In helping Ukraine, Biden does not want to win, but to negotiate
The war in Ukraine is entering a new phase, and important changes are taking place in US strategy. Fears of a Russian nuclear escalation are fading, and fears of a long, devastating war are intensifying.
Therefore, the administration of President Joe Biden is increasing support for Ukraine in the hope of working out a possible diplomatic solution. This is an “escalation for de-escalation” strategy that can be very difficult to implement.
Almost a year after the start of the war, uncertainty about its course is greater than ever. For the first six months, the initiative belonged to Russia: the main question was when, where and with what success it would attack. For the next five months, the initiative belonged to Ukraine, and analysts tried to guess the place and prospects of its counter-offensive. Now it’s harder to say what will happen next and who will have the advantage. Both sides can prepare new offensives. And both sides face a mix of challenges, losses on the battlefield, and new opportunities – the balance of power is hard to pin down.
Russian President Vladimir Putin probably thinks time is his best ally. If he can continue to destroy Ukraine’s infrastructure while preserving the occupied territories, he may be able to orchestrate a protracted struggle in which Russia’s manpower advantage will be decisive.
Ukraine considers time its enemy. It must use Russia’s weakened, ill-equipped forces now, before newly mobilized Russian troops arrive on the battlefield, before Russian defense production peaks and Western support for Kiev dissipates.
The Biden administration is cautiously optimistic about Ukraine’s prospects. The easiest successes caused by the uncoordinated Russian army may already be behind them. Putin is now defending a shorter front with more troops. This makes defeating Russia more difficult, even if Kiev’s determined, creative army may advance further.
Thus, the US administration changes its strategy in three ways.
First, it better defines the goals of the American war. In December, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced that the U.S. was ready to help Ukraine regain land lost since February 2022, but not necessarily all of the land Putin had taken since 2014. Washington’s goal is to make Ukraine militarily secure, politically independent, and economically viable; this does not necessarily mean the return of difficult territories such as eastern Donbass or Crimea.
Second, the United States and its allies are sending Ukraine more advanced weapons: armored personnel carriers, Patriot missiles, and tanks capable of breaching Russian defenses. Washington is also moving toward providing longer-range munitions that can intercept Russian rear lines: a small-diameter ground-launched bomb likely to be part of an upcoming aid package has almost twice the range of HIMARS missiles.
The next debate could be about aircraft: Biden recently said the US would not supply Ukraine with F-16 fighters, but he said the same about tanks until he changed his mind.
Third, Biden may not be sure Ukraine will liberate Crimea by force, but he has reportedly become more supportive of attacks on Russian installations there. Could the attack on Crimea, which is central to Putin’s narrative of Russia’s resurrection under his rule, intensify? Yes. But Putin has bluffed so many times that his threats are unbelievable.
And precisely because Crimea is so important to Putin, threatening to lose it may be the best way to get him to serious negotiations.
While these political changes seem to be moving in opposite directions, there is a unifying logic to them. The United States does not want the war to drag on indefinitely because it is turning much of Ukraine into a desert, which is hurting the Western economy. Thus, Biden is trying to help Ukraine increase the pressure on Russian forces and turn the situation in his favor in order to open the way to negotiations after the end of the next phase of hostilities.
This strategy is not simple, as evidenced by the recent transatlantic scandals over who will give what tanks to Ukraine. In the end, the US handled the situation efficiently, promising to send 31 Abrams tanks in a few months to pave the way for perhaps hundreds of European tanks in the coming weeks.
But that’s not the only problem. Biden assumes that there is a golden mean in which Russia is weakened enough to negotiate but does not escalate, and the Ukrainians, having gained a stronger position, agree not to settle for what they want and deserve.
It is possible, but not easy: both sides will have to conclude that continuing the war will do them more harm than good, and come up with some elegant diplomatic formula to bridge or simply cover up the gap between their positions on issues such as Crimea.
Biden’s updated strategy is a sensible attempt to deal with changes on the battlefield and explore how military advances can help resolve the dispute permanently. But that doesn’t necessarily mean his plan will succeed.
The material was first published in Bloomberg.