Russia vs Ukraine, or, US Hyperpower (formerly) Over-Stretch (note UPPESTDATE)

(Caption for photo at top of the post: “U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov shake hands before their meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. ALEX BRANDON/Getty Images”.)

An American conservative’s realistic view of the realities–excerpts from a piece at the NY Times (note Canadian government tweets at “Comments”):

How to Retreat From Ukraine

By Ross Douthat

Opinion Columnist

…The United States in its days as a hyperpower made a series of moves to extend our perimeter of influence deep into Russia’s near-abroad. Some of those moves appear to be sustainable: The expansion of NATO to include countries of the former Warsaw Pact was itself a risk, but at the moment those commitments seem secure. But the attempt to draw Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit, the partway-open door to Ukrainians who preferred westward-focused alliances, was a foolish overcommitment even when American power was at its height [emphasis added].

…in geopolitics good intentions are always downstream from the realities of power. Whatever its desires or ours, the government in Ukraine has simply never been in a position to fully join the West — it’s too economically weak, too internally divided and simply in the wrong place. And the actions of the Bush and Obama administrations — and for all of Trump’s personal sympathies for Putin, some Trump administration acts as well — have left us overstretched, our soft-power embrace of Kyiv ill-equipped to handle hard-power countermoves from Moscow.

Given those realities, and the pressing need to concentrate American power in East Asia to counter China, it’s clear enough where an ideal retreat would end up: with NATO expansion permanently tabled, with Ukraine subject to inevitable Russian pressure but neither invaded nor annexed, and with our NATO allies shouldering more of the burden of maintaining a security perimeter in Eastern Europe.

But as with Afghanistan, the actual execution is harder than the theory. Coming to a stable understanding with Putin is challenging, because he’s clearly invested in being a permanent disrupter, taking any opportunity to humiliate the West. Extricating ourselves from our Ukrainian entanglements will inevitably instill doubts about our more important commitments elsewhere, doubts that will be greater the more Kyiv suffers from our retreat. And handing off more security responsibility to the Europeans has been an unmet goal of every recent U.S. president, with the particular problem that a key European power, Germany, often acts like a de facto ally of the Russians [emphasis added, note tweet at end of the post and see this post: “NATO, the EU and the US in the Not-So-Brave New World after Afghanistan (note UPDATE)“].

…my sense is that we are still placing too much weight on the idea that only NATO gets to say who is in NATO, that simply ruling out Ukrainian membership is somehow an impossible concession. This conceit is an anachronism, an artifact of the post-Cold War moment when it briefly seemed possible that, as the historian Adam Tooze puts it, the world’s crucial boundaries “would be drawn by the Western powers, the United States and the E.U., on their own terms and to suit their own strengths and preferences.”

That’s not how the world works now, and precisely because it’s not how the world works I would be somewhat relieved — as an American citizen, not just an observer of international politics — to see our leaders acknowledge as much, rather than holding out the idea that someday we might be obliged by treaty to risk a nuclear war over the Donbas.

And if we cannot give up the idea outright, the idea of giving it up for some extensive period — like the 25 years suggested by Thomas Graham and Rajan Menon in a recent Politico op-ed — seems like a very reasonable deal to make.

Something can be reasonable and still be painful — painful as an acknowledgment of Western weakness, painful to the hopes and ambitions of Ukrainians.

But accepting some pain for the sake of a more sustainable position is simply what happens when you’ve made a generation’s worth of poor decisions, and you’re trying to find a decent and dignified way to a necessary retreat [emphasis added–and when much of the world is viewing a United States seeming to fall apart internally].

And here’s the conclusion of a piece at Slate by Fred Kaplan:

…pressure will need to be placed on Ukraine. Blinken and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko have both said, in separate public forums, that enforcement of the Minsk Agreements could go a long way to reduce tensions. These agreements—signed by Russia and Ukraine in 2015 but ignored by both sides since—called for a ceasefire of the war between Ukraine and separatist militias in Donbas province, an exchange of prisoners, the disarmament of militias, but also free elections in Donbas, which could have an effect on Ukraine’s policies.

At some point, the issue of NATO’s further enlargement will have to be settled. It is crazy to trigger a war for the principle of a cause—Ukraine’s possible membership in NATO—that isn’t actually going to be enacted. There must be ways to defuse the dispute without surrendering the principle. NATO could issue a statement explaining the many reasons Ukraine is not eligible for membership today. Experts could be consulted on how long it would take for this to change. In tandem with these steps, Biden and other Western leaders should hold behind-the-scenes talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, offering a boatload of security assurances and economic goodies, in exchange for his withdrawing his request for NATO membership—on the condition that Russia withdraws its newly mobilized tanks and other weapons from the Ukrainian border.

Will this be easy? No. Diplomacy is hard, especially when the disputes and conflicts of interest are as complex and deep as they are here. Will everyone be satisfied with the outcome? No. Ukrainians would like the warm-blanket security of NATO’s Article 5 guarantees. Russians (not just Putin) would like the uncontested restoration of their “sphere of influence” to the west. They’re not going to get these things.

The questions on the board: Does Putin think it’s worth the risks of war to make a stab at getting what he wants, which, in some sense, he sees as the recovery of Russia’s destiny as a great power? Can Biden come up with enough compromises to steer Putin away from war without giving up too much? The next few months may be nerve-racking.

Plus two relevant tweets:



Time to wake up and smell both the coffee and the vodka.

UPDATE: This, towards the end of an article at the NY Times Magazine, does make one wonder:

…not a very inspiring speech, but it got at a fact about the war in Donbas that is often overlooked. It has split the country, yes, but it has also brought many Ukrainians together as never before. It has created a nation, you might say, or the beginnings [beginnings?] of one, where before there was only an uncertain former Soviet republic.

Especially in the context of this May 2021 post:

How many Ukrainian Nations? Or…

UPPERDATE: Here are some things about the origin of the current crisis that one almost never sees in our media–from an article at War on the Rocks by Michael Kofman:

Although the crisis has structural roots in the post-Cold War settlement, the proximate cause of this standoff is a series of political turns in 2020 and early 2021. After initially being open to dialogue, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s administration took a hard turn away from pursuing compromises with Moscow. Zelensky arrested Putin’s ally Viktor Medvedchuk and banned three pro-Russian television channels in the country. Putin has also railed against a discriminatory language law passed in 2019, which has just entered into force. Not only has Ukraine continued on a westward trajectory, but Zelensky has also chosen to take a hard line, and has begun to actively eliminate Russian influence in Ukraine. This turnabout dashed any hopes that Russia had of achieving a desirable political settlement and removed a path for Russia to get out from under Western sanctions. Russian officials have publicly made clear that they see no further point to negotiating with Zelensky, viewing his administration as a marionette of the United States, and have instead approached his patron — Washington.

We’re not exactly getting a full picture.

UPPESTDATE: Consider Russian specialist George Kennan, the renowned American diplomat and historian-the conclusion of a piece at The Hill:

What would George Kennan say about Ukraine?

Writing in 1997 at age 92, he declared that expanding NATO to the east “ would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.”

“Such a decision,” he went on, “may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations.”

Were he with us today, Kennan would undoubtedly say “I told you so.”

Beyond UPPESTDATE–good piece on realism and it failings (which I have shared), well worth the read:

Mark Collins

Twitter: @mark3ds

14 thoughts on “Russia vs Ukraine, or, US Hyperpower (formerly) Over-Stretch (note UPPESTDATE)”

  1. Heaven help Canada with a government like this:

    Mark Collins


  2. Meanwhile on the ground:

    Mark Collins


  3. Interesting post by Talleyrand:

    and the cycles of who-whom…

    There is a problem with the received wisdom on a diplomatic resolution to the Ukraine crisis now apparently underway because there is more to NATO’s insistence that every country has the right to choose its relationships than a rhetorical commitment to national sovereignty and independence.

    The wise men and women say there is an important distinction between that right and the necessity of the Alliance to honour it by offering membership. Thus NATO ought to have little difficulty with upholding the rights of self-determination in principle and at the same time giving some sort of formal assurance to Russia that Ukrainian membership in NATO will not occur in 10 or 20 years, or maybe never, so long as Russia agrees to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence.

    To ‘neutralise’ Ukraine in this manner makes obvious sense. But it would go against the central premise of NATO enlargement since the end of the Cold War. That premise was clearly stated by Bill Clinton, who, when asked why the alliance was admitting new members from the former Warsaw Pact, said it was because they wanted to join.

    Never mind who ‘they’ were – cynics have said they included co-ethnics in the American ‘swing states’; the important point for today is that NATO must repudiate this premise in any compromise over Ukraine’s status. That is, NATO must admit that enlargement undertaken mainly as an expression of the preferences of aspirants is, and therefore was, a mistake.

    Talleyrand recalls hearing a Russian general say that he was fine with the Poles entering NATO because Poland has never joined a military alliance that didn’t subsequently collapse. Well, NATO hasn’t collapsed but still can’t decide whether it is a military alliance or something else more benign. Its rhetoric during the last 30 years suggests the latter; its actions, the former.

    The Russians must understand that what they are demanding of NATO is nothing less than calling into question its basic role in European security and denouncing its own historical record as flawed, illegitimate, and hypocritical. If they really want NATO to do all those things, they will need to do much more than engage in a bit of exhibitionism on their side of the Ukrainian border.

    By Talleyrand · Launched a year ago
    Commentary on Diplomacy and World Affairs

    Mark Collins


  4. Horrors! Ukrainian Pres. Zelensky not falling in line with the US foreign policy Blob’s party line vs Russia:

    Mark Collins


  5. Some room for diplomacy on arms control, transparency–but no give on Ukraine’s being able (in theory, what a ditch of principle to die on):

    Mark Collins


  6. Interesting:

    Mark Collins


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