Soon after Russian leader Vladmir Putin’s announcement that he would recognize two separatist regions in Ukraine, he deployed troops there. Both moves violated international law and Ukrainian territorial integrity and sovereignty, and will cause immense suffering. The next day, President Biden announced sweeping sanctions against Russia. The cumulative results are the most serious crisis in European security in the twenty-first century.
Unlike some of Putin’s previous excursions, his latest entry into Ukraine was not sudden or unexpected. Whereas the Russian-Georgian War in 2008 and Putin’s brutality during the Second Chechnyan War caught observers off guard, his recent maneuvers with Ukraine have come after months of buildup. On social media in the United States and Britain, analysts and pundits have spent months debating the causes and potential responses to Russian actions. That offers us an opportunity to evaluate the quality of contributions to this conversation. The results were … underwhelming.
The World War II fans
If there is one analogy American pundits love to reference, it’s Britain’s strategy of offering repeated concessions to Germany in 1936–1939. Judging by the frequency with which the parallel is drawn, one would think that World War II was the only event in the annals of humankind. “History may look back on this as a failure of nerve equal to the appeasement of the 1930s,” The Wall Street Journal’s Walter Russell Mead wrote, lamenting the U.S. decision not to dispatch troops to defend Ukraine.
Just a few years ago, Mead was declaring that “Putin’s ramshackle Russia is no more capable of matching an American nuclear buildup than Brezhnev’s sclerotic Soviet Union could keep up with the United States—and Putin knows it.” He said that Russia was nowhere near being a peer competitor of the U.S. and predicted that Donald Trump’s policies “embarked on a course that will inexorably weaken Russia’s position in the world.” Five years on, not only did Trump’s plan fail, but in Mead’s view, Russia has evolved into a menace on the scale of Nazi Germany—an impressive growth rate.
Break out the nukes
There has been no shortage of reckless policy prescriptions these past weeks. Most involve sending thousands of troops to preserve a country to which we are bound by no treaty and that is peripheral to our security, a plan that could result in getting many American soldiers killed in yet another unnecessary, futile war. But Matthew Kroenig, writing in Foreign Policy, went one better and recommended that the U.S. warn Russia (and China) that we are willing to start nuclear wars to get what we want. “The United States could rely on threatening nonstrategic nuclear strikes to deter and, as a last resort, thwart a Chinese amphibious invasion of Taiwan or a Russian tank incursion into Europe,” Kroenig proffered. He conceded that “there are risks associated with nuclear deterrence,” but of course he did not dwell on them. It’s unpleasant to acknowledge that Russia might call our bluff, which would mean that the U.S. would have to—for credibility’s sake, you see—start a war that would kill millions of innocent human beings.
It’s Biden’s fault
Since Putin took power in 1999, he has embarked on a series of violent adventures, from Chechnya to the Crimea. It would seem then that his foreign policy does not revolve around the perceived will of U.S. presidents. That hasn’t stopped Republicans from claiming that Russia never would have tried this kind of aggressive action when Trump was in charge. “The sheer unpredictability of Trump, his anger at being defied or disrespected, his willingness to take the occasional big risk (the Solemani strike), all had to make Putin frightened or wary of him in a way that he simply isn’t of Biden,” Rich Lowry opined. Erick Erickson went further and suggested, “Only with Democrats in the White House have the Russians done land grabs.” Most amazingly, Liz Peek at Fox News wrote that, “It seems like yesterday that the world was peaceful, our enemies cautious, our borders secure, prices stable, crime under control and stock markets booming.”
Of course, all those claims overlook the Russian-Georgian War, which occurred under President George W. Bush. And Russian state media openly gloated when their soldiers entered U.S. bases in Syria after Trump ordered they be abandoned. Within one day of Trump withdrawing American soldiers from Kurdish-controlled territory, in fact, Putin deployed Russian troops to the same areas. If he feared Bush and Trump, he sure didn’t show it. As for the fantasy that the world was peaceful until Biden became president, well, in 2019, Freedom House documented 13 straight years of decline in political rights and civil liberties around the world. And there was the Syrian Civil War. And Al Qaeda and ISIS. And …
More to the point, Trump’s hostility to democracy, our traditional allies, NATO, and collective security generally was more than Putin could ever ask for in a U.S. president. He had no reason to challenge Trump, who did more to weaken American internal cohesion and global appeal than any Russian leader ever could.
If Russia has had one consistent security message since the end of the Cold War, it’s that NATO expansion poses a threat to the country. In 1996, Russia’s foreign minister said that “the very name NATO is a problem … it’s kind of a four-letter word for us.” Soon afterward, French leader Jacques Chirac warned U.S. national security adviser Anthony Lake about the consequences of enlarging NATO. “We have humiliated them too much,” he said. “The situation is very dangerous.… One day there will be dangerous backlash.” Russian objections to NATO moving east are long-standing and voluminous, preceding Putin by years.
Nevertheless, there are a host of American commentators who persist in denying the obvious. In response to suggestions that NATO publicly declare that Ukraine will not join the organization, The Atlantic’s Tom Nichols tweeted, “This is not about NATO, and letting Putin *make* it about NATO—not least by baiting us into this kind of move—is a fundamental error.” Another Atlantic hawk, Anne Applebaum, argued, “When Putin attacked Ukraine in 2014, it wasn’t because of ‘Nato.’” (Applebaum claims to alone understand the mind of Russia’s leader.) Similarly, former Russia Ambassador Michael McFaul has claimed that the possibility of Ukraine entering NATO has always been a nonissue, even though NATO promised Ukraine it could join the alliance in 2008. No matter how often Russian officials repeat their objections, American foreign policy elites won’t listen. And it’s difficult to disprove the notion that NATO is immaterial to the current crisis, because U.S. policymakers have never made any concessions to Russia regarding NATO.
Punish Russian citizens
Given that the U.S. and Britain, like all powerful states, have caused their share of mayhem around the world, one might hope that commentators would want to observe a distinction between governments and their populaces. One would be wrong. “I am not as inclined as others to make a sharp distinction between Russia and Putin,” British security expert Bruno Maçães argued. “If a criminal war takes place, every Russian who failed to take a stand when they could and maybe even when it was still possible to do in safety, they will be culpable too.” In addition to being immoral, this perspective, if enacted as policy, would lead to collective punishment, a violation of international law.
Putin follows in a long line of Russian leaders, from Catherine the Great to Vladimir Lenin, who have run roughshod over the country’s neighbors. For hundreds of years, other peoples in Eastern Europe have had to fear that they might one day fall into the crosshairs of someone in power in Moscow. The fact of Russia’s long-standing power means that Western officials in the 1990s and early 2000s should have understood that their former adversary’s weakness was temporary. Now the U.S. and its allies have no choice but to use robust sanctions and other nonviolent means to resist Russian aggression in Ukraine. But let’s hope they ignore some of our pundits and stop there.