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The war in Ukraine is devolving into a protracted chess game. As pieces are removed from the board, there is an incessant amount of “checking”; however, neither President Biden nor Russian President Vladimir Putin is maneuvering his way into a winning “checkmate” of either’s king. Equally disconcerting, Putin appears to be figuring out how to exploit Biden’s glaring national security fallacy when it comes to Washington’s strategic management of Russia’s ever-expanding war against Ukraine, the West, and the post-World War II global order.
That fallacy? Biden’s adoption of a “forever war” approach in the misguided belief it will force Russia to the negotiating table. Putin needs time to recover from his losses in Ukraine and evidently believes the Biden administration’s gambit best plays into the Kremlin’s own fallback strategy of prolonging Putin’s “special military operation.” Consequently, by keeping Kyiv in a holding pattern, Biden misses opportunities to turn bloody battles, such as the ongoing fight for Bakhmut, into potentially game-ending “checkmates.”
There are hints, however, that the Biden administration is beginning to recognize that NATO’s strategy of pursuing “checks” instead of a final “checkmate” of Putin’s king is not working. On March 8, Biden’s Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, testified during a Senate hearing that Putin likely believes “prolonging the war, with intermittent pauses in fighting, may be his best remaining pathway to eventually securing Russian strategic interests in Ukraine, even if it takes years.” Haines concluded by saying, “Putin most likely calculates that time works in his favor.”
Putin, meanwhile, is utilizing the time Biden is giving him by adding back military pieces to the chessboard. While the U.S. and NATO dither in their discussions of adding ATACMS, F-16 fighter-bombers, and other military equipment to go on a combined-arms offensive, Putin is being afforded valuable time to add back rooks, knights and bishops to the battlefields of Ukraine — the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal “hypersonic” ballistic missile being just one of them.
In terms of U.S. global national security, however, Biden’s chess game against Putin is not playing out in a vacuum. China’s Xi Jinping sees an opening to use Biden’s apparent unwillingness to go for a decisive win as a means to weaken the U.S. ahead of any potential conflict in Taiwan. Plus, by equipping Russia with uniforms, weapons and ammunition, Xi also can keep Russia in a weakened state, especially if the conflict drags out for months or years.
Thus, while all three of the world’s superpowers are invested in a protracted war in Ukraine, only one of them, China, is bringing a “checkmate” strategy to the game. Biden and “Old NATO” fear Russia losing amidst concerns of what a chaotic post-Putin Russia might look like. The Kremlin, lacking the conventional military to win, likewise is playing not to lose. Beijing is betting on Washington and “Old NATO” getting stuck on Biden’s “road to nowhere” that we wrote about in the Kyiv Post. If so, then China’s “road” to seizing Taiwan will become more and more wide open.
China is not the only country being forced to navigate Biden’s fallacy. Georgia, Moldova, Hungary and Turkey are four examples of eastern European and Black Sea countries hedging bets because the Biden administration seems not to be in it to win the war outright. If Putin survives — or even worse, wins — they will have to live with the consequences of a hungry, emboldened Russian “bear” dominating the region.
Thus, while it is frustrating to watch leaders such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan play both sides, the lack of the U.S. and NATO commitment to Ukraine “winning” at all costs is largely responsible for creating this friction. Biden’s fallacy, wittingly or not, is also enveloping much of the developing world into an economic and diplomatic purgatory. Other nations see the chess game involving the superpowers but, lacking options to influence its outcome, they are hedging bets and largely staying on the sidelines to preserve future options.
India, for example, needs to move on from being overly dependent on Russia; however, Russian energy supplies are critical to its economy. Yet, rather than looking to the U.S. and the West, New Delhi is looking inwardly to navigate this period of global uncertainty over the conflict in Ukraine. Similarly, countries in Central America and Africa who depend upon Putin’s largesse are forced to sit the war out on the sidelines. This was evident during the U.N. General Assembly vote in late February demanding that Russia withdraw from Ukraine: 32 countries abstained, including India, El Salvador and South Africa.
Geopolitics aside, Biden’s fallacy is also producing a deadly human cost. In a chess game, we’d call them pawns, but in real life they are valiant Ukrainian soldiers and innocent civilians who are dying to defend their homeland and preserve Ukraine’s national identity. If Biden persists with this “road to nowhere,” there can be only one certainty. More Ukrainian men, women and children will suffer and die, as casualties on both sides continue to amass.
Biden’s national security fallacy is predicated upon the misguided conception that Putin must somehow survive. This is in stark contrast to the president’s first “fiery” speech in Warsaw in March of 2022, when he emotionally asserted that Putin “cannot remain in power.” If Putin is allowed to remain in power, post-conflict, any notion of peace will be fleeting. Putin has proven that his promises and international guarantees are meaningless.
Biden’s approach of allowing a long war is simply another path of arriving at Neville Chamberlain’s “peace for our time.” It will not work. The fallacy must end. Although Gen. George S. Patton noted “perpetual peace is a futile dream,” so is perpetual war in search of peace. Biden must begin adding his own chess pieces back to the playing board in Ukraine and concentrate on winning.
It’s time to give Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky the pieces he needs to “checkmate” Putin — especially in Crimea, which can be the “decisive terrain” of this war. It is also time to free up the world from this seemingly never-ending purgatory and, in the process, put up a roadblock to China’s quickening march to Taipei.
Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army colonel, served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. His background includes tours of duty with the 101st Airborne Division and the Intelligence and Security Command. He led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012-14, working with NATO partners in the Black Sea and Baltics. Follow him on Twitter @JESweet2022.
Mark Toth is a retired economist and entrepreneur who has worked in banking, insurance, publishing, and global commerce. He is a former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis, and has lived in U.S. diplomatic and military communities around the world, including London, Tel Aviv, Augsburg, and Nagoya. Follow him on Twitter @MCTothSTL.
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