As we approach the first anniversary of the Russian military’s invasion of Ukraine, it’s becoming increasingly important for Americans to ask: Who benefits?
America’s open checkbook for Ukraine is more likely to produce a long war than a swiftly decisive outcome. Three groups favor a long war in Ukraine: Vladimir Putin, the global industrial defense complex, and China.
As long as a state of war persists in Ukraine, even at a low simmer, Putin achieves his goal: Ukraine will not be part of NATO. As President Eisenhower cautioned, an overly powerful military-industrial complex risks putting its own interests and the truth at odds with America’s interests. Finally, China has greatly benefited from the ways America has squandered the post-Cold War era. American foreign policy needs strategic depth, not the same flawed approach that has left America less free, less safe, and more burdened by debt.
Pundits and intelligence professionals have attributed a host of motives to explain Putin’s unjust invasion of Ukraine. I won’t explore them here, but they all share one common theme. Putin does not want Ukraine to become a member of NATO or part of the European Union. While a state of war persists in Ukraine, neither will happen.
Providing an expectation that America will either fight or fund another endless war risks a catastrophic failure. Moreover, since our rational objectives do diverge, it provides no incentive for Ukraine’s President Zelensky to pursue more limited objectives or alternatives to America’s blank check.
Clearly, the people who make our weapons and ammunition benefit from selling more weapons and ammunition. America’s defense industrial base is and must remain the best to preserve America’s advantage on the battlefield. However, the post-Cold War era has been consumed by strategic blunders and unforced errors that have set them back and harmed our national security.
America spent nearly $7 trillion fighting a necessary but poorly focused war in response to the 9/11 attacks. We see the contrast clearly between the original war in Iraq and the much more efficient and focused effort to defeat ISIS. Finally, after years of ill-defined missions, the rational approach — using the economy of force (an enduring principle of war) — prevailed.
Finally, China employs a whole of government approach to advancing its interests that has vastly out-maneuvered America and the West in the post-Cold War era. While America has engaged in endless wars, the Chinese Communist Party has tripled its economy, grown its middle class, and focused on a global strategy that has everyone in the world except the U.S. building closer relationships with China. It’s time to focus on America’s interests — interests that empower our own government to deliver results for our own citizens.
Without succinct, principled objectives, neither our diplomats nor our warriors can be held accountable for success or failure. If not by design, certainly in effect, this lack of clarity produces long, low-grade wars rather than decisive outcomes. This same failure mode is well underway in Ukraine.
As we approach the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion, having spent more than Russia on the war, what exactly is the mission? Is it regime change in Russia? No Russian troops in Ukraine? Including Crimea? Or maybe, any peaceful resolution that prevents the spread of war to our NATO allies?
We have no mission, so there can be no accountability, and this same reactionary failure mode perversely serves the interests of others at the expense of our citizens. American foreign policy needs strategic depth, not just defense spending. That begins with a cogent mission statement for Ukraine that preserves our power where it will be most needed.