Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 13 January 2022


Putin wants to break NATO’s spine

The White House should break off talks with Russia now: No country ought to expect diplomatic rewards from Washington while it threatens the destruction of friends.

Bret Stephens

Grave may have been the mistakes of Donald Rumsfeld, but George W. Bush’s first defence secretary did have a gift for memorable phrases. One of them — “weakness is provocative” — explains the predicament the US finds itself in with Russia’s belligerence against Ukraine and NATO.

Let’s recap how it came to this point.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is keeping an eye on America’s next move. AP

— In August 2008, Russia invaded Georgia and took control of two of its provinces. The Bush administration protested but did almost nothing. After Barack Obama won the White House that year, he pursued a “reset” with Russia. In 2012, he cut US military numbers in Europe to their lowest level in post-war history, and mocked Mitt Romney for calling out Russia as America’s principal geopolitical threat.

— In September 2013, Obama famously retreated from his red line against Bashar Assad’s use of nerve gas in Syria, accepting instead a Russian offer of mediation that was supposed to have eliminated Assad’s chemical arsenal. That arsenal was never fully destroyed, but Vladimir Putin took note of Obama’s palpable reluctance to get involved.

Two decades of bipartisan American weakness in the face of his aggression has the US skating close to a geopolitical debacle.

— In February 2014, Russia used “little green men” to seize and then annex Crimea. The Obama administration protested but did almost nothing. Russia then took advantage of unrest in eastern Ukraine to shear off two Ukrainian provinces while sparking a war that has lasted seven years and cost more than 13,000 lives. Obama responded with weak sanctions on Russia and a persistent refusal to arm Ukraine.

— In 2016, Donald Trump ran for office questioning how willing America should be to defend vulnerable NATO members. In 2017 he tried to block new sanctions on Russia but was effectively overruled by Congress.

The Trump administration did ultimately take a tougher line on Russia and approved limited arms sales to Ukraine. But Trump also tried to hold Ukraine hostage by holding back military assistance for political favours before he was exposed, leading to his first impeachment.

Putting out a forest fire with a garden hose

Which brings us to Joe Biden, who ran for office promising a tougher line on Russia. It has been anything but. In May, his administration waived sanctions against Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany, which, when operational, will increase Moscow’s energy leverage on Europe.

Since coming to office, the administration has done little to increase the relatively paltry flow of military aid to Ukraine. In the face of a Russian invasion, it will be as effective as trying to put out a forest fire with a garden hose.

Then there was the disaster of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. “In the aftermath of Saigon redux,” I wrote at the time, “every enemy will draw the lesson that the United States is a feckless power.” The current Ukraine crisis is as much the child of Biden’s Afghanistan debacle as the last Ukraine crisis was the child of Obama’s Syria debacle.

Now the administration is doubling down on a message of weakness by threatening “massive consequences for Russia” if it invades Ukraine, nearly all in economic sanctions. That’s bringing a knife to the proverbial gunfight.

Imagine this not-so-far-fetched scenario. Russian forces move on a corner of Ukraine. The US responds by cutting off Russia from the global banking system. But the Kremlin (which has built its gold and foreign-currency reserves to record highs) doesn’t sit still.

It responds to sanctions by cutting off gas supplies to the European Union — which gets more than 40 per cent of its gas from Russia. It demands a Russia-Europe security treaty as the price of the resumption of supplies. And it freezes the US out of the bargain, at least until Washington shows good will by abandoning financial sanctions.

Such a move would force Washington to either escalate or abase itself — and this administration would almost certainly choose the latter. It would fulfil Putin’s long-held ambition to break the spine of NATO and would further entice China into a similar mindset of aggression, probably against Taiwan.

It would be to America’s global standing what the Suez Crisis was to Britain’s. At least Pax Britannica could, in its twilight, give way to Pax Americana. But to what does Pax Americana give way?

What can the US do instead? The White House should break off talks with Russia now: No country ought to expect diplomatic rewards from Washington while it threatens the destruction of friends. The US should begin an emergency airlift of military equipment to Ukraine, on the scale of Richard Nixon’s 1973 airlift to Israel, including small arms useful in a guerrilla war. And more US troops are needed in NATO states, particularly Poland and the Baltics.

None of this may be sufficient to stop Russia from invasion, which would be a tragedy for Ukrainians. But Putin is playing for bigger stakes in this crisis — another sliver of Ukrainian territory is merely a secondary prize.

What he really wants to do is end the Western alliance as we have known it since the Atlantic Charter. As for the US, two decades of bipartisan American weakness in the face of his aggression has the country skating close to a geopolitical debacle. Biden needs to stand tough on Ukraine to save NATO.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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