If the Biden administration is engaged in postwar planning for Ukraine, it might want to consider how to get postwar first.
Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave his views on the endgame in Ukraine and what should happen after. He emphasized a key point: President Joe Biden “has always been emphatic that one of his requirements in Ukraine is that there be no World War III.”
The comment was strangely phrased. Biden has a “requirement” that there be no Armageddon. You can see it appearing as the last bullet point on a Ukraine-war briefing slide. “Requirements: No World War III.” Check.
But a policymaker cannot “require” that a war don’t escalate. He can claim not to want it, suggest it be avoided, frame it as a bad idea, pledge not to pursue it — but he cannot require it, because escalation is a tricky business and can happen whether you want it or not.
Perspective is important. Take, for example, the president’s statement claiming that the M1 Abrams tanks the United States is preparing to send to Ukraine are the “most capable tanks in the world” yet do not present “an offensive threat to Russia” because the U.S. is “helping Ukraine defend and protect Ukrainian land.” All that is true from the U.S. point of view — but Russia disagrees. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov noted in response that this constituted another escalatory step. “In Moscow, everything that the alliance and [Europe and Washington] are doing is seen as direct involvement in the conflict,” he said. “We see that this is growing.”
I am not arguing against supplying the tanks. Indeed, I have previously argued in favor. And the M1s will not even arrive in Ukraine for another year because they have to be specially purchased using Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative funds, not simply provided out of U.S. stocks. So, as escalation goes, this is slow motion.
Escalation can be an unpredictable and irrational phenomenon. President John F. Kennedy noted after the Cuban missile crisis that “the essence of ultimate decision remains impenetrable to the observer—often, indeed, to the decider himself.” How much more impenetrable for the diminished Joe Biden.
Kennedy by contrast was in his prime during the face-off with Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev over Cuba. And he was well aware of the perils of escalation. He had read the bestselling Guns of August, a narrative about the senseless but coldly logical escalation that led to World War I, and he had his senior staff read it too. He told his team, “We are not going to bungle into war.” Fortunately, he didn’t.
Blinken’s focus on postwar arrangements is sensible, but the challenge lies in getting there. Conflict termination will require a diplomatic effort, and neither side seems disposed to talking — or to compromising. Western officials avoid asking Ukrainians to think about what annexed territories they are willing to write off. And there is no euphemistic “exit ramp” for Russian President Vladimir Putin such as people discussed earlier in the war, which somehow implied that he either wanted an exit or couldn’t just withdraw his invasion force at any time. It is not up to the U.S. to educate Putin on his options. He is smart enough to understand them, more so than we can.
Supplying main battle tanks represents a necessary escalation if Ukraine is to take back more of its territory and justify the investment Western powers are making in Ukraine’s defense. One hopes that these arms, given by many countries, can make a difference and restore mobility to the battlefield. Ukraine might advance toward Crimea, toward Mariupol, toward Starobilsk — break the Russian line, compromise the front, then advance as Russia pulls back to the next defensive position. Repeat this a few times, and vast areas will be liberated.
So how much territory does Ukraine need to win back before we start talking about cease-fires? Ideally, all of it. Realistically, it’s hard to say. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has suggested an armistice along the lines of where the two countries were last Feb. 24. But Russia considers the parts of Ukraine it has recently annexed to be its sovereign territory. Any attacks on those areas would, so far as Moscow is concerned, constitute direct offensive action against Russia, no matter what Biden says. The last time this appeared likely, Putin began talking about using nuclear weapons.
Which gets us back to No World War III. After all, it’s a requirement. It’s too bad that the major European powers didn’t have “No World War I” on their briefing slides in 1914. It would have saved the world a lot of bother.
James S. Robbins is Dean of Academics at the Institute of World Politics and author of Erasing America: Losing Our Future by Destroying Our Past.