I visited Kyiv last month to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a trip that required a day and a half of travel. Naturally, I got to know some of the U.S. security officers who were transporting my congressional colleagues and me.
As we boarded a train for a 12-hour ride to Kyiv, knowing we were entering the war zone, I asked one of the security officers, "You ever worry about Russia hitting you while en route?"
"No," he laughed, "not even a little."
This is perhaps the most notable on-the-ground reality that the U.S. continues to ignore: the Russian army is no longer a threat to NATO, if they ever were. It also nullifies many people’s foundational reason for endlessly supporting Ukraine: "If we don’t stop Putin in Ukraine, he will expand the war throughout all of Europe."
Putin’s invasion has served as a convincing demonstration that Russia’s military training, doctrine and equipment were wildly overestimated. We should be grateful for this new reality and adjust accordingly, and that was precisely my message to President Zelenskyy.
The American people, including myself, have proudly backed every effort to support the people of Ukraine, but we cannot continue to ignore that the battlefield has shifted significantly over the past 14 months, and that military realities have shifted with it.
This begs the question: How much time and money, and for what purpose, are we willing to commit to Ukraine? President Biden continues to pledge his full support to Ukraine "for as long as it takes." But this abstract commitment begs an even more pressing question: For as long as it takes to do what?
President Zelenskyy’s answer to this question is clear; he’s committed to recapturing every inch of Ukraine that’s been occupied by Russian forces, as well as Crimea. He’s even stated that he refuses to enter peace talks unless Russia withdraws from the Crimean Peninsula.
Is this what President Biden means when he says for as long as it takes? If so, then we need to brace the American people for a long and bloody conflict in which U.S. soldiers will have to fight. Ukraine has no hope of recapturing Crimea without direct U.S. military involvement, and the peninsula is a bright red line for Putin – he would no more lose Crimea than he would lose Moscow.
Still, I continue to hear political leaders claim that we can manage a gradual escalation in Ukraine to defeat Russia. "Send them Abrams tanks and F-16s," they say. "That will force Putin to back down." These claims ignore history – how effectively did we predict the outcome of war in Vietnam, Iraq, Libya or Afghanistan?
In fact, the unexpected consequences of Putin’s war are already taking effect. The increasingly intimate relationship between China and Russia is just one example, as their energy relationship has almost single-handedly allowed Moscow to finance its invasion.
For the sake of our own vital national security interest, I believe the time has come to shift strategy.
First, we need to hold our European allies responsible for securing their own backyard. The United States has contributed over $47 billion in military aid to Ukraine, compared to just over $3 billion from the entire European Union. If President Biden won’t demand that the EU match our spending dollar for dollar, then Congress should impose this provision in any additional spending authorization.
Second, we need to balance our efforts in Ukraine against the military threat that comes from China. Are we expending valuable weapons and munitions that may be necessary to defend against a Chinese invasion of Taiwan? The war in Ukraine has only made China bolder, and we must be prepared.
Third, we should require that President Zelenskyy be willing to discuss a possible cease-fire without any precondition regarding Crimea. Such an agreement would meaningfully lessen the likelihood of an escalation in the conflict.
Fourth, we need to demand more accountability for the billions of taxpayer dollars committed to this effort. An obvious place to start is Ukrainian government employee and teacher pensions, which are currently being financed by U.S. taxpayer dollars – I think we can all agree that this must end.
This spring is a particularly crucial time for the war, as a Ukrainian offensive is likely right around the corner. We must have well-defined goals – and we must be able to clearly communicate those goals – if we hope for a resolution to this conflict.