American presidents often grow to enjoy foreign-policymaking more than the domestic kind as their time in office goes on. One reason is that they find that the comparative lack of interest it holds for both Congress and the general public allows them scope to make decisions with less need to bend to short-term political pressure. Sometimes, however, events come together in such a way as to thrust foreign policy into the spotlight of the 24-hour news cameras, as they did in Ukraine in February with the overthrow by popular uprising of President Viktor Yanukovych. That event, the latest product of deep, longstanding divisions within Ukraine regarding its relations with its powerful neighbour, Russia, has triggered a spiral of unforeseen repercussions. These included Russia’s annexation of the majority-Russian-speaking region of Crimea and destabilisation of the remaining eastern Ukraine by pro-Russian and Moscow-backed paramilitaries.
The apparent inability or unwillingness of the United States to do much in the way of concrete action to prevent this, in spite of its support for the new Kiev government, has led to a good deal of public fulmination on the part of President Obama’s political critics at home, rarely in short supply, largely focused upon his supposedly having tacitly provoked Russian adventurism by projecting ‘weakness’ in the face of foreign aggression. Implicit admiration for the virility of President Putin’s contrastingly ruthless and assertive pursuit of Russian interests, if not for those interests themselves, has coursed through the hawkish wing of the American foreign policy commentariate. Targeted economic sanctions have imposed some limited cost on the Russian regime, but apparently not enough to outweigh Putin’s determination to make his point regarding Russia’s right to assert special prerogative as a hegemonic power in its own ‘near abroad’. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Western backers seem to have concluded that the risks entailed by even suggesting a military dimension to their response are prohibitive, with President Obama adopting a loftily dismissive tone regarding the threat posed by Russia, noting its status as a ‘regional power’ rather than a global force.
With the appeasement of Hitler’s expansionism at Munich being the favoured analogy of many, should we be alarmed that that the United States has been disinclined to take an uncompromising stand against Putin’s destabilisation and partial dismemberment of a weaker neighbour? No. Or at least, not so long as the American strategy is to concede Russian ‘gains’ – if that is what they are – so far while planning ahead for the defence of the United States’ greater regional interests in the longer term.
It is important to bear four points in mind when considering the present situation. First, there is nothing that the United States can realistically do, short of the nuclear war, to defend Ukraine should Russian choose to use its military superiority to bully it. The combination of geographical proximity and asymmetric geopolitical commitment make it impossible for the United States to respond to Russian use of conventional military force across its Ukranian border. The analogous reverse-scenario of imagining Russia attempting to defend Mexico against a US incursion is something of an overstatement in light of differences in US and Russian military transport capabilities, but the point remains that extreme differences in geographical advantage count for a lot. Second, the United States has never committed to defend Ukraine’s borders, and its failure to do so now conveys no message whatsoever regarding its willingness to live up to its actual guarantee to its NATO allies. It therefore in no way weakens the United States position in Eastern Europe and may strengthen the attachment its NATO allies feel to the American alliance. If it was prepared to defend Ukraine when push came to shove, the United States would have admitted Ukraine to NATO, and it did not precisely because it could imagine a scenario such as this and not wanting to do so.
Third, the United States is not alone in its disinclination to incur real costs in order to act against Russia in Ukraine: so long as continental Europe depends so much on Russian energy and the City of London so much on an influx of Russian cash, the major powers of Europe will not consent to meaningful sanctions against the sort of core economic activities that might force a genuine pause for thought in the Kremlin. Fourth, Russia has not, in the grander scheme of things, achieved much of a victory here. At the beginning of 2014 it had vast influence over government policy in the whole of Ukraine thanks to its hold over Yanukovych. Today, it has lost all of that, perhaps forever, in exchange for the gain of a small, expensive territory for which it has paid a high price in international opprobrium.
In light of the downturn in relations with Russia, the name of George Kennan, the senior American diplomat who first conceived the Cold War strategy of ‘containment’ has reappeared on many op-ed pages analysing the need for a new toughness in the United States’ Russia policy. It is important to remember in drawing this analogy that Kennan regarded it as key, in operationalising containment, to avoid deploying resources unthinkingly to confront Russian expansionist efforts on whatever ground it might happen to choose for to make a push. Rather, it was key for the United States to concentrate on shoring up the strength of those strongpoints the defence of which it regarded as essential to maintaining its global position of strength. It should avoid costly peripheral engagements, apply counterpressure in those places where the United States held the advantage, and wait for the pressure thus applied on Russia to play itself out in its internal politics. This is good advice now as it was then.
To be drawn into making overblown pledges of support for Ukraine against Russia, pledges which will assuredly ultimately be revealed as impossible to back up in practice given the asymmetry between Russian and Western capabilities and motivation in that theatre, is to confront Putin on his own chosen ground and set the stage for the further burnishing of his desired reputation as a strategic hard men when he calls the bluff. Sounder policy is to lodge genuine but restrained protest at his recent actions, while proceeding to take the appropriate steps elsewhere to assure full preparedness for the defence of the United States’ larger stake in the broader regional theatre. That means reinforcing both the military capabilities and political will which underwrite the security of those nations to whose territorial inviolability the United States actually is committed, through NATO. It also means encouraging and assisting America’s European allies by all available means in reducing their dependence on Russia for energy supplies, and in the case of the UK encouraging it to curb its appetite for Russian cash. In this way, while Putin digests the questionable gains of a subsidy-hungry new province and a destabilised, mostly hostile neighbour, the United States and its allies can invest their time in taking the necessary steps to ensure that they are commandingly placed to prevail in any challenge to those positions of strength at which they chooses to draw their real red line against Russian revanchism.