Seeing longtime contacts in Washington, D.C., this month, I was struck by the way the United States has joined the war for Ukraine while telling itself that there’s no way it will do so. “We will not be directly engaged in this conflict, period,” said one White House adviser, known to me from his days in the Obama administration.
But hold on, my friend, I responded. The Biden team had just announced a package of military aid to the Zelensky government totalling 40 billion dollars, on top of the billions sent at the outset of this war. There had been leaks, which looked unmistakeably deliberate to this one-time White House correspondent, revealing that the United States had helped kill Russian Generals, sink a Russian warship, even target military installations across the border in Russia.
Indeed, on the very day we talked, Washington was abuzz with the news that the United States was about to sell Ukraine drones that could be armed with Hellfire missiles, plus rocket systems that could strike well inside Russia. I recalled that, back in March, the stated goal was to defend Ukraine. Then the clarion call became “a weakened Russia” — a telling shift.
Ukraine could be Europe’s battleground for years to come
“You’re in this war already, aren’t you?” I asked, adding that the President himself had said publicly Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power”. My source paused, and chuckled wearily. “That was a slip of the tongue by Biden,” he concluded. “This is not about regime change in Moscow.” Glad we got that straight. Because to some it sounded like an intentional slip of the tongue.
What’s clear, on both sides of the Atlantic, is the growing realisation that Ukraine could well be Europe’s battleground for years to come. The Western alliance is being told to dig in for the long haul. Putin’s Russia is advancing, slowly and murderously perhaps, but nonetheless making ground on its prime target, the Eastern Donbas region. It is on the path to winning this conflict after its disastrous opening campaign. Putin’s model is the war of attrition he helped the tyrannical Syrian regime wage for a decade, as I wrote about in April.
There’s a key component missing, as we watch NATO chiefs diagnose years of conflict to come, or when we see Boris Johnson fly off to see his new best friend President Zelenksy in Kiev. Casting himself as a latter-day Winston Churchill, Johnson is promising to have Britain join the war by sending long-range missiles and anti-tank weapons, alongside specialists to train thousands of Ukrainian conscripts. What’s obviously absent, as we join the war, is any kind of plan for peace.
Given the consequences of this war — from the barbarism witnessed on the ground, to the knock-on effects for the global economy, to the fear of starvation elsewhere because of Ukraine’s singular importance to the world’s grain production — the time has surely come to design and “float” (a diplomat’s coinage if ever there was) some form of endgame.
Catching up with a journalist friend, with decades of experience listening to the White House drumbeat dating back to the long-ago Clinton years, he shared the prevailing agenda within the Biden team. “Ukraine must retain its independence, and regain control of all territory it held before the onset of war, February 24,” he reported. “In their view Putin must be seen to have lost, conclusively.”
Remember: this might look like Ukraine fighting Russia. But it’s already Russia fighting the West. If there’s to be any endgame, it will be hammered out in Washington, Brussels and Moscow, between Russia and the West. What will the West demand of Putin? What will Putin give to end sanctions? What will Putin see as his bottom line?
Politically, and hence publicly, of course Joe Biden and Boris Johnson would seek his defeat, Ukraine’s victory, the triumph of the people’s army against the Russian monster. But that flies in the face of Vladimir Putin’s bloody-mindedness, and his apparently iron will, to emerge in control of Eastern Ukraine, whatever the price to his reputation, his economy and his army, not to mention the suffering of millions of Ukrainians.
The West has joined this war, admit it or not
Significantly, you could hear France’s President Macron not-so-quietly disparaged in Washington of late, for having suggested the West should not seek “Russia’s humiliation”. We need to bear in mind that Macron, whatever his failings, has been the only Western leader to attempt a conversation with Putin since the start of this crisis. “We must not humiliate Russia, so that when the fighting stops we can find an exit ramp through diplomatic means,” Macron said.
As a war correspondent in another age, in Africa and the Middle East, I seem to remember learning that when a conflict becomes stalemate, it’s time for friends and allies to encourage partners to consider pragmatic compromise. The West has joined this war, whether we admit it or not. The West can keep the Ukrainians in the field of battle almost indefinitely. But.
The head of NATO has just told us Russia and Ukraine could slog it out for years. Surely a definition of stalemate. Also a recipe for Europe and the United States growing weary of this war, especially as they see prices spike upwards for everything, from energy to food.
It’s time that the West come clean with President Zelensky, brave warrior but also consummate performer. Tell him that he should be getting ready to go to the table. Yes, demanding independence, guaranteed by his allies, and seeking the territory he held on the first day of Putin’s invasion. But no, not rejecting out of hand Russia’s patent wish to annex broad swathes of his country.
A tough conversation? For sure. But the alternative, lest we forget, is war without end. And the real price will be paid not by us, but by the very people we say we want to help and defend.
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