Rich, thank you. You’re correct to sense that I would have preferred to do the last 14 years differently when it came to America’s Ukraine policy. But it’s also true that new administrations come to power having inherited their predecessor’s blunders. If you give me time before the invasion, I would have sought a diplomatic resolution that avoided war, even at the cost of publicly repudiating George W. Bush’s promise of NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia.
But to clarify your question: What would I have done if I was sitting at the poker table at the precise moment that Vladimir Putin called the West’s bluff? Forgive the length of my response.
You’re correct that doing nothing would be politically untenable and counterproductive. Russia’s invasion imposed costs on us, on Europe, and on the rest of the world as a matter of course. And so, Russia merited some response and punishment.
But I would have tried to limit our losses and liabilities in the medium and long term:
I would have increased sanctions on Russia, though I would not have gone as far as we did in weaponizing the global dollar system.
I would have offered to backfill European arsenals as the Poles and Slovaks sent materiel forward.
I would have calibrated American financial and military support to be proportional to Europe’s. This is their backyard, and because I’m a good neighbor and partner with them, we should defend it as much as they would. That aid would be closely monitored by an appointed Inspector General.
I would have given most of Biden’s speech in Poland as it was written, not indulged in his improvised flourish of publicly calling for a regime change in Russia, and would have forbidden any U.S. bragging that we were the true authors of Russia’s military miseries.
Instead of seeking to help Ukraine win the war, or letting U.S. officials speculate about Putin’s demise, I would have been satisfied to make any gains for Russia just a misery — roughly the same way the Communists helped make Vietnam miserable for us, and we made Afghanistan miserable for Russia. The one argument that seemed to make any impression on Vladimir Putin is that he risked becoming as hated by the world as George W. Bush was. Hostile occupation tends to dissuade further military adventurism.
At the outer edge, I would help broker more bilateral Ukrainian arms deals with Turkey, and study more how cheap drones change war.
My hopes for such a strategy would be that it would:
Punish Russia for its invasion and deter further Russian adventurism in Europe.
Push Russia to an early ceasefire and negotiation, even at the cost of demonstrating that the U.S. sought no existential risks for Russia. There are lots of sticks.
Seek a future where Ukraine has the political independence to pursue positive-sum economic development with European partners and Russia, while remaining militarily non-aligned.
Cajole Europe into ramping up its own arms industries and funding its own defense.
Leave the United States free of taking on Ukraine as a security and financial dependent.
Seek a long-term future that divides Russia from China — a replay in reverse of defense — likely focusing on energy competition in Western Asia.
Properly husband the resources we need to deter and defeat China in Cold War 2.0. Those include not just our weapons and finances, but the proper attention of our leaders and the will of the American people. We already have a $19 billion backlog of U.S. arms deliveries to Taiwan. The longer such accounts go into the negative, the more our Asian friends will conclude that we can’t quit Europe or the Middle East — a complaint they’ve given since Lee Kuan Yew was middle-aged.
Yes, these hopes are just that, and many of them could be dashed by Russian recalcitrance. But I find them more realistic, and their downside risks less catastrophic, than the implied future we’re currently seeking for Ukraine and Russia.
What should the new Republican congress do about Ukraine? Just keep signing checks that Jake Sullivan asks for? Seems like we should at least be demanding some accounting for the aid and the weapons. After the Cold War, Ukraine was one of the primary sources for arms dealer Victor Bout — whom we just released to the Russians. We need to make sure that the weapons that the Ukraine government gives to its military and its more loosely aligned paramilitary partners don’t find their way to the hands of jihadis in Western Europe. Already, Nigerian president Buhari says that weapons meant for the fight against Russia are coming into the Lake Chad Basin.