U.S. Should Sidestep Ukraine-Russia Conflict | Opinion

The war in eastern Ukraine, a conflict that tamped down considerably since last summer's ceasefire, is again making headlines worldwide. Last week, four Ukrainian soldiers were killed after Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk directed artillery, machine-gun and sniper-fire toward Ukrainian military positions. Two more were killed this week. The build-up of Russian troops and equipment in Crimea and along Russia's long border with Ukraine is causing concern in Washington. Biden administration officials have phoned their Ukrainian colleagues and pledged U.S. support for Kyiv's territorial integrity. The ceasefire in eastern Ukraine is essentially dead, with international monitors recording over 400 violations on a single day alone.

With violence in eastern Ukraine bubbling to the surface, the clamor in Washington for a more aggressive U.S. response is growing louder. The Biden administration, which agreed to send an additional $125 million in military support to the Ukrainian military in March, will continue to feel the pressure as long as hostilities between Kyiv and separatists remain on the upswing.

President Joe Biden should resist the temptation to get the United States more involved in what has proven to be an intractable conflict in Ukraine. Restraint and foresight, not reactive posturing, is the best approach.

There is no question the conflict in the Donbas region of Ukraine pulls at the heartstrings. The war has claimed the lives of approximately 14,000 people, many of them civilians who have seen their lives and communities torn apart. The separatists who fancy themselves a legitimate government are grossly incompetent at the most basic aspects of governing, adding further strain to the civilians who live under their control. If it weren't for Moscow's military and financial support to the rebellion, the conflict would have likely concluded on Kyiv's terms years ago.

Russia's backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine is entirely unhelpful for the prospects of a diplomatic settlement. At the same time, Russia's support is a reality Washington can't ignore. As much as the West may find it disturbing that a large country is using its military power to violate a smaller neighbor's sovereignty, Moscow is pursuing a policy it believes is in its own national security interest: preventing Ukraine from breaking fully from its orbit.

While the frontlines of eastern Ukraine are largely static today, Russia has gone to considerable lengths to ensure Kyiv cannot impose its will by force. When separatists in Donetsk were at risk of being overrun early in the conflict, Moscow redoubled its involvement to prevent those units from scattering or collapsing.

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A Ukrainian serviceman holds a position at the front line with Russia-backed separatists not far Avdiivka, Donetsk region on April 5, 2021. STR/AFP via Getty Images

Russia's decision to send personnel, air defense missiles, tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery units across the border in 2014 staved off the Ukrainian military's offensive, changed the facts on the ground and forced Kyiv to consider negotiations as a way out. Russia supported separatist offensives against Ukrainian troops by lobbing artillery against Kyiv's positions from inside its own territory. The capture of Debaltseve in the winter of 2015, powered in large measure by conventional Russian units and hardware, provided the separatists with enough leverage to push a diplomatic roadmap on its own terms.

Washington gave the Ukrainian military approximately $2 billion in assistance since the conflict began. None of this military help has done anything to move the frontlines in Kyiv's favor. This is for the simple fact that Moscow won't allow it. The Russians have repeatedly proven to the world that they are willing to cancel out whatever military aid the United States provides Kyiv with military aid of its own.

The lessons are clear: for Russia, a Western-aligned Ukraine is simply out of the question—a scenario to be avoided at high cost, even if that cost includes a series of punitive U.S. and European Union sanctions that worsen an already shaky Russian economy. Moscow is willing to spend and sacrifice more than Washington ever would.

While it's often a cliché for U.S. policymakers to argue that there are no military solutions to a conflict, Ukraine is in fact one of those situations where an outright military victory by either side is increasingly untenable. Establishing a new ceasefire regime over the short-term and resuming dialogue on how to end the war diplomatically may not satisfy those in Washington clamoring for a more hawkish position on Russia—but that doesn't make direct diplomacy any less important.

The U.S.-Russia relationship is at its lowest point since the early 1980s. The U.S. should be stabilizing relations with Russia, not roiling them further by engaging in a proxy conflict with the world's largest nuclear power.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank, columnist at the Washington Examiner and a contributor to The National Interest.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.