Opinion | We Need to Reframe the Debate Over Ukraine

If Ukraine is not to suffer the fate of other “forever wars” and become a secondary priority to a possibly wider conflict in the Middle East, or a global landscape with other pressing demands, U.S. leaders need to recast the case for staying the course on Ukraine. Messaging on Ukraine should include greater realism about the conflict, its complexities, its likely outcome and what it means for global security.

The truth is that sustaining assistance for Ukraine is already a challenge, as much psychological as political. Fatigue has kicked in among Ukraine’s supporters notwithstanding reassuring statements by President Joe Biden and European leaders following the revolt by congressional GOP hardliners in Washington against further financial support for the war effort. In our recent past, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, costing trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives, increasingly came to be described as forgotten wars as they dragged on for many years.

Ukraine should not be seen in the same way. The moment is fast approaching for the Biden administration to strengthen the rationale for sustaining the war effort, by starting first with redefining the strategic commitment of the U.S. and its allies. At the NATO summit in June, it became clear that the allies have yet to provide everything Ukraine needs to significantly improve its battlefield performance. The debate continues over what weapons to supply. Allies also pushed off Ukraine’s NATO membership into an indefinite future.

This hesitancy is driven by genuine concerns about taking steps that could provoke an unpredictable Russian response. Nonetheless, it’s time for Western leaders to be more forthright and strategic in explaining what the endgame is: that military assistance to Ukraine will help not just defeat Russia now but also transform Ukraine’s military capabilities so it can serve as a bulwark against further Russian aggression in Europe and Central Asia. Making this case requires that Western leaders be clearer about the fact that Russia is stronger militarily and politically than many suggest, a longer-term threat to global stability and not just in Europe, and acknowledging that the war may go on for some time and cannot have a defined timetable.

Second, Western capitals should make clear to their populations that the war in Ukraine is the wake-up call for a major and accelerated reinvestment in their own military capabilities. Less than a third of NATO members are meeting the commitment to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense — even as the war in Ukraine fundamentally threatens Europe’s security. In the U.S., supplying Ukraine with weaponry has resulted in drawdowns of stock, driving home the importance of maintaining adequate domestic production lines. Europe and the U.S. could also use the moment to reimagine the architecture of transatlantic cooperation — still the bedrock of security for both — in a world of shifting global alliances not favorable to either and where unexpected conflicts, like in the Middle East, could demand a concerted allied response on multiple fronts.

Third, it is now critical to present Ukrainians as they are, as a complex nation responding to an almost impossible situation. Creating unrealistic expectations and idealizing Ukraine’s resistance has a high likelihood of backfiring because as soon as problems surface, it will strengthen the hands of those arguing for cutbacks. As Stephen Walt has suggested, the conflict is often presented in moral terms as a battle between autocracy and democracy. Celebrating Ukraine’s heroism, however, cannot obscure inconvenient facts including that its progress on the battlefield has been slow; that corruption remains a problem; and that Ukraine’s economy and millions of refugees will need support for years to come. There will also be frictions between allies and Ukraine over battlefield strategies, and over what might constitute an acceptable outcome. These differences are part of the process and they should not be used as an excuse to cut back assistance or discourage more urgent discussion of steps that can draw Ukraine more closely into the E.U. and NATO. It may be time, in fact, for a presidential speech that reminds the American people in starker terms of the hard road ahead and what a Russian victory would mean for their security.

Making this shift will only become more difficult in coming months as voters in Europe and the U.S. question an investment of more than $200 billion that keeps climbing. The unexpected resilience of Russia’s frontlines and President Vladimir Putin’s resolve, the slow advance of Ukraine’s counteroffensive and questions about open-ended commitments are causing strains. Among them: Poland’s trade dispute with Ukraine; Hungary’s with Sweden and Ukraine; and U.S. sanctions on Turkish companies supplying Russia. Slovakia’s voters just placed Ukraine skeptic and former prime minister, Robert Fico, in the lead to form a new government.

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