The Case for Restraint on Ukraine
Ukraine won’t ever join NATO. Let’s not risk war with Russia to keep pretending that it could.
This is the first in a two-part discussion about the conflict between Russia and Ukraine and the role the United States should play. A response by Natia Seskuria, “The Case for Defending Ukraine,” can be found here.
By Herbert Reed
Americans have fought several wars in the last thirty years. We have sent troops to faraway places that we had previously never heard of for reasons we didn’t usually understand. Some never came back. We can be forgiven for thinking we know what it means to fight a war.
But we don’t. Our wars have been distant affairs fought by a narrow class of volunteer soldiers and have not affected most Americans. Our experience of war bears no comparison with, say, the Afghan experience, in which every citizen bears enormous costs and suffers deep losses. Such wars can destroy the fabric of society. War, for the average American, has become an abstraction, a drama playing out on TV, a political debate among Washington’s foreign policy class.
Today, another war is brewing: the United States government has been issuing increasingly dire warnings that Russia intends to invade Ukraine. The U.S. may not send soldiers to fight in Ukraine, but the cost of this war may be far greater for the American public.
Why? If the Russians invade Ukraine, U.S. officials are threatening to respond with harsh economic sanctions, a buildup on NATO’s eastern flank, arms shipments to Ukraine and, if necessary, supporting an insurgency inside that country. If that happens, the consequences will be felt by every American. Before we decide how far to go to avoid those consequences, it is worth spelling out what they are.
Energy markets would react immediately, sending up prices at the pump at every U.S. gas station. The share prices of Western companies that did business with Russia would tank, particularly if the U.S. government sought to cut off the access of Russia to the international financial system by kicking it out of the SWIFT system or denying it access to dollars. The Russian government would likely respond to Western economic sanctions by cutting off or greatly reducing gas flows to Europe, causing a further spike in energy prices throughout the world and further fueling inflation. Russia could also seek a “symmetric” response against U.S. sanctions by launching cyberattacks against Western economic targets. We don’t really know what the Russians are capable of, but as the U.S. government has warned, they could target U.S. critical infrastructure, disabling, say, the New York Stock Exchange or the ATM and credit card networks.
And direct U.S. military involvement cannot be ruled out. The Russian response to an American-sponsored insurgency in Ukraine could conceivably include attacks on NATO allies in the Baltics, triggering the U.S. commitment to defend them. For this reason, Baltic governments are asking for, and the U.S. government is planning, NATO reinforcements in the event of a Russian attack on Ukraine. A conflict in the Baltics would bring U.S. forces stationed in Eastern Europe into direct conflict with Russia. That would unleash the type of escalatory dynamics we tried to avoid throughout the Cold War for fear it might lead to a nuclear exchange. Russia still retains thousands of nuclear weapons that can reach the United States.
Despite these potentially dire consequences, it is difficult to have an open debate on what the U.S. response should be on Ukraine. In our polarized politics, any response other than macho toughness is portrayed as weakness. But we should avoid crude dichotomies between appeasement of Russia and standing up to evil. Of course, any nation needs to be willing to defend itself and what it holds dear, regardless of the risks. But we also need to consider what our fundamental security interests are.
Ukraine matters a lot more to neighboring Russia than it does to the faraway United States. Russians have long been complaining about Ukraine’s bid to join NATO and its defense ties with the West. As Vladimir Putin has made clear, Russia sees the issue of Ukraine as absolutely existential. It is not hard to understand why: Ukraine is Russia’s neighbor and deeply intertwined with Russian history. If Russia threatened to form a military alliance with Mexico, the United States would probably have a similarly fierce reaction.
So what is the United States defending at such great risk in Ukraine? Do most Americans have any idea? There is no doubt Russian President Vladimir Putin is a bully, but preventing bullying is not a U.S. national security interest. According to Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, America “will not allow anyone to slam closed NATO’s ‘Open Door’ policy.” In other words, America is defending the right of Ukraine to join an alliance of its choosing—even though we currently have no plans to even start the process of admitting Ukraine to NATO. So, in essence, to defend the abstract right of a country few Americans care about to join an alliance that has no intention of admitting it, the United States is willing to risk an economic calamity and war with a nuclear power. That certainly doesn’t sound like a foreign policy for the middle class.
Indeed, the indifference of the American middle class toward Ukraine shows a certain strategic rationality that the foreign policy elite seem to lack. Ukraine, after all, is no geopolitical prize. The last time Moscow controlled Ukraine, the Soviet Union conspicuously failed to win the Cold War. This time, the effort to occupy or control a Ukraine that has become economically dysfunctional, endemically corrupt and deeply anti-Russian would substantially weaken Russia. Moscow is already burdened by the large subsidies it must provide to Crimea, Donbas, and the other regions its proxies control in Georgia and Moldova. The same is true of its support for dictators in Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Syria. Controlling the rest of Ukraine would represent another order of magnitude of effort. Far from emboldening the Russian government to further military adventures against NATO in, say, the Baltic States, taking over Ukraine would reduce Russia’s capacity to threaten Europe.
The saddest irony of all of this is that the greatest victims of a war would most certainly be the Ukrainians whom the United States says it is trying to support. America’s principled stand on NATO’s open door policy and its political and financial support to Ukraine are enough to inspire the Russian invasion, but its refusal to send forces there ensures that Ukraine will lose that war badly.
In the large-scale invasion scenarios that U.S. officials are predicting, Ukraine’s military will be quickly destroyed with massive casualties. In some of the scenarios, its cities will suffer bombardment from air and artillery that will kill many thousands of civilians and wreak enormous material damage. In response, America’s “porcupine strategy” would seek to create and arm an anti-Russian insurgency in Ukraine that would turn the country into a bloody battlefield for a generation. Absent nuclear escalation, America would survive such a war; Ukraine would not.
The United States has made several big foreign policy mistakes in recent decades that have not enhanced its power or helped the American middle class. Preferring a Russian invasion of Ukraine to an admission that Ukraine’s NATO membership prospects are non-existent would be yet another. The lesson from the “forever wars” is that we no longer have the luxury of making such mistakes.
There is a better alternative. The United States and Russia can agree on a new European security architecture that effectively neutralizes Ukraine and puts an end to further enlargements of NATO that the U.S. doesn’t want and that Russia deeply fears. Such an agreement may indeed compromise Western principles that were formulated when the United States dominated the world. But it also expresses the power realities of today in which the U.S. faces, among other challenges, a rising China that alone will severely tax American power. Such an agreement would also preserve and protect America and NATO’s core strategic interests, and, not incidentally, save many thousands of Ukrainian lives.
So let’s be clear before we sleepwalk into another disaster: we do not need this war, and we cannot afford it.
The author is a former State Department official. He is writing under a pseudonym.