Mises Wire

There Are Only Downsides to Prolonging the War in Ukraine

Last week, President Joe Biden and a number of top American and European officials met in Normandy to attend a ceremony marking the eightieth anniversary of the D-day invasion. In a pair of speeches, Biden recounted the operation that he said marked the beginning of the “great crusade to liberate Europe from tyranny” before drawing a direct connection to where things stand with the war in Ukraine.

Biden called Russian president Vladamir Putin a tyrant who invaded Ukraine simply because he is “bent on domination.” Biden then renewed one of his favorite tropes, asserting that if Ukraine falls, its people will be subjugated, its neighbors will be in immediate danger, and all of Europe will be threatened by Putin’s aggressive ambitions.

But the West’s chosen depiction of Putin as a tyrant bent on conquering the entire European continent suffered its latest setback last month when it came out that the Russian president is interested in halting the fighting and negotiating a deal that recognizes the current battlefield lines.

Putin is showing this interest even though the Russian military is in a strong position that seems likely to get even stronger. Last year’s long-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive was meant to drive Russian forces out of Ukraine. But since its launch last summer, Ukraine has lost more territory than it has gained. Recently, the Russians even launched a brand new incursion into territory around the northeastern city of Kharkiv—territory that had already been recaptured by the Ukrainians in late 2022.

Russia’s minefields, artillery, and punishing glide bombs have not only kept Ukrainian forces from advancing but left them struggling to hold their positions along the current front line. Meanwhile, Russia has significantly boosted war-related production far beyond anything we’re seeing from the West, which, while bad for the Russian economy in the long run, ensures the intensity of Russia’s bombing and shelling will not cease anytime soon.

At the same time, the Ukrainian government is facing a serious shortage of soldiers that no amount of foreign aid or equipment transfers can do anything to alleviate. Earlier this year, the Ukrainian parliament passed a law that sought to boost conscription rates by making it easier for the government to find and identify draft-eligible men. But the problem persists, leading Ukrainian officials to tap into the country’s prison population, cut consular services to military-aged Ukrainian men living abroad, and forbid men who are dual citizens from leaving Ukraine. As the country’s supply of young men runs low, the average age of a Ukrainian soldier has climbed to forty-three years old.

What makes Ukraine’s situation even more tragic is how easily it could have been avoided. One month after Russia invaded in early 2022, both sides reached an agreement where Russia would pull back to preinvasion boundaries and, in return, Ukraine would agree to not seek NATO membership.

The deal could have put an end to the fighting and handed Kyiv control of all the land Russia had just seized. But, according to senior negotiators on both sides and high-level mediators from the various countries facilitating the talks, officials from the United Kingdom and the United States convinced the Ukrainians to walk away from the deal and fight.

Since then, Ukraine’s leverage over Russia has only diminished. Many Ukrainians have been killed or maimed as the war has devolved into a brutal trench-style artillery war. Meanwhile, Russia laid permanent claim to the land it had earlier agreed to hand back to Ukraine.

Even with its extensive conscription laws, Ukraine does not have enough soldiers to break through Russia’s now heavily fortified lines, much less to drive Russian forces out of all the territory claimed by Kyiv. The Ukrainians have, so far, been able to prevent the Russians from advancing and seizing all the territory that Moscow now claims. But with their dwindling numbers, Ukrainian forces won’t be able to hold these lines forever.

So, accepting Russia’s offer to move this conflict from the battlefield to the negotiation table is almost certainly the best chance Ukraine will get to hold onto the eastern territory they still control.

But rather than take this opportunity, the Ukrainian government and its backers in Europe and the United States have instead decided to escalate the conflict with risky, strategically pointless provocations.

President Biden and a number of other European heads of state recently gave Ukraine a green light to use NATO weapons to conduct strikes within Russia. Around the same time, Ukraine struck two Russian strategic nuclear early-warning radars and attempted to strike a third one deeper in Russian territory.

And, as if hampering Russia’s ability to confirm that they are not under a nuclear attack after allowing Ukraine to shoot US missiles into Russia wasn’t enough, the US then test-fired two nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles—launching them four thousand miles from California to the Marshall Islands.

The escalations have not been one-sided. Russia conducted drills simulating the use of strategic nuclear weapons in Belarus and has sent warships and a submarine to the Caribbean. The Russians have also stepped up shelling and airstrikes in Ukraine in response to the strikes on their territory.

None of this is necessary. The strikes on Russian territory have not translated to Ukrainian gains on the battlefield. And the Russian early-warning radar Ukraine hit wasn’t even aimed at Ukrainian airspace. All these escalations do is prolong the Ukrainian people’s suffering while nudging the world closer to a catastrophic nuclear accident. Instead of fantasizing about waging some World War II–level offensive on Putin’s Russia, Biden and his friends in NATO should come back to reality and, before it’s too late, agree to work this conflict out with words for a change.

Image Source: David Young/picture-alliance/dpa via Associated Press
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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