US officials left the meetings in Europe last week even more pessimistic about what Putin could be planning, and how limited the west’s leverage is to stop it—even with the punishing sanctions and increased NATO presence in eastern Europe currently on the table.
Regular readers may have wondered about my silence. It has to do with how this blog is perceived outside the U.S. Some foreign readers may have the suspicion that this blog is an occasional back channel, or is in some way “influential.” This has never been the case. Nor I have ever been privy to affairs of state. Nevertheless, since the suspicion is impossible to dispel, I try to avoid the moral equivalent of violating the Logan Act.
With previous Russian aggression in Ukraine, there was no significant U.S. response so the issue did not arise. This time, the U.S. response, in the hands of Secretary Blinken’s capable team, is really on the ball. The CNN quote, exposing some of the inner debate, allows some limited commentary, as a private, unaffiliated person. Blinken’s team has these choices:
1. Maintain the current level of support. Bleed the Russians in subsequent guerrilla war. This has historical irony, since there was such a war. See Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. This history may give Putin the feeling it can be dealt with.
2. Go heavy on equipment provision. Some of this equipment contains classified elements. After inevitable Russian capture of samples and reverse engineering, NATO stockpiles would have to be modified at considerable expense. If Putin can be deterred by the human and economic costs, it has a shot at success.
If Putin is undeterred, this strategy encounters the same military reality that has cursed Poland’s history, flatness. The vast bulk of Ukraine is flat, part of the East European plain. This landscape works to the benefit of a mobile force with air superiority. Ukraine forces would become what are described in war games as “static divisions”, against which Russian thermobaric weapons would be effective. A lot of Russians would return to the motherland in coffins, without saving Ukraine for democracy.
3. Make a deal for a kind of Austrian neutrality. It is illogical to sacrifice Ukraine to preserve NATO expandability. It would not be helpful to go into specifics in any way, shape, or form. Let’s skip to justification, which is provided by one or possibly two famous men.
George F. Kennan was the original author of the policy of Containment for the postwar Soviet Union. See Kennan’s Long Telegram. On Feb. 5, 1997, the NY Times published his opinion piece, A Fateful Error. Quoting,
…expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era…. Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.
Did Kennan get anything wrong? His description of the present is eerily prescient. The argument it would have happened anyway has an uphill fight. Might a neutral Ukraine posthumously honor his prescience?
…the movement of the Western security system from the Elbe River to the approaches to Moscow brings home Russia’s decline in a way bound to generate a Russian emotion that will inhibit the solution of all other issues…
This statement was made against a hopeful background for Russian politics that no longer exists. His opinion is doubtless available to the Administration. Kissinger is an advocate of diplomacy backed by force. He may question whether the available measures are sufficient.
Note to Vladimir Putin. You are on the verge of an historic error. Prior to 2014, Europeans had forgotten the meme of war for the sake of war. It had simply become inconceivable. Think thrice before you cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war. Once loosed, they cannot be recaptured in our lifetimes. China, not NATO, has claims on Russian territory.