The U.S. is by far the largest supplier of arms to Ukraine. Yet there’s reason to believe that American and Ukrainian goals are not perfectly aligned. Ukraine’s goals are obvious: to win back as much territory as possible with the minimum loss of casualties. But the U.S. has an additional goal: to “see Russia weakened,” as Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin put it.
For those who might be sceptical of this, here’s what Professor Hal Brands had to say in an article defending Western involvement:
The war in Ukraine isn’t just a conflict between Moscow and Kyiv, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently declared. It is a “proxy war” in which the world’s most powerful military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is using Ukraine as a battering ram against the Russian state … Lavrov is one of the most reliable mouthpieces for President Vladimir Putin’s baseless propaganda, but in this case he’s not wrong. Russia is the target of one of the most ruthlessly effectively proxy wars in modern history.
Another way in which American and Ukrainian goals are not perfectly aligned concerns appetite for risk. Ukraine’s leaders are more willing to risk a significant escalation of the conflict than America’s leaders. Back in March, Zelensky called on NATO to implement a no-fly zone, but the U.S. refused on the grounds that this would entail a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO.
As Senator Adam Schiff stated in January of 2020, “The United States aids Ukraine and her people so that we can fight Russia over there, and we don’t have to fight Russia here”. Or as Congressman Dan Crenshaw stated more recently, “investing in the destruction of our adversary’s military, without losing a single American troop, strikes me as a good idea.”
Since the U.S. has the additional goal of “seeing Russia weakened”, it stands to benefit from prolonging the war (at least time for a time), regardless of whether this helps Ukraine win back territory. And since the U.S. doesn’t want to risk a significant escalation, it has less incentive to provide the kind of assistance that might be necessary to win back territory.
Now, this analysis is somewhat speculative, but there is evidence to back it up. Several commentators have noted that the West is giving Ukraine enough weapons to continue fighting but not enough to make territorial gains.
Ulrich Speck, a German foreign-policy analyst, was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “Western weapons: Just enough to survive, not enough to regain territory. The idea seems to be that Russia should not win but also not lose.”
And according to the Austrian analyst and Army Colonel Markus Reisner, the scale of Western arms shipments mean that Ukraine’s armed forces have “too much to die and too little to live”.
Likewise, Ukraine’s former defence minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk told the Financial Times, “The US gives us enough to stop the Russians from advancing, to reverse some gains, to shape the operational direction, but absolutely, clearly, not enough for a major counteroffensive.”
In addition, there’s the question of why it took so long for the U.S. to deliver HIMARS rocket launchers. These appear to have made a tangible difference on the battlefield, but might have made even more of difference had they been delivered earlier.
One possible explanation is that the West assumed Ukraine would be fighting an insurgency campaign after a quick Russian victory (hence all the shoulder-mounted rocket launchers). However, the Russians withdrew from Kiev in early April, so this can’t explain why it took another two months to deliver HIMARS rocket launchers. (The units arrived in June, but training took about a month, so they weren’t put into action until July.)
Another possible explanation is bureaucratic inertia. But the U.S. had already sent billions of dollars of weapons by this point, including both vehicles and helicopters. Why was the ‘bureaucratic inertia’ around HIMARS rocket launchers so powerful?
The U.S. may believe that Ukraine is unlikely to win back much territory through military force, given its reluctance to lend the kind of support that could actually make this possible. However, it may refrain from advising Ukraine to negotiate, since prolonging the war serves to degrade Russia’s economy and armed forces – a key U.S. goal.