Winning in Ukraine Will Require Paying the Cost

The key to victory, for every side, will be the ability to endure sacrifice.

Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
James Traub
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
A military instructor teaches civilians holding wooden replicas of Kalashnikov rifles, as they take part in a training session at an abandoned factory in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on February 6, 2022.
A military instructor teaches civilians holding wooden replicas of Kalashnikov rifles, as they take part in a training session at an abandoned factory in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on February 6, 2022.
A military instructor teaches civilians holding wooden replicas of Kalashnikov rifles, as they take part in a training session at an abandoned factory in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on February 6, 2022. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

It is possible that by the time you read this, Ukraine will no longer exist as a sovereign state. Fighting will continue to rage, but sometime soon the country’s leaders, including President Volodymyr Zelensky, will be killed or captured, or will flee across the border to establish a government-in-exile. A puppet regime will preside over Kyiv. What, then, will the West do?

Unlike 1948 or 1956, when the Soviet Union crushed Czechoslovakia and then Hungary, the Ukrainians will not go down without a long fight. Whatever pockets of resistance remain in what is, after all, the second largest country in Europe will become insurgencies simply by virtue of the change in regime. The legitimist government will seek to organize a nationwide resistance. The West will be called on to supply weapons. Foreign Policy has reported that the Biden administration is feverishly debating the wisdom of military aid to Ukraine, with some officials concerned that doing so could provoke Russia into declaring the United States a “co-combatant.”

Commentators have already begun to explain how such a resistance movement could bleed Russia white and even bring down Vladimir Putin’s regime. A senior Marine Corps officer with extensive experience in both Iraq and Afghanistan told me that he considered Ukraine ideal territory for a counterinsurgency, in part because access to a rear base like Poland would offer fighters sanctuary, much as Pakistan did for the Taliban.

It is possible that by the time you read this, Ukraine will no longer exist as a sovereign state. Fighting will continue to rage, but sometime soon the country’s leaders, including President Volodymyr Zelensky, will be killed or captured, or will flee across the border to establish a government-in-exile. A puppet regime will preside over Kyiv. What, then, will the West do?

Unlike 1948 or 1956, when the Soviet Union crushed Czechoslovakia and then Hungary, the Ukrainians will not go down without a long fight. Whatever pockets of resistance remain in what is, after all, the second largest country in Europe will become insurgencies simply by virtue of the change in regime. The legitimist government will seek to organize a nationwide resistance. The West will be called on to supply weapons. Foreign Policy has reported that the Biden administration is feverishly debating the wisdom of military aid to Ukraine, with some officials concerned that doing so could provoke Russia into declaring the United States a “co-combatant.”

Commentators have already begun to explain how such a resistance movement could bleed Russia white and even bring down Vladimir Putin’s regime. A senior Marine Corps officer with extensive experience in both Iraq and Afghanistan told me that he considered Ukraine ideal territory for a counterinsurgency, in part because access to a rear base like Poland would offer fighters sanctuary, much as Pakistan did for the Taliban.

That said, both the Russian experience in Afghanistan and the American experience in Iraq and Vietnam show us that superpowers are prepared to spill a great deal of blood before accepting the futility of their effort. Nor does past experience provide much optimism that outside help can make a decisive difference. A decade ago, U.S. President Barack Obama instructed the idealistic young aides beseeching him to intervene on behalf of insurgents in Syria to figure out whether any such efforts had succeeded in the past. With the exception of Afghanistan, where the blowback from provisioning the mujahideen against the Soviets proved catastrophic, they couldn’t come up with anything.

Putin has already proved in Chechnya how brutally he is prepared to crush an insurrection. That does not change the fact that the West has an obligation to supply weapons to Ukrainians prepared to use them, but we should not delude ourselves about their success. Indeed, we should not assume that Poland, Slovakia, and Romania, which will become the new borderland between NATO and Russia if Putin decides to take all of Ukraine rather than stopping at Kyiv, will be prepared to risk Putin’s wrath in order to serve as the insurgents’ supply line. (In Hungary’s case, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has already effectively cast his lot with Russia.)

That doesn’t mean that resistance is simply an exercise in martyrdom like the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. While it’s hard to imagine Ukrainians driving Putin from the country, they may force to him to leave behind a large occupying force in order to keep the country pacified. In his speech justifying the war, Putin vowed to “demilitarize and de-Nazify” Ukraine, but not to occupy it.

An occupation would belie Putin’s absurd claim that Ukrainians are Russian brethren sundered from the family by a corrupt, fascistic regime, and it would keep tens of thousands of young Russians far from home and exposed to grave danger. That’s a serious price, though we should remember that the highest price by far will be paid by the Ukrainian resistance.+

And yet those who originate the costs imposed on Putin and his circle will suffer corresponding costs of their own. American officials became exasperated at German reluctance to cancel the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, but Russia supplies about half of German gas (and about as third of the gas across Europe). European gas prices have gone up by over a third just since the invasion began earlier this week. That is not a price Americans would be prepared to pay—or so President Joe Biden assumes. In his speech laying out a new round of sanctions, Biden spoke at great length about his efforts to prevent prices at the pump from rising, even admonishing oil companies not to “exploit” the drastic increase in the price they pay for oil to raise rates for customers.

The United States lies at the bottom of a hierarchy of sacrifice. The Ukrainians, of course, stand on the top, and then the Russians, who hardly have a choice in the matter, and then Europeans and Americans. The whole premise of Biden’s “foreign policy for the middle class” is that ordinary Americans will support foreign policy insofar as they see how it benefits them; resistance to sacrifice is priced in. Voters care about trade, which makes a real difference in their lives, but not the liberal world order, which doesn’t. A century ago, President Woodrow Wilson was able to persuade Americans to go to war in order to preserve European democracy and to build a liberal order. That seems hard even to imagine today.

Putin has made what appears to be an incredibly reckless wager that he can undermine, and maybe even topple, that order. Maybe he’s been listening to the American debate.

Everything is about the cost—and the willingness to bear it. At this moment, we can’t even reckon the costs. If Putin keeps his thumb on Ukraine’s throat, a vast wave of refugees will flow westward, chiefly to Poland. The Poles will likely behave far more generously to these Christian Slavs than they did to the tiny knot of Syrians and Iraqis whom they brutally turned back in 2015, but Europe—and, one hopes, the United States—will foot what could be a staggering bill for resettlement and care.

Military spending and military preparedness will be another pivotal issue. The idea of an independent European military capacity, which French President Emmanuel Macron has repackaged under the grandiose term “strategic autonomy,” has felt at times like a solution in search of a problem. Now the problem has revealed itself as Vladimir Putin. Europe could convince Putin that it means business by finally coalescing around the so-called European Army or what European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen calls a “European Defense Union.” Or it could send a very different message by further dithering.

Putin may well be banking on the fact that Russia can out-sacrifice the West—in money, in time, in human life. Autocracies, after all, have the advantage over democracies that they can coerce compliance. Yet today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union, and Putin is not Joseph Stalin. Though he has tried to substitute nationalism for communism as a rallying ideology, Putin may have overestimated the willingness of the Russian people to suffer in the name of his own geopolitical fantasies. And Putin cannot send every dissatisfied citizen to the gulag. He, too, faces a calculus of sacrifice. He may find himself confronting real resistance at home, as his Soviet forebears did after years in Afghanistan. It will be up to the West to remain sufficiently resolute, and sufficiently patient, to keep Putin contained until that moment arrives.

James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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