These claims are all true, have some truth to them, or are at least reasonable and worth discussing.
Still, Ukraine should matter to us – not enough to fight a war, no, but enough for us to try to deter Putin and make him pay a high price if he invades. Maintaining NATO and the current European order is clearly in the national security interests of the United States, and it would be strategic folly of the first order to drive them out or significantly erode them, because Putin is hostile to them.
It is not a question of whether or not to wage a war with Russia. What is talked about the most are various forms of sanctions that do not amount to war. We have such penalties on a long list of countries with which we are not engaged in active hostilities, from Cuba to Venezuela to Zimbabwe. Indeed, we already have sweeping sanctions against Russia that have harmed its economy without leading to military conflict.
Nor is it the case that anything Putin does, say, to tighten his grip on Donbass will mean the inevitable collapse of the world order as we know it.
Make no mistake, however, Putin essentially wants to reverse the outcome of the Cold War by bullying NATO into withdrawing from Eastern European countries that have joined the alliance since 1997. That would be perverse if the right started pushing for the United States. act as if he lost the Cold War, when he didn’t, or suffered a catastrophic setback that hasn’t happened in Europe since then. Nor should conservatives start adopting some version of the old Cold War left-wing trope that if only we stopped provoking Russia out of our willingness to defend ourselves and our European allies, everything could be settled at home. amicable between reasonable people.
NATO is a defensive alliance. No one sincerely believes, not even the Kremlin, that it will wage a war of aggression against Russia. Think about it. Since when does Russia have more to fear from, say, Estonia or Poland – countries on NATO’s eastern flank – than it has to fear from Russia?
If Germany isn’t even supplying Ukraine with weapons to resist a possible invasion from Moscow, how is it going to commit to rolling into the heart of Russia? And who is going to provide all the necessary troops and tanks? The United States has a lot of them, but no one else has them.
In this regard, Putin might be justified in dismissing the collective forces of the most important European countries – the United Kingdom, France and Britain – with a version of Otto von Bismarck’s supposed quip, “If Lord Palmerston send the British army to Germany, I have them arrested by the police.
Putin is the aggressor. He is the one who created the crisis out of nowhere by threatening a country that has no interest in threatening a much larger and militarily superior Russia.
Admittedly, what worries Putin most is not a military threat, but the Western model of free and accountable government that puts its kleptocratic authoritarianism in a particularly bad light, especially as it draws closer to its borders.
Even if NATO completely collapsed and Putin took control of all of continental Europe, it is not certain that his head would rest quietly on his pillow at night, knowing that his government lacks democratic legitimacy and is outpaced. by countries reaping the benefits of self-government, the rule of law, independent judiciary and constitutional rights.
The Soviet Union occupied half of Europe and felt insecure for similar reasons – it was not a normal country. Neither does Putin’s Russia.
The populist right tends to associate support for Ukraine’s (imperfect) democracy with vague thinking. But the belief that nations belong to their own people, and should be self-governing and sovereign, is not chimerical liberalism; it is the essence of nationalism.
We cannot take for granted the status quo of a Europe that is largely democratic and respectful of sovereign borders. In the same way that great-power conflict re-emerged after a brief hiatus, it’s easy to imagine the return of the age-old European norm of ever-changing alliances and infighting.
There is no guarantee that we will not, as has often happened in the past, be drawn into a Europe once again plagued by internal rivalries. In the 18th century, a European world war took place partly on these shores, the French and Indian war; in the 19th century, the conflict between France and Great Britain contributed to disturb the policy of the first American republic and caused the War of 1812; and in the 20th century, of course, we were drawn into both the First and Second World Wars.
In this historical context, it is a huge advantage for us to have a large area in Europe which is prosperous, free and at peace, and which is allied with the United States and looks to us for leadership. There are costs and inconveniences that come with this arrangement, of course. As economist Thomas Sowell wrote in a different context, there are no solutions, only compromises.
In a conflict between a country (Ukraine) that appreciates this arrangement – and in fact wants to be part of it – and a country (Russia) that wants to tear it up for its own cynical ends and in the hope of weakening us, it should be no doubt which side we should be on.
NATO is no longer as vital as it was during the Cold War — institutions inevitably change over time — but it still matters. It speaks to the continued deterrent effect of the alliance that Putin, in particular, does not threaten a NATO country. The alliance provided military support in Afghanistan and for post-9/11 counterterrorism missions. It is a force multiplier to train us and be interoperable with European forces. Finally, NATO provides political cohesion that will be increasingly useful in resisting Chinese efforts to exploit divisions in Europe.
On paper, it makes sense for us to try to convince Russia to break with China the same way President Richard Nixon split China from the Soviets during the Cold War. Russia, however, shows no interest in such a realignment, instead sharing China’s revisionist hostility to America’s power and influence.
If Russia resorts to naked aggression in Ukraine and gets away with it, it will be a blow to the post-Cold War order in Europe. To the extent that Putin is convinced that the West is decrepit and can be intimidated, it could tempt him to directly challenge NATO in a confrontation that would be on a more dangerous scale than the current one. And, to go further, if the United States ever renounces NATO, it will undermine all our other commitments in the world and pave the way for China to supplant the United States as the predominant power in the world.
All this advises to be firm and lucid with Russia before arriving there. This does not exclude a possible diplomatic agreement. If we do not negotiate with a gun to our head and if there can be a credible assurance of Russian good faith – which may be unrealistic – it is possible to imagine an agreement for Ukrainian neutrality on the model of the Austria or Finland during the Cold War. In such an arrangement, Ukraine would be functionally part of the West but not formally allied with it.
It will be even more difficult to reach such an end point honorably and while avoiding strategic pitfalls if the American right, traditionally the most warmongering and hardest on Russia, loses sight of who Vladimir really is. Putin, what he really wants and why.