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It makes no sense to abandon Ukraine

Millions for defense, but not one cent for Ukraine.

That’s the rallying cry of opponents of a new $60 billion tranche of aid for Ukraine led by Ohio’s Republican senator, J.D. Vance.

Vance deserves credit for taking his perspective directly into the belly of the beast at the Munich Security Conference, where he rowed against the tide by advocating for abandoning the embattled Western ally.

Vance’s views are cogent and in no way pro-Putin. Still, they aren’t persuasive.

He’s right that there will, at some point, be a deal in Ukraine, and right that the Europeans should be spending more on their defense. Otherwise, what he portrays as realism about the course of the conflict is naive and unrealistic.

Vance says the problem “is that there’s no clear end point” in the Ukraine war. True. Most wars don’t come with clear end points attached. Churchill warned against believing that war can be easily controlled or predicted, or as he put it, “that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter.”

It’s also not unusual that wars become slugfests of attrition, which Ukraine is now.

But there are two general end points that are possible to imagine: 1) The Ukrainians continue to hold off the Russians such that Moscow is eventually exhausted and becomes willing to cut some sort of deal, or 2) the Russians sweep to victory.

Starving Ukraine of ammunition is certainly one way to bring the war to an end, just not on terms favorable to Ukraine, the West or our interests.

Vance says the latest aid package “is not going to fundamentally change the reality on the battlefield.” If he means that it isn’t going to allow Ukraine to break through Russian lines, he’s correct. But denying the aid to Ukraine could, indeed, fundamentally change the reality on the battlefield by enabling a broad Russian advance.

There is a circularity to the argument of opponents of more aid — by delaying further support they have undermined Ukraine’s position on the battlefield, which they say shows that Ukraine’s cause is hopeless and undeserving of more U.S. backing.

If Russia gets the upper hand again, it won’t be the formula for the peace deal that Vance envisions. According to U.S. estimates, Russia has suffered more than 300,000 casualties. It has lost 3,000 tanks and 20 ships in the Black Sea. It has spent more than $200 billion on the war, and it has seen about $1 trillion in anticipated economic growth disappear.

As of December, it had suffered 13,000 casualties in and around Avdiivka and other cities alone.

After this toll, if Russia begins to get a decisive edge, we’re supposed to believe that it would just call a unilateral halt in the interests of seeking a negotiated settlement? At the very moment when it wouldn’t need a negotiation to get what it wants? Why? Putin has made grievous mistakes in Ukraine, but he’s not an idiot.

It’s true that if Putin prevails in Ukraine, he’s not immediately going to proceed to Warsaw. But he might move against Moldova or, with time, the Baltic states, which would provoke an even more dangerous confrontation with the West since Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are NATO members.

It’s difficult to predict how a Ukrainian defeat would reverberate. Abandoning allies in a humiliating fashion has unpredictable consequences. When we cut lose South Vietnam in the 1970s, it catalyzed an anti-Western offensive around the world, and Joe Biden’s botched pull-out from Afghanistan may have tempted Putin into Ukraine.

The Ukraine war is expensive, no doubt. But it is being fought exclusively by the Ukrainians, who just want the resources and materiel to stay in the field. The conflict is two years old. This isn’t a “forever war,” but a fight that we would be losing patience for in record time.

It’d be foolish to precipitate Ukraine’s defeat on grounds that it is inevitable.

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