Fighting has surged in eastern Ukraine, where Moscow backs ethnic-Russian separatists. Moreover, Moscow has concentrated an estimated 4,000 soldiers near the border with Ukraine.
Demands are rising in Washington for confrontation. Indeed, the crisis is being framed as a challenge to the young Biden administration. Predictably hawkish analysts, such as those filling the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, advocated that the administration take tougher action, including conditional sanctions.
The president appears open to confrontation. In Foreign Affairs earlier this year he treated Russia far more harshly than China. He later singled out Putin as a “killer” without a “soul,” which of course could be said about many of America’s allies—Mohammed bin Salman comes to mind—as well as adversaries.
In last week’s introductory phone call to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, the White House said that “President Biden affirmed the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression in the Donbas and Crimea.” Separately, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called his Ukrainian counterpart to discuss “ways of strengthening security cooperation.”
The U.S. European Command raised its alert status to the highest level and warned of a “potential imminent crisis.” Last month the U.S. “deployed nuclear-capable B-1 bombers to Norway for the first time in NATO’s history,” noted my colleague Ted Galen Carpenter. This was precisely the sort of intimidation that Washington routinely accuses Moscow of engaging in. After the four B-1Bs arrived, Norwegian Lt. Gen. Yngve Odlo observed: “Being a neighbor to Russia, I think Russia understands quite clearly what we are doing.”
The Putin government’s intentions are unknown, though troop movements within its sovereign territory are its prerogative. Russia recently conducted military exercises in the area and apparently plans to base an airborne regiment nearby, which could account for the moves.
More likely, Moscow has a broader purpose. It might be testing the Biden administration, assessing how and how competently it acts. Or the build-up might be intended to intimidate the Zelensky government, which recently moved against Ukraine’s leading pro-Russian politician, freezing his assets and closing his TV stations. The Putin government also might be hoping to jolt the long-stalled peace talks and implementation of the 2015 Minsk Protocol by reminding its neighbor that Moscow retains local superiority and escalation dominance. Indeed, Zelensky termed Moscow’s behavior “muscle-flexing.”
The most dangerous possibility would be preparation for renewed intervention in the conflict. However, CNA’s Michael Kofman concluded that Russia’s movements “appear to be intended for coercive purposes, rather than as preparations for an invasion. The force size is not indicative of large-scale offensive plans.” Which should surprise no one. Manifold predictions that Moscow would conquer Ukraine or at least create a “land bridge” to Crimea have not come to pass. Russia may find the frozen conflict most useful in deterring NATO membership.
The battle between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s east has cost some 14,000 lives. Moscow bears the bulk of the blame for the civil war/invasion, but allied missteps contributed. Expanding NATO, dismantling Serbia, supporting color revolutions in Tbilisi and Kiev, and encouraging the ouster of the elected pro-Russian president of Ukraine gave Moscow plenty of reason to be suspicious, feel threatened, and respond brutally.
What might the U.S. do in response to the potential flare-up between Russia and Ukraine? Although the administration has said little specifically, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with the Ukrainian minister of defense and, reported DOD, “condemned recent escalations of Russian aggressive and provocative actions in eastern Ukraine.”
Moreover, announced the Pentagon: “Secretary Austin reiterated the U.S. commitment to building the capacity of Ukraine’s forces to defend more effectively against Russian aggression. Since 2014, the United States has committed more than $2 billion in security assistance to Ukraine, including a recently announced $125 million package that featured defensive weapons and other key capabilities to enhance the lethality, command and control, and situational awareness of Ukraine’s Armed Forces.”
However, Kiev wants much more: membership in NATO and a formal U.S. security guarantee. This has been Washington’s formal position going back to 2008. When the president called Zelensky, Biden spoke about “Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations,” which sounded like NATO.
So far European opposition has blocked Kiev’s accession, but Zelensky continues to push. For instance, he told alliance Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg that “NATO is the only way to end the war in Donbass.” Zelensky wanted a Membership Action Plan, used by 16 of NATO’s current members, for his nation, which he argued “will be a real signal for Russia.” Ukraine’s Gen. Ruslan Khomchak, the military’s commander-in-chief, cited Kiev’s military contributions as a “Shield for Europe” and claimed that his country’s induction into NATO would “undoubtedly benefit not only Ukraine, but the Alliance itself.”
Even without NATO membership attached, Washington’s many expressions and acts of support are dangerous. Although without legal effect, they risk inflating Ukrainian expectations. If Kiev believes that it can act with impunity, it could act recklessly, as did Georgia in August 2008, when the latter foolishly ignited hostilities with Moscow.
Washington then considered, but rightly rejected, intervening militarily. And likely would make the same decision regarding Ukraine. Which would be the right choice, despite the terrible consequences. Warned Anatol Lieven:
if the frozen conflict in Ukraine again becomes an actual war, the West would not intervene, and the Ukrainians would lose—an outcome both humiliating and dangerous for the United States, which has portrayed Ukraine as an important partner. Simply put, the Georgia-Russia War of 2008 should teach us that to arm other countries for war with more powerful neighbors when you have no intention of fighting to save them is not only irresponsible, it is deeply immoral.
Far worse, however, would be going to war with Russia. Observed Carpenter:
There is a danger that the Biden administration concludes that it must honor the implicit commitment to Ukraine’s security and actually adopts a military response to an outbreak of fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces. It would be the ultimate folly, since it could culminate in nuclear war, but given the intense level of hostility toward Moscow evident in the administration and much of Washington’s political elite, it is a possibility that can’t be ruled out.
At least American rhetorical and military support are not new. More ominous is Moscow’s apparent fear of U.S. troop deployments to Ukraine. Reuters reported the Kremlin’s warning “that any deployment of NATO troops to Ukraine would lead to further tensions near Russia’s borders and force Moscow to take extra measures to ensure its own security.”
This would be a dramatic escalation, though the idea isn’t new. For instance, in 2014 columnist Charles Krauthammer advocated providing weapons and advisers to Ukraine: “Any Russian push into western Ukraine would then engage a thin tripwire of NATO trainer/advisers. That is something the most rabid Soviet expansionist never risked. Nor would Putin.”
The “nor would Putin” assumption was more hope than experience and could have resulted in disaster. Creating a U.S. military presence in a region viewed as vital by an already suspicious nuclear-armed power would be tempting fate. Especially since any conflict would be all on America. Instead, NATO held military exercises in the country amid the crisis.
Even before the current contretemps, the Europeans, who are closest to any potential action, made it clear that they won’t be defending Ukraine. (It’s not even clear that most Europeans would defend each other or cooperate with America.) And today? Noted Lieven: “As for NATO’s European members, even the most virulently anti-Russian of them have done absolutely nothing to prepare for war. … No NATO government (including the United States) is actually behaving as if they expected to have to do any such thing.”
What justification would there be for the U.S., with or without the Europeans, to prepare for war?
Stuck in a bad neighborhood, Ukraine has a long, fascinating, and tragic history. Although Kiev deserves sympathy, that is no justification for making its mistreatment a casus belli. Alliances are supposed to promote American security, not provide international charity. And treating Ukraine would make the U.S. less safe.
An apparently feverish William Taylor, former American ambassador to Kiev, claimed: “Ukraine is on the front line” and “It affects the world that we live in, that our children will grow up in and our grandchildren.” Actually, not every spot on earth is the last redoubt against the forces of autocracy seeking to impose a new Dark Ages upon the planet. Certainly not Ukraine.
The current conflict, involving the seizure of Crimea (which resulted in no combat) and support for separatists in the Donbass in eastern Ukraine (now largely frozen by a ceasefire, despite sporadic incidents), has had terrible humanitarian results for those directly affected. However, there has been surprisingly little impact outside of the two countries involved.
There certainly is no threat to America or Europe. What happened in Ukraine didn’t matter to America when the former was part of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. It doesn’t matter now. Kiev also isn’t important for European security. Moscow has no interest in triggering Armageddon by attacking for no reason. The continent would be impossible to digest even if consumed.
Talk of danger to the international order is overblown. The U.S. and NATO launched an illegal, aggressive war against Yugoslavia. Washington did the same against Iraq—with devastating consequences—and backed an illegal, aggressive war by Saudi Arabia against Yemen. The international order survived.
Some war hawks assume that Washington’s failure to go to war everywhere against everyone reduces its credibility when genuinely vital interests might be at stake. They apparently imagine that Putin sees a lack of American action as a green light for further territorial aggrandizement. However, his failure to act over the last seven years suggests not.
Presumably he can calculate the difference between Washington going to war over Ukraine and protecting the American homeland or a treaty ally. Indeed, Moscow’s evident sensitivity to the potential of Kiev joining NATO underscores the issue. The U.S. and Russia seem to have worked out an unspoken modus vivendi. Neither will fight over a country the other is willing to fight over, which effectively leaves the continent to America and Ukraine to Russia—and peace intact. War for credibility is an idiot bargain.
Anyway, it isn’t obvious how the U.S. would defend Ukraine. Mike Sweeney of Defense Priorities observed: “It would be negligent of the U.S. to admit Ukraine into NATO without a clear idea for how its 1,200 mile-border with Russia would be defended, short of total reliance on the threat of nuclear war—a dangerous and outdated strategy.” What is there about Ukraine that would make its security worth a possible nuclear war?
Ukraine’s NATO advocates act as if membership is a decision for Kiev, asserting that Moscow should not be allowed to veto any country joining the anti-Russia alliance. True, but Washington should veto new members that make the U.S. less secure, as Ukraine would. Bringing in a member already involved in a conflict with Russia, which might require nuclear weapons for its defense, is simply not in America’s interest. Yet as long NATO membership appears possible, Moscow may view the Donbas conflict as the best way to forestall an offer being made.
Kiev has been treated unfairly, but it is stuck in a bad neighborhood. Washington cannot change that. Treating Russia as an enemy in response is stupid policy. Doing so risks tossing away the chief benefits of ending the Cold War. Doing so also risks starting a hot war with Moscow. The Biden administration should put the interest and security of Americans first.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.
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