Last week brought some clarity in the fog of war in Ukraine: the significant date of May 9, the celebration of the Soviet Union’s victory over Hitler’s Germany, has come and gone without change of Russian strategy.
When Vladimir Putin came out to inspect military parades and intercontinental ballistic missiles, there was no pseudo-victory declaration or escalation announcement that would have put all of Russia on a war footing and triggered mass conscriptions for forehead. The Russian plan therefore seems more or less similar – i.e. the continuation of the bitter war in southern and eastern Ukraine, the goal of regime change being essentially abandoned in favor of the objective of holding a territory that could eventually be integrated into the Russian Federation.
From the American perspective, this looks like a strategic rationale. Despite some reckless bluster about our role in eliminating Russian targets, we have steadily stepped up our support for Ukraine – including the $40 billion package that will likely be authorized by the Senate next week – without causing an escalation. reckless on the part of Russia in response. The risk that a proxy war will embolden Moscow to move up the ladder towards a larger conflict has manifested itself in the constant denunciations on Russian state television – but not, so far, in the actual choices of the Kremlin. Putin obviously doesn’t like our armaments flowing into Ukraine, but he seems willing to fight the war under those conditions rather than play more existential stakes.
Our success, however, gives rise to new strategic dilemmas. Two scenarios loom for the next six months of war. In the first, Russia and Ukraine swap territory in small increments, and the war gradually cools into a “frozen conflict” in a style familiar from other wars in Russia’s near abroad.
Under these circumstances, any lasting peace deal would likely require conceding Russian control over some conquered territories, in Crimea and the Donbas, if not the land bridge currently mostly held by Russian forces between the two. This would give Moscow a clear reward for its aggression, notwithstanding all that Russia lost during its invasion. And depending on the amount of territory ceded, it would leave Ukraine maimed and weakened, despite its military successes.
Such an agreement may therefore seem unacceptable in kyiv, Washington or both. But then the alternative – a permanent stalemate that is always ripe for a return to low-level warfare – would also leave Ukraine maimed and weakened, dependent on the flow of Western money and military equipment, and less able to rebuild with confidence.
And already the pro-Ukrainian united front in the United States is fracturing a bit compared to the scale of what we are sending. So it’s unclear whether either the Biden administration or the Zelensky government would be wise to invest in a long-term strategy for a frozen conflict that requires sustained bipartisan support — and perhaps soon enough administration support. Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis.
There is another scenario, however, in which this dilemma lessens because the deadlock breaks in favor of Ukraine. This is the future that the Ukrainian military claims is at hand – where, with sufficient military aid and equipment, they are able to turn their modest counter-offensives into major counter-offensives and push back the unsuspecting Russians. only to pre-war lines, but potentially out of Ukrainian territory.
Clearly, this is the future America should want – except for the hugely important caveat that this is also the future where Russian nuclear escalation suddenly becomes much more likely than it is not now.
We know that Russian military doctrine contemplates using tactical nuclear weapons defensively, to turn the tide of a lost war. We should assume that Putin and his entourage view complete defeat in Ukraine as a regime-threatening scenario. Combine these realities with a world where the Russians are suddenly routed, their territorial gains evaporating, and you have the darkest nuclear military situation since our naval blockade of Cuba in 1962.
I have turned those dilemmas around since I moderated a recent panel at the Catholic University of America with three center-right foreign policy thinkers – Elbridge Colby, Rebeccah Heinrichs and Jakub Grygiel. On the wisdom of our support for Ukraine so far, the panel was basically united. On the issue of ending the war and nuclear peril, however, you can see our challenges distilled – with Grygiel stressing the importance of reclaiming territory from Ukraine to the east and along the seashore Noire in order to be presumably self-sufficient in the future, but then the more hawkish Heinrichs and the more cautious Colbys argue about what our position should be in case the rapid Ukrainian advances are met by a Russian tactical nuclear strike.
This question is not the one that is immediately posed to us; this will only become a problem if Ukraine starts making substantial gains. But since we’re arming the Ukrainians on a scale that seems destined to make a counteroffensive possible, I sincerely hope that some version of the Colby-Heinrich back and forth occurs at the highest levels of our government – before a matter that matters now on academic panels becomes the most important question in the world.