In the well-deserved afterglow of U.S. President Joe Biden’s rousing speech at the base of the Royal Castle in Warsaw, State Department spokesman Ned Price, in an appearance on CNN’s “The Lead” with Jake Tapper, was asked: “What can Western allies do to, once and for all, stop [Russian President Vladimir] Putin from waging this war?” Price’s answer sidestepped Tapper’s question of means, vaguely asserting instead: “We know, just like President Zelensky knows, that this war will have to end with diplomacy. It will have to end with negotiations.”
Embedded in Price’s non-answer, intended or not, was the Biden administration’s likely desired end state for the war in Ukraine – a negotiated settlement, not outright Ukrainian victory.
Tapper, undeterred, acknowledged the president is facing a “balancing act” in terms of not getting “ahead” of the U.S. public or NATO, but pressed Price on why the U.S. was not doing more, including sending F-16 fighter-bombers to Ukraine. Price dodged Tapper’s follow-up, pointing instead to the administration’s recent military aid packages in support of Ukraine’s defense of the Donbas, where the war is continuing to “grind out.”
The Donbas, however, is not militarily “decisive terrain” despite Putin’s willingness to incur massive casualties there – upwards of 45,000 plus alone since Jan. 1. Nor will the fighting in the Donbas bring about a victorious Ukrainian ending to the war. That can only happen in Crimea. Yet, it could lead to Ukraine losing if Kyiv is forced to continue fighting defensive battles in the Donbas that are unnecessarily attritting its military forces.
Putin is betting on just that. In his speech to the State Duma in Moscow, just hours before Biden’s in Warsaw, the Russian president signaled he is more than willing to fight a “forever war” in Ukraine. Yet, paradoxically, the Biden administration appears to be counting on a “forever war” to bring Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to the negotiating table.
Moscow is also waging that it can fracture, if not break, NATO’s resolve in the long run. The Biden administration’s rejection of “forever wars” led the U.S. president to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan in August 2021 in the months leading up to Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. Putin, undoubtedly, is factoring that into his calculus – as is Chinese leader Xi Jinping on the sidelines vis-à-vis Taiwan.
Consequently, as long as Washington and Brussels continue narrowly equipping and arming Ukraine with defensive weapons and munitions, they are unwittingly emboldening Putin to pursue a “forever war” as a means of retrieving his badly faltering operation.
Putin cannot win at the negotiating table. He can potentially win, however, if he turns Ukraine into a “forever war.” Absurdly, this means Biden and Putin are staring each other down by threatening each other with a “forever war” as a means of forcing an end state.
In retrospect, NATO’s defensive centric policy approach that was hiding in plain sight has been misguided. The U.S. and its NATO allies have been signaling this preferred end state for some time. U.S. General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, openly articulated this strategy in November during an appearance at the Economic Club. He warned victory in Ukraine may not be achieved militarily, but via “negotiations.” Outwardly, this was viewed as a message to Zelensky, however Putin was the likely primary intended recipient.
Milley sent this same message again in late January, when he asserted in a news conference at the U.S. Ramstein Air Base in Germany that he believed “Russia’s war in Ukraine will conclude with negotiations rather than on the battlefield.”
Subsequently, Washington’s NATO partners began sending the same dispatch to Moscow. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak limited his support of Ukraine last week at the Munich Security conference to helping Kyiv “defend their country.” French President Emmanuel Macron followed suit, stating he is “convinced that, in the end, [the war] will not conclude militarily.”
Much has been made of the West’s fear of escalation, be it nuclear or direct NATO involvement, however, that is likely simply a cover story to buy time for Biden’s “forever war” strategy to bring Putin to the negotiating table. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, playing his part, made it clear after authorizing Leopard 2 Main Battle Tanks to be transferred to Ukraine, that Berlin will endeavor to “prevent an escalation of the war.”
Biden himself doubled down on this strategy in announcing his latest $500 million military aid package to Ukraine during his meeting with Zelensky in Kyiv. While this new tranche of Javelins, howitzers, and artillery ammo is clearly geared toward enabling Ukraine to keep fighting a “forever war,” it also glaringly fails to provide critical offensive capability, including long-range precision weapons required if Ukraine is to successfully set conditions for a combined arms offensive in the Donbas or winning in the “decisive terrain” of Crimea.
The big questions
If escalation is not the motive behind Biden’s threat of a “forever war” gambit, then why is Macron signaling he wants Russia “defeated” but not “crushed?”
Why too is NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg hitting this same note, declaring his only goal is to “push back the Russia invaders?”
Why is the West continuing to afford Russian targets sanctuary prior to their arrival on the battlefronts in Ukraine?
Why is Kyiv being denied deep strike capability against them and counterfires against cruise missile and drone launch sites beyond Ukraine’s borders?
The answers pivot around fear of what a chaotic post-Putin Russia could look like if his autocratic regime were to rapidly collapse. Civil war could ensue, fueled by fights between the growing number of private military companies including Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group and Redoubt. Control of Russia’s nuclear arsenal would be in doubt. Global energy markets would likely be roiled.
Nonetheless, a post-Putin Russia is inevitable one way or the other, and the equally dangerous fact remains that as long as Putin stays in power, he and his regime will be an existential threat to Europe.
Milley might be right in one sense when he declared at the Ukraine Defense Contact Group in Brussels that “Russia has lost… strategically, operationally, and tactically.” But Putin has not lost and in Russia today, at least for now, that is all that matters.
Challenging Putin with the threat of a “forever war” to try and bring him to the negotiating table is not going to work given that he sees a “forever war” as his most likely means of survival. Neither he, nor Zelensky are going buy into this end state. Persisting in this approach is only setting conditions for Ukraine to potentially lose what retired-U.S. Army Lieutenant General Mark Hertling describes as a bloody “slugfest.”
Biden’s speech in Warsaw was powerful, reassuring, and uplifting – and well received by Poles and Ukrainians who know what it is like to live and die under Russian oppression. It is time for the president to channel their steadfast resolve to defeat Putin and to go all in to enable Ukraine to win. If not, then Tapper’s question to Price demands an answer. Why not?
Jonathan Sweet is a retired Army colonel who served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. His background includes tours of duty with the 101st Airborne Division and the Intelligence and Security Command. He led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012-14, working with NATO partners in the Black Sea and Baltics. Follow him on Twitter: @JESweet2022.
Mark Toth is a retired economist and entrepreneur who has worked in banking, insurance, publishing and global commerce. He is a former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis, and has lived in U.S. diplomatic and military communities around the world, including London, Tel Aviv, Augsburg, and Nagoya. Follow him on Twitter: @MCTothSTL.
The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.
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Hope for american public to see through the bargaining over Ukraine lost of their prerogative to recuperate their territories. American president gaves Ukraine a lot of needed armories but not enouh to determine a win and, the ukrainian president has no choice but to stay put. The West, OTAN and so on, still enjoy Ukraine as a buffer that give their blood in the name of WHAT?! What a joke ! The russian president is treatening of nuclear and Ukraine knows the bluf. Ukraine should prepare to make the bluf a reality by using nuclear restricted to the East and South, making those territories inaliable. Russians don't seem to know that playing with fire has an inherent contempt that is to consume everybody. The sun is doing it everyday, a bit more closely won't change much but complicate the pathway, mainly for Russia.
The west accepts Russia attacking targets in Ukraine from bases in Russia, but apparently expects Ukraine to restrain itself from reciprocating. How is that fair?
The massive EU and US support fir Ukraine will go to waste if it remains mostly inadequate and untimely
100 of each, f35 f16 f15 and long-range missiles and rockets and end this war. Then take the f15s and f35s home.
@Gazza, What are you waiting for, send them that we start rebuilding. Of course, don't forget Moskow and St. Peterburg to keep them busy in the mean time, as it looks like russians did not see enough destructions !