Biden's Ukraine Dilemma: Balancing Democratic Ideals, Russia Tensions and US-China Rivalry
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine well into its second year, the United States is facing key policy dilemmas in defining the nature and extent of its objectives with respect to the conflict. Increasingly, Washington finds itself torn among competing interests in Ukraine and its future, a potentially dangerous conflict with Russia, and wider concerns about the international order and the U.S. competition with China. U.S. President Joe Biden’s choices in addressing these dilemmas will be highly consequential for U.S. interests and, of course, for Ukraine.
Biden and other administration officials have consistently expressed support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity while also calling for a negotiated outcome. Some statements imply that U.S. policy is to facilitate a decisive Ukrainian military victory that will allow Kyiv to dictate the terms of a settlement to Moscow; for example, Biden has said that “when President Zelensky is ready to talk with the Russians, he will be able to succeed … because he will have won on the battlefield.” Other statements have been softer, such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s remark that “the best way to hasten prospects for real diplomacy is to keep tilting the battlefield in Ukraine’s favor.” Neither assessment makes clear what specific outcome the United States wants or would support.
Washington’s apparent lack of a clear objective is partially attributable to three difficult policy dilemmas the Biden Administration will ultimately have to reckon with:
1. It will have to weigh its commitment to the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity against its interest in fostering a negotiated settlement, which could require concessions that do not align with those principles.
2. It will have to measure the risks associated with a prolonged confrontation with Russia against the risks associated with reducing support for Ukraine or encouraging a settlement.
3. It will have to balance its own goals in Ukraine with its broader foreign and domestic policy goals.
The administration has three broad options for managing these dilemmas. None provide attractive solutions to all.
The first option is to increase U.S. support for Ukraine rapidly and dramatically to try to help Kyiv win a swift military victory and then dictate political terms to the Kremlin. In strictly military terms, the administration reported having provided arms and ammunition including 8,000 Javelin anti-tank missiles, 1,600 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, 160 howitzers, 38 HIMARS rocket systems, 109 Bradley fighting vehicles and tanks and more than one million rounds of ammunition in the first year of fighting. This is in addition to $13 billion in past support for Ukraine’s government budget, with about $10 billion more on the way, and nearly $2 billion in humanitarian assistance. As the administration also points out, the U.S. has also served as the organizer and leader of a large international coalition and has pursued various policies to pressure Moscow to reverse course, such as economic sanctions.
In the abstract, sharply increasing U.S. support for Kyiv could uphold Ukraine’s territorial integrity while allowing the United States to wind down its engagement in Ukraine more swiftly to concentrate on other matters, such as strategic competition with China and a variety of domestic needs. Assuming the United States could provide enough help, which would require political support from an increasingly uncertain U.S. public as well as more money and weapons, and that Ukraine could use it effectively to drive Russia from all of its territory, the chief danger is that Moscow would sharply escalate, within Ukraine or beyond, to persuade the United States to stop helping Ukraine and to avoid military defeat. For example, administration officials have reportedly expressed concern to members of Congress that Russia might use nuclear weapons in response to a Ukrainian attempt to retake Crimea.
Some hope that increasing Russia’s costs from the war could weaken the Russian government’s will to fight. Considering why Mr. Putin has been politically able to pursue his war in Ukraine despite casualties greater than those suffered in either the Soviet war in Afghanistan or in Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s war in Chechnya — and over a shorter period — is important. A Washington think tank has estimated the number of Russian soldiers killed in the “special military operation” at 65,000 in a little over one year, compared to 18,500 in Chechnya (in two conflicts over a combined 12-13 years) and 15,000 Soviet military deaths in Afghanistan over a decade. Public opinion encouraged Kremlin leaders to end the Afghanistan war and the first Chechen war on unfavorable terms.
Notably, Putin is more powerful than either Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev or Yeltsin; Russia’s media is significantly less free today than it was during the Soviet Glasnost era or under Yeltsin’s rule, and Putin has successfully framed the war as an existential struggle rather than an optional one. All these considerations argue against breaking Moscow’s will. Breaking the will of Russian troops to fight might be less challenging, but would not inherently force the Kremlin to surrender. On the contrary, it could lead Putin to look to other tools to escalate.
The second option is to continue — or modestly increase — military or other backing for Ukraine while privately applying considerable new pressure on Kyiv to accept a negotiated settlement. Without Russia’s total military defeat, this would probably require territorial concessions to Russia and/or limitations on Ukraine’s sovereignty, such as some form of enhanced autonomy for certain regions.
A settlement might include a commitment that Ukraine would not join NATO, though this could be a NATO concession (committing to withhold the invitation to negotiate a Membership Action Plan) rather than a Ukrainian one (promising to halt efforts to join NATO). It might also include wider European security commitments, such as conventional arms limitations by NATO, Russia and Ukraine and security guarantees other than NATO membership for Ukraine. Assuming Ukraine, Russia and other necessary parties could reach an agreement, which would likely be quite difficult as this would require complex and substantive concessions on all sides, this approach could allow the United States to reduce its military support for Ukraine, to minimize escalation risks from the ongoing war and to shift attention to other matters. It would do so at the price of whatever concessions are necessary and with the danger that Russia’s leadership would violate any agreement in the future and/or become emboldened to challenge U.S. interests elsewhere.
The third option is to continue existing military and rhetorical backing for Ukraine, also possibly with gradual increases over time, with the expectation that Russia’s military, economy, or political system will eventually break and that once this occurs, the event would allow either a quick victory or a quick settlement. Politically, this option has the same shortcomings as hopes that significant U.S. escalation could help Ukraine to break Russia’s will quickly. Still, assuming the United States and others (but especially the United States) could maintain the current level or provide greater levels of support as long as needed, which appears improbable due to slowly eroding public enthusiasm and dwindling U.S. arms and ammunition stocks, this approach could defer the dilemmas surrounding Ukraine’s territorial integrity and the dangers of sharp escalation or settlement and thus avoid tough choices, at least for a time. It would not eliminate the risks from gradual or accidental escalation, however. The cost of the deferrals is sustained U.S. attention and effort, though one might argue that no policy will truly allow Washington to attend wholly to other problems. Russia seems likely to remain an attention-consuming challenge regardless of the outcome in Ukraine.
Staying the course might seem especially attractive amid widespread expectations that Ukraine’s military will soon begin a major offensive, utilizing new Western weapons and apparent hopes (seemingly more prevalent outside the U.S. military than within it) that this offensive could repeat past successes in liberating territories in Ukraine’s northeast and south. If the offensive stalls or fails, however, it could weaken the negotiating leverage that the Biden administration is working to amass in Kyiv. More immediately, an unsuccessful offensive could undercut political support for Zelensky in Ukraine, the United States and some European nations. This could make it more difficult to secure an acceptable settlement even as it makes it harder to win a military victory — a tragic result for Ukraine. Conversely, while a successful offensive is better for Ukraine and its backers, it is unlikely to force the Kremlin to end its invasion. Since Russia’s strategy is primarily political rather than military — waiting out the governments funding Ukraine’s government and arming its military — Moscow’s forces can afford to trade space (especially space within Ukraine) for time. While Putin and his generals might relish conquering Kyiv, or blasting it to rubble, Russia’s army needs only avoid being driven from Ukrainian territory.
The Biden administration’s unpleasant options in no way diminish the very substantial dilemmas confronting Russia’s president after his grand strategic blunder in invading Ukraine. Excepting the risk of a nuclear conflict, which remains low but cannot be ignored, the stakes for Russia and for Putin personally are far greater than those for the United States, or for that matter, for Biden. Yet nor do Russia’s many problems — economic, technological, demographic and otherwise — make the United States’ options any less painful. Whatever course the Biden administration pursues, the United States is extremely unlikely to get everything U.S. officials, politicians and pundits want; the president and his aides will have to make more than one hard decision. One hopes they have a plan to prepare Americans for that in advance.
Paul J. Saunders is a Senior Fellow and member of the Board of Directors at the Center for the National Interest. He was a Senior Advisor at the U.S. Department of State during the George W. Bush administration.
Opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author, unless otherwise stated.
Photo shared by the White House via the public domain.