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Putin's Waited 30 Years to Sort Out Ukraine

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

“Ukraine’s induction into the Western alliance system would mean that the US missiles could hit Moscow in 5 minutes, rendering Russian air defence systems ineffectual and obsolete,” writes former top Indian diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar in his blog. Since 1991, when the U.S. and Germany assured Gorbachev that NATO would NOT expand eastward if Russia agreed to German unification, Russia has believed that the West betrayed a solemn commitment by pushing NATO towards Russia’s border (this is disputed by most U.S. sources).

Russia thinks in terms of firepower and facts on the ground. Putin has spent the past dozen years turning Russia’s armed forces into a well-armed, efficient instrument (it took less than 24 hours to put Russia’s 6th Airborne into Kazakhstan and just three days to kill everyone who didn’t like it). He’s lurked in the tall grass waiting for an opportunity to settle accounts.

Why now? Because he can. U.S. sanctions mean less than they did in the past because China wants as much overland energy supply as it can get (in a scrap, the U.S. Navy could interdict tanker supply from the Persian Gulf). China and Russia are joined at the hip in high-tech (Huawei has a huge presence there). The specter of a Russian-Chinese alliance spooks the West, with good reason.

The Europeans don’t want a fight with Russia. When Germany’s equivalent of the secretary of the Navy, Admiral Schoenbach, said last week that Putin “deserves respect,” he was forced to resign, but he spoke for the overwhelming majority of Germans.

NATO is weak, China is ascendant, and the U.S. is confused; Russia is well-armed and prepared. That’s why Putin is making his move now.

Related: Is Biden Inviting the Very War in Ukraine We Don’t Want to Fight?

The liberal internationalists in the Biden administration want to continue the Clintonian folly of expanding NATO to include countries that we can’t defend. Three years ago Prof. Walter McDougall of the University of Pennsylvania excoriated this exercise. Why do we do this? To defend the brave little democracy in Ukraine against totalitarian oppression? Puh-leeze. The Kiev kleptocracy is an embarrassment to itself as well as everyone else. Since the Soviet Union fell, the White Whale of the liberal internationalists (like Antony Blinken) and neocons (like Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland) has been to export democracy to Russia. The regime-change fantasy has dominated U.S. policy since we sponsored the 2004 “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine, through the 2014 Maidan Square coup.

Washington consistently underestimated Putin, who bided his time and waited for the opportunity to settle accounts — which is now here. There are still conservatives, e.g., the estimable Conrad Black, who imagine that we can pursue NATO expansion and avoid a scrap with Russia. There are others who insist that Russia can’t ally with China because China will absorb its territory. This is whistling in the dark.

There’s a simple way to back away from the brink: We agree with Putin that Ukraine won’t join NATO, and Putin agrees to keep his hands off. An incursion into Ukraine would cost him plenty (not just economic sanctions, but the political cost of a war between parties with extensive intermarriage and family ties). And Putin has already wanted to look West rather than to China.

China meanwhile is watching this unfold with a bucket of popcorn. From guancha.cn (hawkish website close to the State Council): “Everyone is studying the experience of history. The United States is studying how to avoid the decline of empires, China is studying how to avoid Thucydides’ trap. Russia is studying how to plug leaks. And Europe is studying how to eat melons. What is Ukraine studying? The most important thing to study is the historical experience of neighboring Poland.” Of course, guancha.cn is referring to the repeated partition of Poland.

I make no excuses for Putin. But it’s worth asking when Russia has ever been governed by the sort of enlightened liberal that our Wilsonians and neo-cons prefer. No-one in Russia talks about Ivan the Reasonable. Russia’s tragedy is not ours to fix.