By Rich Lowry
More and more Republicans are beginning to see the wisdom of John Lennon, and think we need to give peace a chance in Ukraine.
Donald Trump is offering himself as the peace candidate and says he could broker a Ukraine-Russia deal.
The populist and realist right are banging the drums for a negotiated end to the war, and they aren’t wrong. The conflict comes with an enormous humanitarian and economic price and is profoundly destabilizing.
So, by all means, let’s hope for a deal. The secret to unlocking a potential agreement, though, isn’t leaving Ukraine in the lurch and hoping that Vladimir Putin — just as he begins to make gains — decides to prudently and modestly stand down because dominating Ukraine isn’t so important to him after all.
The only way there will eventually be a (flawed, unsatisfactory, and probably temporary) bargain is if Putin realizes that he has no hope of getting what he wants out of the war.
There are a number of objections and arguments that populist and realist opponents make against current levels of aid to Ukraine:
We’ve ended up in a proxy war with Russia. True enough. Yet, this is not the situation we sought out. It’s not as though we encouraged Latvia to invade Russia, and then began lavishly supplying and training its forces.
The advantage of this proxy war is that the Russians are direct participants, and paying a heavy price, while our role is limited and indirect. We are in the role comparable to the Russians during the Vietnam War or the U.S. during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — supporting a highly motivated indigenous force that is doing all the fighting against a bitter geopolitical adversary.
The war is expensive and drawing down our stocks of weapons. This, too, is true. By any measure, the roughly $30 billion, and counting, that we’ve spent on Ukraine is real money. It is a fraction of a fraction of the defense budget, though.
The drawdown of weapons has created shortages in U.S. stocks, but this is more exposing a vulnerability than creating one. If we are strained merely arming Ukraine, we’d quickly reach a breaking point in a direct conflict with China. The answer is to build up our defense industrial base in a way that’d be necessary one way or the other.
NATO expansion provoked the Russians. Everyone knew that Ukraine wasn’t going to actually join NATO anytime soon (or probably ever), and Russia didn’t rationally have anything to fear from the alliance — when Russia invaded Ukraine the first time in 2014, the U.S. had brought home all its tanks from Germany. Putin has made it clear that his ideological and geopolitical goal is to reestablish a version of the Russian empire. This is a deeply held ambition that would very likely be the same if NATO had never expanded and if all the Baltic and Eastern and Central European states were blandly neutral and entirely disarmed.
Putin is only pursuing a traditional Russian foreign policy. Well, yes. But just because Russia occupied Poland for 100 years or so or gobbled up various nations of Europe during World War II, doesn’t mean similar projects today would have any legitimacy. Yes, Russia has always been concerned with securing and maintaining access to the Black Sea. It should be noted, however, that it already had an agreement with Ukraine to base its Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol. For good measure, in 2014, Russia grabbed all of Crimea. Invading Ukraine and trying to take Kyiv is oversaucing the goose and isn’t about the Black Sea but destroying a model of (imperfect) democracy on its border.
In short, cutting off the Ukrainians in the hopes of jump-starting negotiations would be folly and only benefit a Vladimir Putin who, if he had his druthers, would bring a bloody-minded peace of repression and vastation to Ukraine.
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.
(c) 2023 by King Features Synd., Inc.