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Russia, Ukraine, America, and the end of imagination

A Ukrainian serviceman of the 110th Colonel-General Marko Bezruchko Separate Mechanized Brigade prepares to fire an RM-70 Vampire multiple launch rocket system toward Russian troops, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, at a position near a front line in Donetsk region, Ukraine, June 30, 2024.
A Ukrainian serviceman of the 110th Colonel-General Marko Bezruchko Separate Mechanized Brigade prepares to fire an RM-70 Vampire multiple launch rocket system toward Russian troops, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, at a position near a front line in Donetsk region, Ukraine, June 30, 2024. REUTERS/Alina Smutko.

These are profoundly uncertain times for the trans-Atlantic relationship. There is uncertainty about why Russian President Vladimir Putin chose to invade Ukraine in February 2022, and about whether there was anything that could have been done to dissuade him from doing so. There is uncertainty about who is in and who is out of the long-term security architecture of Europe (The United States? Russia? Both?). And there is uncertainty about how the war in Ukraine and the global response to it affects the future of the post-World War II international order: The ideas that wars of choice are not tolerated, and that multilateral institutions and international law are useful impediments to them.

The pitfalls of narratives

Uncertainty tends to tempt minds away from analysis and toward imagination. Trans-Atlantic discourse about the war in Ukraine鈥攁bout what caused it, about what must now be done about it, and why鈥攊s not resisting the pull. Much of the narrative in the United States and Europe today leans heavily on assumptions, assertions, and prognostications. It presents as prophecy comparisons between the current moment and . It depicts Putin as and asserts that in responding to his prior, piecemeal predations conveyed permissiveness. It purports that Putin鈥檚 nuclear threats . And it concludes that if the outcome of the war in Ukraine is anything other than a Russian defeat鈥攁nything other than the total reconstitution of Ukrainian territory鈥攖hen Putin certainly will against another of Russia鈥檚 neighbors, NATO member or not.

Even beyond Europe, the narrative warns, such an outcome will 鈥.鈥 The result in short, sooner or later, will be to confront the collective liberal democracies with a terrible choice: to fight another world war or to accept that authoritarian powers will dictate more of what happens in Europe and in Asia tomorrow than they do today.

This line of argumentation appeals because it accesses righteous indignation at Russia鈥檚 unprovoked and brutal invasion, and because it connects traumatic historical memories to frightening future scenarios. But memory is not analysis, scenarios are not predictions, and privileging counterfactual claims and selective futures thus far has produced little more than strategic paralysis and tactical morass, both of which appear mostly to be benefiting Putin.

Russia鈥檚 military , to . Its economy is transitioning to wartime production. , , and remain inclined to engage with Russia where the getting is good: imports of oil and exports of cars, machines, and other items used in manufacturing and engineering. Many others also remain unmoved by entreaties to isolate Russia, whether because they are unconvinced by assertions that Putin鈥檚 security claims are wholly illegitimate, or because they can鈥檛 reconcile objections to Russia鈥檚 inhumane prosecution of its war against Ukraine with U.S. support for Israel鈥檚 inhumane prosecution of its war against Hamas, or for entirely.

On the other side of the ledger, Ukraine is and field forces, and that it cannot long sustain a meaningful military effort without large and consistent inputs from its friends. And if the last cycle of wrangling in the U.S. Congress suggests anything, it is that the United States might鈥攂ut also might not鈥攍ong be that kind of friend. There is movement toward for Ukraine by capitalizing on the interest earned on profits from Russia鈥檚 frozen central bank assets, but the legal details of this maneuver are many and will take some sorting out. Time does not seem to be on the side of a trans-Atlantic strategy that is set on achieving full reconstitution of Ukrainian territory.

A painful tradeoff

U.S. policymakers thus are rapidly approaching the event horizon at which they will no longer be able to avoid making a painful tradeoff between what they value materially and what they value morally. Materially, staying the current course 鈥溾 will draw down state coffers and weapons stocks, and leech the political capital needed to get the spending done. Providing support beyond that鈥 support which might make a Ukrainian battlefield victory possible鈥攚ould require not only an even larger commitment of fiscal, material, and political capital but also a high tolerance for risking a local and possibly a global catastrophe. It is one thing to believe in the abstract that Putin won鈥檛 use nuclear weapons; it鈥檚 another to put that belief to the test.

Morally, although the current narrative insists that the cost of pursuing or accepting outcomes short of a full Russian defeat is a Europe ripe for the taking, the actual cost is something both less and more: it is the price of severing attachment to the idea that war termination should be just. It is disappointing the conviction that the wronged should be made whole, and the wrongdoer made small.

Arguments connecting Russian defeat with a stable Europe, on the one hand, and negotiated settlements with dire, imagined future events, on the other, are attempts to drive policymakers toward a strategy that delivers moral satisfaction. The desire for that satisfaction is understandable鈥攂ut a strategy designed to deliver it should not be confused with a strategy designed to end the war, to deliver European security, or to reduce the likelihood of World War III.

How the war ends will affect, but not determine, the depth and duration of stability in Europe thereafter. The search for an improbable perfect鈥攁 victory that returns all Ukrainian territory and ensures Russia will not attack it ever again鈥 therefore should not be allowed to be the enemy of an achievable good. And an achievable, good outcome is one in which the war ends with a sovereign Ukrainian state led by an autonomous Ukrainian government.

A strategy designed to make this outcome more likely than a forever war or a Russian victory does not require Ukraine to retake territory and is not dependent upon additional transfers of American money or materiel. Neither does it entail dictating to Kyiv whether or when to negotiate, what the terms of a settlement should be, or how it should fight until that time; the only limitations on Ukraine鈥檚 use of any weapons the United States chooses to provide should be those imposed by international humanitarian law. Such a strategy, however, does need to continue the 麻豆官网首页入口免费 administration鈥檚 policy of declining to support Ukrainian accession to NATO and of precluding the possibility of direct U.S. combat involvement鈥攕o long as NATO鈥檚 borders remain secure and nuclear weapons remain undetonated. It will commit the United States to engage with postwar Ukraine in ways that advance Kyiv鈥檚 defense capabilities and expand its economic potential. It will include ongoing work to limit Russia鈥檚 role in the global economy, and it will convey to Russia the requirements for any relaxation of sanctions.

Putin鈥檚 worldview is anachronistic, and his leadership of Russia is tragic, but just as he is not Peter the Great, neither is he Adolf Hitler. Narratives that elevate these comparisons and strategies that are built to address imagined events in a possible future can be rousing. But what is needed is a strategy that is built to address real events in the actual present, because that is the kind of strategy that has the best chance of being effective.