Robert Ford
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

Ukraine Is a Proxy War but What Is Winning?

The war in Ukraine will continue for a long time – maybe years. An analysis from the British Royal United Services Institute last month emphasized that Moscow is preparing for a long, difficult war. On this side of the Atlantic Ocean there is consensus that Washington and NATO should help Ukraine win the war. But no one explains what “winning the war” means.

Many experts say that the Americans must enable Ukraine to defend its sovereignty over its territories but which territories? Does winning mean that Ukraine should recapture Crimea and Donetsk that Putin seized in 2014?

The Group of Seven states’ foreign ministers on April 7 demanded Russia withdraw all its military forces from “the entire territory within its internationally recognized borders.” That appears to include Crimea and Donetsk.

The respected Atlantic Council last month urged the Biden administration not to acknowledge Russian sovereignty over any parts of Ukraine. The influential magazine Foreign Affairs published an article this month that Washington must not pressure Ukraine to negotiate a settlement. The Washington Post is urging the Biden administration to implement a policy of “maximum firmness.”

So far, the Biden administration appears to be following that advice and more. Secretary of Defense Austin after his April 24 visit to Kyiv said America aims to weaken Russia and prevent it from rebuilding its military capabilities. We should be honest: the Russian military is much weaker than we had thought. It cannot capture Kyiv and certainly can’t reach Warsaw or Berlin. Nonetheless, Austin said the Americans aim to stop Russia from rebuilding its strength, and Ukraine is part of that strategy.

The Biden administration has just asked Congress to approve more assistance to Ukraine worth 33 billion dollars, including 20 billion in military assistance. (Remember that the Russian military budget in 2021 was about 62 billion dollars.) The Congress will approve the assistance.

In addition, the Biden administration has told the American media that US intelligence helped Ukraine sink the cruiser Moskva and provided intelligence useful on the battlefields. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned on April 26 that NATO is fighting a proxy war against Moscow. Democratic Party Congressman Seth Moulton, who had run for president in 2020 and will run again, told Fox News on May 7 that America is “fundamentally at war” with Russia and he agreed that the Ukraine war is a proxy war.

During the four decades of the Cold War the United States never fought a proxy war so close to Moscow. It is not surprising that Putin is preparing for a long conflict. Some experts are warning of the dangers that the war will expand. Already Russia is beginning to attack Ukrainian transportation infrastructure that brings Western military equipment to the front lines in Ukraine. Many expect that Russia will launch more strikes against Ukrainian cities and communications infrastructure.

Putin will welcome bigger refugee flows to Europe and the political problems they will cause, especially if higher world energy prices cause economic recession in Europe. In addition, some analysts, such as Stephen Walt at Harvard University, insist that we pay attention to Russian threats of using nuclear weapons.

To avoid the risks of a long war, there must be a negotiated solution, with compromises from all sides. It is not clear that Putin is ready for compromises. It is unimaginable that he will withdraw from Crimea, and President Zelensky will reject Putin’s demand that that Ukraine reduce its army.

On the American side, to weaken Russia in the long-term, it will delay reducing sanctions and technology trade restrictions on the Russian economy. It will want to continue military assistance to the Ukrainian army even if Ukraine is not in NATO. But if Putin will face a hostile Ukraine and West forever, he has no incentive to seek global stability. So far, there is little discussion about these long-term issues in Washington where officials and the think tanks only talk about winning the war, whatever that means.

Watching from afar, President Xi in China cannot be happy about the Russian military failures. President Biden warned Xi not to give military or economic assistance to Russia or China would also would face sanctions and loose export markets in the other major economies.

In February, Moscow and Beijing had said their friendship had no limits, but three months later, Beijing recognizes it needs those export markets. Therefore, for now at least, there must be limits to its relationship with Russia. It has not abstained from giving Moscow material assistance.

Beijing must also understand American military aid to Ukraine does not go to American and allied forces in Asia. No doubt Chinese leaders are thinking about how smaller countries, like Iran and Russia, one day could become Chinese proxies against America.