Answering the Anti-anti-Putinists’ Ukraine Questions

Just before Vladimir Putin made official his partial occupation of Donbas – with a claim that he’s entitled to all of it and an added assertion that Ukraine has no real right to exist – my latest contribution to the discussion led to a response with several questions, along with accusations so utterly fantasist that I can only assume were inspired by the works of Oliver Stone.

The questions themselves, however, are quite helpful to me in explaining my position and why I think it to be correct. So with thanks for them and without further ado…

Question: What is our first order national interest in the Ukraine?  Grain supply to the Middle East?  Weakening Russia?  Improving the Visegrad Group?

Answer: Allowing an irredentist tyranny to swallow up a democratic neighbor would damage the stability of the entire democratic world, and our NATO allies in Eastern Europe in particular. Our interest comes in preventing a return to 20th century “spheres of interest” that would mark every democracy in Eastern Europe as vulnerable to Kremlin subversion or even occupation. This is what our Eastern European allies understand; it is why they are so determined to sound the alarm and to help Ukraine defend itself.

Question: What obligations do we have under the 1994 Budapest Agreement to maintain the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine?

Answer: The language of the agreement is pretty clear: “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine … to refrain from the threat or use of force.” Putin has violated both, repeatedly. Allowing him to get away with it will send a message to the rest of the world that we are not prepared to enforce agreements. The particular context of this agreement (in which Ukraine agreed to surrender its inherited nuclear arsenal) would compound the problem by gravely damaging any non-nuclear proliferation effort we make in the future.

Question: What obligations do we have to our OSCE partners to maintain diplomacy and render war unthinkable?

Answer: We can start by ensuring one of those partners doesn’t get swallowed up by a foreign tyrant. Failing to do so would make the rest of Europe far more vulnerable – and I’m not the one saying this: they are, repeatedly and loudly.

Question: What logistical realities do we owe to Poland, Romania, Hungary and the Baltics first?

Answer: As NATO members, they are entitled to Article V protection. That is already being recognized with our military deployments to Poland and to the Baltics. However, this question hints that the goals of our Eastern European allies and of Ukraine are in conflict. Our allies do not see it that way.

Question: How has US diplomacy failed US-Russia relations over the last 30 years?  What concrete steps can both nations take to improve them?

Answer: First, too little attention paid to corruption of early 1990s; it was treated as merely capital flight, which sent the wrong signal to those who broke Russian law to acquire their riches. We also spent less effort to protect and preserve the brief (and very vulnerable) Russian democracy of the 1990s. Once Boris Yeltsin won re-election, Washington treated Russia as an afterthought. We still did this even as Russian democracy faded in the 2000s and Putin tried to kill democracy in Ukraine by literally trying to assassinate Viktor Yushchenko. Had we built stronger ties with Russia civil society, we could have been more aware of the danger and helped them address it.  As it is, we still have to do just that: it is Russia’s opposition had holds up for a Russia that is free – and only a free Russia can truly be both strong and pro-American.

To make matters worse, we spent a dozen years with Administrations that refused to recognize the problem, either deliberately (Trump) or ignorantly (Obama). President Biden clearly has been shaken loose from that set of mistakes. Whether he is prepared to do what is necessary to help the Russian people free themselves and to help Russia’s neighbors protect their recently gained freedoms remains to be seen.

Question: What role does the Franco-German relationship play in the EU vis-a-vis opposition to a strong Russia?

Answer: I had this teed up for hilarious derision until Germany hit pause on NordStream 2. Until then, it was abundantly clear that to the extent the EU would make any effort to weaken the Putin regime, France and Germany were obstacles to Brussels rather than enablers of it. In general, though, if the European Union was as effective in battling Putin and Xi Jinping as the anti-anti-Putinists claim it was, I’d be far less Eurosceptic than I am.

Question: Is a new Cold War which will drive the Russians further into the arms of the Communist Chinese worth the cost of a pro-Western government in Kiev?

Answer: For starters, it should be the Ukrainian people – not the Kremlin, not Zhongnanhai, not the White House, not the European Commission – that should decide what government is in Kyiv (the actual spelling of Ukraine’s capital, by the way), as they have done in 2014 and 2019. The willingness to ignore that reminds me of the pained wisdom of George W. Bush, looking back on Yalta from six decades hence:

This attempt to sacrifice freedom for the sake of stability left a continent divided and unstable. We will not repeat the mistakes of other generations – appeasing or excusing tyranny and sacrificing freedom in the vain pursuit of stability.

Moreover, America has only been fortunate to exploit two divisions between powerful tyrants in the last century. In both cases, the opportunity was due to actual shooting wars between the tyrants (Nazi Germany’s invasion of the USSR in 1941 and the USSR-CCP border war in 1969). Xi and Putin have no such hostility; neither of them need our defense of Ukraine to recognize their shared interest in authoritarianism is far greater than anything we hold in common with them.

Question: Is a pro-Russian government in Kiev realpolitik or is it an opening to dissolving NATO?  Which seems more probable?

Answer: Now the economist in me can use his favorite answer: it depends. As I’ve noted above, members of NATO’s eastern flank have made it clear they see the latter as the far more probable effect of Putin seizing Kyiv. Putin himself has repeatedly put NATO in his rhetorical and espionage crosshairs; he did the former again this week. By contrast, if the Ukrainian people themselves decide they’d prefer a government which leans toward Moscow (as they did in 2010), that’s their call and the rest of the world will adjust (as it did then). Of course, that has become far less likely due to Putin’s own irredentism.

Question: Does the Maidan government in Kiev really have the support of the Ukrainian people?  Or is it Western subsidies?

Answer: The government in Kyiv was elected by the people of Ukraine in 2019.

Question: What number of civilian casualties will be acceptable for the neoconservative left?  Number of refugees?  Who will absorb these refugees?  Who will pay for their relocation?  What if an EU or NATO member state refuses (i.e. Hungary)?

Answer: We can’t control the casualty and refugee level. That depends upon the progress of the war. That said, recent history makes clear that the stronger Ukraine can resist, the fewer refugees and casualties there will be, because there will be less of Ukraine under Putin’s control. Ukraine’s “peace” under Moscow’s control cost far more Ukrainian lives than the current eight-year war (five to seven million died in the Holodomor). We saw a similar situation with the Syrian regime, where the refugee flood reached its apex not when Assad was at his weakest but when, with Putin’s support, he was at his strongest. What will make Ukrainians flee is if they are defeated by Putin, not if they are able to resist him. This is well understood by anyone who sees Ukrainians as a people to be supported rather than children needing a strongman to guide them.

Question: How much blame do we put on the failed policy of democratic uprisings?  How much responsibility should the United States shoulder for the Maidan uprising (which was neither democratic nor the free choice of the Ukrainian people — merely a foreign backed mob)?

Answer: Have we forgotten the 1980s? Did Lech Walesa fail in 1989? Did Vaclav Havel fail in 1989? Did Boris Yeltsin fail in 1991? The late 20th Century is replete with democratic uprisings that ended the tenure of tyrants on every continent save Australia. Supporting them is not a failed policy; it’s been a successful one – including in Ukraine, which has held two democratic elections since Maidan – two more than Russia has had in the last dozen years. Whatever role America played in supporting the democratization of Ukraine, we should be proud of it. However, the overwhelming majority of “responsibility” lies with the brave people of Ukraine.

Question: Can the European Union survive a direct challenge?  An indirect challenge?  Should EU membership be used as a stalking horse for NATO membership?

Answer: I can think of no greater direct challenge for the EU than Brexit, and the EU survived. It also survived its greatest indirect challenge: the currency crisis of 2012. However, that does not mean it is as useful as it thinks it is. My criticisms of the Brusselian Empire are long, many, and still relevant. It should never be considered a substitute for NATO. Only NATO can do what NATO does, not the EU.

Question: Can NATO survive a direct challenge?  Can NATO survive an indirect challenge?

Answer: If “direct challenge” means an attack on a NATO state, then NATO has already faced and survived such a challenge on 9/11/01. They’ve survived numerous indirect challenges already. Ukraine is simply one more indirect challenge, albeit one that anti-anti-Putinists are making much more difficult by undermining the alliance’s efforts.

Question: Is there some other framework beyond the OSCE where US-EU-RUS cooperation can continue (i.e. anti-terrorism, space program, energy cooperation) that also revives the old idea of a tripartite alliance of Western nations (i.e. Putinism)?

Answer: Cooperation requires more than one entity. Vladimir Putin’s regime first made it clear they had other ideas in mind when they repeated opposed our efforts to liberate Iraq from Ba’athism. From there, Putin has attempted to assassinate Viktor Yushchenko, invaded two of his neighbors, and switched from anti-Taliban to pro-Taliban. This is not a regime with which we should ally, period.

Question: How many Americans are we willing to sacrifice for this manufactured national interest in Kiev?  How many Russians are they willing to sacrifice in restoring the pre-2014 geopolitical reality in Ukraine?  Are we willing to meet this cost?

Answer: I presume Putin is prepared to kill any Russian that isn’t him. I’d rather avoid American casualties, especially as Ukraine is, contrary to your assertions, very willing to defend itself. Moreover, as I noted above, the more Ukraine can resist, the casualties there will be of any kind, because less of Ukraine will be under Putin’s control. Naturally, as can also be seen above, I take issue with the assertion that America’s interest in keeping Kyiv out of Putin’s grasp is “manufactured.”

As I wrote above, I was grateful for the opportunity to answer these questions. I am also happy to return the favor with some questions of my own for the anti-anti-Putinists.

  • How far should we allow Putin to expand his regime’s sphere of influence? To the current NATO borders? To the 1997 NATO borders? To the limits of the old Warsaw Pact?
  • How many alliances must be sacrificed to appease Putin? Does that include NATO?
  • What evidence do you have that Putin and Xi have anything near the hostility that Brezhnev and Mao’s regimes had for each other in 1969?
  • How important should democracy promotion and defense be in American foreign policy, if at all? What changed from the 1980s, when democracy promotion was at the forefront of our Cold War policy? Or was the Reagan Administration mistaken to insist that Eastern Europe, South Korea, Chile, the Philippines, and Central America democratize?
  • Regarding Ukraine in particular, what about the elections of 2014 and 2019 made it insufficient to be a democracy? Or does it not matter at all whether Ukraine is democratic?
  • In the absence of democratic promotion, what values should become the basis for American foreign policy?

I look forward to the responses and our continued conversation.

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