allies, Antony Blinken, Biden, China, Germany, international law, NATO, natural gas, Nord Stream 2, North Atlantic treaty Organization, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, Russia, sanctions, spheres of influence, Taiwan, Ukraine
The Russia-Ukraine crisis at this point looks like a good news/bad news story – except as was the case when I posted last on the subject, the bad news still looks more important.
The good news: It’s now clear that President Biden knows how dangerously loony it would be to oppose a Russian invasion of Ukraine or intensification of hybrid war against the former Soviet republic with U.S. military forces.
Last Wednesday, he told reporters that putting “U.S. troops on the ground…in or around Ukraine to stop an invasion” was “not on the table” – at least “right now.” And despite that qualifier, he said three days later that this idea was never “on the table.”
That’s good news because, as I explained a week ago, geography makes Ukraine completely indefensible against Russia with conventional weapons, and largely as a result, it’s all too easy to imagine scenarios in which a President would face heavy pressure to rescue endangered American units with nuclear weapons use, which would almost certainly prompt a similar response by Moscow that could also easily escalate to a full-scale nuclear conflict. Worse, this risk would be run on behalf of a country that was never deemed anywhere remotely resembling a U.S. vital interest even during the Cold War.
Potentially better news: At least according to this Associated Press (AP) report, Mr. Biden is considering accommodating Russia’s stated security concerns about Ukraine and its relationship to the West – to the point of pressing “Ukraine to formally cede a measure of autonomy within its eastern Donbas region, which is now under de facto control by Russia-backed separatists who rose up against Kyiv in 2014” and reportedly telling Ukraine that “NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] membership is unlikely to be approved in the next decade….”
It’s not yet clear whether such steps would be enough to appease Russia – which has demanded a formal guarantee on the NATO issue, among others. And the AP report, which looks like a standard Washington trial balloon, doesn’t exactly square with Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s public insistence yesterday that “One country can’t exert a sphere of influence over others.”
But the evident decision of Biden administration officials to float compromise ideas along with the President’s ruling out of military options at least signals a welcome American awareness that its leverage and stakes in this part of the world are severely limited, and that ringing declarations of support for principles like “international law” and “territorial integrity” can often create more and more serious problems than they solve.
As also mentioned at the start, however, the Ukraine news isn’t all good. My first ongoing concern: President Biden is still talking about responding to an invasion of Ukraine by sending “more American and NATO troops into the [alliance’s] eastern flank…where we have a sacred obligation — to defend [those countries] against any attack by Russia.”
Mr. Biden is correct about U.S. treaty obligations. But as I wrote last week, this move, which could deploy large numbers of western forces very close to large numbers of Russian forces, is also a great recipe for an accidental war that, like a deliberately entered conflict, could go nuclear.
The administration and the U.S. main allies (see, e.g., here) are calling economic sanctions against Russia the main focus of their retaliatory plans, and that’s certainly less dangerous, at least in the short run, than military steps. But for two teasons, that doesn’t mean “completely safe.” First, these economic measures could push Russia and China closer together (as I mentioned last week). And as I didn’t mention, but was worried about nonetheless, such an alliance, or quasi-alliance, creates the possibility of the United States fighting two simultaneous wars against two formidable military powers – over Ukraine and over Taiwan.
It would be comforting to think that the President and his advisors are worried about this prospect, too, and further, recognize that unlike Ukraine, Taiwan’s security has become a U.S. vital interest because of its world leadership in semiconductor manufacturing technology. But even despite Mr. Biden’s reported interest in accommodating important Russia-related Ukraine concerns, I wish I saw more and more public signs of such priority-setting.
Second, I’m not so sure that all of America’s European allies would go along with all or even most of the U.S. sanctions. After all, with the worst of winter still surely on the way, they depend heavily on Russian exports of natural gas. And Germany, in particular, seems determined to increase this reliance ith its involvement in constructing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
Berlin seems to be having second thoughts about this project. But Ukraine has officially accused Germany of blocking some of NATO’s efforts to supply it with weapons supplies. So it’s anyone’s guess where the policy of Germany’s new government is actually headed. And unfortunately, that’s my main conclusion so far about the Biden administration’s approach, too.