Russia will invade Ukraine. It is no longer a matter of if, but when. Some pundits have been quick to point out that Russia already invaded Ukraine in 2014 and has been an occupier since then. This is true, but short of inventing some other barbarically cumbersome turn of phrase or vague milquetoast nonsense that fails to capture the urgency of the situation, an invasion is perhaps the best word available to describe what is on the horizon. After a year of major foreign policy blunders by Western countries and successful stage-setting by Russia, Ukraine finds itself surrounded by Russian forces from nearly all directions. For Kyiv, dark days and difficult decisions lie ahead. For the West, key questions remain unanswered. Can Western nations and Western institutions put up a strong and effective response? For Russia, key questions have already been answered. All that remains is to cross the Rubicon.
Diplomatic efforts have failed. They were doomed to fail. After the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, the decision to lift sanctions on Nord Stream 2 to placate wayward Germany, a couple failed trial balloons for policies of appeasement and capitulation, and a host of other issues, the Kremlin had no reason to take the Biden administration seriously. Instead, Moscow upped the ante, issuing ultimatums that it knew the United States and NATO could not meet lest they lose their credibility. If the West stands firm, Russia has invented for itself a pretext for war à la Austria-Hungary to Serbia in World War I or Rome to Carthage in the Third Punic War. If the West falters, Russia has an even stronger impetus to pursue its imperial ambitions in the face of further degraded deterrence.
Much of the problem for Western diplomatic efforts was a failure to understand the nature of the Putin regime. Among the most ridiculous failures were appeals to “building back better” in Russia. The assumption that the Putin regime is nigh upon collapse if it fails to fix the economy and end the suffering of average Russians has been proven incorrect time and again, yet it continues to draw followers. This idea can be forgiven in those who do not understand Russian history or the tendency of Russian society to favor security over risks and liberty to the point of enduring some of the most miserable conditions in history. But to square up with Russia, one must first understand it. The idea that invading Ukraine (again) would be against Russia’s interests is ludicrous, wrongly imposing the interests of democratic, Western nations on an authoritarian and kleptocratic regime. The Kremlin’s interests perennially have very little to do with the welfare of the Russian people. Instead, Russia seeks to revise its Cold War defeat and rise from the ashes as an imperial military super power, as has been Putin’s dream from the beginning.
Likewise, diplomatic efforts failed because the West has been bargaining from the weaker position. Without a coherent policy towards NATO besides appeasing Germany to “repair” the U.S.’s supposedly broken alliances, the Biden administration has signaled its apathy towards the needs and interests of the Eastern Flank. Though the Biden administration talked a big game about being tough on Russia and supporting NATO, its first year proved the opposite. Strong words without strong deeds to back them up will inevitably be mocked. This incoherence has spilled over into the question of how to approach the ongoing crisis as well. From official U.S. support for peace on the terms of the Minsk Accords to the now thankfully abandoned idea of reducing the force posture in Eastern Europe in exchange for a Russian drawdown, the blunders Washington has made have emboldened Russia, hurt Kyiv, left many scratching their heads in bewilderment, and still others scrambling to somehow put lipstick on this pig.
Further, efforts of diplomacy have been plagued by a mentality of pursual of peace at all costs. An excessive fear of escalation has, as should be expected, emboldened Russia and made escalation all the more likely. A peace on the basis of the Minsk Accords would be tantamount to abandonment – Ukraine could once again be placed under Russian control, unable to determine its own future. Likewise, the idea of reducing the force posture on NATO’s eastern flank would have been a massive capitulation, a gift that Moscow likely would not have thought possible to achieve so easily. Had this policy remained a possibility, Eastern Europe would have been left incredibly vulnerable. Even if Russia were to draw down for a time, Moscow’s history of reneging on its agreements should tell us that as soon as it saw fit to take the opportunity, the Kremlin would elect to break its promises and violate the sovereignty of its neighbors again. At no point should any of these policies have been on the table – the cost of the peace offered by these is outweighed by the unlikelihood that they would satiate Russia’s appetite for empire. Indeed, this theoretical and likely short-lived peace would come at the cost of abandoning like-minded, friendly countries in Eastern Europe, a betrayal reminiscent of Münich in 1938.
Now, as it stands, two rounds of talks this month in Geneva between U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have proven completely inconclusive. Neither side has budged, and the Biden administration evidently understands that it has been unable to dissuade the Russians from making new incursions into Ukraine. Nonetheless, it holds to the same vague threats of crippling sanctions if Russia invades Ukraine. There is currently no clear evidence that these threats have had any effect on Moscow’s decision making, aside from perhaps encouraging Russia by way of their implicit weakness. Not only do these threats of sanctions contain no specifics to scare the Kremlin, they do not really target anything Russia values more than rebuilding its empire and asserting its right to control its neighbors. Furthermore, in an embarrassing gaffe, President Biden intimated that a “minor incursion” would not incur such a harsh penalty as a major one. Whatever that means, it nevertheless shows weakness and incoherence from Washington, which will only encourage Russia’s adventurism.
Meanwhile aid pours into Ukraine. God bless Kyiv if it can make effective use of it all, but for all the well-intentioned and inspiring optimism that surrounds commentaries projecting a difficult fight for the Russians and even going so far as to predict a Ukrainian victory, the sober analyst must point out that the mismatch between Russia’s forces and Ukraine’s is going to be difficult to overcome. Further, this aid may be too little too late, especially as the Ukrainian forces are not experienced with much of the equipment and systems that are being gifted them. Ukraine urgently needs greater support beyond just supplying helicopters and missiles. It needs the training to operate them. It needs the manpower to hold off a more numerous enemy. It needs the money to pay its troops. And it needs all these things urgently. Is there time to achieve what needs to be done? No matter what, the West must muster up the will, lace up its boots, and get to work to help out its friend without delay. This must be done not only out of a sense of duty to freedom, sovereignty, and self-determination built into friendship with Ukraine, but out of an understanding of history which tells us that sacrificing one country to the whims of another will only embolden the aggressor and lead to a broader, more devastating war. Timidity now will only lead to more war in the future, something no one wants.
Russia is presently moving troops and supplies from across its multiple military districts towards Ukraine, setting up snap exercises in Belarus, deploying over 140 warships for exercises across “all areas of responsibility,” increasing submarine activity in the Black Sea, and has conducted a major cyber-attack on Ukraine’s electrical, gas transmission, and financial systems. None of these things portend Moscow backing down. The writing is on the wall. How the West responds will have consequences that reverberate for generations.
Cover Photo: Satellite image of Russian troop buildup near Ukraine. Credit