By Dalibor Rohac. Dec 9, 2021
There is a strange dissonance between America’s “unwavering support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, its sovereignty, its independence” recently expressed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and President Biden’s admission that the use of force against a prospective Russian invasion of Ukraine is “not in the cards right now.”
From a tactical standpoint, it is rarely a good idea to announce upfront how far one is willing to go in escalating a conflict. That is doubly true in the age of “hybrid warfare” and “gray-zone aggression,” which Russia itself has pioneered.
After all, if the West decided to play as dirty a game as Vladimir Putin, it has a number of options worth keeping on the table, if only to make the Russian strongman feel uneasy about his brazen moves. Short of an official NATO deployment to Ukraine, for example, it is perfectly conceivable that NATO soldiers, in unmarked uniforms and with military equipment, would choose Ukraine as their holiday destination — not unlike how Russia characterized its own military activities in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
Nobody wishes for a shooting war between NATO and Russia, particularly over a country that is not a NATO member, as the president emphasizes. Even without any Western involvement, the US administration is surely thinking, the notion of Russian tanks rolling into Kiev is farfetched.
Ukraine’s military is in better shape relative to 2014, thanks in part to US military aid and purchases of modern equipment, including the latest Turkish drones. Russian aggression also has helped coalesce a sense of Ukrainian nationhood and hardened Ukrainian attitudes toward Russia, which had been traditionally quite warm.
Yet none of that helps ease the blatant contradiction between rhetorical flourishes about the West’s and America’s firm commitment to Ukraine’s future as a free, sovereign nation and our collective unwillingness to lift a finger in its defense. Uncouth and backward as it may sound, unless we are actually willing to put up a fight over its sovereignty, we are not really committed to Ukraine at all. Even if a Russian-led invasion and occupation of Ukraine are not imminent, Putin understands that the United States and its European partners are not going to stop him from pushing the envelope further at the time and in the manner of his choosing.
The recent record, after all, speaks for itself. Almost seven years since the Kremlin’s initial aggression, Crimea remains in Putin’s hands and much of eastern Ukraine under Russian control — notwithstanding successive waves of sanctions and opprobrium that descended on Russia. If Putin continues, the administration is threatening him with more of the same, including the supposedly “nuclear option” of cutting Russia off SWIFT, the global bank settlement scheme.Guess what. Putin and his circle, fueled by demented dreams of restoring Russia’s national greatness, do not care about Biden’s threat of “severe consequences” any more than the mullahs of Iran and Kim Jong-un of North Korea, who were disconnected from SWIFT some years ago without any observable improvement in their behavior.
What is at stake, moreover, extends far beyond Ukraine. If Ukraine’s territorial integrity is not worth defending, is Taiwan’s? How about dozens of other countries with border disputes and past grievances, including those within NATO and the EU?
And would our allies and adversaries be entirely misguided in wondering whether the administration would not look for an off-ramp in case of a conflict involving a NATO member state? What Americans, after all, want their kids to “die for Latvia because it somehow protects the rule of law,” as Tucker Carlson once dismissively put it?
Of course, the United States cannot care about the security of Ukraine more than Europeans do. At a time our nation is shifting its strategic focus, for very good reasons, to the threat posed by China, the administration ought to be firm in asking our oftentimes “delinquent” (as one former president put it) allies to do their part.
Yet it is paradoxically because of our new strategic competition with Beijing that the United States has so much more to lose in the current crisis than Europeans.
In the Indo-Pacific as in Europe, the United States needs reliable allies and friends to stand up to China — but will they want to team up with a paper tiger whose vocal commitments and expressions of support carry no practical weight?
Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.