April 27, 2023

Sending Arms or Twisting Arms: The U.S. Role in the Ukraine War

John Feffer

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the United States has backed the government in Kyiv with military hardware and economic assistance. The Biden administration has also done its best to constrain Russia’s ability to wage war even as it has been careful not to provoke a direct confrontation or spur escalation on Russia’s part.

Russia did not launch its attack as retaliation for NATO’s expansion, however provocative the incorporation of former Soviet republics into the alliance might have been. The invasion resulted from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s growing nationalism, his territorial ambitions to build a “Russian world,” and his fear of the spreading influence of democratic movements on the periphery of Russia and within his country as well.

Although U.S. military contractors and energy companies have benefited hugely from the war, they are not driving U.S. security policy. The Biden administration—and the military industrial complex—remains focused on containing China. The idea that the United States is engaged in a “proxy war,” using Ukraine to weaken Russia, is belied by the fact that: Ukraine is in charge of the war effort, Russia has already revealed itself to be considerably weaker than previously assumed, and a risk-averse Pentagon wants the war over sooner rather than later.

U.S. policy on Ukraine is not without divisions—within the administration, in Congress, and in the population at large. So far, however, these differences of opinion have had no major impact on administration policy. If the war continues into the 2024 election season, however, the Biden administration will face increasing calls from Republicans and a Republican voter base to reduce support for Kyiv.

There are two primary scenarios for how the war plays out in the future. Either Ukraine will follow the “Croatia scenario” by pushing Russian troops entirely out of the country and potentially setting into motion the political downfall of Vladimir Putin. Or, in the “Korean scenario,” the war will settle into a period of stalemate after the first year of surprising reversals.

For the time being, the Biden administration is backing the first scenario. But a stalemate will inevitably strengthen calls for a “diplomatic endgame” that will bring the combatants as well as the United States and probably China to the negotiation table, perhaps through the mediation efforts of a more neutral party like Turkey. The next few months will be crucial, as Ukraine makes another push to achieve the “Croatia scenario” through a second counteroffensive. It still has a chance, with U.S. and European support, to achieve a just peace that upholds international law and punishes an aggressor for its illegal actions.