7 Questions Everyone Should Be Asking About Ukraine
Why isn't anyone in our government asking the important questions?
As the war between Russia and Ukraine drags on, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that very little strategic thought has been put into what we’re trying to achieve in Ukraine. Back in March of last year, I noted that the financial tactics we were using against Russia had the potential to produce a great deal of blowback:
Just as a side note, what we’re doing in Russia today is unprecedented and could have ENORMOUS, far-reaching consequences for the American and world economy that few people have thought about or even understand — including the people implementing them. …Could we see a particularly brutal recession? A much speedier end to the dollar as a reserve currency? A much tighter economic alliance between China and Russia? Large numbers of American firms being permanently locked out of Russia and other nations? Surprisingly massive spikes in the cost of food and oil along with brutal new shortages?
That has turned out to be mostly true, but the sanctions we put on Russia have also turned out to be significantly less effective than they looked back then. The general thinking back then was that our sanctions would bring Russia to its knees, but at this point, it would be fair to label the sanctions a failure:
One month into the invasion of Ukraine, President Joe Biden stood in the courtyard of a grand Polish castle and laid out the punishing economic costs that the U.S. and its allies were inflicting on Vladimir Putin’s Russia, declaring that the ruble is almost immediately “reduced to rubble.”
Russia is now the world’s most heavily sanctioned country, according to U.S. officials. The ruble did in fact take a temporary dive and has been slipping again in recent months. But as the war nears its one-year mark, it’s clear the sanctions didn’t pack the instantaneous punch that many had hoped.
The ruble trades around the same 75-per-dollar rate seen in the weeks before the war, though Russia is using capital controls to prop up the currency. And while Russia’s economy did shrink 2.2% in 2022, that was far short of predictions of 15% or more that Biden administration officials had showcased. This year, its economy is projected to outperform the U.K.’s, growing 0.3% while the U.K. faces a 0.6% contraction, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Strategically, the goal seemed to be a variation of what we did to the Russians in Afghanistan. In March of last year, I described it like so:
We may sympathize with Ukraine and dislike Russia, but neither Russia nor Ukraine is our friend or ally. Seeing Russia’s economy shake itself to pieces while they struggle in the field to achieve a Pyrrhic victory that would grant them nothing but economic ruin and a long-term insurgency is in our interest. In other words, Putin has made a terrible mistake and we should keep shipping military aid to Ukraine, hold the line on sanctions (which we went overboard with and may come to regret down the road – more here – but in for a penny, in for a pound) and let Putin try to figure out how to extricate himself from this mess while we watch from the sidelines.
However, since then, a number of things have happened. For one thing, as was already mentioned, the sanctions have turned out to be ineffective. For another, Joe Biden rather foolishly said publicly that Putin “cannot remain in power.” In other words, if Putin didn’t already feel like Ukraine was a “do or die” situation for him, he certainly would have after Biden’s comments.
Additionally, we’ve already poured an almost unimaginable amount of money into this war. When Reagan supported the Taliban against the Russians in the 80s, they spent a little less than 4 billion dollars over the course of five years. We’re at 113 billion and counting, which is more than TRIPLE what the whole rest of the world combined is chipping in. On top of all of that, we’re getting more intimately involved in this war than we should be. It was widely noted that we sent our M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) to Ukraine, but when that happened, nobody mentioned that we had to do the targeting for them. This blurs the line between whether Russia is at war with Ukraine or at war with Ukraine AND the United States. In a similar situation, we’d consider what we’re doing to Russia to be an act of war against us.
All this brings up some questions that almost no one seems to be publicly asking. Questions like:
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1) What’s the end game? If you say, “Ukraine wins and Russia loses,” that sounds nice, but how do we get there? Putin may perhaps correctly consider this as a war he has to win to survive. It doesn’t look as if sanctions are going to force Russia to give in. A best-case scenario would be Ukraine forcing Russian troops out of the country, but is that possible at all? If it is, then what? Ukraine certainly can’t go on the offensive and conquer Russia.
2) How much money are we willing to put into Ukraine? We’re in for over a hundred billion dollars in less than a year. Are we willing to go two hundred billion? 500 billion? A trillion? We’re spending an enormous amount of money on this and it’s entirely possible that the juice isn’t going to be worth the squeeze any more than it ultimately turned out to be in Afghanistan.
3) When does support for the war start to crater in the United States? We’ve seen the same pattern in war after war in America. When the war begins, it has high levels of support. Over time, it becomes a partisan issue and support for the war drops. Eventually, the war becomes a political hot potato, and we pull out, whether it makes sense at the time or not. In America, you can already see significant resistance to the war building up on the Right and it’s very possible that whoever the GOP candidate is in 2024 may be running on an anti-war platform or at least a “war skeptical” platform. So, how long does Ukraine have to “win?” Maybe not all that long and you can bet Russia is well aware of it.
4) How much of our money is being stolen? Huge amounts of US aid were stolen in Iraq and Afghanistan and given that Ukraine is one of the world’s most corrupt nations, it’s certainly being stolen there as well. In fact, we’ve already caught a government official stealing money. You can be certain that’s just the tip of the iceberg. How much of your money is going to end up in secret bank accounts belonging to Ukrainian officials? The smart money is on hundreds of millions, if not billions.
5) What are our strategic objectives at this point? We’re not talking about Britain, Israel, and Australia here. Ukraine isn’t an ally or a friend of America and they’re not in a crucial geographic location. Moreover, Russia is a hostile nation, but we’re not at war with the Russians. In other words, this is a very optional fight for us, so what are we trying to achieve?
According to the mainstream media/war propaganda we’ve seen, Russia’s military has already been heavily degraded in Ukraine, and given the unimpressive performance of their military, they’re clearly not a threat to invade any NATO nations. Additionally, we certainly don’t want to see the conflict go nuclear, which is unlikely, but possible if Putin gets his back against the wall. So, what do we ultimately want to get done? Are we willing to hold out any length of time and spend any amount of money just to get rid of Putin? If so, why so, given that he would probably be replaced by someone ideologically similar? What are we hoping to do here?
6) What happens if Ukraine loses? People seem to be starting with the assumption that since Ukraine is the “good guy,” they’re going to win in the end, but this is the real world, not a Tolkien novel, so it’s entirely possible that Russia will come out on top. Ironically, that might make the war less expensive and more sustainable on our end, because it’s a lot cheaper to supply IEDS and anti-tank rockets to insurgents than to supply a conventional force. However, if it happens, it could also be demoralizing enough that support for the war collapses and, of course, there is no guarantee a significant insurgency will form.
7) Are we willing to consider a peace treaty? Any politician in Ukraine who signed a peace treaty right now would probably be skinned alive by his own people, so they’re publicly going to be a hard “no,”, but we also get a vote because they can’t fight this war without us. Publicly, at least, we’re not making any effort to reach peace, but the longer this goes on, the more the momentum will likely shift to Russia. That means we may never have significantly more leverage to cut a peace deal than we do today. So, should we be talking about peace right now?