What Now, Ukraine?
We are on new ground, in which a nonnuclear Western ally—understandably but dangerously—may now seek to destroy a nuclear Russia’s assets on Russian soil or in neutral or even Russian seas.
By: Victor Davis Hanson
May 29, 2022
It was supposed to be a clear-cut, unambiguous invasion. Vladimir Putin’s much larger, richer, and more bellicose Russia staged a shock-and-awe attack on a much smaller, poorer Ukraine. He intended to decapitate the government in Kyiv. Then he would annex the eastern half of the country, and quickly consolidate his easy wins in preparation to ratchet up pressure to force western Ukraine into the Russian Federation.
The rest is history. The Russian military proved ill-equipped and ill-supplied. It was poorly led, with a high percentage of low-morale, conscript troops. Russia had no viable strategic plan to capture, much less hold, the Ukrainian capital. Ukraine was Russia’s version of our Kabul—but tens of thousands of deaths added to the equation.
Russian strategists naïvely believed NATO would become paralyzed in mutual recriminations and fear and follow the usual German prompt of appeasement. In fact, NATO united precisely because of the dire worries over further Russian aggression, as the alliance pressured Germany to back off from its self-interested Russian romance.
Sanctions seldom have a good record of quickly stopping a war, and they have not so far in this instance, either.
But Russia’s naked use of force, its war crimes against civilians, and pathetic propaganda turned off most of the Western world and it, in turn, boycotted, sanctioned, and embargoed Moscow. These porous and slow-moving efforts nonetheless will eventually make it even more difficult for Russia to muster the economic and military wherewithal to sustain a stalled invasion.
Why Putin Invaded
The Western alliance had lost any power of deterrence by February 24, 2022. The catastrophic rout and flight from Afghanistan and utter abandonment of an embassy, and billions of dollars in sophisticated weaponry to the Taliban, suggested to the Russians that the current U.S. military had adopted different objectives from its once feared past. It appeared to some in Moscow that the Pentagon was starting to resemble former Soviet armies, where ideology trumped military preparedness and lethality.
Biden enhanced that impression in so many ways.
He slow-walked initial shipments of offensive weapons to Ukraine.
He asked Putin to tell his hackers to be more selective in their attacks on U.S. targets and begged him to pump more oil as the United States cut its production.
Biden sort of, kind of suggested that an American response would hinge on the size of the supposedly inevitable Russian invasion. And when the invasion began, he immediately pulled out U.S. diplomatic personnel and offered Ukrainian President Zelenskyy a ride out of his own country.
He lifted sanctions on the German-Russian Nord Stream 2 pipeline. And in perhaps the stupidest foreign policy move of his administration, Biden sought to suspend the EastMed natural gas pipeline project into Europe, organized jointly by U.S. allies Cyprus, Greece, and Israel. Apparently, he felt that Europe did not need more natural gas or that Cyprus, Greece, and Israel were enemies not friends, or that high natural gas prices in Europe would incentivize more windmills and solar panels.
Biden was a key player as vice president in the disastrous Obama Administration “reset” and “hot mic” appeasement of Russia. All that led to the 2014 invasions of eastern Ukraine and Crimea, the dismantlement of U.S.-sponsored missile defense in Eastern Europe, and the Hunter Biden syndicate’s interference in corrupt Ukrainian politics to leverage millions of dollars into Biden family coffers.
In sum, Putin wrongly surmised that NATO would both point fingers while he absorbed half the country in a week and then negotiate away western Ukraine in fear. Thus, Putin did not factor in his military incompetence, much less Joe Biden’s fear of a landslide loss in the impending midterm election should he continue to appear utterly weak and appeasing. And Putin completely misjudged Europe’s fear that a rich EU was ripe for the plucking—unless it united and poured its arsenals of top-flight weapons into Ukraine.
Add it all up, and Putin thought 2022 would resemble 2008 and 2014 when aggression went unpunished, acquisitions of former Soviet republic lands were easy, and the NATO alliance was comatose.
Why Putin did not invade between 2017 and 2020 apparently cannot be mentioned in polite company. But his good behavior in those years is silently acknowledged as due to fear of an unpredictable U.S. presidential response.
The Way Ahead
To expel every Russian from Ukrainian land and change the status quo ante bellum, Ukraine must all but sink much of the Russian Black Sea fleet that is supplying Crimea and blockading Ukrainian imports and exports on the Black Sea—as well as conduct commando and air attacks on Russian staging areas and supply depots inside Russia. Kyiv is already beginning such a strategy, with the wink-and-nod support of some Western powers, fueled by demands inside the United States to sell the Ukrainians sophisticated shore-to-ship missiles, and even more deadly weapons to accomplish these tasks.
Getting Putin out of Ukraine would seem to require so damaging Russia that it will no longer be considered a superpower.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin openly alluded to this dangerous strategy of seeing the war as a proxy conflict to so weaken Russia that it will never again contemplate a Ukrainian type of invasion.
Perhaps. But the attack on Russian forces either outside Ukraine or in international waters, whatever the linguistics, is an escalation of the war. It will up the ante of danger, as Europe’s first war in which a nuclear power is directly involved as the chief combatant—one whose dictatorship grabbed and holds power on the perception of his ruthlessness at home and abroad.
Ukraine’s Free and Not-So-Free Will
In this brutal game of realpolitik, Russia always was shrouded in ambiguity. In the past, it has occasionally played a role along with its ally India, in blunting Chinese ambitions. Driving Russia into the arms of China was always considered a failure of U.S. foreign policy.
Moreover, the war is now descending into fierce fighting over largely Russian-speaking border corridors and Crimea. The former may or may not have some sympathies either to join Russia or remain independent pro-Russian puppet states. Crimea itself has a long and bloody history as a focus of desperate Russian defenses against foreign invaders, never more so than in 1942 during the German siege and destruction of Sevastopol.
In sum, as Ukraine is flooded with superior arms, and as its more competent troops make astounding gains, the conflict will turn not on saving Ukraine from Russia—that is now largely done. Rather, very soon the war will hinge on whether the victorious Ukrainians have a mandate to change the verdict of 2014 and expel all Russians from its soil, by methods including air and sea attacks on Russian assets inside Russia and in international waters.
Such an escalation is certainly on strategical and moral grounds justified against an aggressor who sought to ruin a modern country and to lay it waste.
But in a practical sense, we are on new ground, where, even if justifiably, a non-nuclear Western ally will now seek to destroy a nuclear Russia’s assets on Russian soil or in neutral or even Russian seas.
Ukraine is and is not an independent player in the atrocious war waged against it by Russia. Its bravery and sacrifice have both saved the country and benefitted the West. And its decision to cleanse Ukraine of Russian invaders and restore a pre-2014 Ukraine is its decision alone. The West can neither dictate that it weakens NATO’s foe Russia to the last Ukrainian nor force Ukraine to make concessions to halt the specter of a frightening continental escalation.
But that said, Ukraine is not quite an independent player either.
Its existence rests solely on the plentitude not just of foreign arms, but of Western arms that are far superior to those of Russia and provided to a non-NATO ally.
And if Moscow is entirely defeated and humiliated in Ukraine, just as some credit must go to Ukraine’s Western suppliers, Russia will likewise blame its defeat in part on those same abettors.
Add into the equation that governments in Ukraine have not been outliers, but for years deeply involved—some would say to the point of interference—in U.S. presidential politics.
Business interests connected to Kyiv have long bribed the Biden family for special considerations. Ukrainians and their sympathizers were involved in a variety of ways in the presidential impeachment of 2019.
And although it is usually forgotten, Ukraine was even directly involved in the 2016 campaign to harm the Trump candidacy by admittedly providing embarrassing information on a corrupt Paul Manafort to the media to aid the Clinton campaign—a fact of foreign intercession that even the left-wing Nation deplored.
Historically, Russia fights as poorly abroad as it does fiercely on its own ground. And no Russian government can exist for long accepting the reality that a Western-supplied military is attacking the Russian military inside Russia. That is not a moral judgment, just a historical fact.
Other countries have interests far from the battlefield. The Biden Administration insanely has allowed Russia to be the broker of a return to the Iran deal. Russia for now controls Syrian airspace. Add it up, and is it any wonder Israel does not sanction Russia?
The latter could attempt to deny any retaliatory Israeli flights into Syria to stop missile launches by Hezbollah. And when (not if) Iran gets the bomb, Russia could easily declare that Iran is under its own nuclear umbrella should it be preemptively attacked.
And should Russia pull its assets out of Syria to redeploy in Ukraine, Iran will likely fill the void in Syria with Russian assent.
These are not arguments to withhold arms from Ukraine or even arguments necessary to rein it in. But they are considerations that U.S. leaders should take seriously as they contemplate how the war ends without a nucellar denouement.
It may be impossible to impose reparations on Russia to pay for the damage it did to the Ukrainian people. But it is not impossible to see Russia humiliated and forced back to its 2014 lines, at which point, diplomats can use ongoing sanctions to leverage plebiscites on the future of these disputed territories.
An alternative is to unleash the Western-supplied Ukrainians to up their border incursions and to sink much of the Russian Black Sea fleet with American missiles—and to expect an unhinged and likely ill dictator with 6,000 deliverable nuclear weapons to concede that he destroyed the Russian military by guaranteeing the loss of majority-Russian-speaking lands he had claimed he was defending—and as dessert ruined the Russian economy.
Good luck with that scenario.