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Opinion Ukraine’s supporters need to rethink their theory of victory

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“Our experience since the foundation of the Republic,” wrote journalist Walter Lippmann in 1943, “has shown that domestic division over foreign relations is the outward and visible consequence — and not the cause — of an insolvent foreign policy.”

By “insolvent,” Lippmann meant a foreign policy with strategic ends beyond its military and diplomatic means. His argument resonates today as House Republicans resist the White House’s request for a new aid package for Ukraine. Prevailing opinion in Washington holds that GOP recalcitrance is causing problems in the United States’ Ukraine strategy. But it’s at least in equal measure the consequence of them.

Those problems were laid bare this past week in bracing remarks by Valery Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s top general, in an interview with the Economist. He pronounced that Ukraine’s counteroffensive, in which the West had invested great hopes and billions of dollars in armaments, was unlikely to achieve a decisive breakthrough: “Just like in the First World War, we have reached the level of technology that puts us into a stalemate.”

This was foreseeable. A year ago, when Ukraine had the momentum — having routed the Russians in Kharkiv and Kherson — Gen. Mark A. Milley, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested a negotiated settlement to the war. Like Zaluzhny, he made an explicit comparison to World War I, noting that early on in that war it became clear that it was “not winnable anymore, militarily.”

Follow this authorJason Willick‘s opinions

It’s quite possible that negotiations were at that point infeasible — that the Russians would have refused any talks, and that the Ukrainians could not have been dissuaded from making a decisive push to retake more of their occupied territory. But at least in public, the Biden administration made no effort to try. After Milley’s exploratory statements were roundly dismissed, the White House committed to backing Ukraine’s counteroffensive as long as it takes.

As Zaluzhny diplomatically pointed out, the U.S. administration didn’t always act decisively. Long-range missiles and tanks “were most relevant to us last year, but they only arrived this year,” he told the Economist, which made it easier for the Russians to retrench.

Whether this was because of bureaucratic inertia, or President Biden’s effort to manage escalation risk, the result in the same: Ukraine today finds itself worse off than it was last November. Its troops are exhausted and depleted, its weapons stocks are running low, and Western publics are more polarized over providing further support.

Republican members of Congress who have voted no on Ukraine aid bills — their growing ranks now include House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) — are widely maligned among Washington’s foreign policy elite. At worst, they are cast as authoritarians who want Russian President Vladimir Putin to win; at best, they are isolationists who don’t understand the United States’ historic role in the world.

Some Republicans skeptical of Ukraine aid surely fall into these categories. But others have well-grounded concerns about the viability of the U.S. strategy. Aid votes are one of Congress’s few points of leverage over an administration’s foreign policy. A recent letter to the Biden administration from a group of House Republicans insists that before Congress approves more funding, “we should understand the end-state goal and exit criteria” — hardly an impertinent request.

Ukraine’s counteroffensive was supposed to sustain political support for Kyiv by proving that it could reconquer lost territory. Now, supporters of Ukraine might need to make the inverse argument: Ukraine is not reconquering substantial territory, and aid is needed indefinitely to forestall a devastating defeat.

The window for a negotiated settlement favorable to Ukraine — if there ever was one — has surely closed, as Russia sees a technologically stalemated battlefield in which it has a long-term advantage in manpower. Ukraine now needs to outlast the Russians; Putin is not immortal, and authoritarian power transitions can be bumpy.

The United States should never recognize Putin’s illicit conquests. But it might need to pivot from dreaming of victory to preparing to live with stalemate. The stalemate in World War I was broken by U.S. entry as a direct combatant against Germany. But there is virtually no appetite in the United States for direct war with Russia. Russian victory in Ukraine would be a terrible blow to U.S. interests, but not terrible enough to risk nuclear war.

The foreign policy establishment’s ambitions for a defeated Russia, contrasted with the attritional slog on the ground that has developed instead, reflect classic strategic insolvency. If the administration articulated an achievable endgame and the plan to attain it, congressional resistance to Ukraine aid might stop growing.

Most in Congress see Russia as an American adversary and understand the importance of an independent Ukraine. It should be possible to rally congressional majorities around that shared vision. But as the counteroffensive winds down, Ukraine’s supporters will need to rethink their political approach. It won’t work anymore to simply deride or condescend to skeptics. They aren’t the problem; the strategy is.

Perhaps the push and pull in Congress can help forge a more durable one.

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