U.S. Policy Shift May Tilt Balance in Ukraine Conflict

June 11, 2024 By Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu

As the war between Ukraine and Russia continues into its second year, the U.S administration has made a policy change allowing Ukraine to fire U.S.-made weapons into Russia.

To get a perspective on what this means, UVA Today talked with Philip Potter, a professor of politics and public policy at the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and founding director of the National Security Policy Center. He was joined by George Foresman, executive director of the National Security Policy Center. Potter is also a member of the Miller Center’s Ukraine War Study Group.

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Q. How does this change in policy, allowing U.S.-made munitions to be fired into Russia, change the execution of the war?

Potter: It allows Ukraine to push back against some equipment and staging areas that are very, very close to Kharkiv, within the range of fire, but still in Russian territory. It’s important to keep in mind that Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, is only about 20 miles from the Russian border. It has become a primary Russian objective and increasingly difficult for the Ukrainians to defend when the Russians could attack from relative safety in their own territory. The Ukrainians were able to use equipment from allies and some domestic production to fight back a bit, but some of the systems we authorized, particularly precision-strike rockets and missiles, are longer range and will help.

It helps shore up Kharkiv in the short term. It’s important to know that the U.S. has not given them a green light to use everything, particularly the longer-range Army Tactical Missile Systems. There are some caveats on what we’ve green-lighted here, because different systems have different ranges.

Q. Does this change in U.S. policy push Russia and the U.S. closer to a conflict?

Potter: That‘s very hard to know. In my opinion, the U.S. has been very escalation-phobic in this situation. It’s understandable. This is a nuclear-armed adversary with a history of sour relations with the U.S. It’s also an adversary that, at earlier stages in this conflict, appeared to be verging on the desperate. You want to be careful how far you push them.

That said, I don’t see this authorization as a particularly escalatory move. Russia, beyond some saber-rattling, has not responded to things we’ve done previously, which were considerably more escalatory. We’ve sent some very high-tech weapons to Ukraine. We’ve allowed them to use those weapons in Crimea on the holding that this is illegally taken Ukrainian territory. Neither led to much Russian reaction. 

Foresman: A lot of this is not for the U.S. populace’s consumption; it is for the international coalition that has been supporting Ukraine. There’s some political messaging going on, domestically and to the international community, to maintain the coalition that is going after Russia. This is part of a slight strategy change, which is to message to the world that Russia’s territory will not be held harmless from its military aggression in Ukraine. When an attack comes, it’s giving Ukraine a certain degree of flexibility to counteract. Anybody looking at this is not going to view it as escalatory, either on an international stage or certainly on the U.S. stage.

Portrait of Philip Poster (left) and George Foresman (right)

Philip Potter, left, said the U.S. policy change is part of an effort to keep Ukraine from losing its conflict with Russia. George Foresman, right, said the latest moves may be “the beginning of the end” of the Ukraine war. (Left photo by Dan Addison; right photo by John Robinson)

I think we’re seeing the beginning of the end. I think both parties are trying to achieve as much land holdings as they can. For the first time since this thing started, Russia has started to signal about a truce.

Potter: I think that was a necessity. We had to do something to prevent Ukraine from losing. Because of our own political issues, we put them in a tough spot. They ended up ceding ground because they didn’t have the munitions they needed to hold the lines. The proximity of Russia to Kharkiv means that once you give up that ground, you’re in a lot of trouble. This shift in targeting rules reestablishes a bit of equilibrium.

This is Ukraine’s fight and they get to fight as long as they want to fight. That’s going to be durable U.S. policy, at least through this administration. But there are signals that both sides are getting exhausted. 

Q. What does victory look like here?

Potter: I think both sides are looking for a victory. That said, in this instance, there are probably more clearly delineated definitions of victory than there might otherwise be. The Ukrainians have said their theory of victory is when all the Russians are out of Ukraine, inclusive of Crimea.

The Russians have been less clear, but it is probably something along the lines of getting rid of the existing Ukrainian government and installing something sympathetic to their interests, while simultaneously completing the annexation of the places they have taken. Neither side is going to get everything it wants.

If the Ukrainians come out of this with most of their territory intact, after two years fighting with the Russians, that’s pretty good. It’s not a happy story. But it’s something we wouldn’t have predicted at the outset when we thought Russia’s military was perhaps the second-strongest in the world.

For the Russians, if they are able to say that they have achieved significant territorial advances, that might be good enough. And so that’s why folks are starting to wonder whether there’s an emerging equilibrium here that both sides can work with.

Foresman: For political leaders in the current global military environment, victory is how closely can you get back to the status quo. Ukraine sees status quo as pre-Crimea invasion. If you look at the pre-invasion of two years ago, what’s the closest they can get back to status quo? And then Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky can claim political victory; he can claim military victory.

Russian President Vladimir Putin can still claim a portion of his military victory, because he has weakened Ukraine and can make the argument to his population that militarily, Ukraine is not a threat to the Russian populace. That was his basis for going in there in the first place. 

Q. How much longer is there going to be support in Congress for Ukraine?

Potter: It depends on all kinds of things, most significantly on the outcome of elections.

Elections matter. Different constellations of Congress and the presidency are going to be more or less amenable to further support to Ukraine, but given how knife’s-edge we have been politically, my forecast would be that this might be the last time we send major amounts of money and equipment. I hope I’m wrong. 

It could go in a lot of different directions, but we have revealed, unfortunately, that our internal politics are such that we are not necessarily reliable. The Ukrainians are so incredibly dependent on external support that even short interruptions in support can change the conflict, so much so that it led us to have to change our policy on targeting within a modest strip of Russian territory. It’s a very difficult situation when you’re a small country that’s very much pushed against the wall—political unreliability very quickly translates into military disadvantage. 

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Matt Kelly

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