By Debra Cagan and James F. Jeffrey

March 23, 2023

The New York Post


Those who argued adamantly that the death knell for Ukraine as a sovereign nation sounded once Russian President Vladimir Putin put his jackboot to Ukraine’s throat have been proven wrong time and again.

But Ukraine is still fighting for its very existence, its fate hanging by a thread, in a war a country that cannot abide freedom forced upon it.

And while people are pushing some sort of peace initiative from Washington to Beijing and other capitals in between, few have given any thought to who would enforce that peace.

Which country will put boots on the ground?

Understand this war is not only about Ukraine — it never was.

Moscow’s vision of grandeur includes those other countries that fled the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.

If Russia is able to salvage any compromise from this war, it will terrorize not only its near abroad but the rest of Europe.

American national security has always depended on more than just the physical security of American territory.

History is replete with strategic miscalculations because Americans failed to understand that even if they did not consider certain countries their enemies, those saw America as such.

The truth is Ukraine can, and must, actually win and Russia lose.

But this means not making narrowly proscribed decisions based on threats of escalation from those who have gotten away with outrageous behavior for far too long.

They’ve led to the inexplicable mountain Ukraine has had to climb just to get the equipment it needs to survive, let alone win.

Those who believe themselves a safe distance from the fight, secure in their borders and protected by oceans, are sure they can define “enough firepower not to lose but not enough to win.”

Those who live in the neighborhood know better.

There should be no political restrictions on providing the weapons Ukraine is asking for, to include F-16s and ATACM long-range HIMAR missiles.

Putin is already waging a total war. Whatever we know about Russian redlines concerning Crimea, we should not press Kyiv to grant Moscow a military sanctuary there, replicating our enemies’ sanctuaries in Vietnam and Korea, so detrimental to our operations and morale.

There are those convinced some contortionist-like architecture of a cease-fire that essentially rewards Putin with 20% of Ukraine will somehow make the threat magically disappear.

On the contrary, ceding any part of sovereign Ukraine to Russia will never result in the safety and security of anyone other than Russia and certainly not the American people.

Moscow has already turned the Crimean port of Sevastopol into a long-range launching pad against Ukrainian civilians.

This conflict will stop, if only temporarily, when and if both sides simultaneously conclude that halting fighting is more advantageous than continuing.

Assuming we seek success more than just a fleeting halt to fighting, “peace initiative” tinkering will not help but rather embolden a totalitarian dictator to seize even more territory.

Such an incredibly ill-thought-out narrative is a gift to Putin, who is watching for what he confidently hopes will be America blinking first.

Perhaps even worse is the sheer folly of even raising such a proposition without any forethought of the ultimate cost to those who will be charged with keeping the peace.

Talks of cease-fires and demilitarized zones without planning how to ensure whatever messy cease-fire or truce would forestall a Putin replay are a waste of time.

But one dramatic, somber principle must inform all planning.

Since 1945, aggressor states have frequently violated truces, treaties and United Nations resolutions to pursue aggression: Korea 1950, Vietnam 1975, the Sinai 1967 and 1973, Kuwait 1990, Georgia 2008, Syria chemical weapons 2016 and of course Ukraine 2014 and again last year.

None involved a US troop presence or security commitment.

In contrast, where there were American troops and clear commitments, aggression was consistently deterred or defeated: Berlin, Korea post-1950, Taiwan, Vietnam 1972, Sinai post-1973, Kuwait post-1991, Syria post-2018.

Even when US forces were in token strength (Syria, the Sinai, Berlin), this rule has held.

The reason for this is relevant in helping Ukraine defeat permanently Russia’s grab for empire.

Amid all the hand-wringing and doubt, and the embarrassing quivering every time Putin and his horde unleash a new verbal threat, it is well to remind ourselves the United States is also a superpower.

It is the leader of nations strong enough not to enter into a Faustian bargain with Putin, who revels in every utterance suggesting he has the upper hand.


Debra Cagan is a senior adviser at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a former State and Defense Department official. The Wilson Center’s James F. Jeffrey is former deputy national security adviser and ambassador to Iraq and Turkey.