US Blunders, Ukraine’s War
Some readers have the impression that I support Russia in its conflict with Ukraine. That’s not true. I repeat, with emphasis, that I believe Russia should leave Ukraine alone. If Russia invades, I will condemn the invasion, and might well support non-military punitive measures against Moscow. The reason I have taken the line that I have in this space is because so many American elites seem eager to get involved in an actual war, or something close to war, with Russia over Ukraine. This would be madness. I do not understand why people can’t grasp that we Americans do not have the power to stop all the bad things happening in the world. We got rid of Saddam, but could not master Iraq. We drove out the Taliban, but twenty years later, the Taliban once again rules Afghanistan. Yet somehow, with Ukraine and a nuclear-armed Russia, it’s going to be different? The eagerness for war with Russia among Americans — including liberal Americans — after the folly of the past twenty years of American war-making is a testament to the fact that some people are incapable of learning.
We are facing here the consequences of our leaders’ foolishness. Ross Douthat has a good column up now about how we can retreat from Ukraine in a sensible way. He writes:
The United States in its days as a hyperpower made a series of moves to extend our perimeter of influence deep into Russia’s near-abroad. Some of those moves appear to be sustainable: The expansion of NATO to include countries of the former Warsaw Pact was itself a risk, but at the moment those commitments seem secure. But the attempt to draw Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit, the partway-open door to Ukrainians who preferred westward-focused alliances, was a foolish overcommitment even when American power was at its height.
Note that this is not a question of what Ukrainians deserve. Russia is an authoritarian aggressor in the current crisis; Ukraine is a flawed democracy but a more decent regime than Vladimir Putin’s oligarchy. When we gave Ukraine security assurances under Bill Clinton, opened the door to NATO membership under George W. Bush and supported the Maidan protests under Barack Obama, we were in each case acting with better intentions than Moscow in its own machinations.
But in geopolitics good intentions are always downstream from the realities of power. Whatever its desires or ours, the government in Ukraine has simply never been in a position to fully join the West — it’s too economically weak, too internally divided and simply in the wrong place. And the actions of the Bush and Obama administrations — and for all of Trump’s personal sympathies for Putin, some Trump administration acts as well — have left us overstretched, our soft-power embrace of Kyiv ill-equipped to handle hard-power countermoves from Moscow.
Our real strategic challenge is with China, in East Asia. That demands all our focus. We have no realistic choice but to cede to at least some of Russia’s demands — including recognizing the fact that Ukraine will never be part of NATO. As Douthat says, we would be crazy to believe that we should risk of nuclear war over the Donbass. The Americans who say, indignantly, that Ukrainians ought to be able to decide the future of their country, free of outside interference, are like the moralistic naïfs who say that women should be able to walk down the street at night in a bad neighborhood wearing a short skirt, and not be attacked by bad guys. They are right: in a just world, that would be how it would work. But we do not live in that world, and a woman who behaved as if moral imperatives ruled the world would be setting herself up for a world of pain. I mean, look, I lock my door and have an electronic alarm system installed in my house. I should not have to worry about bad guys breaking in at night — but I do, because that is the world we live in, and all the moral indignation about it is not going to keep criminals from breaking in if we are not protected.
To conservatives who are stomping their feet ready to go to war with Putin over Ukraine, let me remind you that we Americans did not allow Nicaragua in the 1980s to do its own thing by allying with the Soviets. You could argue — our left-wing reader Hector St-Clare does argue — that Nicaragua’s sovereignty ought to have been respected by the US. But in the real world, the US could not permit another Soviet-aligned country in our backyard. Hence the contra war. Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega is once again back in power, and runs the country dictatorially, but the Cold War is over, and a leftist Nicaragua does not pose the strategic threat to the US that it did in the 1980s.
Similarly with Venezuela. The leftist Chavista dictatorship is destroying that poor country, but it is not in America’s interest to go to war to overthrow that government. Nor is it in America’s interest to go to war to overthrow Cuba. If we did, however, decide to attack those countries, it would not be in the interest of Russia or China to come militarily to their aid. Venezuela and Cuba are a long way from Russia and China. Ukraine is a long way from the US. Douthat writes:
Something can be reasonable and still be painful — painful as an acknowledgment of Western weakness, painful to the hopes and ambitions of Ukrainians.
But accepting some pain for the sake of a more sustainable position is simply what happens when you’ve made a generation’s worth of poor decisions, and you’re trying to find a decent and dignified way to a necessary retreat.
Russia seems so hell-bent on invading Ukraine that it may not take a deal in which NATO membership for Ukraine (and EU membership) is taken permanently off the table. But if avoiding a war in which Ukrainians and Russians die, and Ukraine is turned into a country riven with guerrilla war for a generation, is achievable by that concession, then we should make it. Russia would quickly crush Ukraine in conventional warfare, but it will likely find that many Ukrainians are not willing to acquiesce to being a vassal state of Moscow.
Take a look at the realist foreign policy scholar Stephen Walt’s essay explaining why liberal idealists (both left-liberals and right-liberals) have a lot to do with sparking this crisis, via their own naive hubris. Excerpts:
The great tragedy is this entire affair was avoidable. Had the United States and its European allies not succumbed to hubris, wishful thinking, and liberal idealism and relied instead on realism’s core insights, the present crisis would not have occurred. Indeed, Russia would probably never have seized Crimea, and Ukraine would be safer today. The world is paying a high price for relying on a flawed theory of world politics.
At the most basic level, realism begins with the recognition that wars occur because there is no agency or central authority that can protect states from one another and stop them from fighting if they choose to do so. Given that war is always a possibility, states compete for power and sometimes use force to try to make themselves more secure or gain other advantages. There is no way states can know for certain what others may do in the future, which makes them reluctant to trust one another and encourages them to hedge against the possibility that another powerful state may try to harm them at some point down the road.
Liberalism sees world politics differently. Instead of seeing all great powers as facing more or less the same problem—the need to be secure in a world where war is always possible—liberalism maintains that what states do is driven mostly by their internal characteristics and the nature of the connections among them. It divides the world into “good states” (those that embody liberal values) and “bad states” (pretty much everyone else) and maintains that conflicts arise primarily from the aggressive impulses of autocrats, dictators, and other illiberal leaders. For liberals, the solution is to topple tyrants and spread democracy, markets, and institutions based on the belief that democracies don’t fight one another, especially when they are bound together by trade, investment, and an agreed-on set of rules.
Walt goes on to talk about how this theory caused the US-led NATO alliance to push eastward, taking advantage of Russia’s post-collapse weakness. Walt says that any realist could have told you that the idea that NATO would never invade Russia, so Moscow should relax, was never going to fly.
This view was naive in the extreme, for the key issue was not what NATO’s intentions may have been in reality. What really mattered, of course, was what Russia’s leaders thought they were or might be in the future. Even if Russian leaders could have been convinced that NATO had no malign intentions, they could never be sure this would always be the case.
Putin or no Putin, no Russian leader could allow Ukraine to join NATO, any more than any American leader could allow Mexico to join a defensive alliance formed out of opposition to American power. Every American president since James Monroe has upheld the so-called Monroe Doctrine, which claims the entire Western hemisphere as a zone of American influence. By what crackpot logic can we advance and defend that claim, but expect Russia, another great power, to acquiesce to Ukraine, a border state to Russia, joining NATO?
Walt makes it clear that Putin has been a bad actor in this drama, but that it is flat-out wrong, and dangerous, to heap all the blame for it on him. He adds that in 2008, President George W. Bush, whose crusading for liberal democracy in Iraq committed the US to a disastrous war, screwed up by floating the idea that Ukraine and Georgia could one day join NATO. More:
Realism explains why great powers tend to be extremely sensitive to the security environment in their immediate neighborhoods, but the liberal architects of enlargement simply could not grasp this. It was a monumental failure of empathy with profound strategic consequences.
… Putin is not solely responsible for the ongoing crisis over Ukraine, and moral outrage over his actions or character is not a strategy. Nor are more and tougher sanctions likely to cause him to surrender to Western demands. Unpleasant as it may be, the United States and its allies need to recognize that Ukraine’s geopolitical alignment is a vital interest for Russia—one it is willing to use force to defend—and this is not because Putin happens to be a ruthless autocrat with a nostalgic fondness for the old Soviet past. Great powers are never indifferent to the geostrategic forces arrayed on their borders, and Russia would care deeply about Ukraine’s political alignment even if someone else were in charge. U.S. and European unwillingness to accept this basic reality is a major reason the world is in this mess today.
Read it all. Walt explains how the Russians and the West might yet back down before the shooting starts (accepting Ukraine’s Finlandization, basically) — but it is becoming far less likely with each passing day.