It’s Time to Stop Backing Ukraine
There is no victory in this war. There are only bad and worse outcomes.
Last February, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine entered its second year, President Biden visited Poland and pledged the United States’ eternal support for the Ukrainian military. “Our support for Ukraine will not waver,” Biden declared. “NATO will not be divided, and we will not tire.”
A few days before, Vice President Kamala Harris had made the same promise. “The United States will support Ukraine for as long as it takes,” she told an audience in Germany. “We will not waver.”
“If Putin thinks he can wait us out, he is badly mistaken,” the Vice President went on. “Time is not on his side.”
But that’s not what the United States’ top military officer appears to believe. Two weeks ago, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley told the BBC that the vaunted Ukrainian counteroffensive has only until the autumn weather turns, and the cold and the rain impede the maneuverability of Ukrainian forces, to achieve its goals. Time is running out for the Ukrainian army’s best and perhaps only chance at driving the Russians out of Crimea and the Donbas region.
For months, analysts and media pundits hyped the Ukrainian counteroffensive as the campaign that could finally turn the momentum of the war against Russia. “This assault could turn the tide of the battle for Ukraine, just as the Allied assault on the Normandy beaches altered the trajectory of World War II,” trumpeted Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. The counteroffensive would “achieve significant breakthroughs and accomplish much more than most analysts are predicting,” former General David Petraeus told Washington Post columnist Max Boot. Russian forces may “collapse over broad areas,” Petraeus further speculated.
Privately, the Biden administration was less optimistic. A top secret intelligence document leaked on Discord anticipated only “modest territorial gains” by the Ukrainian army. That bleak prognostication appears to be materializing. Ukraine has thus far failed to break through Russia’s defenses, and US intelligence agencies do not expect the Ukrainian army to capture Melitopol — a key objective of the counteroffensive, as doing so would put the Ukrainian army in a position to cut off the land bridge to Crimea, severing Russia’s supply lines.
In his BBC interview, Milley insisted that the counteroffensive is making “very steady progress,” a talking point that Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also recited. And indeed, late last month, the Ukrainian army punctured the first of Russia’s three defensive layers in Southern Ukraine. But even the best-case scenario, described to The Economist by a Defense Intelligence Agency official, doesn’t put Ukrainian soldiers past the third line of defense until the end of the year, deep into the season Milley expects to stymie Ukrainian progress, and with winter around the corner.
Even if, by some extraordinary turn of events, the counteroffensive broke through Russia’s defenses this year, Ukrainian forces would likely be so depleted as to be in no position to push beyond that point and take back Crimea. For months, the Ukrainian government has struggled to conscript troops, as fighting-age men have hidden from recruitment officers, bribed them, or simply ignored summonses. In January, rates of desertion and disobedience among Ukrainian soldiers forced President Zelensky to sign a bill increasing prison sentences to a decade or longer. Though Russia, too, is facing similar problems, it has a larger population to draw on.
If the counteroffensive fails and Russia maintains control of Crimea, the only way Ukraine could prevail over the long term would be with NATO troops directly in combat — a suicidal situation that would invite a global nuclear confrontation. And even then, a victory for Ukraine that comes years rather than weeks from now could come at the price of the total destruction of the entire country.
In interviews, Ukrainians have characterized the counteroffensive as a “disappointment.”
“I want the price they paid to be reasonable,” the wife of a combat veteran told the Washington Post in August. “Otherwise it’s just useless, what they went through.”
Her husband, who lost a leg to a landmine, told the Post that soldiers on the frontline are unprepared and unmotivated. Another Kyiv resident said that new soldiers last just two to three days on the front.
Ukraine is turning into the proxy version of Afghanistan or Iraq: an endless conflict in which victory is always around the corner, in which the Pentagon and the defense industry push for escalation after escalation regardless of the reality on the ground, in which deaths mount and a country is destroyed only to end in defeat or a Pyrrhic victory years later, once enough American voters have had their fill of war.
But Biden is wrong: there is an alternative. It’s time to stop backing Ukraine and force an end to the war.
The debate over Ukraine is divided, broadly speaking, into two narratives. The first, mainstream story is that Russia is an imperialist nation that invaded Ukraine for no better reasons than greed for territory, lust for geopolitical power, and hunger for the restoration of the Russian Empire and the personal glory of Vladimir Putin. In this analysis, the West played no role in provoking Russian aggression — or if it did, Russia’s invasion of the country demonstrates that those provocations were entirely justified.
The second, dissenting narrative is that the United States and the West goaded Putin into war by gratuitously expanding NATO eastward and by stoking political unrest in Putin’s “near abroad” in pursuit of a regime change agenda in Moscow. In this view, the Euromaidan revolution, and the Orange Revolution before that, were at least in part fomented by the United States and its European allies to deny Russia its buffer zone in Ukraine and to instigate pro-western protests inside Russia’s borders, on the model of the Arab Spring.
Elements of both are true. But neither paints a complete picture of the causes of the war.
Russia is alone in its culpability for starting the conflict. But, as the dissenting narrative contends, the United States shares responsibility for creating the conditions that made the invasion not just possible, but probable. With a full understanding of what it was doing, the US took every opportunity to raise Putin’s hackles by pushing Ukraine toward the West, actively encouraging pro-western protest movements in Ukraine, and paving the way for Ukrainian admission into NATO. Then, up to the eleventh hour, the United States and the West rejected every opportunity to push for peace. In 2021, just two months before launching his full-scale invasion, Putin proposed terms to NATO to resolve the imminent conflict, Aaron Maté reported. They included pulling back the alliance’s military presence in Russia’s neighboring states and ensuring Ukrainian neutrality. NATO rejected it, so, according to NATO’s top civilian official, Putin “went to war to prevent NATO, more NATO, close to his borders.”
Given this history, and given the US’s giddy enthusiasm for arming Ukraine, one starts to wonder if war was the entire point in the first place. The US, after all, is in the perfect position to bleed an enemy’s army dry without putting a single American boot on the ground.
If that sounds cynical, take it from American politicians themselves. In a recent trip to Kyiv, Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal boasted that “we’ve enabled Ukraine to degrade Russia’s military strength by half ...All without a single American service woman or man injured or lost.” Republican Senator Mitt Romney marveled that the US is “losing no lives in Ukraine,” while “diminishing and devastating the Russian military for a very small amount of money.”
On top of the strategic advantages that accrue to the US, the war makes business sense for American defense contractors. As Lee Fang reported, at a meeting last week, Lockheed Martin’s Chief Financial Officer told bankers that the Ukraine war represented “$10 billion of opportunity” for the company. The demand from both the Ukrainian military and the Pentagon, whose weapons stockpiles, drained by the proxy war in Ukraine, need replacing, will last “to the end of the decade,” he said. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has justified military spending on Ukraine in part because it is “growing the US industrial base, and supporting thousands of good-paying American jobs.”
But with all of that said, those who argue, following John Mearsheimer, that “the United States and its European allies share most of the responsibility for this crisis,” fail to appreciate the long history of the region, in which Russia has suppressed Ukraine’s aspirations of self-determination for centuries. When one takes the long view, the proximal causes of the conflict recede into the background, and the story of Russia as an incorrigibly imperialist power begins to appear less like Western propaganda and more like historical fact.
Only by tracing that history can we start to understand the distal forces that ignited and shaped this war: Russia’s imagined historical claim to Ukraine, the geopolitical rivalries that split the country into Western and Russian zones of influence, and the profoundly felt but only partially realized Ukrainian national identity. From that vantage point, the current conflict fits into a tragic pattern of rising nationalism followed by external domination, which the war has forced back upon Ukraine once again.
The Origins of a Divided Nation
The historical origin of the Russian people in Ukraine is a key part of the Putin regime’s propaganda campaign to justify its invasion of the country. It would be naïve to take it at face value. At the same time, it would be short-sighted not to recognize the centrality of historical Kyiv to the Russian national identity. Ukraine, known in both countries for centuries as “Little Russia,” is not just a neighboring country. It is central to the collective Russian sense of self.
In the Russian imagination, and, to a debatable extent, in reality, Ukraine is the birthplace of the Russian nation. In the ninth century, Vikings from Scandinavia conquered the region around Kyiv, the present capital of modern-day Ukraine. The Vikings were known as Rus, derived from the Finnish word “Ruotsi,” which meant “men who row.” The Rus intermixed with the Slavic tribes of the region, evolving into the people who came to be known as “Russian,” a term that included not just the population of the lands that form modern-day Russia, but the “White Russians” of Belarus and the “Little Russians” of Ukraine as well.
Until the 13th century, Kyiv was the indisputable fatherland of the Rus people. That changed when the Mongols conquered the lands of Kievan Rus, turning its rulers into their vassals. The city of Kyiv was obliterated; by the time the Mongols were done with it, the streets were littered with bodies and only 200 houses remained.
But Moscow, an insignificant town at the time, was spared, and came to benefit greatly from Mongol rule. Moscow’s prince, Ivan the First, cooperated with his Mongol overlords, securing their support of his principality. Moscow rose under the Mongols into the seat of power in Muscovy. It would go on to become the capital of the emerging Russian Empire.
As Moscow became oriented toward the east, Kyiv was being drawn into the West. Though Kyiv suffered immensely in the Mongols’ initial invasion of the region, in the centuries to follow, the Golden Horde’s control of the city and the region around it was less direct, less onerous, and less lasting than their rule over Moscow. Kyiv’s rulers were free to enter into alliances with other states. The western part of today’s Ukraine became drawn into the orbits of their more powerful European neighbors, Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It was eventually integrated into them entirely.
At the same time, Ukraine began to develop, for the first time, a sense of itself as an independent nation. This nascent nationalism began with the Cossacks, an unruly, multiethnic, militant band of steppe nomads, town dwellers, peasants and escaped serfs who subsisted on organized banditry. The Cossacks fought the Crimean Tatars, descendants of the Mongols, in the south, and, in the west, they frequently revolted against the rule of the Polish and Lithuanian nobility, who had formed into a single commonwealth.
The Cossacks’ fierce spirit of independence evolved into an incipient sense of national identity in the historical lands of the Kievan Rus. In 1648, the Cossacks, allied with the Tatars, went to war against Poland and wiped out its army. The Polish crown was forced to recognize the new territory controlled by the Cossacks, which would come to be known as Ukraine.
The independence was fleeting, however. Within two decades, the Cossack army was defeated and its state was partitioned between Poland and what would become soon become known as Russia. Russian domination over eastern Ukraine, which continues to this day, began with this partition, as did the east/west bisection that defines the current conflict in Ukraine. It would not be the last time that foreign powers, and Russia in particular, frustrated Ukraine’s nationalist aspirations.
The Ukrainians chafed under Russian domination. The Tsar outlawed the Ukrainian language and suppressed the nascent nationalist movement that had begun under the Cossacks. A rival movement to the nationalists also emerged, among Ukrainians who were loyal to the Russian Empire. Foreshadowing today, the Russian government elevated the Russophiles while persecuting the nationalists, while its western rival, Austria (Poland had by now been partitioned), did the reverse.
World War I and the Russian Revolution afforded Ukraine another opportunity to free itself from domination by foreign powers. It even achieved a tenuous independence for a year. But a series of invasions left it divided between not just two but four states, with the lion’s share of the country controlled, once again, by Moscow and the newly formed Soviet Union.
Under Stalin, Ukraine was turned into a veritable colony of Russia. Intent on extracting every grain of value out of Ukraine’s fertile soil, Stalin’s forced agricultural collectivization resulted in the starvation deaths of more than 4 million Ukrainian peasants. To enforce Stalin’s tyrannical rule, the Soviet secret police deported more than 1.25 million Ukrainians in just two years to Siberia, the far north, and Central Asia.
By 1941, life under Stalin had become such a nightmare that many Ukrainians welcomed the invading Nazi army as liberators. They were mistaken, of course. The Nazis brought their genocidal program to Ukraine, murdering most of the country’s Jews. They deliberately starved the cities to force their inhabitants into the countryside, where they could produce food for the Reich. They exported more than 2 million Ukrainians to Germany, where they worked as slaves. The German occupation was so horrific that when the Red Army reconquered Ukraine, pushing its Soviet boundaries westward in the process, the population once again greeted the troops of the government that had starved them just a decade before as liberators.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukraine finally achieved independence — this time, it appeared, for good. But even in a technically unified state, the cultural legacy of its long, bloody history could not be simply legislated out of existence. For 300 years, Ukraine had existed as a battleground between two centers of power — its European neighbors to the west, and Russia to the east. Though Ukraine had enjoyed more autonomy under Stalin’s successors than it had under Stalin, its unification of sorts under totalitarian Soviet rule did little to change the sharp division of the country into those two political and cultural orbits. The Soviets hadn’t resolved this latent divide; they had merely suppressed it.
Regime Change in Ukraine
This cultural split expressed itself politically: the western part of the country identified with Europe and aspired to join its political and economic systems. The eastern part favored Russia. Rather than remain truly independent, Ukraine seemed destined to align itself with one side or the other, or else to disintegrate between them.
Ukraine once again became a battleground for Great Power politics, only now, for the moment, the struggle was carried out through peaceful means. In the 2004 presidential election, Viktor Yushchenko, a Western-oriented candidate, ran against Viktor Yanukovych, a Russia-favored politician. The Kremlin promoted its candidate through its state-run media, which had millions of viewers in Ukraine, and Vladimir Putin personally hit the campaign trail for Yanukovych. Meanwhile, the United States government and US-based NGOs, including ones funded by George Soros, poured tens of millions of dollars into “democracy-building” activities in Ukraine.
While officially non-partisan, the US investment was clearly aimed at empowering the Yushchenko side. “Did Americans meddle in the internal affairs of Ukraine? Yes,” read an op-ed by former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul following the election. “The American agents of influence would prefer different language to describe their activities — democratic assistance, democracy promotion, civil society support, etc. — but their work, however labeled, seeks to influence political change in Ukraine.”
At first, it appeared that the US effort had failed. Even though Yushchenko was leading in the polls, when the results were announced, Yanukovych was the winner. Yushchenko’s supporters, however, were certain the election was rigged. Protesters flooded Independence Square in Kyiv, and poured onto the streets in cities and towns all over the country, in what became known as the Orange Revolution. Ukraine’s Supreme Court sided with the protesters and ordered a new run-off election, which Yushchenko won handily.
Buoyed by this victory, the United States and its European allies went further in their effort to bring Ukraine into the Western fold and out of Russia’s orbit. In 2008, NATO leaders met in Bucharest, Romania. One of the questions NATO was considering at the summit was whether to admit two of Russia’s immediate neighbors, Ukraine and Georgia, into the military alliance. Putin, who attended the meeting, told NATO officials that such a step would constitute a “direct threat” to Russia. Though they couldn’t reach a consensus on immediate admission, NATO’s leaders issued a statement supporting the aspirations of the two countries. “We agreed today,” the statement read, “that these countries will become members of NATO.”
It’s important to understand just how much of a provocation NATO enlargement to Russia’s borders is to Putin, and how plainly aware of that fact US policymakers are. NATO’s statement helped precipitate Russia’s five-day war with Georgia in 2008, and the Kremlin was, if anything, even more jealously protective over its influence in Ukraine. After the meeting in Bucharest, then-US Ambassador to Russia William Burns sent a cable home that read, “Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin).” In all of his conversations with Russians of every political stripe, he wrote, “I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.” In another cable, he cited the possibility that NATO membership could trigger a civil war in Ukraine, which could then force a confrontation between the United States and Russia.
But an even bigger provocation would soon follow.
In 2010, Viktor Yanukovych made another bid for the presidency, and this time he won. In the fashion of Ukrainian politicians, he got to work looting the state. He and his minions diverted tens of billions of dollars to offshore accounts. He also imprisoned his main political rival and consolidated power within a small clique, which included his son, known in Ukraine as “The Family.”
Though corrupt, Yanukovych was no puppet of Vladimir Putin. His personal relations with the Russian president were tense. He railed against Russia’s gas contracts with Ukraine and tried to loosen his country’s dependency on Russian energy. He was reportedly dead set on integrating with Europe, and bitter toward Russia for treating Ukraine with insufficient respect.
Yanukovych intended to enter into an “association agreement” with the European Union, the first step to EU membership. But the EU and the IMF frustrated his plans by offering him terms he felt were impossible to accept — including cutting the pensions of Ukrainians and raising the retirement age — given the steep cost to Ukraine of burning its bridges with Russia. Putin, by contrast, simply offered him a better deal.
Yanukovych reversed course on the EU deal and refused to sign the agreement. EU integration, while popular, was never in fact supported by an outright majority of Ukraine voters. Nevertheless, pro-Western Ukrainians were outraged. They poured out onto the streets again, facing down riot police deployed by the president. The police, with the assistance of government thugs, responded with brutal violence, which only fueled the protest movement. The rebellion grew and dug in for the winter. Over time, violent far-right, ultranationalist elements, including neo-Nazis, joined the emerging revolution.
The US encouraged the “Euromaidan,” also known as the “Revolution of Dignity.” Senator John McCain traveled to Kyiv to rally the protesters. Diplomat Victoria Nuland, who worked behind the scenes to select and install Ukraine’s next prime minister, handed out cookies.
Downtown Kyiv became the site of a low-intensity civil war. In a three-day span in February, 68 protesters and nine police officers were killed; dozens of the protesters had been picked off by snipers. The murders were blamed on Yanukovych, though it’s possible at least some of the snipers were right-wing agitators. Protesters were calling for Yanukovych’s prosecution, or even his execution. Days before in Lviv, they had seized hundreds of guns from police stations. Protesters rejected an attempted compromise that would have hastened a new election, and the president’s allies were jumping ship. His position by now untenable, Yanukovych abandoned his office and fled the capital.
This scenario was the culmination of all of Putin’s worst nightmares. The United States, in his estimation, had actively fomented an anti-Russian coup on his doorstep, led by a vanguard of Nazi sympathizers. According to a Defense Intelligence Agency report, “The Kremlin is convinced the United States is laying the groundwork for regime change in Russia, a conviction further reinforced by the events in Ukraine.”
Within days of Yanukovych’s removal, in a move the US government should have easily anticipated, Russia initiated its annexation of Crimea. A few months later, Russian paramilitary troops entered the Donbas to assist an emerging separatist insurgency there. The war with Russia, which radically escalated in February of last year, had begun.
Toward a New Antiwar Movement
Prior to Putin’s invasion, Ukraine had only existed as a sovereign nation for a few decades. But Ukraine’s aspiration for self-determination, the moral principle underlying the entire modern international normative order, has been a living force for hundreds of years. Nobody has a moral basis to question the right of Ukrainians to defend their homeland and take back one of the few shots they’ve had at self-determination in their long history. And the world is right to condemn and isolate Russia for its aggression and brutality.
But none of that means that Americans are obligated to support our own country’s financing of this war.
Whether wittingly or otherwise, the United States has played a decisive role in instigating this conflict. The blood of tens of thousands of Ukrainians stains the hands of the US government. But ordinary Americans do not share the blame with the spies and diplomats that stoked the war in our name. It is not our price to pay, whether in taxpayer money or in the elevated risk of nuclear war with Russia. Nor, for that matter, should that price be paid by Ukrainian civilians forced into military service and sacrificed as cannon fodder in the Russian minefields of southern Ukraine. Ordinary Americans have nothing to do with this war, and we should demand that our government stop funding it.
If the US ended its support for the Ukrainian military, Zelensky would have no choice but to negotiate an end to the war. There is no question that the terms for peace at this moment would be unfavorable to Ukraine. Putin would demand official recognition of his absorption of Crimea into Russia. Ukraine would be forced to grant some sort of legal autonomy to the two provinces of the Donbas, bringing them under Russia’s de facto control, if not recognize them outright as provinces of Russia proper.
It’s unlikely Putin would push for any more Ukrainian territory than he already controls, whether through negotiations or through military action; Russian control over eastern and southern Ukraine provides him with the buffer he needs, and occupying the western part of the country would likely mean battling an intractable insurgency for generations to come. Nevertheless, the United States and Europe should offer Ukraine, within its new borders, admission to NATO and the European Union — if doing so was a provocation prior to 2014, it’s a necessity now. And it should make a major commitment to helping Ukraine’s economic recovery.
Even with such a security guarantee, however, Ukraine’s dreams of national self-determination would come to an end. In the 80% of territory that Russia does not control, future generations of Ukrainians could go on to build a healthy European democracy. But the country as a whole, having enjoyed unity and independence since the 1990s, would return to its historical status as a fractured nation. Americans who demand an end to the war should avoid the temptation of pretending that peace will not come at a steep cost to Ukrainians. Peace is not synonymous with justice. An end to hostilities will only mean the beginning of a new era of Russian domination over a substantial part of the country.
But the terms on offer for peace one, two, three, four, or five years from now will likely be no better and could conceivably be much worse, and at an unimaginable cost. Russia’s advantages over Ukraine in industrial might and in the size of the population it can conscript into its army means that a lengthier war favors Russia.
There is no happy ending to this conflict. A combination of Russian aggression and Western recklessness has destroyed Ukraine’s brief experiment in independence. If the current counteroffensive fails, as it seems likely to, there will be no good options for the country. Either Ukraine will be partitioned now under one peace treaty, or it will be partitioned in the future under another, and only after many more people have died and a great deal more destruction has been wrought on Ukraine’s infrastructure and economy. In either case, the country will revert back to its centuries-long struggle for national unification, with Russia playing its old historical role as the enemy of that project. This is the price Ukrainians will pay for peace, a price that both Russia and the United States have imposed on them. But the cost of further war will be much greater.
No fair-minded person is happy about these grim prospects for Ukraine. But as one of the two countries capable of ending the conflict, it’s time for the United States to take stock of reality and accept that there is no winning this war. Our generals, our diplomats, and the American elite will be the last to accept this. Left to their own devices, they will allow the fighting to go on forever. It’s time we force them to make a different choice.