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The writer directs the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution
As 2022 draws to a close and Western leaders ponder the challenges ahead, few issues are as globally important as what to do with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s relentless campaign to bombard the country in cold, dark misery amid warnings of Kremlin preparations for a revamped ground offensive adds both military and moral urgency to the matter.
Eastern Europeans mostly want Kyiv to win and Moscow to lose, and they believe the transatlantic alliance should do whatever it takes to help Ukraine repel the aggressors as quickly and completely as possible. They have committed allies in the upper reaches of the US government as well as among the leaders of the German Greens.
But many Western Europeans fear that supporting an overly forceful push by Kyiv against Kremlin forces could trigger a nuclear escalation, a war between Russia and NATO or an irreparable rift between the alliance and the South. This conviction is firmly shared by French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and, above all, US President Joe Biden. Their line — let’s call it the realists’ Axis of Prudence — has so far imposed itself.
Consider what Biden National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, a master of calibrated circumspection, told a Washington audience last week: “We don’t know where this is going to end. What we do know is that it is our duty to continue to maintain our military support for Ukraine, so that they are in the best possible position on the battlefield, so that if and when the diplomacy is good, they will be in the best position at the negotiating table. »
Scholz – who chants the phrase “decisive but cautious” in interviews as a call sign – told a German newspaper that “our goal is for Russia to end its war of aggression and for Ukraine to defend its integrity “. Notably, these two articulations are carefully ambiguous as to how the war should end or what a lasting peace would look like.
The United States, which has given Ukraine about $20 billion in military aid since the start of the war, has refused to supply it with planes, tanks or long-range ATACMS missiles. Yet, in light of Russia’s sustained assault on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, Washington is now expected to announce the delivery of the Patriots longer-range surface-to-air defense system, which it has long resisted. Germany has provided Kyiv howitzers, Gepard anti-aircraft guns and the brand new Iris-T air defense system, but refuses to send the Leopard tanks that Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government has been asking for.
But who is right? The partisans of the victory of Ukraine and the defeat of Russia? Or those who seem willing to contemplate a stalemate on the battlefield in an effort to prevent escalation, in the hope that it will eventually lead to a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement?
Prudence in a democratic leader is not only a virtue but a responsibility. What is debatable is whether the calculation of containing the conflict in Ukraine is actually prudent. Or if it works.
Putin did not use substrategic nuclear weapons – not even after his troops were routed from Kherson. The United States and the Chinese left no doubt that following through on his repeated threats would have dire consequences.
But seeing this as proof that containment is working is a mistake. Because the waves of Russian drone and missile strikes follow one another, the worst since the start of the invasion. What else is climbing? If Kyiv is denied the means to counter it, its allies risk Ukraine’s defeat, Western disarray and a Russian victory by default. Its profit would go to China.
Moreover, the notion of containment followed by a negotiated resolution assumes a degree of rationality and control, and the possibility of a stable post-war political equilibrium. But what if Putin’s rants about the Nazis in Ukraine and Satanism in the West were not political theater but – as historian Lawrence Freedman has suggested – a paranoid projection of fear in the face of rot? irremediable of its own system? What if, in other words, we were to take the Russian dictator, like his admirer Donald Trump, both seriously and at face value?
In truth, Ukraine’s allies have exactly two choices: a failed state in Eastern Europe, or two. Conversely, if Ukraine is given the chance to win and transform itself into a well-defended and stable democracy with a Slavic culture, it would not only be a huge security gain for Europe, but a model for Russia. This is of course what Putin fears the most.
Western axis of caution risks Kremlin victory by default in Ukraine
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