When the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine on February 22, 2022, I immediately feared a new Cold War because of Vladimir Putin’s expressed desire to reassemble the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and to regain control of Eastern Europe. 

Putin started the war with a Russian population of over 140 million people. He invaded a country of about 40 million people. Those numbers are staggering. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky is fighting above his weight, but he is the little guy in a big guy’s fight. 

I strongly oppose the Russian invasion. I strongly support the efforts of the United States and NATO to defend Ukraine. But I am beginning to wonder where this all leads us. 

What is the grand strategy that President Joe Biden and his administration are pursuing? We don’t get much information.

We know Biden doesn’t give Zelensky all the arms he requests, lest that provoke Russia to step up its aggression. Does that tell Ukraine (and Russia) that the U.S. will not provide enough weapons for Ukraine to win the war?

Mr. President, where are you taking us?

Who can tell us what Biden’s strategy is? Will the media? What are this country’s goals in Ukraine? Biden runs his foreign policy the way he runs a political campaign: with TV sound bites, staged meetings, and sophisticated public relations. Forever the campaigner, Biden has the talent to utter words that sound great but say very little. 

To borrow an old line, “Mr. President, where’s the beef?”

Biden talks freedom and says America is standing with Ukraine “as long as it takes”. How long is that? And what is “it”?

Does anyone expect the Russian Federation to give up the land it presently occupies? 

The truth of the matter is that Ukraine is losing the war. That doesn’t mean Russia is winning. In fact, Russia’s performance is an embarrassment. Russia’s loss of face will make it more desperate for some kind of “victory” (as defined by Russia).

This war is being fought entirely on Ukraine soil. Every bomb that explodes, every detonation in Ukraine is killing or injuring Ukrainian people, and damaging houses, apartment buildings, hospitals, factories, transportation facilities, etc. Ukraine is getting pounded every day, and the losses mount every day. 

Fighting a war on the other guy’s soil is like playing with house money. 

At the start of the war Biden told the American people that there would be no American troops sent to the Ukraine. He may have felt that necessary for American public opinion, but it is music to Putin’s ears. If there are no American troops, then it is not likely that any of the significant NATO countries will send troops either. Just a few weeks ago Biden urged Germany to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine. Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s response to Biden was, “You send tanks, we send tanks; you don’t send tanks, we don’t send tanks.” 

Time is on Putin’s side. The longer the war goes on, and the more damage inflicted on Ukraine, the weaker Ukraine becomes and the stronger the Russian position becomes. There are media reports of Russian deaths anywhere from 60,000 to 80,000 to 100,000. A common estimate of total Russian casualties is 200,000 (dead, wounded, missing, deserters). Media reports about 50,000 Ukrainians killed in action, but the casualties may be higher. 

Compare the one-year Ukraine statistics with the Vietnam War. Over a sixteen-year period the U.S. sustained 58,200 killed (of which 47,434 were hostile and 10,086 were non-hostile). Ukraine has probably suffered more soldiers killed in action in one year than the U.S. did in the entire Vietnam War.

The Russian way of war is to throw wave upon wave of soldiers into battle. Russia defeated Germany in World War II, but sustained substantially heavier losses. Russia has recruited prisoners with minimal training to fight Ukraine, sustaining high casualties. But those poorly trained Russians will inflict Ukrainian casualties. More Russian soldiers will die than Ukrainian soldiers, but Russia can afford to lose 100 soldiers to every Ukrainian soldier.

I hope that the situation in the city of Bakhmut is not typical of the war status. Russia claims to have the city (original population about 75,000 in the eastern part of Ukraine) surrounded. Ukraine continues to fight, but al Jazeera published an article where Zelensky described Bakhmut as a city of “burnt ruins.” The war is one of attrition and who can outlast the other guy. Russia has more guys.

Zelensky has stated publicly that he will not agree to give back any land which Russia has taken by aggression, including that which Russia acquired in 2014. So as to not undercut Zelensky, Biden has not publicly called for negotiation. But, sooner or later, Zelensky will have to agree to some kind of negotiation. 

Wars are defined by winners and losers. Sometimes there are only losers. In the Ukraine situation, it will be difficult to define a winner and loser unless NATO and the U.S. allow Russia to take over all of Ukraine. Maybe the winner will be the side which loses the least.

In 2024 the United States has a presidential election. There will be candidates who will want to curtail the support we are giving Ukraine. Without greater support from NATO and the U.S., Ukraine is on a dead-end street.

These are questions for which there are no ready answers. After World War II, the famed American diplomat, George Kennan, crafted the policy of “containment” which largely succeeded in keeping the Soviet Union contained in what it seized following the War. 

Kennan wrote that while the Soviet Union Is “impervious to the logic of reason, it Is highly sensitive to the logic of force.”

Things have not changed.

Jim McErlane is a Chester County lawyer, Malvern resident, and U.S. Navy veteran.

2 thoughts on “Jim McErlane: What is Biden’s strategy in Ukraine?”

  1. General Douglas MacArthur famously said that” in war, there is no substitute for victory.” I am pretty sure that applies in this case. A case can be made that if a negotiated settlement occurs along the lines of North Korea – South Korea or South Vietnam – North Vietnam and other such arrangements, the result will be a never-ending state of tensions and guerrilla strikes. Israel and the countries of the Middle East are experiencing this now. Looking at the history of the Ukraine, there are areas of the land mass that have purely Ukrainian culture, a Ukrainian language and literature. It must be recognized that this will need to remain whole. Those areas of the land mass that have been “Russified” are going to have to remain that way. Take a lesson from the British/Irish battles and the IRA, look how long it took for peace to develop. Unfortunately, Biden and his minions do not understand any of this nor do they have the subtlety of mind to negotiate through it. It is my opinion that the Administration has been approaching this situation with all the intellectual power of a cucumber. Clearly, victory will need to look like something containing the elements of compromise.

  2. The Nation needs an honest discussion of how the sanctions against Russia are working. The Russian ruble was at 80.41 to the dollar on the day of the invasion (2/24/22), and it currently trades at 82.17 to the dollar – not much impact. Yes the Russians are not shipping as much oil and natural gas to Europe as before the invasion, but they seem to be able to sell plenty to China, India, Brazil, etc. The US and its EU allies agreed to a price cap on Russian crude, but none of those countries stopped, and Japan was given an exception. Yes financial services to Russia have been curtailed, but China is picking up the slack. No Euros to Russia? Yet Euros go to China via Italy as part of its payment for the belt & road investments. There’s a host of questions and discussions about the Ukraine war and the US responses that need to be had, but they seem not be openly handled in our media, or by our politicians. And I haven’t even come to the point about the lack of accountability for all that’s been spent by the US so far. Supporting Ukraine does not mean these questions can’t be discussed.

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