(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”):
By Ross Douthat
…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].
…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:
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:
…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: