Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February provoked global outrage against Moscow and support for Kyiv, both largely unabated today. Western allies quickly imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia a year ago and have sent billions in defense and humanitarian aid to Ukraine since—including US$27 billion in military assistance from the United States alone. In September, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that Washington’s goal in the war was for Kyiv to liberate all sovereign territory occupied by Moscow.

And yet Washington’s seemed reluctant to provide Ukraine with the weapons it would need to meet that goal. Last month, U.S. President Joe Biden agreed to send M-1 Abrams tanks, only after Germany refused to send its Leopard 2s without the Americans pledging their commitment first. This year, the U.S. will spend more than US$815 billion on defense, further developing what’s already the most powerful military in the world—with the most cutting-edge aircraft, tanks, missiles, ships, and logistics tools. By all appearances, if their strategy were truly focused on repelling Russian forces and re-establishing Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders, the Americans could supply Kyiv with much more war materiel. So what is the U.S. strategy in Ukraine, exactly?

Rob Lee is a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Program and a former Marine infantry officer. To Lee, the apparent ambiguities here make sense in the context of America’s competing priorities in the conflict: defending Ukraine and keeping the war from spiraling into regional and global chaos. These aren’t priorities the U.S. can choose, Lee says; they’re written into the situation, and they’re constantly competing with one another. They’re also complicated by Moscow’s disinterest in backing down or compromising, willingness to feed unlimited civilian conscripts into the war, and, so far, freedom from domestic consequences—whether for the popularity of the war or for the Kremlin’s continuing grip on power.

Eve Valentine: What would you say we know, and don’t know, about the U.S. strategy in Ukraine?

Rob Lee: We know it’s driven by two priorities. One is to prevent Russia from defeating Ukraine. The other is to prevent any escalation of the war that broadens it and brings Russia into direct conflict with NATO.

But we also know these are competing objectives. As much as the U.S. and its Western allies would love to see them realized together, they’re separate.

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