The War in Ukraine: Realism’s Revenge

Washington ignored warnings against expanding NATO, overestimated Russia’s strength and may now be out of step as events unfold

President Biden meets with Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, in Poland last Friday after meeting with NATO allies in Brussels the day before. Image Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

What have we learned since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24? One of the biggest takeaways is how much Washington policymakers should have heeded realist warnings against expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to Ukraine.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is illegal and unjust. But we cannot absolve ourselves of blame for the misguided policies that helped create this situation. America’s outstanding realist thinker, George Kennan, warned in 1998 that expanding NATO would initiate a new Cold War, a sage prediction that has come true. We now face a more serious risk than during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Heedless of Kennan’s warning, the Bush administration in 2008 offered Ukraine NATO membership, a decision that former Secretary of State Robert Gates judged in his memoir “Duty” as “truly overreaching.” After the administration made the same offer to the Republic of Georgia, the Russians staged an attack in 2008 and routed Georgian forces.

Then in 2014 the Obama administration renewed the policy of pulling Ukraine from Russia’s influence, siding openly with opposition forces that overthrew the pro-Russian president and again raising the prospect of NATO membership. The Russians responded by seizing the Crimean peninsula and supporting breakaway Russian regions in eastern Ukraine.

In a controversial but prescient 2014 Foreign Affairs article, political scientist John Mearsheimer blamed the liberal internationalist illusions of U.S. policy as contributing to Ukraine’s crisis at the time and considered it folly to continue the policy. But we continued the encouragement, and Ukraine eagerly accepted the earlier invitation to join NATO, even enshrining NATO membership as a goal in its 2019 constitution.

The Question That’s Never Asked

Gates once said the question least heard in Washington is, “And then what?” Since 2014, we have assisted Ukrainians with arms, intelligence and military training, but these half-measures failed to deter Russia. We have converted Ukraine into essentially an adjunct NATO member without considering how we would deter a hostile Russia’s response.

Classical realism preaches that a country must make an unequivocal show of force to prevent war. As the late Yale historian Donald Kagan explained in “On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace,” great wars happen because powers, such as Athens before the Peloponnesian War and the British and French before World War II, opposed aggression with appeasement or half measures.

A conference room at NATO headquarters in Brussels on March 16 during a defense ministers’ meeting. Image Credit: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

But the U.S. would never attempt a strong military deterrence for Ukraine. The price was too high for a country that is threatened by a neighboring nuclear power and is not a strategic priority. Our main goal was to avoid a war among great powers that might kill millions. That reality could not be changed by NATO membership.

After the invasion we launched an economic war against Russia, with an impressive response from allied countries and international businesses. Sanctions clearly are hurting Russia. But in this globalized age, it is hard to shut down economic activity completely. Russians are still supplying gas to Europe, and Russian oil is still being traded on international markets. The European Union has retreated from a Russian oil embargo because it is too impractical. Russia continues to make interest payments on its foreign debt. Eventually countries adjust to sanctions; as the late Secretary of State George Shultz pointed out, sanctions are a wasting asset.

Not Everyone’s on Board

We had to sanction Russia heavily, but the policy may undermine our global position in the long run. Several key countries are wary of the high cost of sanctions and doubt America’s power to enact them. China and India have refused to participate. Argentina, Brazil and Mexico also reject the economic embargo against Russia. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, normally solid U.S. allies, have rebuffed us on isolating Russia. As former Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew wrote in 2020, “Overuse of economic tools divorced from strategy harms American economic primacy and businesses that rely on the stable prosperity it fosters.”

Without a clear diplomatic objective, sanctions may ultimately undermine our security interests. One telling indicator of the consequences: Tens of thousands of Russian refugees from economic sanctions are entering Mexico with the intention of seeking asylum in the U.S.

A positive development is that the U.S. intelligence community accurately predicted Putin’s invasion plans, which, in an unusual move, the Biden administration announced publicly. Intelligence assessments of the likelihood that Russia would invade went against the grain of prevailing opinion in Europe, but our policymakers accepted them. It is not enough for the intelligence community to make the right call; it needs to be believed. Before the 1991 Gulf War, senior intelligence officers warned that Saddam Hussein intended to invade Kuwait, but this assessment ran counter to Washington’s Iraq-appeasement policy, so we were caught napping.

The community has performed less well in estimating Russia’s military capability. Predictions about how easily Russia would achieve its objectives were way off. The head of the Defense Intelligence Agency admitted he had underestimated the Ukrainian preparedness and will to fight. Perhaps these missed calls are due to years of the Pentagon and the national security press hyping the Russian military’s reforms.

Hybrid Tactics Go MIA

The Russians’ poor performance in both planning and executing this war has shocked (and perhaps disappointed) military experts. Unexpectedly, we’ve seen little evidence of the new Russian style of “hybrid war” based on the so-called Gerasimov doctrine, which supposedly combines information warfare, control of cyberspace and use of proxy irregulars in a challenging new way of waging war. But these tactics have been notably absent in Ukraine. This war features almost exclusively the conventional application of violence.

Through the fog of war, it is difficult to determine who is winning or losing. The media reporting, emphasizing Ukrainian battlefield successes, offers only a distorted view. Likewise, we have only rough estimates of casualties. Ukrainian losses hardly are reported at all. In mid-March one Ukrainian lawmaker estimated the death toll for Ukrainian troops at around only 1,300. Despite reports of Russian forces targeting population centers, civilian deaths, which the U.N. estimated at roughly 1,000 as of last week, seem surprisingly low. By accident we learned in mid-March from a pro-Kremlin tabloid that the Russian Defense Ministry reported more than 9,800 Russian troops killed and 16,000 wounded, before this information was removed from the publication’s website.

Military scholar Eliot Cohen argues that the Ukrainians are clearly winning, inflicting unsustainable casualties on the invaders. For example, the open-source company Oryx estimates that Ukrainian forces have destroyed nearly 2,000 Russian tanks and other fighting vehicles. On the other hand, the analysts at the Institute for the Study of War document the Russians’ steady advance in the amount of Ukrainian territory under their control. The Ukrainians have staged some bold counterattacks but haven’t retaken significant territory. Most likely, the situation right now is a stalemate, which probably helps Kyiv at the negotiating table.

Calculating the Price of Peace

In his seminal work “The Causes of War,” economic historian Geoffrey Blainey stated that war is essentially about measurement: Wars end when both sides agree on their relative strength. Now, after a month of fighting, the Russians appear to be recalculating. Ukrainian officials believe that the Russians are entering a prolonged phase of the conflict, in which they   may focus on consolidating gains and reducing casualties. Senior Russian General Sergey Rudskoy said last week that the military had finished the first phase and would now concentrate on securing the separatist Donbas region. Capturing Kyiv might no longer be a Russian priority.

Russia clearly is attempting to save face. On Friday, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said Russia and Ukraine were close to resolving four of six disputed issues, such as Ukraine’s NATO membership, disarmament, security and the status of Russian as an official language. The sides remain divided over Crimea and the Donbas. Ukraine’s foreign minister disputed this characterization of the talks. But Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, speaking to Russian journalists, repeated publicly that he would drop the idea of NATO membership and accept neutrality. Peace talks resumed Tuesday in Turkey.

The U.S. position on the war now seems behind the curve. The staunch Ukrainian defense probably decreases the need for ramping up NATO’s involvement. But on Saturday, President Biden raised the stakes in his speech to NATO by saying of Putin, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” Although Secretary of State Antony Blinken hastily clarified that the U.S. has no regime-change policy for Russia, the president’s off-the-cuff remark fits with earlier White House and State Department statements calling Putin a “war criminal.” It seems clear that the White House has been intending to escalate.

And then—what?

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