What Have We Bargained for in Ukraine?

Ukrainian servicemen fire a 2A65 Msta-B howitzer towards Russian troops at a frontline in Zaporizhzhia Region, Ukraine, January 5, 2023. (Stringer/Reuters)

The dangers of the conflict are much greater than hawks would have us believe.

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The dangers of the conflict are much greater than hawks would have us believe.

‘Y our money is not charity,” Volodymyr Zelensky told a joint session of the U.S. Congress a few weeks ago. “It is an investment in global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way.”

And many conservative hawks, hoping to hold back the rising tide of skepticism among Republicans, have echoed this line. After the speech, Representative Dan Crenshaw called the idea of ending aid to Ukraine “absurd” and said America had “made a pretty good investment here.” My friend and colleague Matthew Continetti writes that “securing America’s position and freedom’s future without direct intervention and for a rounding error in the federal budget is a strategic bargain. Ukraine needs more, not less, U.S. aid, and it needs it now.” In Commentary in November, Noah Rothman wrote that “Kyiv’s victories are our victories, too, insofar as they advance a core American national interest: preserving the stable European covenant that has blessed Western powers with the longest, most durable peace on the Continent in the modern age.”

This view holds that for pennies on the dollar, the U.S. has been able to preserve a democracy threatened by an authoritarian regime, cripple a rival military, strengthen the NATO alliance, prevent Vladimir Putin from an inevitable invasion of NATO territory, and scare off Xi Jinping from ever messing with Taiwan. For these conservatives, the policy preferred by Joe Biden and the Democrats is one whose costs are greatly outweighed by its benefits.

Except, none of this is quite true. Crippling a rival military is only worthwhile when you have a strategic reason for doing so, and we conspicuously lack one. The NATO alliance’s duties have been radically expanded with no radical expansion in the share of the alliance’s burdens shouldered by Europe. Ukraine’s ultra-nationalist project is at odds with the democratic and liberal-internationalist values that are used to sell the conflict abroad. The conflict’s financial and moral costs to the U.S. have been growing for nearly a decade, and taking on Ukraine as a permanent dependent will grow them even more. The arc of the conflict is just as likely to encourage as to discourage Xi in his pursuit of Taiwan, given the ways in which our enmeshment in Europe will deplete our attention, resources, and will to be the world’s cop. And finally, no conflict in this blood-stained area of the globe is a mom-and-pop bingo game in which you can cash out your modest investments at any time; Vladimir Putin and Russia have a say in how this ends.

Reserves of Morale, or Weapons?

The advocates for continued aid to Ukraine must downplay the costs involved, because support for continued aid began to drop precipitously when the Biden administration began briefing the press on our strategy. It didn’t help the hawks’ cause when retired general David Petraeus went on Sunday morning television and claimed that if Russia used a so-called tactical nuke in Ukraine, the U.S. would enter the war as a full belligerent, annihilate Russia’s army, and launch decapitation strikes on the Kremlin. It instead made people ask themselves how Russia would respond to such drastic countermeasures, and to shudder at the possible answers.

Americans tend to think of war as moral exercise conducted upon the earth, and many seem to believe that somehow the vigor for democracy displayed in the Ukraine conflict will dissuade China from its ambitions in Taiwan. While it’s true that China may be chastened by Russia’s failure, it may also be delighted to see the U.S. arming Ukraine rather than Taiwan, and pushing the number of American troops in Europe above 100,000. It may notice that the U.S. is now discussing giving 30-year-old Bradley fighting vehicles to Ukraine precisely because it is running out of weapons for the Ukrainians. It may also notice that the U.S. is entering a weapons supply-chain bottleneck. U.S. planners are already noticing that our weapons industry cannot keep up with the artillery demands of the war in Ukraine. China may notice that we are investing all these resources and attention in Europe even as our national-security strategy disclaims the goal of being able to fight two major wars at once. Which factor will be weighing on China’s calculation more, the depth of conviction of our think tankers or our depleted stocks of weapons? According to Jackie Schneider of the Hoover Institution, just “four months of support to Ukraine . . . depleted . . . a third of the US Javelin arsenal and a quarter of US Stingers.” China may also notice that, historically, our involvement in one war makes Americans less eager to enter another.

NATO: Strengthened or Fractured?

Far from strengthening the alliance, the Ukraine conflict has revealed a kind of derangement within NATO and within our thinking about NATO.

Under George W. Bush, the U.S. cajoled unwilling NATO allies to make the promise that one day, Ukraine would become a member of NATO. This had been an identified Russian “red line” going back to the end of the Cold War, echoed not only by the likes of Vladimir Putin but even Russian liberals such as Yegor Gaidar. Crossing it in the manner Bush crossed it — announcing that Ukraine would become a NATO member at some unidentified point in the distant future — was supremely stupid, because it not only angered the Russians but gave them lots of time to work towards ensuring that Ukraine didn’t become a NATO member.

Fred Kaplan wrote last month:

The present war started when Russia invaded Ukraine, period. Russia was not provoked to invade by any interlocking alliances. (Putin may have feared that Ukraine might join NATO, but there was absolutely no such prospect on the horizon.) Ukraine was not tethered to any alliance at all.

But this only gets at the double-mindedness of hawks when it comes to NATO and the war. At once, they hold that the United States’ sponsorship of a vast military buildup of a NATO-interoperable force in Ukraine had nothing to do with Vladimir Putin’s decision to abandon the so-called Minsk II agreement and re-invade Ukraine in February 2022, nor with Putin’s repeated insistence that Ukraine must “demilitarize” itself or be demilitarized by Russia. Simultaneously, they say that the credibility of the NATO alliance is at stake in this conflict, and that the alliance has been strengthened by it. Which is it?

The evidence that the alliance has been strengthened is weak. NATO expansionists have cheered as Finland and Sweden both sought membership in the alliance in response to Russia’s invasion. At first glance, these are far more serious candidates for membership, with greater resources and a more suitable domestic political culture to offer NATO, than recent entrants to the alliance such as North Macedonia. After things are cleared up with Turkey and Hungary, their membership is already pronounced a done deal. The problem is that Sweden is making this deal with a promise to dramatically increase its defense spending, and, like Germany, it is deferring that promise, offering to reach the 2 percent of GDP target by the latter half of this decade, after the next election. For NATO expansionists, the headline out of Finland is that the country has committed to a 70 percent increase in defense spending. But skeptics should note that it’s a one-time commitment, and that Finland brings with it a giant liability: It has 900 miles of border with Russia, the integrity of which will now be NATO’s responsibility.

The hawks will also point to the fact that Germany, in a swell of emotion at the start of the war, committed to reversing decades of German policy, abandoning its Ostpolitik strategy toward Russia and ramping up defense spending. But Germany reversed course on this commitment by December, pushing years into the future its target date for bringing defense spending up to 2 percent of GDP. This came after months and months in which it reneged on various promises to provide Ukraine with weapons systems and defense platforms.

Meanwhile, the leader of the alliance’s other big European power, French president Emmanuel Macron — who was hailed as a hero of the liberal world order during the Trump era — is routinely floating ideas of a European Union– led security pact with Russia that does not include the United States, and warning that the NATO alliance is fracturing.

Ukraine Becomes More Illiberal

Concerns about Ukraine’s internal political culture have been dismissed by hawks as either trivial, self-contradictory, or the stuff of propagandistic Russian conspiracy theories. On their face, there’s something to these complaints. One often hears the accusation that Ukrainians are Nazis, and in the next breath that they are wokesters. Isn’t this a form of derangement?

Indeed, Russian propaganda is in full force, and its assertions sometimes contradict one another. But commentators going back to 2014 have noticed that the Maidan revolution was spearheaded by a mostly liberal coalition that wanted Ukraine to make its future in the EU, and that these liberals were in an effective alliance with Ukrainian ultranationalists such as the neo-Nazi Azov battalion. “It was the liberals’ tolerance of the nationalists on Maidan that led to [violent separatism in Donetsk]. If they had rejected them right away, things might have turned out differently,” Ukrainian sociologist Volodymyr Ischenko told Keith Gessen in 2014.

The same rough alliance exists even today. Ukraine is led by Zelensky, a Jewish comedian. But just this week, Ukraine’s Parliament and other prominent civic organizations marked the birthday of Stepan Bandera, the Ukrainian Nazi collaborator and ultranationalist who sought to liquidate Ukraine of “undesirables.” Prominent members of the Polish government, which has been the most forceful European ally of Ukraine in this present war, issued a rebuke, and reiterated previous demands that Ukraine recognize Bandera’s massacres of Poles and Jews in World War II.

The Ukrainian government’s ultra-nationalist project is in some ways understandable in light of Russia’s invasion and Putin’s denial of a distinct Ukrainian national and ethnic identity. But it is also incompatible with what Westerners understand as basic freedoms. Ukraine began banning political parties it did not like in 2014, starting with the Communist Party. It eventually banned many of the successor parties that grew out of the dissolution of the pro-Russia Party of the Regions, which was represented strongly in the Donbas. Media outlets critical of the government are routinely shut down. For these and other reasons, Ukraine has never been rated as a functioning or mature democracy, even by heavily biased NGOs such as Freedom House.

War is predictably making things worse. “De-Russification” laws recently passed by Ukraine ban the performance of Russian plays. They restrict Ukrainians from importing more than ten Russian-language books at any one time. They forbid publishing writing in Russian unless a Ukrainian equivalent is also published and offered as the first and primary option. This is in a nation where perhaps 20–30 percent of adults have no proficiency in any other language but Russian. After prosecuting several priests of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (one that is still technically tied to the Moscow Orthodox Patriarchate), Zelensky has demanded the suppression of the entire religious communion, which includes 1,200 parishes, and the loyalty of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens. Because of Ukraine’s perilous economic situation, the U.S. is subsidizing not just the Ukrainian military, but the basic functions of the Ukrainian government. Ukraine is certainly the aggrieved party in this invasion, and it qualifies as the David against the Goliath, whose own corruption is well established. But in many ways, Ukraine remains a dysfunctional and corrupt state that depends on the personal rule of oligarchs to function, and it is becoming more illiberal, not less, in this war.

The Bills Yet to Come

Ukraine’s corruption will matter a great deal at the end of this war. The war has wrecked the country’s economy. Estimates of reconstruction costs have risen to $750 billion, and will continue to rise as the war drags on and Russia bombards more of Ukraine’s infrastructure. Even if Russia is beaten back, it hasn’t suffered nearly the economic damage Ukraine has. And so, if reconstruction and rearmament and a reconfiguration of Ukraine’s economy aren’t paid for by someone, Ukraine will quickly find itself at Russia’s mercy again.

The thought of shoveling nearly five times Ukraine’s pre-war GDP through its corrupted institutions should make anyone wince. Will anyone signing the checks ask where the money goes? The Pandora Papers revealed some of Zelensky’s offshore holdings and financial relationships with others in his government, denting his popularity in Ukraine, though barely registering as a blip in the more tightly wound press of the West.

As surely as Ukraine’s government is seeking to de-Russify its language and culture, it will seek to cut economic ties to Russia. This is a massive project that will make mere post-war reconstruction look like a one-night party. It begins to seem an even bigger lift when you consider that the European Union, nearly 20 years after Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic joined, hasn’t entirely replaced the Cold War–era energy infrastructure — such as the Friendship Pipeline — that partially ties those countries’ economies to Moscow.

EU membership is not in the immediate cards. Germany is still angry at itself for letting political cultures as corrupt as Greece into the union, so it’s not going to consent to Ukraine’s joining anytime soon. And anyway, joining wouldn’t really be in Ukraine’s interest, either. As every Eastern European country has learned, membership in the EU can mean an enormous brain drain, as talented and ambitious citizens seek higher wages in Germany, France, or Ireland. Ukraine already has a depopulation and fertility crisis that threaten its future. The war has already forced countless Ukrainians to seek refuge abroad, and there’s no telling how many of them will return once it ends. The country can ill afford an exodus of the best and brightest who remain.

Lastly, degrading Russia’s military capacity is only a good thing if it is connected to an achievable strategy. Without that strategy, it just sows enmity toward the United States among the Russian people themselves, who are perfectly capable of seeing our intel agencies and Defense Department bragging about and taking exclusive credit for sinking their ships and killing their generals and soldiers.

The bottom line is that for all the progress of the war and Ukraine’s stout defense of itself, the basic problems with U.S. involvement in the region haven’t changed. Ukraine is peripheral to U.S. interests, and the depth of the American people’s commitment to its defense is shallow, which is why war hawks constantly minimize the current financial costs and don’t bother talking about the long-term liabilities of making Ukraine a financial and security dependent of the West. It is also dear to Russian interests, which means Russia is willing to take mighty gambles and endure mighty sacrifices to bring it to heel.

It is hard to ask people to think clearly about war. They become swept up in moralisms, and this can make thinking about what an achievable and tolerable long-term settlement might look like difficult. But what we’ve signed up for by backing Ukraine is a massive, nearly utopian project with obvious, foreseeable risks and potentially ruinous costs. It’s time we started thinking about those dangers more seriously.

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