CFR DEBATE: War hawks argue Americans must fund Ukrainians to die for their freedom—Mearsheimer says war is unwinnable at any cost

"Ukrainians are choosing to die for their freedom. That is their choice. We have to give them the tools to fight for their freedom."

Libby Emmons Brooklyn NY
The war in Ukraine has dropped into the constant background of political discourse, yet the fighting, and the fight over funding, rages on. Former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was ousted from his position over the question of whether Congress should continue funding the war effort, President Joe Biden continues to press for more aid for Ukraine as do many of his Dem colleagues. European leaders are not particularly unified on the issue and the American people are divided on the issue, albeit along party lines. 

A debate on Thursday courtesy of the Council on Foreign Relations got to the heart of the arguments for and against further US funding of Ukraine's war effort, even as it did not particularly solve the problem of the divide between the two positions and the inability of Congress itself to determine in America should advance billions more to the struggling, war-torn nation. The debate will later be aired on the Open Debate podcast.

Speaking against the proposition of further funding were University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer and retired Lt. Colonel Daniel Davis. In favor of continuing to supply US aid to Ukraine was Ambassador Paula Dobriansky who served as the Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs under George W. Bush and Heather Conley, president of the German Marshall Fund. 

The two sides could not be more opposed and the gulf between them seems as hard to bridge as the end of the war itself. 

Mearsheimer and Davis made the case that Ukraine simply cannot win, and that no matter how much money the US throws at this conflict, the result will be Ukraine's defeat. Diplomacy, they say, is the only way forward. If negotiations are taken at this point in the conflict, they believe that Ukraine will be able to retain their existing territory and sovereignty and stop the mounting deaths both of Ukrainians and Russians. 

They insist that Russian President Vladimir Putin does not have either designs on taking more of Eastern Europe or the ability to do so and that if Ukraine became a neutral territory, without ties to the West or to NATO, Russian interests would be appeased and their fears allayed.

To Mearsheimer and Davis, the moral perspective is to prevent further blood loss, to prevent further loss of land by Ukraine, and to prevent an eventuality where Ukraine loses and must negotiate terms of surrender to Russia. 

"They are doomed, Ukrainians are doomed," Mearsheimer said. "They're going to lose. Option one and option two are going to fail." Diplomacy, he said, is the answer. "It's necessary to move now through diplomatic means to create a settlement." The West, he said, cannot "rectify the balance" of military power. 

"What we should do is engage in diplomacy, get the Ukrainians to engage in diplomacy and come up with a settlement. It should do everything it can to freeze the present situation on the ground... and end the shooting" to prevent further deaths. "How do you realize this settlement?" he asked, "the way you do it is by creating a neutral Ukraine." That would be a Ukraine that does not present a serious threat to Russia and also a Ukraine that is not tied to the West, he said.

"No NATO expansion into Ukraine," he said, calling for an "end to US support for Ukraine. You have to break the strategic tie between Ukraine and the United States to create a truly neutral Ukraine. That is the only way out of the mess that we are in."

In contrast, Conley and Dobriansky believe fully that Ukraine has every chance of winning in their fight against Russia—so long as America continues to fund the war with arms and aid. Even if Ukraine doesn't win right away, if the conflict continues to be long and drawn out, their argument is that the US still comes out on top by funding the war.

"The aid that we provide is less than 4 percent of our defense budget," Dobriansky said in her opening remarks. "We don't do the fighting, we just give the aid."

"This is not a high price for containing Russia," Dobriansky said, noting also that "90 percent of the aid we give" goes to support American workers and American factories. "It boosts jobs at home."

For Dobriansky, funding the war doesn't cost much in terms of American dollars, doesn't cost any American lives, and funds the war machine at home, boosting American jobs and manufacturing. In short, war is good for business. Conley agreed with that, saying that a big part of the funding of the war has gone to US companies to make munitions and that the US is able to "modernize its military stocks."

Dobrainsky and Conley also contend that Putin is a really bad guy and that "cutting aid to Ukraine will benefit Putin." This, they believe, would embolden him to take his army and begin sweeping through Europe. The two also noted that French President Emanuel Macron has already discussed what a mobilization of his troops would look like. Davis countered that Putin simply doesn't have the strength to do that, that his advancement into Ukraine was to keep NATO and the West at bay—hence the need for a neutral Ukraine.

As for diplomacy, the understanding of Dobriansky and Conley, based on historical accounts is that Putin cannot be trusted, so even a diplomatic solution, once reached, would be in jeopardy because Putin would not honor it. Backing down, or veering toward negotiation, Dobriansky said, would make the US look weak.

Mearsheimer countered that essentially the US is weak in this situation and that this is an unwinnable war. Davis concurred, saying that Russia simply has more military might. This includes manufacturing, electronic warfare, and the sheer number of citizens in Russia. Money, Davis contended, cannot buy a win.

When the two sides got down to debating, however, the crux of their conversation was about whether or not Ukraine could win, meaning that Mearsheimer and Davis had successfully framed the debate on those terms. When it came down to those brass tacks, however, Mearsheimer and Davis continued to bring up the sheer immensity of Russia's power and their prowess and military build-up in the conflict thus far.

"We just want to put an end to this war," Davis said, "we just want to minimize the number of Ukrainians being killed," as well as to maximize the amount of territory the nation gets to keep when the war inevitably goes in Russia's favor. Davis said the key was to pursue diplomacy instead of dying for a lost cause. One of his main concerns was that when Ukraine eventually loses, they will be forced to negotiate terms of surrender, whereas now they could negotiate from a more advantageous position.

But for Conley, the Ukrainian mindset is the biggest determinant of a positive outcome. "The Ukrainians aren't going to stop," she said, "this is existential to them." 

"They absolutely can win," she said, because "they know what they're fighting for. She claimed that the Russians have low morale and no idea what they are fighting for, while Davis claimed that it was the Ukrainian army that has low morale.

Dobriansky thinks the US just needs to send Ukraine better weapons, including those President Joe Biden has previously promised not to send such as F-16s and long-range missiles that could strike deep into Russia. 

"We are not fighting," she said, "we are providing support to a country that is seeking help from us and they are doing the fighting."

In closing, Conley invoked history, American investment into European rebuilding after World War II, and great moments of generational consequence. "This is our generation's moment to make a decisive call," she said. "Ukraine is our generation's investment, in their reconstruction, in their defense. I promise you this rebounds on America's prosperity and security."

"Ukrainians are choosing to die for their freedom. That is their choice. We have to give them the tools to fight for their freedom."

In other words, for those in favor of American funding of the war, even if the war is not one Ukraine can win against a far mightier adversary, they can kill themselves if they want too, all the US needs to do is provide the bullets.

And for those opposed, continued loss of life is not worth the inevitable loss and both Ukraine and the US would be better off with negotiated terms toward the creation of a neutral Ukraine.
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