President Joe Biden, the weakest president in modern American history, having presided over the treacherous and bloody collapse of Afghanistan, has now made an open-ended pledge to Ukraine’s leader, Volodymyr Zelensky, that the United States would “respond decisively” should Moscow invade Ukraine.
Biden’s pledge appears to have been made without coordination with America’s NATO allies, and NATO itself has not discussed the issue. Ukraine is not a NATO member and therefore no NATO country, including the United States, has a treaty obligation to defend it.
On the other hand, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a December message to Zelensky that “NATO stands with Ukraine. All Allies support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” And like Biden’s pledge, Stoltenberg’s declaration was not approved by NATO’s members.
American and NATO-directed saber rattling threatens European peace more than it threatens Russia.
Europe is in no condition to foster a conflict with Russia that could lead to fighting from the Baltics to the Black Sea and probably see the collapse of a number of NATO allies, not to mention political upheaval in Western European capitals.
Any actual fighting would have to be done by the United States; European armies are in no condition to do much. But U.S. air power and land forces would have to be launched from NATO countries, raising those countries to combatant status, facing Russian retaliation, even if they commit few forces of their own.
It is not unreasonable to think that the NATO alliance will quickly cease to exist if a significant war starts.
Biden’s pledge and Stoltenberg’s declarations are reckless in another way. While they should have been stressing the need for a political solution, challenging both Ukraine and Russia to come to the table, their militant statements encourage the hotheads in both places to create provocations that “require” military action.
The Ukrainians have resisted negotiations under the Minsk I and Minsk II accords, which strongly imply that the outcome would be some form of local autonomy for the unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic. It is almost certain Ukraine’s leaders are resisting for domestic political reasons and in fact might prefer that Russia recognize the two republics and then try to get the United States and NATO to fight for Ukraine.
If Russia recognizes the two and, on that basis, makes security arrangements with them that includes moving Russian forces openly into those areas, would that constitute an “invasion” from the Biden and Stoltenberg perspective? If yes, what would they to do about it?
Russia, for its part, has bigger fish to fry than Donetsk and Luhansk. The red line for President Putin is an actual NATO military presence in Ukraine. There is little doubt we are getting closer and closer to that in real terms as the United States provides sophisticated armaments to Ukraine and conducts spy flights along the Ukraine-Russia border, while also carrying out military maneuvers on the Black Sea around Crimea. Putin’s objective is to get a pledge that NATO won’t make Ukraine a member of the alliance and for NATO to at least reduce its allegedly offensive posturing in NATO’s east, particularly Poland.
Unfortunately we do not have a read out of any kind from the latest Biden-Putin phone call. The recent call was supposed to set the stage for negotiations between the United States and Russia on Jan. 9 and 10. Russia is also supposed to meet with NATO on Jan. 12. From the little that can be learned, the call was unconstructive, and included threats of sanctions and other measures, and threats by Russia to cut its diplomatic ties with the United States.
It would be unfair to accuse Biden of acting without political support at home for his threats to Russia. There is strong pro-Ukraine sentiment in the Congress and, to a certain degree, in the public. And no one much likes Russia. But fighting Russia would be vastly different than fighting Saddam Hussein or the Taliban.
Russia has rebuilt its military, has a strong air force and air defenses, and is physically close to all the potential targets in Eastern Europe. Worse still, it is difficult to understand what an end game might be.
Would the war stay in Ukraine or expand to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland? Would the Russians go after airfields and depots in Germany or even the UK? Even if the war didn’t spread, would the United States/NATO make a pledge to stay in Ukraine indefinitely?
Beyond Ukraine, the United States should consider what others, including China, might do. Should a war, even a localized one, break out in Europe, China is likely to take advantage and take military action against Taiwan, figuring the United States simply does not have the resources or the skill to take on two major adversaries at once.
Biden’s pledge to Zelensky is thus dangerous to American interests at many levels.
It is past time for Washington to stop posturing and encourage negotiations before the threats become a self-fulfilling prophecy.