I look at the war from a selfish US perspective – it was never really about Ukraine or Russia. Ukraine matters to the US mostly because it is just the first step to expanding the Russian sphere of influence, regaining influence over Central Europe, pushing NATO away and seeing the US leaving Western Europe. What secures the US and Western Europe, is a free, independent and prosperous Ukraine that can defend itself. Jacek Płaza talks to James Carafano, Vice President of The Heritage Foundation.
Jacek Płaza: Who is going to win the war in Ukraine?
James Carafano: There are two answers to that question. Only Putin can decide when to end the war, but Ukraine has already decided who is going to win.
I think Russians are going to fail. Their goal was to conquer Ukraine which still did not happen. What is more, NATO decimated their conventional military and the West greatly damaged their economy. They have already lost, but only Putin can decide when the war is going to stop.
How should Ukraine understand ‘the win’? Is it restoring the control over borders from 2014 or there is some space for compromise?
To find a compromise, you have to have someone to negotiate it with. Russia does not want to negotiate. It is a difficult question to ask. Imagine Russia actually saying, ‘We’d like to stop now’. Who knows what Ukraine would do then?
I look at it from a selfish US perspective – it was never really about Ukraine or Russia. Ukraine matters to the US mostly because it is just the first step to expanding the Russian sphere of influence, regaining influence over Central Europe, pushing NATO away and seeing the US leaving Western Europe. Essentially, it is what Putin asked for even before the war started.
Stopping Putin in Ukraine is essential to ensure the stability and future prosperity of the European Union. What secures the US and Western Europe, is a free, independent and prosperous Ukraine that can defend itself. I am already very confident that it is going to happen.
Are you? Even if you look at Kyiv’s problems with the budget and obtaining extra military equipment?
There are four things that would make Ukraine fully secure in the future. NATO membership, EU membership, a long-term security system that would build up a capacity of Ukraine to defend itself and building Ukraine’s prosperity by reconstructing the country.
NATO membership is not going to happen. EU membership is not going to happen. However, there is going to be a long-term commitment from NATO countries for providing security assistance to build up Ukraine’s military to be able to defend itself. And I think there will be strong support for reconstruction because nobody wants to win the war and lose the peace. Ukraine is going to get what it needs to be stable and prosper.
Do you think there will be support across European NATO countries for extending the provision of military supplies and the capital for the reconstruction?
Yes, because it is the easier path forward. And politicians always agree on doing the easiest thing. NATO membership due to ongoing conflict is hard. EU membership in some ways is even harder, especially if NATO membership is not there first.
We are supporting Ukraine, because we see that stopping Russia in Ukraine is good for the transatlantic community and Europe. Why would we give up on that? We are doing the two things that will keep Ukraine in the game, which is building up the Ukrainian military to have conventional deterrence for future Russian aggression and rebuilding the country so it is not a ‘basket case’.
What Ukraine needs from Western countries in order to make the progress on the battlefield? President Zelenskyy toured European capitals asking for F-16s. Can they be a game-changer?
I do not think there is a single weapon that can be a game-changer. At the end of the day, even under the most optimistic circumstances, Ukraine can fight within its borders, Russians retreat to Russia, then reconstitute and come back on the battlefield in Ukraine. So there is no magic weapon that forces Russia to stop the fighting.
What about the weapons production capabilities? Can the West keep up?
So, the focus that was put on obtaining missile defense systems is very important as well as sustaining them over time. What is going to have to happen in the long-term is producing more missiles. We are not producing them fast enough.
There is limited stock of Patriots and the production line for them is completely inadequate to the current needs. But there are also other systems in there too and I think we will see a significant wrapping up of the Patriot production because the global demand for arsenals is going to go through the roof.
As for the air fight, I am a huge fan of the F-16s, it would be a great platform in the long-term to move to.
The Brits have already been training the Ukrainians on F-16s.
Yes. F-16 is a great platform is because it integrates so well with F-35. The US and a lot of NATO countries are going to apply F-35. That will allow the F-16s to achieve all the technical rareness and targeting capabilities of F-35. The only thing that it does not have is the stealth. F-16 is the most complimentary aircraft that gives you the abilities of the F-35 without actually having one.
What about Ukraine in NATO?
If part of Ukraine is still occupied by Russia and the fighting stops, Ukraine would have to come to NATO under essentially the same agreement that West Germany was going in. West Germany was still considered as all of Germany, but the deal was that they can enter NATO under the condition that they would never resolve their territorial conflict by the use of force.
However, if Ukraine recaptures all of its territory, that is a different question.
Our Chief of Staff has said that Russia has enormous capabilities to restore their power, they can easily manage at least another two years…
Manage to do what? They can manage to send kids to the frontline to die. That is about all they can do.
How long the war can go on?
If you think about the Vietnam War, where obviously the US had military superiority, we lost it anyway. The reason for that was the North Vietnamese would go back after defeat and reconstitute, like in the years 1968-1973. As long as the enemy can retreat to their sanctuary and come back to fight again, they can be in this war as long as they want.
Like the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Yes. Here is the difference though. When the North Vietnamese were going back to reconstitute, Russia and China were bankrolling their army. The Taliban had their drug trade and Pakistanis. When Russia goes back to Russia, they have Russians. The Chinese are not going to do the ‘lend and lease’ like the US did in the 1940s. Yes, the Russians have managed to keep their economy and energy exports going, but look at the burn rate of their resources. All the money they are making is being spent on war. It looks more like Russia in Afghanistan scenario. Every day the Russians are getting weaker.
How weak do they have to get?
Eventually, Lukashenko is going to die. There will be people in Belarus who will want their country to go in a different direction. Someone might take up arms. Russians might not be able to stand it. I do not know if the Belarussian military will step up and suppress the protests and that means that Russians will have to commit forces and they are going to be brutal. It is going to further isolate them from the West.
Russia remains committed to its imperial project and they are on their own in this aim. The more they commit to this project, like France in Algeria, the weaker they get.
What can encourage Western countries to sustain the current level of support for Ukraine or even to do more?
I was here extensively last year. Now, I am again in Warsaw. This is the most optimistic I have ever seen Europeans.
The number one reason for that is that Ukrainians are fighting quite successfully. That makes it hard for Europeans to turn their back on them. The money is not going into the front door and out through the back door in a corrupted way to oligarchs. The money is sustaining the country. Ukraine’s economy is going to grow this year, which is exciting even though it is due to its drop last year. Kyiv is using the weapons given by the West to regain their territory – I think that is the biggest selling point.
What about the support from the US?
I am a critic of the current government – I do not think we are aggressive enough even if the United States is there, doing a lot. It has not super-aggressively pushed European allies to more action, in particular Germany. The US has kind of told Germany ‘Figure it out yourself’. We are not forcing anyone. There is an issue of burden sharing, we should discuss it, but overall the European response is stepping up.
Can the China factor change the US focus on Ukraine?
You hear a lot of the US abandoning Europe and focusing on China. I do not think anyone in Europe really wants that and I do not think we are going to do that. The part of the European response is that they need the Americans and it is in their interest.
The fact that Europeans made it through last winter is a real posture of competence. There was high inflation, spiking energy prices, fear of expanding war, refugees, and nuclear threats. And name me one government that is falling. That shows us that the governments showed quite a resilience. I think Europeans are getting more competent in the ability to stand up.
Is Russia more effective on the ground in Ukraine than with threats to Europe?
They gained some territory, but none of it was really strategic apart from Crimea which they already had. On the other hand, Ukrainians became a formidable opponent. Crimea is almost useless as a military base, because now it is in range of Ukrainian weapons. NATO border is twice as long as before the war, including countries with impeccable militaries.
On the last note, what about Poland and our future in the nuclear sharing program?
You can put conventional weapons on the battlefield with real effect that is just as significant. Tactical nuclear bombs are not going to give any real tactical advantages. And this notion of ‘escalate to de-escalate’ is unproven. We saw it in South Korea.
The formula is going to be: a strong American strategic deterrence combined with strong Atlantic conventional deterrence. That will be the platform.
Can a possible change in the US administration harm the support for Ukraine?
There’s a lot of rhetoric about this but it is not based in reality. Ukraine is likely to maintain a strong military position. Do you want to then tell them to give their territory back to Russians? By the time the potential next president is in the office, the question will be: how do we deal with consequences of the war in Ukraine. Not whether we should support them or not.
The interview was conducted in May 2023.
James Jay Carafano – Vice President of The Heritage Foundation, The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow. A leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges.
Polish version available here.
Public task financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within the grant competition “Public Diplomacy 2023".
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the official positions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.”