The Ukraine Model
In a recent interview with Brett Baier of Fox News, Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis said, in response to a viewer question about his policy on Ukraine, that we needed to reach a “sustainable conclusion” of the conflict. He further stated that the war on Ukraine has depleted our ammunition and weapons stocks to “crisis” levels and that as president he would prioritize the China threat first and shift more resources and power to the Indo-Pacific region. Governor DeSantis went on to say that the Europeans should take the lead in this fight with Russia and that Ukrainian membership in NATO should be subject to a cost/benefit analysis, noting that many of the NATO countries are not fulfilling their obligations to the alliance.
This interview is telling me that Governor DeSantis does not understand the nature of global leadership. It sounds more like the policy of “leading from behind” espoused by President Obama that was such a disaster. Yes, the Europeans could and should do more, but they do not have what it takes to be a global - or even regional - leader. As former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated in his book, The Will to Lead, America’s leadership is indispensable. Europe lacks that will. Perhaps Governor DeSantis also lacks that will.
Former President and current presidential candidate Donald Trump asserts that he can end the war in one day, but he is vague on the details. He asserts that he knows Russian President Putin and Ukrainian President Zelenskyy “very well.” Supposedly, his personal knowledge of these actors and his great negotiating skill will end the war in twenty-four hours. But I think I know exactly how he will do it. The newly re-elected president would go to President Zelenskyy and tell him he has to deal or he will yank all the aid America has been giving Ukraine and they will be on their own. President Zelenskyy would have to deal and would be forced to concede Russia’s annexation of Crimea and cede a partial division of eastern and southern Ukraine to Russian occupiers. There would be peace. But the price of peace would be the elimination of Ukraine sovereignty.
Other foreign policy experts are also promoting some form of armistice citing the example of North and South Korea, two countries that are technically still at war. An article in Foreign Affairs Magazine points out the success South Korea has become since its armistice with North Korea in 1953 (The Korea Model, June 20, 2023). The point of the article is that peace through a truce or an armistice, even though still technically at war, is better than unending combat. Nations at peace can thrive and that an armistice would be better for Ukraine even though parts of the country would still be occupied by Russia.
But the conditions that allowed a truce between North and South Korea do not exist in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Korea was a single country split apart at the end of World War Two by the winning allies. Putin may believe that Russia and Ukraine are just two parts of the same country but no one else believes that. And North and South Korea were backed by two world powers that could not engage directly without creating a new world war. As the combatants reached a stalemate in 1952-3, the chances of two nuclear superpowers coming into direct conflict (whether by chance or intent) increased. America was directly involved (although supposedly under the auspices on the United Nations) and Soviet pilots were secretly flying North Korean aircraft. The concerns of the superpowers demanded that fighting cease, no matter the desires of the North or South Koreans. The peace has lasted seventy years during which South Korea has prospered. But South Korea has only prospered because the United States has strongly backed up the defense of South Korea while ordinary Koreans have lived under the threat of imminent invasion ever since.
The conditions that motivated and permitted the armistice that stopped the fighting in Korea do not exist in today’s Ukrainian conflict. The United Nations only supported South Korea because the Soviet Union boycotted the Security Council vote on aiding South Korea – a mistake that neither Russia nor China will ever make again. And although the Ukrainian counter-offensive has only made slow progress against the Russian invaders they are not at a stalemate unlike the situation in Korea. If the Ukrainians can cut off the land bridge between Russia and Crimea the entire nature of the war would change. Plus Ukrainian fighters are highly motivated against the demoralized Russians. An armistice at this time would only give the Russians time to regroup and reinforce their battle lines to prepare for a new offensive.
Mostly importantly, the will of the NATO alliance and especially that of the United States to strongly back Ukrainian independence may be doubtful. The US is gaining a reputation of abandoning its allies such as the Kurds and the Afghans. The disastrous withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan was touted by the White House with the comment, “Last night in Kabul, the United States ended 20 years of war in Afghanistan — the longest war in American history.” But the White House is wrong. The longest war is the Korean War. There is no peace treaty between North and South Korea. Only 28,500 American troops are keeping DPRK soldiers from invading the south just as fast as the Taliban moved to retake Afghanistan. It is doubtful that the US or NATO would be willing to station troops in Ukraine to defend the armistice for decades to come.
Ukrainian President Zelenskyy knows that entering into an armistice with Russia would be a death warrant for his country (and likely himself as well).
If American presidential candidates don’t understand what it takes for global leadership then they probably don’t understand what it takes for American leadership. Because American global leadership is an essential part of who we are.
American peace and prosperity is built on a system of alliances and trade relationships that have endured since the end of World War Two. And American peace and prosperity has benefitted the entire world as billions of people have emerged from poverty to live longer more productive lives.
True, America has paid a price in blood and treasure. But others have also paid. America lost about thirty-seven thousand military personnel in South Korea, but the South Koreans lost around one hundred and thirty-eight thousand soldiers. Civilian casualties were estimated to be around a million. We lost 58 thousand in Vietnam but the South Vietnamese lost between two hundred and two hundred fifty thousand soldiers. More than one million civilians also died.
But American dedication to global order seems to be faltering. Total US combat deaths in Afghanistan were only around twenty-five hundred over a twenty year period. The number of deaths in 2020 were only eleven and all thirteen deaths in 2021 occurred in one event during the disastrous US withdrawal. Afghans flooded the airport in a desperate attempt to flee the country and Afghan supporters of the US have been marked for death by the Taliban. Al Jazeera reports that over a thousand civilians have been killed since the Taliban took over.
White European allies are pretty confident of American support if attacked, but yellow, brown and black allies are less sanguine about Americans coming to their defense let alone sticking around for the aftermath (with good reason). American peace and prosperity not only blossomed in our system of trade relationships and alliances but depends on those trade relationships and alliances. Without them, we will be poorer and more vulnerable. American leadership needs to show that we can be relied on. That we will honor our commitments. People around the world will be watching what we do for Ukraine. We also need to be able to look in the mirror and see the America we believe in looking back at us.
Republican presidential candidates are soft on support for Ukraine. I don’t think former President Trump gives a hoot about Ukrainian freedom or the lives lost in the Russian invasion. He only cares about dollars and cents and how much American support will cost. He believes that people around the world think we are a bunch of dopes for helping the Ukrainians or anyone else in their fight for freedom. Because that’s what he thinks about helping others. That’s what America First is all about. And the other Republican candidates fear standing up for freedom because they do not want to offend the MAGA base. The so-called Freedom Caucus of far-right Republicans don’t seem to care very much about anybody else’s freedom. They oppose aid to Ukraine not because of America First principles but only because Joe Biden supports it.
It is time to reject vacillation and hesitance. America not only needs to tell Russia that its commitment to Ukraine is unwavering, we must also convince them of that fact – because talk is cheap. That means continuing to send weapons to Ukraine for their defense. That also means spending the money to rebuild our depleted military supplies and to expand our military footprint. Because China needs convincing too!