Russia has surprised most of us with an all-out attack on Ukraine. What should the U.S., NATO, and Ukraine do now? Each possible answer implies different possible consequences. We would be wise to understand them as well as possible. We should try to evaluate the probable long-term effects as well as the immediate ones.
The fact of the matter is that that we made serious errors since the disbanding of the Soviet Union (the expansion of NATO, establishing Aegis Ashore missiles in Romania and Poland, etc.) that began on Christmas 1991. The effect was that Russia walked away from NATO rather than becoming a member. While all of this is very regrettable, it is nonetheless history. We are where we are now because this history has inevitably influenced the present and thereafter the future of Russian relations with the rest of the world.
While Ukrainian resistance appears stronger than Putin expected, Russia may well take control of parts of Kyiv and other western Ukrainian cities within days or weeks. However, following earlier examples of Russian incursions and given the inadequate size of its forces, it is likely to quickly withdraw after flexing its now stronger muscles in negotiating an agreement with the U.S., NATO and Ukraine.
According to Edward Luttwak tweeting on the afternoon of Feb 24 “Air strikes can reach any target but Russian troops are much too few to achieve a coup de main, the single act that both starts and ends a war. Yes, they control airfields & some city centers. Beyond them individual soldiers & volunteers will start killing Russian soldiers w/o end. They had a missile strike plan viz Ukraine air force, very weak in any case. Russian troops too few to control the country beyond airfields, central Kiev, Odessa, etc., nothing for hostile W Ukraine. Ukrainian soldiers & volunteers will fire & kill Russians. Final result: the end of Putin.”
President Biden has wisely stated that the U.S. will not send troops into Ukraine, which is not a NATO member. While he has rightly condemned Russia’s illegal attack, and together with our European allies has significantly increased economic sanctions on Russian banks, businesses, and officials, though still with significant carveouts, he has correctly, in my judgement, concluded that the cost to our already overstretched budget to fight a war over Ukraine is not in America’s interests. We care about many people and things in the world for which it is not justified to spend our financial and human resources rather than focusing them initially on our own domestic needs. Some among us may want to rule the world but we can’t afford it either financially or morally. Our military industrial complex, which profits from wars, probably disagrees.
Luttwak claims that “close[ing] the road and rail connections between Germany and Russia… would be the most powerful of all sanctions.” This could be done unilaterally by Poland or the Polish people. “Polish peace demonstrators [could] stop the unceasing traffic of trucks delivering Western European exports to Russia. German cars, Dutch vegetables, French luxury exports. That very powerful sanction does not require NATO or EU approval, just some people who care. ‘No bypass’”
More generally, sanctions have historically not been a very effective tool. “A new history of sanctions has unsettling lessons for today” Trade is win win. Both sides benefit. Thus, blocking trade is loss loss. Both sides suffer. Moreover, it is very difficult to design sanctions that hurt the target government more than its people. “Econ 101-How to help Afghans￼”
Ukraine is more important and relevant to European security than to ours (though one may argue that if Ukraine falls and the democracy in Europe suffers and crumbles, this affects the United States in the long run as well). In addition to financial and military aid to Ukraine, one or more European countries could, outside of the NATO context, send their troops to help defend the existing government of Ukraine.
It is very unlikely that Putin would escalate the fighting further, though it is not clear how rational Putin is these days and Russia has nuclear weapons. He was close to crazy to have launched the war now underway in Ukraine. Such European military intervention would likely save the Zelensky government and the negotiated peace (which should have been negotiated a month or two ago on the basis of Putin’s eight demands last December) would still need to mutually satisfy the interests of Russia, Europe and Ukraine.
If Ukraine receives no military help, it might still hold off the Russian army from toppling the Zelensky government. Russia might then be forced to be satisfied to hold the eastern, Russian dominated piece of the pie. The final settlement might take a bit longer in this case, but it might contain similar provisions. As Luttwak has argued above, a full Russian victory is unlikely and is expected not to last for long and would be a huge drain on Russian resources. Russia will surely pay a very high price for (presumably) gaining a government subservient to Moscow.
The longer run (five to ten or more years) consequence of one or another of the above scenarios is, of course, hard to predict but it should be taken into account. If the Zelensky government survives largely on the basis of its own efforts, it might be hoped that Zelensky’s far from complete efforts to clean up and reform his government will continue and be strengthened. A Russian victory (replacing Zelensky–dead or alive–with a Moscow puppet) would surely perpetuate and strengthen the corruption Ukraine has suffered for decades. Putin’s original eight demands would still have to be resolved and agreed in a mutually acceptable way. Doing so in January, of course, would have saved everyone a lot of lives and treasure, but discussions of these issues were hard to find in the American press.
How this war is settled will also have consequences for American, EU, and Russian assessments of each other’s strengths and interests and thus how to deal with one another in the future. Will Russia revert to an enemy in which we keep our defense industry happy with another cold war or will we undo the NATO inflicted damage of the last twenty years that turned a potential friend to a costly enemy? China has decided to stay out of the fray neither supporting the US-Europe alliance nor the Russians which is a wise decision on their part.
The initial reactions in Russia have not favored Putin. The Russian population was not prepared to shift from seeing Ukraine as part of the family to an enemy that its sons and daughters were dying to overturn. A Russian defeat or even stalemate “victory” could be the end of Putin. I am predisposed to believe in happy endings, which is perhaps why no one pays me for my forecasts.
We must never lose sight of the fact that Russia is more than Putin, Ukraine is more than Zelensky, and NATO is more than Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. If I had said Biden (or Trump) you would have understood instantly. And among the population are many factions. The U.S. seems rarely to take such domestic realities into account when it decides to march into and take over countries.
In an email February 26, Chas Freeman said: “Regrettably, the place of Ukraine in Europe, which might have been decided through negotiations between Moscow and Washington in consultation with Kyiv, will now be decided through interactions by Russian dictation to Ukrainians without reference to either the United States or NATO. Russia’s coercive diplomacy failed to elicit an offer to address its longstanding, oft-expressed concerns about the possibility that Ukraine might become part of an American sphere of influence on its border under circumstances in which the United States has officially designated Russia as an adversary. So, Moscow made good on its ultimatum, and used force. As it did so, it moved the goalposts. Now Russia appears to seek the subordination of Ukraine to its domination rather than simply its denial to the United States. This is a tragedy that might have been avoided. Now we are left to hope for a resurrection of diplomacy when there is no clear path to it.”
On February 25, Pavel K Baev stated that: “Now we know that Putin’s obsession with Ukraine — which constitutes a threat to his regime not because of hypothetic NATO missiles, but because of its choice for democracy and closer ties with Europe — prevailed over common political sense and strategic risk assessments.” “Implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine–Brookings Brief”
But the almost last word should go to Edward Luttwak who tweeted on Feb 26: “Having invaded with too few troops to pull off a fait accompli, with many Russian troops killed because of incautious tactics that presumed no real resistance, Putin has also closed the door to talks with Pres Zelensky: ‘I will not talk with drug addicts and neo-Nazis’. Sanctions. Not too late to send large numbers of small arms and point & shoot anti-tank weapons to Ukraine via Poland or Slovakia. There are warehouses full of both (+ their ammo) across NATO because of the drastic reduction in force-levels. Ukrainians are resisting bravely and deserve help”
And the final word goes to Thomas Pickering (former US Ambassador to the Russian Federation and other places): “The end result must be respectful, fair, and balanced for the people of Russia and for all other parties. It will take wisdom, time, sacrifice, and persistence. To get there, the U.S. must lead, help to finance, and participate extensively in an international coalition — through the United Nations if possible, outside it if necessary — and listen to all like-minded states.” “Implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine–Brookings Brief”