A Drawn-Out Ukraine War Should Not Change U.S. Strategy

Foreign Policy, 14.06.2023
A. Wes Mitchell, ex secretario de estado americano para Europa y Euroasia

On Feb. 23, 2022—the day before Russia attacked Ukraine—I wrote in Foreign Policy that if an invasion were to occur, it would represent a strategic opportunity for the United States to sequence the China and Russia threats. By supporting Kyiv against Moscow, I argued, the United States had a chance to deal decisively with the weaker of its two big-power adversaries before the stronger of the pair was ready for a full-scale challenge.

A year and a half later, there are growing concerns that this logic no longer makes sense. The longer the war goes on, the greater the costs to the United States, not only in money and armaments but in attention and resources not going to the Indo-Pacific, including to the defense of Taiwan. Some voices in the Biden administration appear to be worried that if the ongoing counteroffensive gets bogged down, U.S. voters will balk at the prospect of extending U.S. support for Ukraine.

At the root of these concerns is a strategic premise: that protracted U.S. support for Ukraine erodes the effectiveness of sequencing. It’s not hard to see the reasoning: The longer a great power puts effort toward Object A, the less bandwidth it has for Object B—and the less ready it will be to handle the latter when it becomes necessary. Resources and political will are not infinite, and geography imposes real limits, even in the 21st century.

But sequencing remains the best strategy for the United States to handle the two-front challenge from China and Russia. Helping Ukraine to defeat Russia by ejecting it from its territory is the best way to pursue such a strategy—for two reasons.

First, a protracted war hurts Russia more than it hurts the United States. The whole point of a proxy war is to weaken a rival without the cost and risk that would come as a result of direct confrontation. It’s especially valuable against Russia because it’s the weaker of the United States’ two big rivals and because it’s a large continental power constantly tempted to expand at the expense of its neighbors. This combination of weakness and temptation is the Kremlin’s Achilles’s heel: As a large land empire with vulnerable frontiers, Russia is continually pulled into conflicts beyond its ability to manage. Britain exploited this problem in an earlier era—for example, by supporting Japan in its 1904 war against Russia, an example of a successful proxy war that effectively evicted Russia from the Far East. Similarly, the United States exploited the Kremlin’s quandary by supporting Afghanistan’s mujahedeen against a decaying Soviet empire in the 1980s.

Lest anyone misconstrue this argument: The point is not that Washington should try to extend the war and prolong the bloodshed. Rather, it’s that it is in the U.S. interest to check Russian aggression wherever it occurs. Even if Russia had won a decisive victory early on, it would have been in the U.S. interest to arm and abet a Ukrainian insurgency. Had Kyiv chosen to pursue neutrality early in the conflict, it would still have been in the U.S. interest to turn Ukraine into a heavily fortified redoubt capable of defeating renewed Russian aggression. And even if the war now lasts longer than anyone hoped, it’s still in the U.S. interest to continue imposing the steepest possible costs on Moscow.

It’s worth mentioning here that a similar approach will not necessarily be effective with respect to China. Unlike in the large land areas of Eastern Europe, an aggressive move in a maritime environment may be harder to counter with proxy methods. Indeed, a protracted war could work to Beijing’s advantage in a Taiwan scenario: A fight in the waters around the island is likely to require costly sea and air platforms that are not as readily disseminated as anti-tank missiles and artillery shells; involve a populace that is not as culturally or historically inured to bitter self-defense as the Ukrainians; and occur in a compressed island geography that, for all the ruggedness of its mountains, lacks the scale to sustain an insurgency over a long period.

All of which is to say: If a major war involving one of the United States’ big rivals was going to break out early in the 21st century, it’s better that it was with Russia than with China.

Second, the war in Ukraine has not been accompanied by a shortening of the strategic window in which China is likely to be ready to make a military move against Taiwan. To be sure, there are good reasons for Washington to believe that Beijing wants to do that as soon as it is able. But the best information the United States has suggests that China still needs anywhere between two and five years to be ready for a cross-strait assault. If anything, by demonstrating the difficulties of taking territory in a modern war environment, Russia’s failures in Ukraine may have led Chinese leaders to decide that they need more time to prepare. In the meantime, the war has had a galvanizing effect in accelerating the U.S. military’s accumulation of vital stocks and overall preparedness for war—not to mention prompting greater defense seriousness among U.S. allies in Europe and Asia.

Finally, a shift away from a sequencing strategy would carry risks of its own. Over the past year and a half, the United States has made a major, sustained political, military, and economic investment in Ukraine’s success on and off the battlefield. It has sent more than $113 billion in aid, shifted tens of thousands of troops to the European theater, and made the rallying of international allies behind the Ukrainian cause the centerpiece of U.S. global strategy.

A commitment of this scope makes the United States’ credibility as a great power intimately bound up in what happens in Ukraine. The reputational dimension is all the more important as the U.S. involvement in Ukraine comes on the heels of the Biden administration’s chaotic departure from Afghanistan. A sudden shift of U.S. resources to Asia would call into question Washington’s ability to pursue what it has publicly identified as its top objective abroad. The worst of all worlds would be if the United States reduced aid to Ukraine on a scale that allowed Russia to gain ground there and emboldened China to launch an attack on Taiwan.

None of this is to say that there aren’t real military trade-offs between the two theaters. There are. But they can be intelligently managed and are outweighed by multiple strategic benefits. These include inflicting a major blow on one of the United States’ two rivals, exposing U.S. military-technological and armaments production deficiencies in a real-world setting rather than a tabletop one, and drawing lessons from the battlefield for a future conflict in Asia.

Although sequencing is still the best strategy for the United States, protraction of the war does suggest that Washington will need to refine its strategy over time. A longer war argues for the United States to provide more powerful weapons to Ukraine in order to bring the war to a conclusion and give Kyiv a credible deterrent. The costs of a longer war argue even more for European allies to step up their own military preparations and carry a much larger share of the burden of supporting Ukraine. And it argues for shifting NATO’s center of gravity eastward, including by placing permanent military infrastructure in eastern allies’ territory and expanding participation in the nuclear-sharing program.

Underlying all of this is the need to use the current window wisely: to prepare for and thereby hopefully avoid a catastrophic war with China. That Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine much sooner than Chinese President Xi Jinping was ready to move against Taiwan represents the greatest strategic opportunity for the West in decades. Just imagine if the two despots’ timetables had been aligned. The United States should exploit the opportunity it has been presented by Putin’s barbaric folly to the fullest, for as long as it goes on. That was a sound strategy at the start of the war, and it remains a sound strategy today.

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