The Ukraine Crisis: An American Perspective

By James Durso

Now they tell us.

Two weeks ago, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg admitted “it has been clear for a long time that membership for Ukraine was not something that was imminent, not something which is relevant in the near future.”

Days later, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy also admitted, “We realize Ukraine will not become a member of NATO.”

That would have been good to know in December and may have spared us a war in Europe, and disruption of the global economy.

In December, Russia put its position on NATO in the form of draft treaties with NATO and the U.S., and even wrote them in English, but Brussels and Washington felt that Moscow shouldn’t influence the security policy of the North Atlantic alliance. Well, Moscow’s certainly influencing the alliance’s policy now.

And after the start of the conflict, we were subjected to the wearying spectacle of American public figures in the war party, with no children in the infantry, natch, like Senator Mitt Romney, calling treason on former congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard who he accused of wrongthink on Ukraine.

All Romney managed to do, aside from looking ridiculous, was to validate Orwell’s dictum, “All the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.”

Why is the war party so angry and anxious to get involved in the Russia-Ukraine war?

First, nostalgia. These guys yearn for the unifying certainty of the Cold War and regret they missed the Big Game against the Red Army. The Cold War sputtered to an end one day with no victory parade in Moscow followed by the prosecution of Soviet officials. NATO was repurposed from an anti-Soviet alliance to an anti-Russian alliance/jobs program, hoping for another chance someday, but with (fingers crossed) lesser risk of a nuclear response by Moscow

Then, “the forgetting,” not by the national security establishment, which has definitely forgotten how to win wars, but by American taxpayers of “failure tailgating failure,” the misadventures in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libra, (and next, Syria). The military needs to arrest its dizzying fall in polls of public trust and confidence – down 25 points in three years – and hopes a good showing will keep the budget dollars, and recruit bodies, flowing. The interventionists inside and outside the government are like a degenerate gambler, believing he can recoup his losses with one last roll of the dice.

On the Left it’s about falling in line with the Biden administration, but on the Right “It’s always Munich.” Lately, many on the right have been reluctant to put America between Russia and Ukraine, when most voters want Biden to make a deal with Putin to avoid a war in Ukraine. In response, they have been called out as OK with “regimes invading their neighbors.” That’s untrue, of course, as the non-interventionists know strategic success isn’t just about not appeasing your enemy, but also its corollary: not provoking him.

And after Biden’s “first tranche” of sanctions, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who never met a war he didn’t like, hit his mark and called the situation “the 1930s all over again.”

Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson was recently castigated for questioning U.S. involvement in Ukraine’s fight with Russia when Washington should be preparing to confront the real threat – China. Carlson was previously criticized for asking what’s the benefit for the U.S. in NATO expansion, if it brings an obligation to defend places like Estonia and Latvia, both eager for U.S. protection, but which also raised Waffen SS divisions in World War II. The conservative Carlson was obviously channeling the Russian (aha!) anarchist Mikhail Bakunin who cautioned “Beware of small states.”

The interventionist response has several causes.

The media-political system requires public-facing interventionists to virtue signal for social acceptance and media access, heeding Gore Vidal’s advice to “Never turn down an opportunity to have sex or to be on television.”

It generates the most cash from defense contractor advertising and donations to think tanks and political campaigns. (That prep school tuition doesn’t pay itself.)

And last, as these people have learned nothing and forgotten nothing, it is a chance for Donald Trump’s opponents to cast his lack of enthusiasm for costly foreign entanglements as fealty to Vladimir Putin.

Joe Biden bragged “Diplomacy is back” but quickly pivoted to the pre-Trump pattern of never seeing a conflict that can’t be solved by force of arms.

This has been a saga of missed opportunity. Stoltenberg, who takes his orders from Washington, may have finally made his admission as a face-saving way to relieve Joe Biden of the humiliation.

And Zelensky, consumed by his armed negotiation with Russia, probably now understands the meaning of “repent at leisure.”

The Russia-Ukraine war was a failure of imagination by the U.S. defense and foreign policy establishment that didn’t recognize that America’s national interest required that Kyiv negotiate with the rebel republics, and that the U.S. should address Russia’s concerns about NATO encroachment, grounded in Russia’s perennial geographic dilemma, invasion from the west.

The U.S. also undermined the Minsk 2 agreement that would have kept Ukraine out of NATO, and allowed some autonomy for Donetsk and Luhansk while keeping them part of a unified Ukraine.

Washington’s inattentiveness to its real interests was compounded by its recent defeat in Afghanistan which have may emboldened Putin to ret to resolve his geographical dilemma sooner rather than later.

In fact, if Joe Biden had any questions about what Russia would so to keep Ukraine out of NATO all he had to do was ask his CIA director, William Burns, who reported in 2008 when he was the U.S. ambassador in Moscow: “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.”

So, Ukraine has been wrecked, the world’s markets are roiled, Europe has another refugee crisis, and the world is headed down an uncertain path.

James Durso (@james_durso) is a regular commentator on foreign policy and national security matters. Mr. Durso served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and has worked in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.