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The war in Ukraine enters its deadliest phase yet
For weeks now, fighting around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant—seized by Russian forces in March but operated by Ukrainian engineers now—has raised new fears of a catastrophic accident. A dry spent fuel storage facility was damaged last month and there was a loss of outside power to the plant. Renewed shelling caused a fire that led, once more, to the plant being disconnected from Ukraine’s national power grid. The United Nations has called for a security protection zone. There is little they can do to stop the fighting.
If nuclear peril is avoided here, it can come up again in the future. The war may be entering its most dangerous phase, with neither country incentivized to stand down. Russia is the aggressor and Ukraine is righteously defending its homeland, thanks to enormous military aid from the United States and Europe. Vladimir Putin, determined to keep his grip on power, will not relent, and there is little reason to believe Ukraine can completely repel Russia in the coming months. The war, as Anatol Lieven has argued, has reached a brutal stalemate, with casualties piling up on each side. While commentators in the West have ceaselessly invoked the Second World War to describe the carnage before us, the conflict most resembles the First—a blood-drenched slog, the front line movable only in small degrees. Advances in military technology have strengthened the defensive, allowing anti-aircraft missiles, mobile artillery, and drones to destroy tanks and ground attack aircraft and helicopters. The factors that have worked against Russia will do the same to Ukrainian forces if they launch mass offensives.
What’s striking about this phase of the war in Ukraine is how relatively little attention it’s now commanding beyond the political class of the United States. When Russia launched their brazen and horrific invasion in February, the world was shocked into attention, and many Americans immediately expressed solidarity with the Ukrainian cause. Yellow and blue flags flew from storefronts and appeared widely on social media pages. Politicians of both parties rallied around the beleaguered nation. In the early days, updates on the war were blared, in all capital letters, across the top of the New York Times, in the same manner as the 9/11 attacks. Ukraine, in every sense, was a cause célèbre.
The length of the war and its distance from America has inevitably diminished these feelings. Support for Ukraine remains bipartisan—the Democrats are as enthusiastic about pumping Ukraine with arms as Republicans—and most Americans, if asked, would say they feel sympathy for the Ukrainian people. But other matters, like the overturning of Roe and persistent inflation, have taken precedence. This is natural. If the war isn’t on American soil, Americans will only care for so long.
The lack of attention has probably masked, for the average Ukraine backer abroad, the dispiriting progress of the war. Early on, it appeared Vladimir Putin’s military was in shambles and the Ukrainian army, with enough Western support, could crush Russia completely. In April, public intellectuals like Francis Fukuyama declared that Ukraine, in fact, could win the war. Anything seemed possible, with Russia incurring enormous casualties as it failed to quickly seize territory.
More than six months later, the prospects of a Ukrainian victory remain remote, even with news of successful counteroffensives in Kharkiv and Kherson. Russia has conquered more than a fifth of the country and almost fully halted Ukraine’s ability to sell its goods and grain. Russia controls Crimea, the Black Sea, and has obliterated crucial infrastructure in the country. Nearly a million Ukrainians have been forcibly relocated. Kyiv’s economy is cratering. Until recently, skyrocketing gas and oil prices allowed Russia to lavishly finance the invasion. Ukraine believes, with enough Western arms, a counteroffensive can work—Russia can be driven out of the Donbas and somehow be brought to heel—but the grim evidence suggests otherwise.
At some point soon, the United States and Europe will have to change course if there is any hope of avoiding further bloodshed, economic calamity, and the ever-present threat of nuclear escalation. Russia and the United States are hurtling ever closer to a head-on conflict, already engaged in a proxy war through Ukraine. The more than $50 billion in total aid, a sizable chunk for battlefield weaponry, that America has sent to Ukraine is far more than anything allocated to Afghanistan in a single year. There are two ways to view this kind of aid: it has either prolonged the war enough to create a window for diplomacy or heightened tensions to such a point that a peaceful endgame cannot be achieved in the near future.
Crackpot realists, of which there are many in both political parties and among the pundit class, insist military aid to Ukraine must be indefinite, with no conditions or thought to where it all might lead. Though diplomacy is now embraced by the likes of the Times editorial board, few Democrats or Republicans dare consider that it is time for the United States and its European allies to decisively intervene and broker a ceasefire. When American-led diplomatic efforts are suggested, the rejoinder is typically swift—no one can tell the Ukrainians when to stop fighting or how. They have a right to fight for their freedom. Russia is the malevolent invader, and any suggestion that Ukraine should enter into negotiations with their invader is derided. Negotiate? Don’t you remember Hitler?
Indeed, and Russia plainly lacks the capability to march on Europe. Odesa alone is a tall order. Not every invasion and armed conflict is an echo of one that occurred in the 1940s. And the argument for Ukrainian sovereignty—for writing blank checks to the nation—loses all purchase when the facts of the current war are brought to bear. America should have a say because America is paying for the howitzers and High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS. American military intelligence is steering the war. If the Ukrainian counteroffensive would fail without further American intervention, then American leadership, beginning with Joe Biden, should be at the negotiating table. Otherwise, mass violence and global instability are on tap for a dark fall and winter. Russia is an insidious superpower, but a superpower nonetheless. We cannot wish them into nonexistence. We cannot wave a magic wand and remove them from the Donbas.
Europe may be forced to the negotiating table as well. Will the citizens of the European Union stomach soaring energy prices, rapid inflation, and job losses in the coming months as their energy supplies come under threat? A prolonged gas cutoff could shave five or six points of GDP off nations like Italy and the Czech Republic. Germany and Poland could lose between two and three percentage points. The United States would quickly feel the repercussions of such a global depression.
Peace, undoubtedly, will be ugly. No proud defender of liberal democracy or enthusiastic supporter of Ukraine wants to cede territory to Russia. It’s an acknowledgment, in some sense, that Putin has been rewarded for his vile belligerence. Yet the alternatives, in the months to come, will be far worse, and foreign policy is not an easy morality play. The fates of continents are now at stake. The possibility of nuclear warfare, the ultimate existential threat, hangs above it all. During the Cold War, both the Soviet and American leadership understood a direct military confrontation between the superpowers had to be avoided at all costs, that the consequences would be dire for many billions of people. Such realpolitik, on all sides, is tragically in eclipse. We all may suffer for it.
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