A Question of Strategic Interest

As this is typed, Russian troops are advancing across Ukraine at the order of Russian President Vladimir Putin.  I don’t speak Russian, but from reports understand that Russia, the world’s second-mightiest nuclear power, has claimed both that it is acting because it feared an attack by underpowered Ukraine, and that its invasion is necessary to “de-Nazify” a Ukrainian government led by President Volodymyr Zelensky — who is Jewish.  It is obviously the most naked violation of another nation’s sovereignty that Europe has seen since 1940.  I doubt Mr. Putin believes his own lies.  It is cruelly ironic that his pretext for Russia’s advance actually echoes Nazi Germany’s usurpation of other sovereign nations’ territories and freedoms prior to World War II in the name of Lebensraum (“Living Space”).  There are those, including me in a December post, who wanted the Administration to be more forthright in signaling America’s resolve to deter Russian warmongering.  I concede that any such overtures, had they been undertaken, would probably have been fruitless.  It now seems apparent that Mr. Putin is obsessed by a visceral need to answer the insults and to rectify the injustices he perceives to have been visited upon Russian sovereignty by the Western powers at the fall of the Soviet Union – compulsions ominously reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s obsessions and railings at the Western powers for the insults and injustices he considered to have been visited upon Germany at the conclusion of World War I. 

In President Joe Biden’s Thursday speech in response to the invasion, he was as firm in tone as he is capable of being (it is not within him to radiate the menace from the podium that Ronald Reagan could).  I don’t know much about international financial systems, but the financial sanctions that will be imposed on Russia sounded harsh.  That said, they don’t sound like much of a deterrent, but rather like measures that Mr. Putin has foreseen would be imposed if Russia commenced the invasion.  Perhaps more importantly, it does appear that the Administration has forged cohesion among a lot of disparate nations to stand against the Russian aggression, which was seemingly its overarching strategic goal (more on this below).  At the same time, I was disappointed in three aspects of Mr. Biden’s speech.  First, he made no mention of shipping Ukraine additional military aid.  Although Ukraine’s need for humanitarian aid will come, right now its people need all materiel we are willing to send them to check Russia’s advance.  Second, I would offer that Mr. Biden wasn’t very effective at making this foreign policy challenge real for Americans, certainly not for those with isolationist tendencies (we’ve had isolationists wishing to ignore what was going on “over there” as long as we’ve been a nation).  I would have liked to see him “bring home” the Ukrainians’ endangered freedom by observing, “How would we like it if Canada had the military strength to simply grab Alaska and take away Alaskans’ freedom merely because it borders Canada?  That is what Putin is doing.”  Finally, I found the President’s attempts to assure Americans about their gas prices too apologetic; he impliedly took responsibility to keep gas prices down.  I submit that what he should have said – what former President Donald Trump, given his COVID track record, undoubtedly would have said – is that gas prices and some other prices were probably going to go even higher due to the Ukrainian conflict, and that increased prices were Vladimir Putin’s fault (with such point to be hammered home with every Administration communication in the coming months).  If a majority of Americans accepted that higher prices were exacerbated by Vladimir Putin’s unjust invasion and our attempts to aid Ukrainian freedom, the Administration would be in good stead politically on inflation, at least for a while.  Mr. Biden entirely whiffed on the opportunity.   

So what is our strategic posture at this point?  A passing remark by a pundit during the week before the invasion has nagged at me ever since: 

Ukraine [in and of itself] is of no strategic importance to the United States.

While some of us chafed at the Biden Administration’s seemingly slow response to the Russian buildup at the Ukrainian border, there is no question that Mr. Biden and his team used the evidence and duration of the Russian buildup to forge a much higher level of unity, consensus, and resolve among NATO and European Union members against Russia than at least I would have considered achievable last Thanksgiving.  The NATO allies, clearly alarmed, have cooperated to reinforce each other’s borders vulnerable to a Russian advance.  At the same time, aside from providing materiel to the Ukrainians – with whom they have no mutual defense pact – they have appeared to be conceding Ukraine to Mr. Putin, like a square on the chess board, if he wanted to take it. If Ukraine’s primary significance to the United States is to occupy a hunk of land serving as a buffer between Russia and our NATO allies, and otherwise has little value to the United States (as contrasted, for example, with our vital concern in keeping Cuba free of enemy nuclear weapons in the 1960s and ensuring the flow of Middle East oil in the 1970s), at this point, what is our overarching strategic interest?  (If Ukraine has a greater objective strategic value than I’ve indicated here, I’m hoping that someone reading this note will enlighten me via comment; but let’s assume the negative for the moment.)

I’ve been writing a post on and off for months about a comprehensive foreign policy framework that I believe that we should employ, but will give away the punchline here:  we can’t go on as we have since 1945.  We can no longer be everywhere and do everything; even aside from our internal partisan divisions, our burgeoning domestic obligations mean we can’t afford it.  We need emotionally and financially committed regional allies across the globe to withstand hostile and able autocracies.  Mr. Biden, by his rhetoric and actions during this crisis, is evidencing that he sees this.  He doesn’t want the Ukrainians to lose their nation, and have their freedoms extinguished by Russia, to the point that to deter Russia he perhaps to some extent compromised the secrecy of some of our intelligence apparatus, sources and methods to leak as much as the Administration had about Russian intentions; but what he seemingly believes that we primarily need to achieve out of this confrontation is an awakened, energized, and unified NATO to stand as a European bulwark against further Russian incursions.  If so, he has succeeded.

If Ukrainian freedom is our primary objective, we (hopefully as part of a NATO force) should deploy troops to Ukraine.  If it is the strengthening of the NATO alliance itself, we probably shouldn’t.

So what is our overarching interest?  Again, assuming arguendo that Ukraine has little objective realpolitik value to us, is maintaining its people’s freedom against a malign aggressor, in and of itself, a strategic interest for a nation that calls itself the “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave?”  In June, 1963, President John F. Kennedy stood in West Berlin and declared, “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, “Ich bin ein Berliner.”  In West Berlin, in June, 1987, President Ronald Reagan spoke of freedom and famously called on Russian General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev:  “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”  Yet neither man risked nuclear war and American casualties by sending troops to free the subjugated.  Mr. Putin, who, perhaps most unnervingly, now seems not only consumed with grievance but a bit unbalanced, has alluded to his willingness to use nuclear weapons if confronted too aggressively.  How Chinese President Xi Jinping and his cabinet might integrate their interpretation of our response into any initiative they might be considering against Taiwan must also be factored in.  Eisenhower Administration Secretary of State John Foster Dulles once observed in connection with America’s policy of Soviet deterrence, “The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art.  If you cannot master it, you inevitably get into war.  If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.”   

Television accounts and my tiny Twitter feed are overflowing with declarations lauding the Ukranians’ courage and expressions of support.  Mr. Biden said in his address yesterday that “America stands up to bullies. We stand up for freedom. This is who we are.” Yet, Mr. Zelensky said from an undisclosed location last night that he has asked all 27 NATO members why Ukraine can’t be a member of NATO, and has gotten no response. I haven’t seen anybody advocating for the deployment of either NATO or American forces into Ukraine.  Absent that, all this talk … is just talk.

If I was advising Mr. Biden and there was general consensus among the foreign policy team that the Russian aggression had enabled the Administration to unexpectedly strengthen the strategic NATO alliance against Russian manipulation and that Ukraine itself had no value other than as a buffer between Russia and NATO, would I advise that he commit American troops to protect Ukrainians’ freedom – perhaps risking the threat of a nuclear escalation, and inevitably resulting in the death of American soldiers?

The President isn’t the Pope, concerned with the protection of all humankind; s/he works for the American people.  Yet – with the exception of the period from January, 2017, through January, 2021 — the President of the United States has since 1941 been the leader of the Free World.  Viewing clips of Messrs. Kennedy’s and Reagan’s Berlin speeches (linked below) lean me in one direction.  Even putting aside the risk of nuclear escalation, the thought of Americans attending funerals of their husbands and wives, their fathers and mothers, their sons and daughters, as a result of a conflict over land arguably without strategic value – as we have too frequently in the last 60 years — leans me in the other.

In this situation, where is the “brink” Mr. Dulles referred to? When push came to shove — as it has — I’d probably counsel Mr. Biden to maintain the policy he has adopted, perhaps with more aggressive provision of materiel to Ukraine.  I’d move – as he is – to reinforce our NATO allies’ borders with a marked influx of American soldiers and materiel.  (I’d also make sufficient movements in Asia to let Mr. Xi know that we haven’t forgotten about him.)  Otherwise, I’d sit tight, waiting for the inevitable denouement in Ukraine. 

All the same:  these echoes from the past probably wouldn’t let me sleep.

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