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What is the U.S. endgame in Ukraine?


More money and more weapons have been flowing from the U.S. to Ukraine in recent weeks. That's following Congress's approval last month of a $61 billion aid package to support Ukraine in its ongoing war against Russia. On Friday, the U.S. announced the latest part of that package destined for Ukraine, $400 million in military aid, including Patriot missiles and other weapons. All of this aid has been framed by Ukraine supporters as an existential matter, key to addressing the grim situation on the frontlines, where Ukrainian soldiers have found themselves outgunned and outmanned. But what comes next?

Emma Ashford is a columnist for Foreign Policy, where she wrote about this in her latest piece, titled, "What Does America Want In Ukraine?" Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

EMMA ASHFORD: Thanks for having me.

DETROW: There's a few different interesting arguments in your piece - you know, among them, that the U.S. actions don't match the Biden administration's stated policy and that you also don't think the stated policy makes sense. But let's start with what Biden and other U.S. leaders have argued from the beginning, that if the West doesn't help Ukraine, then Russia will keep attacking and attack a NATO country. Do you see American arm shipments and American policies as in line with that thinking?

ASHFORD: I certainly think that that is what the Biden administration believes to some extent. I don't think that's necessarily a very plausible argument because I think if we look at the last two years of war in Ukraine, the one constant, the one bright red line that Russia has not violated is it has not crossed from Ukraine into the territory of a NATO member. And that says to me that they view that as a significant escalation or as something that is different.

DETROW: You know, one of the main takeaways from this piece is the argument that, well, the Biden administration certainly says that U.S. goals and interests are perfectly aligned with Ukraine's, that you say in reality, they're not. You write that the current approach is a strategic copout, as you put it. Can you explain what you mean by that?

ASHFORD: Basically, there's a dichotomy. We are trying to help Ukraine to protect itself as a country, and we are trying to avoid escalation. And so if, on the other hand, you look at what Kyiv says that they are trying to achieve, they're trying to achieve retaking every inch of Ukrainian territory and potentially even further - right? - potentially regime change in Moscow, etc. Those are things that directly contradict that second part of U.S. interests, the idea that we don't want this to escalate into a broader war to the nuclear level. So there are these tensions in the way we talk about policy and the way Kyiv talks about policy.

DETROW: And yet the Biden administration often defers to Ukraine on questions like that, specifically about when it's appropriate to start negotiations because you're arguing here that that moment is probably now. There's a lot of reasons to start negotiating. And Ukrainian leaders, with a lot of support from around the world, say that that thinking rewards Russia for its hostile actions, and that thinking tells Russia all it has to do is keep sending missiles into Ukrainian cities and wait it out.

ASHFORD: So I'm very sympathetic to that argument in sort of philosophical terms - right? - the idea that we don't want to reward aggression. But the fact is that at some point, this war will end. There will be negotiations. So if there has to be some negotiation, then the question is instead, what is the best time to do it? How do you put Ukraine in the best position to get the best deal? And how do we know when we are past the point of diminishing returns?

DETROW: And how do you think, at this point, the U.S. does put Ukraine in the best position? There's money flowing again, but that money will reach a limit at a certain point. And there's also strategic, bigger-picture reasons why the U.S. is always going to be a little cautious, even as it keeps ramping up the firepower of what it's sending.

ASHFORD: This is a really difficult question, and I think in retrospect, we actually can look back at the last couple of years and we can say that there are a few windows where Ukraine was in a very strong negotiating position. Fall of 2022 would be one. Last year, 2023, before the counteroffensive started - those were pretty good places for Ukraine...

DETROW: Right. Fall of 2022, just to contextualize for people was after that surprising, big, big, big push on the eastern front of the war, where Ukraine really won a lot of land back by surprise.

ASHFORD: Exactly. They had what military tacticians would call catastrophic success, where they retrieved a lot of territory. That's a strong negotiating position. Today, things are a little more difficult, right? I think we're in a position where everybody broadly understands that Western support is not going to continue forever, that there are limits to what arms can achieve and that the war does seem to be bogging down. So from my point of view, you know, we've just sent a significant chunk of money to go to Ukraine. We're about six months out from an election here in the U.S. that might change matters. This is probably the strongest moment that Ukraine could have to negotiate for the next year at least.

DETROW: Emma Ashford is a columnist for Foreign Policy. Thank you so much.

ASHFORD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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