For the last two years, the debate over the American commitment to Ukraine has turned, in part, on whether we are endangering our ability to contain China in the Pacific if we pour too many resources into a trench war against Russia. From the hawkish perspective, the argument has been that any such trade-off is overstated or nonexistent — because Russia and China are allies, and when we weaken Russia we weaken both, because the kinds of military equipment necessary to defend Taiwan differ from the kinds we’re sending to Ukraine, because surely America has the resources to fight authoritarianism on two fronts.
The Middle East has not factored substantially into this debate. But with the massacres in Israel and the unfolding Israeli assault on Gaza, we have a new front of engagement for American power, a new demand for U.S. resources, a new stress point for our stressed imperium and new risks of a wider war.
With this new challenge, the Ukraine hawks’ answer is the same: “The False Choice Between Ukraine and Israel” runs the headline of a Wall Street Journal editorial. And the Journal editors are correct in the narrow sense that the United States should not simply cut off Ukraine tomorrow and redirect that aid to Israel, as Senator Josh Hawley recently suggested. Our interest in restraining Russian ambitions does not dissolve the instant a Middle Eastern ally goes to war.
But in a larger sense, of course there are real strategic choices here, potential trade-offs in hardware shipped and dollars delivered; indeed, The Journal concedes as much when it urges the United States to embrace “a generational effort to produce more ammo and expand its arsenal.” (Whether such an effort is likely to emerge from the current chaos on Capitol Hill I leave to the reader to judge.)
There’s also a crucial trade-off simply in attention paid by American officials. Distraction is always a problem in foreign policy — just look at how our Afghanistan policymaking fared during the Iraq war — and managing a proxy war against a nuclear power, in that power’s own borderlands, may be America’s most existentially fraught undertaking since the Cold War’s end.
So adding Middle Eastern turmoil to the equation automatically changes the calculus of our Ukraine policy — and that calculus was already telling against the permanently hawkish position.
When the Ukrainians made surprising territorial gains last autumn, there was a reasonable case for escalating our support, in the hopes that Russia could be forced into a peace deal in which Ukraine recovered almost all its territory. But the last 10 months of war have barely shifted the front lines, and Russia’s wartime economy looks more resilient than either Washington or Kyiv hoped. The strategy for full Ukrainian victory now is attrition, time and hope — but while wars of attrition can end suddenly and unexpectedly when one side finally falters, there’s no guarantee that the Ukrainian side won’t be the one to collapse.
Which means, in turn, that not only Joe Biden’s administration but the Ukrainians themselves have an incentive to seek some kind of cease-fire now, while their military position is still stable and the aid money is still flowing, while the demographic catastrophe deepened by the war can still be partially reversed by the wartime diaspora’s return. The alternative is for Kyiv to gamble on several fronts — to bet that the Middle East crisis won’t absorb more and more American arms and attention, that war-weariness in neighboring allies like Poland as well as among congressional Republicans won’t steadily increase, that Biden rather than Donald Trump will be president come January 2025, and of course that no dramatic crisis in the Pacific intervenes.
A counterpoint is that Russia can look at the same landscape, see its potential advantages, and simply refuse to deal, forcing America to choose between abandoning Ukraine and piling on more and more risk and cost in its support. And if you imagine Moscow, Tehran and Beijing all working in direct concert, plotting to maximize pressure on America, that’s what you would expect.
But the alliance of interests between our enemies is looser than that. Russia isn’t going to fight on just to benefit China’s interests or make America’s Middle Eastern position more difficult if there are clear advantages to an armistice. And such advantages exist: Vladimir Putin survived one bizarre coup, but he can’t count on internal loyalty; he is likely to want a triumphant re-election show in 2024; the Russian economy being fully absorbed into China’s sphere of influence is not in Russia’s long-term interests; and a war of attrition could turn suddenly against the Russians, too.
Maybe those interests don’t create enough ground for negotiation; I’m not privy to our back channels with Moscow. But if the Biden administration isn’t talking urgently through those back channels, if it isn’t looking for a path to an armistice, it’s badly misreading the challenges ahead.
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