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The Perilous Long Game in Ukraine

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Before February 24, when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his fateful decision to attack Ukraine, the core objective of U.S. policy on the brewing crisis was clear. Washington sought to deter an invasion by raising the costs of any military operation that Putin launched and by issuing threats of punishment—largely economic—if Moscow were to proceed. But deterrence clearly failed. Russia rolled into Ukraine and its forces have since killed thousands of civilians and devastated several cities. The United States, together with its allies and partners, took sweeping action in response to Russia’s aggression, imposing unprecedented sanctions, including freezing central bank reserves, and delivering hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of materiel to support the Ukrainian military. But the urgency of countering Putin seems to have clouded the question of what U.S. objectives should be and how best to pursue them.

The horrors of the war, including the leveling of major urban areas such as Kharkiv and Mariupol, the displacement of millions, and the civilian death toll, cannot help but provoke outrage. U.S. President Joe Biden’s unscripted remark in Warsaw on Saturday—speaking of Putin, he said, “For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power”—reflects a fairly widely held sentiment that the United States must prioritize punishing Putin, or even seek his ouster (although the White House has denied that this is U.S. policy). But Washington should be wary of the siren call of regime change, which seems at first to offer a just and effective remedy. Recent U.S. experience in Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere suggests that it almost never produces the desired results.

Instead, policymakers in Washington must wrestle with two distinct kinds of goals. In the near term, U.S. priorities remain denying Putin a battlefield victory, avoiding the escalation of the conflict, and limiting its humanitarian and economic costs. Over the long term, the United States wants to shape Russian behavior in such a way that minimizes risks to U.S. geopolitical interests and international stability and reduces the potential for future regional conflict.

The main challenge today is that Ukraine’s brave resistance—even combined with ever-greater Western pressure on Moscow—is highly unlikely to overcome Russia’s military advantages, let alone topple Putin. Without some kind of deal with the Kremlin, the best outcome is probably a long, arduous war that Russia is likely to win anyway. And such a protracted conflict would cement the current extreme level of hostility between Russia and the West, undermining long-term U.S. interests in regional and global stability.

It will be extremely hard, if not impossible, for the United States to achieve either its short- or long-term objectives if the war drags on for months longer. However distasteful it may be to reach a compromise with Putin after the carnage he has unleashed, the United States should work to secure a negotiated settlement to the conflict sooner rather than later.

Putin has not achieved the quick win he sought. His initial war aim was clearly regime change, and he hoped to accomplish it without significant military effort—just enough shock and awe to convince Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his government to flee, to force........

© Foreign Affairs

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