By William Tucker
During a visit to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stated that the U.S. wants to see “Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” Early on during the Russian invasion, analysts expected that Ukrainian defense forces would not be able to hold back the Russian onslaught.
As Ukraine demonstrated its ability to hold its ground, the U.S., along with NATO and other allies, began to pour military equipment into Ukraine to beat back the Russian invasion. Initially, the thought was NATO would face a new strategic challenge as Russia tries to extend its borders deeper into Europe. However, the strategic challenge now is finding a way to end the war quickly and alleviate the pain the Russia-Ukraine conflict has caused to the global economy.
Ukraine and US Foreign Policy
Austin’s statement during his visit demonstrates that Washington views Russian failures in Ukraine through an evolving strategic lens that goes beyond merely helping Ukraine defend itself. His speech was perhaps the first indication that Washington has a goal in the Ukraine conflict beyond the typical platitudes of protecting democracy.
Such a goal is not without its pitfalls, though. By emphasizing that the war is a means to weaken Russia, that suggests that the U.S. has chosen to pursue this goal by fighting to the last Ukrainian.
That may not sound like a fair assessment of the situation, but shifting the public focus to supporting Ukraine from an unjust attacker to suggesting that U.S. support is only to weaken Russia is not a good look for the U.S, nor is stating a desired goal the same as articulating U.S. foreign policy.
Ultimately, foreign policy is similar to a road map. Asking the public to support a goal that will cost U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars without that road map will sow public distrust and ultimately undermine the goal of defeating the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Russia Has Suffered Losses, But Can Still Fight Back
There is also Russia itself to be considered. According to Newsweek, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense has estimated that Moscow has lost nearly a third of its combat units during the invasion of Ukraine.
The war is not yet in its third month, so if this claim by the Ministry of Defense is accurate or even close to accurate, then Russia is in real trouble with its military. It would be safe to say that Russia’s military and Russia have been weakened, but Russia is still capable of defending itself.
The difference between a strong Russia and a weak Russia is a razor’s edge, so weakening Russia is subjective. Washington’s goal may be to disrupt Russia’s conventional war-making capability, but Russia still has nuclear weapons and an ability to reconstitute a biological or chemical weapons program.
If necessary, Russia could resort to strategic weapons. Such a situation may not be in the offing but if Russia collapses like it did in the early 1990s – a very real possibility – then the security of these weapons would come into question.
So while the U.S. may be inching its way towards the goal of a weakened Russia, there are still some loose threads that should be addressed by U.S. foreign policy. There should be a well-thought-out foreign policy that not only deals with potential outcomes regarding Ukraine and Russia and but also offers possible contingencies.
It is feasible to weaken and then contain Russia, but that work cannot be a half-measure effort. Otherwise, the world will be faced with a difficult situation like post-WWI Germany or a replay of post-Cold War Russia. Weakening Russia is a good goal, but it is only possible with good foreign policy.