The war in Ukraine is dangerously escalating. Ukraine is advancing on the battlefield and is growing only more determined to expel Russian troops. In the meantime, the Kremlin reinforces its beleaguered forces in eastern Ukraine, pounds Ukrainian cities and critical infrastructure, and hints at the possible use of nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, the United States and its allies are speeding more weapons to Ukraine, prepared, as the Group of 7 leading democracies recently stated, to “stand firmly with Ukraine for as long as it takes”.
Ukraine, with the West’s help, has put up a staunch and inspiring defense of its sovereignty. But the risk of a wider war between NATO and Russia is rising by the day, as is the risk that economic blowback from a prolonged war could undermine Western democracy. It is time for the United States and its allies to get directly involved in shaping Ukraine’s strategic objectives, managing the conflict, and seeking a diplomatic endgame.
So far, the West has done an admirable job of keeping its level of involvement and risk in sync with the interests at stake. President Biden has made the correct call that the defense of Ukraine is a strategic priority — but not a vital interest. That is why the United States is leading the effort to provide Ukrainians the wherewithal to defend themselves, but not directly joining the fight. Washington has allowed Kyiv to call the shots, sending economic and military support while letting Ukraine set its own war aims and design its own military strategy.
But keeping the involvement of the United States at a level proportional to its interests is getting more difficult as the war intensifies. Yes, Ukraine’s successes on the battlefield constitute welcome setbacks to the Kremlin’s predatory ambition. But even though all Russian targets are fair game as Kyiv fights for its sovereignty and territory, Ukrainian actions that substantially raise the risk of escalation may be strategically unwise. To limit the potential for a wider conflict between NATO and Russia, Washington needs Kyiv to be more transparent about its war plans and U.S. officials need more input into Kyiv’s conduct of the war.
Ukraine has already undertaken operations that have provoked President Vladimir Putin into even more reckless behavior. U.S. intelligence agencies believe that the car bombing outside Moscow in August that killed Daria Dugina, the daughter of one of Russia’s most strident ultranationalists, was authorized by parts of the Ukrainian government. Then in October, a truck bomb took down sections of the Kerch Strait Bridge connecting Crimea to Russia, and Ukraine apparently launched attacks on the Russian region of Belgorod, an area close to the border used as a staging ground for Russian troops heading to Ukraine. This past weekend, Ukrainian drones targeted ships in Russia’s Black Sea Fleet off the Crimean port city of Sevastopol.
The United States apparently did not have warning of the car bombing or bridge attack, and reportedly chastised Kyiv for the assassination of Ms. Dugina, concerned that such actions have escalatory potential but little impact on the battlefield.
The Kerch bridge is a legitimate military target; Russia built it after Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and it is a supply line for Russian forces in Ukraine. But the bridge is also of huge symbolic and political importance to Mr. Putin. He has responded with a punishing air campaign against Ukraine’s urban centers and energy and water systems, threatening Ukrainians with acute hardship as winter approaches.
The United States has avoided providing weapons systems that Kyiv could use to hit deep inside Russia proper, suggesting that Washington might well have misgivings about the recent attacks on Belgorod. U.S. officials have distanced Washington from the attack on vessels off Sevastopol, a strike that prompted Mr. Putin to temporarily suspend a United Nations-brokered deal to export Ukrainian grain, a move that risked worsening a global food crisis and further driving up food prices.
The United States and its allies have been right to help Ukraine defend itself — and they should continue to do so. But they have also been right to exercise prudent restraint to avoid war with Russia, holding back on the provision of long-range weapons, refraining from putting NATO boots on the ground, and declining Ukraine’s request for NATO enforcement of a no-flight zone. As the conflict escalates, prudent avoidance of war between NATO and Russia necessitates a next step: direct U.S. involvement in Ukraine’s operational planning.
Ukraine’s battlefield success also raises the question of how far Kyiv intends to go. President Volodymyr Zelensky seems intent on driving Russian troops from all of Ukraine, including those territories Russia occupied in 2014, Crimea and a portion of the Donbas. “We will return there”, Mr. Zelensky recently said about Crimea. “I don’t know when exactly. But we have plans, and we will return there, because this is our land and our people”. Mr. Zelensky has also forsworn any diplomacy with Russia as long as Mr. Putin is in power.
Ukraine’s war aims are morally and legally warranted, but they may not be prudent. In response to recent Ukrainian gains, Mr. Putin has doubled down, not backed down. When he announced the annexation of an additional chunk of eastern Ukraine on Sept. 30, he insisted that the people living in that region “are becoming our citizens —forever”.
A conflict that had been about the future of Ukraine has become for Mr. Putin an existential struggle for the future of Russia: “The battlefield to which fate and history have called us is the battlefield for our people, for great historical Russia, for future generations”, he declared.
Mr. Putin is raising the stakes and backing himself into a corner. Accordingly, the Kremlin’s resort to a nuclear weapon becomes a realistic option should Russian forces face full expulsion from eastern Ukraine and Crimea. If Mr. Putin crosses the nuclear line, NATO would almost certainly become directly involved in the war, with the potential for nuclear escalation.
Ukraine’s battlefield successes could go too far. If the defense of Ukraine is not worth U.S. boots on the ground, then the return of all of the Donbas and Crimea to Ukrainian control is not worth risking a new world war. Russia has already been dealt a decisive, even if not complete, strategic defeat in Ukraine. Given Ukraine’s battlefield advances, Kyiv and its NATO partners are understandably tempted to try to vanquish Russia and restore Ukraine’s full territorial integrity. But Mr. Putin’s effort to subjugate Ukraine has already failed, and pushing for Russia’s total defeat is an unnecessary gamble.
The United States and its allies also need to be concerned about the rising economic and political threat that a long war poses to Western democracy and solidarity. The trans-Atlantic community has so far shown remarkable unity and resolve in supporting Ukraine, but the West’s staying power may be fragile.
The original Cold War occurred when the West was politically healthy, enjoyed widely shared prosperity, and was anchored by ideological centrism. Today, democratic societies on both sides of the Atlantic confront political polarization, economic duress and ideological extremism. Despite the return of military rivalry with Russia and intensifying competition with China, the United States and its democratic allies in Europe remain imperiled by illiberal populism and angry and divided electorates.
The economic dislocations produced by the war are heightening the internal threats to Western democracy and straining solidarity on supporting Ukraine. Soaring inflation and looming recessions have the potential to produce toxic political effects.
Against the backdrop of rising prices, Republicans appear poised to take control of the House in the midterms. The ranks of a new Republican majority in Congress would likely include a growing number of representatives hailing from the “America First” wing of the party. J. D. Vance, Ohio’s Republican candidate for the Senate, holds views of the war in Ukraine that may be emblematic of what is to come. “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another”, Mr. Vance said in an interview in February. Although he later backtracked and insisted that “we want the Ukrainians to be successful”, Vance is not alone in having misgivings about the costs of supporting Kyiv; Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader, recently said there can’t be a “blank check” for Ukraine if Republicans win control of the House.
Europeans head into winter facing spiking energy prices and potential gas shortages. A hard-right coalition that includes pro-Russian voices just took power in Italy after running a campaign focused on energy costs and inflation. In Germany and France, the political center is for now holding. But cracks have opened up in Germany’s government over the provision of heavy weapons to Ukraine, German manufacturers face unsustainable energy bills, and France is rocked by labor strikes and mass protests over the rising cost of living. This is fertile ground for both illiberal populism and the splintering of a trans-Atlantic consensus on standing up to Russian aggression in Ukraine.
Sooner rather than later, the West needs to move Ukraine and Russia from the battlefield to the negotiating table, brokering a diplomatic effort to shut the war down and arrive at a territorial settlement. A hypothetical deal between Russia and Ukraine would have two main components. First, Ukraine would back away from its intention to join NATO — an objective that has for years provoked strong Russian opposition. Russia has legitimate security concerns about NATO setting up shop on the other side of its 1,000-mile-plus border with Ukraine. NATO may be a defensive alliance, but it brings to bear aggregate military power that Moscow understandably does not want parked near its territory.
Ukraine would continue to receive arms and economic support from the West and work toward membership in the European Union, but it would formally embrace the neutral status that it adopted after separation from the Soviet Union in 1991. Earlier in the war, Mr. Zelensky himself suggested that Ukrainian neutrality could be part of a peace deal with Russia.
Second — the harder part — Moscow and Kyiv would need to arrive at a territorial settlement. A reasonable starting point for negotiations would be to aim for a Russian withdrawal to the “line of contact” that existed before Russia’s invasion began in February. Diplomacy could then focus on the ultimate disposition of Crimea and the chunk of the Donbas that Russia occupied in 2014. Both sides would need to compromise: Moscow to abandon its recently announced intention to annex a major slice of eastern Ukraine, and Kyiv to settle for an outcome that could entail less than regaining all its land.
Although such negotiations might fail to readily produce a peace deal, transitioning from war to diplomacy provides hope of ending the killing and destruction, containing the mounting risk of a wider war between Russia and NATO, and reducing harm to the global economy and democratic resilience on both sides of the Atlantic. Washington’s efforts to broker such a deal would also open up a channel of communication with Moscow, reversing the dangerous fall-off in direct U.S.-Russia contact since the invasion of Ukraine began in February.
The mounting risks that the West faces in Ukraine necessitate that the United States and its NATO partners get more involved in managing the war and in setting the table for an endgame. From Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq, the United States has gotten in over its head, taking on strategic commitments not warranted by the interests at stake. Helping Ukraine defend itself is worth a quite significant effort, but not one that leads to World War III or fractures Western democracy.
Charles A. Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author, most recently, of Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself From the World.