I admit, I was surprised by Russia’s attack on Ukraine. I thought Vladimir Putin had decided, instead of invading, to recognize the separatist republics and send in “peacekeepers.” Given the binary choice of invading or losing face, Plan C seemed the most clever, something similar to the limited “hybrid” campaign in Crimea. Instead, he has launched a massive, multipronged attack on Ukraine with the goal of “demilitarizing” the country.
The best analogy is the Russian attack on Georgia in response to its attack on the separatist province of South Ossetia in 2008. There, Russia surprised the West with its swift, decisive, and effective action against the pro-Western Georgians. Russia succeeded in its aims to degrade Georgia’s military and strengthen the separatists. These actions sent a message to Georgian leaders and its neighbors that a dalliance with the West may come at a high cost if Russia perceives it as a threat.
A war of some kind has been going on for eight years in Ukraine. While the West is now hyper-focused on the Russian invasion and its costs, the people of Donetsk have been shelled nearly every day by Ukrainian forces since 2014. And the so-called Revolution of Dignity was the culmination of a months-long violent riot in Kiev.
As Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman described the matter, the war began eight years ago, and Russia is ending it.
Towards a Foreign Policy of Restraint
How should Americans feel about this? How should our country respond? This is a complicated question. Generally, aggressive war and invasions are something the world should not endorse. Similarly, the use of military action to change borders is generally destabilizing to everyone, and thus undesirable. While I am skeptical of the requirement that all military action requires U.N. approval—a principle we have violated in Panama and later through NATO action in Serbia and Kosovo—I am not in favor of creating general conditions in which all nations must go rogue.
Any viable set of rules must not deviate too greatly from the reality of how the world works, and that reality means large and powerful nations will use military force when it is in their interest, particularly against weaker rivals. To prevent such conflicts, the stronger nation’s core interests must be accommodated.
Lost in all of the rhetoric about Russian aggression is that no one is really consistent on the legitimacy of separatist movements. The United States supports them in some instances, and opposes them in others, as do the Russians. Russia remembers, but most Americans hardly noticed, that in 2008 we recognized the independence of Kosovo, a breakaway province of Russia’s ally, Serbia. Similarly, Americans have mostly forgotten that we intervened with a 78 day bombing campaign to support Kosovo separatists in 1999, a move which Russia condemned, but had little power to do much about at the time.
The United States is not alone in its inconsistent treatment of separatist movements. Russia supports the separatists of eastern Ukraine, while opposing those in Chechnya. In truth, most separatist movements have some basis in legitimate grievances, and these grievances are frequently offset by legitimate concerns of the larger nations which aim to stop their own dismemberment.
It is, of course, hard to come up with firm legal or moral principles in foreign policy. There are many possible disputes between and within nations, and historically many of these have been resolved by force. Only the passage of time eventually gives these new realities de jure status. Everyone’s claimed moral principles of international relations—whether on the legitimacy of military action or the question of separatism—is mostly a cover for realpolitik concerns.
Sovereignty, Great and Small
The “rules-based international order,” Pax Americana, and other chestnuts of the foreign policy establishment do not really stand up to scrutiny. Not all sovereignty is created equal. Smaller and weaker nations naturally reside in the orbit of their stronger neighbors and need to come to some modus vivendi with them. Certainly, the United States would not be sanguine about Russia or China fomenting instability within Mexico. Spheres of influence are a fact of life.
Under these conditions, some recognition of core interests is in order, and this can form the basis for negotiations. Russia obviously and justifiably does not want NATO and nuclear weapons on its doorstep, any more than the United States wants such in the Western Hemisphere. As the world’s largest nuclear power and one of the largest conventional powers, it has some say in the outcome, whether we like it or not.
We have used Ukraine to foil Russia, but that’s been neither in the Ukrainians’ interest nor even our own. A deliberate policy of neutrality by Ukraine would probably have been preferable and more acceptable to everyone involved. America’s support of the earlier Maidan protests was needlessly provocative, providing arms and military assistance in their war against Ukraine’s Russian-speaking East was more provocative still. The end result was not greater security for Ukraine, but instead a series of increasingly risky maneuvers, culminating in the West’s abandonment of Ukraine when the gamble ended up snake eyes.
While some are now repeating pavlovian formulae about Munich and Biden’s weaknesses, there were alternatives. If not the epitome of strength, these measures would have demonstrated wisdom. We could have pushed Ukraine to return to the framework of the Minsk protocol, which offered a face-saving way out for all sides, and the prospects of peace. Instead, we have encouraged intransigence, and their new president Volodymyr Zelensky embraced such intransigence. We did this even though we would not commit our own military forces, and even though Ukraine did not have the military power to turn its nationalist dreams into reality.
No Need to Meddle in European Power Politics
Europe, lacking natural borders and frontiers, has long been the realm of balance-of-power politics and frequent wars. This is why our first president, George Washington, counseled us to stay out of its squabbles, as we were protected by two oceans. We later acquired the additional advantage of a nuclear umbrella. When the Soviet Union threatened domination of the entire European continent and also the globe, NATO and our involvement made sense, just as our involvement made sense earlier when Hitler similarly threatened to become a continental hegemon.
In contrast, right now, Russia is merely threatening to dominate its near-abroad and is taking sides in a war of secession. This is no more a Munich moment than Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974 or Croatia’s invasion of Krajina in 1995. We need to maintain an appropriate sense of proportion.
America should reduce its role in NATO for everyone’s benefit, as this would encourage Europe to do more to stand up for its own security. Given that Europe is far more affected by Russia’s relative power than we are, this makes sense. We only remain in NATO and have involved ourselves in the current Ukraine mess because of our quixotic goal of remaining the sole superpower, which is rather ironically making us weaker.
Americans are not buying the sales pitch this time. After a decade of spreading democracy in the Middle East with very meager results, and, in some cases, empowering greater evils, Americans are not interested in war generally. When the opponent is a nuclear power where a mistake could lead to a global holocaust, they are even more wary of getting involved. Vague talk of “our values” and “trust” will not cut it after the deep state’s long record of domestic and international malfeasance.
The current conflict between Russia and Ukraine is tragic and regrettable. These “fraternal nations” have a long and shared history together, which predates and overshadows recent events. One hopes their mutual Christian faith, their common ancestry and origins, and their shared suffering during World War II leads them to the negotiating table and ultimately to a mutually acceptable coexistence. In all of these steps, American involvement would only function as an additional obstacle to peace.