Foreign Policy

The Ukraine conflict one year later: A conversation with Emma Ashford

March 3, 2023

February 24th, 2023, marked one year since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a horrific and unjust threat to human freedom, continuing to cause tragic loss of life and prosperity.  With uncertainty about how or when the conflict might end, this one-year mark is a good time to reflect on the United States’ support of Ukraine.  

Stand Together Trust spoke with Emma Ashford, a grantee of STT. Ashford is a Senior Fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center — a leading non-profit dedicated to promoting international security, prosperity, and justice. She works on various issues related to the future of U.S. foreign policy, international security, and the politics of global energy markets. She has expertise in the politics of Russia, Europe, and the Middle East. Ashford is also a nonresident fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point, and an adjunct assistant professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University.  

Her first book, Oil, the State, and War: The Foreign Policies of Petrostates, was published by Georgetown University Press in 2022, and explored the international security ramifications of oil production and export in states such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Venezuela.   

What has been the rationale for our support of Ukraine to date? Does that rationale square with U.S. national interests and hold up to scrutiny? 

Depending on who you ask in Washington, there are several different rationales that you’ll hear. The most common – and the one I think there’s some support for – is the idea that the U.S. benefits from not letting a country like Russia invade and conquer its neighbor. From that point of view, I do think we have some, limited interests in supporting Ukraine.  

But many of the other arguments out there, I think, are a little more questionable. The notion that we have an obligation to intervene because of Russian human rights abuses, for example. This is always a difficult dilemma for policymakers but becomes even more so when we’re talking about a nuclear weapons state like Russia; the risks of intervention literally could not be higher.  Then there’s the argument that the U.S. benefits from weakening Russia in military terms. That’s a good, solid, realist argument, but I think in practice it has already been achieved; it’s not a reason for continued support. And the final one is that the U.S. has to step in for European defense because no one else will do it. This is a poor argument; U.S. leaders going back as far as Dwight Eisenhower have pointed out that European states can easily carry much more of the burden for their defense.   

So, there are many rationales floating around out there for U.S. involvement. But for me, the bottom line is simply this: The U.S. has some limited interests in continued support to Ukraine and in seeing it win this war, but those interests aren’t nearly as expansive as many in Washington argue. 

Making news recently was the U.S. and some European allies supplying main battle tanks to Ukraine, and the Ukrainians request for fighter aircraft. What effects will this have?   

There is a growing hodgepodge of weapons that are being sent to Ukraine. And from a practical standpoint it will be very difficult for Ukraine to integrate all these different systems from different suppliers and different countries into one military force. So that’s one concern. 

There are also concerns about whether these systems might require direct U.S. maintenance or support personnel, steps that would start us down a slippery slope towards more direct U.S. involvement in this conflict.  

Unfortunately, the discussion has devolved to the point where each debate about a specific weapons system occurs in the abstract: a request is sent, the White House says no, debate continues, and finally, a few weeks later, they say yes. Then, we immediately move on to whatever the next requested weapons system is. That’s obviously a problematic process because we’re not thinking about what would actually be best. Instead, we’re discussing things one-by-one. 

I worry that this is reflective of the way in which discussion about the war in Ukraine has become tactical rather than strategic: We’re thinking about current issues, about specific weapons systems, with a focus on the next few months. We don’t necessarily discuss the end state that we’re trying to achieve, or even what the limits of U.S. support are.  

We’ve seen this dynamic before in other conflicts. We saw this in Afghanistan. We saw it in Vietnam. We certainly saw it in the 2011 intervention in Libya, which transitioned from humanitarian intervention into regime change. Each of these debates highlighted the tendency of tactical-only discussions to simply perpetuate the conflict.  

You’ve written a lot about how the Ukraine conflict might end and now that we reached the one-year anniversary of the conflict on February 24th, how has your thinking evolved on this issue? 

My thinking has evolved in a more pessimistic direction. 

From where we are today, I would say the Ukrainians and the Russians are much more evenly matched than they were at the beginning of the conflict. The Ukrainians, in particular, have done very well in recent months, but even the Russians seem to have succeeded in reconstituting a sizeable force with mobilization following their early catastrophic losses. 

This suggests that we’re probably headed into a period of attritional warfare between both sides— with nobody making huge advances. And that, in turn, suggests that the prospects for settlement are relatively limited. That’s not to say we couldn’t see a peace deal; the next year could easily see some kind of ceasefire or armistice, if both sides could be convinced it’s in their best interests. But right now, both sides still believe they can make gains, and neither has a good reason to make concessions.  

This is a real problem for U.S. policymakers because a prolonged war in Europe is not in American interests, particularly if the conflict bogs down into a stalemate. A stalemate prolongs the costs of the conflict in money and arms and keeps the risks of escalation to broader war on the table. The potential gains are fairly limited. It’s not a good tradeoff, and the next few months may well tell us whether this will be the case or not. But if stalemate really is where we’re headed, then policymakers really have to think carefully: Do they want to prolong this state of affairs or look for other solutions?

We’re starting to hear some rumors that the Biden administration is considering talking to the Russians about higher-level issues: strategic stability and nuclear questions. That would be a step towards reestablishing some communication, which is probably a good thing. 

At the same time, the administration is very beholden to the daily Washington news cycle. And in that cycle, it’s the question of what’s being sent to Ukraine next in terms of weapons that is the prominent discussion. So, the topic of ending the war is an extremely difficult idea for any administration to broach. So is the notion that the U.S. might place limits on what it provides to Ukraine, or that we might be pushing Ukraine towards opening a dialogue with Russia. And we should also be clear here that the Russians have not seemed particularly receptive to the idea of talks either.  

 The bottom line is this is a difficult place for the Biden administration to be in.  But I do think that from the point of view of national security, we need to start moving in the direction of a broader debate about whether we can afford to maintain support to Ukraine at its current level, and how we push both sides in this conflict towards some kind of ceasefire or settlement.  

There was a lot of concern about Europe’s shifting energy supply the longer the war went on and through the winter months. Can you tell us what has happened there?  

If you’d asked me a year ago whether Europe could largely wean itself off Russian energy by the end of the year, I would have said no. And I am astounded that the European Union has succeeded in doing so for the most part. That took some political will and sacrifices on the part of European states, but it has also been a question of luck: They’ve been helped by a milder winter. 

But the less good news is that this shift has done very little to dent Russian oil revenues. Instead, Russian oil has mostly stayed on the market, going to other customers. So, in some ways, we’ve played a giant game of musical chairs with Russian oil. It no longer goes to Europe, but now it goes to Asian states at a slight discount. And this raises the question of whether any of this is doing much to inhibit Russia’s ability to wage war. Their oil and gas revenues remain high, and Russia will be able to fund this war potentially indefinitely.   

Can you talk about the effect sanctions on Russia are having?  

We know from previous research that sanctions don’t work well in creating policy change in target states. So, we largely knew that sanctions were never going to persuade Russia to actually end the war. But what we are starting to see is evidence about whether the sanctions are working to deny Russia key technologies and components, things like chips for weapons or other high technologies.  

We’ve now got a fair amount of evidence that Russia is circumventing the sanctions effectively, albeit in small quantities. The Russian economy generally is in the doldrums, but sanctions are only one part of that picture. So, this suggests that sanctions are having some impact, but perhaps not as big as we’d hoped. It’s a mixed picture. 

How can the debate and lessons we’re learning in the Ukraine conflict inform other foreign policy issues the U.S. may be facing?  

This question has been really popular in D.C. over the last year, in particular the question of whether there are lessons from Ukraine that we want to take and apply to East Asia, particularly Taiwan. More broadly, many in D.C. have been trying to figure out how all of these factors – war, sanctions, U.S. alliances, technology, energy, etc – might figure in the U.S.–China context.  

It’s an important question, but I worry that much of the narrative in Washington about Ukraine has been relatively triumphalist, focusing on the idea that the last year has primarily shown the strength of Western countries pushing back against an imperialist, revanchist Russia. There’s definitely some truth to that story. But at the same time, it’s also the case that U.S. and Russian relations had been deteriorating for a long time. Policymakers had failed to find any workable solution that everyone could live with: the U.S., Europe, Ukraine, Russia. And as a result, we ended up entangled in this giant war.  

We need to avoid taking the wrong lessons from Europe into the Asian context; we do not want to get it into a war over Taiwan. For me, the Ukraine conflict emphasizes how important it is that we try and use diplomacy and economic statecraft now to try and avoid ever getting to the point that we have in Ukraine. 

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