Ukraine: A Reprise

I realize that my last post, on Ukraine, might have struck some readers as wordy and tedious. So here’s the short version, which simply summarizes the long version. If you find it too terse, read the long version.

  1. Either we are willing and able to mount a full-scale military defense of Ukraine against a Russian invasion or not.
  2. If we are willing and able, and we are as certain of the imminence of a Russian invasion as we seem to be, we should either mount that defense now, in pre-emption of the invasion, or be prepared to mount it immediately after the invasion.
  3. If we are not willing and/or able to mount a full-scale military defense of Ukraine, we should avoid any course of action that commits us to doing so, whether now or later.
  4. Proceeding with the accession of Ukraine to NATO would, by Article 5 of the NATO Charter, commit us to mounting a full-scale military defense of Ukraine in the event of any aggression against it–aggression most likely to involve Russia.
  5. Therefore, we should avoid proceeding with the accession of Ukraine into NATO.

Comment on (2): Judging by the bipartisan sounds being emitted on almost all sides, and the idiotically off-hand comments coming from the President, the United States government seems very certain that the Russians are poised to invade Ukraine. So I take the consequent of (2) to follow pretty easily, the first conjunct ex hypothesi, the second via the consensus sapientium.

The question then becomes, assuming the inevitability of war, whether we pre-empt an imminent invasion, or dislodge one after the fact. Militarily speaking, of course, it’s better to pre-empt an invasion than respond to one after the fact. Morally speaking, things seem the other way around. A hard choice either way, and probably one best avoided.

On (3): the “now or later” clause presupposes that things aren’t magically going to improve with the passage of time.

As for (4) and (5): In either stopping the accession of Ukraine into NATO or delaying that process into the indefinite future (where, with any luck, it will be lost in several shuffles and forgotten), we benefit in two separate ways: we avoid war now, and avoid being committed to it later. We avoid war now because we satisfy Putin’s primary demand for avoiding it now, and we avoid war later because we deny Ukraine the opportunity to use Article 5 to drag us into one in the future. Neither of these are iron-clad guarantees, but they’re better than the other options we currently have.

Since it’s patently obvious that we are neither willing nor able to mount a full-scale military defense of Ukraine (and never will be), it strikes me as obvious that we should fast-forward to (5) and be done with it.

That leaves the matter of measures that fall short of a full-scale military defense of Ukraine, like sanctions. My basic view is that sanctions are overhyped: they will neither deter an invasion nor dislodge one. At best, they will exact a retributive cost.

But the trade-off involved in imposing that cost is both inescapable and highly problematic: the stronger the sanctions we impose, the more dangerous the retaliation we invite; the weaker the sanctions we impose, the less the sanctions accomplish, even by the modest standards of “price tag” retaliation. This is not a categorical argument against sanctions, but it is an argument against the disingenuous and irresponsible way that sanctions have been sold to the American public.

Sanctions, Americans have been led to believe, are a cost-free alternative to war (or, well, cost-free to them). But the kind of sanctions that would exact a cost on Russia are also the kind that would invite a cost for us. I doubt that the average American has any idea of the price tag involved. Too few Americans are familiar with the SolarWinds debacle to understand its relevance to them. They’re fated to learn things the hard way, and bring suffering on all of us in the bargain.

In thinking about Ukraine and Russia, one commonly hears Russia and Ukraine compared to Nazi Germany and Poland, respectively, on the eve of World War II. There is, I think, a better analogy. Think of Russia as standing to Ukraine not as Nazi Germany stood to Poland in 1939, but as Imperial Japan stood to Nationalist China in 1936.

Japan was certainly the aggressor vis-a-vis China, indeed, the author of horrific crimes against it. But you don’t have to excuse those crimes to think that the rush to sanctions against Japan, and the consequent drift to war, was a mistake. As in the present case, we had no intention of sending American troops to liberate China; that’d have been a bridge too far, so to speak. But we felt justifiable indignation that Japan had invaded and occupied China–indeed, justifiable (though rather hypocritical) indignation for all of Japan’s imperial ambitions in East Asia.

So what did we do? More or less what we’re doing now with Russia.  We adopted a highly moralistic posture unamenable to diplomacy. We made demands we knew would never be met. We failed to make offers that might well have been accepted. Indulging a bit of racism, a bit of cultural chauvinism, a bit of amnesia, and a huge dollop of hypocrisy, we decided that the Japanese had to be taught the salutary and distinctively American lesson that crime never pays–above all, crimes committed from nationalist motives in the name of Manifest Destiny.

So we put the squeeze on Japan with that cost-free alternative to war…sanctions. In doing so, and intensifying their grip, we eventually backed the Japanese into a corner. Their response was that proverbial “bolt out of the blue,” Pearl Harbor–an event, like 9/11, that we remember each year in order to perpetuate the preceding years’ amnesia about how it happened. We then found ourselves dragged into a war that we might, with better diplomacy and a less rigidly moralistic posture, have avoided.

We didn’t avoid it. We didn’t really try. Eventually, the war ended in nuclear holocaust.  I know it sounds alarmist, but give it time: so might this one.

3 thoughts on “Ukraine: A Reprise

  1. I rarely agree with Tom Friedman, but this not only strikes me as on target, but, given the long quotation from George Kennan, of genuinely historical significance:

    Already, as the invasion has begun, the mainstream American press is treating us as the “innocent bystanders” of Friedman’s title. We aren’t.


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