What’s Next for Russia’s War in Ukraine?

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As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drags on, and western aid for the underdogs grows, more people ask how far we are willing to go to defend another country and how much we’re willing to risk. It’s difficult to find somebody who doesn’t sympathize with the Ukrainians, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry about the price of supporting a war against an autocratic regime that seems unconstrained by human decency and that commands not just tanks and troops, but nuclear weapons.

“Anyone concerned about the cost of supporting a Ukrainian victory should consider the much larger costs should Ukraine lose,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.) commented last week after a bipartisan majority approved $40 billion in additional assistance to Ukraine. 

Behind his words were the concerns every politician has of being the next Neville Chamberlain, appeasing a dictator now at the price of a wider war in the future. That concern is sufficiently compelling among politicians that Congress approved and President Joe Biden signed legislation offering up a sum substantially larger than the $33 billion actually requested by the White House. But that enormous sum of money at a time of soaring national debt and rising inflation largely fueled the 11 votes against the bill from McConnell’s own Republican ranks.

“Today we are faced with a vastly greater sum of money to be contributed or gifted to Ukraine,” Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.), who voted against the measure, told the Senate after reciting a perhaps apocryphal story about Davy Crockett, in his years as a congressman, passing the hat rather than approving taxpayer money to support a military widow. “A noble cause, no doubt. A cause for which I share sympathy and support but a cause for which the Constitution does not sanction or approve of.”

“Putting aside the constitutionality of gifting $40 billion to Ukraine, isn’t there a more fiscally responsible way this could be done? What about taking the $40 billion from elsewhere in the budget? The US spends more on our military than the next 8 countries combined. Couldn’t Congress simply shift over the $40 billion and not add it to the debt?” he added.

The public shares at least some of Paul’s concerns about the cost of the war; while 42 percent told Pew Research in March that the U.S. was doing too little to support Ukraine, a plurality of 35 percent now says it’s doing enough. To concerns about cost, add growing public worries about the war’s endpoint. 

“About half of Americans also say they are either extremely (24%) or very (26%) concerned about the possibility of U.S. and NATO support for Ukraine leading to a U.S. war with Russia, with about one-third also saying they are somewhat concerned about this,” Pew notes. “Only about one-in-five (18%) say they are not too or not at all concerned about this.”

Concerns about the war in Ukraine cross party lines and include commentators that usually support the Biden administration, which has firmly dedicated itself to supporting Kyiv.

“There are many questions that President Biden has yet to answer for the American public with regard to the continued involvement of the United States in this conflict,” The New York Times editorialized May 19. “It is still not in America’s best interest to plunge into an all-out war with Russia, even if a negotiated peace may require Ukraine to make some hard decisions. And the U.S. aims and strategy in this war have become harder to discern, as the parameters of the mission appear to have changed.”

The Times previously committed itself to open-ended support for Ukraine, but is having some obvious second thoughts as administration officials warn that the fighting and carnage will drag on.

“We assess President Putin is preparing for a prolonged conflict in Ukraine during which he still intends to achieve goals beyond the Donbas,” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 10.

“Moreover, as both Russia and Ukraine believe they can continue to make progress militarily, we do not see a viable negotiating path forward, at least in the short term. The uncertain nature of the battle, which is developing into a war of attrition, combined with the reality that Putin faces a mismatch between his ambitions and Russia’s current conventional military capabilities, likely means the next few months could see us moving along a more unpredictable and potentially escalatory trajectory.”

Haines added that “Putin would probably only authorize the use of nuclear weapons if he perceived an existential threat to the Russian state or regime, but we will remain vigilant in monitoring every aspect of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces.” 

Given that Russia’s regime hasn’t been shy about vowing military consequences up to and including nuclear annihilation for anybody who supports Ukraine or otherwise annoys Moscow, the word “probably” is doing a lot of work here. But other informed observers, including Tufts University’s Daniel W. Drezner and Texas A&M University’s Matthew Fuhrmann, agree that Russia is unlikely to follow through on its high-stakes tough talk.

Importantly, instead of cowing critics, Putin and company’s threats drove Finland and Sweden to apply for NATO membership. They’re not shy about their reasons for joining the military alliance.

“The Government’s assessment is that NATO membership is the best way to protect Sweden’s security in light of the fundamentally changed security environment following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” Swedish officials announced last week.

Even famously neutral Switzerland is drawing closer to NATO. Rather than intimidate its neighbors, Russia’s regime in full frothing-at-the-mouth mode is frightening them to join together in self-defense. Who wants to be the politicians who meekly submitted their countries to the whims of the local bully?

Russia’s imperial ambitions endanger the world beyond Europe, given the roles the aggressor and the aggrieved play in feeding a planet on which food was already rising in price and hunger spreading.

“Between them, Ukraine and Russia produce almost a third of the world’s wheat and barley and half of its sunflower oil,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned last week. “There is no effective solution to the food crisis without reintegrating Ukraine’s food production, as well as the food and fertilizer produced by Russia and Belarus, into world markets — despite the war.”

Reintegrate Ukraine’s food production? On Russia’s terms or Ukraine’s? That question will be hashed out on the battlefield while the war in Ukraine chugs along with no end in sight. If anybody knows for sure where this conflict is headed, they aren’t talking. The one thing we can be sure of is that we have good reason to be concerned about the months to come.

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