Since Russia’s unprovoked, full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 22, 2022, the war has inflicted a high level of casualties on both sides, featured periodic nuclear weapon threats by Russia, and resulted in atrocities that include war crimes and other violations of international law by Russia’s armed forces. The invasion at first looked like a potential success for Russian President Vladimir Putin, but the valiant Ukrainian army drove hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers into an area along the eastern border that represents roughly 20 percent of the territory of Ukraine. The fighting has now bogged down in a stalemate. Naturally the world would like to see this war, with its massive suffering and horrifying Russian actions, come to an end.
This is a war that Ukraine, the United States and NATO cannot afford to lose to the dictator in the Kremlin. The Ukrainians are doing NATO’s job, and they are doing it at little expense to the alliance, weakening Russia and keeping it at bay as it seeks to harm the West, undermine democratic elections in the United States and beyond, and bring Putin’s sympathizers to power on both sides of the Atlantic. If Ukraine loses, the United States and its allies will find themselves in a very different place in the world, one they would not like. It would be a world at greater risk of conflict between NATO and Russia, with the Baltic states and perhaps Poland likely to be next on the Putin hit list. Such an outcome is not inevitable, but it is increasingly possible given the reckless Republican party policy of blocking the American pipeline of arms to Ukraine.
The history of Russian connection to and domination of Ukraine might suggest that Ukraine’s independence and ties to the West are not essential to the security of the United States and its allies. This may have been true in the past, as Russia’s well-documented domination and persecution of Ukraine go back centuries. In the last century alone, Ukraine was forcibly brought into the Soviet Union in the 1920s. Though the relationship became formalized by means of a separate Ukrainian Republic in the Soviet Union, and the Ukrainian Soviet Republic was even later granted its own separate recognition and membership in the United Nations after World War II, the domination and persecution never stopped. During the 1930s, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had carried out an enforced famine on the Ukrainian Republic by confiscating its grain crop each year to sell for foreign exchange. An estimated 3.9 million Ukrainians died of hunger in 1930-32 as a result. Ukrainian citizens, young and old, including children, died daily of hunger in the streets of Ukrainian cities while pleading for bread. Later, from 1936-38, Ukrainians made up a particularly prominent share of the nearly 700,000 people killed in Stalin’s campaign of political repression known as the Great Terror, or the Great Purge. During World War II, the principal Ukrainian resistance organization, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, fought against both the Nazis and the Soviets at different times, as Ukrainian nationalists believed that the Soviets were at least as bad as the Nazis, and maybe worse. After the war, Ukrainian resistance and nationalism were suppressed, placing Ukraine firmly under Soviet domination until 1991.
Independent, But Still a Target
Ukraine became independent after the end of the Cold War, but the country continued to find itself a target of Russia. Upon its demise, the Soviet Union left 5,000 nuclear weapons on Ukrainian territory, which Ukrainians wanted to keep to protect themselves from Russian invasion. Under great pressure from the United States and other Western powers who did not want to allow an additional nuclear weapons state under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Ukraine agreed to deliver these weapons to Russia pursuant to an international agreement known as the Budapest Memorandum. In exchange, the United States, the U.K., and Russia were to guarantee Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. At the time, the United States pledged that it would consider the Budapest Memorandum as carrying the force of a treaty.
Yet Russia continually interfered in Ukraine after the Cold War. It repeatedly sought to ensure the election of the Kremlin’s favored presidential candidates, force Ukraine away from greater political and economic connection to the European Union, and bring Ukraine back under Russian influence and control with political threats and the cutoff of natural gas supplies. And then, when Putin’s Russia went even further and carried out its invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, and soon after fomented, led, and supplied an armed rebellion in the Donbas region of Ukraine, the United States and the U.K. essentially ignored their pledges under the Budapest Memorandum. They did so again when Russia began its all-out invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Most significantly, the United States did not observe its “treaty-like” obligations.
There can be no doubt about Ukraine’s determination to stay out of Russia’s grasp this time. To the great surprise of most countries, Ukraine, with the help of huge Western arms shipments, principally from the United States, was able to blunt Russia’s invasion and even drive it back out of some of the territory it seized in 2022. But the West also held back more than necessary, daunted by Putin’s repeated threats to use nuclear weapons, however incredible those claims should have been. So Russia still occupies much of Ukrainian territory along the Russian border. The situation at this time appears unlikely to change, and has been characterized as a stalemate, with little territory changing hands over the past year. Putin has no interest in ending the war, and considering Ukraine’s recent and historical experience with Russia, it would be most unlikely that Ukraine would ever reach a peace agreement with Russia under any terms other than Ukraine’s total victory because that is the only way it can ensure its future security.
Most Likely Outcomes
As a result, the most likely outcomes at this time appear to be these: a Russian victory; a long, financially costly, gruesome stalemate; or victory by Ukraine (and NATO).
A Russian victory is ever more likely to be the ultimate result if the Republican Party in the United States is successful in blocking American military aid to Ukraine. Though it is unclear whether additional countries in NATO would adopt this policy, it is highly unlikely that the level of U.S. armaments could be replaced. This would make an eventual Russian victory, if not inevitable, then very much expected, despite the incredible bravery, patriotism, and military capability that the Ukrainians have demonstrated.
This would undoubtedly open the door for Putin to come closer to achieving his objective of weakening NATO, or even bringing about its demise, with the Baltic states and Poland as his next potential targets. To say this would be bad for America and its allies vastly understates the impact. It would be a short- and long-term catastrophe, placing Europe in the shadow of an aggressive and ascendant Russia, and establishing the United States as an unreliable friend and ally. It would (or should) also establish the Republican Party as modern-day quislings.
A second possibility is that the United States and NATO might overcome domestic resistance and continue to supply Ukraine with arms shipments. This might be enough to save Ukraine from defeat, but the last two years of conflict have indicated that it is not enough for Ukraine to win, unless the Biden administration finally commits to Ukraine’s victory, not just its survival. Short of that, the result would probably, almost certainly, be a long, highly expensive and demoralizing stalemate between Russia and Ukraine. This would be bad for Russia, but Putin has such intense control over his country and its citizens at this point that he could probably live with the situation as he watched Ukraine slowly deteriorate, while the United States and NATO continued to deplete their resources and lose faith in their own ability to do anything more than prolong a horrific war. This situation would also most certainly benefit China, whose economic power and political strength would allow it greater global influence, while keeping Russia propped up.
Lastly, there is the possibility of a Ukrainian victory, with a settlement that restores the status quo before Putin’s military hostility toward Ukraine began in 2014. This would be the only fair and honorable outcome for Ukraine, the only outcome that would ensure its security, and the most satisfactory end for the United States, NATO, and a more reliable world order that would restore the rule of law at least to some significant degree.
A Necessary Price
Of course, the conditions required to achieve this end will be difficult to meet. The first is that there has to be far greater U.S. and NATO military support for Ukraine, with a major influx of even more weapons, training, intelligence, and logistical support. Further, it might even require some level of more direct involvement, including American “boots on the ground,” well beyond the handful of special forces already sent to Ukraine. This would make the war belong to the United States and NATO as much as it does to Ukraine.
The second condition, even with a defeated Russia, would have to be assurance that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would never happen again. In the wake of the failure of the Budapest Memorandum, there is only one way to achieve that: bring Ukraine into NATO so that it is protected under Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, by which an attack on one is an attack on all.
The risk associated with this course of action is great, including a wider war with Russia that would inevitably involve American casualties. But the risk of failure in Ukraine is also great, with a weakened West and an ascendant Russia. The course of action is clear if the United States hopes to successfully end this horror show, and make the world a safer, more democratic place. It also would send a powerful signal to China that the United States is not to be intimidated. Honor and global security come at a price, but the question remains whether the United States and its allies can or will make this commitment.