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The Ukraine conflict and America's national interests: A conversation with George Beebe

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The Ukraine conflict and America's national interests: A conversation with George Beebe

A conversation with George Beebe, director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

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This article was originally published by Stand Together Trust.

As the conflict between Russia and Ukraine nears the one-year mark, the United States continues to play a central role in supporting Ukraine. But our support is not inexhaustible. Stand Together Trust spoke with George Beebe, Director of Grand Strategy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, and a grantee of STT, about the conflict, the current risks, and potential diplomatic pathways to ending the war. Beebe has spent more than two decades in government as an intelligence analyst, diplomat, and policy advisor, including as director of the CIA's Russia analysis and as staff advisor on Russia matters to Vice President Dick Cheney. His book, The Russia Trap: How Our Shadow War with Russia Could Spiral in Nuclear Catastrophe (2019), warned about how the United States and Russia could stumble into a dangerous military confrontation 

STT: The war in Ukraine is a tragedy of the highest order. How did we get here when no one should have wanted this?  

Beebe: What produced the situation we're in right now is a combination of a lot of things. One factor is the breakup of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact more than 30 years ago. To some degree, what we're seeing in Ukraine today is the continuation of that process. That involves all kinds of sensitivities between Russians and their neighbors, between Russians who found themselves living outside the Russian Federation as a result of that breakup—in some cases against their will – and the majority nationalities in the new states they found themselves in. We're living today with the aftermath of that development.  

Also, to some degree, this is the result of the lack of agreement about a new European security architecture to replace the bipolar architecture that existed during the Cold War—when you had the United States and NATO arrayed against the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. The Soviet Union went away, the Warsaw Pact went away, but NATO did not.  

Instead, very much against the will of a series of Soviet and Russian leaders, NATO expanded to include many of the former Warsaw Pact states and also some of the former Soviet Republics. It reached the point where Ukraine and Georgia—two states of great geostrategic but also of political and emotional resonance for Russia – were declared to be future NATO members, back in 2008. That has been a great source of instability and it's one of the big reasons we're in the situation that we are in Ukraine.   

None of these things are things that can be addressed easily. These are very difficult problems that would be challenging for any statesman to contend with.  But they are particularly tough when the broader relationships between statesmen in Russia, Europe, and the United States are in such disrepair. There's an enormous amount of distrust and personal hostility, which makes dealing with what would ordinarily be very hard problems extremely difficult.  

I do think this was an avoidable war—both sides I think made mistakes. A different Russian leader could have well pursued a different set of policies to deal with these challenges rather than resort to an invasion of Ukraine. Responsibility for that decision falls squarely on Putin's shoulders.  

The United States and Europe could have handled this differently as well. One of the things the Russians said repeatedly was their top priority was getting assurances that Ukraine would not be part of the NATO alliance. The Russians wanted not only that Ukraine not be in NATO, but that NATO not be in Ukraine.  

Russia saw that the United States and NATO were fairly robustly increasing their military presence in Ukraine over time. I think the Russians worried that if that were to continue their ability to preclude it some months or years down the road would be much less. The United States and NATO refused to discuss that issue at all, and the Russians were quite counterproductive in how they attempted to force our hand. They engaged to a great degree in coercive diplomacy, putting a gun to our head and saying "Let's make a deal or else." Obviously, that's not conducive to constructive, diplomatic discourse.  

That being said, the United States had many opportunities to simply acknowledge reality in a way that would have reduced the likelihood of this war quite significantly. We knew that Ukraine was not going to be a part of NATO anytime soon. We knew that prior to this invasion. We could have simply said officially and formally, "Ukraine's not going to be in NATO." We wouldn't even have had to say "never." We wouldn't have to close the door forever. But we could have certainly offered some middle ground where we told the Russians something like—the next 25 or 30 years, Ukraine will not be in NATO, and we can assure you of that. It wouldn't have been much of a concession, but it may well have been enough to prevent this invasion. It's something the US should have considered and I'm not sure we did. We're now in a war that is extremely dangerous, but was also avoidable.  

How would you characterize the United States' response to the war once it was underway? Has this changed as the conflict has gone on? 

We knew from the very start what we wanted to prevent, what we didn't want to see happen. First, that the Russian military should not succeed in re-subjugating Ukraine, in capturing Kyiv, and imposing a puppet government on the Ukrainian people. Secondly, that this didn't turn into a direct military conflict between the US and Russia.  

These are two goals that are in tension with one another, however. They're not irreconcilable, but the degree to which you emphasize one you compromise your ability to achieve the other, at least somewhat. So, there is a balancing act that has to occur.  

So far, the US has performed that balancing act. We haven't gone so far to provoke a direct conflict with Russia, and we've certainly been successful in denying Russia its initial war aims of capturing Kyiv and re-subjugating Ukraine. 

That said, we have not done a particularly good job of articulating to ourselves what it is we do want. We haven't, in my view, come up with a clear picture of what our actual goals are. I think that is a problem. Unless you know what your core national objectives are in all of this, you're not going to have a very good plan for how you achieve them. You risk being in a situation where other people who do know what they want start to drive things, and the US ends up being driven by other countries and their agendas rather than being in the driver's seat itself.   

You also risk mission creep. You can see over the course of this war, various actors in the West have started to think we can do more than just deny Russia its war aims.  Some people have argued, "we can drive Russia out of Ukraine altogether, including from Crimea"; "we can so cripple the Russian military and defense industry that it can't begin to contemplate this sort of thing again"; "we can perhaps encourage regime change in Russia and get a more responsible leader in place." You even see calls in the US for "decolonizing Russia." These are all quite expansive goals, and the more you start to think we can do all of them, the more we risk one of the things we don't want—direct military conflict with Russia. 

 I think we need to be thinking more about our vision of an end game here, what it is we have to achieve, what our core national interests are, what we would like to achieve if fate is kind in all of this, so that we can start steering this war toward an end that protects our national interests.  

What are the costs and risks for the US that accompany this approach?  

The biggest risk is a direct military confrontation with Russia.  We're obviously the world's two largest nuclear powers, and any time you're talking about a direct military conflict the chances that it might go nuclear are real. I wouldn't say they are large—chances are probably less than even. But the consequences of something like that are so enormously bad that even if you're talking about a 10 to 20 percent chance of nuclear war, the risk is not at all worth the potential reward.   

There are other dangers, too. One is that Ukraine itself collapses under the stress of this war. Ukraine is under severe duress. Its infrastructure is being destroyed. It's suffering enormous human casualties—not only injury and death, but enormous numbers of refugees and displaced people that have a very real cost for Ukraine. Its economy is, by most estimates, declining by more than 30 percent since the start of this war. Those are big costs for the Ukrainians that certainly matter.  

There's damage to Europe more broadly. It's hard to see at this point how we can envision a Europe that is not fundamentally conflicted and divided in ways that might be even more unstable than what we lived through during the Cold War. For much of the Cold War, although Europe was divided, we had some understanding about rules of the game that helped to make sure it didn't spiral out of control. Most of those rules and understandings are gone now, and under current circumstances it's hard to envision that we're going to get new rules and understandings anytime soon.  

There's also blowback in the world, including in the US. We're dealing with much higher fuel prices, much higher food scarcity, this is driving not only genuine hardship in many parts of the world, but in the United States it's taking its toll. People are paying a lot more for basic commodities that they need to live. One of the dangers is that this is going to erode political support for the war over time. Then we could end up in a situation where the United States government loses a little bit of agency in all of this. If the Russians start to conclude they don't have to make many concessions to bring this war to an end that they like, we're going to wind up in a situation where they wait us out and let our support start to collapse. We'll then have less agency toward bringing about the kind of end that we'd like to see.  

We need to be cautious about all these dangers, and to me, they all point in the same direction. The sooner we can begin laying the groundwork for diplomatic negotiations for bringing this war to an end, the better off we're going to be.  

You said in August 2022 that the United States can't provide economic and military aid to Ukraine for years and years to come, but that we haven't grappled with what reducing or conditioning aid might look like. How could the United States better rationalize its approach to this conflict? Are there possible pathways to a diplomatic solution? 

There are pathways to a diplomatic solution. I don't think the US should determine in advance of diplomatic engagements what that final settlement has to be and put some kind of peace proposal on the table for discussion. You don't know how much flexibility the sides have. You don't want a situation where you're negotiating with yourself by offering concessions at the beginning.   

In that regard, Putin made an interesting and similar comment. He was asked about negotiations, and he said you don't want to go into a negotiation offering concessions, essentially. You go in with a tough position and start to adjust over the course of talks based on where the other side is coming from, and you start to identify what might be possible and what you can achieve.   

The US needs to understand the political reality. The level of aid we're providing to Ukrainians, both economically and militarily, is not inexhaustible. We have resources that are abundant, we are certainly the wealthiest and most capable player in this situation. But that doesn't mean we can do this forever. That doesn't mean political support for these current levels of support is going to continue unabated.  

We shouldn't be threatening to cut off the Ukrainians. But we do need to be talking to the Ukrainians about war aims. These conversations need to be discreet, private, not politicized, and not in front of the glare of cameras. We need to be talking seriously about what we need to achieve in all of this and coordinating with the Ukrainians about how we do that. That means bringing together our military strategy and our diplomatic strategy so that they're complementary.  


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