The New York Times’ revelation that the United States is actively helping Ukraine kill Russian generals led to what is by now a familiar pattern: A White House official leaks explosive information revealing far greater U.S. involvement in the war in Ukraine than previously acknowledged. The next day, another U.S. official walks back the statement. President Joe Biden has engaged in a similar dance with the press, publicly declaring a more ambitious U.S. objective in Ukraine, only to have his statement “clarified” by the White House a few hours later. The end result of this process, however, is the same: Imperceptibly, America’s aims and goals in Ukraine expand — with potentially disastrous consequences.
When Russia first embarked on its illegal invasion of Ukraine, America’s response was prudent and limited.
When Russia first embarked on its illegal invasion of Ukraine, America’s response was prudent and limited. On March 4, less than two weeks after the invasion, Secretary of State Antony Blinken defined American objectives as helping defend Ukraine and imposing a cost on Russia through sanctions, while keeping the door to diplomacy open and welcoming a cease-fire. Three weeks later, Biden added that if these objectives could be sustained until the end of the year, Russian President Vladimir Putin would be stopped. To Biden’s credit, his administration resisted early and potentially devastating calls for escalatory measures such as imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
But as it became increasingly clear that Russia’s military was failing on the battlefield and accounts of Russian atrocities against Ukrainian civilians multiplied, it seems either the administration’s message control began to disintegrate or the goal started to change. (Or both.) The stated objectives simultaneously became more expansive and less precise.
From Biden’s hints at regime change on March 26 (“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power”) to White House press secretary Jen Psaki saying the U.S. was seeking Russia’s strategic defeat on April 20, to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin declaring that the U.S. goal is to “see Russia weakened” and punished in order to deprive it of the ability to invade other countries, the administration’s shifting stances have all the hallmarks of mission creep.
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By using this reveal-retract strategy, however, the White House creates confusion which blunts criticism against its more ambitious goals. Objectives that a few weeks ago would have been flat-out rejected are now slowly accepted. Strategically driven shifts are camouflaged as tactical reactions. It’s a slippery slope, with a direct confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia at the bottom.
Shifting toward “weakening Russia” rather than “defending Ukraine” is particularly problematic. Unlike other leaks or announcements, the White House has done little to walk this one back. And the former Secretary-General of NATO Anders Fogh Rasmussen has both confirmed and endorsed the shift.
“It’s the only way to go forward,” he said, according to Foreign Policy. “In Putin’s thinking, it doesn’t make any difference, because he would only claim that the Western policy is to weaken Russia anyway. So why not speak openly about it?” The real mistake, he added, was to overestimate the strength of the Russian military, seemingly confirming that Russia’s underwhelming military performance had helped fuel the expansion of Western goals in Ukraine.
By flipping the priorities and centering the objective around bleeding Russia, the conflict could conceivably continue even after Ukraine’s defensive needs have been met.
A side effect of defending Ukraine would certainly be the weakening of Russia. But originally, it was understood that America’s military support would come to an end once Ukraine no longer needs defending. By flipping the priorities and centering the objective around bleeding Russia, the conflict could conceivably continue even after Ukraine’s defensive needs have been met and Russia’s invasion has been defeated.
Because when has Russia been weakened enough? Once it no longer can invade its neighbors? While preventing countries from invading their neighbors is a laudable goal, doing so by defanging a country with 140 million people and 6,000 nuclear weapons will not be achieved easily, quickly, or through economic sanctions and Ukrainian military prowess alone. At some point, it appears inevitable that achieving such a goal will require more direct American military involvement — which in turn, may risk nuclear war.
This shift also gives the impression that Ukraine is little more than a pawn in a geo-strategic contest between the United States and Russia, an impression many observers worldwide no doubt already hold, right or wrong.
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And even if this inversion of goals does not bring us to the brink of nuclear war, it nevertheless risks putting the U.S. on a path toward endless conflict with Russia. Here, America’s experience in Afghanistan is instructive.
The George W. Bush administration’s goals in invading Afghanistan were initially narrow and fell under the rubric of counter-terrorism: to destroy Al Qaeda, overthrow the Taliban and prevent the terrorist network from attacking the U.S. or its allies again.
But as in Ukraine, success on the battlefield whetted America’s appetite. Instead of just defeating Al Qaeda, the war in Afghanistan morphed into the first step toward transforming the entire Middle East through democratization, nation-building and social engineering. A few months into the war, Bush called for the reconstruction of Afghanistan in a speech at the Virginia Military Institute. “By helping to build an Afghanistan that is free from this evil and is a better place in which to live, we are working in the best traditions of George Marshall,” he declared. (In reality, however, only a small fraction of the money allocated to Afghanistan was used for reconstruction. The vast majority of the funds went to the war effort and American defense contractors.)
By abandoning the earlier narrow objectives, the United States encountered new and unforeseen problems in its nation-building project that prompted ever-expanding objectives that became increasingly detached from America’s original goals. “The specific aims and the resources devoted to the mission expanded over time as recognition of the challenges expanded and as paltry results seemed to demand greater effort,” Laurel Miller, an expert on Afghanistan with the International Crisis Group, testified in Congress last year.
George W. Bush’s deputy national security adviser told the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction that the nation-building objective originally grew out of the counterterrorism goal. “We originally said that we won’t do nation-building, but there is no way to ensure that Al Qaeda won’t come back without it.” But over time, mission creep set in, and by the end of the decade, the first draft of the U.S. 2009 military strategy for Afghanistan did not even mention Al Qaeda because the U.S. military no longer believed that the terrorist organization constituted a problem.
It took another 10 years before the United States pulled the plug on that endless, unwinnable war and brought U.S. troops home in defeat. By that point, however, the Afghan government was so dependent on U.S. support that it quickly fell and the country was once again under the control of the Taliban. Chaos and a humanitarian disaster ensued.
Imagine if, in 2002, the United States had stuck to its original, narrow objectives in Afghanistan. If it had resisted the temptation to expand its goals to lofty ideas of transforming the region and scoring a much bigger victory than originally sought? How many thousands of lives and trillions of dollars could have been saved? Would the U.S. have been stuck in Afghanistan for 20 years?
There was one leader in Washington who fought hard against the mission creep in Afghanistan, lamented the lack of strategic objectives, and flat-out rejected the establishment’s nation-building fantasies: then-Vice President Joe Biden.
He should keep his own advice to President Barack Obama in mind as he faces Russia — and its 6,000 nuclear warheads — in Ukraine.