BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
The United States finds itself enmeshed in another civil, ethnic, and historical conflict half a world away. This time, in Ukraine. And, the ramifications of this conflict could have global consequences–potentially pitting two of the world’s largest nuclear powers, the United States and the Russian Federation–against each other.
On the one side of the conflict is the Ukrainian government that rose to power following an internal shakeup that removed Viktor F. Yanukovych, the nominally pro-Russian president of Ukraine, and replaced him with a far more Eurocentric Ukrainian leader.
From Moscow’s perspective, this represented a clear and unabashed violation of “international norms” (whatever that means). In response, Russia then armed anti-government separatists in Ukraine (specifically, in the hotly contested Donbas region in Eastern Ukraine) and then annexed Crimea.
Of course, Moscow’s perspective is incredibly slanted. Still, however, the notion that Washington and its reputed clients in Ukraine were in any way acting fairly or peacefully is a ridiculous assertion.
More recently, Russian strongman, Vladimir Putin, issued a statement from Moscow cautioning the international community that any further attempts by Ukraine to retake the Crimean peninsula from Russia would end very badly for the independent state of Ukraine.
For his part, U.S. President Donald J. Trump has rightly been arguing that Russia should be included in the ongoing G-7 summit (Russia’s presence there was suspended by the previous Obama Administration in the aftermath of Russia’s unlawful invasion and annexation of Crimea).
Unfortunately, for Ukraine, unless Moscow is willing to return the predominantly ethnic-Russian enclave of Crimea, they should drop the matter. Naturally, the Ukrainians are being headstrong and are seeking ways to undermine Russia’s position in Crimea (and throughout the Donbas). But, Russia has long considered Crimea as part of Russia.
In fact, until Nikita Khruschev led the Soviet Union, Crimea was a part of Russia. For more than a century, the Russians have maintained a vital (for them) naval base at Sevastopol, which is in Crimea. The idea that Ukraine had any capability of pushing Russia out of that strategic enclave is laughable.
In their dark crucible, when the Russians first invaded, the Ukrainian government (such as it was) had no choice but to conscript several armed militias into military service. These militias were mostly anarchists, but they also included neo-fascists, and other unsavory armed groups. But, a war for national liberation usually attracts a retinue of folks who are otherwise viewed as unsavory by polite society.
Still, it is important to remember, that these militias that are manning the ramparts in Eastern Ukraine are not the sort who can be trusted to bring peace and stability to the region. Instead, as the recent Vice News piece shows, the Ukrainian militias are as interested in resisting the lawful Ukrainian government as they are in fighting Russians (and pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine).
Now, the United States is increasingly sucked into the morass of this ethnic and historical blood feud between the Ukrainians and the Russians–and this blood feud is tearing Europe apart and placing the United States in a ridiculous position that it has no desire to be in.
Bottom line: President Donald Trump, like former President Ronald Reagan (and Richard Nixon before him), is looking to make a deal with the Russians that will end the prospect of nuclear warfare between the two powers and help to foster amity, trade, and international stability.
At every turn, however, President Trump’s attempts have been stymied by warmongering statists in Washington, D.C. and zealots on the American Left who are merely incensed that the candidate they paid good money for–Hillary Clinton–was thoroughly trounced in the 2016 election.
Ignore the Pups and Focus on the Big Dog
The United States has spent a good deal of time since 2014 struggling to keep the Europeans onboard with its strict sanctions and overall war footing against the Russian Federation. In response, the Russians have moved non-strategic nuclear weapons into the Kaliningrad–the first time since the end of the Cold War that the Russians have placed nuclear weapons in Europe. Meanwhile, the Americans keep blundering forward as though the Russians won’t respond.
They are–and have been responding.
In fact, since his 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference, Vladimir Putin has been seething about perceived American acts of aggression against Russia. No one was listening or much cared. Thus, Putin went gallivanting into Georgia in 2008 and busted apart that constitutional republic, laying bare how empty the Western security commitments truly were to newer and/or prospective members, such as Georgia.
After the United States had been lending rhetorical and moral support to anti-Putin groups within Russia in the run-up to the 2012 election in Russia, Vladimir Putin interpreted that as a “coup attempt” led by the United States. Obviously, he has overstated what was occurring. However, most Americans would have been equally incensed if, say, Russia were caught giving money and assistance to one domestic political party over the other in an American election.
Just look at how the country has responded to claims of Russian election interference in 2016. We’re experiencing what my colleague at American Greatness, Angelo Codevilla, refers to as a “cold civil war” because of it.
While it is unlikely that President Trump is a Russian stooge, it is more than likely that Russian intelligence agencies were gaslighting their counterparts in the Western intelligence services, with the expressed hope that a) their long-time rival, Hillary Clinton, would receive a humiliating defeat in 2016 (she did), and b) that the United States would continue its internal division even after the contentious 2016 presidential election ended. We have.
It is more than likely that the Russians, in fact, did little to seriously influence our election (no more than either they have since the 1920s or we have to them since the heady days of the Cold War). The mere appearance of impropriety was enough to give the Russians what they wanted.
After the removal of the nominally pro-Russian Ukrainian leader of Viktor F. Yanukovych, the Russians believed that the United States had engineered a pro-Western coup in Kiev. For centuries, the Russians have long viewed Ukraine as an essential component to their southern defense. Catherine the Great sent her long-time lover, Prince Grigory Potemkin, to capture Ukraine three centuries ago.
Until that point, Ukraine had been populated by groups like the Crimean Tatars who lived under their own Islamic khanate, that was loosely affiliated with the Ottoman Empire. The Crimean Tatars continually raided and attacked Russia. Eastern and southern Ukraine soon fell under loose Russian control–and remained under heavy Russian influence all of the way until present times.
Ukraine has always been an essential part of Russian national security and its defense. American strategists should have recognized that instead of pretending after the Cold War as though there were no Russians anymore.
Now, Ukraine’s territorial integrity has been compromised and will continue to be compromised until Putin has totally neutered Ukraine as an independent state. Unless a deal is brokered between Trump and Putin soon–and despite what the Ukrainians themselves say on the matter–Ukrainian territorial integrity will cease to be a reality.
More than anything, Putin wants to be treated as an equal to the United States. Washington should do so. Time is not on America’s side, though, as Putin inches Russia closer and closer to the ascendant Chinese.
The Europeans continue their foolish program of double-dealing with the United States and the Russian Federation: on the one hand, the Europeans continue raging against Trump for supposedly undermining the alliance’s unity against Russia.
On the other hand, critical European leaders and multinational corporations continue undermining the very sanctions they claim to support, and expanding their reliance on Russian energy.
Trump’s treatment of America’s traditional allies in recent months is part of Trump’s run-up to what I hope will be a successful negotiation with Putin to reduce tensions and, maybe, end Cold War 2.0. Only a deal will save Ukraine from being completely Finlandized.
By harrying the European allies over issues like trade, and then admonishing them for not including the world’s largest nuclear power, like Russia, Trump is signaling to Putin that he is willing to deal directly with him–even at the cost of alienating some traditional allies.
For their part, the Ukrainians have placed their faith in this all-or-nothing approach to geopolitics that will likely eventuate in nothing for them, because–and I cannot say this explicitly enough–the United States will not send a single grenadier to defend Ukrainian sovereignty.
Ultimately, the Europeans will fall in line behind Trump, since they understand the benefits of normalizing relations with Russia. As for the allies that really matter in Europe, those who are actually threatened by potential Russian revanchism, the United States must work assiduously to empower them.
As I have argued ad nauseam, the U.S. should ignore beefing up NATO and focus solely on building up the Viségrad nations to deter any potential Russian military aggression. Putin may be crazy at times, but he is not dumb. If we raise the costs of aggression in his near-abroad, but negotiate in good faith over such hot button topics as Ukraine and Syria, I believe he will stay his hand in the rest of Eastern Europe.
Understanding Ukraine’s Motives
One of the most interesting–though overlooked–aspects of the 2016 presidential election was the prevalence of pro-Ukrainian elements within (and outside of) the Hillary Clinton Campaign. In essence, Ukraine was “with her.” Certainly, Hillary Clinton’s public spats with Vladimir Putin from her time as secretary of state under President Obama had endeared her to the pro-Western factions within Ukraine.
But, it was more than that.
Clinton’s team in 2016 was chock full of Democratic foreign policy hands who had been intimately involved with Ukraine following the end of the Cold War. Namely, these policymakers were integral in getting Ukraine to abandon its small–but potent–arsenal of nuclear weapons that the Soviet Union had left behind in their country following the end of the Cold War. The de-nuclearization of Ukraine was considered by most to be a major foreign policy achievement of the Bill Clinton Administration.
I, however, have always believed it was one of the most disastrous aspects of post-Cold War foreign policy. Does anyone truly think that a nuclear-armed Ukraine would have been invaded and chopped up by Russia the way that it was in 2014, had Ukraine kept its nuclear arsenal intact?
Of course, the threat of either nuclear proliferation to a terrorist group or the potential for Ukraine to engage in a reckless act of aggression against Russia or any of its neighbors would have increased as well. Though, I believe that these would have been much less likely with proper American management (after all, the blood-feuding, nuclear-armed Pakistanis and Indians have neither proliferated their nuclear weapons successfully to outside actors nor gone to nuclear war against each other–yet).
Anyway, after the 1990s, several important foreign policy hands on the American Left maintained their close ties with Ukraine. They suffered from what some in U.S. foreign policy circles derisively refer to as, “clientitis” (wherein American analysts and policymakers take on the mentality of the country or region they are meant to be analyzing objectively within the context of U.S. foreign policy interests).
The DNC effectively became a conduit for Ukrainian foreign policy to influence American national security policy, the more powerful the Clinton family and their allies became in the Democratic Party. The ties between the Clinton camp and Ukraine are as profound as they are underreported.
Alexandra Chalupa (and her sister, Andrea), top officials with the Democratic National Committee, were among the loudest supporters of the Clinton campaign plank advocating for the arming of Ukraine against Russia in 2016. The Chalupas served as the leading cheerleaders on major social media and news outlets for giving Ukraine carte blanch when dealing with Russia (which, I’d be fine with, if it didn’t mean that American troops would have to inevitably be deployed to liberate Ukraine from nuclear-armed Russia).
Meanwhile, John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s long-time confidant and supporter (and former White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton) and his brother, Tony, were as–if not more–intimately involved with Ukrainian politics as the much-maligned Paul Manafort (the Washington lobbyist who very briefly served as Donald Trump’s campaign manager in 2016) was.
According to an incredible (and overlooked) Politico report from last year,
“[The] Ukrainian government involvement in [the 2016 presidential election] appears to strain diplomatic protocol dictating that governments refrain from engaging in one another’s election.”
Ukraine was keen on preventing the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of their most important ally. That Trump took the realistic and logical stance of aiming to make the mother of all deals with Moscow as opposed to marching into nuclear war against Russia over puppy states, like Ukraine, should be reassuring to the American people and the rest of the world (if not Ukraine).
It is not a sign of Trump being an FSB plant or whatever paranoid fantasy the neo-McCarthyites on the Left have concocted to soothe themselves over Hillary’s disastrous election results.
It’s time to face the fact that the United States has become the battleground for a ridiculous proxy war between two cousins, Ukraine and Russia. It’s no different than how the United States was the victim of an internal blood feud within Islam on September 11, 2001.
I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of America getting sucked up into these stupid rivalries that have little import to overall U.S. foreign policy–and creating serious enemies in the process of our involvement in such ridiculous conflicts.
Russia was wrong for ever trying to influence American elections (they’ve been doing this since Lenin rose to power). Yet, they are, frankly, a more important actor for American grand strategy than Ukraine.
For its part, Ukraine was wrong to attempt to influence American elections. The United States must be willing to promote Ukrainian sovereignty–and we must respect the lawful government in Kiev–but we will not sacrifice our geopolitical standing to go to war for Ukraine’s proverbial reckless driving on the issue of Russia.
In his epic 2014 book, Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy, MIT international relations scholar, Barry R. Posen, identifies a class of countries who are aligned with the United States but, in fact, pose a national security threat. He labels these states as being “reckless drivers.” While he doesn’t articulate it in the book, Ukraine is a reckless driver.
They are a small country with a sclerotic economy and, without nuclear weapons, they are on the southern floodplain for Russian troops to surge into–as the Russians did in Crimea. The fact that the United States upended the prospect of stable relations with Russia to push the world into another nuclear-armed Cold War with Moscow is obscene–and foolish.
Ukraine is an independent state and, under what we call “international law”, it must be respected. What’s more, the Russians and the rest of the world acknowledged the former Soviet bloc states as being independent after the Cold War.
Whatever disagreements may exist between the United States and Russia, neither side should be so willing to undermine individual state sovereignty to play out their disagreements. In this respect, Russia was in the wrong for behaving as they did. But, the West has not been innocent either.
In the United States reckless drivers are punished by law enforcement. Whether it be in the form of a ticket or going to jail, they are removed from endangering anyone else in the public by authorities (until they either shape up or go to jail). Ukraine was violated in 2014. However, they have been acting recklessly for years when it comes to Russia. This was also true of Georgia before the 2008 Russian invasion.
The United States simply cannot–and should not–be on the proverbial hook for going to war to defend these countries. In fact, the belief among these reckless states that, ultimately, the United States will rush to their aid no matter what happens vís-a-vís Russia has not ameliorated their recklessness. On the contrary, our paternalism toward Ukraine (and other allies) has engendered the worse behavior from them imaginable.
It’s time to cut the proverbial umbilical cord. It’s time for certain allies to stand on their own and start behaving in a responsible manner diplomatically. Ukraine should be the first cut from America’s international welfare program.