US policy toward Ukraine should be more supportive and proactive

US policy toward Ukraine should be more supportive and proactive

CIUS weekly report on media coverage of Ukrainian affairs, 1824 July 2022

Four North American magazines (National Interest, National Review, The Atlantic, and The Economist) were selected to prepare this report on how the situation in Ukraine has been portrayed in the media during the past week (18–24 July 2022). The sample of magazines was created based on their impact on public opinion, as well as their professional reputation, popularity among the readership, and topical relevance. These four magazines represent the conservative and liberal political spectrum.

This report covers only the most-read articles about Ukraine, as ranked by the respective magazines themselves in the past week. It also covers promoted texts on home pages, texts from special sections on Ukraine, texts from the paper editions of the magazines, and texts about Ukraine from opinion columns and editorials.

Topics featured in the selected articles:

  • Ukraine at war: Тhe port in Odesa is to gradually restore its export capacity; Ukrainian defenders have killed thousands of Russian invaders; the war is likely to become more destructive in future;
  • The world and Ukraine: Western support to Ukraine may diminish after PM Draghi resigns; US should provide more ammunition to Ukraine and upgrade its nuclear deterrence programme; Belarusian legionnaires suffer losses but fight for Ukraine;
  • Russia at war: The Kremlin is prepared to undermine the global economy to achieve victory in Ukraine; conquering Odesa invariably remains a key objective of Russia’s invasion; the war irreversibly moved Ukraine out of the Kremlin’s sphere of influence.

The most common arguments:

The port in Odesa will soon be restored as a key link in Ukraine’s food exports. The Economist writes that Turkey’s diplomatic mediation and simultaneous openness to the West and Russia were instrumental in negotiating a deal “to reopen Ukraine’s ports and export its grain to a hungry world.” Conditions of the deal include establishing a coordination centre in Istanbul, where observers from the UN, Turkey, Ukraine, and Russia will inspect vessels that enter or leave Ukraine’s territorial waters. Another such centre is being planned for in Odesa, but Kyiv is against Russian representatives being stationed there. As of now, Ukraine is ready to export 18 million tonnes of grain that have been stockpiled around Odesa. That said, some Western experts are skeptical that the Kremlin will abide by its obligations, as weaponizing food has always been one of its strategies in war. This grain export deal will also increase the popularity of Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan, who has recently been blamed for runaway inflation and tensions within NATO (concerning the latter, by raising conditions for the membership of new applicants Sweden and Finland).

The Ukrainian army has killed at least 15,000 Russian soldiers, as estimated by the CIA and MI6. The Economist considers the Russo-Ukrainian war to be one of the bloodiest of the last two centuries, with up to 100 soldiers being killed each day. However, calculating casualties is not an easy real-time exercise, as too many variables exist: different types of units which keep separate rosters (e.g., regular army, national guard, private mercenaries), different types of injuries (e.g., immediately fatal or leading to death after some time), battlefield uncertainties (i.e., not all soldiers who are missing become killed in action), losses from long-range artillery hits (i.e., casualties that are not directly observed are tricky to confirm), and others. On top of this, both Ukraine and Russia are inclined to diminish their losses and inflate enemy casualties. In this light, the “error bar” for calculating losses on both sides is very wide. The most modest calculations claim that 60,000 Russian soldiers have been taken off the battlefield (killed and wounded) thus far. Meanwhile, the amplest calculations posit that 125,000 Russians are no longer battle-capable, which is “equivalent to the entire ground combat force with which Russia started the war.” The Economist concludes that in any case, the Russian losses are significant because the invaders have essentially lost their offensive potential. 

To end the war, Ukraine should agree to Russia’s demands. David T. Pyne (The National Interest) puts forward a fifteen-point plan that should put an end to the Russo-Ukrainian war. Inter alia, the plan envisages Ukraine’s adoption of a permanently neutral status, Kyiv’s recognition of the annexation of Crimea, a referendum in the occupied territories of the Donbas on returning to Ukraine’s sovereignty, a drastic reduction of Ukraine’s armed forces, prohibition on Ukraine’s development of long-range missiles, restoration of Russia-NATO dialogue, incorporation of Russia into European security architecture, prohibition on investigating Russia’s war crimes, and other demands usually voiced by the Kremlin. In return, Ukraine would have the chance to freely join the EU, receive unlimited Western investments for reconstruction, preserve its access to the Black Sea, and receive its prisoners of war. Pyne argues that “these are the best and most realistic terms Ukraine can hope for, as well as the terms most likely to be agreeable to both sides. Such a negotiated compromise peace agreement could be mediated by France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, and Israel and would be followed by the cessation of all military operations and withdrawal of all Russian military forces from Ukraine outside of the Donbas region.” Payne considers that the longer the war lasts, the weaker Ukraine’s negotiation position becomes. 

The resignation of Mario Draghi, Prime Minister of Italy, will shake the unity of the West in Ukraine. Jason W. Davidson (The National Interest) starts his article by stating that “Draghi’s resignation will likely fundamentally change Italy’s stance on the war and posture toward Russia.” This is because the new government in Italy, following September 2022 parliamentary elections, will likely be more right-wing and sympathetic to the Kremlin. The new government will likely stop conducting a hard-line policy on Russia, supporting sanctions, reinforcing NATO’s eastern flank, and limiting its dependence on Russia’s energy exports. Instead, the former economic relations and dependencies, which were initialized during the Cold War, will likely be revitalized. Davidson writes that the new government of Italy “is likely to press Ukraine to negotiate with Russia to achieve an end to the war, even if it means Kyiv must concede territory.” Apart from this, the new government will likely shift its attention to combating terrorism in the Mediterranean littoral instead of playing a key role in the resolution of the Central European crises and providing weaponry to Ukraine.

US policy toward Ukraine could be more supportive and proactive. Robert Zubrin (National Review) accuses President Joe Biden of failing to arm Ukraine regardless of the CIA’s warnings about Russia’s forthcoming invasion in February 2022: “In consequence, over 100,000 people are dead, 10 million have been made homeless, hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of property has been destroyed in Ukraine, and trillions in damages have been inflicted on the world economy.” As of today, Biden’s administration continues to be overly cautious in supplying arms to Ukraine, especially High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS). The explanation is that the US needs to keep these launchers for themselves. However, according to Zubrin, “the 100 HiMARS units that Ukraine needs to win would amount to only 3 percent, approximately, of America’s total rocket artillery firepower.” The indecisiveness of Biden’s administration paves the way for authoritarian Russia to win, which is not in the national interests of the US. Zubrin concludes that “it’s time for the Republican Party to take a serious stand…Putin needs to be defeated and discredited.” In the long run, Putin’s downfall would reduce the chances of new wars, save the lives of US citizens, and prevent strengthening of the Sino-Russian partnership.

The Biden administration should reconsider the roll-back of nuclear deterrence. Rebeccah Heinrichs (National Review) highlights the point that while Russia and China are modernizing and reinforcing their strategic arsenal, the US under Biden’s administration plans the roll-back of a nuclear deterrent. It is only Congress that seems to be standing on guard for national interests and challenging President-initiated cuts on nuclear armament. According to Heinrichs, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine provides the best evidence that the post-Cold War order in which the Kremlin aims to play an antagonistic and destructive role should be maintained by nuclear parity. Therefore, instead of curtailing military expenditures the US should learn its lessons from Ukraine “and adapt its nuclear policy by growing or changing the U.S. deterrent when military officials and experts deem it necessary.”

Belarusian legionnaires are not always trusted by Ukrainians but continue fighting Russians. The Economist provides curious facts and stories behind the formation of the Belarus regiment in Ukraine’s army. Two soldiers, Aliaksandr Naukovich and Sergei Bezpalov, were interviewed to explain why and how Belarus volunteers fight Russian invaders of Ukraine. The majority of the Belarus volunteers have never had any military experience; they spent their lives working as “journalists, IT specialists, welders, lorry drivers” and were often persecuted by the authorities. However, after a short training they are deployed to support Ukrainian operations in dangerous locations such as Mykolaiv in the south or Lysychansk in the east. Today, the Belarusan unit numbers 400 soldiers. The Economist highlights that “Belarusian soldiers [often] struggle to win the trust of Ukrainians, especially those working in the security services [as] few understand the difference between Mr Lukashenko and his opponents.” Both Naukovich and Bezpalov consider that the puppet President Aliaksandr Lukashenka is unlikely to send his state’s army to Ukraine, as the very idea of participating in “war” sounds threatening to ordinary Belarusans. The repercussions of WWII are still extremely strong in Belarusan society, which may discredit any idea of offensive operations of any kind, let alone in Ukraine. 

To achieve its objectives in Ukraine, the Kremlin aims at destabilizing the global economy. Seth Cropsey (National Review) argues that “by causing international shocks, Russia hopes to overawe the West once again, both presenting it the prospect of a winter energy shortage and stoking crises in the developing world.” To mitigate the challenge, “the West should respond not only by arming Ukraine and toughening sanctions. It must also break the Russian Black Sea blockade.” Cropsey argues that the Kremlin’s initial intention to overwhelm Ukraine with its supreme military power and scare off the democratic West failed abysmally. “In fact, Russia is in a precarious military position,” as it can neither attack efficiently nor retain the image of its army as “invincible.” This does not leave the Kremlin with many options—one of which is to destabilize the global economy through disruptions in Ukraine’s energy and food exports. However, the longer its economic pressure continues, the more Russia feels the repercussions in its own domestic life, not least being the risk of Ukraine’s forthcoming offensive discrediting the Kremlin’s strategists among ordinary Russians. Eventually, the Kremlin will be left with only one option—to block all trade in the Black Sea littoral. Here, the US should take a stance and secure the export of Ukraine’s grain, along with deploying its warships south of Odesa.

Conquering Odesa remains an unvarying Russia’s objective. Graeme Wood (The Atlantic) writes of his experience of surviving Russia’s missile attacks in Odesa a few hours after the deal on allowing grain exports through Odesa was signed: “Russia could not let a point of accord pass without spicing it up with discord.” Wood argues that the city has developed a spirit of resistance, the war is causing its Russian-speaking population to become alienated from Russia, and a sea assault is feared at any moment. The beaches in and around Odesa are closed due to being mined, and the world-famous opera house is encircled by sandbags and gunports. Wood ponders that “Russia’s desire to punish Ukraine means that it will not allow the country a victory under any circumstances. Russia may have to let the grain out, but it can still choose to make life less bearable in the city that ships it.” In this light, Russia’s strategy regarding Odesa resides in psychological torment: rocket attacks, howling of air sirens, separation of families, and rumours about atrocities that Russians may commit if the city falls. 

Russia attack the port in Odesa the next day after agreeing to allow Ukraine’s food exports. As Wood did in The Atlantic (see above), The Economist also notes the audacious fact that Russia shelled the port in Odesa a few hours after it promised to permit grain exports from the same port. Unlike Wood, The Economist scrutinizes the grain deal mechanisms and highlights that they contain many gaps which can be exploited by Russia: “The route of the ‘maritime humanitarian corridor’ is yet to be set; so is the minimum distance from it that military ships, aircraft or drones would be required to maintain. It is not clear who would do the de-mining needed to clear a sea passage to Ukraine. The UN admits it has no means of enforcement.” The Economist also reports that this year’s harvest will be bountiful—which, alongside the strengthening US dollar on international markets, bodes very attractive revenues for food exporters. However, it remains to be seen how much food Ukrainian farmers will be able to export, when will these exports start, and how safe will it be for foreign trade vessels to traverse the Black Sea. The Economist concludes that the shaky grain deal is a positive development but cannot be considered the precursor of a coherent armistice between Ukraine and Russia.

Regardless of the outcome of the war, Russia must learn to live without Ukraine in its sphere of interest. S. Frederick Starr (The National Interest) starts with a statement that “even if Vladimir Putin wins in Ukraine, he loses. Anything defined as victory will cost the lives of thousands more of Russia’s young men at a time when the population is shrinking…Win or lose, Putin and his weakened and his discredited system will not long survive.” Starr tries to look into the future and outline the tasks for Putin’s successor, who will have to pull Russia out of its disastrous invasion of Ukraine. For this reason, Starr concludes that “Russia needs its own Charles de Gaulle.” Putin’s successor should envision a better fortune for Russia without Ukraine, the same as de Gaulle envisioned it for France without Algeria. Oppositely, if Russia continues its neo-imperial war, it may cease being an empire altogether: “a Russian withdrawal from Ukraine may be the only way Moscow can continue to hold onto the Kuril Islands, the Russian Far East, and even Siberia.” For the sake of its state’s integrity, the Kremlin should stop fighting the wars of the past and offer an alternative scenario of glory to its citizens. 

Worth your attention:

Ukraine should not agree to Russia’s demands to end the war. A 15-point plan presented by David T. Pyne in The National Interest not only reflects the majority of the Kremlin’s war objectives but also anticipates that their acceptance by Ukraine will bring long-lasting peace. Pyne defines his 15-point plan as “the best and most realistic terms Ukraine can hope for.” However, on deeper scrutiny, this plan has many weak and problematic points in it. Its very conception and public proposition represents an alignment with the perpetrator of the illegal invasion and a demoralizing attack on Ukraine’s position as vanguard defender of Western democratic values. 

Pyne argues that “Ukraine [should] amend its constitution to become permanently neutral.” 

The officially declared post-1991 policy of neutrality, commonly known as its “multi-vector foreign policy,” did not save Ukraine from Russia’s attack in 2014. Moreover, the diplomatic manoeuvring of Presidents Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma, Viktor Iushchenko, and Viktor Ianukovych between Russia and the West significantly weakened Ukraine’s armed forces and defensive industries, making it easier for Russia to invade. The  new status of neutrality proposed by Pyne would likely not stabilize the Russo-Ukrainian border permanently but instead would tempt the Kremlin to new invasions under any imaginary premise. 

Another issue resides in the formal procedures for changing the Constitution of Ukraine, where the status of the state’s neutrality is enshrined. In the conditions of war, any amendments to the Constitution are prohibited (Article 157)—not to mention that any change has to be supported by two-thirds of Ukraine’s parliament, or over three hundred MPs, a number that has always been hard to achieve (Articles 155 and 156).

Pyne advocates that “a popular referendum [should] be held by September 2022 for the entire Donbass region, including both the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, on whether their citizens wish to become independent or return to Ukrainian control.”

The most challenging point in conducting referendums in occupied territories entails meeting the formal criteria of a referendum. These include cast-iron assurance of the free flow of information among all citizens with voting rights (i.e., free media), equal access of all eligible citizens to polling stations (including displaced persons), a safe and secure environment for casting a vote without pressure, a transparent system of counting votes, a lawful and functional mechanism for implementing referendum decisions, and others. If these conditions are not met, any attempt to organize a referendum in occupied territories will be nothing but a survey of public opinion.

For more information on the poor representativity of any referendum in Ukraine’s occupied territories, we recommend reading an article by Dmytro Kuleba (Foreign Affairs).

Pyne advocates that “Ukraine [should] permanently suspend all NATO ties, including military trainers, exchanges, and joint military exercises, along with all NATO arms shipments except for small arms.”

In his article, Pyne assumes that the bilateral cooperation between NATO and Ukraine provided the casus belli for Russia in this war. However, the Alliance has never actually aimed to threaten Russia; quite the opposite, it developed a unique institutional framework of cooperation for the federation, and in the early 1990s Russia even considered joining NATO. Therefore, apart from serving as a convenient target for the Kremlin’s propaganda, NATO’s cooperation with Ukraine can hardly be defined as a major threat justifying the invasion or undermining Russia’s security. For more details, we suggest an article by Hans Petter Midttun (Euromaidan Press).

Pyne argues that “Ukraine [should] reduce its ground forces to no more than 150,000 active-duty troops and a maximum of 100,000 troops in reserve [and that] Ukraine agrees to destroy all of its ‘strike systems’ under Russian supervision.”

Without the prospect of NATO membership, any reduction in Ukraine’s armed forces alongside weakening of the state’s defensive capabilities under the threat of attack by an aggressive neighbour goes against its national interest. Besides, the citizens of Ukraine are not likely to support their state’s demilitarization under Russia’s pressure, and any political entities who promote such a solution will likely find their careers ended. As of today, more than 66 percent of Ukrainians expect to arm themselves more to defeat Russia on the battlefield instead of accepting its demilitarization demands to achieve a precarious peace.

For more information about the social moods in Ukraine, we recommend reading the article by Aaron Zitner (The Wall Street Journal).

Pyne argues that “The United States and NATO [should] issue written guarantees that NATO will never expand eastward into additional former Soviet republics or along Russia’s borders (i.e., Finland).”

Pyne uses the Russia-promoted term “expansion” with respect to NATO. By doing so, the analyst challenges the agency of NATO members and partners. According to his viewpoint, these are not sovereign states (e.g., Sweden, Finland, Ukraine, Georgia) deciding to develop their cooperation with the Alliance but rather the Alliance purposefully “expanding” to incorporate sovereign states into its structures against their will. The more accurate and therefore preferable term with respect to NATO is “enlargement,” which also reflects the Alliance’s own wording.

For additional insight, we suggest an article by Daniel Ramallo (The National Interest).

Pyne argues that “there [should] be no reparations issued by either side and no international war crimes tribunals.”

Russian reparations to Ukraine should never be overlooked in peace talks, for many reasons. Above all, Russia has violated international law; it committed acts of aggression (as defined by the UN General Assembly Resolution 3314 (XXIX)) and acts of genocide (as defined by many international experts). 

Secondly, the Kremlin launched an unprovoked war in 2014 on the territory of a peaceful neighbouring state and therefore the offender should not avoid responsibility for its atrocities. If Russia is provided with a carte blanche in respect to all its violations, if neither reparations are imposed nor major perpetrators are tried, the global security architecture will be put at risk. A signal will be sent to all autocratic regimes that they can commit war crimes, pursue their objectives by all means necessary, and remain unpunished. 

For more information about why Russia should feel the burden of its war in Ukraine, we recommend reading the article by Andriy Zagorodniuk (The Guardian).

Many of Pyne’s arguments are also challenged in articles by Leif Wenar (The Wall Street Journal) and Nicolas Tenzer (The Conversation). 

Ostap Kushnir

Ostap Kushnir is an assistant professor at Lazarski University in Warsaw. He holds an MA in Journalism from Odesa Mechnikov National University, an MA in International Relations from the University of Wales, and a PhD from Nicolaus Copernicus University (Toruń, Poland). His academic interests include geopolitical and boundary-forming processes in Central and Eastern Europe, specifically in the Black Sea region. Dr. Kushnir is the author of the book Ukraine and Russian Neo-Imperialism: The Divergent Break (2018). He is also a member of the editorial board of the Central European Journal of International and Security Studies (Czechia).

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