Defending Ukraine is not enough. Defeating Russia on the battlefield is not enough. We must ensure—using every means at our disposal—that Vladimir Putin may never again commit the kinds of atrocities that have marked his two decades in power.
Fortunately, this week, it was made absolutely clear that the Biden administration recognizes that necessity and has made it a strategic centerpiece of their foreign and national security policy efforts.
On Monday, after visiting Ukraine with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said, “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”
Although one senior US official admitted to me (somewhat uneasily) that “Austin said the quiet part out loud,” it soon became clear that the US was publicly willing to own the new goal of turning Russia’s unprovoked, brutal escalation of its ongoing eight- year war in Ukraine into a lasting and meaningful defeat for the Kremlin.
On Tuesday in Germany—at a meeting of the “Ukraine Defense Consultative Group” (a gathering of the countries from around the world that have pledged to support Ukraine’s war effort)—Secretary Austin said it was the US belief that Ukraine can win the war with Russia. Austin’s spokesperson, John Kirby, stated: “We don’t want a Russia that’s capable of exerting that kind of malign influence in Europe or anywhere in the world.”
Secretary Blinken—who a month ago said the Ukraine war would lead to a “strategic defeat” for Russia, and earlier this month said Russia had already experienced such a defeat—argued before Congress on Tuesday that it must fully fund the State Department’s budget in order to ensure a “strategic failure” for Russia. Senior National Security Council (NSC) officials have echoed that this is a new, explicit goal of the US and its allies.
The statements by the US are not mere rhetoric. Conversations with senior US officials in the State Department, Pentagon, and White House underscore that these goals are being supported by a many-layered, intensive effort by senior officials.
Providing Ukraine all the support it needs lies at the heart of the West’s efforts, and coordinating that effort will be the goal of the multi-nation consultative group, which will meet on a monthly basis going forward.
The effort is helped, of course, by the fact that Russia continues to make decisions that are not only morally reprehensible but also disastrous for its military and country.
The losses sustained by Russian forces are catastrophic. Estimates of those killed in the first two months in the war range from 15,000 to more than 20,000—with tens of thousands more wounded or having deserted. The UK’s defense secretary, Ben Wallace, estimated those figures represent a 25 percent reduction in the Russian invasion combat capability.
Russia’s economy has been hit hard by sanctions. Estimates suggest the crisis will wipe out more than a decade and a half of Russian growth. Russia’s own economy ministry predicts the economy could contract this year by between 8.8 percent and 12.4 percent.
Senior US officials noted that Russia is suffering profound self-inflicted wounds in other ways. Its battlefield failures and its clear commission of war crimes have made it increasingly difficult—even for those countries with which it has close ties or which sought to remain neutral at the start of this war—to win any meaningful international support.
A senior US national security official said that Russia’s calamitous performance to date had taken a toll on Moscow’s relations with China, India, Turkey, and Israel. The official added that, as indicated by Russia-backed far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen’s defeat, those “who have been associated with Russia” have not been helped politically by Russia’s actions.
This did not, it should be noted, stop Sen. Rand Paul from parroting Russian talking points in Tuesday Senate hearings with Secretary Blinken. Paul asserted the explanation for Russia’s invasion was tied to a Biden administration push to admit Ukraine into NATO (a lie) and to the fact that Ukraine was “part of Russia.”
Russia amplified the damage done to its international standing and its own economy this week by cutting off gas supplies to two European NATO countries—Poland and Bulgaria—because they refused to pay for the energy shipments in rubles, as demanded by Moscow.
“Vladimir Putin started this war. He did so because, in the past, world leaders were too weak, gullible, or corrupted to stand up to him—to deny him the chance to compound past aggression with further brutality.”
At the same time, the Biden administration is actively working to strengthen its ties with both its allies and with those nations that have been uncomfortable diplomatic choosing sides in the Ukraine conflict. The president, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Blinken, Secretary Austin and their deputies are holding regular, frequent meetings (virtual and live) with their counterparts in the G7, NATO, the EU, the Quad (the Indo-Pacific partnership including India, Japan, Australia and the US), and via mechanisms like the consultative group mentioned above. These efforts will be continued in the next six weeks with a flurry of high-level events including an ASEAN Summit in Washington, a trip to Japan and South Korea, and a NATO Summit and meetings with European leaders in Spain in June.
The US has been coordinating closely with Finland and Sweden, and with NATO partners, to help ensure those two Nordic countries can join the alliance swiftly—if that is what they ultimately choose to do. The US is also working to upgrade NATO capacities along the frontier with Russia.
Notably, a special initiative has been made to find areas of common interest with “new non-aligned” countries.
This effort has been marked, according to officials involved, not by a desire to make an issue of certain countries’ decision to not support Ukraine’s war effort, but instead to focus on ways the US can provide assistance or address specific bilateral issues. This not only would strengthen US ties, but help gain an edge in what is emerging as an era of strategic rivalry—not only with Russia, but with China.
These imperatives—consolidating Russia’s defeat in Ukraine and strengthening American alliances and friendships for a coming period of potential competition and periodic tension—are supplanting the largely counterterrorism focused-US diplomatic priorities of the past two decades.
Thanks to Russia’s own blunders, and the efforts of the US and its allies, the picture for Moscow and Putin is looking bleaker by the day—regardless of the final settlement of the war in Ukraine, and without an American or NATO soldier firing a shot .
When this war is over NATO will be larger. Russia’s frontier with NATO would grow by nearly 1,000 miles and, should Finland and Sweden join NATO, its position vis a vis the Baltic Sea and the Arctic would be significantly weakened. NATO’s investment in defense is sure to rise and NATO resources deployed closer to the Russian border are certain to grow. The US alone has already committed over $4 billion in security to Ukraine since President Biden took office, and a major new funding initiative is expected “very soon” according to a senior State Department official.
Russia’s economy is a shambles and its future looks bleak, as Europe seeks to end dependency on Russian energy. Even sometime-laggard Germany is picking up its pace substantially.
Ukraine will surely emerge stronger with major pledges of assistance, and a fast-tracked EU entry is already in the offing.
Vladimir Putin started this war. He did so because, in the past, world leaders were too weak, gullible, or corrupted to stand up to him—to deny him the chance to compound past aggression with further brutality. Now, finally, he has encountered opposition from Ukraine to Brussels to Washington that has resolved not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Their goal is as ambitious as it is worthy. But it deserves our support because it is the only path to lasting peace along Europe’s borders with Russia.