As the Russian war in Ukraine drags on, three phrases have become a constant political drumbeat: “fight for democracy”; “as long as it takes”; and “until Ukraine wins.” Each phrase is vague, bordering on incoherent; together, those phrases are leading the West down the primrose path to endless quagmire.
There are clear Western interests in Ukraine: prevention of Russian aggression across borders; degradation of the Russian military, so as to undercut future aggression; deterrence of China from taking similar action in Taiwan; and solidification of the European alliance against both Russia and China. The West has achieved virtually all of these goals: The chances that Kyiv falls to Moscow are now essentially zero.
Yet, the West, in maintaining that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy must lead all negotiations, has now boxed itself in. It does so on the basis, first, of the “fight for democracy.” This is wrong on both practical and political levels. Practically, as mentioned, Ukrainian democracy is not likely to fall to Russia — and the greatest future threats to Ukrainian democracy will likely be internal corruption. Politically, no one believes that the West will maintain an open-ended war against Russia in order to preserve “democracy” — the West abandoned Afghanistan’s nascent democracy after a 20-year effort to the tender predations of the Taliban.
The West has also said that it will maintain the war “as long as necessary.” This, too, is a lie — and everyone, including Russia, knows it. After Iraq and Afghanistan, does anyone believe that the West will keep up funding to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars?
Finally, the West says that Ukraine must “win.” But by most metrics, the West has already won. The West has little interest in toppling Putin — if, for example, the Wagner Group had taken over Russia, that would not have been a positive step in favor of world peace. And all of its original goals have been largely attained.
The question is what the West’s interest are now. The West knows, for example, that this war will not end with all Russian troops leaving historic Ukrainian territory. Ukraine will not wind up in control of Crimea, or all of the Luhansk and Donetsk region; Ukraine’s vaunted counteroffensive has made less progress than originally projected, because aggressive war is more difficult than defensive war. Yet the West continues to maintain that any end to this conflict must be negotiated by Zelenskyy, who has said that the war will not end until all Ukrainian territory is liberated of Russian presence.
So, what would an end to the war look like? Everyone has known the answer to this question for over a year: Ukraine preserves her sovereignty, and is given Western guarantees of defense, including possible membership in NATO; Russian control of Crimea and parts of Donbas is confirmed. Such a deal, imposed from the outside, would also give Zelenskyy an off-ramp with his own people: He’d be able to blame the West for forcing him to give away territory, which would allow him to retain his leadership position.
But that would be “our” definition of winning, which President Joe Biden and other Western leaders have specifically forbidden. So, we’re now in the Catch-22 of saying that we’ll support Zelenskyy’s untenable “win everything” war and that we will also only admit Zelenskyy to NATO once the war has ended — creating an incentive for both Zelenskyy and Putin to continue the war. This is unnecessary. And it’s happening due to the cowardice of Biden and other Western leaders, who want to look like heroes while simultaneously putting Zelenskyy and the West in an unwinnable quagmire of a situation.
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