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Addressing the Big Questions on Ukraine

March 18, 2024

It’s time to systematically address the big questions on Ukraine

More than two years have passed since Russia amplified its simmering encroachment on Ukraine and somehow the U.S. seems unsure about what to do. Faced with the prospect of a long war, increased pressure in other regions, and a myriad of domestic issues, public interest in Ukraine has started to fracture into four major courses of action (COA). It’s time COA advocates stopped ignoring big questions that hobble clear answers.

Facets of a good COA

Each COA must address a subset of critical questions to address relevant and decisive criticisms. These questions fall into four categories:

  • What is the Proof of tangible Benefits?
  • How much are the Direct Costs, and when will they be incurred?
  • What are the Second Order Effects on encouraging or deterring other actors from imposing costs?
  • Is there / can there be created a Willingness and Ability to expend the costs, especially on the part of public opinion and government resources?

The COA’s

Experts have coalesced around four major COA’s of United States support to Ukraine. Each COA has strengths that advocates promote, but unfortunately their weaknesses don’t receive proper attention from each camp’s advocates.

COA1: Walk away or delegate in near term (i.e., during 2024)

Search for “U.S. should abandon Ukraine” and you’ll find swarms of articles explaining why the United States can’t. However, while the foreign policy community repudiates this approach, it has gained political momentum as the war drags on.

Some in Congress have capitalized on that momentum, including Sen. Rand Paul holding that “Ukraine should not and cannot be our problem to solve,” or Rep. Matt Gaetz introducing amendments prohibiting Ukraine aid. Support is sparser among think tanks, but Justin Logan and Dan Caldwell state the U.S. should not spend additional funds to support Ukraine due to the ruin it may bring. Other experts, such as Elbridge Colby and Alex Velez-Green don’t state that the U.S. should “abandon” Ukraine but make clear that Europe needs to do much more of the heavy lifting so the U.S. government can divert resources to deter China..

Why walk away? First, the United States may not be willing to do enough to win. This means anything the United States is willing to do merely prolongs suffering, depletes weapon stocks, and damages credibility before Russia ultimately wins. The United States also has too many other higher priority interests (such as securing the southern border or competing with China). Folks like Eric Gomez points out that much of the existing material Taiwan needs to defend itself overlaps with what the United States is sending to Ukraine.

The strength of this COA is its clear benefits (money saved) and direct costs (subjugation of Ukraine and some credibility lost). Advocates typically fall short on the following:

    • Second Order Effects
      • Where will Russia go next, is it important to U.S. interests, and if so, how will we stop them?
      • How does the United States ensure that other nations don’t believe they can act aggressively? What resources will this deterrence require?
      • If the United States can’t resource its priority commitments, which must it drop?
      • How will the United States reassure allies of commitments it intends to keep?
    • Willingness & Ability
      • How will the U.S. population be convinced to take a “loss” and a smaller role in the world order?

Put simply, abandoning Ukraine requires remaking the national security paradigm. Americans won’t like letting bad guys win and will need inoculation against fear that walking away now doesn’t make things worse later.

COA 2: Negotiate now

After the over-hyped 2023 counteroffensive fell flat, the negotiation idea gained traction. Leaders like Senator JD Vance voiced support for moving to a negotiated ceasefire or peace as quickly as possible. Samuel Charap and Miranda Priebe argue that the best balance of U.S. interests is moving quickly to an armistice.

Why negotiate? First, the costs ahead are huge. Ukraine lacks sufficient volume of advanced military might to win this year, and Russia can only meet its goals with huge losses. Now could be ideal for both sides to conclude hostilities.

Many of the questions in COA 1 stay relevant. However, advocates must provide better answers on the following:

    • Proof of Benefits
      • What concessions should Ukraine demand or expect?
      • How can Russia be prevented from reigniting hostilities?
      • What sanctions should be eased and why?
    • Direct Costs
      • What territory should Ukraine give up? How will that affect Ukraine’s ability to function, grow, and resist future incursions?
      • What resources will the United States need to provide to stabilize the agreement?
    • Willingness & Ability
      • What motive does Putin have to engage in good-faith negotiations now?

Ukraine’s heroic battlefield victories may not matter. Reports may show that Russia has lost >90% of its prewar Army, but Russia ramped up production, troop mobilization, and adapted its economy. Unless sanctions reach a tipping point in their effects, Russia will quickly overwhelm Ukraine if foreign aid dries up, so it might be best to stop now.

COA 3: Sustain Ukraine for a long war (beyond 2025)

This seems to be Biden’s default COA. While President Biden reduced the United States’ commitment to Ukraine from “as long as it takes” to “as long as we can,” the administration’s fundamental approach of providing trickling support appears unchanged.

Advocates for this COA have provided plentiful and energetic support. Richard Barrons outlined the need to build up now to achieve victory no sooner than 2025. Raphael S. Cohen and Gian Gentile also advocated patience, citing historical analogies with Normandy in WWII. Emma Ashford and Kelly A. Grieco say that a long-suffering defense strategy is Ukraine’s only path to success. A more cynical view, highlighted by accusers like Elsa Vidal (according to Edward Hunter Christie’s interpretation) suggest that long-term stalemate is the goal.

Why sustain? For one, the United States would bruise its credibility otherwise. Also, if victory is the goal, Ukraine couldn’t win before 2026 even if huge support arrived tomorrow. Keeping Ukraine fighting also appears to drain Russian military capability for a low cost and provides live testing grounds for new tactics and technologies.

Although this strategy calls for long endurance, the following questions need persuasive answers given American’s thinning patience:

    • Proof of Benefits
      • What is the target end-state – the “it” the United States is in this for?
    • Direct Cost
      • How much support and for how long does Ukraine need?
    • Second Order Effects
      • How do you calculate the net effect of Russian losses vs. Russian ramp-up & external support?
      • How will the United States and its allies ensure other bad actors are deterred while stocks are depleted?
    • Willingness & Ability
      • How will popular support sustain through years of lackluster results?

More than the other scenarios, answers here require analytical forecasting. Thus far, support relied on platitudes and ambiguity. However, the public’s patience is thinning; Americans needs to know that they’re signing up for a good, reachable outcome.

COA 4: Win the war soon (before 2026)

Instead of dragging the war out, why not escalate to win? Walter Russell Mead suggests increasing pressure by adding new theaters by attacking Wagner in Africa or pressuring Putin friends in Syria and Latin America. Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Andriy Yermak made a push for a rapid embrace of Ukrainian membership in NATO and the EU. This doesn’t need immediate actual membership, but clear signals that membership will happen. Hal Brands even provides a five-pronged strategy for Ukraine win in 2025.

Why surge for faster or complete victory? Longer wars leave more to chance, risking a catastrophic, unforeseen accident. Ukraine also can’t count on enduring support from populations; it may be now or never for a portion of the American public. Russia is also already improving its innovation cycle among its broader build-up, meaning Russia may be at its weakest now. The war itself is also a drain on the world economy, and Ukrainian quality of life.

While potential benefits are clear, this risky strategy is lacking in public discourse:

    • Proof of Benefits
      • What evidence suggests a surge can result in victory within 12-24 months?
      • What greater gains will the United States realize through a victory vs. a negotiated settlement?
    • Direct Costs
      • How much treasure, time, and lives will this require?
      • How much direct support do other NATO countries need to provide?
    • Second Order Effects
      • How will Russia retaliate? How likely are the worst cases?
      • What happens when victory requires much more than initial estimates?
    • Willingness & Ability
      • How will the public be convinced to pursue such an escalatory path?
      • Can the material necessary physically exist within the specified timeframe?

This scenario is a hard sell. It requires bold leadership not available in the foreseeable future, especially during an election year. Opponents easily paint this path as “reckless.”

What now?

Leaders & thinkers should consider a few no-regret actions:

  • Fund Ukraine to limit irreversible damage until leaders solidify a strategy
  • Articulate a clear objective
  • Estimate resources required to achieve the objective
  • Articulate concrete theories of causality on how U.S. actions deter bad actor adventurism
  • Assess Putin’s next moves after Ukraine
  • Lobby EU / NATO to take pressure off American shoulders

No-regrets moves are a great start, but not the end. U.S. leadership and the public need real, balanced answers from top thinkers, and fast. I hope we can see more balanced and comprehensive assessments in the future.

Kyle Durfee is a principal at Boston Consulting Group.

This article was originally published by RealClearDefense and made available via RealClearWire.
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