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Fintan O’Toole: The West is pursuing different agendas in Ukraine

What is the West’s attainable objective in Ukraine and what is the exit strategy?

After the tragic debacle of the Vietnam war, the US military developed what became known as the Powell Doctrine: a set of questions to be asked before embarking on future wars. The two crucial ones are: “Do we have a clear and attainable objective? Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?”

After al-Qaida’s attacks in 2001, the Americans ignored these questions. In their invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the answers to both were “no” – but they carried on regardless.

The consequences were exactly what the Powell Doctrine predicted: forever wars in which, as more blood and treasure was wasted, objectives became both ever wider and ever murkier. The only exit strategy was exhaustion and futility.

A year ago Vladimir Putin repeated this mistake. The stupidity of his invasion of Ukraine was not just that he was deluded about the attainability of his objective, which was to overthrow the government in Kyiv with the minimum of fuss and install a puppet regime. It was that, even if he had somehow managed to pull this off, his victory would not have avoided “endless entanglement”.


Ukraine is a vast country with a population that does not wish to be ruled from Moscow. A Putin-installed puppet regime would have faced a long and bloody guerrilla war. Neighbouring countries – most obviously Poland – would have been drawn into it, whether officially or otherwise.

This war would have been open-ended. Russian war crimes would fuel resistance; resistance would be used to justify further brutality. The vicious circle would generate a vortex of self-renewing violence.

So much is clear: Putin failed to ask the necessary questions and is stuck with the consequences. But what about the West?

It may be that a year ago there was no time for questions. Once the Ukrainian government declined to flee, the EU, the UK and the US had no real choice but to back it.

To capitulate to Putin would be to acquiesce in the destruction of any notion of a law-bound international order and, arguably, in the slow death of liberal democracy. (One shudders to think of where we would be now if Putin had invaded Ukraine while Donald Trump was in the White House.)

Yet, as time has gone on, the imperative has become increasingly a matter of choice. And every choice the West has made, has, in effect, turned it into a belligerent party. Which means that those Powell Doctrine questions must be answered. What is the attainable objective and what is the exit strategy?

Attainable is not the same as desirable. The best outcome is obvious enough: the restoration of Ukraine’s internationally recognised borders, war criminals put on trial, the fall of Putin’s regime.

Those are good things to want but so, for example, was a democratic Afghanistan with equal rights for women and minorities. Twenty years of war waged by the Western powers didn’t make the desirable attainable.

So what is the West’s viable objective? Part of what makes that question so difficult to answer is that there are different agendas being pursued.

And one of those agendas is the sapping of Russian power by a long war of attrition. Putin has inadvertently made the US military-industrial complex an offer it finds almost impossible to refuse. Supporting Ukraine is costing the US a mere 5.6 per cent of its annual military budget. In return it gets to degrade Russia’s military capacity by 50 per cent – so far.

It’s a fabulous calculus if you’re playing the great power game: no boots on the ground, no serious domestic political risk and no influx of refugees. (The US has taken in roughly as many Ukrainians as Ireland has – not proportionally but in absolute numbers.)

Yet in return for this small investment you get the bleeding dry of a rival power. And that is precisely the problem: there’s a strong incentive for the US to just keep the war going. Who needs an exit strategy when the costs of carrying on seem so low?

But the people of Ukraine need an exit strategy because the war is horrific. And Europe needs an exit strategy because it knows that if you let war take root on the continent it can spread into catastrophe.

We have to remember that the war in Ukraine is not a year old – it’s been going on for nearly a decade. It can go on for another decade at least. And the longer it goes on, the more damage is done to Ukraine and the harder it will be for it to rebuild itself as the thriving European democracy its people want it to be. Resolve is immensely admirable, but it has to lead towards resolution.

The deeper the West gets into the war the more urgently it requires a sense of what that resolution is. Throwing Russia out of Crimea may be a perfectly justifiable aim but it also looks a bit like Putin’s initial fantasy of taking Kyiv: a far-fetched goal that,even if it were to be attained would merely fuel further conflict.

The Ukrainians know what they are willing to die for. But their allies have to define what, in the end, they can live with.