A Terrible, Very Bad, No Good Idea

The United States is pursuing a strategy in Ukraine that it will come to regret. The White House has leaked a proposal to give precise, real-time locations of surface-to-air missiles in eastern Ukraine to the government in Kiev. Such an information pipeline has an extremely high military value to the government fighting Russian-backed rebels in the east. The rebels’ anti-air capabilities have been critical to holding back the central government’s advance. They have brought down a significant number of Ukrainian warplanes, including at least five in the past 10 days. That the government in Kiev is seeking ways to counter these capabilities is, thus, not surprising. What is surprising is that the United States is considering providing high-value, actionable military intelligence to it. It would constitute a major escalation in the proxy war. It is plain to demonstrate that Moscow would have no choice but to respond by escalating its own support for the rebellion. If push came to shove, Moscow will send in a military force to secure its perimeter. The West has simply no way to counter that. A more counter-productive policy is hard to imagine.

The Ukrainian government’s counter-offensive has achieved a moderate degree of success over the past few weeks. Government forces have recaptured a number of towns in recent fighting, including the city of Lysychansk. These developments prompted Russia to escalate the flow of arms to the rebels. Putin is acting out of fear of losing in eastern Ukraine; not out of inborn imperial ambitions, despite claims in a certain well-respected Western newspaper to the contrary. The demonization of Herr Putin in Western media is a bad sign. Not because Putin is a great guy. Whatever his personal qualities, he is simply trying to shore up Russia’s security, just as any responsible Russian leader would. The reason why it is a bad sign is because, while such a moralizing tone may be useful to mobilize Western public opinion, it is inconsistent with a dispassionate evaluation of realities that bear on actual decision-making.

Any serious analysis of the situation has to begin with the observation that Ukraine is squarely in Russia’s backyard. A Western-allied government in Ukraine is inconsistent with Russia’s security interests. The eastward expansion of Nato by the Clinton administration was ill-considered. It did not seem especially stupid in 1991-1998, when Russia was weak and the US could impose its will in Russia’s backyard. But it ought to have been foreseen that Russia would inevitably regain at least some of its former strength. And when that happened, the United States’ marginal interests in the region would undermine the credibility of its extended deterrence.

The US has continued to meddle in Russia’s backyard. This has predictably backfired. The first to crumble was the American penetration of the Caspian Sea region. The realignment of the region’s major polities was effected without violence in the mid-2000s. Russia managed to arm-twist the post-Soviet republics to scuttle plans for a pipeline to the EU that would bypass Russian territory. Georgia wasn’t so lucky. Believing that Washington had its back, the small state foolishly confronted the Kremlin over break-away provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian military intervention in 2008 ensured that the provinces would never return to Georgian control, and reestablished Russia as the regional hegemon in the Caucasus. There wasn’t much Washington could do about it except issue diplomatic protests. Washington’s meddling in the Ukraine eventually convinced a faction of Ukrainian oligarchs that the time was ripe to reorient the country to the west. US diplomats and intelligence services played a key role in destabilizing the Ukrainian polity. Just as in the Caspian Sea region and the Caucasus, Russia responded to the heightened threat aggressively.

A peaceful resolution of the Ukrainian crises is impossible without Western recognition of Russia’s security interests. While the United States can support and arm the western oriented central government in Kiev, it does not have sufficient interests at stake to militarily counter a Russian military intervention. The best it can do is create trouble for Russia. For now, Washington seems to have doubled down on its meddling. This is very bad news for the Ukrainian people. It is also a bad strategy for the United States. A much more conflictual relationship with Moscow precludes cooperation in Syria and Iraq, and over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Much more threateningly, it pushes Moscow closer to Beijing. If Russia bandwagons with China—as it will if Washington doesn’t stop meddling in Russia’s backyard—it will make balancing China considerably harder. In that scenario, China will not have to worry about its western perimeter, freeing up power resources to confront US primacy in the maritime zone. China is not the Soviet Union. It has the potential to be stronger than the United States. And the US has never before faced an opponent that was potentially stronger than itself. Let’s not make this any harder than it has to be, shall we? Washington can start on a much more prudent policy by scuttling the proposal to supply actionable military intelligence to Russia’s troubled neighbour.

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