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When it comes to explaining a big and possibly the biggest reason that Ukraine is under apparently full-scale attack by Russia, why it faces a foreseeable future of major casualties and widespread destruction (especially if it mounts a full-scale resistance), and why a longer-term future of heavy-handed dominance by Russia is surely in store, the late George Kennan put it best.

That’s no surprise, since Kennan was one of the most learned, most rigorous, and most practical minds ever to analyze the foreign policies not only of the United States but of Russia and the old Soviet Union. And as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman reminded his readers Monday, Kennan was one of the few voices warning why the 1990s U.S. decisions to push the bounds of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) right up to the Russian border were practically bound to bring tragic consequences. The full Kennan remarks (given in a telephone interview) are well worth reading, but to me, by far the most crucial point was this:

We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a lighthearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs. What bothers me is how superficial and ill informed the whole Senate debate was.”

He’s entirely correct about the cavalier nature of the Capitol Hill decision-making needed to formalize this treaty modification – the bloviating and posturing and sloganeering about defending freedom and deterring aggression and new world orders that were completely disconnected from the iron realities of brute power and immutable geography.

But this particular list of culprits was far too short, because it should have included the entirely of the Clinton administration (and the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, which successfully pushed for new rounds of NATO expansion), along with virtually all of the academics, think tankers, pundit, and mainstream media foreign policy and national security reporters making up the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

Moreover, at least as important today, the quality of decision-making and analysis inside or outside the federal government remains just as unhinged from both the facts on the ground in Europe – not to mention the skepticism about the establishment’s judgement and competence that’s clearly shaping public opinion at home

As a result, Ukraine is now paying the price of their pig-headed refusal (which President Biden has so far continued) to help devise security arrangements in Eastern Europe that actually reflected the national interests (or lack thereof) of the major parties, and the real current and likely future power balances in the region.

It’s entirely possible that neutralizing or Finlandizing the former Soviet bloc countries and regions that used to be part of the Soviet Union itself (in particular Ukraine and the Baltic states) would have only fed Moscow’s appetite for further gains, and/or returned those lands to their former state of dictatorial rule and economic stagnation.

But it’s also entirely possible that their experiences could have mirrored those of Austria (neutralized in 1955, during the height of the Cold War) and, yes, famously Finlandized Finland. Both are prosperous democracies whose well-being seems not to have been affected in the slightest by their lack of total freedom of manuever in foreign policy.

What’s most important to recall is that this option was never even seriously entertained by American leaders or their official and unofficial advisers. For they’ve been living in a fantasy world dominated by international law, unfettered national self-determination, global public opinion, “soft power,” and the like. These myths conveniently relieved them of the need to set priorities, call for spending anything close to the major costs required of their ambitions, or preparing for of the sobering risks.

Meanwhile, America’s high degree of intrinsic security (thanks to geography) and prosperity (thanks to a combination of abundant resources and a dynamic economic system) just as conveniently goes far toward relieving both the establishment and country at large of experiencing the full consequences of commitments glibly and (using Kennan’s language) lightheartedly made. 

Except that American leaders haven’t left the nation entirely off the hook. That’s because although the Biden administration in recent weeks hasn’t deployed remotely the kinds of forces able to defend possible future Russian targets like the Baltics etc. from Russian attack, it has deployed more than enough to boost the risk of direct encounters with Russian forces by accident. (The Trump administation took some similar steps, too.) Given the size of both countries’ nuclear arsenals, and the clearcut treaty commitments Washington has made to new NATO members like the Baltics, the results could be nothing less than the stuff of armageddon novels – or a backdown for the West that could truly reverberate globally and kneecap its credibility.

Although Ukraine seems destined to become a Russian satellite, saving the Baltics and other now independent former Soviet republics from such a fate may still be possible. Before this Russian invasion, because many are now NATO members, it seemed like a bridge too far for American politics for Washington to offer to neutralize or Finlandize them.

In the wake of a completed Russian victory in Ukraine (and yes, the occupation may prove Afghanistan-like for Moscow, but that’s far from a certainty), this idea may move up to the status of the best of several lousy options. Certainly it’s the one that better aligns American goals with American capabilities than what Kennan aptly described as Washington’s now increasingly hollow-looking support for their full sovereignty – not to mention an approach less likely to trigger an even wider, far more dangerous war, either by design or accident.