The first anniversary of Russian’s invasion of Ukraine has come and gone, and the uncertainty about how that conflict will be resolved remains, despite the West’s cheerleading and photo-ops with Zelensky, and billions in cash and materiel sent to Ukraine. Meanwhile, China is “strongly considering” supporting Russia with arms and ammo, Iran keeps sending Russia drones, and American support for aid to Ukraine is starting to dwindle.
The way out of this stalemate, moreover, requires choices none of which are politically palatable or possible. So here we are again, with our idealistic foreign policy reach exceeding our political will and materiel grasp.
The origins of this predicament in part lie in the still uncertain justifications for spending billions of dollars and depleting our own stockpiles of materiel. The Asia Times’s David Goldman recently posed the still unanswered questions about our reasons and intentions:
“In furtherance of what strategic interests has the United States acted in Ukraine? Is Ukraine’s NATO membership an American raison d’état? Did American strategists really believe that sanctions would shut down Russia’s economy? Did they imagine that the trading patterns of the Asian continent would shift to flow around the sanctions? Did they consider the materiel requirements of a long war that is exhausting American stockpiles? Did they consider what tripwires might elicit the use of nuclear weapons? Or did they sleepwalk into the conflict, as the European powers did in 1914?”
Answers from supporters of our intervention have remained vague. The stock response is that we must protect the “rule-based international order,” and if we appease Putin on Ukraine, Europe’s NATO bulwark against Russia, and the global economy’s security will be compromised, with a serious risk to our security and interests already being challenged by Russia, China, and Iran, the new triumvirate of autocrats eager to supplant the U.S. and its NATO allies as the global hegemon.
But this rationale raises even more questions. First, if Russia poses such an obviously dire threat, why didn’t NATO nations act sooner, before Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine? We’ve known for years about Putin’s dissatisfaction with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which in 2005 he called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” and his ambitions to restore Russian hegemony in the Eastern European borderlands.
Indeed, in July of 2021, after Russia started deploying its invasion force to Ukraine’s border, Putin promulgated an essay justifying the forthcoming aggression. According to Maria Damanska’s analysis for the Center for Eastern Studies,
“The content of the article, which focuses on analysing the history of Russian-Ukrainian relations, is dominated by the claim that Ukrainians are an ancient, inseparable part of the ‘triune Russian nation’. This community is based on a common history spanning one thousand years, the language, the ‘Russian’ ethnic identity, the shared cultural sphere and the Orthodox religion. Their bond with the Russian state is special and organic; it guarantees Ukraine’s development, and any attempts to sever or weaken this bond (which could only be inspired by external actors) will inevitably result in the collapse of Ukrainian statehood.”
In other words, Putin has made his intentions as clear as Hitler in 1925 made his in Mein Kampf. But just as the British foreign policy establishment dismissed Hitler’s revanchist ambitions, apparently NATO nations didn’t take Putin seriously, despite the ongoing deployment of forces months before the invasion. Yes, international bluster slowed Putin down, but in October the deployments were restarted.
As John Bolton recently wrote in the Daily Telegraph, instead,
“The West stood idly by when Russian forces intervened in Donbas and seized Crimea; imposed only perfunctory sanctions thereafter; negotiated the embarrassing, Moscow-leaning Minsk Agreements; and for years did precious little to provide anything close to satisfactory levels of military assistance and training to Ukrainian forces.”
The fact is, the NATO nations, by their failure to take preemptive action, have signaled not just their failure of nerve, but also that defending the “rules-based international order” is merely an advertisement for Davoisie globalism.
Similarly, if the Biden administration was so worried about Russia’s malign intentions––which Putin had already made clear with his territorial grabs in 2008 in South Ossetia, and in 2014 with similar seizures in Crimea and eastern Ukraine––why wasn’t it concerned about strengthening our deterrent prestige? Instead, in 2021, the Biden administration fecklessly withdrew from Afghanistan, leaving behind stranded Americans and Afghan allies, 13 dead American troops, billions in materiel, and Bagram air base.
That abandonment of an ally, along with Biden’s announcing to the world at the start of the invasion that no American troops would support Ukraine, projected a perception that Putin would not have to face a serious NATO response with forces much larger and better equipped than Ukraine’s, which still have made Putin’s invasion a tough slog costly in lives and materiel.
Nor did Biden help with his veiled threat in March 2021 that Putin “cannot remain in power,” a provocative (and toothless) ukase that validated Putin’s claimed that regime-change is NATO’s primary objective, and so his invasion was defensive. And why does Biden keep saying that the U.S. will support Ukraine for “as long as it takes,” a blustering promise hostage to political change and unforeseen events?
Next, if defending the “rules-based international order” was such a priority, and Putin was such an obvious threat to its integrity, why didn’t NATO countries––which include five of the world’s richest nations––spend more money on creating militaries capable of doing so? Only a handful have met the modest 2% of GDP on military spending requirement, a goal that should be a floor, not a ceiling. The U.S. is barely making the cut, currently spending 3%, which is projected to decline going forward.
And despite the big promises made about defense spending once Russia invaded, NATO countries, including the second richest, Germany, have doled out weapons to Ukraine piece-meal, and still refuse to send tactical missile systems and fighter-jets to Ukraine.
As usual, the U.S. is contributing more to Ukraine than all the other NATO countries combined. This makes all the claims of NATO’s “turning point,” as Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz called it, away from quasi pacifism to military vigor, mere public-relations rhetoric. As John Bolton asked, “Does anyone think for a second that if the U.S. had washed its hands of Ukraine a year ago, the other NATO members would have leapt to defend it? Germans would now be clinking champagne glasses in the Kremlin in celebration of some new pipeline deal.”
Then there’s the rationale that if Putin’s aggression is not stopped, and if Ukraine is defeated, Russia would be positioned to expand its adventurism to European NATO countries that comprise the defenders and financers of the “rule-based international order.” So why, then, did NATO appease Putin’s territory grabs in 2008 and 2014, and why such limited and dilatory support for the current proxy-war being fought by Europeans on the cheap?
Finally, the persistence of moralizing internationalism, emphasis on multinational institutions, transnational treaties, and diplomacy substituting for lethal force explains all those failures to anticipate future threats and prepare for them. Instead, we rely on stern public statements and “parchment barriers”––like the New Start, serially violated nuclear arms limitation treaty that Putin just “suspended”–– instead of preparing a military that could back up all our big talk about the “new world order” whose managers seems to think that human nature has outgrown its national interests and irrational passions.
More immediately, we need a more forthcoming and cogent argument from the Biden administration and other Ukraine supporters. As the Wall Street Journal’s Gerard Baker wrote recently,
“The president needs to explain urgently to his fellow citizens how exactly the arms and money spigot for Ukraine isn’t draining the country’s military capabilities and its reservoir of strategic capacity for the long twilight struggle with China.”
As I said, support among voters for continuing our aid to Ukraine is starting to lessen, with AP reporting 48% approving, down from 60% a year ago, and only 37% in favor of direct cash-payments. It’s not hard to see why. Our economy is still hurting, national debt is rising, and Social Security and Medicare are facing insolvency. Meanwhile, China’s adventurism, such as sending with impunity a spy balloon across the country over our ICMB silos, and its massive spending on its military is an obvious a security threat.
Meanwhile, our military spending is projected to drop below the already stingy 3%. All these challenges are making many citizens question the wisdom of sending billions of dollars and expensive materiel to a faraway country about which many Americans know little.
Most important, we must accept that the foreign policy idealism we endorsed after the collapse of the Soviet Union is in need of some realism about human nature and motivation. “For,” as Thomas Hobbes put it,
“the laws of nature, as justice, equity, modesty, mercy, and, in sum, doing to others as we would be done to, of themselves, without the terror of some power to cause them to be observed, are contrary to our natural passions, that carry us to partiality, pride, revenge, and the like. And covenants, without the sword, are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.”
It’s time to accept that our vacation from history was over 20 years ago, and we need to get back to work strengthening our country’s security.