A Failure of Deterrence

A Failure of Deterrence. By Brian Stewart.

“The taproot of the trouble,” insists John Mearsheimer, was a Western strategy to peel Ukraine away from Russia and integrate it into the institutions and alliances of the West. This, apparently, was the fuel thrown onto “a fire waiting to ignite.”

There is something bizarre about affixing primary blame for an imperial invasion to a party that had no hand in launching it. There is also something perverse in the effort to excuse the motives of the party who did embark on this squalid enterprise. The overwhelming share of guilt for this unfolding horror rests with the Russian tyrant, tout court.

  • It is Putin who ordered Russian forces to lay waste to an independent state.
  • It is Putin who has issued brazen threats of nuclear warfare.
  • It is Putin who seeks to govern at home and abroad on the basis of brute power rather than consent.

Nevertheless, the war still might not have broken out but for decades of delusional Western foreign policy. That Putin had the confidence to launch this invasion at all marks a failure of deterrence that warrants a serious accounting in every Western capital, and in Washington most of all. The necessary preconditions for this conflict were a combination of the Russian autocrat’s ambition and the West’s evasion of responsibility.

For years, it has been clear to anyone who wished to see it that the Russian regime is ardently revisionist, irredentist, and when the mood took it, ferociously bellicose. It has long had its sights on Ukraine, the dearest part of its near abroad in the national imagination.

Ukraine and the West therefore faced an agonizing choice. This vast state on the eastern edge of Europe might have taken refuge in official neutrality to placate the Kremlin. Otherwise, the Russian challenge had to be met with credible deterrent power.

In 2014, arch-realist Henry Kissinger recommended that Ukraine and the West pursue the former course. With Russian-backed separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces agitating against the central government, Kissinger argued that Kyiv could never expect a quiet life if it entered the West’s orbit. This meant that, in effect, Ukraine would have to foreclose the possibility of joining NATO. If Ukraine refused, Kissinger implied that the Western powers needed to do so on its behalf, in violation of the alliance’s “open door” policy. Only after this act of submission would a neutral Ukraine be permitted by Moscow to choose its political and economic character as a state and a society.

Had Ukrainians heeded this austere counsel, their nation would have adopted a posture on the world stage comparable to that of Finland, which enjoys independence and cooperates with the West but carefully avoids encroaching on Russia’s strategic interests. This model would have allowed Ukraine to function as a bridge between East and West. The alternative, Kissinger intimated, was for the country to become one side’s outpost against the other to the unrelieved detriment of its citizens. …

The West could have — per the realist playbook — granted Russia the untrammeled right to dominate its former satellite. Alternatively, the West could have sufficiently fortified Ukraine’s position to deter Russian aggression. As it was, the West opted for a fatal middle course. It failed to boost Ukraine’s military capabilities while expecting more forbearance from Putin for Ukraine’s westward aspirations than he could realistically have been expected to muster given what we know about him. …

The realists have grown hoarse in recent years and days echoing Kissinger’s admonition to grant Russia an expansive “sphere of influence.” They have warned against indulging Ukraine’s own preferred political and defense arrangements. If Ukraine were not kept a safe distance from the West, it would soon find itself “wrecked,” to borrow Mearsheimer’s arresting description. This prophecy has now come to pass, and the wreckage of Ukraine is plain for all (save the Russian people, denied the blessings of a free press) to see. …

Although the war in Ukraine remains Putin’s moral responsibility, the Kremlin perceived American and European weakness and incompetence as an invitation to spread chaos at will. The West’s sudden and surprising response to Russia’s war of conquest indicates that Putin miscalculated, at least in part.

After Zelensky’s address to the US Congress yesterday, the politicians on both sides went into a virtue-signalling bidding war of who loved the Ukrainians the most and who would help them the most militarily. There seemed to be no understanding that they could be rushing towards WW3.

Virtue signaling and wokery are now intruding on diplomacy and war. But diplomacy and war are too important to allow this sort of emotional decision making. As history has taught over and over, diplomacy and war requires cool heads and rationality, or they could get us all killed.

Prediction: Next time there’s any war involving the USA — such as another Iraq or even another Grenada — Russia and China are going to flood the US opponent’s country with missiles. Because they can, and for revenge.