As Russia attacks Ukraine, it is worth taking stock of what has changed and what — unfortunately — seems static in terms of European security.
Russia’s invasion defies international law. Hopes of deterring Russian action, or of arming the Ukrainian military, seem to be largely moot at this point. Ukraine will try to defend itself with the army it has. But President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of the war contained a new degree of escalation and delusional grandiosity.
There is not, has not been, and was never going to be a “genocide of millions of people” taking place in the Donbas, as Putin alleged. Claims of genocide on the Russian president’s part are of course not new. But other arguments in the announcement defy basic logic. The government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is not, as Putin alleges, a “Nazi” regime. Further, Putin’s claims that the Russian army will somehow “de-Nazify and de-militarize” Ukraine without “occupying Ukrainian territory” are obviously in conflict. Russian troops are occupying Ukrainian territory — even by Putin’s most absurd shrinkage of that area — at present. Similarly, Putin’s assertion that “the entire Western bloc,” as well as the US, comprise an “empire of lies” belies a bunker mentality. Combined with the brutal public humiliation of his spy chief a few days ago, Putin appears to be increasingly speaking into a mirror.
WHEN PUSH COMES TO SHOVE…
Sanctioning Russia is justified and sensible, but as punishment, without much hope of reversing or deterring further Russian action in Ukraine. Putin has made clear for a decade and a half that the alignment of Ukraine is of all-consuming concern for him, and no one should hope that sanctions can limit his fears or ambitions.
President Joe Biden is right to make clear that US troops will not defend Ukraine. The amount of US firepower required to overwhelm more than 150,000 Russian troops would be immense, not to mention the risk of nuclear escalation.
On sanctions, it is perhaps telling that European countries’ first impulse was to press for exclusions in the areas where their own national economies profit from trade with Russia. According to the New York Times, this special pleading has ceased, and the countries have fallen in line, but European countries appear all too happy to have the US bear the brunt of the coordination — and indeed of the military burden — of defending Europe.
President Joe Biden is right to make clear that US troops will not defend Ukraine. The amount of US firepower that would be required to overwhelm more than 150,000 Russian troops around and now inside Ukraine would be immense, and that says nothing of the risk of nuclear escalation inherent in such a war. More generally, the US military exists to defend the US and its citizens, not to repel aggression across the world. Ukraine is not a member of NATO, not covered by Article 5 provisions, and Biden has made clear that US troops would not protect it from Russia.
One slightly hopeful development is the outburst of the chief of the German army, Lt. Gen. Alfons Mais. Writing on his personal LinkedIn page, Mais voiced an emotional yet unimpeachable truth:
“The Bundeswehr, the army that I am privileged to lead, is more or less bare. The options that we can offer the politicians to support the alliance are extremely limited. We all saw it coming and were not able to break through with our arguments, to draw the conclusions from the Crimean annexation and implement them. This does not feel good! I am pissed off!”
The American underwriters of European security should be pissed off as well. The idea that Europe would have no say in a European crisis in 2022 should disgrace European and US policymakers alike. Europe, with an economy more than 9 times larger than Russia’s and 3.5 times the Russian population, should be able to protect itself. As of last year, only 9 of NATO’s members were meeting the 2% of GDP defense spending threshold, and many of those were small states with small GDPs and militaries. This should be no great mystery: As Brian Blankenship has shown, the ability to distribute burdens more fairly would rely on the US’s “ability to exploit their allies’ fears of being abandoned.”
Finally, the outcome in Ukraine points to a serious tragedy: Neither the US, NATO, nor Ukraine could make diplomacy work. Right when the crisis began, in December 2021, Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron both spoke with Putin in efforts to defuse tensions but failed. Russia presented a laundry list of demands, each reminiscent of the Cold War, but did seem as if diplomacy may work. However, after Russia drew its line in the sand, the Biden administration admitted that it was “not very likely” Ukraine could join NATO in the policy-relevant future at the same time it declared that NATO’s door was open to Ukraine — and enunciated an “unwavering” and “ironclad” commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. This contradictory stance was no model of diplomatic or rhetorical clarity.
Anyone who has bargained knows that a seller asking for $20 may be willing to sell for $5. But in the case of Ukraine, we will never know whether serious diplomacy held any promise of preventing what looks to be a ruinous, potentially catastrophic war.
Justin Logan is a senior fellow of Defense and Foreign Policy at the Cato Institute.