February 24 marks the first anniversary of Russia’s illegal and brutal invasion of Ukraine. While we salute the extraordinary courage and resistance of the Ukrainian people, the occasion is a sad one, marked by a continuing war, mounting lives lost, people maimed, cities and villages savaged, families displaced.
It should also be a time for sober reflection by the Biden administration, which had opportunities to avert the catastrophe but chose not to explore them.
US intelligence estimates show combined Russian and Ukrainian military casualties well in excess of 200,000—while the United Nations estimates at least 7,100 Ukrainian civilian deaths. The number of internally displaced people within Ukraine stands at roughly 6 million. An additional 8 million Ukrainian refugees have fled to other countries in Europe—the largest wave of refugees on the continent since the end of the Second World War.
The euphoria that greeted early Ukrainian successes in the field has contributed to a sense, in both Washington and Brussels, that outright military victory—and perhaps even regime change in Moscow—are realistic objectives.
Yet as we head into the second year of this war, the fighting seems poised to take an ominous turn. Russia is now fielding an invasion force nearly three times as large as the one it deployed on February 24, 2022. Between 300,000 and 500,000 troops are massed at the border with Ukraine. Thousands of reserves are also reported to be waiting to join the front in Belarus.
Reflecting on the US entry into World War I, George F. Kennan, perhaps the most prominent diplomat of his day, wrote: “It did not appear to us then that the greatest interest we had in the war was still that it should be brought to an end as soon as possible.” America should avoid repeating that mistake.
To date, the Biden administration has held the line against direct involvement of US forces, sensibly fearing a war between two nuclear powers. But as the costs and the scope of our commitment rises, there will be a growing chorus arguing that the US cannot afford to lose. If the US had a role in the destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines—as Seymour Hersh’s recent report is the latest to suggest—then the Biden administration has already taken fateful steps down the road of replacing Ukraine as Russia’s main military adversary. Last week it was revealed that the Pentagon wants to revive a top-secret program sending US commandos to Ukraine. We can only hope the prudent views of Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that Ukraine should now seek a political solution, are not ignored.
Yet so far, Biden has largely acquiesced to Kyiv’s calls for more weaponry—and increasing US military entanglement. Most Americans would be surprised to learn that Ukrainian troops are already training at a US Army base in Oklahoma. They would be equally surprised to learn there are 100,000 combat-ready soldiers in Europe—including troops from the 101st Airborne Division stationed near the Ukrainian border in Romania. The enthusiasm in corporate boardrooms and Beltway greenrooms for an expansion of this war is not shared by the American public.
A diplomatic settlement will not be easy to achieve. Both sides will have to make concessions. Ukraine will need security guarantees, resources for rebuilding—and a future within Europe. But it will have to surrender hopes for regaining all the territory it has lost since 2014. Russia will need to relinquish much of the territory it claims to have annexed. Eventually, it will need relief from international sanctions.
Now is the moment to push for a cease-fire, to be followed by negotiations.
We must reject the siren song of those who would fight to the last Ukrainian. Given the suffering they have endured, Ukrainians may be understandably reluctant to accept a settlement. But the US and its NATO partners surely know that time is not on Ukraine’s side. The Western unity so vital to Ukraine’s defense is already beginning to fracture.
Russia—and Putin—has also paid a high price for its aggression. Ukraine has suffered terrible losses but gained national cohesion and confidence. To save Ukraine—and to avoid the risk of a truly catastrophic, possibly nuclear, great power conflict—it is time to seek an end to the war. For that to happen, the US and its allies must now lead the push for peace.