In spite of histrionic Western rhetoric, the Ukraine war has been somewhat restrained—old-fashioned even. The Russians, after all, call it a special military operation. Government buildings remain intact in Kiev. In spite of hostilities, natural gas is still flowing from Russia to the rest of Europe and Ukraine, even as Ukrainian soldiers and European arms are aiming to destroy Russian forces.
In the view of political scientist Edward Luttwak, this all has a whiff of 18th-century limited war:
When it comes to the persistence of commerce in war—the habit that Napoleon wanted to break with his Blocus Continental against British exports—every day, Russian gas flows to the homes and factories of Ukraine on its way into Western Europe. Ukraine transfers money to Russia every day, even as Putin attacks his faithful customer. And Ukrainian wheat is now shipped past Russian navy vessels to reach the hungry Middle East, after a negotiation unthinkable in 20th-century wars, or in Napoleon’s either.
Europe tried to have it all in the beginning, providing arms and resources to Ukraine, seizing funds, and sanctioning individuals in Russia, while continuing to buy a large volume of Russian natural gas. Until this week, the scale of economic warfare had been substantial, but it was mostly a paper war, in which the sanctions and self-imposed boycotts avoided the most important stream of commerce: Russian natural gas lines.
An End to Limited War
This week, both of the undersea Russian natural pipelines that supply Germany—Nord Stream 1 and 2—apparently have been attacked. No one has claimed responsibility, but former Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski on Twitter thanked the United States. Our government was never particularly happy about either of these pipelines, nor Germany’s diffidence about reducing its use of them, and now they have been blown up.
If this was undertaken by the United States—and this string of analytical tweets is pretty persuasive—this is simply the latest in a series of escalations. These include the earlier provision of HIMARS systems and whatever intelligence support our forces provided to help the Ukrainians sink the Russian ship Slava, as well as the large presence of English-speaking western contractors in the recent Kharkov offensive.
Assuming this escalation is part of a strategy, there is some logic to it all. With American-rival Russia and the American “frenemy” of Western Europe constrained by the war, the United States is an intended winner, much as it was from World War II, where most of the fighting was done overseas. If Germany intended to reach a separate peace and trade deal with Russia over the winter, this is no longer an option.
While the United States is spending a lot of money, it is also creating conditions to enhance its status as the chief supplier of green energy and LNG infrastructure to Europe, enhancing their economic dependency on us. Unsurprisingly, the British Pound and the Euro have been falling precipitously in relation to the American dollar as the war has dragged on.
One deficiency of the American strategy is the (presumably) unintentional benefit to China, which now gets cheaper Russian energy and has a captive market for its exports. Similarly, our impact on Europe and Russia is raising the profile of would-be regional hegemons, Turkey and Iran, each of which have been able to put their domestic military industries on prominent display.
While most of these results may be the intention of decision-makers, as with much else the government does, there is a gap between their view and the objective interests of the people they govern. Does the average American really benefit from deepening our commitment to this war and encouraging Russian escalation? Do our European allies benefit from paying five times more for natural gas and electricity, because of sanctions and blown up pipelines?
The Vassalization of Western Europe
As a kid I loved military books. I distinctly remember one showing some U.S. Army troops in Germany during one of the annual REFORGER exercises. The Anti-American graffiti behind them said, “You defend us to death!” At the time, my jingoistic patriotism was offended. But now it makes more sense.
As its first secretary Lord Ismay famously observed, NATO’s purpose was to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” American dominance over the NATO alliance is now complete, to the point that leaders in Germany, France, and the U.K. are sacrificing their own people’s material interests to hurt Russia, and, when unwilling to do so, we do it for them.
It is hard to believe that German support for anti-Russian measures will persist through a winter of heating homes with candles and a massive decline in its manufacturing base, while Americans barely feel a dent.
Indeed, it is hard to see the persistence of an America-dominated NATO alliance after this war concludes, as the United States accrues almost all of the benefits, while most of the material deprivation is borne by its European members and most of the fighting is conducted by would-be member, Ukraine.
It is not certain that the United States took out the pipelines, but it appears likely. If it is true, under what principle of morality or international law could the United States deem a Russian response a provocation? What if Russia decided to take out a liquid natural gas facility, such as the one outside Boston, or sabotage one of our many military bases in Europe, or the Alaska pipeline for that matter?
It is worth remembering that the war has not touched our homeland or the American people, even though the United States and NATO are essentially running it, providing real time intelligence, massive amounts of arms and ammunition, and operational guidance to the Ukrainians.
Russian retaliation would be an act of war against us, no doubt, but so presumably is sabotaging natural gas pipelines and providing real time intelligence to sink a ship. We would cry foul and perceive ourselves as the victim. Painting it as another Pearl Harbor attack, our leadership class could rally an angry nation around the flag. But objectively speaking, it would be hard to distinguish the aggressor from the defender, and thus there is a high likelihood most of the rest of the world would declare neutrality, just as so many nations sat out the anti-Russian sanctions earlier in the year.
The elephant in the room, one occasionally hinted at by Russian saber rattling, is the prospect of nuclear war. For a long time avoiding nuclear war was a dominant consideration in our defense policy. Then, for 30 years, the chief concern was that nuclear weapons not fall into the hands of some extremist group of nonstate actors. Now, in a war that Russia considers existential, there are scenarios where nuclear weapons conceivably could be used, but the general public and the national security establishment seem to have forgotten the lessons of the Cold War and neglected to reacquaint themselves with the inherent risks of nuclear escalation.
As various Cold War wargames predicted, a likely opening act would be the Russian use of a tactical nuclear weapon to, for example, avert a massive battlefield loss. This would likely lead to some proportionate nuclear retaliation by the West. But then what? What safeguards and understandings prevent a massive exchange? How does one prevent the other side from perceiving a “proportionate response” as a potentially crippling first strike?
Numerous Cold War era games suggested limited nuclear war was impossible, and that it would always escalate to a full exchange of weapons. Making a virtue out of necessity, both sides accepted the logic of mutual assured destruction and avoided direct confrontation. All of this wisdom is now absent.
The Cold War was scary enough, and that’s when guys in short-sleeved white shirts with high IQs and wearing hipster glasses before they were cool were figuring things out at the RAND Corporation. Our foreign policy is now run by melodramatic theater majors and the half-educated products of the Ivy League. This creature, for example, is now responsible for preventing nuclear sabotage.
The problem is bigger than the leadership; one never hears intelligent discussions of nuclear strategy in the media or among citizens anymore. There is little basis for confidence that the crew in charge will not miscalculate.
What has happened to Ukraine is very unfortunate for its people, as well as the people in the Donbass, who have fought for their independence since 2014. But prolonging the war, creating conditions for the mass death of Ukrainian men, the mass scattering of Ukrainian women and children throughout the world, and completely destroying Ukraine’s economy has nothing to do with helping the country. Any such rhetoric is all a pretext, the contradictions of which are obvious. When this is over, and no matter what its borders are, Ukraine will be the Africa of Europe: impoverished, even more corrupt, and entirely dependent on foreign aid.
Western involvement in the Ukraine conflict serves a Machiavellian realpolitik concept concocted in the bowels of the Pentagon and the National Security Council. They hope to destroy a rival (Russia) and weaken a competitor (Europe). This approach depends on perfect predictions about things that are very hard to predict, such as when our pressure goes “too far” and may provoke nuclear retaliation.
This enterprise has almost nothing to do with the good of Ukraine, any moral principle, or the direct interests of the American people. Rather, this war is against the interests of Americans, because our country’s involvement in Ukraine is profoundly dangerous. It is critical that our elected leaders be stopped before they end up destroying our country and the world.