Last time the issue of concern was why the Hamas attack caught Israel by surprise. This time it’s that perennial issue in Ukraine since the current Russian invasion: why are NATO countries willing to tolerate an ongoing stalemate? Washington simply won’t give Kiev enough weapons fast enough to defeat the Russkies. Germany’s and America’s trickle-down approach creates a WWI kind of attrition for trench warfare and will likely last several years. Also known as a meat grinder, it guarantees devastating losses for both sides. The Russians, it seems, are willing to put up with it – they have the population – indeed to use it as a form of social engineering to get rid of the undesirables. For Ukrainians, it is a horrible tragedy. Especially with its Western partners so mischievous, you might think that Ukraine, out of sheer anguish, would choose to make the Faustian pact and negotiate peace with Putin.
They don’t for a variety of reasons. Once Russia started abducting children, it was a fight to the finish. Also, as many have noted, you can’t make a deal with Moscow because they won’t keep it. To attempt it is to show weakness and give the Kremlin an incentive to double down. Remember that Ukraine has closely watched Russian infidelity for decades. First in Chechnya, the Kremlin effectively gave the Chechens independence in the first war, then prepared and started again under Putin and bombed Grozny, killing 100,000. Then Georgia, after the cease fire agreement in 2008, the Russians quietly overtook more and more territory year after year. Then Crimea and Donbass. For two decades or more, in Chechnya, Georgia and Ukraine, foreign leaders have been urging the victims’ side to make peace – with the assurance that Putin was a reasonable guy who just wanted it all to stop. I was in Tbilisi when the Council of Europe sent a team of high-level mediators to persuade then-President Saakashvili to bury the hatchet for good. As if he had created the problem. He was literally told to keep giving Putin a chance and not be so stubborn. They were wrong. So did Bush who thought he had seen Putin’s soul. So does Obama with his finger endlessly hitting the reset button.
Now with the Biden administration, the same cycle is unfolding. It’s not entirely Biden’s choice. He must prevent the threat of Trump and cannot be distracted by foreign adventures. Instead, he suddenly faces crises everywhere abroad. This, of course, is the Kremlin’s game. You are not backing down, we are lighting fires across the horizon, fires that are shaking the US domestic consensus. Ukraine, Armenia, Israel, Iran, Balkans, Moldova, Houthis, Muslim world. Result? American strategic overreach, budget collapse, instability, rupture. And Trump. Putin’s threat is aimed not just at flashpoints abroad, but at the foundations of the free world, a message to its leaders and ultimately to its people. Do you think democracy is a more stable, fair and lasting system? Just watch for the seismic divisions that are about to occur in your society, divisions that we in authoritarian systems do not face – that is his manifest threat. It exists because no open society is proof that you are not contaminated by the wars of others abroad. The Kremlin’s cyberwarfare and internet disconnection ensures this.
The Biden administration is taking the threat seriously. And furthermore, remember that Biden is not a warmonger or a fan of world power. He comes from the Vietnam generation. It ended the war in Afghanistan abruptly, messily. Like almost all Presidents in the post-Cold War era, he planned a peace dividend at home. Unfortunately, Moscow had other plans. There would be no problem, of course, if America chose to back off, mind its own business, and let Putin recreate the Russian empire. The isolationist faction in the US repeats this position – build a southern wall, stabilize the country, worry about Ukraine et al finally. With all these political vulnerabilities, the White House is understandably wary of an overwhelming overall commitment to Ukraine. Even more so now that Putin has added Israel-Gaza to the overall picture. So, on behalf of Ukraine, the US will not jump in with both feet, drawing red lines, shouting not passaran with a huge endowment of arms and money. That would be one way to end the deadlock. It won’t happen.
Finally, there’s this: the US and Europe are actually benefiting from Russia’s relentless but gradual weakening in the Ukrainian quagmires. Not only Russia but its allies, Iran and North Korea along with their diversion of resources to Ukraine – and all authoritarian regimes sympathetic to Putin. This kind of perennial struggle of attrition is exhausting the global power of the evil empire. It gives the West time to plan the outcome with minimal damage to its interests. The liberation of Central Asia. The reduction of Iran’s projected power in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon. The slow dissolution of the Russian Federation, the possible independence of Siberia, Tatarstan, Yakutia, etc. On the other hand, a sudden total defeat of Putin could unleash massive destruction, refugee flows, rogue uranium, desperate responses like nukes. But the incremental approach of the Cold War allows the West to call the shots over time. After all, the Soviets were destroyed over time in Afghanistan.
It’s a familiar approach, to say the least, but a high-risk one. Because, meanwhile, Iran is doing things like Gaza. In Europe, people like Geert Wilders are rising to power. China can step in at any time and tip the balance. Above all, Ukrainians will go through seemingly endless hell, endless agony, every day, for undetermined months and years. And they certainly won’t be thankful afterwards for being used so clinically and brutally. God help them. And the West that let them down.