The Biden administration seems to have thought it could scare the Russians away from Ukraine, so refused, on principle, to negotiate. The Russians weren’t scared off, and we and our allies (not to mention the Ukrainians) are without much of a policy.
A superpower shouldn’t make threats that won’t be backed up. The United States and NATO—who don’t agree on very much—do agree that no one will use military force to defend Ukraine. That means all the threats are economic and political.
This is necessary, because America’s ability to defend Eastern Europe militarily is, to say the least, questionable. We have few ground forces, no in-depth defenses against Russian missiles and rockets, and little assurance that NATO can fight even if it chooses to. The expansion of NATO in the 1990s came when most of our allies had disarmed as part of the “peace dividend” after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The United States did some serious disarming as well, and the result is that no NATO member outside of the United States can really defend its own territory, let alone someone else’s. And keep in mind that Ukraine isn’t a NATO member.
In addition, U.S. forces are weaker today because of long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, throwing away trillions of dollars and leaving a lot of our forces unable to be summoned to a fight. Readiness levels remain appallingly poor despite some improvements during the prior administration. In addition, the Pentagon continues to ignore important defense systems, including tactical and strategic air defenses; we have sent our soldiers to war with no air cover against missile and drone attacks. War stocks, too, which take years to replenish, are at bare minimum levels or below.
Objective conditions leave any U.S. leader with an almost empty military hand.
The right move, the clever move, would have been serious arms control negotiations with Moscow when Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded them. Putin handed the administration a clear opportunity, because it appears the Russians are afraid of NATO. It appears—it may not be true—but if they are afraid of NATO, we could work out deals to protect European security and Russian security, something the Russians not only say they want, but also put their “want” in the form of demands.
The same possibility for negotiations had applied to Ukraine. The Russians argued that the Ukrainians should negotiate the terms provided for by the Minsk Protocols. Washington, however, applied no pressure on Kyiv, although it’s a signatory along with the two Donbas “republics.” The core issue there was limited autonomy for those “republics,” which the Russians have now recognized as independent and to which they have sent “peacekeepers.”
Certainly, it would have been difficult, but Ukraine would have held onto the “republics” and taken away the Russian excuse to threaten Ukrainian independence. But the Ukrainians really were convinced, wrongly, that support from Washington would get them back the lost areas with no compromise and chase the Russians away. Washington should never have been allowed that fantasy.
There’s a reason that Ukraine isn’t in NATO—and that adding it isn’t on the NATO agenda. It makes no sense to have encouraged the Ukrainians in their misguided beliefs. It makes less sense to do it while the big challenge to both U.S. security and the U.S. economy is China. U.S. defense policy had been to be able to fight two regional wars at once. We can’t. We don’t have the forces and are unlikely to have them in 20 years if we begin to build now. Which we are not.
President Joe Biden claims vast experience in foreign policy from his days on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and his service as vice president under President Barack Obama. Even without delving into how the Biden family was making millions of dollars in Ukraine and China, the fact is that Biden has lost sight of America’s strategic responsibilities. Making meaningless threats, not being firm with Ukraine, and leaving Europe hanging by a thread, the administration and its cohorts have significantly compounded the regional threat and put the United States in the unfortunate position of not only undermining deterrence but also increasing the possibility that NATO will disappear.
The Europeans have been moving forward on a separate defense alliance, probably excluding some Eastern Europeans, and including only core Western European players. It’s a bad idea that hadn’t been taken too seriously in Washington, but America’s strategic blunders will give it a boost. The United States will lose its role as a security guarantor for Europe, and the emerging system will try to work its own deals with the Russians. You can be fairly certain they will be worse than Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler.
The United States didn’t need this confrontation with Russia, yet here we are with no apparent way out.