It's Debatable

Intervention or Restraint? A Washington debate on pressing issues for policymakers.

What’s the Endgame in Ukraine?

As Washington prepares to send another $40 billion in military aid and Europe seeks a Russian oil embargo, the West’s ultimate goal is still unclear.

By , an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University and the author of Oil, the State, and War., and , deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
A bullet-riddled Ukrainian national flag flies in Malyn, Ukraine, on May 4.
A bullet-riddled Ukrainian national flag flies in Malyn, Ukraine, on May 4.
A bullet-riddled Ukrainian national flag flies in Malyn, Ukraine, on May 4. Alexey Furman via Getty Images
It's Debatable

Emma Ashford: Greetings from the Most Magical Place on Earth™, Matt! I may be a little distracted during today’s debate, as I’ll be simultaneously enjoying Disney World with my family. But it should be fine—after all, it’s a small world.

Matthew Kroenig: Ha. But you can’t avoid politics anywhere—not even at Disney—these days. Did Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis make you pay higher taxes for your entrance tickets?

EA: At these prices, who can tell?

Emma Ashford: Greetings from the Most Magical Place on Earth™, Matt! I may be a little distracted during today’s debate, as I’ll be simultaneously enjoying Disney World with my family. But it should be fine—after all, it’s a small world.

Matthew Kroenig: Ha. But you can’t avoid politics anywhere—not even at Disney—these days. Did Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis make you pay higher taxes for your entrance tickets?

EA: At these prices, who can tell?

MK: Fortunately, we don’t debate domestic politics in this column, and there is plenty going on in the less magical places on Earth. Should we start with the ongoing war in Ukraine?

EA: Yes, especially since Victory Day in Moscow has come and gone without any major changes to the course of the war, to the chagrin of a lot of pundits, who were predicting that President Vladimir Putin would do something dramatic in his May 9 speech, like declare full mobilization of the Russian military against Ukraine. Instead, all we got was the usual parade and a speech full of warmed-over grievances against the West.

Putin’s economy is reeling, and his conventional military is chewed up. He doesn’t have the capacity for a major escalation.

MK: You are right that many were predicting something dramatic, but, to be honest, I wasn’t surprised. Putin’s economy is reeling, and his conventional military is chewed up. He doesn’t have the capacity for a major escalation. It is no wonder that Moscow is relying more on nuclear threats in recent days; that’s all it has left. Next thing you know the Russians will be threatening to bleed on us.

EA: Yeah, apparently the Russian military couldn’t invade an Epcot pavilion, never mind a real country. So I guess the big question is where the war goes from here. It seems the Russians are making minor advances in eastern Ukraine, along with continued random rocket attacks and airstrikes elsewhere in the country; they’re doing better than they were in the first few weeks of the war, but that’s not saying much.

Which is part of why I find it baffling that the U.S. Congress is poised to pass a new $40 billion authorization for new shipments of weapons and aid to Ukraine—$7 billion more than the White House even asked for! They’re not even allotting time for a proper debate over this money, and yet it’s around 5 percent of what the United States spends on defense in a given year. If you put together all the money America has spent in Ukraine so far, it totals close to the State Department’s annual budget! Isn’t it time we thought about the endgame for this conflict, rather than just throwing more money at the problem?

MK: I think that is exactly what Washington is looking for. The endgame is Ukraine wins, Russia loses. Why let a murderous dictator off the hook that he put himself on? The West should keep pressing until Ukraine is free and Russia is put back in a box.

EA: Hang on. What do you mean by “until Ukraine is free”? And I certainly am not sure what you mean when you say you want to put Russia back in a box. Ukraine has saved freedom and sovereignty for its citizens in the last two months. And Russia has already been severely— perhaps gravely—injured economically and politically. Just two weeks ago, you argued in our column that “A good strategy begins with clear goals, and if the United States and NATO have a desired end state for Ukraine, they have not shared it.” But now you seem to have bought into the same victory fever as the rest of Washington and are pushing for unclear goals like everyone else.

MK: I am guilty of many things, but a lack of strategic clarity is not among them. The goal should be to restore Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity over all of Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders, including Crimea. If a murderous, nuclear-armed, revisionist dictatorship is gravely injured in the process, that is the extra cherry on top.

What goal do you hope to achieve?

I’m extremely skeptical that Ukraine can reclaim control over all of the Donbas, a sizable fraction of which Russian forces have held for the last eight years!

EA: I’d settle for avoiding World War III. And I’m extremely skeptical that Ukraine can reclaim control over all of the Donbas, a sizable fraction of which Russian forces have held for the last eight years! And that doesn’t even begin to address the question of Crimea, which is technically a part of Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders but is nonetheless going to be almost impossible to pry away from Russia, given the substantial military bases and materiel advantages that the Russians maintain there.

Neither side is really interested in peace talks right now, but I do question whether it’s a smart decision for the West to continue to arm and support Ukraine in a forward-leaning campaign to take back those areas. There are a couple good reasons to think carefully about whether they should maintain this high-level of support going forward. First, the longer the war continues, the more likely it is we’ll see escalation into a broader NATO-Russia conflict.

We’re already seeing Putin portray this to his own population as a war of defense against an aggressive West. And, second, there are good reasons to be skeptical of the ability of Ukrainian forces to win such a fight. They’ve done well on territorial defense, but shifting to the offense to retake territory is quite a different beast. Congress is talking about pouring $40 billion into Ukraine—more money than Washington ever gave the Afghan or Iraqi security forces in a year—in order to enable something that is potentially dangerous and perhaps unlikely to work.

MK: Russian forces held Ukrainian territory for eight years before they expended nearly all of their munitions, a dozen of their generals were killed, their soldiers lost their will to fight, and Ukraine was armed with the best Western kit. They will be lucky to hang on to what they have.

The war is unlikely to escalate, because Putin has his hands full with Ukraine and certainly does not want to fight the most powerful military alliance in the world, and one that is about to grow stronger with the coming additions of Sweden and Finland.

It makes sense that the West spends more on this conflict, because, as I am sure you will agree, the security and stability of Europe is more important to global order than the Middle East or South Asia.

Spending $40 billion in Europe doesn’t strike me as particularly helpful in shifting the U.S. focus to a rising China.

EA: Is it more important than China? Spending $40 billion in Europe, along with the continued commitment of 100,000 U.S. troops there to ensure that this conflict doesn’t overspill Ukraine’s borders, doesn’t strike me as particularly helpful in shifting the U.S. focus to a rising China, despite the Biden administration’s claims to the contrary.

MK: I can walk and chew gum, and the United States and its formal treaty allies can take on China and Russia at the same time. So I would like to see Kyiv continue to weaken Russia with Western backing. Along these lines, I was pleased to see the European Union and G-7 propose a complete oil embargo on Russia by the end of the year.

EA: Yeah, the Chinese and Russians are really going to quake in their shoes now that North Macedonia is on board. Never mind that some of America’s allies—like Hungary—are the ones likely to block the oil embargo attempt. Might as well get the whole gang from Pirates of the Caribbean to help out, too. After all, this ride I’m on probably has a bigger navy than North Macedonia.

And I think you might be overestimating the positive impact of that EU oil embargo. For one thing, it’s going to include significant delays to let the EU’s landlocked member states—which mostly get their oil through pipelines rather than by ship—to shift supply more gradually. For another, oil is a globally traded commodity that travels mostly on ships.

The Russians will sell whatever oil they don’t sell to Europe in Asia instead, gradually shifting away to new customers like China, India, and other countries. Perhaps they’ll sell it at a discount, given the circumstances, but it’s not really going to hurt them that much. Indeed, we already see the Indians snapping up Russian oil at reduced prices; it’s too good a deal for them to pass up. I don’t object to the EU oil embargo, but I don’t think it’s going to be that impactful on Russia in the long run.

MK: It is still beneficial for the free world not to depend on a dictator to fuel their economies, and it would end the insanity of Germany, Italy, and others financing Russia’s war machine. And, while it might not hurt the Russians that much economically, it does hurt them, and it also isolates them diplomatically.

This week, French President Emmanuel Macron said that we should learn the lesson of World War I and not punish Russia too severely. But I think the lesson of the first half of the 20th century isn’t that the victorious nations should not have knocked Germany down but that they let the Germans stand back up too quickly.

Let’s not repeat that mistake with Putin.

EA: I just want to be clear here: You’re arguing that the key lesson of the Treaty of Versailles was that it wasn’t tough enough on Germany? Because it kind of sounds like that is what you are saying. Unlike the Treaty of Paris, which ended the previous round of great-power wars—and which actually incorporated the losing French state into a new European order—the Treaty of Versailles purposefully pushed Germany out of European politics. It required the Germans to pay reparations so severe that the economist John Maynard Keynes thought it might collapse the European economy to do so, and it required the Germans to demilitarize and submit to occupation of some territories.

The resentment from Versailles led directly to the rise of the Nazis. So I think Macron is making a lot of sense, to be honest, though his phrasing could certainly be better. What he’s saying is pretty simple: We want this war to end with a livable peace for both sides, because we know from history that uneven peace simply leads to future war.

MK: Yes, that is my argument. World War II was not caused because the Treaty of Versailles was too harsh on Germany. It was caused because responsible powers dithered as the Nazis rearmed and resumed Germany’s previous aggressive bid to conquer Europe.

But I am guessing most of our readers are not here for revisionist takes on World War II. I said that the free world has to deal with Russia and China at the same time. Should we pivot to Asia?

EA: Actually, can we talk about the bill to create a new Space Force National Guard? My family is itching to ride Space Mountain…

MK: LOL. If it were Splash Mountain I am not sure I would be so forgiving, but I have got to respect Space Mountain.

When you get off the ride, we should discuss news that Washington is pressing Taiwan to buy weapons helpful for sinking the Chinese navy in 72 hours (like anti-ship missiles) and not flashy but useless platforms, like helicopters. And what is going on with China’s crazy COVID-19 lockdowns?

EA: Well, I can’t explain the Chinese lockdowns, but they do seem to me to be increasingly strange and potentially dangerous for the Chinese leadership. With Western mRNA vaccines widely available, and the newer variants of COVID-19 far less deadly than prior variants, it seems to me to be utterly insane to be locking down whole cities, not even allowing people to buy food. And it’s especially insane when China is simultaneously not forcing its elderly population to get vaccinated. It’s kind of fascinating, actually, that the liberal, Western democracies have—for the most part—succeeded in pushing vaccinations among the elderly, while the Chinese government is still relying on the blunt force trauma of lockdowns after failing to do so.

China, like Russia, is a deeply flawed autocracy that makes bad decisions.

MK: For me this is more evidence that China, like Russia, is a deeply flawed autocracy that makes bad decisions. President Xi Jinping is throttling China’s economy and its geopolitical rise on a Quixotic quest for an unattainable goal of zero COVID-19 cases. I am afraid that misguided decision-making like this could also lead to a doomed but dangerous war against Taiwan.

EA: On Taiwan, I broadly agree with the notion that it should be buying useful weapons. It needs to prepare for a “porcupine” strategy—making itself too “prickly” with a variety of defensive weapons for China to easily grab without substantial costs—so that it can resist and deter a potential Chinese invasion.

Some of the systems that Washington has sold Taipei in recent years—like a selection of Abrams tanks—make absolutely no sense. And as Ukraine has shown, if Taiwan buys the wrong things, then the United States and other allies are likely to have to try to supply the right things, later, and at greater cost during a conflict. But equally, it would be helpful if Washington stopped pushing Taiwan to buy only U.S. weapons and encouraged it to look at all options that might meet its needs.

MK: Fair point. Norwegian missiles can sink Chinese ships too.

But I hoped we could end on a note of disagreement. Favorite Disney character?

EA: Goofy always seems to have a better grasp on U.S. foreign policy than many in Washington.

MK: I can’t argue with that.

EA: Well, I’m off to ride the Jungle Cruise. I hope I make it out alive; those hippos always seem pretty threatening to me.

MK: Give Dwayne Johnson my best, and I’ll see you in two weeks.

Emma Ashford is an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University and the author of Oil, the State, and War. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A propaganda poster from the 1960s shows Chinese leader Mao Zedong.
A propaganda poster from the 1960s shows Chinese leader Mao Zedong.

Xi’s Great Leap Backward

Beijing is running out of recipes for its looming jobs crisis—and reviving Mao-era policies.

A textile worker at the Maxport factory in Hanoi on Sept. 21, 2021.
A textile worker at the Maxport factory in Hanoi on Sept. 21, 2021.

Companies Are Fleeing China for Friendlier Shores

“Friendshoring” is the new trend as geopolitics bites.

German children stand atop building rubble in Berlin in 1948.
German children stand atop building rubble in Berlin in 1948.

Why Superpower Crises Are a Good Thing

A new era of tensions will focus minds and break logjams, as Cold War history shows.

Vacationers sit on a beach in Greece.
Vacationers sit on a beach in Greece.

The Mediterranean as We Know It Is Vanishing

From Saint-Tropez to Amalfi, the region’s most attractive tourist destinations are also its most vulnerable.