The Ukraine-Russia conflict has passed the point of crisis. Ukraine no longer appears threatened by an imminent Russian takeover, and the war in the east has narrowly focused around the Donbas region. Still, fighting remains intense and Ukraine continues to yield some ground.
So far, Washington’s policy has been prudent: We’ve enabled Kyiv to defend itself without sending in U.S. troops and escalating the conflict with Russia. In fact, our intervention has been so successful because it has been so limited. The Biden administration deserves credit for rejecting provocative moves such as letting Ukraine have offensive weapons (like NATO’s MiG fighters) or establishing a no-fly zone.
Still, the U.S. continues to contribute to Ukraine’s defense via intelligence sharing, financial aid and more sophisticated weapons. The new Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act allows the U.S. to expedite arms transfers to Ukraine and avoid export controls. This is now America’s war, but it comes at a low cost for us; we aren’t losing troops, and we can manage the aid. Because of the limited nature of our exposure, however, we have little incentive to end the conflict. As journalist William Arkin has argued, this is the familiar “forever war” formula.
U.S. leaders have pledged to allow Ukrainians to define how the war ends, but taking a back seat here would be a serious mistake. We need to take the lead on ending the war by pushing for a ceasefire and, eventually, a lasting peace settlement because both would be in America’s best interest.
Three difficult problems face the U.S.: how to keep our abundant aid from sabotaging Ukraine’s economic and political system; how to end the war on acceptable terms; and how to eventually allow Russia back into the international system. America’s uneven record of peacemaking in past conflicts suggests serious pitfalls to avoid, but also the possibility of an acceptable long-term outcome.
The Dangers of Open-Ended Aid
America’s new $40 billion aid package to Ukraine provides weapons and humanitarian relief. Some Republican senators and organizations have raised concerns about the aid package, saying that Americans should focus on domestic needs instead. A more pertinent question would be whether the massive amounts of assistance might harm the beneficiary, Ukraine. The U.S. is pledging $40 billion in aid to the poorest country in Europe with, as of 2020, an annual GDP of only $156 billion.
This $40 billion aid package to Ukraine might be necessary, but we should grasp the likely negative consequences, as illustrated by our recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. Massive amounts of reconstruction funding for Iraq were wasted due to fraud and corruption. U.S. aid helped sustain the radical militias that have held the Iraqi government hostage. Efforts to jumpstart the Iraqi economy with cash contributed to creating the corrupt system headed by the man we helped install in power, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The Iraqi National Army we spent billions training was a shell force that collapsed in 2014 in the face of ISIS. According to watchdog group Transparency International, Iraq now ranks among the most corrupt countries in the world and, consequently, is a democracy in name only.
U.S. interventions in Afghanistan led to even worse outcomes. As one New York Times writer put it, “Corruption wasn’t a design flaw in the war. It was a design feature.” For instance, our practice of paying warlords to protect supply convoys fueled a massive protection racket. According to the invaluable Afghanistan Papers, we thought we were the solution to Afghanistan’s corruption, but our cash was the problem. The economy of Afghanistan became largely aid-dependent, especially during the Obama years, which also led to an increase in official bribery.
In both conflicts, the inspector general reports noted how the huge influx of American dollars undermined the fledging governments the U.S. was trying to protect. As reported by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, it is necessary to ensure that corruption does not undermine America’s strategic goals. In many other countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, years of providing direct military aid have resulted in nothing but governmental incompetence.
The massive aid package to Ukraine might similarly wind up exacerbating Ukraine’s political dysfunction. As the corruption expert Sarah Chayes points out, corruption creates regime instability, which generates international security problems. We need to prevent the sad history of Iraq and Afghanistan from repeating itself in Ukraine.
Before the war started in February, media reporting on Ukraine’s corruption problem was widespread. In 2016, the International Monetary Fund threatened to cut off assistance to Ukraine because of its slow-rolling anti-corruption measures. In 2020, Ukraine’s own Constitutional Court hamstrung the National Agency on Corruption Prevention, after which the Transparency International declared that the decision “demolishes anti-corruption reforms in the country.”
Corruption especially vexes the nation’s security sector. In 2018, The New York Times highlighted Ukraine’s official “cone of secrecy” over military spending. In 2017, Transparency International concluded that Ukraine still had a strategic-level problem in dealing with corrupt practices with regard to security assistance, making it difficult to track how aid was used. In 2021, an EU report on Ukraine noted that “tens of billions of dollars are lost yearly due to graft.” Some Ukrainian politicians and anti-corruption watchdogs have claimed that the war in the Donbas region has become an opportunity for massive graft and dubious procurement.
The Far Right Drives the Agenda
The 2014 uprising that ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych had popular backing, but it was led by Ukraine’s right-wing militias and provoked Moscow’s intervention in Russian-speaking Crimea and the eastern Donbas region. Many of these ultra-nationalist groups who forced out Yanukovych would benefit politically by gaining positions in Ukraine’s security services.
Their militias, which have ready access to weapons and have sometimes staged protests to pressure the government, have been integrated into Ukraine’s security services. They have benefited directly from a huge influx of aid and weapons to keep the Donbas war going. It is unclear how much control Kyiv maintains over these groups. Freedom House noted in 2020 that far-right extreme nationalism now has become Ukraine’s dominant political narrative.
Zelensky, a political moderate, may deserve comparisons to Winston Churchill for his war leadership, but unlike the former British prime minister, he came to power promising to reach a peace accord with his country’s enemy. Immediately before the war, Zelensky publicly denied that Russia planned to invade, and he had been openly willing to surrender land for peace and abandon his country’s quest for NATO membership.
After Ukrainian forces had some battlefield successes, however, Zelensky vowed Ukraine would not stop fighting until all Russian troops were driven from its territory. Now, pressure on Zelensky from far-right militias may prevent his making a deal with Moscow to end the war. The reality of Ukraine’s unstable “praetorian politics” looms over Kyiv’s decision-making.
A Pragmatic Way Forward
There are dangers, therefore, in allowing Ukraine free rein in driving the outcome of this conflict. Realist thinking can help achieve an acceptable outcome for Ukraine and the world, but it will require some compromise and resisting the temptation to wage another “forever war.”
Some see this conflict as an essential fight between democracy and authoritarianism. For this reason, former chess champion Garry Kasparov argues that Zelensky should be given everything he asks for to prosecute the war to its fullest. Speculator and philanthropist George Soros also casts this conflict in ideological terms and has likened it to the beginning of World War III. In contrast, Henry Kissinger recently urged Europe to cajole Ukraine into conceding some territory to Russia in the interest of peace and world order. Kissinger has been criticized in the media, but it seems probable this is how the conflict will eventually end.
Practically speaking, a total eradication of Russian forces from Ukraine does not seem feasible. The new weapons technology in drones and anti-tank weapons has given defenders a decided advantage, but completely evicting Russian forces from formerly occupied Donbas and Crimea probably will be too costly for Ukraine even if the U.S. underwrites this campaign. It will extend the war indefinitely, expand the casualty list and endanger regional stability. Preventing the conflict from escalating beyond any rational strategic objective still makes sense for U.S. leadership.
In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, then-Secretary of State Kissinger leveraged military aid to Israel to prevent the Israeli Defense Force from destroying the Egyptian Third Corps and thus making it more difficult to secure a peace settlement later. According to journalists Marvin and Bernard Kalb, Kissinger sensed that the Israelis wanted to end the war, “but they needed someone—a stranger they could trust—to end it for them.” We might soon reach a similar situation with the Ukraine war.
Avoiding Another Korea-like Stalemate
The Yom Kippur War resulted in an eventual and lasting peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. American diplomacy was the decisive factor. But the now-distant Korean conflict (1950-1953) offers some valuable lessons on how American mediation can go wrong.
Korea is a useful case study because the Russia-Ukraine war’s similarities with the Korean conflict are remarkable. In both cases, one country illegally invaded another in an attempt to unify the country. The moral clarity the invasion provided allowed for a strong international response. The invaders were beaten back and had to accept the status quo ante. Both countries suffered significant casualties and required major rebuilding.
Although the Korean conflict ultimately preserved freedom in South Korea, it took years for the country to become a stable democracy. In the meantime, the U.S. had to manage a sometimes-unseemly partner, and the security issue at the frontier with North Korea was never resolved. In fact, it has been a 70-year headache and a source of regional instability ever since.
One of the major lessons of the Korean War was that nearly half the casualties came during peace negotiations. The U.S. was able to achieve only an armistice; the war is still officially ongoing today. That same scenario could now be playing out with Ukraine and Russia. Do we want to be dealing with another poorly named Demilitarized Zone for decades?
Yielding some territory to Russia would be a hard sell, but this has been the case de facto since 2014, and it was not considered an international casus belli then. Ironically, NATO seems poised to expand when the threat from Russia has obviously diminished. After Russia’s underwhelming performance against the poorest country in Europe, it is unlikely to invade a NATO country anytime soon. The possibility of Sweden and Finland joining NATO might be a useful bargaining chip for peace talks.
An acceptable outcome might therefore be a badly chastened Russia and a Ukraine able to shed Moscow’s influence and develop on its own, much like South Korea eventually did. Looking further on, it will require enlightened diplomacy on America’s part to prevent Russia from turning into an enormous North Korea: ostracized, perpetually sanctioned and, by necessity, permanently joined at the hip with China.