- Article in The National Interest warns against escalation and says US is setting itself up for a humiliating defeat in Ukraine
- Washington urged to seek a negotiated solution with Moscow - which holds all the cards in the conflict - to avoid humiliation
- TNI is a magazine connected to the Center for the National Interest representing the realists in the US foreign policy establiment
As we first disclosed in January, a debate is underway within the foreign policy establishment in Washington about what to do with the Ukrainian crisis.
On the one hand are the realists, who appear to be led within the administration by Secretary of State John Kerry.
Pitted against them are the hardliners, who include Obama’s National Security Adviser Susan Rice, US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power and Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland.
Obama, characteristically, refuses to commit himself clearly to one side or the other. Instead, he tilts one way or the other, depending on which side appears stronger.
Since the late autumn, as Russia’s help for the deal with Iran has moved into focus, and as it became clear that Russia would not let the Ukrainians overrun the Donbass, the balance of advantage has tilted towards the realists.
However, as we discussed shortly after the Kerry-Putin meeting in Sochi, it is essential to understand the nature of the discussion.
The realists in Washington are not friends of Russia. On the contrary, they think of Russia as an adversary - just as the hardliners do.
The people we call the “realists” are not seeking friendship or a rapprochement with Russia. They simply see no sense in confronting Russia in Ukraine where Russia is strongest, whilst at the same time being willing to work with Russia on some issues such as the deal with Iran where there is a mutual interest in doing so.
True realists, people like (from their very different perspectives) Henry Kissinger and the historian Stephen Cohen, who understand that US national interests are best served by good relations with Russia, and that these require an honest acknowledgement of Russia's legitimate interests, have no voice in the present administration, or in any likely succeeding one.
An article (attached below) has just appeared in The National Interest, an international affairs magazine published by the Center for the National Interest, a US think-tank known to be close to the realists in the US foreign policy establishment, which provides a clear statement of their views, and which is obviously intended to make them public as part of the ongoing policy debate.
What sets this article apart is its frank admission of the point we repeatedly make: in Ukraine it is Russia that holds all the high cards.
That admission could not be made more clearly. In essence what the article says is that Ukraine matters a lot to Russia, but does not matter anything like as much to the US - and matters even less to the US’s European allies.
The result is that US and EU support for Ukraine is essentially rhetorical. Though they talk big about backing Ukraine and “stopping Putin”, what they do in practice is less than little.
The result is that Ukraine actually gets from the West microscopic amounts of economic and military support, whilst the West’s overblown rhetoric simply encourages it to engage Russia in a conflict it cannot win.
The author of the article has previously warned against arming Ukraine. In this article he makes the point that if weapons deliveries to Ukraine are to be part of a deeper commitment involving some sort of grand policy to confront Russia, then the fact has to be made clear to the American and European publics, who have to be told of the consequences:
“….. if the advocates of this course see small arms deliveries as the first step in a substantially broader effort, they should be honest with the American people about their proposed objectives and the costs and benefits they foresee.
If the United States is to make confronting Russia an organizing principle of its foreign policy, it will require an extended national commitment that will be unsustainable without broad public support (and difficult to pursue without virtually nonexistent European public support).”
It is quite obvious from the rest of the article that the author does not believe public support either in the US or Europe for a policy of extended confrontation with Russia - in Ukraine or elsewhere - would be forthcoming. Recent opinion polls in the NATO states lend strength to that view.
Since the US cannot defeat Russia in Ukraine, the author draws the two obvious conclusions: first, that it is contrary to the US’s interests to encourage Ukraine to get drawn into a conflict with Russia, which it is bound to lose; and second, that it is better for the US to acknowledge these realities and seek a negotiated solution to the Ukrainian conflict, rather than court certain defeat.
The author could not make these points more plainly. On the first, he puts it this way:
“If the United States is not willing to make a commitment to defending Ukraine sufficient to ensure success, how can we encourage Ukrainians to fight and die in a conflict with a very powerful neighbor and with no clear endpoint?
Allowing the government in Kiev and the Ukrainians resisting Moscow to think that America is behind them when we are not—or when we are pretending to ourselves that we are—is functionally equivalent to encouraging the 1956 uprising in Hungary, or the 1991-92 Shi’ite uprisings against Saddam Hussein, and then watching the devastating consequences for the courageous people who believe us.”
On the second, he puts it if anything plainer still:
“A half-hearted policy (or, for that matter, a 5 percent–hearted policy) to confront Moscow will likely produce outcomes demonstrably worse than a settlement—better to get the most advantages possible negotiated terms than to set up ourselves and the NATO alliance for a high-profile defeat.”
This is the first time I have seen the word “defeat”- a big and very serious word normally avoided in Washington when discussing US foreign policy outcomes - used to describe the likely outcome of the US’s present Ukrainian policy in any US publication known to voice the opinions of any part of the US foreign policy establishment. The author has undoubtedly chosen this word carefully, in order to give the point he is making maximum emphasis.
That despite the rhetoric it is the realists who have been in the ascendant in Washington for some time is confirmed by the whole pattern of negotiations that has taken place since the fighting in the winter.
The result of that fighting was Minsk II - an accord, which the hardliners in Kiev and Washington are known to be unhappy with.
Kiev has since tried to sabotage Minsk II. In recent weeks it has stepped up preparations for an offensive. However, as we discussed recently, declarations of support from Western governments this time were conspicuous by their absence. Instead the word from Western capitals is of the importance of sticking by Minsk II.
The result is that - for the moment - the offensive appears to have been called off, and where a week ago Poroshenko was talking about “endless war”, he has now resumed talking about the importance of implementing Minsk II.
To say all this however is to notice the problems.
Though the author of the article obviously thinks of himself as a realist, and though his reasoning on its own terms looks flawless, the article nonetheless betrays a complete lack of understanding of Ukrainian realities.
The author seems oblivious to the fact that the sort of negotiated compromise he is talking about is completely unacceptable to the Maidan movement, many of whose members would undoubtedly prefer to go down fighting in “glorious defeat” than accept it.
As discussed previously, the only way the sort of negotiated compromise the author writes about could be achieved would be if the present Ukrainian government were replaced with a different one.
As we have also said, it seems the Russians have probably come round to that view. However in the West it is far from clear even self-identifying “realists” like the author have done so.
There is also inevitably going to be intense resistance from the hardliners in Washington and elsewhere. They of course adamantly refuse to accept the logic of the points made in the article - however flawless it may appear to be - and continue to push for more confrontation.
The great problem is that these conflicts in Washington between hardliners and “realists” are never finally resolved. In one form or another they have been going on since the 1960s (think of the battles between “hawks and doves” during the Vietnam war).
Sometimes one group gains the ascendancy and sometimes the other, depending on the domestic political mood in the US. However neither group has ever been able to win the argument and impose its views for very long. The result is that US policy is subject to constant abrupt reversals, making it unpredictable and erratic.
Even if the “realists” are presently in the ascendant, there is no guarantee they will remain so. It is easy to see how, with a Presidential election looming, the policy and the rhetoric might harden again, with none of the contenders for the Presidency wanting to look “soft”.
There is also no guarantee, even if Obama in the final months of his Presidency does fully commit himself to the realists (as he has just done over Iran), that this will be carried over to any new administration that takes over once he is gone. On the contrary it is easy to see how a Republican administration, or a Democratic administration led by Hillary Clinton, might toughen the policy again.
The article does nonetheless offer a possible guide to what might happen in the remaining months of Obama’s Presidency, even though for domestic US political reasons it will probably be left to Merkel to do the running. We have previously written about the sort of outline for a settlement that the Russians have in mind, and we could from now on see increasing diplomatic efforts to achieve it.
This article first appeared in The National Interest:
In August 2008, when Russia’s military appeared to be preparing to move through the Roki Tunnel from Russia into Georgia’s South Ossetia, Bush administration officials told Georgia’s then president, Mikheil Saakashvili, “don’t get drawn into a trap” and “don’t confront the Russian military.”
They quite correctly feared that what one official termed “a ‘Guns of August’ scenario’” could lead to full-scale war and Georgia’s defeat. Yet today, some seem to think that the United States should take the opposite approach in Ukraine or even to imply that the Obama administration should not have discouraged Kiev from resisting Moscow’s seizure of Crimea from a position of great weakness. Few explain why Ukraine’s escalation—with or without lethal U.S. military assistance—would not spring the same trap that the Bush administration encouraged Georgia to avoid. Even fewer describe what America would have to do to prevent Ukraine’s defeat in a wider war. This does no favors for either the United States or Ukraine.
Perhaps most striking in the Ukraine crisis is the extent to which Western leaders and politicians and pundits agree that “Putin must be stopped” while expecting someone else to do the work. NATO’s new “front line” states in Central Europe appear eager for the United States to arm Ukraine, but reluctant to become too involved themselves (or, for that matter, to increase their defense budgets commensurately with the threat they describe). Western European governments want the United States to take the lead, but don’t want to follow Washington into anything too costly, and the European Union is providing Ukraine with less than 1 percent of the assistance it has committed to Greece. In fairness, Ukraine’s economy is somewhat more than half Greece’s, and Ukraine is not an EU member. Still, Ukraine’s population is four times higher than Greece’s and many European officials describe its fate as almost existential for Europe.
No small fraction of America’s political leaders, including senior officials in the Obama administration, are ready to arm Ukraine, but few if any are willing to send U.S. troops into combat; in other words, they are fully prepared to fight Putin—to the last Ukrainian. Or perhaps to the last dollar that the Congress would authorize for this purpose, a limit that they would likely see sooner, since recent legislative proposals call for about $60 million for offensive weapons out of $300 million in total assistance.
These political realities across NATO’s democracies raise two fundamental questions about policy toward Russia and Ukraine.
The first has to do with commitment and it has two components. Do the “hawks” seeking to force the administration to spend $60 million—roughly equivalent to the proposed 2016 budget for Washington DC’s public libraries—and like-minded Europeans think that minimal commitments like this will do the job? After spending hundreds of billions of dollars to fight nonstate adversaries in Iraq and Afghanistan, with military capabilities considerably inferior to Russia’s, U.S. and European assistance to Ukraine is either a fig leaf or a very small down payment.
In the former case, if $60 million is all that America as a nation is willing to spend to defend Ukraine, we would be better off admitting this to ourselves sooner rather than later. A half-hearted policy (or, for that matter, a 5 percent–hearted policy) to confront Moscow will likely produce outcomes demonstrably worse than a settlement—better to get the most advantages possible negotiated terms than to set up ourselves and the NATO alliance for a high-profile defeat.
Conversely, if the advocates of this course see small arms deliveries as the first step in a substantially broader effort, they should be honest with the American people about their proposed objectives and the costs and benefits they foresee.
If the United States is to make confronting Russia an organizing principle of its foreign policy, it will require an extended national commitment that will be unsustainable without broad public support (and difficult to pursue without virtually nonexistent European public support).
Indeed, if advocates of this approach believe that a nuclear superpower—notwithstanding its other weaknesses—has already made an analogous national commitment to confront the United States, as many of them argue, it is difficult to understand why they have not done this already. If Moscow has indeed made such a choice, which does not seem very likely, it would be a much graver threat than Iran or the Islamic State.
The second fundamental question about our policy toward Russia and Ukraine is a moral one. If the United States is not willing to make a commitment to defending Ukraine sufficient to ensure success, how can we encourage Ukrainians to fight and die in a conflict with a very powerful neighbor and with no clear endpoint? Allowing the government in Kiev and the Ukrainians resisting Moscow to think that America is behind them when we are not—or when we are pretending to ourselves that we are—is functionally equivalent to encouraging the 1956 uprising in Hungary, or the 1991-92 Shi’ite uprisings against Saddam Hussein, and then watching the devastating consequences for the courageous people who believe us. Making a moral case to assist Ukraine without answering tough moral questions about outcomes means pursuing “the histrionics of moralism at the expense of its substance,” as George Kennan put it.
The George W. Bush administration, which was not shy in making moral arguments about U.S. foreign policy, appeared to follow this logic in Georgia in 2008. Why shouldn’t the Obama administration do the same in Ukraine?
Most important, being honest with ourselves, with our allies and with Ukrainians does not mean acquiescing to Russia’s conduct or giving up. On the contrary, it is the first step in building a policy that can work in protecting U.S. national interests and strengthening European security. Reckless rhetoric or—worse—reckless action helps no one but the Kremlin hawks looking for an excuse to escalate the fighting and a means to distract attention from their own failings. Washington should discourage Kiev from providing either.
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