If a negotiated settlement gave Moscow rights to any land it seized, it would claim success and invade again
Derek H. Burney
September 19, 2023
Speculation is rife about the effectiveness of Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensive, launched in early June. The Ukrainians are learning, just as the Russians did, that offence is harder than defence, especially given the absence of air superiority and deficiencies of artillery and long-range missiles.
By slow-walking the armour, aircraft, engineering assets and deep-strike capabilities that Ukraine needed, the Biden administration gave Moscow time to reinforce its defences with extensive minefields, attack-resisting fortifications and the use of superior air power, drones and missiles to thwart Ukrainian attacks.
That is primarily why Ukraine’s offence has not been as robust as many had hoped. Anonymous leaks from U.S. officials questioning Ukrainian tactics did not help, sounding more like unseemly attempts to shift the focus away from Washington’s failure to deliver what Ukraine desperately needed. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba bitterly told critics to “shut up, come to Ukraine and try to liberate one square centimetre by themselves.”
White House national security spokesman John Kirby acknowledged at the beginning of this month that Ukrainian forces had achieved “notable progress” in their push against heavily fortified positions south of Zaporizhzhia. A key element of Ukraine’s strategy is to split the land corridor to Crimea and drive to the Sea of Azov.
Last month, retired four-star general and former army vice chief of staff Jack Keane wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “The U.S. should be focused on helping Ukraine fight the war the way it wants to fight, not chirping from the sidelines.”
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley stated in late August that the counteroffensive had had partial success, notably breaching through Russia’s first line of defence. Writing in The Washington Post, Gen. David Petraeus and military scholar Frederick W. Kagan went further, claiming that Russia’s front line may yet falter under pressure on several fronts, and adding that Ukraine is starting to achieve small but significant successes — retaking Robotyne in the Zaporizhzhia region and the outskirts of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region.
Ukraine has scored notable pluses — regaining about 100 square miles of territory and using sea drones to target Russia’s stranglehold in the Black Sea after Moscow’s attacks on Ukrainian ports. Extending aerial drone strikes into Russia itself, including Moscow, is also part of the offensive. Ukraine is trying to inflict disproportionate losses on Russia while disrupting supply lines, notably into Russian-occupied Crimea.
After denying Ukrainian appeals for more than a year, U.S. President Joe Biden reversed himself on supplying F-16s. This stutter step approach repeats a familiar but regrettable pattern — the United States repeatedly declines requests, only to relent later. It will now take six to nine months for the first Ukrainian pilots to complete F-16 training.
Maksym Skrypchenko, president of the Kyiv-based Transatlantic Dialogue Centre, said in August that current Western support is “enough to survive” but “not enough to effectively counterattack.” He and Petraeus both singled out the U.S.’s reluctance to provide key long-range weapons systems such as the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) and artillery shells to check Russia’s advantages in the air and on the ground.
That is the crux of Ukraine’s dilemma. While the U.S. has provided substantial assistance to Ukraine it is not enough to “win” the war. More timely deliveries of modern and better weapons, as some European allies are doing already, would facilitate a better strategic outcome for America and Ukraine than a stalemate. As Walter Russell Mead opined in the Wall Street Journal, “The Biden administration has triumphed in the (diplomatic) salons but fumbled in the field … and the cascade of communiqués cannot conceal the reality of stagnation on the ground.”
Along with question marks on the battlefield, the politics of support for Ukraine are more complex and uncertain despite the stout-hearted rhetoric and resolve manifested at July’s NATO summit in Vilnius. Polls suggest that Americans, notably those who see more urgent needs at home, are increasingly unsettled about continuing financial assistance to Ukraine.
The uncomfortable reality is that Ukraine’s objectives are being circumvented by the vagaries of American politics. The White House recently asked Congress for $24 billon in additional assistance for Ukraine and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is in Washington this week to press his case to the administration and Congress. But more than a whiff of America First isolationism is increasingly apparent. Sharp divisions are emerging in the nomination race for the Republican presidential candidate, and Ukraine will undoubtedly feature in the presidential campaign. With typical braggadocio, Donald Trump promised in May “to end the war in 24 hours” — a pledge that must have elicited welcome smiles in Moscow but apprehension in Kyiv and definite pressure on Biden.
The stakes are high for both combatants but much higher for Ukraine, whose sovereignty and independence hang in the balance. Vladimir Putin launched the war to reassert Russian supremacy over people he regarded as inferior — stoking patriotic spirit in order to distract attention from the hardships and rampant corruption in Russia. A forever war favours Russia, not Ukraine. If Putin believes there is a chance of political change in Washington, he will do whatever he can to remain in the fight.
For Ukraine, this has always been a war of national survival. Given that Russia broke previous commitments, Ukrainians know that security can only come from defeating Russia, not from simply defending against it. If Putin is able, through a negotiated settlement, to keep any of the territory illegally seized, he will claim success and plan to invade again.
The only negotiated settlement that might work is one that gives Ukraine full, unfettered membership in NATO — a security guarantee needed to deter Putin and not intended as a swap for land, as a NATO official mistakenly proposed. Other challenges for any negotiated settlement will be returning abducted children and determining compensation and justice for the devastation and war crimes wreaked on Ukraine.
The only negotiation that Putin will accept is one that subjugates Ukraine. That is why NATO allies should set aside nebulous “talks about talks” and resolve explicitly to enable Ukraine to win.
Derek H. Burney is a former 30-year career diplomat who served as Ambassador to the United States of America from 1989-1993.