At least American rhetorical and military support are not new. More ominous is Moscow’s apparent fear of U.S. troop deployments to Ukraine. Reuters reported the Kremlin’s warning “that any deployment of NATO troops to Ukraine would lead to further tensions near Russia’s borders and force Moscow to take extra measures to ensure its own security.”
This would be a dramatic escalation, though the idea isn’t new. For instance, in 2014 columnist Charles Krauthammer advocated providing weapons and advisers to Ukraine: “Any Russian push into western Ukraine would then engage a thin tripwire of NATO trainer/advisers. That is something the most rabid Soviet expansionist never risked. Nor would Putin.”
The “nor would Putin” assumption was more hope than experience and could have resulted in disaster. Creating a U.S. military presence in a region viewed as vital by an already suspicious nuclear‐armed power would be tempting fate. Especially since any conflict would be all on America. Instead, NATO held military exercises in the country amid the crisis.
Even before the current contretemps, the Europeans, who are closest to any potential action, made it clear that they won’t be defending Ukraine. (It’s not even clear that most Europeans would defend each other or cooperate with America.) And today? Noted Lieven: “As for NATO’s European members, even the most virulently anti‐Russian of them have done absolutely nothing to prepare for war. … No NATO government (including the United States) is actually behaving as if they expected to have to do any such thing.”
What justification would there be for the U.S., with or without the Europeans, to prepare for war?
Stuck in a bad neighborhood, Ukraine has a long, fascinating, and tragic history. Although Kiev deserves sympathy, that is no justification for making its mistreatment a casus belli. Alliances are supposed to promote American security, not provide international charity. And treating Ukraine would make the U.S. less safe.
An apparently feverish William Taylor, former American ambassador to Kiev, claimed: “Ukraine is on the front line” and “It affects the world that we live in, that our children will grow up in and our grandchildren.” Actually, not every spot on earth is the last redoubt against the forces of autocracy seeking to impose a new Dark Ages upon the planet. Certainly not Ukraine.
The current conflict, involving the seizure of Crimea (which resulted in no combat) and support for separatists in the Donbass in eastern Ukraine (now largely frozen by a ceasefire, despite sporadic incidents), has had terrible humanitarian results for those directly affected. However, there has been surprisingly little impact outside of the two countries involved.
There certainly is no threat to America or Europe. What happened in Ukraine didn’t matter to America when the former was part of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. It doesn’t matter now. Kiev also isn’t important for European security. Moscow has no interest in triggering Armageddon by attacking for no reason. The continent would be impossible to digest even if consumed.
Talk of danger to the international order is overblown. The U.S. and NATO launched an illegal, aggressive war against Yugoslavia. Washington did the same against Iraq—with devastating consequences—and backed an illegal, aggressive war by Saudi Arabia against Yemen. The international order survived.
Some war hawks assume that Washington’s failure to go to war everywhere against everyone reduces its credibility when genuinely vital interests might be at stake. They apparently imagine that Putin sees a lack of American action as a green light for further territorial aggrandizement. However, his failure to act over the last seven years suggests not.
Presumably he can calculate the difference between Washington going to war over Ukraine and protecting the American homeland or a treaty ally. Indeed, Moscow’s evident sensitivity to the potential of Kiev joining NATO underscores the issue. The U.S. and Russia seem to have worked out an unspoken modus vivendi. Neither will fight over a country the other is willing to fight over, which effectively leaves the continent to America and Ukraine to Russia—and peace intact. War for credibility is an idiot bargain.
Anyway, it isn’t obvious how the U.S. would defend Ukraine. Mike Sweeney of Defense Priorities observed: “It would be negligent of the U.S. to admit Ukraine into NATO without a clear idea for how its 1,200 mile‐border with Russia would be defended, short of total reliance on the threat of nuclear war—a dangerous and outdated strategy.” What is there about Ukraine that would make its security worth a possible nuclear war?
Ukraine’s NATO advocates act as if membership is a decision for Kiev, asserting that Moscow should not be allowed to veto any country joining the anti‐Russia alliance. True, but Washington should veto new members that make the U.S. less secure, as Ukraine would. Bringing in a member already involved in a conflict with Russia, which might require nuclear weapons for its defense, is simply not in America’s interest. Yet as long NATO membership appears possible, Moscow may view the Donbas conflict as the best way to forestall an offer being made.
Kiev has been treated unfairly, but it is stuck in a bad neighborhood. Washington cannot change that. Treating Russia as an enemy in response is stupid policy. Doing so risks tossing away the chief benefits of ending the Cold War. Doing so also risks starting a hot war with Moscow. The Biden administration should put the interest and security of Americans first.