Baltic states, Biden, China, Cold War, deterrence, Jens Stoltenbeg, NATO, North Atlantic treaty Organization, nuclear weapons, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, Russia, spheres of influence, Ukraine, vital interests, Vladimir Putin
With President Biden scheduled to speak tomorrow on a Zoom-like call with Russian leader Vladimir Putin over the intensifying crisis in Ukraine, I’m worried that the President, along with his counterpart at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), could stumble into a genuinely scary situation with only two bad ways out. The first is a wholly unnecessary conflict that could all too easily go nuclear. The second (and, thankfully, far likelier) is a humiliating climb-down by the United States and the rest of the NATO. For good measure, chances that Russia and China would be driven much closer together would go way up in either case.
The specific causes of these concerns are Mr. Biden’s warning to Russian leader Vladimir Putin that he won’t “accept anybody’s red lines” and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s declaration that “Russia has no veto. Russia has no say. And Russia has no right to establish a sphere of influence, trying to control their neighbours.”
And they’re worrisome because Russia’s red line – Putin’s insistence that NATO agree not to expand eastward by granting membership to Ukraine and other countries on Russia’s borders, or to deploy “weapons systems that threaten us in close vicinity to the Russian territory” – is supremely credible due both to geography and to Moscow’s big nuclear arsenal, and because these assets are precisely what give the west absolutely no choice but to accept Russia’s domination of its neighbors.
In an ideal world, countries could conduct whatever (peaceful) foreign policies they wanted, including entering into whatever alliances or other international arrangements they pleased, no matter what their neighbors – however powerful – thought. But in this world, Ukraine is located right next door to Russia. As a result, its external relationships will inevitably and understandably concern Moscow – just as the external relationships of Western Hemisphere countries have always concerned the United States and resulted in the Monroe Doctrine.
As I’ve written repeatedly, (see, e.g., here), Ukraine is completely indefensible with conventional weapons and boasts no geopolitical or economic assets of significant interest to America or the rest of Europe. (The country sits on huge natural gas reserves of value to Europe, but as the Nordstream 2 pipeline controversy makes clear, Germany and much of the rest of western Europe are happy to increase its gas dependence on, of all countries, Russia.)
In principle, America’s own nuclear strength could enable it to deter Russian aggression against Ukraine. But due to its combination of acute military vulnerability and economic insignificance, Ukraine was never viewed as a vital interest by the United States even during the Cold War, when changing its then status as a Soviet republic arguably could have created some benefits to the West in a global East-West struggle with an ideological dimension. So Washington never even considered trying to use nuclear threats to influence Moscow’s policies toward the region – or, for similar reasons, anywhere else in the Soviet bloc.
Because Ukraine’s independence and well-being are even less important to the West these days, but the former is just as important to Russia, any Western talk of responding militarily to a Russian invasion or incursion or continuation of the hybrid war against Ukraine (and other countries) Moscow is apparently waging, will ring completely hollow.
Yet it’s anything but difficult to imagine how major power conflict could still break out, especially if NATO decides to beef up its military forces in Ukraine’s vicinity still further, and if any fighting that breaks out in Ukraine spills over its borders. Chances are the West would have little choice to back off (the humiliating climb-down). But what if U.S. or European units were somehow quickly engulfed in combat? Is the possibility that American leaders would use nuclear weapons to save them zero? In my view, it’s practically zero because of Russia’s retaliatory capabilities. But I find the fact that the possibility is anywhere above zero completely terrifying and just as completely unacceptable – the more so because of Ukraine’s irrelevance to American security.
And this is where those “red lines” and “spheres of influence” come in. It’s high time that Mr. Biden and his NATO counterparts recognize that the Russian version of the former can’t responsibly be ignored, and that the latter offers far and away the best guarantee of preserving peace in Europe on terms eminently satisfactory to the greatest number of parties and populations involved.
In a 2014 article following that year’s conflict between Russia and Ukraine (it’s off-line now, but you’ll find a reference to it at this link), I actually urged the United States to go farther – to offer Russia neutralization of the three Baltic countries that also used to be former Soviet republics in return for Moscow’s pledge to respect their sovereignty fully. I know it sounds craven, but these states have much the same kinds of Russian minority populations that have given Putin one of his main pretexts for interfering in Ukraine’s affairs, and they’re just as militarily indefensible without threatening to go nuclear.
The Russian leader hasn’t put the Baltics on the table yet, so for now this step might not be necessary (although his aim of preventing “deployment of weapons systems that threaten us in close vicinity to the Russian territory” could easily turn out to cover the Baltics). But Washington shouldn’t consider it off the table, either, since outside-the-box diplomacy like this might also help defuse an actual threat to U.S. interests – a new Sino-Russia quasi- or even formal alliance that would emerge just as China continues threatening Taiwan, whose semiconductor manufacturing prowess is indeed vital to American security. Indeed, such a gambit could set the stage for turning the tables on Beijing – which clearly poses a much greater danger to America now and for the foreseeable future.
President Biden ran for the White House in part on his reputation for reaching across the aisle while in Congress and as Vice President, and finding compromise solutions to thorny and often emotionally charged problems. Those kinds of instincts, rather than reckless bluffing with a transparently weak hand, would serve him and the country best when dealing with Putin on Ukraine – and beyond.