Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

In Washington, Everyone Wins if Ukraine Wins

How backing Kyiv can bridge the partisan divide and make U.S. foreign policy great again.

By , a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
A man carries his son as they walk past a graffiti on a wall depicting a Ukrainian soldier firing a U.S.-made Javelin portable anti-tank missile system, in Kyiv, on July 29.
A man carries his son as they walk past a graffiti on a wall depicting a Ukrainian soldier firing a U.S.-made Javelin portable anti-tank missile system, in Kyiv, on July 29.
A man carries his son as they walk past a graffiti on a wall depicting a Ukrainian soldier firing a U.S.-made Javelin portable anti-tank missile system, in Kyiv, on July 29. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

The 21st century has been one long catastrophe for U.S. foreign policy. A series of failed military interventions and other mishaps has squandered the country’s power and reputation, even as old rivals such as Russia revived their fortunes and new rivals such as China have continued to rise. In the blink of an eye, the notion of a post-American world has gone from specter to cliché. Contempt for the United States and the West more generally clearly contributed to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and opponents of even indirect U.S. involvement in the conflict portray it as yet another example of misguided military adventurism.

In fact, the opposite is true. This time, for a change, somebody else is playing the reckless foreign invader while the United States is sensibly counterpunching and enabling the victim to resist. Washington is picking its allies smartly and working with them closely. Instead of repeating recent U.S. strategic mistakes, the Biden administration is avoiding them, pursuing a fundamentally different approach. And it’s working.

After holding on to Kyiv in the spring and fighting a grinding war of attrition over the summer, Ukrainian forces have surged forward this fall, sending Russian forces reeling and retaking large chunks of territory lost earlier in the conflict. Moscow has responded by rushing forward sham referendums to whitewash its claims to the occupied Donbas region and parts of southern Ukraine while frantically mobilizing hundreds of thousands of additional troops, spurring protests across the country. The war has many stages yet to run, and not all of them will be as heartening as recent weeks. Still, September’s developments show that Kyiv is on the right track and Washington is backing the strong horse.

The 21st century has been one long catastrophe for U.S. foreign policy. A series of failed military interventions and other mishaps has squandered the country’s power and reputation, even as old rivals such as Russia revived their fortunes and new rivals such as China have continued to rise. In the blink of an eye, the notion of a post-American world has gone from specter to cliché. Contempt for the United States and the West more generally clearly contributed to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and opponents of even indirect U.S. involvement in the conflict portray it as yet another example of misguided military adventurism.

In fact, the opposite is true. This time, for a change, somebody else is playing the reckless foreign invader while the United States is sensibly counterpunching and enabling the victim to resist. Washington is picking its allies smartly and working with them closely. Instead of repeating recent U.S. strategic mistakes, the Biden administration is avoiding them, pursuing a fundamentally different approach. And it’s working.

After holding on to Kyiv in the spring and fighting a grinding war of attrition over the summer, Ukrainian forces have surged forward this fall, sending Russian forces reeling and retaking large chunks of territory lost earlier in the conflict. Moscow has responded by rushing forward sham referendums to whitewash its claims to the occupied Donbas region and parts of southern Ukraine while frantically mobilizing hundreds of thousands of additional troops, spurring protests across the country. The war has many stages yet to run, and not all of them will be as heartening as recent weeks. Still, September’s developments show that Kyiv is on the right track and Washington is backing the strong horse.

I was in Kyiv as the counteroffensive exploded, discussing the conflict with Ukrainian and Western officials and experts, and saw that the success of recent operations was no accident. The challenge now is staying the course until the full gains of victory can be reaped—for Ukraine and the United States.


Ukraine’s success has been driven by four factors: leadership, morale, competence, and foreign support. Commentators have focused mainly on the last one, and it is true that weapons, intelligence, and economic aid supplied by the United States and Europe have been crucial. Without substantial help from its friends, Ukraine could never have achieved what it has. It is equally true, however, that foreign support would have yielded little without Ukrainians’ desire and ability to fight. What distinguishes this conflict from recent U.S. fiascoes—from Iraq to Afghanistan—is not the outside aid provided but the local factors that have allowed that aid to be used effectively.

As the Taliban approached Kabul in August 2021, for example, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani hastily fled the country, contributing to a collapse and rout of government forces. He now lives comfortably in the United Arab Emirates while his people suffer.

Six months later, as Russian forces approached Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was offered the same option. He chose to stay, saying, “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.” Zelensky’s bravery and defiance inspired Ukrainians and the world at large, and ever since, his personal leadership and nightly eloquence have anchored the Ukrainian resistance.

Passion, finally, has been matched with performance. Kyiv has fought an agile, networked war.

Ukrainians in general, meanwhile, responded to the Russian invasion with a surge of patriotism and fortitude. Ordinary citizens have done whatever they could to fight back, helping to harass and stall the early Russian thrusts toward the capital, providing endless streams of real-time intelligence, and disrupting the occupation of conquered territory. They have maintained their resolve despite suffering enormous casualties and privation, bristling rather than buckling at Russian atrocities and targeting of civilian infrastructure. And the Ukrainian armed forces have pursued their jobs with grim determination, running toward the fight rather than away from it and performing extraordinary feats of bravery and sacrifice. (It clearly helps to be fighting to avenge your father or liberate your mother.)

Passion, finally, has been matched with performance. Kyiv has fought an agile, networked war, making excellent use of advanced communications technologies, drones, and cutting-edge high-tech weaponry. Its forces have displayed creativity and initiative from the bottom up, learning and adapting throughout the conflict and consistently staying steps ahead of their enemy.

The contrast with Russia is striking. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s leadership has been erratic, the morale of Russian forces is low, their performance has been fumbling, and Western sanctions are squeezing the Russian military machine and degrading its operations. The latest mobilization is so unpopular that potential recruits have been fleeing the country and shooting up draft offices. The combination of Ukrainian overachievement and Russian underachievement has offset the difference in resources between the two sides, allowing Ukraine to fend off and push back a seemingly much stronger foe.


Ukraine’s ability to transform outside support into battlefield success has turned the war from a regional tragedy into a hinge of history. The Donbas is now the field on which Western democracies and Eastern autocracies are battling for the future of world politics, with other countries waiting on the sidelines to see who wins.

Should Russia, backed by China, manage to achieve its goals, the narrative of Western decline would be confirmed, and the liberal international order would be dealt a crushing blow. But should Ukraine, backed by the United States and Europe, manage to preserve its freedom and territory, the narrative would be upended, and that order will gain a new lease on life.

Success would also turn the page on one of the most depressing periods in the history of U.S. foreign policy.

Success would also turn the page on one of the most depressing periods in the history of U.S. foreign policy. The 9/11 attacks shattered the country’s sense of omniscience and invulnerability. The failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq destroyed Washington’s credibility. The depredations of the so-called global war on terrorism gutted its moral standing.

The disastrous interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya squandered its power and authority. The 2008 financial crisis and rising inequality tarnished the image of the U.S. economic system. And the Trump era, culminating in the failed putsch of Jan. 6, 2021, tarnished the image of the U.S. political system.

Ukraine offers the opportunity for a reset across the board. By providing accurate intelligence about Russian intentions and the war’s progress, Washington is restoring its credibility. By helping to prevent war crimes rather than committing them, it is regaining its honor. By strangling the Russian economy while its partner crushes the Russian military, it is accumulating power and respect. And it is gaining all these benefits with no American casualties and a relatively small amount of aid—a tiny fraction of the annual U.S. defense budget.


At this point, Moscow is trapped in an imperial war of choice gone bad. Putin has three basic options. He could move to extricate himself from the conflict, abandoning his grand ambitions and angering Russian hawks. He could redouble his conventional efforts by mobilizing Russia’s full national resources for the war, angering the country’s silent majority. Or he could try to break Ukraine’s will with nuclear weapons, mass civilian casualties, and other kinds of full-scale terror warfare, angering everybody except his fanatical base. All the choices are lousy, so for now he is trying to muddle through and play for time, hoping to hang on until Western support for Kyiv falters. Hence, the partial mobilization of reservists, the referendums, and the latest nuclear threats. (Pro tip: Anybody who says “I’m not bluffing” is bluffing.)

Putin remembers that, in 1762, a sudden regime change in Moscow allowed Prussia’s Frederick the Great to miraculously escape defeat in the Seven Year’s War and hopes that history will repeat itself two and half centuries later, with Berlin and Moscow swapping roles—or with isolationist Republicans in Washington serving as his deus ex machina.

Western strategy now should thus concentrate on extinguishing those hopes, deterring any thoughts of escalation, and nudging Putin toward accepting withdrawal as his least bad option. This means continuing to provide substantial military and economic aid to Ukraine so it can keep pressing forward, avoiding direct NATO involvement in the conflict, and waiting for the harsh reality of Moscow’s situation to sink in and drive the Kremlin toward extrication—in other words, precisely what Washington is currently doing.

Reasonable people can disagree about the details of implementation, but this general approach should actually find broad support across the political spectrum. Conservatives should back it because it harnesses nationalism to national interest. Liberals should back it because it supports democracy and human rights. Progressives should back it because it reduces structural imbalances of power and attempts, quite literally, to decolonize Ukraine. China hawks should back it because it gives Beijing a humiliating black eye. Budget hawks should back it because it does so on the cheap. And environmentalists should back it because in the long run it will drive Europe toward a transition to renewable energy.

At this point, in fact, given how the war is playing out on the ground, the only people truly opposed to helping Ukraine should be those utterly indifferent to the war’s outcome or those rooting for Moscow to win.

Gideon Rose is the Mary and David Boies distinguished fellow in U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of How Wars End.

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