Russian tank marked with letter "z"

West’s Quandaries on Russia in Ukraine: Ends vs. Means, Rollback vs. Containment

June 09, 2022
Nikolas K. Gvosdev

This article is part of a debate, inspired by comments made in May 2022 by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

Each in his own way, Henry Kissinger and George Soros are lightning rods for both pundits and politicians and, whenever they make pronouncements, commentators are apt to focus as much on the messenger as on the message. Their proposals for how the West should cope with the Russian invasion on Ukraine, delivered during their respective presentations at the World Economic Forum last month in Davos, Switzerland, are no exception. The perception of Kissinger as driven by an amoral realism, and his long-standing relationship with Vladimir Putin, or Soros as a post-liberal puppet master seeking to destroy national sovereignty can cloud assessments of their positions and proposals.

If we remove authorship from both sets of comments, however, we can evaluate how Kissinger's and Soros's very different perspectives on the challenge posed by Russia's attack on Ukraine—as well as their policy recommendations—flow from fundamentally different assumptions about the nature of the international system and whether "means" or "ends" should have primacy in the formulation of policy, as well as their respective sense of time frames for action.

Perhaps shaped by his own personal experience in government during the Vietnam War, Kissinger is quite attuned to the importance of assessing the "means" at one's disposal. In responding to the Russian assault on Ukraine, the United States and its allies and partners around the world have rallied to Ukraine's defense, both in providing unprecedent amounts of financial, military and technical aid to the government in Kyiv and in imposing draconian sanctions that seek to cut Russia off from much of the global economy. After one hundred days of fighting, we can conclude that this assistance was invaluable in blunting the Russian attack and preventing the rapid decapitation of the Ukrainian government of Volodymyr Zelensky. Yet this provision of help is not without costs. So far, a coalition of North American, European and Asian states have accepted significant burdens in helping Ukraine, including the termination of a number of projects in Russia that prior to 2022 were seen as absolutely vital to their economic security. Strengthening Ukraine's defense capacities has also been managed without risking a direct clash with a nuclear-armed state. But if the Russian attack has been blunted (with Moscow’s focus now largely on consolidating the Russian position in the Donbas), the combination of aid to Ukraine and economic sanctions on Russia has been insufficient to reverse Russian gains to the status quo of Feb. 23 and, all the more so, to Ukraine's pre-2014 territorial integrity.

The Kissingerian position is grounded in an assessment that Ukraine fatigue is a real phenomenon and that public support for aiding Ukraine will begin to wane. Getting the active phase of the conflict ended and allowing for some sort of cease-fire arrangement to take hold—which would probably mean a recognition of each side holding the territory it possesses at the time of cessation—is, in Kissinger's view, the most sustainable option. That a cease-fire under these terms would also freeze Ukraine's ability to move forward on its NATO and EU aspirations is also understood. But it would give Ukraine time to reconstruct and regroup, and presumably a cease-fire agreement could also include provisions for re-opening Ukraine's blockaded Black Sea ports.

The Sorosian position, in contrast, starts with ends, and Kissinger’s cease-fire position is, in Soros's view, an unacceptable and undesirable end. It would represent a major setback to a European security order grounded in a rules-based approach where raw might cannot be allowed to make right—and would send an unmistakable signal to China, a much more potent power than Russia, that forcible revision of the post-Cold War settlement is both possible and achievable. "Ukraine fatigue" in the West must be combatted, therefore, not accommodated. Moreover, an unwillingness to be prepared to confront Russia directly, beyond economic sanctions to include greater military involvement, allows Moscow to practice a form of nuclear blackmail that cedes the initiative for resolving the conflict to the Kremlin—on its preferred terms.

This also reflects a Sorosian pessimism: that Russia, if it can solidify control over more parts of Ukraine—and have that control recognized even in a de facto form by a cease-fire arrangement—will be able to translate that into permanent advantage; having succeeded in revising Ukraine's post-independence status and borders, in this view, Russia would be in a position to begin demanding revisions to the post-Cold War environment elsewhere in Europe, to the detriment of the liberal international order. This pessimism is also reinforced by an assessment that once a cease-fire on those terms was in place, Russia's European and Asian partners—starting with Germany—would be eager to rapidly restore the pre-February economic relationships. Sorosian pessimists are not wrong to have such concerns, because we witnessed how quickly Europe's economic dependencies on Russia snapped back in the months after the August 2008 incursion into Georgia, which effectively removed any possibility that Georgia would be able to regain control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. If Europe and Asia learned to live with de facto Russian supervision over some 20% of Georgia's sovereign territory, why would the pattern not repeat with Russian-backed entities in control of some 20% of Ukraine's territory?

In contrast, even if Kissinger has not openly stated this, there is a longer-term optimism that Russia has fundamentally, if not fatally, damaged its position as a great power by invading Ukraine. "Ukraine fatigue" may not permit continued escalation of support for Ukraine against Russia to reverse the invasion, but the economic ruptures with Russia appear to be permanent and support for closer Ukrainian integration with the West is growing throughout Europe. Putin's signature project for reviving Russia's great power status—his vaunted Arctic dimension—is now completely unrealizable under the current sanctions regime. During the Cold War, active rollback efforts of the Soviet position in Europe could have risked nuclear Armageddon—but consistent containment efforts collapsed the sources of Soviet power and led to the largely peaceful liberation of the captive nations of Eastern Europe. Indeed, in his reading-between-the-lines of Kissinger's Davos commentary, Damjan Krnjevic argues that the Kissingerian approach trades position for time to allow for a more favorable balance of power to emerge in Ukraine's favor.

This is the crux of the debate: Is containment of Russia in Ukraine what the West is prepared to do, or can it move to an active strategy of rollback? And is ending the fighting now, even on terms disadvantageous to Ukraine, preferable if we believe Russia's decline is inevitable?


Nikolas K. Gvosdev

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the editor of Orbis: FPRI’s Journal of World Affairs and a senior fellow in FPRI’s Eurasia Program. He is also a professor of national security affairs, holding the Captain Jerome E. Levy Chair in Economic Geography and National Security at the U.S. Naval War College.

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author. Pixabay image free for use.