Throughout the Western world, everybody is rooting for plucky Ukraine. It is the classic story of David and Goliath, and who ever rooted for Goliath? Russia had no reason to invade Ukraine. Ukraine does not qualify for membership in NATO, nor can it do so as long as it has a border dispute with Russia, which it always will. The brutality of the Russian army has made the good vs. evil nature of the war even more apparent. Ordinary people here in Cleveland are flying Ukraine flags, contributing to funds set up to help Ukrainian refugees and welcoming more Ukrainians to a city that already has a lot of them. And it should; Ukrainians are exactly the kind of people America needs more of. We should take as many as want to come.
But. . .
Foreign policy should never be based on emotions, however understandable the emotions may be. By their nature, foreign relations are amoral. That’s what Machiavelli is all about. If they are to attain the objective they desire, they must be calculated purely on the basis of interests. America’s interests in the Russian-Ukrainian war dictate that Russia not be defeated too badly.
At the outset, a Russian defeat seemed impossible. But the Russian army has performed so badly that its outright defeat now appears likely. Outright defeat means not only that Russia fails to take and hold all of Ukraine, but that she loses everything she held before the invasion began, including all of the Donbas and Crimea. Again, let me say what everyone will hate: such a defeat for Russia is not in America’s interest.
The reasons are two. First, President Putin cannot survive Russia’s outright defeat. So what?, some might say. The sooner he is gone the better. I agree. But with his neck on the line and no conventional options left, the pressure on him makes the nuclear option seem ever more unavoidable. It is not in our interest that this or any war go nuclear, because even if the first use is of tactical nuclear weapons in a place far from our shores, the potential of strategic nuclear war, with American cities going up in fireballs, is all too great. As I’ve said before, the number one interest we have in this war is preventing nuclear warheads from landing on American soil. All other interests are trivial in comparison.
The second reason we should not want Russia to lose too badly is that such a dramatic defeat could lead to a breakup of the Russian state. This war, its casualties and the economic damage it has brought on Russia are heavy burdens for the state to bear. In the 1990s, under President Yeltsin, Russia was close to a break-up. President Putin’s great achievement, and the reason he has been popular with most Russians, is that he strengthened the state. His wild, uncharacteristic gamble on war with Ukraine has undone that achievement. In a world of spreading state weakness and the rise of Fourth Generation war, an outright Russian defeat could mean not only the desirable fall of the Putin regime but a dissolution of the Russian state itself, creating a vast, stateless region with thousands of nuclear warheads and strategic delivery systems floating around it.
This is not some alarmist fantasy. Ukraine sees the possibility and welcomes it. The May 21-22 Wall Street Journal interviewed the chief of Ukraine’s military intelligence, Major General Kyrylo Budanov, who said,
Putin is in an absolute dead end. He cannot stop the war and he cannot win it. . . If they finally realize that the czar is not as great and mighty as he pretends to be, it’s a step towards the destruction of the statehood of today’s Russia.
So, what should the U.S. do? First, we should make it clear to Ukraine that we will support her effort to defend herself but not a strategic offensive aimed at re-taking the Donbas statelets and Crimea. If Ukraine were to try anyway, we, the U.S. and NATO, should close her borders with the West. Second, we need to offer Russia a peace where she gets something. That something might include recognition of the areas of the Donbas she held before the invasion and Crimea as legitimately Russian and the lifting of all sanctions. Third, we must move quickly on this, before events outrun it, possibly to the point where a complete Russian defeat will be inevitable unless she goes nuclear.
In wars where a state has limited interests but runs large risks, which describes America’s situation with reference to the war in Ukraine, her most important interest is to end it. That is where Washington’s efforts should now be focused.