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Ukraine's Most Important Battle this Summer

Ukraine's Most Important Battle this Summer

The most critical decision for Ukraine’s survival is taking place next month at the NATO summit in Vilnius.

Dalibor Roháč

Ukraine’s imminent offensive notwithstanding, the conventional wisdom in the West seems to be congealing around a tacit acceptance of a frozen conflict in Ukraine, in which Russia continues to control significant territories, including Crimea, in perpetuity.

While superficially plausible, this prediction completely misreads the collective mood in Ukraine. Ukraine is more determined than ever to wage war until the last Russian soldier has left the country. More seriously, policymakers in Washington or Brussels should not be in the business of making predictions. Their job is to shape reality.

Treating the war as inevitably inconclusive weakens the political case for muscular assistance to Ukraine. It also risks alienating Ukrainians themselves. If pursued as a policy, some ten years from now, a future U.S. administration and European governments might have to be asking themselves who actually lost Ukraine.

For Ukrainians, retaking the entirety of the country’s territory—particularly Crimea and its southern regions—has no viable alternative. Besides the humanitarian imperative of liberating Ukrainians suffering under the Kremlin’s yoke and of restoring the country’s legal borders, there are strategic and military reasons to do so. Until the Kremlin gives up its war objectives, Crimea and Ukraine’s south will be a launchpad for future attacks on Ukraine, putting all of Ukraine within range of Russian long-range artillery. It also presents a threat to the ports and sea lanes upon which Ukraine’s agricultural exports rely.

There is no way of telling how much blood and treasure it will cost for Ukrainians to succeed in expelling Russian forces. Of course, Western assistance plays a big role in setting the Ukrainians up for success. The more F-16s, ATACMS, and armor arrives in Ukraine, the fewer people will die and the sooner everyone can look forward to the end of hostilities. Yet, given the state of the U.S. and European defense industrial bases, along with reasonable expectations about how far the U.S. and European governments are willing to go to help defend Ukraine, the fight ahead seems a long and difficult one.

More importantly, the idea that Western assistance can be calibrated to bring about changes in Ukraine’s ultimate ambitions is illusory. Ukraine’s fight is an existential one. Even if Western assistance is reduced down the road with the implicit intention of bringing the two sides to a negotiating table, Ukrainians will still have no other option than to fight, with whatever means necessary, to defend the viability of their statehood.

Those in the West sympathetic to Kyiv who nonetheless find the prospect of a “forever war” unappealing, even if fought only by the Ukrainians themselves, have one card to play: NATO membership. In particular, a credible commitment by the alliance to bring Ukraine into NATO as soon as fighting stops—whether by ceasefire, a formal peace treaty, or just by freezing the conflict—would reduce the war’s stakes for Ukraine’s survival and prosperity.

An outcome in which Ukraine does not recover all of its territory would be unjust and carry a  humanitarian price tag–especially if it involved leaving Ukrainian citizens stranded under Russian occupation. But, from a purely strategic standpoint, a Ukraine that joins NATO and benefits from the Article 5 guarantee can survive, exist securely, and even prosper, essentially regardless of how the currently occupied territory remains under Russian control. The geography of Baltic states makes them indefensible too; yet the strength of the alliance provides ample deterrence against a Russian attack. Similarly, the vulnerabilities created by Russia’s control of parts Ukraine’s territory, such as Crimea, could conceivably be mitigated by extending the same NATO guarantees to the rest of Ukraine, alongside with—say—a U.S. garrison in Kherson.

Those horrified by the human, social, and economic toll of the war—or wary of an open-ended commitment to supporting Ukraine’s defense—ought to be supporting the country’s NATO membership at the earliest practical opportunity. The latter is the closest thing to a substitute for Ukraine’s total and unconditional victory in the war, degrading Russia’s military power for generations to come.

The corollary is that if the upcoming summit in Vilnius does not provide a believable path toward NATO membership for Ukraine with the cessation of hostilities, Ukrainians will have no choice but to fight the war to a victorious end, whatever the cost in human lives, treasure, and lost time. And if we want to keep Ukraine on our side, we must stand ready to support them in that effort.

Given the political vagaries of the NATO ratification process, it may be impossible for the alliance to make a credible commitment to Ukraine’s membership at this time. However, the absence of a firm, timely path into the alliance alongside the prospect of gradually diminishing military assistance would mean that Ukrainians are ultimately fighting on their own.

Moreover, the less the West does for Ukraine now, the less influence we have over how Kyiv prosecutes the war; how the conflict affects domestic institutions, rule of law, and democracy in Ukraine; or even whom Ukraine teams up with in its defensive efforts and in its post-war reconstruction.

Are you concerned about the risk of escalation from Ukraine’s strikes deep inside Russia? If the U.S. administration leaves Ukraine out in the cold in Vilnius, and if it moreover hints at a gradual tapering of military assistance, there is little reason why it should have any say over Kyiv’s military tactics. That also extends to Ukraine’s extraordinary domestic measures that have been hitherto eschewed but which may become necessary to sustain a long-term war effort—think nationalizations of large enterprises, suspended elections, restrictions on freedom of speech, and so on.

Finally, there is the question of Ukraine’s long-term allegiances. There is no question that Ukrainians want to be a part of the West. They want to join the EU and NATO. Nevertheless, that determination might change if they conclude that they are being let down by the West, especially in their heroic effort to defend their country. As of now, it appears that Ukrainians have nowhere else to turn anyway, but that does not have to be a permanent state of affairs.

It is not just benign third parties that may step in to help. Is it really inconceivable, for example, that China would be willing to sell arms to Ukraine (with many strings attached), or take part in its reconstruction through the Belt and Road Initiative?

Given the current “no-limits” partnership between Moscow and Beijing, that prospect may seem a remote one. Yet, if there’s one thing worse than a China that is cautiously sympathetic to the Kremlin—including with its derisory “peace plan” and its economic dealings with Russia—it is a China that builds influence over Ukraine because of Western disengagement.

Nobody should assume such a scenario is impossible simply because Russia and China are autocracies. The Ukrainians themselves see value in engaging with Beijing, notwithstanding its ham-fisted and unhelpful role in the war. The Soviet-Chinese relations were famously fraught throughout the Cold War. A seemingly more constructive China would drive a wedge between the United States and its European allies—after all, Beijing would be heedingPresident Macron’s pleas from earlier this spring—and could derail Ukraine from off its pro-Western path.

Like biblical prophecies, this one is intended as a warning rather than as a prediction. In particular, it is a warning against the idea that the stakes of the war in Ukraine will become smaller for the Western world if we do less. Nothing is further from the truth. Going wobbly now, after an already significant investment toward Ukraine’s success, is a guarantee of a catastrophe with adverse consequences reverberating far beyond Ukraine or Eastern Europe.

Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor with American Purpose. Twitter: @DaliborRohac.

Image: A meeting between NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, June 1, 2023. (Flickr: NATO)

DemocracyEastern EuropeEuropeRussiaUkraineU.S. Foreign Policy