Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts When Diplomacy Goes to War
When Diplomacy Goes to War

When Diplomacy Goes to War

Bottom Line

  • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has weakened its ground forces, strengthened NATO, and humbled aggressors who resort to military force to advance foreign policy.  
  • US diplomatic efforts were initially restrained, but are now critical to helping Ukraine with moral and material support to preserve its sovereignty. 
  • Going forward, the challenge for the United States is how it can help Ukraine win its war while avoiding escalation with Russia and long-term entanglement that characterized the past twenty years of US foreign policy in the Middle East and Central Asia.

As the war in Ukraine enters its second year, several questions remain about what the US government would have, could have, and should have done differently since the war started. Should the United States have funneled more weapons and advanced weapons to Ukraine earlier? Could it have imposed sanctions on Russia differently? But just as it is hard to imagine that the chaos and Ukrainian suffering of this needless war continues, it is worth looking at what the US government—particularly diplomats in Washington, Kyiv, and throughout the world—got right, and how they continue to adapt to this horrific war.

While the latest invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, 2022, it is worth remembering that the current conflict really began in 2014. Then, Russia manufactured a crisis, invaded, and subsequently occupied Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, and orchestrated a war in eastern Ukraine using Russian personnel as well as local proxy forces that Russia led, trained, supplied, and financed. At the time, Secretary of State John Kerry said that Russia was behaving “in a 19th century fashion” by conquering Ukrainian territory in what he outlined as “an incredible act of aggression” by President Vladimir Putin. Analysts failed to understand Russia’s foreign policy had imperial aims. 

Since 2014, US support for Ukraine has steadily increased in many forms: weapons transfers, military training, and greater people-to-people ties. The urgency of these activities increased in February 2022 when Russia broadened its invasion by attempting to occupy all of Ukraine and conduct regime change. In retrospect, many assumptions and predictions were wrong; Kyiv did not fall within days of a Russian assault and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy did not flee like his Afghan counterpart did a year earlier. Instead, Zelenskyy needed ammunition, not a ride and Ukrainian armed forces defied predictions by resisting Russia’s onslaught. Ukraine’s efforts are the most important thing to understand how the war unfolded, but the case also illustrates that America’s diplomacy was adaptive and agile.  

In the spring of 2021, as the massing of Russian forces on the borders of Ukraine began, the United States had a solid understanding of what Russian leadership was thinking and planning for those forces. Russia’s motives—to significantly destabilize Ukraine, and then ultimately invade it—seemed clear to many. And by the fall of 2021, an overwhelming amount of intelligence suggested an invasion was a near certainty. The United States shared these assessments with Kyiv, allies in Europe, and partners around the world. In response, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed them and said just a month before the invasion the assessments were “total disinformation.”

Russian denials aside, the United States pursued three diplomatic priorities: support Ukraine, bolster NATO, and try to avoid a war with Russia. The range with which the United States did these things was like no other in modern American history. President Joe Biden sent CIA Director Bill Burns to Moscow to engage the Russians in November 2021, making clear that America knew what they were planning and what the consequences might be. The White House also made Russia’s actions central to G-20 discussions in Rome that fall—sharing intelligence with key partners—and engaged in pre-bunking to counter Russia’s disinformation campaign.

The National Security Council instituted regular meetings on the Ukraine crisis, convening those who worked on issues ranging from military support to sanctions enforcement to diplomacy and intelligence sharing for a whole-of-government response. At the US embassy in Kyiv, the tempo of official visitors increased exponentially, from members of Congress to the White House and cabinet officials, and secure calls back to Washington and other diplomatic missions became non-stop.  

To combat Putin’s lies and misinformation, the United States went on the information offensive, facilitating press tours for dozens of outlets throughout Europe to show them the on-the-ground-truth about Ukraine, and connecting Ukrainian academics and experts with think tanks and other influential outlets throughout the West to counter Russian propaganda. The American strategy was simple: fight lies with the truth and let the world judge for itself.

Perhaps most critically, the US government learned from its previous mistakes. In 2014, for example, the United States was slow to sound the alarm about what Putin’s “little green men” were doing in Crimea, and Ukraine paid the price through invasion and loss of territory. In 2021, however, declassified satellite imagery showed the Russian military build-up on Ukraine’s borders. In addition to the Five Eyes intelligence collaboration network (the close partnership with Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and New Zealand), America increased its intelligence sharing with NATO allies France and Germany. Washington shared information regularly with the Ukrainians to make sure they were ready to defend themselves. In November 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken sat down with Zelenskyy in Glasgow to brief him on US intelligence that indicated a large-scale invasion of Ukraine. The United States repeatedly warned Russia of “massive consequences” if it did invade Ukraine, broadcast to the world the flow of defensive weapons by the planeload into Ukraine, and rushed US forces to NATO countries thereby bolstering European defenses.  

Senior US officials remembered the Russia-Ukraine experience of 2014 and were determined to learn from it. Treasury officials flew to the Persian Gulf and to Asia to ready our partners and allies for sanctions against Russia, and plans were put into place to seize Russian oligarchs’ yachts, cars, and luxury apartments held overseas. At the G-7 foreign ministers meeting in Liverpool in mid-December 2021, countries came together to coordinate mechanisms for potential sanctions against Russia, with the aim of avoiding errors that were made in the wake of Russia’s 2014 actions against Ukraine. A US Cyber Command team arrived in Kyiv in December as well, and stayed for over seventy days at the Ukrainian government’s request to help harden Ukraine’s networks and systems against intrusion. United States Agency for International Development lined up its Disaster Assistance Response Team to begin planning for the aftermath of a potential invasion.  

In the month before the invasion, things reached a fever pitch. Key US agencies—the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and others—brought in private sector partners, provided them with classified briefings, and coordinated to prevent unknown scores of cyber-attacks on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure. US companies transported official government data from Ukraine and preserved access to it through cloud services. Ukraine later awarded Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure the Ukraine Peace Prize for its help in preserving its digital capabilities. Burns visited Zelenskyy in the middle of January to personally brief him on Russian plans for the invasion, and Blinken came to Kyiv as well. In late January, the US embassy in Kyiv evacuated most of its personnel back to Washington, with a core team staying behind that eventually moved to western Ukraine, and then just across the border to Poland on the eve of the invasion, never stopping in-person diplomacy. The secretary of state met with Lavrov in Geneva in late January. In early February, the United States sent an additional 3,000 military personnel to Poland.

The White House made it very clear that all Americans in Ukraine needed to leave immediately and that there would be no way to rescue people after an invasion began. In an effort not to be surprised in any way once an invasion occurred, a 24-hour/day task force was set up in the State Department in early February, staffed by diplomats evacuated from Kyiv who had the linguistic, cultural, and personal knowledge and connections to use (if and then) when the war began. In a reverse of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s “case for war” regarding Iraq in 2003, the United States made one final push for peace at the United Nations. On February 17, 2022, Blinken went to the United Nations to compel Russia off its path to war. Unfortunately, just one week later, Putin launched his horrific invasion, which continues to this day.

Experience matters in the world of diplomacy, and there is no substitute for it. While the trauma of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan has been cited as one of the reasons Russia chose to expand its invasion of Ukraine, the data suggest otherwise. Russia likely began planning for expanding its war at least since spring 2021 when it built up forces on Ukraine’s border. The invasion was rooted in Russia’s imperial past and the green light came from Putin’s desire to reconstitute the Russian empire by destroying Ukrainian identity. 

As the war enters its second spring, a few things are certain. Russia is weaker, Ukraine is stronger, and the West appears united in its support to preserve Ukraine’s sovereignty. Ukraine’s resistance and offensives disproved predictions of its quick collapse and its resilience to this day persists. The US embassy re-opened in Kyiv and continues to work in support of US foreign policy. American diplomatic efforts were validated when Biden visited Kyiv a year after Russia’s large-scale offensive where he and Zelenskyy walked around its downtown on a particularly beautiful winter’s day. This was a powerful message to the world about American commitment to international law and support to Ukraine. And while many have given up on trying to predict how this war might end, there is no doubt that US diplomacy is energized to work with Kyiv and the more than fifty countries working to reverse Russia’s invasion.  

Diplomats are focused on preserving the coalition to ensure countries deliver promised training and material. Diplomats are focused on economic sanctions compliance and denying Russia the income and components needed to fuel its war. And they are focused on supporting their Ukrainian colleagues to preserve Ukraine’s sovereignty. To be sure, Ukrainians are fighting for their lives in the face of Russia’s continued offensive, but international efforts give Ukraine the resources and hope to preserve their country. Going forward the challenge for American diplomats is how the United States can help Ukraine win its war while avoiding escalation with Russia or long-term entanglement that characterized the past twenty years of US foreign policy in the Middle East and Central Asia.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities. Moreover, the views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the US Naval War College, Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, Department of State, or the US government.

Image: Flickr (State Department)