Heritage Foundation vice president: Ukraine support bipartisan in the US

James Jay Carafano.
James Jay Carafano. Source: ERR / Tauno Peit

Support for Ukraine in its war with Russia is bipartisan in the U.S. and there is nothing to suggest this would change after the U.S. presidential election, James Jay Carafano, vice president of Washington think tank The Heritage Foundation, tells ERR in an interview.

Let us start with security architecture. While it was said last year that we need to wait for the outcome of the war, isn't it really the case of needing a security architecture anyway, with or without Russia?

I agree with that. Let's start with Ukraine. There are really four big issues: NATO membership; EU membership; security assistance, because Ukraine is going to have to defend itself no matter how this war ends, to deter future conflict; and rebuilding the country, because if it doesn't rebuild, it will be as susceptible to Russian influence and threats as it was before.

I don't see consensus for NATO membership. Maybe I will be proven wrong, but I also don't see a consensus for EU membership. I think they're going to happen after a long pathway, and by the time they happen, I think they will be meaningless for Russia in terms of deterrence.

That leaves security assistance, which is building up Ukraine's capacity for self-defense. Building up Ukraine so it's a free, prosperous, secure country that can integrate with the West and doesn't become just a basket case of foreign aid. I think those will happen, largely because it's the easy path forward for everybody.

It's difficult to get consensus on the EU and NATO, but people are going to say, we spent billions of dollars and risked everything to help Ukraine win this war. Are we just going to turn our back on Ukraine and do nothing? No, of course not.

So, what's the easiest thing to do? It's to help with security assistance and the reconstruction of the country.

That is the path forward for Ukraine. Period.

I do believe that what's been demonstrated is the fundamental importance of NATO to the stability and peace of Europe. And we're not going back to people questioning NATO, America's commitment to NATO, the importance of building up NATO's capacity. That's a fundamental lesson from this war.

The other thing that has been proven dramatically true is the value of extended deterrence. Part of what makes NATO work as a conventional self-defense alliance is the linkage between conventional defense of NATO and the nuclear umbrella guaranteed by the U.S. Crossing that threshold and attacking NATO territory risks that escalation and is a powerful deterrent.

There is no question that Ukraine is hoping to secure both memberships. Let's say in ten years' time. Would the Americans support this for NATO?

If Ukraine was in NATO, I think this war would never have happened. The day Ukraine gets into NATO, the thought of Russian invasion ends.

In terms of practical conditions, political consensus, the fighting would have to stop. We've never had a situation where a country already involved in an active war would join the alliance and would not immediately invoke Article Five, and then you [would] have nuclear powers fighting nuclear powers. I don't see a consensus for people willing to take that risk.

We've had partially occupied countries join NATO, the obvious example is West Germany during the Cold War. The deal was that you can join NATO but you have to agree not to seek to regain territory by force of arms.

If the fighting in Ukraine stops, and I don't know where that line is, if there is an occupied Ukraine or if it regains its borders, that's a prerequisite. Then people will say that the fighting will never stop, because the Russians will just keep on fighting. But I don't really take that argument seriously, because the Russians are going to stop fighting when they are tired of fighting. It's not going to be a case of if we don't keep fighting then Ukraine is going to join NATO. I don't think it works like that.

If there is enough propaganda, they will keep fighting.

I constantly get asked when will the fighting stop and the answer is, I don't know, ask Vladimir Putin.

The reality is that the Russians can fight forever. NATO is not going to attack Russian territory, Ukraine is not going to have a strategically significant capacity for invading Russia.

The Russians can always go back to Russia, put more kids in uniform and send them to die. They can do that as long as they're in power. They can go home, wait six months and then come back. This is a situation where one side essentially has a sanctuary.

If you think of the U.S., we could defend South Vietnam forever. But the North Vietnamese could go home, have a bath and a weekend with the kids and then come back. They attacked in the Tet Offensive in 1968 and suffered the worst military defeat in North Vietnam's history, but we still lost. Because they went back and said, we're just going to come and attack again. So the Russians can fight.

The reason why North Vietnam could keep fighting forever was support from China, from Russia or the Soviet Union. But who is going to underwrite Russia's war? The answer is nobody.

Every day the Russians fight, they keep getting weaker. Not only does it make them less likely to be able to conquer Ukraine, their global influence is also going to decline. They continue to get weaker and increasingly become the junior partner in their relationship with China.

I'm always thinking that at some point they'll be a suburb of Beijing. That I think is the calculus on the Russian side.

How can Western partners give Ukraine security guarantees if Russia keeps coming back?

The only short-term security guarantee we can give is helping Ukraine build up its capacity to defend itself, rebuild its economy, bring its population home. That's the only thing we can realistically offer, and honestly, I think it's the only thing that will really stop the Russians.

If Ukraine was a member of the EU and NATO tomorrow, that would make it a very different calculus for Russia. But both are alliances of free nations, and there is no consensus for that. I truly believe that if Ukraine was part of the club, that would be the end of it. But I don't think there's consensus now. There might be a couple of years from now, but the prerequisite of that is that the fighting has to stop.

In the end, there's nothing to convince Russians to stop fighting, except what is going on in Russia. If they stop, it'll be because they'll recognize that the more they fight, the weaker they get and threaten their own strategic interests.

The West has been wrong about Russia before. Almost everyone, except for the Americans, said that it is impossible for one state to attack another on such a massive scale. So, why was the West so wrong about Russia? Was there wishful thinking, or did we see Russia through our own lenses?

Two things if I'm being very frank. One is Germany. Germany was deeply invested in the partnership with Russia. Germany was getting cheap energy that was fueling its economy. It did not want to face the prospect of rebuilding NATO. They were committed to that course and felt that they could prevent this. I believe this was Merkel's belief.

Second, I kind of blame the U.S. administration. This administration came in and sent all the wrong signals. Withdrawing from Afghanistan created the impression of the U.S. pulling back globally. Particularly the way we did it, by essentially not even informing our NATO allies. It was seen as a sign of weakness.

And as Russia's pressure on Ukraine built, what did we do? We essentially adopted the German line. We withdrew our Nord Stream complaint, we didn't rush supplies to build up Ukrainian defense. We made vague threats about sanctions and supported the Russian position of we'll talk them out of this. Or that the Ukrainians will make concessions.

Long-term, strategically, it was Germany leading not taking the Russian threat seriously.

And in the immediate term it was the U.S. not pushing ahead with a clear deterrent structure. That got us to the point of tanks crossing the lines.

How should we apply that lesson to what will happen with China and Taiwan?

China's attitude toward Taiwan is based on its interests, and I would be cautious about linking these things too closely together. If anything, what the Chinese can take away is that in the end the U.S. did step up to support the Ukrainians.

The other thing the Chinese may have seen was that while the Russian army was very large and had a lot of physical strength, it was not proficient in combined arms operations, not proficient in joint operations, using air, sea and land forces together. And, really, untested in battle. The kind of things they did in Syria or Chechnya – they never demonstrated that they can scale that.

And Taiwan is arguably a much more difficult military target than Ukraine. You have to cross an ocean. Not only do you have to cross an ocean, get to a foreign land and fight there, you also have to maintain the ability to bring in forces, during the prospect that the U.S., Japan and other countries might come and contest it. Maybe it's not as easy in military terms as one might think.

I think those lessons are relevant for the Chinese.

The thing about strategic ambiguity is that there is none regarding Taiwan. Both sides clearly understand the limits, They both have vital strategic interests. The Chinese will never permit Taiwan to be an independent country, while the U.S. will never permit the Chinese to physically occupy and control Taiwan.

The current situation respects both of those strategic priorities. It gives neither side everything that they want and both sides essentially what they want. War will come if one side thinks its strategic interests are at risk, or it thinks the other side is weak enough for it to protect its own interests and get everything else. Until that line is crossed either way, what you're likely to see is the status quo.

Is Taiwanese policy guided by fear of escalation?

No, I don't think it's fear of escalation. It's just a raw strategic calculation of what are my interests and how best to defend them.

If China had overwhelming military capability in the Indo-Pacific to control the Taiwan Straits they might go for it, but right now they don't.

They don't see it as the right moment?

Not today. Maybe ten years from now. Then the question is, okay, we don't have that advantage but maybe we could take the risk and get lucky. But that is what the Russians did in Ukraine, and it did not go well for them.

Let's talk about the role of the U.S. in the world. Should the U.S. be part of the ICC? If you are a protector of human rights and other values, should you show others that there is accountability?

Yes, the U.S. is not a party to the international criminal court (ICC) and the debate is often whether it should be.

The U.S. response that we do care about human rights but don't necessarily think the ICC is the place to do that is actually correct.

This notion that you should join the club because it's a demonstration of solidarity and human rights. Look, we hear the argument over and over again and its completely fallacious. I have heard the same thing on the UN Convention of the Law of the Seas. The U.S. must join because it is protecting freedom of the seas.

We love freedom of the seas. That's why we have a giant navy that ensures freedom of the seas. But this notion that somehow UNCLOS will do that has been demonstrably proven false. The Chinese blow off the Convention of the Law of Seas all the time.

Will solidarity stop threats? The answer is no, it did not stop the Chinese. These arguments are very superficial.

I think we have to focus on the end state, not the process. This is what has messed up Europe in the past – faith in process and institutions to solve all problems, even when you demonstrably show no capability to solve the problem. We need to focus on how to solve the problems, not how to create instruments that pretend to solve the problems.

But you need to show somehow that you're on the same page and ready to take the blame.

I think freedom of the seas is a great example. We're absolutely and totally committed to freedom of the seas. That's why we spend a lot of money to create a navy to ensure freedom of the seas. We work with countries like Egypt... the Suess Canal, which is absolutely vital. We are sending ships now to the Strait of Hormuz to make sure it remains a free and open passageway. We have military forces constantly in the Eastern Mediterranean to make sure it stays open. There is a lot of discussion about the Black Sea. We'd all like a free and open Black Sea, and everyone knows about the difficulty of getting warships in the Black Sea. But the U.S. Navy operating in the Mediterranean can defend its interests in the Black Sea, without having to be there.

We have spent an awful lot of money on creating military capacity that can ensure freedom of the seas for a lot of people. So, I don't buy this argument that you have to join my club and make a statement.

I hear people talking about the U.S. pivot to Asia, and America turning its back on Europe. Look, the reality is that regardless of how we got to day one of the war, there wouldn't be a Ukraine today if it wasn't for U.S. military aid. The Ukrainians fought, and there is a Ukraine today because the Ukrainians are willing to fight and die for their own country. Europeans really stepped up, they took care of refugees, Many countries have given military support way out of proportion to their own economies and militaries. But let's be honest, at the end of the day, if the U.S. hadn't provided Ukraine with significant military support to get arms and materials to the Ukrainians, Ukraine would not be in the fight today.

I'm just not buying this argument that because we don't all go to the same club, the U.S. doesn't have a commitment to respecting and protecting its interests all around the world.

With the U.S. gearing up for elections, will it mean lack of support for Ukraine?

We hear this all the time, that if a Republican takes office... But the only thing lacking is any evidence. My team met with all the staff leadership in the Congress and the Republican side... leadership, foreign affairs, armed services, intelligence... Even among many critics of the president's policy, there is not a lack of consensus for supporting Ukraine.

There are [some] Republicans and Democrats who do not want to support Ukraine, but the reality is that support for Ukraine is bipartisan in the U.S. There are people who would like it to be funded in a smarter way, might have issues with how Biden has exploited the issue. But Americans believe that a free and independent Ukraine is in their interests and they're going to support that. I don't see that changing.

I don't particularly see the national elections impacting it very much. I do believe these elections will be about domestic politics, as most national elections are in most countries. Particularly in the U.S., the main topics will be immigration, education, family issues, abortion, pro life issues. These are the bellwether issues in American politics, not foreign policy.

Even when candidates say something on foreign policy on the campaign trail, they're not really saying anything to move the bubble, right? People will not go, oh my God, let me vote for this guy because this is what he said about Sudan. They're comments to reassure members of their existing base, not to attract new voters.

Unless something really dramatic happens in the world, that is not likely to change. How would it affect Ukraine? By the time we get to January 2025, which is when there will be a Democrat or Republican in the White House, the situation on the ground in Ukraine will be what it will be. And the president will have to deal with that. I mean if Ukraine is successful in recovering much of its territory and defending itself, what is the president going to do? Give it back? That's just not going to happen. I don't worry too much about that.

I also don't worry about American turning its back on Europe because of China. One reason is that there is no pivot to be had. What most people don't realize when talking about the Asia pivot is that 70 percent of our navy is already in the Asia-Pacific. Therefore, the navy cannot pivot.

We need more navy, but we're only going to get it by building a bigger one, not by taking the 30 percent that's left and moving it there. 90 percent of our army is in the U.S. That's so it can go in any direction. Part of the reason why we could rapidly respond to Ukraine is because we could send units over for the defense of NATO and to help with the logistics.

The Air Force is spread all over the world, which basically means nothing as our Air Force deploys globally. It doesn't matter where an air wing is, it can just go to another place. Dispersing it probably makes sense from a resilience and response point of view, Our space force is actually in space. So there is no military pivot to be had.

And the other reason is that China is the number one concern in the U.S. But Europe is part of the China challenge. The Chinese want the same thing in Europe as the Russians. They want it to be disorganized, divided and distracted so they can exert greater influence. So, if the U.S. turned its back on Europe, we would be doing China's work for them. And I think that's highly unlikely.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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