09.02.23 Review

Prolonged War or Imminent Defeat? American think tank RAND Corporation presents the Biden administration with an alarmist plan

A report titled ‘Avoiding a Long War in Ukraine’ by the influential American think tank RAND Corporation recently published sensational leaks about the Biden administration's willingness to offer Vladimir Putin a deal on Ukraine. According to experts from RAND, a prolonged conflict runs counter to American interests; the risk of nuclear escalation would be high if Russia were to lose the war, whereas if Russia were to win, Ukraine would suffer from further heavy losses. A protracted conflict would also increase the likelihood of a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO, and will increase the US’s already significant financial contribution towards helping Ukraine, and this is not to mention its additional spending on the production of more military equipment. It would also divert attention and resources away from America’s central task — confronting China. While, at this stage, Russia and Ukraine are not ready to reach any sort of agreement, the US has four political tools at its disposal that could be used to resolve the conflict: placing time limits on its support for Ukraine, making security commitments to support Ukraine, guaranteeing its neutrality, and outlining the conditions for the lifting of sanctions against Russia. However, if such a plan were to be implemented, this would effectively signal the Biden administration admitting its own defeat — a highly unlikely scenario.

Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung has published information that President Joe Biden, acting through the head of the CIA William Burns, offered Ukraine and Russia a secret plan entailing ‘peace in exchange for land.’ This revelation recently sent shockwaves throughout the world. According to the article, the peace plan proposed that approximately 20% of Ukrainian territory would remain under Russian control. The newspaper, citing senior diplomats, claimed that President Biden’s main motive for this proposal was a desire to avoid a protracted war. Biden’s own administration includes several prominent proponents of this strategy, namely his national security aide Jack Sullivan and Burns himself, who believe that the Ukrainian conflict has been diverting US attention away from China.

As Washington continues to release strong public statements in support of Ukraine, such a turn of events looks unlikely, especially taking into account the fact that in Congress, there is strong bipartisan support from both the Republicans and the Democrats for providing continuing aid to Ukraine. Although, according to polls, there has been a slight drop in public support for Ukraine, this fluctuation, as Re:Russia previously noted, does not appear to be critical and most likely stems from the plateauing of  the media coverage of the war.

The new report prepared by the RAND Corporation, titled ‘Avoiding a Long War in Ukraine’, which has been available in the public domain since the end of January, sheds light on the shifting attitudes of the US leadership regarding this topic. The authors of this report argue that a protracted war is not in the best interests of the United States, as it increases both the likelihood of nuclear escalation by Moscow, in the event of significant setbacks on the battlefield, and of a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO. The latter scenario would almost inevitably lead to nuclear escalation, and avoiding this situation is high on the US’s list of priorities. Although the prospect of Ukraine reclaiming all of its Russian-occupied territories does not seem likely in the near future, there is a chance that Moscow's mobilisation will stabilise the front line and allow Russian forces to launch a successful offensive in 2023.

On the contrary, allied military assistance to Ukraine may end up facing a number of obstacles. Western countries’ armouries are already depleted, and so they need to increase their production of new weapons and ammunition (the Financial Times also recently covered this topic). To add to this, echoing the Swiss newspaper’s sources, the experts at RAND argue that the conflict in Ukraine is diverting US attention and resources away from the looming confrontation with China. Finally, a prolonged conflict increases Russia’s dependence on China and thus plays into its hands, which goes against American interests.

Drawing from research on the subject of how wars end, analysts point to the main (and quite typical) obstacles that stand in the way of peace negotiations. These include mutual optimism regarding both parties’ prospects on the battlefield, combined with pessimism regarding the domestic, political consequences of peace. At the same time, RAND experts believe that the United States has four policy tools that can be applied to mitigate these issues: clarifying the conditions under which it will continue to provide Ukraine with support (that is, providing an indication of time-limited nature of support), making commitments to ensure Ukraine’s security, providing guarantees of its neutrality, and outlining the conditions for the lifting of sanctions on Russia. 

Despite the seemingly logical presentation of this position, it should be noted that most of these arguments are well-established and have become the subject of intensive debate. Concessions to Moscow would severely damage the US’s reputation: Washington will lay bare the limitations of its capabilities in international deterrence and containment. This will, among other things, adversely affect the prospects for its confrontation with China and increase the likelihood of a military conflict over Taiwan. In addition, as the past nine years have demonstrated, within the doctrine of avoiding a direct confrontation with Russia, the United States does not have any tools to ensure the security of Ukraine. Ultimately, the Biden presidency, which began with the ‘withdrawal from Afghanistan,’ faces the risk of ending in capitulation to Putin.