Marc Champion argues that the US and Europe must reassess their approach to the conflict in Ukraine. He emphasizes that the largest military engagement in Europe since 1945 requires a radical adjustment in framing the war, dismissing the notion that Ukraine’s inability to secure a breakthrough in a summer counteroffensive should dictate the next steps. Champion contends that peace negotiations depend more on Russia, the invading power, and that the US and Europe intervened to help Ukraine defend itself rather than achieve victory over Russia. He underscores the importance of sustained support for Ukraine to prevent Russian expansion and maintain stability in Europe. Champion challenges the calls for immediate cease-fire negotiations, advocating for a purposeful, long-term defense strategy to weaken Russian forces and compel Putin to reconsider his cost-benefit analysis.
Fund Ukraine. The Alternative Is Loss, Not Peace: Marc Champion
By Marc Champion
Winter is coming to Ukraine, and just how brutal that will be — as Russia again ramps up its air war to strike at cities and energy infrastructure — is up to the US and Europe. Tragically, both seem to be losing the plot after a period of surprising resolve and unity, and a radical adjustment is now needed to how we frame the war.
Too many people appear to have lost sight that this is the largest military engagement Europe has seen since 1945, dwarfing even Israel’s heavy-handed counter-terrorist operation in Gaza. It’s a war of conquest that Russia launched in 2014, dramatically accelerated almost two years ago, and shouldn’t therefore be defined by the success or failure of any one season’s offensive by either side. That’s important to reiterate, because so much current thinking about what to do next takes the inability of Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive to secure a breakthrough as its point of departure.
If Ukraine can’t attain victory, the thinking goes, what then is the purpose in prolonging the war or continuing to accept its costs? Surely it would be better to exercise a little tough love by pressing President Volodymyr Zelenskiy into a negotiated cease-fire? The questions are misguided because they arise from two false premises: first, that negotiating peace is up to Ukraine; and second, that the US and Europe rallied around Kyiv since 2022 to achieve “victory’’ over Russia.
The reality is that peace negotiations depend more on Russia — the invading power. Moreover, there is no sign whatsoever that President Vladimir Putin is ready to accept a durable cease-fire on existing battle lines. Russia’s actions, not to mention the Kremlin’s still-escalatory rhetoric and declared annexations of territory it doesn’t yet control, suggest the contrary.
Equally, the US and Europe came to Kyiv’s aid not so that it could defeat Russia, but so it could defend itself, preventing a Russian expansion that promised long-term instability for Europe. These remain vital interests, without even broaching more nebulous, values-based goals such as defending democracy or international law. They’re also more achievable than they appeared to be in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s 2022 invasion.
In fairness to Putin, it would be illogical for him to give up on his goals now, a moment at which funding and military support for Ukraine are in jeopardy on both sides of the Atlantic. The White House this week warned it would run out of money to support Ukraine by the end of December unless Republicans in Congress lift opposition, an eventuality that a Biden official correctly said would “kneecap” Ukraine’s ability to defend against Russian offensives. Meanwhile, Putin’s ally, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has made clear he intends either to leverage or frustrate both the creation of a €50 billion ($54 billion) European Union fund for Ukraine and a plan for the EU to offer Kyiv membership talks this month.
Most encouraging of all, from the Kremlin’s view, is that Donald Trump — a man with a deep personal beef with Ukraine — is leading opinion polls ahead of US presidential elections a year from now. Putin has his own political agenda, too. He faces elections next year that, no matter how unfree and unfair, remain important to underpinning his authority and legitimacy. To cut a deal now could prompt Russians to question the enormous cost they’ve been asked to pay.
What too many in the West fail to grasp, says Mykola Bielieskov, a research fellow at the National Institute for Strategic Studies in Kyiv, is that “Russia will not reconcile with Ukraine’’ and still believes it can win by force. They “have raised arms production, are mobilizing new forces and need a result to show for it.’’
The upshot is that Ukraine can’t stop fighting no matter what happens to its funding and arms supplies from allies. The only question is how many extra lives and additional territory will be lost should Western resolve fail, depriving Ukrainians of the means to fight back with enough force to persuade Putin that there’s nothing more he can win.
Time is what Ukraine now needs to conduct this kind of purposeful, rather than desperate, defense. Its task is to weaken Russian forces and continue a long-range air campaign to render Crimea — and therefore supply lines to Russian forces in the south — vulnerable, while holding out for a Trump defeat. That combination could force Putin to reconsider his cost-benefit analysis and negotiate a viable end to the war.
A dogged defense offers a much less inspiring story than a counteroffensive triumph, but for now it’s also a far better path forward for Ukraine and its backers than any doomed bid for talks. The war has proved just how difficult — if not impossible — it is to attack a well-entrenched opponent without the benefit of air superiority or some other major technological advantage, and the same applies for Russia. Since the fall, Putin’s generals have thrown large numbers of its forces into an offensive at Avdiivka, in Ukraine’s east, losing shocking quantities of soldiers and equipment. A successful attritional defense of this kind is a win for Ukraine also; it just takes more time to bear fruit.
It’s here that I disagree with two highly respected US foreign-policy brains, Richard Haas and Charles Kupchan, who also call for a rethink of the West’s Ukraine strategy in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs magazine. Based on the Ukrainian counteroffensive failure, the lack of any realistic prospect of a breakthrough to reclaim all occupied territory, Western fatigue and Russia’s superior resources, the two men argue for persuading the Ukrainians to negotiate a cease-fire now. Even if Putin declines, which they acknowledge as likely, they argue that Ukraine would gain moral high ground and perhaps prevent a worse fate later.
Haas and Kupchan are good on the dangers of continuing the counteroffensive’s effort at “victory,” but this is also a straw man. Ukraine’s commanders already have accepted the need to shift to defense. They are no longer asking for more tanks, but for the longer-range missiles, artillery shells, anti-aircraft batteries and jets needed for a strategy of attrition. The article also ignores the risks inherent in its own proposal. Putin probably wouldn’t refuse a cease-fire outright, as he hasn’t in the past, and instead set terms he knows Ukraine must refuse. That would trigger an inevitable debate among Kyiv’s allies as to whether it should accept — and when it doesn’t, give oxygen to those (such as Orban) who argue for an end to support for Ukraine.
The reality is that stability in Europe still depends on showing Putin he can’t achieve his historically grandiose goals of regathering Russian lands and spheres of influence that were lost in 1918, regained under Stalin thereafter, and lost again with the Soviet Union’s 1991 dissolution. The Kremlin is by no means done trying. Few empires have accepted collapse without a struggle, and Russia is no exception. (Bloomberg Opinion)
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