GRAND STRATEGYAmerican Grand Strategy, Realism, and the Russo-Ukraine War

By Lawrence Freedman

Published 18 September 2023

Choices in foreign policy are never simple and are always sub-optimal. The choice faced now is whether to continue to support Ukraine fighting a messy, tragic war, which it may take time to win, or to let it carry on alone, with the prospect of an even more tragic conclusion from which the Western Alliance, let alone Ukraine, might never recover. As Western countries are not actually doing the fighting and have the resources to sustain Ukraine in its struggle, in the end this is not that difficult a choice to make. No, Ukraine is not another Vietnam.

Most assessments of Vladimir Putin’s strategy suggest that he believes that he can keep the war going indefinitely and intends to do so until the Ukrainians tire of the fight, or at least their Western supporters decide to call it a day. In particular he looks ahead to January 2025 when he hopes for Donald Trump’s return to the Presidency.

There is a long way to go, and a number of trials, before Trump gets back to the White House, and even if he does, his priorities will be elsewhere and his policies unpredictable. For the moment there is still a bipartisan consensus supporting Ukraine, but since stories began to appear in the US press about the counter-offensive faltering there has been more questioning about whether it is in American interests to support an indefinite war and whether more effort needs to be made to find a diplomatic solution to bring it to a close.

I am in no position to assess the state of American politics (Kori Schake did it for us here). Nor do I want to address all the twists and turns of conservative thinking on the war. There are some on the right – Tucker Carlson and Colonel Douglas MacGregor come to mind – who are anti-Ukraine and repeat Moscow’s talking points. Others just don’t want to spend money on another country’s war. The Heritage Foundation, once a bastion of hawkish views, and until recently ready to argue the case for supporting Ukraine, has acquired a new populist leadership that has started to lobby against the Biden administration’s budget requests, much to the dismay of some former conservative allies.

Many critics of the Biden Administration’s stance on Ukraine take care not to make excuses for Putin but they do take seriously his stubbornness and wonder whether it is the best use of American resources to sustain Ukraine’s fight. Because they insist on an unsentimental assessment of American interests they often identify as ‘Realists’.

One of the more vigorous and credible contributions to this strand of thought comes from Eldridge Colby, who served in the Pentagon during the Trump administration. I follow Colby on Twitter and it seems to me that he engages in arguments respectfully and politely, and so I will try to do the same.