Ukraine, double standards, and escalation management

The United States' restrictions on Ukrainian actions and its double standards vis a vis Israel are undermining international law.

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SOURCEForeign Policy in Focus
Image Credit: NBC News

The passage of the Security Supplemental Appropriations Act, which allocated $60 billion for Ukraine’s defense after months of stalling in the House, didn’t help much to hold off the advance of the Russian military. In May, the Kremlin took a chance and launched a massive offensive near Kharkiv in the northeast, raising fears of a siege of a second large Ukrainian city and a massive humanitarian crisis.

This, in turn, prompted calls upon the Biden administration to lift restrictions on Ukraine using U.S. ammunition against targets on Russian soil. The White House partly lifted the ban, but it has not levelled the playing field.

At the same time, U.S. double standards in its foreign policy create an even more unstable situation that puts Ukrainian sovereignty at greater peril.

Ukraine on the edge

Optimistic analysts look at satellite images and conclude that Russia hasn’t concentrated enough forces near Kharkiv to break through the main lines of defense and capture a city of a little over a million inhabitants. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s tactics, however, appear to differ from Western military logic. It’s not about quickly completing tasks with a minimal toll. He has access to more resources than Ukraine has. Possessing much fewer resources in terms of territory, ammunition, manpower, and air defense, the country suffers losses that affect its ability to defend itself effectively.

“The country now is like a patient on mechanical ventilation,” says Taras Logginov, the head of the Kyiv Red Cross rapid response teams, which evacuate civilians from the villages near the war zone. “Do we have a chance of surviving? Yes, we do, but it decreases the longer we are in this state. We already don’t have enough people to fight or to staff the Red Cross rapid response teams.”

These rapid response teams came together during the 2014 Euromaidan protests when Ukraine chose a democratic path and prompted a violent response from Russia. Today, Taras sounds grimmer than ever.

“We were just watching the Russian forces, accumulating about 30 kilometers from our city of Kharkiv, and there wasn’t much we could do about it because it was on their soil,” he continues, referring to the restrictions on using U.S. ammunition against targets on Russian territory. “First, we need air supremacy, at least for our western regions,” he explains. “Otherwise, it is like carrying water with a sieve.”

As of now, Ukrainian territory is wide open to Russian shelling, so the country’s efforts to rebuild its critical infrastructure are sometimes wasted. And large-scale ammunition production becomes that much more difficult. Taras believes that NATO should establish at least some fly-free zones over Ukraine. It did so in Libya in 2011. And NATO members like Poland have the necessary air defense to enforce such a zone.

Delays with the ammunition supplies, along with restrictions on Ukraine regarding striking Russian territory, are costly. During the months when the U.S. Congress temporized over aid to Ukraine, Putin was able to recapture some previously liberated Ukrainian territories and inflict significant damage on Ukrainian cities, especially Kharkiv. According to the Institute for the Study of War, Russia used the delay to obtain notable tactical gains that “established a more sustainable force generation apparatus for ongoing offensive operations” and successfully “exploited the theater-wide initiative and Ukrainian materiel constraints to expand technological and tactical innovations and adaptations.”

Biden’s double standards

The Biden administration has articulated its approach many times during this war as “learning by doing,” which implies that escalation management is “a dynamic and interactive process that stretches over time” and allows leaders to assess the changes in their adversary’s preferences.

According to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the “hallmark” of the Biden administration’s position on Ukraine is to adapt and adjust as needed: “As what Russia does has changed, we’ve adapted and adjusted, too, and I’m confident we’ll continue to do that.” This strategy helps to explain the partial lifting of the ban in response to massive political pressure.

The problem is that Putin has not significantly changed his own strategies either in terms of aggression or escalation. His aims remain the same: to destroy Ukrainian sovereignty and make the country part of the Russian Federation. His methods of full-scale bombing, meat-grinder infantry attacks, and widespread human rights abuses—first used in Chechnya and later applied in Ukraine to Bucha and Bakhmut—also haven’t evolved much. What has changed has been how the United States now views this aggression. This shift in understanding, not Putin’s behavior, is what has moved U.S. foreign policy. But this shift is as hesitant as U.S. military aid, which places the United States in a reactive, not proactive, position.

This reactive position, in the name of avoiding escalation, goes hand in hand with the Biden administration’s use of double standards. Namely, the United States has not prohibited arms deliveries to Israel when it attacks civilian targets in Palestine and has condemned the statement of the International Criminal Court on issuing a warrant for the arrest of Netanyahu—and yet has restricted Ukraine’s use of U.S. military weapons to attack legitimate military targets on the soil of the aggressor country, Russia.

It’s not just that Israel is an old ally of the United States. The truly frightening reason for the U.S. double standard is nuclear weapons. Hamas doesn’t possess them. That’s why Palestine is relentlessly punished, along with its civilian population and infrastructure. Putin has enough nukes to destroy the entire planet. That’s why his territory is inviolable, no matter what war crimes he commits.

The United States adheres to a nuclear non-proliferation posture, reiterated recently by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan when he reassured “so many of our partners that they do not need to develop nuclear weapons of their own.” On the contrary, only the possession of a nuclear arsenal serves as a guarantee against attack. The experience of Ukraine and Palestine, both non-nuclear powers, may well create a situation, in a few decades, when every legitimate or illegitimate entity in the world possesses nuclear weapons.

To avoid this scenario, the Biden administration must stop fearing yesterday’s chimeras and begin acting strongly in accordance with international law. The United States should take seriously its commitments under the Budapest Memorandum and provide Ukraine with the aid it urgently requires, particularly for air supremacy, as well as entirely abolishing the senseless restrictions that hinder Ukraine from effectively defending itself. This is the only way to prove to other countries that “they do not need to develop nuclear weapons of their own.”

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