Momentous occasions such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine often have the effect of reinforcing in commentators and policy analysts the convictions and prescriptions they had previously espoused. In other words, “I favor policy X, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine only reinforces the urgency of adopting policy X.” I recall availing myself of this trope when it came to the question of NATO enlargement and the meaning of 9/11. I averred that the uncertainties of the post-9/11 world made the case for NATO’s embrace of new members even more urgent.
Maybe so—but probably not. I viewed NATO enlargement then as essential to the stability of Central and Eastern Europe and a worthy expression of the shared political values of both current members and those aspiring to join. I still do. In this respect, 9/11 didn’t really make any difference.
I begin with this because Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has provoked a similar response. If you were in favor of Ukraine’s membership in NATO before 2/24, you are likely even more in favor of it now. If you believed Vladimir Putin’s Russia was a menace to its neighbors, including current NATO members such as the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania before 2/24/22, that conviction has likely been fortified since Russian armored columns crossed the border into Ukraine. On the other side of the discussion, if you opposed NATO’s post–Cold War enlargement as unduly provocative to Russia, Putin’s contra-NATO explanation for threatening and going to war in Ukraine likely proves to you your own prescience (even if you do not think it justifies Putin’s action).
This time, however, I’m an outlier. My view of the Russia problem (or Putin problem) has changed substantially since 2/24, as has my view of Ukraine. The reason is that the Russia or Putin problem itself changed drastically that day. By launching a war of conquest against a neighbor, Russia not only issued an existential challenge to Ukraine and a strategic challenge to the United States. Putin on that day also returned the question of morality or values to the foreground of international politics. He did so by showing the world in no uncertain terms what a tyrannical aggressor looks like. The place of Ukraine on the world stage likewise changed that day. The country became indisputably and above all else a victim of aggression. Finally, on that day came the challenge of what the United States and others would do in response. On 2/24, it looked as if the liberal international order with the United States as its undisputed leader and champion was cracking up in a way that would prove irreparable. By March 1, it no longer did. Ukraine, in defending itself bravely and credibly against Russian aggression, cast itself in the seemingly preposterous role of the savior of the liberal international order. Though the end is yet unknown, this reinvigoration and remoralization of the West in response to its most direct and bloodiest challenge since 9/11 is the least foreseen development in international politics since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Many conservatives have been highly critical of the supposed failure of the Biden administration to deter Putin’s attack on Ukraine. They claim his administration has projected weakness, with the debacle of the abrupt abandonment of Afghanistan in the summer of 2021 as Exhibit A. Some conservatives and remaining liberal hawks also deem the United States to have been insufficiently supportive of Ukraine as far back as 2008. That was when NATO rebuffed a “Membership Action Plan” for Ukraine and Georgia in favor of a vague declaration that the two Russian neighbors would one day join the alliance.
Those who hold this opinion think the next pivotal moment of weakness came later in that same year, when Russian forces responded to a Georgian provocation by invading and occupying the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and proclaiming their independence. The response to that incursion, in this view, was too weak to give Russia pause. An emboldened Putin soon thereafter intervened on the side of Bashir al-Assad in the Syrian civil war, with arms sales, the buildup of Russian naval and air bases, and irregular Russian mercenaries of the Wagner Group fighting on Assad’s side. By 2012, Russia was providing an out for an intervention-weary Barack Obama over enforcement of the American president’s declared “red line” warning Assad against use of chemical weapons. Russia advanced a proposal to confiscate them, which the United States accepted—as did Assad, knowing that Russian enforcement of this agreement would still leave him amply equipped to continue chemical attacks on his opponents. Again, critics found weakness in the failure to prevent Russia from reestablishing and consolidating a position of influence in the Middle East.
Next, in 2014, came Russia’s hybrid incursion into Ukraine—its takeover and annexation of Crimea and military incursion into Eastern Ukraine, for which Ukraine was entirely unprepared. Though condemnation and Western sanctions followed, and NATO enhanced its visibility in frontline member states such as the Baltics with rotational brigades and other measures, critics deemed these insufficient to check growing Russian restiveness. And then 2021–22 was upon us, with Russia building up a potential invasion force on Ukraine’s border and Putin expressing the view that Ukraine enjoyed no status as a sovereign country but rather was rightly a part of Russia.
The problem with what might be called the “weakness argument” is that it presents the problems as simple, the alternatives as clear, and the results that would have followed from different policy choices as inevitably better. That’s much too easy. The withdrawal from Afghanistan was indeed a disaster, but primarily a humanitarian one. Though militarily unnecessary and therefore foolish (except to those wedded to “endless war” complaints about U.S. engagement abroad), its geostrategic significance is questionable. As for Russia’s Syrian adventurism, the primary problem was Assad, who was responsible for an even larger humanitarian disaster, one that claimed 500,000 lives and displaced 13 million people, roiling regional, European, and American politics. President Obama’s steadfast commitment to do nothing about Assad’s brutality created favorable conditions for Russia to increase its influence, but Syria was not a Russian show.
When it came to Georgia in 2008 and Crimea/Donbas in 2014, the sanctions put in place were neither trivial nor effective. But Georgia and Ukraine are not members of NATO, and it would have been strange had the alliance and the United States treated them as if they were when Russia attacked. Nor was the 2008 rebuff of their desire to join NATO unreasonable. Though many Georgians and Ukrainians do indeed embrace Western values, their populations themselves did not express majority support for joining NATO, which has been a standard benchmark for membership eligibility in the post–Cold War era. Nor did their actual governance as of 2008 and ever since meet reasonable standards of performance for membership. This is to say nothing of the “realist” concern, not irrelevant, of the challenge of actually defending them.
What is more, we now know that the post-2014 response to Russian aggression in Ukraine was not limited to sanctions. The United States military, we can see in retrospect, was hardly idle, instead helping train up the Ukrainian military’s ability to resist a further Russian advance. That the United States did so quietly, so as not to provide a provocation Putin could use as a pretext for further aggression, also seems reasonable.
In short, even on the day before Putin’s move, prevention of a Russian armed attack on Ukraine was a worthy top priority for the United States in Europe but not one worth threatening to go to war with Russia over. The warnings of dire sanctions were entirely appropriate. The Biden administration’s attempt to rattle Putin’s complacency by revealing U.S. intelligence on his war aims and plans in advance was clever and worthy. The promises conveyed to Putin through back channels about the potential economic benefit he might gain from not invading were defensible: He and those under his patronage could have reaped billions from the Nord Stream 2 pipeline deal going through—notwithstanding the objection of our Central and Eastern European allies.
The willingness of the Biden administration to rule out U.S. boots on the ground in defense of Ukraine was also appropriate—especially in light of the retrospectively evident fact that American boots were already covertly on the ground in Ukraine, preparing Ukrainians for a fight and setting up channels for U.S. provision of battlefield and other intelligence as well as supply lines for military assistance. Likewise appropriate was the Biden administration’s emphatically ruling out compliance with any of Putin’s pre-war demands on NATO—from future enlargement to force deployments. Presumably, Germany had informed Putin that Berlin’s 2008 opposition to NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine still stood, which meant their accession was as dead on February 23 as Putin professed to wish it. Through that date, Sweden and Finland had made no additional movement toward NATO membership beyond their long-time close cooperation with the alliance and especially its Nordic/Baltic members. The administration’s oft-repeated commitment to defend NATO allies in accordance with Article 5 of the Washington Treaty—that an attack on one is an attack on all—was unwavering.
Nevertheless, Putin’s bluster and military movement around Ukraine were making gains for him—in particular in the divergent perceptions between Western Europe and Eastern Europe over the threat he posed, all in the context of European dependency on Russia for natural gas. Putin was creating or widening fissures in the alliance as of February 23, and he could reasonably have hoped to exploit them further.
Altogether, the weeks prior to February 24 saw a morally respectable effort at carrot-and-stick diplomacy and signaling, without appeasement, whose purpose was to avert a devastating war. It failed.
Putin attacked. It seems clear that at the highest levels of the U.S. government, the expectation was that the Zelensky government would collapse and Kyiv would fall to the Russians in a matter of days. Certainly this was the consensus expectation in the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. Volodymyr Zelensky’s quip for the ages—“I don’t need a ride, I need ammunition”—was the response of a man who had been offered a ride to safety as lawful head of a government in exile, while a puppet government installed by Moscow would dissolve the Ukrainian state. Yes, Ukrainians were vowing that Ukraine would fight, but their defiant insistence that they could hold Russia off, while inspiring, also seemed like vainglory to many, including me.
It was not just the Ukrainian state on the line, however. Whether the United States chose to acknowledge the broader stakes or not, Putin’s naked aggression against Ukraine constituted a direct challenge to U.S.-led global order and liberal normative aspiration for international politics.
It’s easy to see as much by considering a possible alternative path for the first few days and weeks of the war. Let us suppose that Russia had gained control of Ukrainian airspace, and that its armor and infantry had advanced rapidly west, taking key cities in Ukraine’s east, and rapidly south, taking Kyiv.
Russian forces would have continued across southern Ukraine along the Black Sea coast from Mariupol to Odessa. Reports of war crimes and crimes against humanity would quickly have filtered out, but Russia would have dismissed them as fabrications. What remained of the Ukrainian military would retreat west to mount a last stand to retain Lviv in a landlocked rump Ukrainian state. It would have been to there that Zelensky would have taken the ride—or perhaps to London. In Kyiv, Russia would have installed a puppet government, which would have immediately “negotiated” the reincorporation of Russian-occupied Ukraine as a region of the Russian state. “Denazification” would have proceeded with the summary execution of anyone who has endorsed what Russia has described as the “Nazi” belief in an independent Ukraine.
The West would have imposed sanctions, travel bans, and asset seizures. But a significant strand of opinion would quickly have emerged in Washington, Paris, and Berlin holding that the new facts on the ground Russia had created warranted a major diplomatic initiative to obtain a cease-fire and peace agreement. Military assistance to Ukraine would have ceased in favor of humanitarian assistance. Perhaps 20 million Ukrainians of a pre-invasion population of 43 million would have fled the fighting, becoming either internally displaced or refugees.
Having achieved his battlefield objectives, Putin would then have proposed a sit-down, maybe in Minsk, to discuss postwar arrangements with the United States, Germany, France, and the head of the puppet government he installed in Ukraine. The Western powers would have refused, but talks about the talks would have continued, which some would have described as a positive development under the circumstances. As this process dragged on, Russia would have repeatedly announced and then broken unilateral cease-fires while preparing for the final push to wipe out what was left of the Ukrainian military and government by capturing Lviv. Belarus forces would have crossed the border into Ukraine to assist.
Central and Eastern European NATO allies would have made demands on the alliance for security enhancements, but some Western European members would have demurred on the grounds of their potential to undermine peace talks. Finland and Sweden would have kept a low profile. Putin would have given a speech about persecution of ethnic Russians in the Baltic states. The Biden administration would have faced the reality that Ukraine was lost and blamed Donald Trump. Biden emissaries would then have hastened to Asia to reassure our allies there that our security commitments to them were as strong as ever. Xi Jinping might have offered the services of his foreign minister as mediator in the Minsk talks. And, with Russia’s triumph on the horizon, U.S. intelligence might have seen signs of a potential buildup of an invading force on China’s side of the Taiwan Strait.
In sum, if the first days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine had gone as most expected, they would have marked not only the end of the post–Cold War era, but also almost certainly the collapse of U.S.-led liberal international order as a fact of international politics—and the descent into near-silence of liberal normative aspirations for progress in international politics. What might have begun after these endings is unknowable. But the notion that the world in this all-too-plausible scenario I just sketched would become more peaceful, benevolent, prosperous, and conducive to American interests and the value that we and our friends and allies place on freedom seems fanciful in the extreme.
There are certainly limits to the ability of the United States, rich and powerful as the country is, to shape international politics to Washington’s liking. We often learn about these limits the hard way, by overreaching. The reach of normative aspiration exceeds its grasp. We act in the expectation that it will yield the result we desire but without any assurance. This is a fact about the limits of all types of power as applied to international politics. It is as true of Putin and Xi as it is the United States. Liberalism without the power and the will to perpetuate itself would be only as stable as its challengers are weak.
In the post–Cold War period, for example, and especially following the successful U.S.-led effort in 1991 to reverse Saddam Hussein’s conquest and annexation of Kuwait, many spoke of a new “norm” in international politics: the rejection of changes in national borders by force. But this norm had become an actuality of international politics only to the extent that those in power themselves respected it and, second, that anyone who didn’t could have expected to run into resistance serious enough to put in question the value of attempting to violate it. Putin seems never to have respected such a norm and to have grown contemptuous of the resistance its defenders would mount if he continued to break it. And perhaps he would have been proven correct had his and others’ expectations of a quick Russian victory unfolded more or less as described above. Perhaps NATO would have rallied and the centers of liberal power in the United States, Europe, and Asia would have come together in defense of liberal order or “the West.” Ukraine could in this sense have turned out to be a wake-up call. Yet it seems just as likely, if not more, that Putin’s reconquest of Ukraine would have accelerated the Western or liberal fragmentation and dispiritedness already in evidence February 23.
But the strange symmetry of forecasts between Putin and American foreign-policy analysts on the night of February 23—a defiant Russia mounting a challenge to American-led liberal order that it might or might not withstand—turned out to be wholly neglectful of the decisive element in the clash: Ukraine itself.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to Ukrainians, was not a violation of a supposed norm. It was a genuine existential threat to their country in a world in which the term “existential threat” is wildly overused. Here, it applies. Putin sought to wipe Ukraine off the map, ending its existence as an independent state, incorporating its territory into imperial Russia, and killing its leaders and their supporters. It turned out that Ukrainians would not accept this course of Russian action and were willing to fight to stop it. Ukraine was eager and able in 2022 to resist Russia’s war of conquest and aggression, and did so.
Now, Ukraine did not enter this struggle alone. Some day, someone will write a comprehensive history of exactly what the United States was doing with the Ukrainian military between 2014 and 2022, and exactly what form that assistance took once Russian forces crossed the border. In the early going, there were reports of perhaps a dozen Russian generals killed in Ukraine—a shockingly high number. It seemed implausible to me at the time that the Ukrainians could have done this without some help, which U.S. officials subsequently confirmed we had provided. What was the total number of U.S. Special Forces and paramilitary intelligence personnel covertly on the ground in Ukraine on February 25? It seemed pretty clear by early March that the answer to this question was not “zero.”
It also seems likely that the Russian invading force was aware of these non-zero helpers and the problems, such as dead Russian generals, they were helping to cause. This, too, is significant. It set the United States on a path in which we could ramp up assistance to Ukraine without directly provoking a Russian response against us. Once Russia moved out of its “hybrid warfare” mode of aggression of previous years and into invasion mode, something strange and unexpected happened: The United States began to enjoy what we might call “hybrid escalation dominance.”
In the classical formulation, “escalation dominance” means the ability to ratchet up the intensity of the conflict in a fashion your adversary is unable (or unwilling) to counter. If it’s true, as now seems undeniable, that the United States was in this fight from the beginning on at least a provisional basis—that is, subject to a change of course should the fortunes of Ukraine falter—it’s also true that U.S. involvement could ratchet upward with Ukrainian success in ways that Russia could not effectively counter.
This hybrid escalation dominance included the provision of more and more capable weapons systems, more intelligence, and more of the activities that “boots on the ground” can engage in when deployed covertly, whatever those may be. The increasing activity need be announced not at all but can be acknowledged partially and perhaps misleadingly as it continues. The point is that we know we’re there, Russia knows we’re there, we know that Russia knows, and there is no point of demarcation at which Russia can plausibly counter this presence or halt its increase without directly attacking the United States or its allies, when Russia has its hands full attempting and failing to conquer Ukraine.
The stiffness of the Ukrainian resistance also seems to have benefited from the incompetence of the Russian military, both on the battlefield and in its preparations for war. From the early going, this seemed apparent even to the layman. Do you really wage tank warfare by putting your armor into a 40-mile column on a road and pausing it a dozen miles from your stated objective, Kyiv? Where was the infantry? Why couldn’t Russia establish dominance over Ukraine’s airspace? Were we somehow involved?
Whatever was the case, the Russians seemed to have suffered some considerable multiple more killed in action in a few weeks in Ukraine than the United States did in 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. The war was transparently a disaster for the Russian invading force, with battlefield losses that could not escape comparison with Soviet losses during the Winter War with Finland in 1939–40. The Russian military, in turning out to be not such a formidable fighting force, is now a substantially diminished player in terms of its ability to wage further aggressive war.
Add, as well, some dogs that didn’t bark. What of Russia’s vaunted cyber-warfare capabilities—the ability to do kinetic levels of damage by manipulating electrons from far away? It seems that such Russian capabilities were either exaggerated or have somehow been neutralized. Astoundingly, Russia seems to have had limited intelligence assets and capabilities in place in Ukraine itself at the time of the invasion—or perhaps Ukrainian counterintelligence capabilities were and are more extensive than previously known.
As for Putin’s stated war aims, he achieved none on the timetable he envisioned and has achieved none as of this writing. He will now have to fight to remain in control of areas of Ukraine he once held in “frozen conflict” without significant physical opposition. Rather than emerging with clear title to Crimea or the Donbas—or to all of Ukraine—he has consolidated opposition to any such claims, and the willingness of many ethnic Russians in Ukraine to join ethnic Ukrainians to fight for their country should rebut beyond revival his absurd claims about the nonexistence of Ukraine as a country and Ukrainians as a people.
The attack itself met and exceeded all international criteria for an illegal war of aggression. The invasion provided a moment of moral clarity in being unambiguously wrong. One need not be a partisan of Ukraine in order to view as wrong the Russian attempt to expunge it from the list of nations. The March 2 vote in the United Nations General Assembly to deplore the invasion and demand the withdrawal of all Russian forces passed with 141 votes in favor and 5 against (Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea, Russia, and Syria). There were 35 abstentions and 12 absences. Some have since sought to depict the support for the resolution as tepid. More noteworthy is the unanimous support among liberal states and the willingness of so few states to take Russia’s side.
Then there was the brutality of the Russian way of war. Ukraine collected evidence of retail war crimes in real time. This is to say nothing of the indiscriminate shelling of civilian targets. Putin’s rhetoric about Ukrainians, from their supposed nonexistence as a distinct ethnicity to the need for “denazification” in the case of anyone who has supported an independent Ukraine, was indeed genocidal. It almost seemed as if Putin kept a copy of Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars on his bedside table so he could consult it regularly for guidance on how to launch an unjust war and wage it unjustly. It was revolting to any person of conscience.
As for Putin’s grander strategic aims beyond the conquest and annexation of Ukraine, he has at this writing achieved none, nor is there an obvious path to his achievement of any. NATO, rather than fragmenting under the pressure of the Ukraine invasion, is more unified than ever. Germany has announced a major and previously unimaginable increase in defense spending. A war launched to halt if not roll back the expansion of the alliance has instead pushed two militarily capable and indisputably liberal democracies, Finland and Sweden, to seek membership. Putin’s “no limits” friendship with China now seems to have severe limits, insofar as China has not lifted a finger in support of Putin’s military adventurism beyond buying his oil at a steep discount. Xi Jinping seems every bit as ruthless as before in suppressing democracy activists in Hong Kong, conducting a slow-motion genocide against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and developing to the fullest the capacities of the surveillance state throughout China. But is he quite as inclined to attack Taiwan now as he would have been had Putin rolled into Kyiv in days and the West splintered in response?
Yes, up close, day by day, minute by minute, much is in doubt. Will the Biden administration and others provide military assistance to Ukraine at a pace sufficient to hold the Russians in check? Is French president Emmanuel Macron playing “good cop” to the American “bad cop,” or is there genuine divergence and Western fragmentation? Will Turkey derail the aspiration of Sweden and Finland to join NATO? Will the Americans in fervent support of the 11 GOP senators who voted against a $40 billion assistance package for Ukraine see their influence increase in the next Congress? Will everything change in the months ahead?
I don’t know. But in failing to achieve any of his objectives for 2/24 or to establish a plausible path to their achievement some months after, Putin has severed the connection between the war he continues to fight and the “continuation of politics” he sought. Moreover, he has done so in a fashion that has reminded the world of what brutal authoritarian rulers sometimes seek to do to their neighbors: conquer them and subjugate them, or if that fails, lay waste to them, killing as many of their people as plausible.
In so doing, he has midwifed the birth of the Ukrainian nation. Ukraine has been independent since 1991. In the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine received security assurances as to its sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia (in exchange for surrendering its nuclear weapons). In the case of Russia, these assurances became worthless. Ukrainian domestic politics, meanwhile, remained stunted by the inability of its elites to produce a leader worthy of the complexity of the country’s geopolitical position.
But by 2022, Ukraine, with help from the United States and others, had developed something far more effective in support of its sovereignty and independence than words on paper: the will and ability to resist the worst its powerful neighbor was willing to throw at it. And it had elected as its president a former actor who proved literally able to step into the role of a wartime leader and preserve his country’s freedom. The moral example is striking.
In providing it, Zelensky gave the United States and the West writ large a reminder we needed. The world does not consist of states without features. Some of them have governments that oppress their people and crush dissent at home as they seek to bring more territory under their control by unprovoked acts of aggression. Others have governments that promote and secure freedom for their people and seek abroad an “international community” of states like-minded in their willingness to settle their differences peacefully. When the former come up against the latter, the clash is one not only of power but also values.
Ukraine had to prepare and be prepared to fight for its freedom. It did and was. And the moral clarity of the moment galvanized the West to punish the aggressor and assist the victim in its fight.
Clarity over differences in basic values isn’t always as easy to come by as it has proved to be in the case of Russia versus Ukraine. But freedom and small-r republican government are better than oppression and authoritarianism. Trying to save people from atrocities is better than perpetrating atrocities. These are permanent conclusions that will feature in international politics as long as those who uphold them also maintain the power to protect them. That power, whether globally “hegemonic” or as tested just outside Kyiv, does not exist for its own sake but in service to larger political principles.
Putin does not share these values. That’s why he chose this war—and a large part of why he has already lost it.
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