Divisions in the west threaten Ukraine

Early in the Vietnam war, President Lyndon Johnson asked one of his top generals what it would take “to do the job”. The unhelpful reply was to ask for a definition of the job. A later White House study defined winning in Vietnam as “demonstrating to the Vietcong that they cannot win”.

Now, as they support Ukraine in its war with Russia, western powers are once again tempted to define winning as not losing. The Ukrainians worry that they will be given just enough to keep fighting — but not enough to defeat Russia. This is an agonising prospect at a time when their cities are being devastated and the Ukrainian army is losing hundreds of men a day as it fights to stem a Russian advance.

A recent article by President Joe Biden defined America’s main goal as the preservation of a free and independent Ukraine. Olaf Scholz, Germany’s chancellor, has often said that Russia must not win — but has never said that Ukraine must achieve victory. A spokesman for Emmanuel Macron briefed anonymously that France wants Ukraine to be victorious, but the president himself is yet to utter those words.

By contrast, Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, stated simply that “Ukraine must win”. And Kaja Kallas, the prime minister of Estonia, has said: “Victory has to be the goal and not some peace agreement.”

The difference between those who call for Ukrainian victory and those who restrict themselves to saying that Russia must not win is much more than a matter of nuance. It dictates crucial decisions about the kind of weaponry to be provided for Ukraine — and whether and when to push for a peace settlement. The Estonian rejection of “some peace agreement” contrasts with Biden’s stated aim of putting Ukraine “in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table”.

Lying behind these views is a difference in threat perception. Those who see the major danger as Russian imperialism are ready to call for Ukrainian victory. This camp includes Poland, Britain, the Baltic states and Finland.

Those who worry most about war between Russia and the west will talk only about Moscow not winning. They fear that pushing for outright Ukrainian victory could lead to direct conflict between Russia and the west or the use of Russian nuclear weapons. France and Germany are in this camp.

The US, crucially, is somewhere in the middle — trying to balance its response to both threats, as it provides the bulk of the military aid to Ukraine. The dominant view in the Biden administration is that, having worried too much about nuclear conflict at the start of the war, the west is now in danger of worrying too little.

Russian military doctrine allows for the use of nuclear weapons in the event of an existential threat to the nation. Senior US officials think that it is possible that Vladimir Putin, Russia’s leader, would see a humiliating defeat in Ukraine as representing that kind of existential threat. That creates a paradoxical situation — in which the better Ukraine does on the battlefield, the more dangerous the situation becomes.

These concerns inject real caution into US policy and are why Washington has decided to limit the range of the new missiles that it is supplying to Ukraine. The Americans decided not to send artillery that can strike well into Russia because that might look too much like a direct US attack. (Meanwhile, the delivery of heavy weapons from Germany keeps being delayed.)

All this is a source of deep frustration for those in the western alliance who think that the biggest danger is Russian imperialism — not Russian defeat. They point to Putin’s recent remarks in which he cast himself as the heir to Peter the Great, in reclaiming — as he put it — and expanding Russian territory.

This school of thought is dismissive of the idea that Putin would ever go nuclear — arguing that the Russian leader has always exhibited a strong instinct for self-preservation. They believe that the only way of finally ending the Russian imperial threat is to humiliate Putin. This leads to the call for much more aggressive military moves — such as providing Kyiv with the means to sink the Russian fleet that is currently blockading Ukrainian ports.

Conscious of the need to maintain western unity, America and its allies have come up with a few verbal formulas that they can all agree on. Everyone, including Scholz and Macron, agrees that there will be no peace deal imposed on Ukraine. But the Ukrainian concern is that they will, de facto, be forced to concede territory because they will not be given powerful enough weaponry to prevent Russia advancing on the battlefield.

A lot will depend on what impact the new artillery systems promised to Ukraine have in the coming weeks. Despite their underlying divisions, most western governments seem to think that if Ukraine can force Russia back to where its armed forces began on February 24, before the invasion, then this would provide a basis for serious negotiations.

Unfortunately, however, there is no guarantee that Ukraine can achieve this kind of victory — or that either side will stop fighting, if the February 24 lines are reached. In Ukraine, as in Vietnam, the definition of victory is dangerously elusive and the result may be a long, brutal war of attrition.

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