America’s Dangerous Ukraine Delusion

Upholding the “rules-based international order” and the concept of “American leadership” act as conduits for preserving the US security umbrella which is exactly what the Russians fear the most.

While America’s military leadership is once again calling attention to the potential for Chinese aggression against Taiwan, a new crisis may be forming on the other side of the world.

In recent days, increased Russian military activity on the Ukrainian border has captured the attention of American and European officials. President Joe Biden, whose restorationist foreign policy aims to reinforce America’s tired and fossilized alliances, pledged “unwavering support” for Ukraine during his first phone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky this weekend.

For its part, NATO announced that it would conduct joint military exercises in Ukraine later this year to “restore… [its] state border and territorial integrity.”

At present, it is not entirely clear why the Russians are mobilizing forces, albeit within its territory, on the border with Ukraine. Although tensions in the war-torn region of Donbass have intensified in recent weeks as the tenuous ceasefire has been violated hundreds of times since the end of March, a surprise land-grab would not be a stabilizing maneuver.

As unsettled as the status quo is, such a move would precipitate another international crisis and intensify Western paranoia over Russian behavior.

Annexing Territory in Ukraine

Unlike Crimea, a peninsula in the Black Sea whose international status has frequently oscillated between Russia and Ukraine, annexing territory in Ukraine proper is a much riskier proposition.

Setting aside the question of whether there would be a NATO intervention, full mobilization of Ukrainian forces would escalate the situation from a quasi-proxy war in the east into a total war for the state’s survival.

Yet, if Moscow did manage to annex the country, Russian forces would incur significant material and political costs trying to tame Ukrainian nationalism. Asserting sovereign control over a country nearly Texas’ size is a tall order for any Russian leader.

Even if it could be done, Russia would likely have frightened European leaders enough to provoke a full-scale militarization of Eastern Europe. In a Cold War redux, relations between Russia and the West would then enter a dangerous new adversarial phase.

Question of Western Intervention

Thus, the Russians have conditioned a total war over Ukraine on the question of Western intervention. Reiterating a threat first made by President Vladimir Putin in 2014, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned last week that “those who would try to start a new war in Donbass – will destroy Ukraine.”

Considering the geopolitical cost-benefit analysis, only Western support beyond diplomatic overtures could lead Russia to take preemptive action.

Tragically, for all its aspirations, Ukraine will probably never achieve the geopolitical independence its leaders want without risking national self-destruction. However, this is not the preferred analysis of the White House and its free-riding European “allies.”

readout of the call last week between Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Ukrainian Defense Minister Andrii Taran emphasizes that the former “reaffirmed unwavering US support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and Euro-Atlantic aspirations” and “condemned recent escalations of Russian aggressive and provocative actions in eastern Ukraine.”

Verbatim, the European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell made the same pledge. For a country that is not a member of NATO or the EU, the Transatlantic establishment’s dream of bringing Ukraine under the Western security and economic umbrella remains alive and well.

Indeed, these statements seem to indicate that the West’s commitment to Ukraine’s security will be fixed in the event of another preemptive act of Russian aggression.

Of course, it is precisely this assurance that created the Ukraine crisis in the first place. The West’s support for a “Color Revolution” — which overthrew the existing Moscow-friendly regime in Kiev while simultaneously enticing its new leaders with the near-term prospect of NATO and EU membership — prompted a Russian seizure of Ukrainian territory to forestall its seemingly inevitable geopolitical realignment.

Does anyone think that American leaders would feel unthreatened by the presence of Russian tanks on its southern border in Mexico? The answer, of course, is no. Hence, Russia’s intervention to prevent such developments on its border was no different. Its goal was simply to prevent Ukraine’s full integration into Western security and political institutions.

Restoring ‘American Leadership’

Yet, the Biden administration’s commitment to restoring “American leadership” and combatting authoritarianism abroad does not allow for this assessment. Our European “allies,” goaded on by American sermonizing, are no different.

The combined ideological affinity for upholding the “rules-based international order,” an order which facilitated the growth of an American global military umbrella that Europeans have both resented and benefited from, is dangerously naive.

How prepared are we, materially, diplomatically, and psychologically, to go to war on Ukraine’s behalf?

This is a question that the West has not thought seriously enough about, even with the benefit of hindsight. Russia’s initial intervention in 2014 was a surprise to Washington and Brussels, whose leaders never believed that their policy choices might one day backfire on them.

Photo of Russia's President Vladimir Putin in an annual news conference in Moscow, on December 19, 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Alexander Nemenov/AFP

As America’s military predominance has waned over the last decade, the trade-offs for pursuing ambitious projects like the Westernization of Ukraine will become more pronounced. A zombie restorationist foreign policy will appear even less sane in a world where the benefits of maintaining the American global security umbrella are more platitudinous than geopolitical.

No longer basking in the glow of a presumptuously declared “reset” and determined to dispel the image of Trump-era retrenchment, there is good reason to suspect that the Biden administration’s hostile posture towards Moscow will be different than before.

If the Russians do upend the status quo in Ukraine again, the United States and its European “allies” may feel induced to respond with kinetic action to quell any doubts that “America is back.”

Overextended US Security Umbrella

There has always been a certain bit of cynicism contained within the notion of “American leadership.” Namely, US post-Cold War policymakers have used the “rules-based international order” as a conduit for ambitious foreign policy goals that, in the words of the 1992 Defense Planning Guide, “convinc[e] potential competitors that they need not aspire to a greater role.”

In the post-Cold War period, American presidents supported NATO’s enlargement eastward to contain “a potentially resurgent Russia.” As a foreign policy doctrine, “American leadership” is nothing more than a moniker for preserving the overextended US security umbrella.

It is this that the Russians fear and distrust the most. When it comes to the geopolitical alignment of Ukraine, you can bet that they are keen on preserving their domain in the international order too.

Headshot Matthew C. MaiMatthew C. Mai is a junior at Rutgers University studying public policy and an independent writer covering international politics and American foreign policy. Previously, he was a Marcellus Policy Fellow with the John Quincy Adams Society where he published a report providing policy recommendations on how to improve US-Russian relations.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.

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