In February 2022, when Vladimir Putin sent 200,000 of his troops to topple the Ukrainian government, the Biden administration was quick to respond. Within days of the invasion, it approved $350 million worth of weapons to be sent to Ukraine, as well as a series of “shock and awe sanctions” against the Russian economy, all in an effort to prevent Ukraine from being conquered.
Yet, while Joe Biden made clear that he intended to help Ukraine defend itself, he also made it clear that America had more important priorities in the conflict, above all avoiding a direct confrontation with Russia.
In a briefing held in March of last year, Biden announced that “We’re going to make sure Ukraine has the weapons to defend themselves from invading Russian force.” But, he was quick to add, “the idea that we’re going to send in offensive equipment and have planes and tanks and trains going in with American pilots and American crews, just understand—and don’t kid yourself, no matter what you all say—that’s called World War III.”
So, while America would help Ukraine defend itself, there were limits to the sort of help it could offer.
But such prudence did not last long, because within two months of telling America that he would not send offensive weapons to Ukraine, the White House would reverse course, and started providing those very weapons.
This became a familiar pattern over the course of the war, where America would initially dismiss Ukrainian requests for certain weapons, claiming that they were too provocative to send, only to change its mind and eventually provide them.
And after a year of doing this, the United States has provided far more aid than it originally intended, including numerous shipments of deadlier weapons as well as providing Ukraine with intelligence, military training, and an unspecified number of CIA and U.S. special operations personnel.
Despite its early, stated intention to keep its distance from the conflict, America has gradually waded deeper into the war for Ukraine, ignoring most of its of self-imposed limits to eventually find itself the owner of a proxy war with Russia.
It is not surprising that America ended up in this situation, because like past interventions, it entered the conflict for Ukraine without a clear endgame in mind. America got involved only certain that it wanted to avoid war with Russia, but why it needed to support Ukraine in the first place was never entirely clear. The justifications offered at the start of the war were numerous and varied, and included saving Ukrainian democracy, defending the international rules-based order, bleeding Russia dry, or perhaps the most meaningless of all, which is to simply “Stand with Ukraine.” But all of these explanations are vague and open ended, which is the problem. When you enter a conflict without a clear objective, you are susceptible to mission creep until you find one.
And for America, that objective became pursuing the war interests of Kiev to the detriment of its own. Contrary to any rational assessment of American interests, Kiev’s objective has always been total victory, which means, at a minimum, the reclamation of all former Ukrainian land lost since 2014. Other aims include holding Russia financially responsible as well having a war-crimes tribunal for Putin and his underlings.
This sort of strategic drift could be tolerated in the early stages of the conflict, when Ukraine was defending its capital or retaking land that was not strategically significant to Moscow. But the conflict is now expected to enter a more deadly and escalatory phase, which puts America in a very precarious situation. With apparent U.S. support, Kiev is now preparing to expel all Russian forces from Ukraine. It cannot be overstated how at odds this is with America’s interest of containing the war and avoiding direct NATO involvement. Most of this land is populated with ethnic Russians, and some areas, like Crimea, are considered vital to Russian security. We should expect Russia to go to great lengths to keep these parts of Ukraine, which raises the possibility that NATO gets dragged into this conflict if Kiev attempts to reclaim them.
If America wants to avoid such a scenario, it must formally state in clear terms what it considers an acceptable solution to the war in Ukraine, and if America’s most important interest is avoiding war with Russia, the most logical step would be to work towards ending hostilities. This means that America would have to accept the reality on the ground and concede that the land Russia now controls is in fact Russian. If not, America will only become more entangled in the war. It only takes one miscalculation by Russia, Ukraine, or a bordering NATO member to finally make America a direct participant in this war, and the longer it continues, the more likely such an event will occur. Therefore, instead of pursuing Ukraine’s interests, America should start pursuing its own, which would mean demanding that Kiev negotiate for peace as well as refrain from supporting any forthcoming offensive.