Missing Angelo Codevilla’s Counsel on Russia and Ukraine

Especially as we get older we feel the loss of friends and mentors who have contributed to our virtues and happiness. But a sudden memory will make it seem as though they were alive again. And in Angelo Codevilla’s case, as fierce as ever.

I had that feeling when I perused an advance copy of Codevilla’s last, posthumously published book, America’s Rise and Fall among Nations. His analysis of Russia and the Ukraine far surpasses what we have been hearing this past week. Even when it seems he’s in error, he recoups with insights that keep us marveling. 

The American Mind has published his entire sections on Russia and America and notes the study was commissioned by the Department of Defense’s legendary Office of Net Assessment back in the Trump Administration. Codevilla produced what became this 250-page book, based on his study of John Quincy Adams. 

Below are his portions that bring out the specific significance of Ukraine for Russian foreign and domestic policy. I reproduce it here in the interest of non-specialists for appreciating the difference between international relations scholarship and mere pontificating .

Russia’s Reconquista

I have transferred the two opening paragraphs of this section to the end of this selection, in order to permit the reader to plunge directly into the Ukraine question . . .

As always, Ukraine is where Russia’s domestic and foreign policy intersect. With Ukraine (and the Baltic states), Russia is potentially a world power. Without it, much less. Post–Soviet Russia’s horizons have shrunk because the twentieth century’s events forever severed Ukraine’s and the Baltic states’ peoples from Russia. Even Belarus has become less compatible with Russia. Modern Russia is reluctantly recognizing Belarus’s independence, even as the Soviet Union, at the height of its power, effectively recognized Finland’s.

In sum, post-Soviet Russia is a major European power, exposed to events in the Far East that it cannot control.

This Russia has no sane alternative than to live within that reality. Russian writing on international affairs focuses exclusively on the country’s role as a member of the European state system. By the 2030s, if not sooner, the Russian government will have filled such space and established such influence as comport with its own people’s and its neighbors’ realities, and will be occupied keeping it. Its conquest of Ukraine east of the Don signifies much less the acquisition of a base for further conquest than the achievement of modern Russia’s natural territorial limit in Europe.

As the Russian Federation’s own demographic weight shifts southeastward and Islamism continues to gain favor there, the Russian government will have to consider whether to keep the Muslim regions within the Federation or to expel them and build fences against them. As in decades past, post-Soviet Russia will have to work harder and harder to cut the sort of figure in Europe that it did under the tsars.

Russia has always been a Western country by virtue of its Christianity. Indeed, it has believed itself “The Third Rome,” and has acted as protector of Eurasia’s Christians against Islam. Today’s demographic and economic weakness has made it more Western than ever. No sooner had the USSR died than Russia restored the name Saint Petersburg to Peter the Great’s “window on the West.” As Moscow rebuilt its massive Christ the Savior cathedral to original specifications, it let countless priorities languish. As the Russian Orthodox Church resumed its place as a pillar of the Russia that had been Christianity’s bastion against the Mongol Horde as well as the Muslim Ottomans, golden domes soon shone throughout the land. Whatever anyone might think of the Russian Orthodox Church, it anchors the country to its Christian roots. Even under Soviet rule, Russians had gone out of their way to outdo the West in Western cultural matters. To call someone nekulturny (uncultured) was and remains a heavy insult in Russia.

[John Quincy] Adams knew from personal experience, and would remind us, that Russia’s Westernism is not and never was imitation or love of the West. Rather, it is the assertion that Russia is an indispensable part of it. The Russians saved Europe from Napoleon. They are proud of having saved it from Hitler too. Their having done the latter tyrannically, as Soviets, does not, in their minds disqualify them from their rightful place in Europe or justify Europeans, much less Americans, trying to limit Russia’s rightful stature. Adams would recognize that today’s Russian rulers are not gentler or nicer than the emperor who shook off the Mongol yoke—who was not known as “Ivan the Nice Guy.” Today’s Russians, like their forebears, are calculating Russia’s stature in terms of the limits—primarily in Europe—set by their own present power as well as by that of their immediate neighbors. Today’s Russia is all about working the edges of limits it knows too well.

This Russia is no more willing to conquer Europe than it is able. Willingness and ability had stemmed from the communist political apparatus that ruled the USSR and projected itself throughout the world. Sister communist parties and front groups made significant portions of foreign countries—especially European ones—positively eager for Soviet domination. The Soviet armed forces, already in control of Eastern and Central Europe, were well equipped to take, if not to hold, the rest. Now, the political infrastructure—the Party that decided things in Moscow and the communist-friendly apparatus in Europe—is gone. Nobody in the West envies Russia. Russian influence in Europe now stems from Europe’s reliance on Russian natural gas and from the opportunities for corruption that this entails.

Nor do Europeans fear Russia enough to reduce their reliance on Russian gas. In addition, West European diplomats lobby Americans consistently against America’s imposition of sanctions on Russia for its seizure of Crimea and the Donbass. This is not the case with Poland and the Baltic states, and of course Ukraine, who view enmity between the U.S. and Russia as some kind of insurance for their own independence. But America cannot possibly guarantee it.

Russia’s armed forces, for their part, are now configured for area-denial rather than for projection of power. The Russian military establishment, unlike that of the tsars and of the Soviets, emphasizes technology to economize manpower that, for the first time, is scarce and precious in Russia. Russia’s reliance on nuclear weapons recalls nothing so much as the 1950s Eisenhower doctrine of “more bang for the buck.”

The Russian military’s prospective areas of operation are, not incidentally, the ones where the U.S. military envisions conflict: the area around the Niemen river on the borders between Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Russia; and the area north of Crimea. Both are places where Russian armies have won historic victories. Though Russia’s military posture has ever been and remains strategically defensive, its operational doctrine since World War II calls for taking the initiative in a preemptive, massive, decisive manner. In these prospective conflicts, the Russians would use the S-400 air/missile defense system to isolate U.S./NATO forces by air, as well as strikes (or threat thereof) by the nuclear-capable Iskander missile to cut them off on the ground. Their ground forces, led by Armata tanks, the world’s best, would then press to make them prisoners. 

Russia is confident that it can safely conduct military operations on its borders, even with nukes, because it possesses missile and anti-missile weapons superior in number and quality to those of America and China combined. As regards strategic offense, suffice it to say that the 2011 START treaty’s aggregate limits of “800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments” refer to “launchers.” In Russia, these are mobile, invulnerable platforms, which almost certainly contain a larger but unknown number of missiles.

On the defensive side—beyond the sixty-eight underground-reloadable launchers protecting Moscow—Russia’s strategic defenses rest on the connection between its peripheral radars and some three hundred of the S-400 systems (to be replaced by S-500s beginning in 2021) deployed near every population center and other important points throughout Russia. Unlike U.S. systems like Patriot, Aegis, and THAAD, the S-400s are programmed and launched before they come into view of the local radars, on data provided by the early warning radars. They carry nuclear warheads to minimize the need for extreme accuracy. In short, Russia has a viable missile defense. Russia’s nuclear submarines are deployed in defensive positions for denial of naval access to Russia itself, as well as to the deployment areas of Russian ballistic missile subs on the edges of the Arctic ice cap. The U.S. military has no way of dealing with this.

Russia’s 2015-18 intervention in Syria, and its adroit management of Turkey, achieved the tsars’ historic desire for a warm water port. But while its hold on its Mediterranean naval and air bases is firm, keeping Turkey friendly to Russia must ever be troublesome. Absent a securely friendly Turkey, Russia’s renewed control of the Crimea, and even the Mediterranean bases, will be of limited worth. Whatever else might be said of Russia’s role in the Middle East, Adams would acknowledge that Russia has brought more stable balance to local forces than ever in this young century. Along with most Americans Adams would not envy Russia’s new responsibilities for the region.

Was Codevilla wildly wrong? “Russia has brought more stable balance to local forces than ever in this young century.” Add to this his assessment of the soundness of the Russian economy. Here are his first two paragraphs on Putin and his grand achievements and his awareness of Russia’s shortcomings:

In this century, Vladimir Putin rebuilt the Russian state into a major European power with worldwide influence. Poverty and a resource-based economy notwithstanding, the Russian state is on a sounder financial basis than any in the West. The country is under a firm, united leadership appreciated by the vast majority, whose national pride and solidarity dwarf those of Western publics. Nearly all Russians approve strongly of the absorption of Crimea. Russia effectively controls Ukraine’s eastern end and has exposed the West’s incapacity to interfere militarily in the former Soviet Empire.

Vladimir Putin famously said that the USSR’s demise had been a tragedy. But no one suspects that he would re-create it if he could. Certainly, he wants to re-create the empire of the tsars. But to what extent? He certainly has expanded Russia’s influence beyond what it had been in about 1995, encountering little opposition. More than most, Putin is painfully aware of Russia’s limits. What then are his—and what can be any modern Russian leader’s—national objectives?

Did Codevilla miss the extent of Putin’s ambition? He could have gotten eastern Ukraine peacefully, as Hitler succeeded in Central Europe—and then proceeded piecemeal to take and carve up the rest violently. Is the Putin we have seen in the last week “painfully aware of Russia’s limits”? Is it true now that “no one suspects that [Putin] would re-create [the Soviet Union] if he could”?

Codevilla’s argument is not finished here: A page later he concludes, “Ukraine is the greatest practical limitation on Russia’s ambitions. Its independence is very much a U.S. interest, but it is beyond our capacity to secure.”

The Ukraine his John Quincy Adams would seek to secure could not be a threat to Russia—as NATO membership for Ukraine would mean if granted.

Adams would not hide the fact that U.S. policy, implemented by ordinary diplomacy, is to foster the Baltic States’, and especially Ukraine’s, independence. But he would know and sincerely convey to Russia that their independence depends on themselves, and that he regards it as counterproductive to try making them into American pawns or even to give the impression that they may be. He would trust in a Ukraine that had stopped longing for the borders that Stalin had fixed for it in 1927 and Khrushchev augmented in 1954, in a Ukraine retrenching into its Western identity (as, for example, by asserting its Orthodox church’s independence from Russia’s), and that is standing firmly on its own feet. He would trust in Russia’s actual acceptance of its inability ever again to control this Ukraine. This would be Adams’s Ukraine policy.

Furthermore, Adams, foregoing “fruitless strife,” would have removed the sanctions that followed Russia’s seizure of Crimea and the Donbass. He would also have urged Russia to cease “support of anti-U.S. regimes in the Western Hemisphere. If you want economic peace with America, he would say, stop interfering in our backyard. We Americans, for our part, are perfectly willing to reciprocate, regarding your backyard.

In sum, nothing would be geopolitically clearer to Adams than that natural policy for both America and Russia is not to go looking for opportunities to get in each other’s way.”

But Putin evidently felt that America, even one headed by Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, would continually get in Russia’s way. He didn’t count on Germany reacting with Stingers and other weapons, not just helmets. In this view, Putin is principally a European problem, and now a temporarily united Europe needs to take the lead in dealing with him. They may yet be able to restore Codevilla’s reasonable Putin who knew his limits, but the thousands of civilian dead will exact a fearful reckoning.

Come to life in these words, Angelo Codevilla has brought us to see how we got to this dreadful point, in just 16 pages of this remarkable book.

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About Ken Masugi

Ken Masugi, Ph.D., is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. He has been a speechwriter for two cabinet members, and a special assistant for Clarence Thomas when he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Masugi is co-author, editor, or co-editor of 10 books on American politics. He has taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he was Olin Distinguished Visiting Professor; James Madison College of Michigan State University; the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University; and Princeton University.

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