In April of 2002, just a few months into what would become our 20-year war in Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sent out a memo. He was disturbed. “The fact that Iran and Russia have plans for Afghanistan and we don’t concerns me,” he wrote. Toward the end of the memo, he started asking questions, and finished off: “We are never going to get the U.S. military out of Afghanistan unless we take care to see that there is something going on that will provide the stability that will be necessary for us to leave. Help!”
We never found a source of stability for Afghanistan. We wouldn’t or couldn’t bring ourselves to confront Pakistan, which harbored, supported, and in some cases funded the Taliban in all the years we were driving them back. Why? Because the risks of destabilizing a nuclear-armed power that could itself fall under Islamist radicals was too great. Arguably we had achieved most of our major war aims — dismantling al-Qaeda and punishing the Taliban in the first two years of the war. But we went on as if trying to win one news cycle to the next, to one general’s paradigm, to another’s, vindicating one presidential approach or another. Billions were spent producing charts and graphs to demonstrate American “progress.” Money spent, territory cleared, hearts and minds won, schools opened — but never movement toward a firm or realistic geopolitical end. A similar refusal to ask and answer the basic questions dogged our missions in Libya, Syria, and Iraq.
Now we’re involved as a major patron of Ukraine’s defensive war against Russian invasion, which followed the Minsk II agreements.
What are the limits of America’s involvement in the war? In his speech in Poland, Joe Biden seemed to outline very firmly that the U.S. would only directly defend NATO countries, implicitly ruling out U.S. entrance into the war as a belligerent — though he went off script and voiced a wish often expressed in Washington think tanks and policy shops, that the war would end in the downfall of Vladimir Putin. Mitch McConnell and many other senators have outlined that they think the war in Ukraine is the most important issue for the United States. General Petraeus has indicated that if Russia were to use a tactical nuclear weapon, the U.S. and NATO would immediately enter as belligerents, destroy the Russian Black Sea fleet, and conduct decapitation strikes on the Kremlin, like those aimed at Moammar Qaddafi in Libya a decade ago. But the war wouldn’t expand from there, Petraeus assured us, because presumably, Russia would just take the destruction of its armed forces and government with a sudden-onset graciousness it hasn’t demonstrated in the last three centuries.
Needless to say, this is evidence of confusion. The aim of American foreign policy from Truman through Reagan was to avoid war with Russia. Adults don’t let adults start a direct war between two nuclear superpowers over the question of the Donbas.
What will be the status of Crimea? Understandably the Ukrainian government wants to recover all of the territory it had as of 1991. And understandably the United States government does not openly contradict this war aim when it is just in a supporting role.
But are we really going to support Ukraine in fighting for Crimea? That implies ejecting Russia from its port at Sevastopol. Russia has fought great-power wars in the past to retain precisely this base, which it sees as a necessity for projecting power and for deterring historic rivals such as Turkey.
Even if Ukraine wins all territory but Crimea on the battlefield and through negotiations, many of the pre-war questions remain unsettled. Will Ukraine demand the ongoing right to join NATO and the EU? As a victor it almost certainly would. But would NATO and EU members ever really entertain it? And are they willing to put up with Russia’s continued energy war to maintain it only as a diplomatic fiction?
Although we can be sure that what remains of Ukraine will be implacably hostile to Russia, the project of detaching Ukraine, politically and economically, from Russia remains an enormous one. Much of the civic infrastructure dates to the Soviet era. This fact has been a constant nettle in European politics. Hungary’s short burst of intransigence about Russian energy at the start of this war was not driven exclusively by ideological affinity (as it was portrayed in the press), but by the facts of the pipeline infrastructure that goes back to the Cold War. If Europe was not willing to consolidate energy policy across Eastern Europe over the last two decades, how could it commit to do so for Ukraine on an abbreviated schedule?
United States intelligence agencies believe parts of the Ukrainian government authorized the car bomb attack near Moscow in August that killed Darya Dugina, the daughter of a prominent Russian nationalist, an element of a covert campaign that U.S. officials fear could widen the conflict.
That phrase, “parts of the Ukrainian government,” is mightily suggestive but left unexplored. We know that before the war the government in Kiev did not have full sovereignty over the territory of Ukraine — not just because of Russia’s frozen conflict in the east, but because major Ukrainian paramilitary groups simply did not feel the need to follow orders from the elected government.
How much are the U.S. and Europe willing to commit to rebuilding Ukraine’s state? Can they build one that does have the authority to keep its agreements with Russia? If building one requires further economic ties with the West, how much of Ukraine’s corruption are Western governments willing to tolerate? Or worse, how much corruption will Western governments be drawn into? Will the U.S. and Eastern Europe support a Ukrainian government that continues its harsh program of cultural nationalism, such as its pre-war legal campaign restricting the use of the Russian language in schools and publications in the territory of Ukraine?
The U.S. and Europe and Russia have had one common problem since the end of the Cold War. Russia remains too much of a gangster state to be incorporated intelligently into the security arrangements of Europe. And it remains too much of a menace to simply be left outside of it, where it is far likelier to join with China and other disruptive actors. That is why almost every American administration begins by trying to court Moscow, or build a new arrangement for it, like the NATO Partnership for Peace.
A great deal of the think-tank world and the security bureaucracies of the West have begun to treat the war in Ukraine the way young socialists once treated the Spanish Civil War. It is a repository of political fantasies to enact globally and even against domestic rivals. They imagine that the war ends with Putin gone, the Russian problem solved for one and for all, and their opponents at home discredited forever. The most troubling question for me is this: Are people in such a moralistic thrall ready to answer the tough questions ahead?