Stark Choices
Fish or Cut Bait on Ukraine

America’s choices in Ukraine, as in the Middle East, are few and they are ugly. But a choice needs to be made. The half-hearted dithering that has passed for policy up until now from the West will no longer suffice.

Published on: September 3, 2014
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  • rheddles

    Ukraine isn’t South Vietnam and it isn’t Afghanistan. There is much more promising material to work with

    This assumption is questionable, at least with respect to South Vietnam. Ukraine is not Poland. Ukraine was under Soviet control since the revolution, subject to starvation by Stalin to eliminate the kulaks, invaded by the Germans with whom many collaborated, shortly thereafter re-invaded by the Red Army who transported plenty of the collaborators and others to Siberia and then ruled under the Soviet system for another 40 years. This was a history far different from Poland or the Baltics which were not subject to Lenin and the early Stalin. It is questionable whether any semblance of a civil society remained by 1989, probably even less than in Russia. To expect Ukraine to have done as well as Poland would have been unrealistic under the most favorable situation, and the situation was far from favorable. To expect to be able to do nation building there now under these circumstances is naive.

    And ultimately, this is not about Ukraine.

    It is about whether we will allow Putin to reassemble the Soviet Union. He wants to and is willing to pay a high price to do so. But the price he would have to pay is far lower than the price we would have to pay to stop him. Are we ready to pay that price to deny him? The American people are not ready for a war with this enemy. Not enough of Europe is. Putin is. Obama is correct that Putin’s moves are not those of a strong power. They are the moves of a power facing decline, as Russia surely is. Powers in relative decline are the ones who start wars. And Putin has the support of the Russian people for now. My vote would be to cut bait and as well as a deal. Split Ukraine and get the western portion in NATO asap, or get a deal similar to Austria in the Cold War. Transfer most of our troops in Germany to new major bases in Poland. Add troops to the Baltics. Restart the missile defense systems for Poland and the Czech Republic.

    Putin wants to recreate the Soviet Union. Let him. They lost the last cold war and they would lose the next. Many in Ukraine will suffer, but preventing human suffering is not a reason to start a war that would cause greater suffering. We’ve got bigger fish to fry.

    • ShadrachSmith

      Cut bait.

  • Anthony

    Why does this website spend some much time talking about Putin and The Ukraine? China is the only country that is in a real position to challenge us hegemony, and yet there are nine articles about Putin for every one about the long term threat that China poses.

    If the other eastern european countries want to prevent Russia from attacking them, they should get smart and develop their own nuclear weapons. The real reason that Americans are afraid of taking on Putin is that Russia is a nuclear power.

    The same logic applies in Asia. If Japan, Indonesia and Vietnam want to deter China, nuclear weapons are far away the most cost effective option.

    • rheddles

      I suspect China knows it would take Japan about 8 weeks to build a nuke. Probably 10 for South Korea.

    • ShadrachSmith

      Russia controlling two major Black Sea ports (Odessa, Sevastopol) with lines of communication to Moscow has been a topic of geopolitical interest since before Britain sent Churchill into the valley of death.

      It is a big topic to us. feel free to care about other things 🙂

      • Bob Bentley

        Winston Churchill wasn’t even born at the time of the Charge of the Light Brigade, which took place during the Crimean War (October 1853 – February 1856). I think you must be confusing this with the charge of the 21st Lancers at the Battle of Omdurman (2 September 1898), in which the young Lieutenant Winston Churchill participated.

        • ShadrachSmith

          Forgive me for waxing lyrical, but your post is exactly what I’m talkin’ about. Some of us love this stuff 🙂

    • Anthony

      Anthony, I trust AI and its various writers recognize both Ukraine’s relevance and other foreign policy items of note i.e. Pacific region.

      • Anthony

        While it is true that this magazine covers many subjects, and covers some subjects very well, for the past few months it’s become obsessed with taking on Putin. I check this website daily, mainly because I love Professor Mead’s perspective on the domestic economic scene and his focus on what is going on in China, and it seems that every time I come onto the page, their is another anti-putin article.

        • Anthony

          A fairly accurate assessment; do as many (I’m sure) and glide by or articulate your displeasure as above.

        • Andrew Allison

          Your assessment is not borne out by the facts. I had to go back eight Feed posts to find this one, and only one of the first 10 feature posts could be construed as anti-Putin.

    • Duperray

      Ah, finally someone not dazzled by current hysteric media campaign !
      And what a stupid campaign, based on nothing (not the smallest evidence of russian soldiers in Ukraine, as per OSCE and US state department). Same thing about MH downing: Not even a whisper, a fact that demonstrate how much Pentagone-warriors are embarassed.
      Please, before to shoot, ensure you have proper evidences !!!
      For an ordinary person – not (yet) contaminated by hysteric medias – shall russian Army be helping separatists, Kiev Army would have been changed into smouldering arsons for months ! As simple as that, and they would have never left kievan lands artillery shells by thousand on civilian population. They would have rushed in a north-south drive thru Ukraine via Kiev and split the territory in two, then take Donbass: Fait accompli !
      And about Putin’s intention to invade Europe or part of it? How come a realistic military system could think one minute that a 145-million people country could smash a 550-million region which GDP/capita is double? Overall, we acn add USA !!
      No, all this ukrainian story is to divert our attention from more serious targets contemplated by Obama, not in Chinea Sea but Middle East/Afghanistan.
      But so far nobody in this planet is able to overguess Obama.

    • Anthony

      The United States is not omnipotent. Our finances are in terrible
      shape, and our middle class has collapsed. Yet the foreign policy
      establishment, which grew to prominence in an era in which the USA was
      significantly more powerful than it is now, wants America to take on
      three potentially catastrophic challenges at once. We are told that
      America needs to counter Russia in Ukraine – Mead bizarrely suggests in
      this piece that we might have to send American ground troops to The
      Ukraine when western europe cannot even agree to a sanctions package
      with teeth – invade and occupy Syria, re occupy Iraq and counter the
      very real possibility of Chinese aggression in Northeast Asia and
      Southeast Asia.

      It doesn’t take a genius to see that this is
      madness. The United States of 1945, which then accounted for almost
      fifty percent of global GDP, would have struggled waging three wars
      simultaneously. For The United States of today, I fear such a course of
      action would be ruinous. What allies do we bring to the table?
      America’s core allies, Western Europe and Japan, are in even worse
      economic shape than we are.

  • LivingRock

    Others may come along at their own pace, perhaps after the Russians have taken delivery on their latest arms sales.

    Just to note: France has finally “postponed” the delivery of Mistral war ships to Russia.

  • Zolicon

    ” Fish or Cut Bait on Ukraine ”

    Actually You have to Cut Bait before You Fish.

  • Anthony

    “We have serious enemies who spend nights and weekends thinking about ways to undermine our power and block our goals…They are sometimes good at what they do” – inferred is worldview opposition (post World War II/Cold War). To think we are just months away from 25th anniversary of Cold War end – only to be potentially revisited. Implications of WRM’s essay are both sobering and ominous – hard power choices/options generally are. For this reason, must it boil down to either we arm Ukraine, or we force Kiev to surrender? And yes NATO is a military alliance that may be presently under resourced but it has framework. Nevertheless, “if Putin now wins in Ukraine, all these unflattering conclusions about American incompetence and indecisiveness will be seared into the memories of every leader on Planet Earth. President Obama will be an empty suit and the next president of the United States will inherit a much uglier world and a weaker alliance system than President Obama found on his inauguration day.”

  • Boritz

    This is clear and hard-hitting analysis. Unfortunately, if the president was capable of reaching the kinds of conclusions set forth here (set aside his willingness to act on them) he would not have been nominated by his party or supported by the media, and the voters under the tutelage of both would not have elected him. They all were and are looking for a post-modern leader who does not exist on the same plane where this kind of thinking resides.

    Those who listen to talk radio know that a line was crossed sometime in the recent past. Pundits who once spoke of how we were going down the wrong road and would one day reap the consequences of those policies are now saying that those consequences are now
    here and we are living them. Principled liberals/moderates like WRM are behind on this curve and can write articles like this warning of future meltdowns for a while longer but will also be forced eventually to discuss ruin in the present tense.

  • Andrew Allison

    Do you seriously believe that the “real rulers of Ukraine” have the slightest interest in reform? The so-called “transition to a market economy” following the breakup of the Soviet Union and independence was, as in Russia, actually a transition to oligarchy. I question WRM’s premise that “A Russian victory here won’t be the end”. It will end when the West draws a line in the sand which it is ready to fight to maintain. It’s far from clear that Ukraine is worth fighting for, but something very close to a fight is going to be necessary somewhere.

    • Thirdsyphon

      Something very close to a fight is already happening. Putin has crawled into a box that he can’t get out of. His whole regime rests on the popular perception that he’s a “strong leader.” So far that’s been working reasonably well for him, but the crucial weakness of his strategy is that it won’t allow him to suffer or even acknowledge the possibility of defeat. . . at any time, in any sphere, by anyone.

      A losing gambler can refuse to accept defeat for as long as he has the resources to keep upping the ante. So that’s what he’s been doing.

      On the cultural front, he’s somehow boxed himself into fighting a losing war against the 21st Century. Vladimir may or may not ultimately prevail in his bitter twilight struggle against the band “Pussy Riot,” but the fact is he lost that fight the moment he showed up for it. Putin’s response? He upped the ante, and claimed that it was all part of a battle against the decadent values of the West. . . like free speech, and extending equal rights to gay people. That’s not a fight he can ultimately win, but he’s bound to keep escalating this struggle until he becomes a pariah or a laughingstock (he’s arguably already both).

      Economically, Putin is well-aware that Russia’s prosperity, such as it is, is based on extracting resources and exporting them to better-organized countries that have the skills and technology to actually use those resources to manufacture globally competitive products from them, which Russia basically can’t. Energy accounts for 66% of Russian exports; each time the United States announces that it’s yet again boosted its energy production by double digits from the previous year, Putin’s heart skips a beat. On this front, he’s already lost his nerve. . .he should be sanctioning the Western Europeans and escalating the trade war against them, but he can’t. Instead, he’s escalating this Ukraine nonsense and claiming that’s how he’s beating the West.

      The problem with Ukraine, though, is that Putin can’t really control it. NATO isn’t going to roll tanks to shove him out of Eastern Ukraine (the West’s line in the sand for that is spelled out in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty as a military incursion against a member of NATO), but Putin can’t push much farther into the Ukrainian west without encountering vicious resistance (which individual Western nations will probably quietly slip supplies to). . .and the “delta” between how many soldiers in body bags the Russian public is willing to accept as a price of Putin’s leadership and how many the Ukrainians are capable of confronting them with is probably vast. Vast enough that Putin should be very, very careful about his next steps.

  • Thirdsyphon

    This article is lunacy. America’s goal in Ukraine is manifestly not to “inflict a stinging public humiliation on Putin by undoing his ‘conquest’ of Crimea—something that would almost certainly lead to his fall from power and then to exile or prison if not death.” The population of Crimea has no wish to rejoin the Ukrainian government, so reversing Putin’s annexation would only broaden the scope of Ukraine’s dire insurgency while diluting the resources available to fight it.

    Moreover, Vladimir Putin is a sociopath with an iron grip on his country who commands the loyalty of conventional and nuclear forces second only to those of the United States. How far do you think someone like that would go to avoid the gruesome fate that the author of this article has ordained for him?

    As exciting as the author apparently finds the concept of NATO tanks rolling into Ukraine to stop the Red Army, that’s not a fight that humanity is likely to win. NATO’s bright line needs to stay where it’s been all along: on the borders of the member states of NATO.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    I just don’t see the cowardly Obama, who never takes responsibility for anything, and is just voting present as he always has, doing anything. And the Europeans literally can’t do anything as their militarys have been underfunded because their budgets have been pillaged to support the welfare state.

  • Angel Martin

    Professor Mead’s wishful thinking about an Obama turnaround in international affairs is about as realistic as Obama’s hopes for international bad guys to start responding to his hectoring speeches and meaningless sanctions.

  • Corlyss

    The dithering might not suffice, you can bet it will continue for the next 16 months. Val doesn’t know what to do, and so neither does Doofus.

  • schwed

    “the President’s looming humiliation in Europe would make Obama go down in history alongside James Buchanan, ”

    Letting Ukraine be under Russian control is nothing like letting the American South secede. The correct analogy is Truman and Churchill not going to war to roll back the Iron Curtain. Does Mead think Truman and Churchill were appeasers for not going to war with Stalin over his control over Eastern Europe?

    • Anthony

      Well said. Just remember that their were people in Professor Mead’s position in the early 1950s. They denounced the Yalta agreements and called for an armed “rollback” of communism. Eisenhower even talked like this in his campaign for President in 1952. Thankfully, he forgot about this campaign rhetoric upon taking office.

      • Stephen W. Houghton

        Such rhetoric is often useful especially if you are willing to go part way. Remember how Reagan was treated as a lunatic after the “evil empire speech.

  • lukelea

    Putin is an empire builder and his goal is to restore the Kremlin power in all the former lands of the USSR, for starters.

    You write with such confidence.. In any case, even if true, does Europe or the US have a truly vital interest in any of these areas? It is not obvious we do. Georgia, for instance. The Financial Times reports today that steps are being discussed to bring Georgia into NATO, as if some day we might go to war in defense of that inconsequential country. Absurd on the face of it.

    And in the case of Kazakhstan, a much bigger country by far, I predict that any Russian attempt to reassert sovereignty by military means would trigger a Chinese invasion. Were the Chinese forces to overwhelm the Russians through over-whelming numbers, it wouldn’t surprise me entirely it NATO were to enter the conflict on Russia’s side in defense of Europe. Now that would be ironical.

    • Thirdsyphon

      I think the Chinese would respond to a Russian intervention in Kazakhstan in much the same way as the West is currently responding to the situation in Ukraine. That is, not with a military invasion intended to outright defeat Putin and the Red Army, but instead with a venomous cocktail of diplomatic and economic sanctions followed up, if necessary with indirect military assistance for the incumbent regime.

      • lukelea

        I hope you are right. My thinking is based on the supposition that China’s policies will be motivated by jingoism and social unrest (too many unmarried bachelors) and the fact that a conflict on land would be much more advantageous (play to her strengths, which is in sheer numbers) than on the sea. There is a lot of oil and gas in Kazakhstan and very few people. That has to be a consideration.

  • lukelea

    Putin’s flagrant violation of every standard of decency and restraint

    Get a grip.

  • lukelea

    What would it take in the form of arms deliveries, training, air support or NATO troops to crush Putin’s forces in Ukraine and send him slinking home with his tail between his legs?

    WRM is out of his mind.

    • Thirdsyphon

      I’m hoping this was written by one of his staffers. It’s one thing to dispassionately analyze and report the rising influence (for now) of Jacksonian sentiments in foreign policy, but turning oneself into a living caricature of those sentiments is quite another.

    • Anthony

      You guys are just now realizing that Professor Mead is a pretty hard core neocon.

  • amcalabrese

    Cut bait. Ukraine is not a NATO member. As for the middle east, one word — fracking

  • BobSykes

    This is a recipe for nuclear war. As usual, all the staffers at WRM are drooling lunatics. For 347 years, Ukraine was part of the Russian heartland and the origin of the Rus. Russia regards the machinations of the US/EU in Ukraine as aggression, and is responding in kind. Do the WRM staffers really think that the US/EU engineering of a coup d’etat for mere commercial advantage would be acceptable? Do they think that using the Nazi militias of Right Sektor and Swoboda would not arouse memories of Operation Barbarossa? Are they culturally, historically, economically and militarily illiterate? Apparently so.

    This is what is going to happen, assuming the EU/US/NATO lunatics don’t start a nuclear war. Ukraine will remain a nonaligned state: no membership in NATO, no cooperation with NATO, some sort of affiliation short of membership in the EU. The ethnic Russian minority in the east will be protected from the Nazi militias (who have committed all sorts of atrocities against civilians) either by federalization and home rule or by partition. The sanctions will go away, or Europe will be plunged into depression by loss of its gas imports from Russia. Russia might also nationalize European and American investments in Russia, seize the ISS, nullify all the treaties signed with the USSR, reintroduce IRBM in Europe, etc. etc.

    So, stop Western aggression in Ukraine, and cut our losses.

    • Stephen W. Houghton

      Ah, yes I see I was right you are the same dude. The far right militias were not the majority of the fighters. The idea of Putin accusing others of fascism is to laughable for words. Please stop parroting the Russian line.

  • BobSykes

    If you want another view of events in Ukraine (and for that matter the Middle East, Africa and Asia), go to:

    The blog manager and his commenters are strongly pro-Russian and strongly anti-US, and they tell a very different story, which is likely wrong-headed, but no more so than this site.

    • Stephen W. Houghton

      Bob aren’t you the one who goes around calling a popular revolution a coup d;etat.

      • hank

        So if all the Northeastern liberals overthrew Bush, would that have been a “popular revolution”?

  • hank

    In 2010, under a pro-Euro government with European election observers on the ground (especially in the east), the Ukrainian citizens elected a pro-Russian gov’t. Yet because the pro-Russian gov’t failed to ratify a trade agreement (and why wasn’t this signed under the pro-Euro gov’t?), the western part of the country overthrows the democratically elected gov’t. Then the Crimea votes to secede and come under Russian control and the eastern provinces vote to be independent. They know their vote doesn’t count. America and Europe ignore the results of these elections. Kiev begins to massacre people and bomb infrastructure in the east. America and Europe ignore the tens of thousands of refugees that flee the eastern Ukraine. Eastern Ukrainians are now persons-non-grata. If the Ukraine ever holds another national election, Kiev and their pro-Euro gov’t is sure to win. And yet the American media remains fixated on the evil Dr. Putin.
    In summary: three elections are ignored. Instead of encouraging the Ukraine to run a candidate/platform to win the presidency in 2016, America and Europe help with a coup so that the Ukraine can experience more Euro-socialism. And any suffering by those in the eastern Ukraine will be ignored.
    “Journalists” are pathetic.

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