If you think, like Elon Musk, that instead of fighting, Ukraine and Russia “should agree to a truce,” the recent interview with General Andrey Mordvichev, one of Russia’s top commanders in Ukraine, should give you pause.
Asked about the war’s expected duration, he said the quiet part out loud: There is still “plenty of time.”
According to him, “If we are talking about Eastern Europe, which we will have to, of course then it will be longer.”
In other words, the Kremlin is in the conflict for the long haul.
Not only it is committed, as Russian President Vladimir Putin himself stated on numerous occasions, to the destruction of Ukraine’s statehood, but its ambitions extend beyond Ukraine, encompassing Moldova and Georgia as well as our NATO allies in the Baltic states and Poland.
None of this is news to Eastern Europeans.
As the late former president of Poland Lech Kaczynski noted in 2008, after Russia attacked Georgia, “Today Georgia, tomorrow Ukraine, the Baltic States the day after tomorrow, and then perhaps the time will come for my country, Poland.”
America’s self-styled realists who believe a compromise can be reached with Putin — perhaps peace in exchange for some territory and promise of Ukraine’s neutrality — have a hopelessly unrealistic, naïve understanding of the Kremlin’s thinking.
Putin’s vision is one of restoring Russia’s greatness. This is not simply a nostalgia for Soviet times, but a delusion lingering from the times when imperial Russia bordered Germany and Austria, effectively denying nationhood to half a dozen currently existing states — including Belarus, Poland, Finland and the Baltics.
A true realism cannot shy away from the fact Russia’s officialdom does not recognize nations in its vicinity as sovereign. As a result, any deal that some would like to foist upon Ukraine would be short-lived, as long as the Kremlin remains committed to this vision.
Ukrainians know this and would resist any attempt by the current or future US administration, or by the European Union, to strike a bargain with Putin.
Of course, both the United States and Europe have a lot of leverage over Kyiv. The EU’s total military and financial commitments to Ukraine exceed $90 billion. The United States comes in second with a little under $75 billion.
But while withdrawing those lifelines would certainly alienate Ukraine, it would not necessarily stop the fight. More likely, it would force Ukrainians to turn for help elsewhere — and wage war using means we might not approve of.
Critics are correct. Our assistance to Ukraine does not come cheap — something Ukrainians and our allies in Poland (where I’m writing this column) keenly appreciate. But it is much cheaper than the alternatives.
Consider, for example, the signal that striking a deal with Putin behind Ukraine’s back would send to our partners and adversaries around the globe. In Europe, our NATO allies would have good reasons to doubt our commitment to the alliance.
If we wanted to keep NATO alive, we would need to take ever more expensive steps to demonstrate our willingness to defend “every inch of NATO’s territory,” as President Biden puts it.
Had the Russian invasion succeeded, moreover, a destabilized or Russian-controlled Ukraine would objectively make NATO’s job in the region infinitely more challenging, with a hefty price tag for the US taxpayer.
For Taiwan, Japan, Australia and South Korea, the message would be the United States is a fair-weather friend that will not bear any sacrifices for their security.
Beijing would get that message too and act accordingly, with the expectation that Americans do not have the nerve to confront China in the Indo-Pacific.
And so what, one may ask, can’t we just live and let live?
It is simple — our global role is a two-way street. In a world in which nobody can rely on the United States anymore, we will not be able to rely on anyone either. In that world, we will not get to complain if other countries decide to side with China, Iran or Russia against us — be it on matters of security or trade.
In its splendid isolation, the United States might still be protected by two oceans, but it takes a lot of imagination to think its interests would be served by foegoing its key source of leverage on the global stage: its credibility. That is precisely what has been at stake in Ukraine since Putin forged his demented plan, now out in the open.
Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Twitter: @DaliborRohac