Ukraine could be an inflection point for the West

Ukraine could be an inflection point for the West

Andrew A. Michta is dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. He’s a former professor of national security affairs tat he U.S. Naval War College and a former senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis.

In its fourth month, the war in Ukraine has increasingly become a war of attrition, grinding down both Ukrainian and Russian forces, resulting in even more indiscriminate killing of civilians by Russian shelling and the destruction of the country’s infrastructure.

Among Western European politicians and national security experts, there’s now a rising chorus on the need for an immediate ceasefire, with several European governments fearing that unless there’s a halt in fighting, the war might escalate to a point where Russian President Putin will resort to chemical or nuclear weapons. Hence, the palpable diffidence, particularly in France and Germany, about providing heavy weapons to Ukraine, especially those that would allow it to turn the tables on Russia and liberate captured territory.

However, the rising ceasefire chorus in the West also exposes a paucity of strategic imagination as to what Europe could look like if Kyiv were given sufficient weapons and support to defeat the Russian army in the field.

This lack of imagination, more than all other factors, explains the reticent trajectory of French and German support for Ukraine, which allows Kyiv to continue to fight but offers no clear path to victory.

There are similar voices in the United States, arguing that supporting Ukraine detracts from domestic priorities. While other well-meaning critics of U.S. support for Ukraine say we’re merely prolonging its pain, and that the power differential between the two warring countries ultimately means there can only be a Russian victory.

But in reality, all this talk is steeped in residual Cold War-era thinking, with the Russian Federation seen as an extension of the former Soviet Union in terms of its military capabilities. This “don’t poke the bear” mentality reflects the West’s lingering fear of Russia, which, in turn, has created a strong impulse to self-deter, especially now that the past three decades of de facto disarmament have left most of Europe with no real military capabilities to draw on in a crisis. So, we are witnessing endless second-guessing about which weapons shouldn’t be sent to Ukraine to ensure our assistance isn’t seen as “escalatory.”

Despite this, during the past three months, the West, and especially the U.S., has steadily increased its military assistance to Ukraine, making Russia pay dearly for Putin’s folly. And the structure of the latest U.S. aid package is a recognition that this will be a long, drawn-out war. 

Still, until Ukrainians can get sufficient capabilities to suppress Russian long-range artillery and missiles, this will remain an unfair fight, with a predictable end. Putin’s forces will continue to grind forward — now holding a corridor along the Black Sea in the south of Ukraine — while slowly but relentlessly expanding in the Donbas. 

Every nation has a breaking point, and in a war of attrition such as this one, those with more resources and capabilities ultimately prevail. But it doesn’t have to be this way — superior motivation, training and especially Western equipment can offset Russia’s numerical advantages.

Let’s first consider the consequences of Ukraine’s defeat. At this stage, any ceasefire would allow Putin to hold on to conquered territory, and the remaining Ukrainian rump state — bereft of its industrial basin in the east and with Russia’s continued Black Sea blockade — would be unable to sustain itself economically. More importantly, in a few years, Putin would regroup, rebuild his military and be able to launch another round of conquest to seize all of Ukraine — especially if the ceasefire deal included lifting sanctions on Western imports critical to his weapons production.

In such a future “third war,” would the Ukrainian people still possess enough determination and fortitude to fight back, and would the West be ready to once again provide requisite weapons and supplies? There’s no way to answer these questions in any meaningful way, but it’s reasonable to assume that having effectively lost this war, the Ukrainian nation would find its power position further diminished. 

Right now, the greatest obstacle to the West providing all-out military and economic support to Ukraine is our inability to imagine a new power configuration in Eastern Europe — one that would rest on the NATO’s Baltic-to-Black Sea intermarium corridor of countries closely aligned with the U.S. And as Finland and Sweden gear up to enter NATO, Europe is on the cusp of a potentially transformative geopolitical reconfiguration, much like at the end of World War I.

The defense of Ukraine is not only about national sovereignty and territorial integrity — historically, the two foundational principles of democratic governance — but ultimately about pushing Russia out of Europe, thereby ending three centuries of its imperial drive. The independence of Ukraine, and by extension of Belarus — for, once Ukraine has defended its sovereignty and territorial integrity, Minsk wouldn’t remain in Moscow’s orbit for long — would end Russia’s claim to being a key “Eurasian power in Europe.”

As such, for the first time in the modern era, it would force Moscow to come to terms with what it takes, economically and politically, to become a “normal” nation-state. 

At a geostrategic level, the emergence of a free, independent and successful Ukraine aligned with the West would also end the two-frontier crisis that the Sino-Russian alliance has sought to create for the U.S. Securing Europe’s Eastern flank by relying on countries that see their continued close alliance with America as vital to their security, and are ready to do their share to shore up defenses, the U.S. would then be free to focus on the upcoming contest with China in the Indo-Pacific, rendering the so-called “pivot to Asia” debate largely moot. 

Last but not least, the defeat of the Russian military in Ukraine would pave the way for a fundamental reconfiguration of the power distribution in Europe, shifting the center of gravity from the Franco-German tandem to a Central European constellation to include Germany, Poland, the Scandinavians, the Baltics and, most of all, Ukraine.

With its vast array of natural resources and as one of the richest agricultural lands on earth, a rebuilt Ukraine — restored not as a post-Soviet state but as a thriving democratic polity and closely integrated into Europe’s economy — would fundamentally change the power dynamics both in Europe and globally.

This war, which has been forced upon Ukraine and the West by Putin’s neo-imperial plan, has already changed Europe. It has presented the democratic West with the kind of opportunity that comes but once in four or five generations — with the chance to remake the Continent’s geopolitical map.

Let’s have the courage to help Ukraine win.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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Last Update: Fri, 10 Jun 22 19:45:06