Let's begin with the obvious: Ukraine is toast. There is little or no chance that the country will be able to endure, given Russian military superiority. Thus, the Western “strategy,” such as it was, to tempt Ukraine progressively closer to NATO and the EU, all while shielding Ukraine against potential Russian aggression with (mostly idle) threats of “severe economic sanctions,” has failed, and spectacularly so!
The key question now is: what penalty will Russia pay for its impertinence, as the West sees it? And how long will it pay? Will sanctions be mild or severe? Will they last weeks, months, years, decades?
The U.S. and the West hesitated initially to place sanctions on Vladimir Putin personally. Moreover, Russia's access to the SWIFT banking system has not been curtailed. To me, though, the really important question is whether there will be any significant disruption to Russian oil and gas sales to the West. If there isn't – and early signs indicate that Russian sales of oil and natural gas will continue unabated – then Russia is likely to weather this storm just fine.
This (lily-livered) approach will minimize economic pain in the West, of course, by keeping energy costs down, but it will simultaneously send a clear message to Russia (and China) that the West's bark is worse than its bite. Simply put, we may pity those poor struggling Ukrainians, but we won't sacrifice our own material comforts to ease their plight. Not a chance.
It all makes you wonder what precisely we'd be willing to do if Putin marched into Warsaw or Riga (the capitals of NATO members Poland and Latvia, respectively)... The answer could well be: not much of anything! A sobering thought.
The fate of Ukraine, however, or even Poland or the Baltic states, is not, and never has been, of paramount importance to the U.S. and its key Western European allies. In the midst of the carnage in Ukraine, we should at least try to see the forest for the trees. Small, weak, impoverished nations are but playthings in the hands of the great powers. What's far more important than events in Kiev, therefore, is the long-term arc of relations between the U.S., Russia, and China – the world's three biggest powers, by far.
What we appear to be witnessing on that score is the rejuvenation of Cold War tensions between Russia and NATO, on the one hand, and increasing signs of an alliance between Russia and China, on the other – and both of these developments are highly troubling and hugely consequential.
Russia's intense jealousy of Western dominance has been evident at least since Vladimir Putin took the helm of state. China, though, seems recently to be no less aggrieved by U.S. and Western hegemony, as its peevish communiques about U.S. policy and even domestic affairs prove.
It's important to recognize, though, that Russia's estrangement from the West, and its marriage of convenience to Red China, are the result of a long series of high-handed and harebrained moves on the part of a succession of U.S. and European leaders. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, we treated Russia like a pariah and like a threat. During the Trump presidency, the Left went as far as to make Russophobia a fashionable trend, and it became de rigueur among the woke.
Russia, over many years, got the message: it would never be respected by the West or welcomed into NATO, the EU, or the global establishment. Simultaneously, Russia got clear signals from both the Trump and Biden administrations that, while the U.S. applauded Ukraine's shift towards the West, we would under no circumstances actively commit ourselves to the country's defense. The Western shield over Ukraine, in other words, was 80% rhetorical, 15% economic, and maybe 5% military – consisting of desultory shipments of armaments and supplies that would never come close to altering the balance of forces in the region.
The predictable consequence? Russia has seen these Western protestations and “guarantees” for what they are: a farce. It has thus invaded Ukraine, and, in the long run, it will reorient its economy and its military away from the West and towards a pact of some kind with communist China.
And China may, as some have suggested, learn a thing or two from this crisis about the rewards for military aggression, especially strategic and reputational, and about the pusillanimity of the West, that will make the world going forward a far more dangerous place. After all, if the West's response to a Russian invasion of “sovereign” Ukraine is this timid, how much more feeble would be our collective opposition to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, which virtually the entire world recognizes as the rightful territory of the PRC?
All in all, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the events of the last days and weeks are highly injurious to U.S. national security and to the strategic posture of the West -- and that is doubly unfortunate, because almost everything that has happened in and around Ukraine, and between the swooning lovers Russia and China, is the result of U.S. and Western blunders.
There is, in the end, a strong argument to be made that, despite Russia's proprietorial attitude to its “near abroad,” the West and Russia ought not to be enemies at all. On the contrary, we are natural allies, based on our cultural and historic ties, against China, which promises to be the single greatest threat to the current, Western-dominated global order. Instead of circling our wagons and preparing to meet this unprecedented challenge, the West is reprising the essentially tribal rivalries and bloodletting that beset us, and our Russian cousins, during two world wars, and throughout the Cold War. A more congenial environment for the rise of communist China as a nascent superpower would be difficult to imagine!
A tantalizing opportunity has thus been lost – or, more accurately, squandered. Now, we and the Russians face a grim, uncertain future.
Dr. Nicholas L. Waddy is an Associate Professor of History at SUNY Alfred and blogs at: www.waddyisright.com. He appears on the Newsmaker Show on WLEA 1480/106.9.
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