On the six-month mark of the Russian-Ukraine War, President Biden announced on Wednesday the largest aid package sent to Kyiv yet, coming in at a robust $3 billion. That brings the total of all the U.S. taxpayer money given to Ukraine in just six months of war to $13.7 billion – so far. Before the U.S. government signs up to give Kyiv an indefinite and open-ended supply of U.S. taxpayer money, which equates to the weapons and ammunition meant for the U.S. Armed Forces, the Administration must first answer two key questions:
1. Did Ukraine do all it could to prevent war six months ago?
2. Has it exhausted all reasonable means at its disposal to end the war?
It is entirely reasonable and appropriate for the American people and government to condemn the Russian government for its illegal invasion of Ukraine and to feel sympathy for the Ukrainian victims of that assault. It may be appropriate for the U.S. to provide aid and comfort to Kyiv and its people, but it is important – and in fact, necessary – to note that there is no mutual defense treaty with Ukraine that obligates us to do anything.
Second, and as important, before giving billions of our dollars and large quantities of military gear and supplies meant for our national security to Ukraine, the government should first make sure Kyiv did all it could reasonably have done to prevent war and we must continually insist that Ukraine does all it can within its power to bring the war to an end.
There should be no expectation for Washington to provide a limitless amount of support, with no strings attached, without considering whether such support is necessary for our national security, and without knowing the recipients of that aid have first exhausted all means at their disposal to end the war. Likewise, continued aid should be predicated on a sober assessment as to whether the money and military gear we may provide have a reasonable chance of enabling the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) to defeat its enemy.
To date, there is no evidence any of these questions have even been asked, much less answered.
If we fail to ensure that American interests are not at the top of the priority list for deciding whether or how much foreign aid we should provide, or fail to even establish a strategic objective for any aid we might provide, we are setting ourselves and Kyiv up for failure. The preponderance of evidence, sadly, suggests we are indeed headed for failure. To explain why our efforts are likely to fail, let us return to the two central questions posed at the outset of this analysis. The answers will make painfully clear why our policies have such little chance of success.
Q1: Did Ukraine Do All it Could Six Months Ago to Prevent War?
Before the U.S. government commits itself to risk a war with nuclear-armed Russia in support of a non-treaty ally, it is reasonable to predicate that support on ensuring Kyiv did all it could to avoid war. Failing to set such a requirement introduces the possibility that foreign governments may calculate that America will come to help them against their enemies, even in the absence of a treaty.
If other nations believe the U.S. will provide significant military capabilities they don’t have in their own arsenals, some foreign governments may be willing to take risks that circumstances would otherwise dictate against. Observing the actions of the Ukrainian government and the statements of its top leaders in the final months and weeks before the war suggests Kyiv may have based its responses to Moscow on the expectation of a blank check from Washington.
Recent reporting and a survey of multiple public statements made by several top Ukrainian officials in the run-up to the war reveals that Kyiv disregarded the tactical and strategic imbalance between its country and Russia. As I and many others pointed out months before the war, it was plainly evident that Ukraine was outgunned, outmanned, and at a serious disadvantage in the industrial capacity necessary to wage and sustain a war. There were many diplomatic off-ramps that could have been pursued by Kyiv to avert a Russian invasion. All were rejected. The first to be abandoned was the Minsk Agreements.
Rejection of the Minsk Agreements
The Minsk accords had been signed in February 2015, as a way to end the violent crisis that resulted after the 2014 Maiden protests that ousted then-president Viktor Yanukovych in a popular revolution. Generally speaking, the accords obligated each side to honor a ceasefire, withdraw heavy weapons from the line of contact, and allow limited self-governance for the Luhansk and Donetsk breakaway republics. Neither side ever fully implemented the accords, but especially in the last year before the war started, Ukraine became increasingly antagonistic towards the idea of any implementation.
In an interview with Voice of America on February 10, only 13 days before the war, Oleksiy Danilov, head of the National Security Council of Ukraine, said, “(i)t’s hard to call [the Minsk Accords] agreements … when they were signed under the Russian gun barrel.” If the Russians insist on “the fulfillment of the Minsk agreements as they are,” Danilov continued, “it will be very dangerous for our country.”
Yet the accords had not been negotiated “under the Russian gun barrel” but on neutral territory, with the participation of Western powerhouses France and Germany to ensure a fair process, and willingly signed by then-President Petro Poroshenko. Far from viewing the Minsk agreement as being foisted on Ukraine, the White House at the time released a statement saying the U.S. “welcomes the agreement reached today in Minsk by the OSCE-led Trilateral Contact Group, which was endorsed by the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France.”
On the day of the signing, Poroshenko said Ukraine committed to working out the “special status” that was to be accorded to the Luhansk and Donetsk regions “in the framework of constitutional changes on decentralization.”
But when Poroshenko tried to make good on his commitment, the debate in the Parliament turned violent, and deadly riots broke out in Kyiv, as Ukrainian nationalists opposed the measure. Poroshenko accused the nationalist opposition of being “a stab in the back,” preventing implementation of the Minsk accords, which could have brought the 2014 conflict to an end.
French President Emmanuel Macron tried valiantly in the waning days of February to diplomatically resuscitate the Minsk accords as a way to forestall war. Travelling to both Kyiv and Moscow “The Minsk Accords are the best protection for the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” Macron said at a February 8 press conference with Zelensky. “We now have the possibility of advancing negotiations,” Macron added, claiming that after his meeting with both Putin and Zelensky, both were committed to honoring the Minsk agreements. Yet behind the scenes, other officials in Ukraine were pouring cold water on any thought of honoring the agreement.
On February 2, barely three weeks before the start of the war, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba emphatically declared that Kyiv, despite their previous agreement to implement Minsk, would no longer even attempt to enact such a measure. Kuleba claimed that if the Luhansk and Donetsk regions were granted the autonomy, it could theoretically give their local governments a veto over Ukrainian foreign policy.
When asked if the Verkhovna Rada would pass the special status for Donbas required to fulfill Ukraine’s Minsk obligations, Kuleba said “(n)one of Ukraine’s regions will have a right to veto the state’s decisions. That is engraved in stone! Therefore, no special status as Russia is considering it.” At that point diplomacy was all but dead with the Minsk accords, and Macron’s admirable efforts has failed to move Zelensky or his government.
Ramifications of Rejecting Minsk
It is necessary to consider the state of affairs that existed when Kuleba made that comment on February 2. At that time, Russia had not launched its invasion. Putin was still actively calling for the implementation of the Minsk Accords, in agreement with French President Macron. The Donbas was still nominally a part of Ukraine.
Kherson, Mariupol, Izyum, Severodonetsk, Lysychansk, Popasnaya, and hundreds of other cities, towns, and villages were still fully under government control. No Ukrainian troops had been killed. Kyiv still had full access to the Sea of Azov and Black Sea. It is equally important to understand what was – and what wasn’t – being asked of Kyiv at that moment.
Putin was content to allow the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to remain under Kyiv’s control and a part of Ukraine, so long as they had the protections and semi-antonymous status that Kyiv had agreed to in 2015. If the conditions of the Minsk agreements had been enacted, Zelensky would have retained full control of his military, foreign policy, economy, relationship with the West, and if Ukraine met the requirements over time, possibility of joining the European Union.
Ukraine Refused Opportunity to Avert War in the Eleventh Hour
If Zelensky had agreed, with the encouragement and support of France and Germany, to enact the Minsk agreement, there would almost certainly have been no war, as Russia had given every indication – consistently, over a 15-year period – that their overriding core interests were security from having NATO on its border via Ukraine and to ensure the security of the Russian-speaking population in eastern Ukraine. Had those objectives been secured, it is very likely Putin would not have attacked.
Instead, Zelensky and his administration balked, refusing to abide by the Minsk accords. It is fair to say that Minsk would have required Ukraine to agree to less-than-optimal terms and that many Ukrainian people would have been upset at the Ukrainian president had he agreed to Minsk.
But Zelensky instead ignored the efforts of France and Germany, chose not to risk the ire of his people, and refused to abide by the accords. He gave away the best opportunity he had to use diplomatic means to avoid conflict at a time when he retained full control of his territory and possessed complete freedom and independence for his nation.
His unwillingness to acknowledge geopolitical realities and enact any compromises made war all but inevitable. The unvarnished truth is that the United States, Europe, and the people of Ukraine have been the bill-payers for Zelensky’s choices.
The Cost of Refusing Principled Compromise
Sanctions levied by the West on Russia have had significant negative effects on the lives of hundreds of millions of people in the U.S. and Europe – and the worst may be yet to come. This fall and winter may see severe shortages of gas in Europe, energy rationing, and could be the driver of a full-blown recession in Europe.
In the United States, we are already suffering the worst inflation in 40 years, we continue to send billions in support to Kyiv (adding to an already stratospheric $30 trillion national debt), and like Europe, America likewise faces the prospect of a recession later this year or early next. Gasoline prices, which earlier spiked to a record $5 a gallon, have recently stabilized, but the oil market remains volatile and could spike again.
The cost to Ukraine, however, has been the worst of all. As I have repeatedly pointed out, there is no viable military path through which Ukraine – even with all the help the West provided or promised – can hope to stop the Russian advance and then drive them out. Continuing to resist is heroic, but the result of this resistance has already meant the deaths of tens of thousands of Ukrainian people, millions driven from their homes, the destruction of significant portions of its armed forces, and the annihilation of scores of its cities.
The next in this series assessing the Russia-Ukraine war will look in detail at the second question posed above: once Russia invaded, did Ukraine exhaust all reasonable means at its disposal to end the war? Unsurprisingly, the answer is also ‘no.’ But as with Ukraine’s decision not to take the diplomatic off-ramps provided, their unwillingness to find a negotiated settlement also has profound negative implications for the United States and Europe.
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.