We might soon witness an honest-to-God war of conquest in Europe. Russia’s Vladimir Putin already chomped Crimea off Ukraine in 2014, and now it appears he’s hungry for the rest of the country.
If Putin does attack, a major reason will be the bungling diplomatic incompetence of the United States and its principal allies in Western Europe. Western nations have repeatedly raised Putin’s ire using Ukraine as a proxy but have refused to dedicate the money or military might to actually defend it.
Western states’ behavior isn’t the sole factor here, of course. There’s the fact that Putin is basically a dictator and has a habit of using wars of aggression against weaker neighbors to boost his public profile (a short, successful war is a classic political sugar high). And there’s is the fact that Russia today is smaller than it was from the mid-17th century through 1991, and that much of Ukraine was included in both the old Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, leading to an apparently widely-shared belief among Russian nationalists that Ukraine is a rightful Russian possession.
Moreover, as my colleague Damon Linker points out, Europe badly needs Russian gas to deal with an unusually cold winter and a global shortage of energy. The United States is distracted by internal turmoil, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the risk of collapse of our own democratic institutions. Putin probably won’t have a better opportunity in his lifetime.
But that isn’t the whole story. Since the fall of the USSR, the West has treated Ukraine either with appalling neglect or as an imperialist toy. It was Western economists and governments in thrall to neoliberal dogma who pushed through the crash privatization of Ukrainian assets in the immediate post-Soviet years. That created an economic catastrophe and a veritable plague of corruption from which the country has yet to recover.
When Western financial deregulation led to the global economic crisis in 2008, it hit Ukraine particularly hard, because the country had large debts denominated in foreign currency. With implicit U.S. backing, the European Union offered a pitifully inadequate loan of 610 million euros, along with requirements for brutal austerity. As historian Adam Tooze writes in his book Crashed, “There were Ukrainian oligarchs with personal fortunes larger than this.”
Putin counter-offered with a loan of $15 billion, an attempt to draw Ukraine away from the West. Liberal and pro-EU Ukrainian groups, fearing Russian imperialism and backed by Western powers, launched a revolution that turfed out the former president and signed the EU deal. In response, Putin seized Crimea and started a brushfire conflict in eastern Ukraine that continues to this day. (Recall that it was shipments of anti-tank missiles that former President Donald Trump tried to use to bully the Ukrainian president into making up dirt about his then-rival, Joe Biden.)
In short, Western powers have repeatedly used Ukraine to give Putin a bloody nose, but they have neither given it the resources that would be necessary to make an alliance with the West a good deal nor made enough of a military commitment to deter Russia.
NATO extends this combination of arrogance and incompetence toward Russia and Ukraine. The declared purpose of the treaty organization was to counter the Soviet Union and contain the spread of international communism. Neither of those have existed for 30 years, yet NATO continued mindlessly expanding throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Nobody seemed to consider whether Russia might get the idea that NATO was still an anti-Russian alliance, nor that Moscow might have understandable reasons to worry about a Western military presence in Ukraine.
While Putin is an aggressive, dangerous nationalist with a long record of murdering his political opponents, he is not wrong to think Western powers are working to encircle and overthrow his government. And while Russia is a pale shadow of the Soviet Union at its height of power, Putin has real power and leverage — above all thousands of nuclear weapons — that must be reckoned with. Western powers, assuming they can get whatever they want, all the time, without having to compromise, prioritize, or even commit much by way of resources, have not made that reckoning.
The result is reminiscent of what happened to the Iraqi Kurds in 1991. After Saddam Hussein’s forces were routed easily in the Gulf War, then-President George H.W. Bush tried to topple him on the cheap by encouraging a military coup in several radio broadcasts. Kurdish forces (along with many other factions) took this as a promise of American aid and launched a rebellion that nearly took out Hussein’s government. But Bush didn’t want to risk getting bogged down in an occupation and so stood aside while government forces regrouped and massacred the rebels, causing hundreds of thousands of people to flee the country.
The problem wasn’t that Bush was wary of occupying Iraq — after all, the world saw what happened when his imbecile son tried it a little over a decade later. The problem was his lying to vulnerable people (and cynically invoking a lot of pro-democracy rhetoric) as part of a foreign policy gambit. It wasn’t Americans who were shot by the tens of thousands when the strategy blew up.
The same is true today. It is plainly evident that the U.S. and Western Europe aren’t willing to put their own soldiers on the line to defend Ukraine. For these countries, the conflict there is a minor issue compared to the rise of China, the ongoing pandemic, climate change, and much else. Yet instead of facing that fact squarely and honestly, Western powers — and especially the U.S. — continually refuse to cut their losses, stop needling Putin, and seek some kind of detente. Ukraine will suffer the consequences.