Even during the period of wild optimism in the United States during 2022 and early 2023 about Ukraine’s chances of defeating Russian forces, there was a small, dark cloud of doubt about what the Joe Biden administration would do if the prospects of victory unraveled. That question has now become more pertinent and urgent as Kiev’s vaunted offensive clearly is faltering. Territorial gains in Russian-occupied regions are minimal, and they have occurred only with great cost in the lives of Ukrainian troops. For Ukraine’s forces, the war has become a meat grinder reminiscent of the fighting in World War I. Attacks on entrenched Russian defenses have proven to be horrifically costly in terms of both personnel and military hardware.
Hawks in the United States and other NATO members are reacting in two rather different ways. One faction, typified by the latest propaganda campaign undertaken by Defending Democracy Together, headed by Bill Kristol, has redoubled lobbying efforts to give Kiev more potent weapons with longer ranges so that Ukraine can launch larger and more frequent attacks inside Russia. Through a new front group, Republicans for Ukraine, neo-conservative stalwarts insist, “Supporting Ukraine is in the best interests of the United States and the best traditions of the Republican Party. Now is no time to give up the fight.”
At the same time, there are noticeable leaks in the news media, apparently from high-level sources, about Ukraine’s fading chances of victory. One especially important foray was a leaked report from U.S. intelligence agencies that Kiev’s current military offensive has failed to achieve its objectives. The report also expressed dissatisfaction with a growing unwillingness of Ukrainian forces to follow the advice of NATO advisers and continue to mount frontal assaults on Russian defenses. There was grousing from American sources about the Ukrainians becoming excessively “casualty averse.”
Even some staunch congressional supporters of Ukraine concede that the war may not be winnable. A corollary to that grudging acknowledgement are the hints coming out of Europe that peace negotiations may need to commence soon, even if the ultimate settlement requires Volodymyr Zelensky’s government to make territorial concessions to Russia. Perhaps even more indicative of the shifting attitude among portions of America’s opinion elite is a mounting whisper campaign, as epitomized by the leaked intelligence report, to denigrate Ukraine’s military strategy and “willingness to fight.” As yet, there are only a few trial balloons conveying that message, but they hint at the onset of an effort to prepare the American public for possible abandonment of a U.S. client.
Either doubling down on the commitment to Ukraine or conducting a policy retreat entails serious perils for America’s foreign policy establishment. The Biden administration and NATO already have escalated their proxy war against Russia to reckless levels. When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, NATO responded by sending large quantities of weapons to Kiev. Initially, though, those items were defensive weapons, such as Javelin anti-tank missiles, designed to thwart Russian invading forces. A gradual—and dangerous–escalation in the NATO commitment has taken place since then. Indeed, it has reached the point of equipping Ukraine’s military with heavy battle tanks and other offensive weapons. The Biden administration has been deeply involved in that process, sending Abrams tanks and Patriot missiles to Kiev. Washington has also now authorized NATO allies to transfer U.S. F-16 fighters in their arsenals to Ukraine, and U.S. officials flirt with the idea of sending such planes directly from the United States.
A key problem for establishment types who are looking for an exit from the Ukraine morass is that the Biden administration has hyped the alleged importance of events there to stratospheric levels. The president and his key advisers have insisted from the outset that the war is an existential struggle between democracy and authoritarianism and between a “rules-based” international order and the law of the jungle. It is now difficult for those same officials and their supporters to call for negotiations and a compromise peace accord.
Indeed, the Biden administration and its supporters may be doubling down on the Ukraine commitment. In mid-August, the president asked Congress to approve another $24 billion in economic and military aid to Kiev, despite public opinion polls showing rapidly declining support for that option.
If the administration chooses a more prudent approach (however belatedly), the nightmare of a direct military clash between NATO and Russia would fade. The cost in terms of credibility for Western foreign policy hawks would be considerable, however. They would have to implicitly admit yet another U.S.-led interventionist crusade had failed. Coming on the heels of the fiascos in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Afghanistan, public (and even congressional) discontent with that approach to world affairs could rise sharply. The images of the humiliating, chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in August 2021 are especially fresh.
Escalation, though, would likely prove futile as well as excessively dangerous. Ukraine has served effectively as NATO’s bloody pawn, but its usefulness in the campaign to weaken Russia is drawing to a close. The apparent failure of Kiev’s current military offensive confirms that future significant gains are improbable. It is uncertain, though, if America’s foreign policy hawks are smart enough to abandon a used pawn. The danger still exists that they may instead succumb to their own propaganda and conclude that the Ukraine war really is an existential struggle requiring the West to double down on its commitment to Kiev.