As grand acts of foreign diplomacy go, Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s recent trip to Washington will make the history books for all the wrong reasons. From the moment his jet touched down, the Ukrainian president was greeted with a lukewarm reception, and was even denied a request to address a joint session of the US Congress. Then, at the weekend, the GOP-dominated Congress decided to strip any additional funding for Ukraine from a last-minute emergency spending bill aimed at avoiding a government shutdown.
It is a significant setback for Biden, who had asked Congress for an additional $20 billion for Ukraine — on top of more than $60 billion in aid already sent to the warring ally, including more than $40 billion in direct military assistance. In response, Biden sought to reassure Ukraine and Nato allies that the funding will be approved through a separate vote.
But even if that happens, the White House will still face an increasingly uphill struggle in mustering political support for its strategy of open-ended assistance to Ukraine. Not only is Trump, with his anti-war stance, continuing to rise in the polls, but even the more hawkish elements of the US and Western establishment are starting to rethink their stance on Ukraine. Indeed, it seems to finally be dawning on them that, as one leading commentator wrote in Newsweek, “there is no realistic basis to believe that Ukraine has the capacity to attain its stated strategic objective to reclaim all its territory, including Crimea”. A correspondent at The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, recently noted that Ukraine’s goal of retaking all the territory it lost now “appears a distant prospect”.
This shift is largely a result of the failure of Ukrainian’s eagerly anticipated counteroffensive. “Ukraine has liberated less than 0.25% of the territory that Russia occupied in June,” reports The Economist. “The 1,000km front line has barely shifted.” In fact, not only does Russia now control nearly 200 square miles more territory in Ukraine compared with the start of the year, but, as The New York Times noted, in the first two weeks of the counteroffensive, “as much as 20% of the weaponry Ukraine sent to the battlefield was damaged or destroyed, according to US and European officials”. Meanwhile, everyone agrees that Ukrainian casualties have been massive — potentially in the tens of thousands, according to the BBC.
Yet perhaps the greatest tragedy of the counteroffensive is that its shortcomings were entirely predictable. As John Mearsheimer wrote: “A look at the lineup of forces on both sides and what the Ukrainian army was trying to do, coupled with an understanding of the history of conventional land war, made it clear that there was virtually no chance the attacking Ukrainian forces could defeat Russia’s defending forces and achieve their political goals.”
Does this mean that the West is finally coming round to the need for a diplomatic solution? Unfortunately not. “Asking for a ceasefire or peace talks is pointless,” according to The Economist. “Vladimir Putin shows no sign of wanting to negotiate and, even if he did, could not be trusted to stick to a deal. If Ukrainians stop fighting, they could lose their country.”
That is a questionable assertion ― Russia claims it is open to negotiations, while there is some evidence that Putin made several attempts to reach a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis in the months and weeks leading up to the war, and even in the weeks following the invasion. But it is certainly true that reaching an agreement now is much trickier. This is because the derailment of peace talks in the early days in the war has allowed Russia to gain a tactical advantage, which now makes a negotiated settlement much more difficult to achieve. Even US officials now admit that the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, “had a point” when he called for Kyiv to make the most of its gains by suing for peace late last year, and that “we may have missed a window to push for earlier talks”.
However, this is no excuse for the West to not even consider sitting down at the negotiating table. So why is there no diplomatic solution in sight? Part of the problem is that this war isn’t perceived as an existential struggle only by Ukraine, but also by Russia and the US: they both know that the outcome of this conflict will have massive geopolitical ramifications. Military defeat is therefore not an option, but neither is a settlement that may be interpreted as an admission of defeat.
And then, to make matters worse, there are those in the US establishment who want this war to continue, no matter what, because they view it as beneficial to their interests. Consider Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who recently tweeted: “Standing with our allies against Russian aggression isn’t charity. In fact — it’s a direct investment in replenishing America’s arsenal with American weapons built by American workers. Expanding our defence industrial base puts America in a stronger position to out-compete China.” Last year, he claimed that “the most basic reasons for continuing to help Ukraine degrade and defeat the Russian invaders are cold, hard, practical American interests”.
As the Democratic Senator, Richard Blumenthal, recently put it, America is therefore getting its “money’s worth” in Ukraine: “For less than 3% of our nation’s military budget, we’ve enabled Ukraine to degrade Russia’s military strength by half… All without a single American service woman or man injured or lost.” But the conflict is also serving US interest by bolstering Nato, and therefore America’s military control over Europe. Thus, in the middle of Ukraine’s bloody counteroffensive, David Ignatius had the nerve to claim in the Washington Post that “overall, this has been a triumphal summer for Nato”. The Bill Kristol-led group “Republicans for Ukraine” even released a TV ad claiming: “When America arms Ukraine, we get a lot for a little.” It was further proof that calling the conflict a proxy war is no longer just a “pro-Russian talking point”.
If, however, there is no realistic basis to believe that Ukraine has the capacity to attain its stated strategic objective of reclaiming all Russian-controlled territories, but peace (or even a ceasefire) is not an option, what options are left? Once again, the answer is provided by The Economist: “Both Ukraine and its Western supporters are coming to realise that this will be a grinding war of attrition… Instead of aiming to ‘win’ and then rebuild, the goal should be to ensure that Ukraine has the staying power to wage a long war — and can thrive despite it.”
As Nato’s chief Jens Stoltenberg recently stated: “We must prepare ourselves for a long war in Ukraine.” This now seems to be the consensus in Western establishment circles. “The US and its allies in the Group of Seven now expect the war in Ukraine may drag on for years to come and are building that possibility into their military and financial planning,” Bloomberg reported. Even America’s ultra-hawkish US Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland conveyed a similar message to Kyiv, saying that the US must help Ukraine “accelerate the process of thriving in parts of Ukraine that are not occupied”, implying that the territories under Russian control would remain so for a very long time.
This means shifting from battleground operations aimed at taking back territory to measures aimed at bolstering Ukraine’s defences (to the benefit of Western arms manufacturers), coupled with increasingly brazen attacks on Russia or Russian-controlled territories, especially Crimea, which have a marginal effect on the military balance of power. Indeed, for the first time, the Biden administration is now considering sending ATACMS long-range missiles with the capability to strike deep inside Russian territory — a policy which the US has been unofficially supporting for months, and which it is now officially endorsing.
The prospect of an Afghanistan-style war of attrition is worrying for a number of reasons. Firstly, because, if Ukraine had little chance of winning a blitzkrieg-style counteroffensive, it has even less chance of winning a long-term war of attrition, given Russia’s advantage in manpower and its ability to produce more artillery and ammunitions than Ukraine and the West combined (Russia’s current ammunition production is seven times greater than that of the West). “If the war goes on for long enough with this intensity, Ukraine’s losses will become unbearable,” a senior French official told the Wall Street Journal in February.
And second, because as the conflict drags on, and potentially escalates, direct Nato involvement in the conflict — and thus the risk of an all-out war between Nato and Russia — will inevitably increase. Europeans should be especially worried by the prospect of a long war: if American military assistance starts to wane, Europe will need to carry more of the burden. Indeed, it would appear that the EU has already taken its cue from events on the other side of the Atlantic. On Monday, two days after the no-deal in the US Congress, the EU’s foreign ministers paid a surprise visit to Kyiv to express their unwavering support for Ukraine.
Whatever happens in the US, “from our side, we will continue supporting and increasing our support”, the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said. To this end, there is even talk of allowing the European Investment Bank to start financing defence project. The fact that Europe, unlike America, has nothing to benefit, neither economically nor in security terms, from a permanent militarisation of relations with its nuclear-armed neighbour doesn’t seem to be an issue.
On the other hand, it’s hard not to conclude that this “Europeanisation” of the war — with Germany as the vassal-in-chief, as foreseen by Wolfgang Streeck — would represent a double win for America: it would allow it to disentangle itself from the conflict, politically and financially, while continuing to indirectly preside over the region, via the EU. In other words, the EU would end up fighting a proxy war on America’s behalf, almost entirely to the latter’s benefit — the ultimate act of vassalisation.
If this seems foolish, let alone dangerous, we can find some solace in the fact that reality would appear to be standing in the way of this plan. There is, after all, simply no way for the EU to plug the gap — in military, financial or political terms — if Washington scales back its support. For those of us who yearn for peace, the EU’s dysfunction might be, for once, a silver lining.