There has been a lot of loose talk in Congress, some in the Biden administration, and among so-called strategists about the United States coming to the assistance of Ukraine in the event of a Russian invasion. News reports indicate that Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border, and plans to have as many as 175,000 there in the near future. There is talk of war between Russia and Ukraine whose dispute goes back at least to 2014, when Russia forcibly annexed the Crimean Peninsula without any significant response from the United States.
Mississippi Republican Senator Roger Wicker, a member of the Armed Services Committee, told Fox News that the U.S. should not rule out military action to help Ukraine, including putting troops on the ground there and threatening a nuclear response to Russian aggression. Republican Congressmen Mike Rogers and Mike Turner recently advocated the deployment of a U.S. military presence in the Black Sea, and the provision of intelligence and weapons to Ukraine.
In the Hill, former Bush II under secretary of defense Dov Zakheim called for a “massive weapons airlift” to Ukraine and the deployment of U.S. and NATO special ops forces there. In that same journal, Franklin Kramer of the Atlantic Council (and a former assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration) suggested that the U.S. provide Ukraine with weapons, logistical support, intelligence, command and control support, cybersecurity, air defense equipment, and electronic warfare support. Former Bush II Assistant Secretary of State David Kramer recently urged U.S. policymakers to provide additional military assistance to Ukraine, including intelligence support. Neoconservative writer Max Boot, a fervent democracy-promoter and Iraq and Afghan War enthusiast, suggested the possibility of making Ukraine part of NATO.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has “reiterated” the Biden administration’s “unwavering support” of Ukraine in the event of Russian aggression, though President Biden has publicly threatened only tough economic sanctions against Russia, and has stated that the U.S. will not put troops in Ukraine. Before things get out of hand, it is worth asking: Does the United States have a vital interest in Ukraine’s independence from Russia? Is a Russian invasion of Ukraine a casus belli for a U.S. war with Russia?
The answer to that question should greatly affect U.S. policy toward this most recent Russian-Ukrainian crisis. The roots of this crisis can be found in the post-Cold War expansion of NATO. America’s victory in the Cold War led to Russian retrenchment from Central Europe and the expansion of the North Atlantic security alliance to that same region. In 1999, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland joined NATO. Five years later, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia became members. In 2009, Albania and Croatia joined the alliance. In 2008, the Bush administration flirted with the idea of inviting Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO.
Two years before the first expansion of NATO, George F. Kennan wrote in the New York Times that “expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era.” Kennan, who famously wrote the “X” article in Foreign Affairs in 1947 which recommended the policy of containment, warned in 1997 that expanding NATO “may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.”
Kennan, to be sure, opposed the formation of NATO at its inception in 1949, and was wrong about a lot of other things in the later phases of the Cold War. But on the question of NATO expansion he was mostly prescient. Sure, admitting Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to NATO probably made strategic sense and also atoned for the U.S. and British sellout of those countries at Yalta in 1945. But any further expansion was bound to trigger the response from Russia predicted by Kennan. And what, for God’s sake, made strategic sense about expanding NATO to include the Baltic states, Albania, or Croatia? Nothing but a fit of hubris. And hubris as we know often leads to nemesis.
Russia today does not pose the same threat to Europe and the United States as the Soviet Union did during the Cold War. Sure, Vladimir Putin is a bad guy (the world is full of them and always will be), but the main threat today is from China, and it would behoove our statesmen to establish some sort of détente with Russia in order to avoid waging Cold Wars on two fronts. But instead, we seem bent on pushing Russia and China closer together under the notion that democracy is battling autocracy, and we need to promote democracy around the world.
Ukraine, if I can use a term of old-time diplomats, is located in the Russian “sphere of influence.” We may fondly wish and hope for its independence and freedom, but to put it bluntly, American boys should not be fighting and dying for Ukrainian independence. And it would likely startle most Americans to learn that we are today committed by treaty to defend Albania, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Croatia. Ukrainian independence is not a vital national security interest of the United States.
In the Hill article noted above, Dov Zakheim argues that the failure to adequately respond to Russian aggression in Ukraine will send a signal to China that the United States won’t respond effectively to aggression against Taiwan. This notion brings back memories of the cries about the “lessons of Munich” and the “domino theory” that if not effectively countered today could have the U.S. facing kinetic wars on two fronts. China is the greater geopolitical threat. Far better, to paraphrase President Lincoln during the Trent affair during the Civil War, to wage one Cold War at a time.
The current crisis over Ukraine (and for that matter, Taiwan, too) should also revive the debate on how the United States goes to war. Since the end of the Second World War, we have fought wars in Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, and Afghanistan without a congressional declaration of war. The late Colonel Harry Summers, Jr., who wrote a brilliant study of the Vietnam War in the context of Clausewitzian theory, emphasized the importance of the balance between the social trinity in war composed of the people, the government, and the armed forces. Summers believed that a formal congressional declaration of war brings the people through their elected representatives into the decision to go to war and, therefore, helps to sustain the war effort thereafter.
If America’s leaders are considering going to war over Russian aggression in Ukraine, the American people should participate in that decision by the Constitution’s requirement of a congressional declaration of war.