamental (and interconnected) faults in this strategy: 1) the problem of the nature and magnitude of provided resources to Ukraine; 2) the problem of the time of delivery of resources; and 3) the problem of the limits/constraints imposed on the use of resources.

Despite the magnitude of resources provided to Ukraine—that, undeniably, is large relative to Ukraine’s own material resources, and Ukraine should be sincerely grateful for—these resources have simply not been adequate in amount relative to the task at hand—dislodging and pushing Russian troops back to their proper, internationally recognized borders. The resources provided have also not been adequate in terms of the type of resources actually needed for the stage of war Ukraine is in at any given point in time. Related to that problem is also the issue that the right resources have not been provided in a timely manner.

One may recall that the Western air defense systems eventually came (in albeit limited numbers, as the recent successful Russian strikes on grain storage and export facilities and population centers have again demonstrated), but they came after a big part of the Ukrainian infrastructure had been destroyed and thousands of civilians and soldiers had been killed. The artillery and rocket systems and tanks and other armor came (to some extent), but only after the Russian army had ample time to fortify itself with massive systems of “defense belts”—fortifications and trenches, as well as world-record-breaking minefields—to defend Russia’s territorial gains. The high-quality Western airplanes Ukraine has asked for are still lacking. Maybe they will be delivered within the next year, but they were definitely not at hand for the—already delayed—summer 2023 Ukrainian counteroffensive, which is taking place without the essential cover of air power. Some other necessary weapons (see also below), such as long-range weapons of various sorts, have also not been provided.

This does not mean that the US and its allies have not provided very important military aid in Ukraine. They have (especially after the 2022 invasion began), and if they had not the loss of Ukrainian territory to Russian aggression would have been of a much higher order than a fifth of its territory. However, the ‘drip-drip’ of the needed weapons has meant that the Russian army managed to consolidate its defensive positions and (to continue to) make use of its air and sea superiority. As a result, the losses both in terms of Ukrainian soldiers’ and civilians’ lives and in terms of Western equipment provided to Ukraine have been larger than they would have been if the right equipment had been delivered and if equipment had been delivered in adequate amounts and on time. Even if one somehow manages to discount these losses—in some cringingly awkward calculation—the result is still highly suboptimal as it means that Russia can hold on to significant territorial conquests, which is a win for President Putin.

It is important to highlight the faulty part of the strategy of the US and its allies in particular regarding the stipulation of strict limits on the use of the weapons they provide—to use them only within Ukrainian territory. (The limits are also often imposed automatically by providing Ukraine modified weapons to limit their range.) Thus, the Ukrainian army cannot strike attacking Russian troops in their staging areas on the Russian side of the border, or destroy Russian missiles and airplanes as they are (preparing to be) launched from within Russia, or disrupt supply lines within Russia that are ending up supplying the Russian occupying forces in Ukraine.

Limits and constraints in the use of Western military aid so that it cannot be used on Russian territory is a huge handicap that has been imposed on Ukraine. How strange to fight an attacker much bigger than you and bent on killing you, but to be told that you can only defend yourself by deflecting and hitting his fists and feet as they land on you, but you cannot throw punches and kicks on the attacker’s face and body! From the get go it is nearly certain that your defense will not work in fending off the attacker and minimizing—nay, surviving—your injuries!  

Thus, yes, the Western military aid provided to Ukraine has been very important to the survival of Ukraine. However, this military aid has been of the kind consistent—in terms of nature/type, magnitude, timing, and usability—with Ukraine becoming effectively a rump state and President Putin being by and large successful in his war of imperial expansion and strengthening his position as the autocratic ruler of an increasingly expansionary (despite a temporary drawdown of Russian conventional weapon stockpiles, which is sometimes put forward as an adequate achievement) and undemocratic Russia. 

However, the problem with the US and Western strategy on helping Ukraine to fight Russia’s invasion is not only on account of the effective validation of President Putin’s gamble with his imperial war of conquest. It is a problem also—and equally importantly—on account of the signals it provides to a variety of other actors around the world.

One can first consider the signal that is provided to China’s President Xi and the CPC. It is very likely that the signal is being received with some relief in the context of their potential upcoming invasion of Taiwan. First, and foremost, the PRC leadership observed the reticence of the US leadership to take any steps that might be considered “escalatory” by the opposing nuclear power. The impressive lengths to which US leadership has gone to not do anything that might theoretically provoke Russia (taking to heart the adversary’s threats and bluster) in its war of annexation of Ukraine has been a clear signal to China that the US would also provide only a careful and limited response to a military invasion of Taiwan by China. The signal has not only consisted of the fundamental “no boots on the ground”, i.e., no direct military action by the US and its allies against the invading nuclear power, it has also included all that was mentioned above: limited quantity and types of resources given the magnitude of the task at hand, delayed timing in the delivery of the resources, and limits/constraints on the use of the resources.

In the case of the very likely invasion of Taiwan, the resources of China will outmatch the resources of Taiwan even more than Russia’s outmatched Ukraine’s. The timing of delivery problems of Western military aid will be even more devastating for Taiwan given the lack of the large hinterland such as Ukraine had to fall back on and supportive countries sharing a land border with it. And, of course, any restrictions on the use armaments to strike mainland China would allow for endless waves of attack to be launched unimpeded from the aggressor’s shores. One could add to all this—as if it wasn’t enough—also the exposure of the weakness of the US and its allies in terms of adequacy of their own stockpiles and industrial supply response regarding armaments. That exposure would probably have been hidden if the response of the US and its Western allies had been more decisive and front loaded in dealing with the invasion of Ukraine, dealing with it quickly (and probably with fewer lives lost on both sides of the conflict). Thus, the US and Western strategy on Ukraine may have actually hastened, and not preempted, the invasion of Taiwan and the crushing of its democracy. And this increased aggression will not be limited to just Taiwan. Thus, in various ways, the West’s strategy on Ukraine, given its faulty parts, is eventually also creating more risks for a nuclear confrontation in the future with the PRC, not less.

The strategy of the US and the West has also accentuated the problems with other adversaries—actual or aspiring nuclear powers, such as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The signal to them is clear: “If you are a nuclear power, the US and the West will tippy toe around your ‘nuclear finger’ and will self-limit the list of options to be used against you in your transgressions. And the bigger nuclear power you are, the more certain it is that such caution and self-limitation will prevail among Western leadership.” Thus, one should expect to, ceteris paribus, see a push for increased nuclear arming among the West’s adversaries and potentially greater willingness on their part to then aggress their neighbors (more wars) and throw their weight around more generally, inter alia, to shore up their own regimes. Thus, again, the Western strategy on Ukraine, given its problematic parts, inadvertently increases, not decreases, the probability of use of nuclear weapons in the future.

Finally, the experience of Ukraine with Russia’s invasion and the way Ukraine has been helped so far by the West is being observed by many other countries around the world that face potential aggression by hostile neighbors and wannabe regional empire revivalists. These countries will arrive at the conclusion, more often than before the war on Ukraine, that the US and the West in general will only come to a limited extent (if at all) to their assistance in the case of a war of conquest unleashed on them, irrespective of the breach of international rules by such an action. These countries could surmise that if they had nuclear weapons they would be less easy prey for their potential aggressors, and there is likely to be a push for covert or overt exploration of such options for self-defense. Their potential aggressors are also observing the Russian conquest of Ukraine’s territory and are weighing the pros and cons of following Russia’s path, with admirers of President Putin probably being heartened and considering expansionary moves sooner rather than later.    

The good news in all this is that an essential part of the strategy of the United States and its Western allies, i.e., to help Ukraine, is the appropriate one—it could have been one of not becoming involved—and there is still time to make adjustments and correct the faulty parts in the strategy followed. It is in their national interest and in the interest of the world to make these adjustments.

Andreas V Georgiou, a US and Greek national, is a Visiting Lecturer and Visiting Scholar at Amherst College, USA, where he teaches courses on statistical ethics. From 1989 until 2010 he worked at the International Monetary Fund, holding positions in various departments. In 2010, he returned to Greece to head the newly established Hellenic Statistical Authority (ELSTAT) – the recast National Statistics Office of Greece – and align it fully with European law and international statistical principles. He was President of ELSTAT for five years. He is currently serving as an elected member of the Council of the International Statistical Institute and a member of the European Statistical Governance Advisory Board. He has a BA from Amherst College and a PhD in Economics from the University of Michigan. He lives in the Washington DC area.

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