“Advantage Putin. No, advantage Biden. Clearly a stalemate.” The debate goes on and on in Washington, Moscow, Berlin, and elsewhere, in anticipation of an armed conflict between the former Soviet vassal state of Ukraine and its erstwhile mother state of Russia.
The “fog of war” is becoming denser with each passing day, even though no shot has yet been fired.
Assuredly, many people will die if there is in fact a war between Russia and Ukraine, although this “human factor” figures little in public policy debates. Of far greater interest to world leaders are the economic and geopolitical consequences of a potential war.
Ukraine occupies a position of some geographic and economic importance to Russia and to Europe (especially Germany). And, while not a member of NATO, Ukraine is a friend and ally to the organization and to its most important member – the United States.
Considering the stakes involved, it would be reasonable to presume that President Biden would be doing everything possible to avoid an armed conflict.
However, aside from Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s sincere and well-intentioned efforts to keep matters in that region on a diplomatic track, others in the Administration and on Capitol Hill, including Biden himself, appear hell-bent to push the situation towards a military resolution.
In recent days, Biden has pressed the issue directly in a phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart. Biden also has ordered U.S. troops in the region placed on high alert, and accelerated shipments of American military materiel to Ukraine.
What precisely is the vital national security interest that would justify direct or even heavy indirect U.S. military involvement in Ukraine, has never been clearly enunciated. Protecting the “freedom” of Ukrainian citizens and helping to ensure the survival of their “democracy,” while laudable goals, are hardly legitimate bases for U.S. military action, especially when confronting a major nuclear power and long-time adversary.
Brushing away all the dust on this Russia-Ukraine chessboard makes clear that the United States is faced with what retired U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Blaine D. Holt recently called, “an avoidable war.”
Putin may be a wily chess player, but his goals in the current Ukraine crisis are not particularly difficult to discern. Among other things, Putin seeks (as always) to prove his machismo (in this he is at least more open than other world leaders who pretend they are not doing the same thing).
Far more important, however, is Moscow’s tangible goals of preventing a NATO coalition member directly on Russia’s southwestern border. Equally important to Moscow is securing a “land bridge” from its territory north and east of Ukraine, through the largely pro-Russia “Donbas” region of Ukraine to Crimea and the Black Sea port of Sevastopol (which already is under Russian control).
U.S. foreign intelligence has a regrettable history, dating to Cold War era, of overestimating Russian military might, and we seem to be falling into the same trap today.
Despite his bluster and show of military force, Putin is playing with a relatively weak hand. Russia’s armed forces are good but not top-notch, although they far surpass Ukraine’s troop strength and armaments.
Important also is the fact that Russia’s economy is highly dependent on oil and natural gas exports, both of which would be severely disrupted by a war. Moreover, U.S.-led global financial sanctions would hit Russian oligarchs in their wallets, where it hurts; and this is the one group Putin must keep happy to remain in power.
America’s ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer has fueled the notion, undoubtedly shared by Putin, that the United States is weak. This perception, accurate or not, is dangerous, especially if Biden presses the “military button” as a way to prove otherwise, or as a means to shift attention away from his own corrupt dealings with Ukraine before he ascended to the presidency.
The bottom line is that Russia cannot really afford a war, especially one that likely would result in crippling economic sanctions, and likely lead to years of guerilla opposition from Ukrainian freedom fighters.
For the U.S. and Europe, there is little if any need to become involved militarily, considering there still are non-military moves to be played; options that allow Putin to save face, accomplish some of what he desires, and keep NATO whole (at least for now).
The ultimate loser if this “avoidable war” is not avoided, will be the unfortunate “fall guy” – Ukraine.