Hal Brands
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His latest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump."

Ukraine May Become More Successful Than Biden Wants

The gains of Ukraine’s bold offensive are real, spectacular, and the product of a remarkable partnership with Washington. Success, however, can test any relationship, and Ukraine’s battlefield victories could, ironically, stoke new tensions with the US.

Right now, officials in both countries are reveling in a major military breakthrough. The New York Times reports that the Pentagon was deeply involved in planning the offensives in the east and southeast of Ukraine, war-gaming them extensively and steering President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government away from a riskier thrust toward Mariupol.

This achievement represents the culmination, so far, of a relationship that has advanced rapidly since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s all-out assault in February.

Money, information and arms provided by the US and other Western countries has bolstered Ukrainian resistance and helped Kyiv inflict sky-high casualties — perhaps tens of thousands killed in action — on Moscow’s forces. Ukraine has proven that it can use that aid to liberate large swaths of its territory, which should buy it the continued backing of the Western coalition through the cold winter to come.

Lest anyone think Washington is aiding Ukraine solely out of kindness — or that it is squandering Americans’ tax dollars — this has all been a tremendously good bargain for Uncle Sam. Ukraine is the best tool the US has for battering and bogging down the Russian military so it cannot pursue aggression elsewhere and, perhaps, for dealing Putin a defeat from which he will not soon recover.

“We’re paying another country to fight a horrible war on its own soil so that we won’t have to fight a worse one on the soil of a NATO ally,” Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute told me. “It’s rather cold-blooded put that way, don’t you think?”

The US and Ukraine have a classic patron-client relationship. These are always fraught, because the parties have different levels of power and different national interests, even when they share a common enemy. The closer Ukraine gets to winning this war, the more those differences may come into view.

Zelenskiy’s government has been clear about its aims: liberation of all Ukrainian territory, including Crimea and other areas seized by Moscow in 2014, plus reparations and prosecution of Russian war criminals. With every mile of territory Ukraine reclaims, its confidence that it can secure these aims grows.

There is great moral justice in these demands, and in an ideal world, Washington would surely support them. But while President Joe Biden’s administration prudently declined to quarrel over Ukraine’s war aims when that country’s survival was very much in doubt, it may yet hesitate to make Kyiv’s goals its own.

Biden’s team might worry that if Ukraine pushes too far and overextends itself, it could end back up in costly stalemate that will consume US resources even as the danger of conflict with China grows. Or perhaps Putin would escalate radically, even using tactical nuclear weapons to avoid the meltdown of his army and the loss of Crimea, which he claims (illegally) as Russian soil.

Wars against seemingly beaten enemies can still get ugly quickly, as America learned when it sought to liberate the entire Korean Peninsula in late 1950 but found itself in a larger, more dangerous fight with China instead. No doubt the Biden administration is mulling carefully which Ukrainian war aims are desirable and which are truly indispensable.

A Ukraine that is politically independent, economically viable and militarily defensible is certainly in the latter category. So is an outcome that leaves Putin so bloodied and bereft of new gains that no reasonable observer can think that aggression has paid.

All this involves pushing Russia back to the lines of Feb. 24, 2022, if not further. But it may not, in Biden’s view, require reclaiming Crimea or putting Putin and his henchmen on trial.

A debate over ending the war isn’t imminent — it will take further offensives to evict Russia from the land it has occupied since February. Zelenskiy may eventually prove willing to trade away certain demands to secure others. Or maybe there will be a Russian military collapse that Putin meekly accepts.

But barring that best-of-all-worlds outcome, the coming months may see some difficult conversations between the US and Ukraine over how much Kyiv should seek in a peace deal with Moscow — and some quiet consideration in Washington of whether to try to restrain Zelenskiy if he pushes for more than Biden thinks wise.

It wouldn’t be the first time a US proxy ended up disappointed. President Dwight Eisenhower ultimately compelled South Korea’s Syngman Rhee to accept a compromise peace and a divided peninsula. In 1990, Washington effectively forced the Nicaraguan contras to take a peace deal that saw them disarmed even as their Sandinista enemies retained control of the Nicaraguan government and military.

Today, Ukraine is fighting the free world’s war against Moscow. That doesn’t necessarily mean it will get all that it deserves.