Russia’s military actions against Ukraine in and around the Azov Sea have triggered more than a week now of reaction. Both the UN Security Council and the NATO-Ukraine Commission convened emergency sessions. NATO member states issued statements. President Trump blurred American condemnation by saying, “We do not like what’s happening either way,” while also cancelling a planned bilateral meeting with Vladimir Putin at the G-20 and attributing the move to Russia’s actions. We’ve also seen a spate of op-eds, some insisting that Ukraine belongs to Russia’s sphere of influence; others arguing that Ukraine is vital to American security, and that the United States as a result must respond with the full weight of American diplomacy and the threat of military action.
Let’s take the measure of it all 11 days in.
Ukraine doves on both sides of the aisle point out that Ukraine is not a member of NATO. It is also a fact that Ukraine is a country whose democracy struggles mightily under the weight of pervasive corruption and kleptocracy. Some argue that Ukrainian President Poroshenko is taking advantage of the current crisis to boost his political fortunes, and criticize his declaration of martial law as overreach.
The American approach to the problem must be clear-eyed and hard-headed. This includes making it plain to our European allies that Ukraine is first and foremost a European interest. Yet, to note Ukraine’s flaws, or to say (again) that Europe must step up, does not mean the United States can afford to step down. Profound American interests are at stake.
For one thing, we have an enduring interest in the cohesion and vitality of NATO, and we have a Russia undertaking actions time and again that test our alliance on each and every front. “Putin’s war with Ukraine, like nearly everything else he pursues, is in the end all about America,” says Julia Joja, a Black Sea security expert and former adviser to a Romanian President. “Putin measures Russia’s success by American failure,” she tells us from Berlin. Indeed, Ukraine is a piece in a larger puzzle.
We used to do puzzles rather well. We once understood that nations maintain alliances to enhance their power. World War II, the Marshall Plan, the Korean War, the Berlin airlift, and the Cold War defense of Western Europe all had in common the defense of American interests. They all set the stage for American freedom, security, and prosperity.
To take such a view of things hardly makes one a relic of the past.
It is perhaps fitting to recall, as we prepare to lay to rest former President George H.W. Bush this week, that Bush grasped a larger view of things. Together with his Secretary of State James Baker III, Bush assembled in 1991 a coalition of 32 nations to eject Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait. It was the United States and Britain that did the military heavy lifting. Yet the United States depended heavily on NATO bases in Europe for all sorts of logistical support, including ammunition transfers, air traffic control, and refueling—and for political legitimacy. It is also easily forgotten that Operation Desert Storm actually had little to do with tiny Kuwait. The White House had a vision and strategy for the Middle East and the world in those days. We deemed it unacceptable that Saddam would grab Kuwait in a move designed to advance Iraq’s larger ambition for regional hegemony.
There are parallels today, even if oil and Israel do not figure into the current equation. Do not think for a moment the current Ukraine crisis is merely about a few vessels in the Azov Sea. It’s all of a piece, Russia’s slice and dice, the Kremlin’s cheat and retreat: cyber-attacks on Estonia, the invasion of Georgia, meddling in Moldova, the annexation of Crimea, the mischief with Iran and Syria, the interference in elections across Europe—and in the United States—and the ongoing war with Ukraine.
We bristle over the Washington conference parlor game whether Putin is a leader with a strategy, or whether he is merely an opportunist. Of course, he is both! Much in the spirit of what Scoop Jackson used to say of the Soviets—Putin is a cat burglar in a hotel, checking to see which door was left unlocked. Sometimes he slips in to commit the grand larceny of an election, sometimes the murder of an opponent. Yet none of this tactical opportunism means Putin is a man without a vision.
Can it really be lost on us by now that Putin wants to restore empire in the East, weaken and divide Europe in the West, and—the main event—build Russia up by cutting America down? It’s folly to think we can separate and contain these ambitions.
Let’s calm the hyper-realists and neo-isolationists. Of course, Russia is not a rising power like China. Nor are we suggesting Americans fight Russians in Ukraine. Rather, we are arguing that it is finally time for us to have a vision and strategy of our own, and that we will never get anywhere until we’re ready to push the Kremlin back. For the likes of Vladimir Putin, deterrence is respected. Weakness is provocative. In this instance, how to show strength? It’s high time we take full measures in order to allow Ukraine properly to defend itself. That must start with a substantial increase in the supply of lethal weapons to Kyiv. Sanctions should be expanded as well, both against Russian goods that move by ship and Russian individuals involved in maritime activities.
As long as we are seduced by the idea that all the bits and pieces of Russian aggression do not connect, we enable Vladimir Putin to advance his vision of a world where American power is diminished and diluted. This would be a world where NATO as a U.S.-led community of democracies sees itself ultimately relegated to the dustbin of history, and talk of advancing American interests pretty much anywhere becomes just that—all talk.