Between the tragic, ongoing war in Gaza and the Biden-Xi summit, one crucial global crisis is in danger of being forgotten — the war in Ukraine. And this is a terrible time for it to be slipping from public consciousness because Ukraine faces trouble on two fronts.
As the country’s chief military commander General Valery Zaluzhny has acknowledged, a stalemate has developed on the battleground with Russia. Ukrainian soldiers are fighting heroically in places like Kherson, but the lines of control are lately moving just a few kilometers. Despite the drones and Starlink connectivity, this is looking like the trench warfare during World War I, which ground on for four years.
The second front that is equally worrying is in the West, where support for Ukraine is weakening. Despite President Biden’s passionate advocacy, his package of aid for Ukraine is not likely to pass anytime soon. Europeans are also losing their determination. During what she believed was a private call, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni admitted, “I see that there is a lot of fatigue, I have to say the truth, from all the sides.”
One side that is sticking to its guns is Russia. The Russian army has learned from its mistakes in the early months of the war and has built powerful defensive lines in eastern and southern Ukraine. It has laid huge minefields, built deep and fortified trenches and set up large artillery units behind the trenches. Ukrainian soldiers have to get past all three of these barriers to gain an inch of ground. Russia’s vast military industrial complex is churning out weapons, from shells to drones. Its much larger economy and population are enduring advantages that can only be countered by consistent and high levels of Western support.
The Russian strategy, based on my conversations with Russian officials and those close to them, is to hang tough, refuse any serious negotiations and wait for November 2024. They believe that there is at least an even chance that Donald Trump will be elected president, and that he will want to end America’s entangling alliance with Ukraine and will cut a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Whether or not that is an accurate analysis, it does suggest that Moscow is unlikely to be willing to negotiate anytime soon.
Is there anything that can be done to address these twin challenges — stalemate on the frontlines and waning support in Western capitals? Actually, there is a policy that could help on both fronts: Set up an international and legal process by which Russia’s $300 billion-plus of frozen reserves could be used to aid Ukraine’s reconstruction, which the World Bank estimates would cost more than $400 billion over the next ten years. In one swoop, that would signal to Putin that Ukraine will not face a funding crisis and that even were Trump to be elected, these funds, administered through some international body, say in Switzerland or Belgium, would continue to flow to Kyiv.
There are challenges to this policy. Russia’s reserves lie in various countries, but European allies hold most of them, and their governments worry that they don’t have the legal authority to divert them. Laurence Tribe, the distinguished legal scholar, and some of his colleagues have written up a definitive case as to why it would be legal and appropriate to go down the path of using Russian reserves for Ukraine’s reconstruction. Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, former World Bank head Robert Zoellick, and former 9/11 Commission executive director Philip Zelikow have argued persuasively that it is good policy.
Tribe’s basic argument is that Russia has engaged in a massive and systemic violation of international law and norms and that it is appropriate, indeed necessary, for there to be some price to pay for this. To reject this logic in favor of one that protects Russia’s “property rights” is perverse since Russia has engaged in brutal, sustained violations of Ukraine’s property rights and has taken the lives of thousands of its civilians as well.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine is a core violation of any conception of a rules-based international order. It strikes me as right and wise to force it to pay a heavy price. But how that policy is pursued matters. In the past, the United States has tried to enforce its own conception of international rules unilaterally, often generating huge opposition to it. The approach we should take this time is the opposite.
This policy should be rooted in international consensus, law and norms. Legal opinions like Tribe’s should be presented. An international legal organization and process of adjudicating claims should be established and the funds handled through it. Russia’s assets and Ukraine’s reconstruction should serve as a building block for international law and norms that help shore up the rules-based order. As Summers, Zoellick, and Zelikow note, if this case sets the precedent that a country that engages in naked aggression might find that its dollar reserves are in jeopardy, that is not a bad precedent for a world in disarray.