“It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and we end up having to fight about what to do and not to do.” In Wednesday’s press conference, President Joe Biden did not, as the headlines have it, send a “mixed message.” Instead, what he did was to make a plainspoken confession of the confusion in the West’s strategy towards the former Soviet satellite states and republics that were freed at the end of the Cold War. Squabbling about “what to do and what not to do” has been the hallmark of American and European government policies in the face of Russian invasions of Georgia in 2008, the Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014, computer network attacks in Estonia and other Baltic states from 2007 onward, and military moves into Belarus and, most recently, Kazakhstan, while periodically riding to the rescue of wobbly autocrats like al-Assad in Syria and Maduro in Venezuela.
The foregoing list does not even include Vladimir Putin’s lesser provocations, from assassinations carried out in the West to relentless propaganda and political warfare in the East and, indeed, globally.
Against this backdrop, and noting the fact that the Russians have moved some 100,000 troops to the front lines of Ukraine’s northern, southern, and eastern borders and kept them there for months, thus creating the likelihood of a converging three-pronged campaign, Biden “guessed” in his press conference that Putin “will move in. He has to do something.”
Biden’s dry and detached observations, along with his assertion that U.S. military forces would not become engaged in the likely conflict—and that the Administration continues to support, despite congressional opposition, Russia’s massive Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would render Germany and much of northern Europe dependent on Russian natural gas—makes it increasingly hard to credit his simultaneous threat that there will be “massive consequences” if Russia renews its invasion of Ukraine or makes any other move to reestablish a Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe or the Middle East.
The two types of “massive consequences” most commonly threatened, economic sanctions and military aid to Ukraine, are more minimal than massive. The Biden Administration has offered Kyiv a meager $200 million in additional arms. More, both the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and, as some reports have it, restrictions on the international banking system, SWIFT, are off the pre-invasion table. Thus, the range of economic tools available wouldn’t be much of a deterrent to Putin, even if the White House could secure European cooperation in these efforts.
But Putin’s greatest advantage in the larger contest with America and the West is that he has a strategy and we do not.
In 2005 the Russian leader lamented that the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century” was the collapse of the Soviet Union, meaning not the Soviet socialist state but, as he reiterated late last year, “historical Russia,” the empire of the Tsars. “[W]hat had been built up over 1,000 years,” he said, “was largely lost.” But rebuilding a Russian empire would be merely the external manifestation of Putin’s internal drive, which will not be soon or easily satisfied. Putin’s recent demands, which would roll NATO back to its 1997 defense posture, are not peace offerings but surrender terms. Whatever the immediate outcome in Ukraine, they remain his unchanging strategic goals.
In contrast, the United States and its European allies have acted the very model of satiated powers since 1991, kicking back in history’s recliner. Indeed, we have not merely been contented with the post-Cold War state of affairs but come to believe that they were a deus ex machina, a predestined turn of history’s wheel rather than the product of years of effort and, in particular, of the exercise of American power. To paraphrase President Obama paraphrasing Martin Luther King, Jr. paraphrasing 19th-century Transcendentalist David Parker, the “arc of history” is described as bending, almost of its own accord, “toward justice.” The post-Soviet “Peace of Europe” was assumed to be inevitable and self-sustaining.
This belief all but foreclosed the chance that there would be strategic thinking or even a realistic assessment of the true state of the European balance of power. Two failings were especially critical: the feckless nature of NATO’s expansion and its indulgence of Germany’s yearning to drift away from the global—and Anglo-American—geopolitical mindset and return to a Mitteleuropa posture.
The Ukraine crisis has created a reckoning for both kinds of heedlessness.
Power abhors a vacuum; and the liberated lands of Eastern Europe, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, are the source of the giant sucking sound that the West has been hearing since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The policy of the United States and NATO to extend alliance guarantees in halting, piecemeal fashion, without regard to strategy or even geography—and, even more critical, without a congruent military posture—has created the vulnerabilities that so delight Vladimir Putin. These vulnerabilities are particularly pronounced in southeastern Europe and along the Black Sea; so, it should come as no surprise that, along with Russia’s eternal fixation on access to the Mediterranean, this region has seen a major line of Russian effort over recent decades.
The West’s failure to consolidate the transatlantic “Eastern Front” is further complicated by its failure to secure the now-unified Germany as a liberal, full-service, globally aware great power in the Anglo-American tradition. Postwar Germany was thoroughly de-Nazified, an accomplishment that was rightly understood as not just atonement but a source of national pride. Yet modern Germany still reflects a Prussian strategic ambiguity. The Prussians coined the term “Mitteleuropa” and have been able to define it only by what it is not—that is, neither East nor West. This ambiguity cripples not just the defense of Eastern Europe but the sustainability of Europe as a pillar of the liberal international order.
Thus, the idea that there can be a “minor incursion” into Ukraine, which can be swept under the carpet of normalization (or, in Biden-speak, “relentless diplomacy”), is delusional and dangerously so. America must wake the West.
Giselle Donnelly, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a resident fellow in defense and national security at the American Enterprise Institute.
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