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Europe has followed the wrong strategy in Ukraine (Pt. 1)
This is part 1 in a 6-part exchange between Konstantin Kisin and myself. I will be writing parts 1, 3 and 5; Konstantin will be writing parts 2, 4 and 6. The subject of our exchange is whether the West is following the right strategy in Ukraine. Konstantin and I have previously discussed the issue on my podcast, as well as on Twitter. We are now doing so via this Substack exchange.
Konstantin: I realise we have distinct perspectives on this subject. So let me try to lay out mine as clearly as possible, and then you can lay out yours.
When considering how the West should respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, you have to distinguish between Europe on the one hand and the US on the other. These two entities have quite different interests, as reflected in their actions prior to Russia’s invasion. And it’s clear that this war represents a major loss for Europe, though not necessarily for the US.
Even if Ukraine manages to defeat Russia while avoiding catastrophic escalation, both Ukraine and Europe would be vastly better off if the war had never happened, or if it had been brought to an end quickly back in February/March.
In addition to losing thousands of young men on the battlefield, Ukraine has lost a sixth of its pre-war population in the refugee crisis. The country’s critical infrastructure is being pummelled by Russian missiles. And its economy may shrink by more than a third, as basic services become increasingly dependent on Western aid.
Meanwhile, Europe is facing its biggest energy crisis since the 1970s – thanks in large part to the curbing of Russian gas supplies. Factories across the continent are shutting down amid soaring energy costs, and the NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg has warned there could be “civil unrest” this winter.
Again, even if Ukraine pushes Russia back to the February 24th borders or further, this may not “resolve” the issue. It’s possible that Europe will be left with a permanent source of instability on its eastern flank. Not forestalling Russia’s invasion – whether through deterrence or diplomacy – must be seen as a huge failure of European policy.
Incidentally, it’s also a huge failure of Russian policy. Aside from being brutal, illegal and unjustified, the invasion was almost certainly a strategic mistake. (Though this is beside the point, as we are discussing Western strategy.)
So what should Europe have done? And what should it be doing now? Before answering these questions, let’s review the events leading up to Putin’s invasion.
Conventional wisdom has it that Putin is an imperialist who invaded Ukraine as a way to grab more territory for Russia. And there’s a lot of truth in this explanation, as I’ve noted before. Yet it leaves key questions unanswered.
For example, why did Putin annex Crimea in March of 2014? After all, evidence suggests that he and other Russian nationalists have held irredentist views since the early 1990s. Why did he wait more than two decades before acting?
The obvious, and I believe correct, answer is that the “Revolution of Dignity” changed everything. In February of 2014, Ukraine’s pro-Russian president (Viktor Yanukovych) was toppled and replaced by a government made up of pro-Western nationalists.
During the protests that preceded this event, US politicians repeatedly met with opposition leaders, and openly expressed their support for the protestors. They also helped behind the scenes, though to exactly what extent is not clear. In a remarkable leaked phone call, Victoria Nuland states who the next Prime Minister will be more than two weeks before Yanukovych was toppled. (She also says, “Fuck the EU.”)
You don’t need to have any sympathy for Putin’s regime to recognise that these actions by US officials were provocative. Imagine if Chinese officials travelled to Canada, and publicly backed a protest movement seeking to replace Canada’s government with a pro-Chinese one.
My point is not that Putin was justified in seizing Crimea and backing the Donbas separatists. It’s that US officials acted in a way that made Putin’s reaction more likely; they did things in the absence of which Putin might never have responded as he did.
The US then began integrating Ukraine into NATO, such that by June of 2020 it was recognised as an “Enhanced Opportunities Partner”. A year later, the two countries signed a “Charter on Strategic Partnership”, which declared that the US supports Ukraine’s “aspirations to join NATO”.
Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all red lines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.
He added that bringing Ukraine into NATO “will create fertile soil for Russian meddling in Crimea and eastern Ukraine”. Likewise, a 2019 RAND report states that “Washington pushing this possibility” could lead Russia to “redouble its efforts to forestall such a development”.
Europe should have intervened at the earliest possible stage to find a settlement that was acceptable to all the relevant parties: pro-Western Ukrainians, pro-Russian Ukrainians, Europe and Russia. This would have looked something like the one John Mearsheimer proposed in 2014: neutrality for Ukraine; autonomy for the Eastern regions; and development aid funded by Russia and the West.
Of course, no such settlement was found (the Minsk agreements failed). And in February of this year, Putin launched his invasion. So what should Europe do now?
Unfortunately, the prospect of a diplomatic solution at this stage looks rather remote. But I still think Europe should be trying to find one for the simple reason that other options are even worse.
Survey data indicate that very few Ukrainians outside of the Donbas and Crimea want to be part of Russia. So the primary aim should be getting Russia to withdraw from all the territory it’s currently occupying in the south. Both carrots and sticks are available: we could offer to lift sanctions in exchange for good behaviour, while threatening to send more weapons as punishment for non-compliance.
Whatever the final settlement looks like, it should seek to preserve geopolitical stability as far as possible. Because we don’t want this conflict to keep flaring up again and again – for the sake of Europe and Ukraine, especially the latter.
Image: Ukraine Ministry of Defence, Anti-terrorist operation in eastern Ukraine, 2015
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