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Russian Into War

In an attempt to score partisan points, some House Republicans are making a terrible foreign policy error.

Over a dozen House Republicans recently signed a letter to President Joe Biden encouraging the president to take stronger military action to help Ukraine defend itself against the possibility of further Russian intervention. While the Biden administration has not gone as far as these House Republicans would like, which is essentially impossible given an election year is just around the corner, the foreign policy establishment continues to make miscalculations that could become more than costly in the event of further escalation with Russia.

In early November, Ukraine’s defense ministry said 90,000 Russian troops had amassed on the country’s eastern border. Russia has also stationed armored units, tanks, and self-propelled artillery along its border with Ukraine as well, satellite images showed. “Russia has periodically deployed and built up troops to maintain tensions in the region and exert political pressure on neighboring countries,” Ukraine’s defense ministry claimed.

After Ukraine’s defense ministry released those figures, Ukraine and Romania told members of Congress that the United States must step up its military commitments to counter Russian action in the region, namely, by having United States support for a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) force deployed to patrol the Black Sea like it does the Baltic Sea.

The letter signed by 15 Republicans in Congress called Russia’s buildup on Ukraine’s border a “matter of crucial importance,” and pressured the administration to “take immediate and swift action to provide support to Ukraine in the form of intelligence and weapons” and “deploy a U.S. military presence in the Black Sea to deter a Russian invasion.”

The Republican signatories wrote, “Russia’s behavior is becoming more aggressive, and it has intensified rhetoric critical of Ukraine on topics ranging from Ukraine’s military modernization and military partnerships to Ukraine’s admission into NATO. Although Russia’s intentions are uncertain, the presence of Russia’s elite 1st Guard Tanks Army lends credibility to concerns that Russia is planning additional incursions into Ukraine territory.”

The primary drafters of the letter, Reps. Mike Rogers and Mike Turner, were joined by other members such as Elise Stefanik, Mike Johnson, and Mike Waltz.

Turner attempted to justify the contents of the letter in an interview with Fox News’s Tucker Carlson last week. The interview did not reflect kindly on the position taken by Turner and his fellow signatories. Throughout the conversation, which spanned nearly ten minutes, Carlson—who was undoubtedly against the foreign policy vision set forth in the letter—repeatedly asked Turner why the average American family, specifically military families, should care about Ukraine enough to potentially sacrifice their sons and daughters in an armed conflict with Russia.

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In the beginning, Turner plainly stated Americans should care because of “the threat to the United States, and the threat to the United States allies.” However, as Carlson pressed the Congressman as to why defending “the territorial integrity of Ukraine” is a threat to the United States or its national interest, Turner launched into a stream of consciousness monologue. In one moment, Turner told Carlson Ukraine deserved America’s assistance because it is of “strategic import in the Black Sea,” in the next, he was claiming it was a necessity of great power competition with both Russia and China.

In the interview’s most telling exchange, Carlson asked Turner, “Why would we take Ukraine’s side, and not Russia’s side?… Who’s got the energy reserves? Who’s the major player in world affairs? Who’s the potential counterbalance against China, which is the actual threat?” To this, Turner responded,

Ukraine is a democracy. Russia is an authoritarian regime that is seeking to impose its will upon a validly elected democracy in Ukraine, and we’re on the side of democracy. That’s why people were chasing those planes in Afghanistan, and wouldn’t be chasing Russian ones. We’re for democracy, we’re for liberty. We’re not for authoritarian regimes coming in and changing borders by tanks. Russia isn’t showing up on the border with ballot boxes. They’re showing up on the border with tanks, and that’s why we need to make certain we’re on the side of democracy and give the aid that’s necessary.

Try as Turner might to explain why the United States should be intimately invested in the future of Ukraine with appeals to democracy or some rules-based international order, the simple explanation for Republicans’ renewed interest in Ukraine is typical, domestic partisanship. Republicans smell blood in the water as Biden’s approval ratings continue to flounder in the wake of the United States’ pullout from Afghanistan, and are seeking to project strength to create a stark contrast between Republican leadership and that of a weakened White House.

Some Republicans, just as keen, if not more so, to take back the majority come 2022 and make hay off of a hamstrung White House, aren’t supportive of their colleagues’ letter to the Biden administration regarding Ukraine.

“I strongly disagree with the notion that we should dispatch members of our military to the region,” Republican Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie told The American Conservative via email. “Ukraine is not in NATO and I don’t support adding it. If European countries are concerned about Russia’s presence they should provide the military counterbalance, not America. For better or worse, Europe’s energy policies have made them dependent on Russia, and this administration’s decision to reduce America’s role as a supplier in the global energy market has increased Russia’s relevance.”

While the letter’s signatories will likely continue to argue that the Biden administration has not gone far enough to deter Russia from further incursions into Ukraine, the Biden administration’s actions suggest the foreign policy uniparty is still very much at work in Washington, D.C.

During a meeting between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba on Wednesday of last week, Blinken said America’s commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity is “ironclad.”

“We’re concerned by reports of unusual Russian military activity near Ukraine,” Blinken said alongside Kuleba after the meeting. “Any escalatory or aggressive actions would be of grave concern to the United States.”

While the Biden administration has not yet taken measures that would fully please the Republican signatories of the letter, or the Ukrainians for that matter, it is quite the departure from the tenor of Biden’s September 1 meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Washington. The president’s remarks were forcefully scripted, and Biden seemed to be even sleepier than usual; but beyond his tone, the contents of his message were not as strong as the administration’s lines as of late. Of course, Biden delivered the standard platitudes about the United States’ alliance with Ukraine and the desire for the countries to continue working together in a variety of policy areas. Zelensky walked away from the meeting with an already  agreed upon $60 million in security assistance, but did not get Biden to move on two of his major priorities: increased opposition to the further construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline or further movement toward a NATO Membership Action Plan.

What seemed to be an appropriate pivot away from intense focus on Ukraine has been short lived, as Ukrainian sovereignty is yet again near the top of the Biden administration’s foreign policy priorities. Because of the buildup, CIA Director Bill Burns went to Moscow earlier this month, and spoke to Putin on the phone regarding the situation around Ukraine while there.

Some U.S. officials are even warning European allies that Russia is poised to possibly invade Ukraine; however, said European governments have reportedly not yet been provided with the United States’ intelligence that lead officials to suggest an invasion is on the table, which would likely have to occur before the U.S. and European allies could agree on an appropriate collective response. Dmitry Peskov told Bloomberg that this U.S. intelligence was “empty and unfounded efforts to exacerbate tensions.

This is far from the first time Russia has gathered large numbers of troops along its border with Ukraine. Tensions rose earlier this year in the spring when the United States and NATO allies claimed Russia had positioned 100,000 troops, as well as a number of tanks and warplanes, near its border with Ukraine. Those tensions died down after Biden spoke with Putin over the phone, and the two agreed to meet at a summit, which took place in June at a villa in Geneva, Switzerland.

Furthermore, the deterrent of NATO’s naval presence in the Black Sea, whether analyzed at its current level or at the level desired by the Republican authors of the letter, “depends on what the United States is prepared to do with them,” Anatol Lieven, a senior research fellow for the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, told TAC.

Thus far, NATO’s presence in the Black Sea “has been largely symbolic,” Lieven said.

However, even if the United States was mentally prepared to take drastic action against Russia with NATO forces in the Black Sea, it may be unable to do so, because “Turkey is not a reliable ally of the west anymore, and you can’t get ships into the Black Sea except by going through Turkey,” Lieven went on to say. “The idea that Turkey would allow NATO ships to make their way into the Black Sea in the event of war with Russia is, to put it mildly, a little bit optimistic.”

In the event NATO and the United States managed to get its ships through the Bosphorus strait, it would likely be all for nought, Lieven added. “You don’t deploy large scale NATO naval forces in an enclosed area of sea where the other side has air superiority. The whole thing is completely crazy in military terms.”

As Turner did in his interview with Carlson, the Republican signatories may try to deny that they want to see American troops deployed in Ukraine, or at least close enough to make a difference if Russia were to invade. But, just as Turner nodded along when Carlson said he “called for sending American troops to Ukraine” prior to his denial, when push comes to shove, these Republicans seem to believe sending soldiers to Ukraine should be an option on the table.

To make matters worse, it seems Russia hawks remain ambiguous on whether the purpose of U.S. security aid is protecting what’s left of what Ukraine believes to be its sovereign territory or recapturing what it has lost since 2014. No matter what someone thinks of the legality of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, or the legitimacy of the pro-Russian forces at work in the Donbas, Russia firmly believes it to be its own, and will counter attack as if there had been an assault on the Russian homeland.

“If America was planning to seriously prepare for a ground war with Russia, it would have to re-deploy tens or hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops to Europe with full air cover, and station them in European countries, which might very well not be willing to receive them,” Lieven told TAC. “In addition, this would mean either preparing to fight a war of two fronts simultaneously with China and Russia, because if the United States goes to war with Russia, there can be no doubt whatsoever that China would move to take Taiwan the next day, and the U.S. would have to either fight on two fronts, give up on one front, or lose on both fronts.”

Thus, the push for the United States to pursue a more aggressive course of action against Russia regarding Ukraine, or any of our allies in the region that we have some kind of mutual defense agreement with, is not only divorced from geopolitical reality, but is dangerous. Despite what some may say regarding our purported defense commitments to Ukraine, or Georgia, Romania, Bulgaria, or any of the other countries in the greater Black Sea region, the outbreak of an armed conflict would imperil the long-term stability and security of the other nations we’ve claimed to defend.

The Republicans behind this letter, in lockstep with the foreign policy establishment and the military industrial complex, are advocating for a military solution where political solutions abound.

“The biggest deterrent by far is the threat of greatly intensified sanctions,” Lieven said. “Russia is anxious about its Nord Stream pipeline to Germany. Clearly in the event of a new war with Ukraine, that simply stops and goes out the window, and there are many, many more things that the U.S. or Europe could do that could harm Russia very badly in terms of its economic well-being.”

On top of that, Russia has signaled it is willing to agree to a settlement similar to that agreed upon in the Minsk II agreement of 2015, in which Ukraine has territorial sovereignty over the Donbas but the Donbas retains its political autonomy guaranteed by an international peacekeeping force. While both Minsk agreements failed to completely end the war over the Donbas, they did reduce the amount of fighting for a time. However, Lieven told TAC it’s currently the Ukrainians, demanding the pro-Russian forces surrender control over the Donbas prior to establishing their political autonomy, who are holding up the possibility of political solutions. Encouraging Ukraine to move even further from the possibility of finding diplomatic solutions with Russia is one of the last things the United States should do.