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What Does Joe Biden Hope to Achieve in Ukraine?

155mm like the ones used in Ukraine. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Blasting a 155mm Howitzer round during a gun calibration exercise at Destiny Range, Soldiers from 1-9 Field Artillery make the earth tremble as they fire over 30 rounds from an M109A6 Paladin, 2nd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, Mosul, Iraq, April 23.

Ensuring American National Security – and Avoiding Nuclear War – is Biden’s Top Priority in Ukraine – While all the focus in the Western world has understandably been focused on urgently providing Ukraine with the weapons it needs to blunt Russia’s invasion, we need to simultaneously consider what’s next. It is vital that the White House quickly determines the long-term strategic objectives necessary to ensure our security well into the future.

Unfortunately, while establishing such objectives are critical to forming efficient and successful policies, strategic thinking has become rare in Washington. Failure to even identify, much less attain, strategic objectives regarding America’s war in Afghanistan from the Bush through Trump Administrations, for example, was a major reason for our failure there and cost our country dearly.

After President Bush gave the military an attainable mission on the initial attack in 2001, he later changed the mission to an amorphous “nation-building” objective that never had an attainable set of tasks. As a result, the Bush Administration – nor any that followed him – never articulated an achievable end-state in the war. It should stand to reason (but rarely does in Washington): if there is no clearly defined end-state, there will be no objective set of metrics by which an Administration will even know if its policy is a success or failure.

Absent such metrics, each Administration and each commanding general in Afghanistan was left to define success on their own, which rarely aligned with previous leaders, and often outright clashed. The result of these muddied, ambiguous policies? Twenty years of frustration and ultimate strategic failure, capped off by our ignominious withdrawal last August and the elevation of the Taliban back into power in Kabul.

In Afghanistan it cost the United States over 22,000 total military casualties and trillions of dollars wasted but had limited impact on our viability as a nation. If we fail in this current situation with regards to our policies on Ukraine to set logical and attainable strategic objectives, the result could be getting sucked into a direct military clash with Russia – and potential nuclear escalation.

Current Ukraine Policy

The United States has been at the forefront of considerable action in Europe since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine last February. Biden has led the way on imposing on Moscow multiple rounds of the most severe sanctions ever to be imposed on another country, he has publicly demonized Putin, and continues to provide billions of dollars of weapons to the Ukrainian military. What Biden has not provided, however, is an articulation of the intent of these actions, or what outcome he hopes all his actions will produce.

Various leaders and opinion-makers have offered thoughts on what the Administration is (or should be) trying to accomplish. One possibility is that the U.S. provides weapons to Ukraine for the purpose of helping Kyiv stop Moscow’s invasion and ultimately drive them from Ukrainian territory. While such an objective may seem appealing, the likelihood of succeeding short of a direct U.S. boots-on-the-ground presence is very low. It would take years and tens of billions of dollars to generate a force of sufficient size and power in Ukraine to drive Russian troops out – and even then would have a minimal chance of success.

Two other ideas broached in Washington include regime change in Moscow to oust Putin and using the war in Ukraine as a proxy against Russia as a means of progressively weakening Putin’s forces long-term. There is currently no possibility of unseating Putin (and even less prospect that whoever followed him would be better) and trying to bleed Moscow dry would necessarily dramatically increase the destruction of Ukrainian cities and cause a spike in the number of people killed (not to mention Russia may escalate their offensive in response to our attempts and achieve a military victory).

A somewhat more troubling possibility is that there simply is no guiding strategy behind the Administration’s policies; just actions in response to Russian military moves with no particular outcome desired, short of causing pain to Putin. The big problem with such a course is that absent a coherent, logical, and guiding strategic objective, these individual policies are unlikely to produce outcomes beneficial to the United States, and may even work at cross-purposes, making our situation worse.

A U.S. Policy that Would Make Sense

To guide its overall policy vis-à-vis the Russo-Ukraine War, the Administration should establish two priority objectives: the preservation of U.S. national security and the securing of our population’s ability to prosper. Every action taken, every policy enacted would have to support or facilitate those twin goals. Anything that doesn’t support that – or anything that works at cross-purposes to it – must be avoided.

The following policies would all foster the attainment of the two objectives and would be mutually supportive of each other. First, the U.S. should, in coordination with European allies, continue the current practice of providing Ukraine with sufficient arms and ammunition to defend itself for the purpose of making further Russian advances too costly in blood and equipment that the two sides reach a negotiated end to the war.

Though there is virtual universal desire in the West to see Russia defeated and driven from Ukraine, there is minuscule chance of creating an offensive force in Ukraine that could force Moscow back into its territory without dramatically increasing the scale of the war within Ukraine (which would greatly increase the physical destruction of Ukraine’s cities and dramatically increase the number of civilians killed – and still would offer limited hope of eventual military success).

Second, and in conjunction with providing Kyiv with arms to defend itself, Washington should marshal all its diplomatic power, working with Ukraine’s senior government officials, European governments – and behind the scenes even with Moscow – to help the parties find a mutually agreeable path to war termination.

I fully realize seeking a negotiated settlement is an unpalatable option right now, owing to the severe carnage and likely war crimes that have already been committed in the war. But the most likely result of refusing to pursue this outcome is the extension of the war, the deepening of the death and destruction suffered by yet more Ukrainians, and the growing possibility that a future settlement will be even less to Kyiv’s advantage. For America, the longer the war drags on, the longer the chance of escalation, whether by mistake, miscalculation, or accident.

Lastly, Biden should keep his red line squarely on protecting the United States from any attack and honoring our Article 5 NATO obligations. Already most of the Balkan nations have vowed to increase their defense spending and improve their military capacity; Germany has likewise announced an infusion of $100 billion to strengthen its armed forces. Anything that results in European states increasing their responsibility for their security is to be applauded, while the U.S. reinforces its stalwart declaration that it will provide decisive military backup in the event of an attack on NATO.

Washington’s Bottom Line

Beyond any question, Putin’s war of choice in Ukraine has been immoral and unnecessary. The world is rightly repulsed by what Russia has done and it is entirely appropriate that severe penalties be imposed on Moscow. What Washington must ensure, however, is that its responses ensure first and foremost preserve U.S. national security and America’s ability to prosper. Working towards early war termination and making certain the conflict does not escalate beyond Ukraine’s borders facilitates both objectives and are essential.

Biden must thread the needle in leading a Western response that adequately punishes Russia yet avoids going too far in ways that could, inadvertently, result in a direct clash between Russia and NATO. Any such action could spin out of control and all too easily escalate into a nuclear exchange. The consequences for the United States of a nuclear war would be catastrophic, and potentially wipe out millions of Americans. It is the president’s number one obligation to ensure it never gets to that point.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis

Written By

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.