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Analysis: The Current Tension Over Ukraine Is Full of Difficult Miscalculations

Cold War tensions have been reawakened as Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to threaten Ukraine. My inbox is now filled with daily emails from US think tanks analyzing every aspect of the Ukrainian crisis. Things have been evolving since my previous piece, “US and Allies Raise Stakes, Turning Putin’s Ukraine Fantasy into Risky Nightmare.”

Establishment in Action

The so-called “Washington Establishment” of the United States is back in business. This is an artifact of the 2020 election, when Joe Biden’s “work with the establishment” administration displaced Donald Trump’s “outsider” agenda.

I watched the Pentagon briefing on January 28th by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley. Austin led his opening remarks talking about Ukraine, and ended it with noting that the Administration is actively in the process of continuing to re-shape the culture of the US military, itself putting on display that “establishment D.C.” still needs to deal with the “other outsider” agenda faction, the Progressive Left. My colleague streiff also watched the press conference and reported his take, “Why Today’s Austin-Milley Press Conference Convinces Me That Joe Biden Wants Conflict With Russia in Ukraine.”

General Milley, however, was businesslike, spending his remarks focusing on the U.S. posturing to potentially turn Ukraine into a do-over of the Fulda Gap, the plains of Germany where NATO once prepared to repel a Soviet tank invasion during the Cold War.

In the media, the rush is on for people to get into Ukraine and report on how the locals are reacting to being in the center of the bullseye; well, this latest episode in the bullseye anyway. Ukraine has been in Russia’s sights since 2014, when Putin’s forces annexed Crimea in violation of the 1994 Budapest Agreement, where Russia pledged to honor the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine. We shall begin to see in the coming days more reports about how ordinary Ukrainians feel about being the object between the paws of two tigers.

Think-tank pundits buzz about whether this is seasonal posturing by the Russian president. He is spending money deploying one-third of his armed forces this winter. They focus on time not being on Putin’s side, if he wishes to use his ground forces in an invasion. They note that these are Russian tank armies and Ukraine becomes a soggy bog when the spring thaw comes; that is not good operating territory for mechanized divisions; particularly so if the defending Ukrainians have time to become better supplied with, and proficient in, the use of modern anti-tank weapons and defenses. The scenario for invasion becomes costlier with each arriving U.S. and NATO shipment. Putin and his generals know this, too, and are aware of the limitation of a $1.43 trillion USD GDP economy to wage such a campaign.

Nostalgic Cold War fans speculate over the militarization of the European landscape. They wax on in detail about how US and NATO forces are preparing to deploy to the eastern front in countries like Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania. You can taste the prospect of a new round of contractor opportunity, if Putin’s maneuvers into Crimea, Belarus, and even Moldova become permanent fixtures of Eastern Europe’s new normal. Everybody can settle into a nice, new Cold War, with Ukraine sitting there like a donut hole waiting to find out what flavor filling it will eventually be forced to become.

Other analysts pore over the diplomatic and economic consequences, given that Russia invades Ukraine and plunges the country into a war that will decimate an already poor country and plunge its forty-four million people deeper into tragedy.

While the official line is that these military preparation and sanctions are simply being “threatened” to force the Russians to abandon conquest and return to the bargaining table, the fact of the matter is even in this scenario, the damage will have already been done. But entropy only goes one way; the price of this promising era of global trade will cease to be what it has been.

Disturbingly, some want this to happen. They see alternative opportunities. Instead of Russian oil and gas supplying Western Europe’s needs that the EU has been pursuing to reduce dependence on Middle Eastern sources, Europe will pivot and again covet the Islamic world building pipelines running through NATO countries, after going through a newly important Turkey or crossing the Mediterranean through places like Syria and Lebanon. And all the resurgence of nation building, colonialism, and crusading that goes with exchanging one complicated economic partnership for another. An alternative where one immediately finds the U.S. and NATO competing with that third party seeking resources and influence around the globe, China.

It’s not just oil and gas to the EU that will be affected by the loss of free trade. Ordinary Americans will also lose in ways they will feel quite personally. For instance, this path back to Cold War belligerence turns aspects of quality of life some Americans take for granted back into bullets. It’s estimated that up to 40 percent of ammunition sold in the United States to the recreational shooting market is sourced from Europe and Russia. This supply chain evaporates if these tensions continue because that ammunition will instead be destined to stockpile preparations to be fired at the great, big donut hole, Ukraine. The only solution to meet that demand would be to build new industrial capacity domestically, which is frankly, a form of mobilization for war.

Wrong Headed Thinking

My point is that this present posturing by the U.S., NATO, and Russia is a dead-end solution. It’s a loser to go down this path of armed camps, and begets deterrence and global stability version of the world. We may avoid a war, but the cost will be prosperity.

This strikes me as a wrong-headed way of tackling the problem at hand. We are solving the problem by creating a sub-optimal outcome. It will make none of the principal parties happy.

I lay the blame for the current situation entirely on Vladimir Putin.  More precisely, the Russian leader’s miscalculations about the United States and the infeasibility of his demands.

Putin badly misjudged the events of the U.S.’s 2020 Presidential election, mistaking America’s penchant to argue like a dysfunctional family as a breakdown in the country’s capacity to rally. He correctly noted that the real winner of that election was the D.C. establishment, whom he thought was bumbling because of chaotic upheavals in Congress and the federal apparatus. He read the debacle in Afghanistan as a sign of total ineptitude of the Biden administration to manage foreign affairs, which in August of 2021 was arguably a correct assessment. He probably thought our prestige in the world was so tarnished that he could take advantage of the vacuum.

Mr. Putin was completely mistaken. Let’s be clear here, the United States is exceptionally good at making the same foreign policy mistakes over and over. Our establishment apparatus is a coiled spring of frustrated agendas just looking for ways to reappear. Yes, America is running on a Washington Beltway autopilot. And Putin made the mistake of creating the perfect petri dish for that system to advise the President of the United States to plant fields of Javelin anti-tank and Stinger surface-to-air missiles in Ukraine.

And for what?  All this alpha military posturing was about hoping to win longstanding, but infeasible Russians demands to the Western Alliance. They have been spelled out repeatedly. They have also been repeatedly rejected by the West. Specifically, Putin’s demands are:

  • avoiding further NATO expansion,
  • not deploying offensive weapons near Russia’s borders,
  • returning NATO “military capabilities and infrastructure” to how they were before former Warsaw Pact states in Eastern Europe joined the alliance,
  • and a guarantee that Ukraine will be permanently barred from joining NATO.

To begin with, by their own right of self-determination, former Warsaw Pact countries and Soviet republics have embraced NATO and the European Union. Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined in 1999. Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia joined in 2004. They moved the line of where Western Europe ends, five hundred miles to the east, creating a land bridge to early NATO member states Greece and Turkey.

This influx of poorer countries into the western family has not been without havoc, testing to what limits the richer counties of European Union could absorb the costs of reconstruction of countries that never fully recovered from World War II until joining NATO. It’s been a difficult,18 years of integration that has exposed rifts among members, most notably in the decision by the U.K. to exit the European Union portion of the alliance.

Ukraine, with its forty-four million population and $155.6B GDP, represents a problem for both the West and Russia in 2022. Germany, not an original member of NATO when it was formed, rebounded after World War II to become the biggest GDP country of the alliance at $3.8 Trillion USD.  In 2021, the Germans expressed hesitation about bringing Ukraine into NATO, partly because of the implied subsidy costs.

Putin should be asking himself the same questions about adding yet another weak economic link to his already bad hand of economic cards within his own country.

As to not deploying offensive weapons in proximity to Russia: this demand of Putin has always struck me as a man projecting an image of his own self unto his enemies. Putin can see himself invading the West, so he sees the West plotting to invade him. But there is no Western tank army. No NATO general staff planning a robot, air-land campaign to execute a 21st century Operation Barbarossa to conquer the latter-day Tsarist Empire.

The real “offensive” weapon of the Western Alliance slowly encroaching towards the Russian heartland is economic opportunity, that disparity of wealth between the 1st world economy and the poorer warrens of the world. This is the asymmetric offensive threat to the crumbling Tzarist Empire of Mr. Putin’s dreams for his country. But the fact of the matter is that Russia is powerless to stop this encroaching force. That was the first stone that fell when the Berlin Wall came down; a wall that in 2022 has now been gone longer than it was up.

As I noted previously, entropy goes one way. There is no such thing as “returning the military capabilities and infrastructure” of the former Warsaw Pact back to the way it was. In fact, Mr. Putin, by his action of moving one-third of his military into Crimea and Belarus, has become the very reason countries like Poland, Hungary, and Romania are becoming more militarized. The thing he wants is the very thing his actions are undermining.

As to a guarantee that Ukraine will be permanently barred from joining NATO, no one except the Ukrainians have a right to determine where their future goes. Not Russia, not America, not Western Europe.

Strategically for his country’s interests, Putin doesn’t want Ukraine in NATO because that will keep them weak and vulnerable with respect to Russia. But that’s not a legitimate ask by him, for forty-four million people to remain impoverished, if the opportunity to improve their lot by joining the West presents itself.

But bear in mind that Putin isn’t the only one hesitant about Ukraine joining NATO. For most of 2021, the Germans weren’t so sure it was a promising idea to pick up another economic assistance case.

The problem for both the Germans and the Russians is that Ukraine is now becoming America’s war.  Fresh from totally failing a 20-year nation building attempt in Afghanistan, establishment America has a new chew toy in Ukraine. The DC establishment is a bureaucracy that feeds on its own habits. The Beltway is clearly in love with a mission that lets the collective A.D.H.D. hyper-focus on our newest, 20-year debacle.

I do not sense the Biden administration has fully informed the American people that if we take over leading the fight to bring Ukraine into the 1st world community of nations, we are making the same kind of commitment George Bush made going into Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s not part of the narrative to question what our motives are, other than to prove that Vladimir Putin was right that someone is planning to take down his motherland.

If that question were put that way to ordinary Americans, would our people say yes to taking over protecting Ukraine?  Are we of a mind to launch a 21st Century Marshall Plan to improve the economic lot of forty-four million people on the other side of the planet?  Bear in mind, such a thing has substantial mission creep issues. Ukraine is not the only member of NATO in need of economic development.

Then there’s the equally important question of: would the countries of NATO and the European Union say yes to making Ukraine the next steppingstone in an asymmetric strategy to expand western influence deeper into the Caucuses? Particularly so, knowing that is the deep fear the Vladimir Putin’s Russia wishes to prevent.

Our record of accomplishment for this type of Roman Empire meddling hasn’t been good. For confirmation, ask the Taliban.

What might work here?

Back in the 80’s, when I was steeped in the world of arms control looking for a way to end the Cold War before we accidentally blew up the planet, I learned that set-piece conflict deterrence had limitations.  A line from the movie “War Games” said it all, “Strange Game. The only winning move is not to play.” Finding that magic path to get all parties to say “yes” to a negotiated solution was a hallmark of a remarkable process.

There are some frank things that need to be said about the situation in Ukraine.

First, the Russians need to recognize that there is no military threat to their sovereignty. It’s a myth. Acknowledging this is the first step in the direction of the next wave of demobilization after World War II. That one-third of Russia’s expensive military machine is about as useful for the future as the Soviet military that hung on well after the Great Patriotic War was done. The bottom line remains that, “Analysis: Putin’s Dangerous Ukraine Brinksmanship Fantasy Needs to Stop”.

Second, both Europe and Russia need to recognize that economic opportunity is an asymmetric force to be dealt with that is more powerful than any army. In this regard, it is in the interest of Russia and the EU to see Ukraine not as a battleground of stubborn wills, but as an opportunity to testbed the integration of longstanding interests into something that will work across Eurasia.

In this regard, there is a case to be made for both sides to discuss a period of tension reduction experimentation with Ukraine being a positive beneficiary of process. The objective is to fill the donut hole of this hour with sweet filling instead of bitterness and anti-tank missiles. When spring comes, the land turns to wet bog, the troops on exercise return to their bases, and calmer heads have had time to assess what comes next, that’s when something productive can happen.

In the meantime, it’s okay to let the reflexive actions of the set-piece battles generals and politicians work themselves into a frenzy that ends with creating an outcome of “all quiet on the front.”

Third, Americans, not just government but ordinary people too, need to search our souls and ask: do we really want to be the ones that get blamed for turning Europe into a Forward Line of Troops (FLOT) that will have to give way to something where we are not needed, or wanted … again?

We Americans, and our bureaucrats, like the excitement of the moment. But, that may not actually be constructive to the long game.

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