As the cost of the six-month Russia-Ukraine war continues to pile up on the United States and Europe – and as the risk rises in the coming months of yet more serious pain accruing to the West – the people of the U.S. and Europe have a right to ask whether the authorities in Kyiv did all they could to prevent war prior to Moscow’s invasion, and whether it is doing all it can now to bring the fighting to an end. A close scrutiny of available evidence suggests some unpalatable answers.
Defense of democratic ideals and support for victims of aggression is virtually embedded in American DNA, and at multiple points over the past centuries, the U.S. has shed much blood in defense of others. But we dare not get so cavalier with the extension of American military support (or the introduction of American troops) for the benefit of other nations that we fail to require them to first do all they can to support their own defense.
We should expect our government first to ensure our Armed Forces remain fully capable of defending our shores and not risk the blood of our service members for foreign missions not tied to the defense of U.S. national security.
When American military support is assumed by a non-treaty ally, when a given nation refuses to make hard choices for its own security in the expectation – if not the outright demand – that the U.S. provide it with substantial and open-ended military support, then it is appropriate for the U.S. government to reevaluate whether, to what extent, and over what period of time it should agree to provide such support.
As this analysis exposes, assessed against this standard, both Kyiv and Washington have fallen short.
Biden’s Public Warning of Imminent Russian Attack – and Ukraine’s Refusal to Act
On February 18, President Biden shocked many around the world when he publicly and explicitly revealed that U.S. intelligence had “reason to believe the Russian forces are planning to, intend to, attack Ukraine in the coming week… I’m convinced (Putin has) made the decision (to attack).” It was the most direct public statement Biden had made, but behind the scenes, he had been warning Kyiv of a likely Russian invasion for months.
Ukrainian leadership, however, was unwilling to act on the information. A recent Washington Post analysis reported Ukraine’s President Zelensky’s primary response was skepticism, but he also concurrently made significant demands of Washington. “You can say a million times, ‘listen, there may be an invasion.’ Okay, there may be an invasion,” Zelensky dismissively said, but “will you give us planes?… Will you give us air defenses?”
Zelensky’s Chief of Staff, Andriy Yermak, claimed that preparing the country for the potential of war with Russia would have caused public panic. “Imagine if this panic had started three or four months” before the war, Yermak said. “What would have happened to the economy? Would we have been able to hold on for four or five months like we have?” That, of course, is speculative. What isn’t speculation is that Ukrainian leaders chose to make very little preparation, and that, as a result, the Ukrainian economy has been effectively destroyed by the war. The choices made by the Ukrainian leadership in the months before the war raised some red flags.
When presented with cabinet-level officials from the United States repeatedly warning Kyiv that the U.S. had compelling evidence of a Russian decision to launch an invasion of their country, Ukraine’s leaders balked, questioned the intelligence saying it was insufficiently clear, and instead of preparing its armed forces and people to meet the crisis, they complained that the United States wasn’t giving them enough weaponry. These complaints fall flat, however, when considering the conditions clearly evident in the months before the war.
For example, without access to any intelligence or high-level insider information, I publicly warned in December, January, and February with increasing fervency that war was likely. Ukraine and the West, I repeatedly argued, should take advantage of the opportunities to avert war. On December 5, 2021, I wrote that Putin warned Ukraine joining NATO was a “red line,” and that Putin was worried the West wasn’t taking him seriously. “Russia’s current troop buildup opposite Ukraine,” I explained, “implies his warnings may not be empty rhetoric, as Putin may well be seriously considering seizing the Donbas.”
One month later, I blasted former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen for advocating the West “call Putin’s bluff” by openly calling for the establishment of an action plan to bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. Recalling that Putin had already demonstrated in 2008 and 2014 he was willing to use force to eliminate what he considered threats to Russian security, I warned NATO leaders they should recognize “that more (Western) threats will likely push Putin to order additional Russian action into Ukraine, not deter him from it.”
On February 10, I cautioned we were fast approaching “our last chance to avert war in eastern Europe. Russia’s massive exercises will conclude near the 20th of this month. The weather conditions,” I continued, “will be optimal for armored attack and the Russian armed forces will be close to fully mobilized and positioned for invasion.” Just two weeks later, the events I had spent months warning against manifested themselves as Putin’s forces launched their unlawful attack against Ukraine on 24 February.
It seems implausible, we must acknowledge, to suggest that a common former Army officer such as myself without access to any classified material could see with such clarity what was coming, while the Ukraine authorities – armed with knowledge provided by the President of the United States himself – could not. Biden claimed in June, with some agitation, that it seemed Zelensky “didn’t want to hear” Biden’s warning that that war was coming.
One may reasonably ask, why, with all that information at his disposal of an imminent Russian invasion of his country, didn’t Zelensky act to either begin serious negotiations with Moscow to avert war or to at least prepare his population. The evidence suggests that the Ukrainian president gambled on the hope that the West would come to his aid after the Russians invaded, despite the West having no treaty obligations to Kyiv.
Even a cursory examination of the balance of power between Russia and Ukraine should have convinced Zelensky that his armed forces could never win a one-on-one fight with Putin’s forces. Rationally speaking, the only basis upon which even a thread-bare hope could be based on would be if Ukraine could get the armed forces of another country to come to his aid – and Zelensky spent considerable energy trying to get NATO to extend membership to Kyiv and the Article 5 security guarantees that went along with it. Publicly, some NATO officials seemed to offer Zelensky some hope.
NATO Leaders Make Contradictory Public & Private Statements
On January 8, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg defiantly insisted that despite Russian pressure, the alliance would keep the door to NATO open. “We stand by our decisions of the Bucharest Summit (in 2008, in which NATO vowed Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO”),” Stoltenberg said. Joining NATO would make “the societies of Ukraine and Georgia stronger,” because, he claimed, joining NATO produces “resilient and functioning societies” which are “less vulnerable to interference from Russia.” Yet behind the scenes, many in the West were telling Zelensky a very different story.
In a March 20 interview on CNN, Zelensky admitted to Fareed Zakaria that he had privately asked NATO officials “to say directly that we are going to accept you into NATO in a year or two or five. Just say it directly and clearly or just say no.” Despite what Stoltenberg had said in public, Zelensky revealed that in private, the NATO’s “response was very clear, you are not going to be a NATO or E.U. member.” The Ukrainian president was nevertheless told that “publicly the doors will remain open.” This divergence between what Zelensky was told privately by NATO prior to Russia’s invasion and what NATO senior leaders said in public would have dramatic implications.
There is evidence to suggest that if NATO had been honest and said the same thing in public, they told Zelensky in private – that Ukraine was never going to be allowed in NATO – that may have changed the calculous for Putin, and it is possible the war would never have started. As evidence that even in the eleventh hour, Russia was still willing to consider diplomatic options, on February 14, just 10 days before the war would begin, Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine’s ambassador to the UK, told the BBC that Ukraine was willing to be “flexible” and might withdraw its request to join NATO.
Moscow immediately seized on this opening, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying that if Ukraine did withdraw its intent to joint NATO, it would “significantly contribute to the formulation of a more meaningful response to Russian concerns.” Kyiv refuted the claim almost immediately. The spokesman for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, Oleg Nikolenko said Prystaiko’s comments had been “taken out of context” and that there was no change in Zelensky’s intent for Ukraine to join NATO.
Consider the ramifications for this series of events, less than two weeks before Putin invaded Ukraine:
Zelensky had “plainly asked” NATO leaders to tell him whether Ukraine would ever be invited into the Atlantic alliance, and had been expressly told “no.” The President of the United States had directly told Zelensky that intelligence had discovered Putin was preparing to attack “within days.” Even without any external information, the Ukrainian General Staff had to have known they could not win a war going head-to-head against Russia. Yet in spite of all this knowledge, Zelensky refused to take any diplomatic openings to resolve the crisis, refused to fully mobilize his population, and refused to accept the private declarations of NATO that no membership would be forthcoming.
Instead, it appears the Ukrainian president gambled that enough people in the West hated Russia strongly enough to come to his rescue after an invasion, would give him the weapons he demanded, money to sustain his country’s economy, for however long it took to win a war. He counted most of all on shaming the United States publicly into providing whatever he demanded.
The reality, however, is that Zelensky’s gamble is virtually certain to fail. As I have covered in detail in a previous 19FortyFive analysis, the military fundamentals and principles of war – along with the significant advantage in firepower Russia possesses – makes it as close to impossible as can exist in war for Ukraine to prevail. Continuing to ignore these realities will most likely condemn yet more Ukrainian civilians and soldiers to unnecessary deaths, result in yet more cities being razed to the ground, and if things go badly in the coming months, could result in an outright Russian victory. But Ukraine won’t be the only bill-payers for Kyiv’s continued pursuit of the militarily unattainable objective of defeating Russia.
Hundreds of millions in the Western world are also suffering as a result, and if changes aren’t soon made, the cost could go up substantially as we get closer to 2023. The American people deserve better than to be cajoled into open-ended support for a war that should never have been fought and cannot reasonably be won. The sooner Washington comes to terms with these realities, the sooner we can adopt policies that have a chance for success and are designed to achieve positive outcomes for the United States. Providing open-ended support to back Ukraine’s attempt to achieve the militarily unattainable is not in our country’s interest.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis
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