In the eyes of the United States and its allies, the moral and strategic stakes in the conflict in Ukraine are clear-cut: Russia is the aggressor, while Ukraine is the victim of that aggression. It is not just Ukraine’s independence that concerns them; it is also the democratic world’s readiness to protect the unapologetically authoritarian Russian President Vladimir Putin from the “rules-based international order,” which the United States created.
The United States has a history of indiscriminately interfering in foreign affairs. The outcomes have rarely been appealing. There have been thousands of American deaths, tens of thousands of injuries, hundreds of thousands of foreign deaths, and numerous international rages have been unleashed.
At least none of these conflicts involved a real military power. In contrast, confrontation with Russia over Ukraine wants to challenge a nation armed with nuclear weapons and an improving conventional military, steeped in nationalist convictions, rooted in historic traditions, and ruled by a seasoned leadership. No one should assume that in a military showdown, the Kremlin would yield to Washington or that war with Moscow would be a cakewalk. You see, the proxy conflict in Ukraine is the ideal international conflict for American politicians and pundits to divert attention from their recent failures. As the centerpiece of American national security strategy, it is reviving armed globalism in the form of a renewed Cold War.
In March, the Pentagon ordered roughly 12,000 troops to the continent, bringing the total U.S. presence in Central and Eastern Europe from 60,000 personnel to more than 100,000. Soon, Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advised that the U.S. deploy yet more troops and develop additional bases in the region. Since the war began, the Biden administration and the U.S. Congress have directed more than $75 billion in assistance to Ukraine, which includes humanitarian, financial, and military support, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, a German research institute.
As per Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Seymour Hersh, the US could get directly involved in the Ukraine conflict if it sees that Kiev’s forces are on the back foot. Speaking at an event in Washington DC, hosted by the Committee for the Republic, a non-profit organization, Hersh noted that the US “did stupid things” during the Vietnam War, and suggested that Washington could “start doing something else” in the Ukraine conflict.
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“I don’t know what happens if it goes bad for Ukraine, you have all this manpower,” he said, pointing out, that the US has dispatched units of its 82nd and 101st elite airborne divisions close to the Ukrainian border, while “a lot of weapons and arms are coming” to Europe. “I’m told the game is going to be: this is NATO, we are supporting NATO in offensive operations against the Russians, which is not going to fool the world… It’s us fighting Russia,” Hersh stressed, without disclosing his sources.
Although this development is regrettable, people who closely listened to Joe Biden’s words during the campaign and at the beginning of his term will not be overly surprised. The essential dilemma of our time, according to Biden, is the struggle between despotism and democracy. This viewpoint qualifies as a glaring oversimplification at a time when America’s own democracy is mired in disarray.
With weakening Russia now an explicit U.S. policy objective—“We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done by invading Ukraine,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said a few months back—it serves Washington’s purposes not to end the fighting, but to prolong it. Because they greatly aid in erasing memory of other wars in recent American history, the terms of U.S. involvement that is, providing Ukraine with massive quantities of weapons without (so far) suffering a single American casualty—have an even greater immediate impact. The evacuation of Kabul by the United States looked like a big deal even a year ago. Similar to America’s military errors in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is now irrelevant. The military-industrial-congressional complex has moved on now that Ukraine is a “good conflict” behind which Americans of all political persuasions can—or ostensibly should—rally.
So, the Pentagon’s budget, which is undoubtedly the greatest in the world, is supported widely and across party lines. One effect is to ensure that the arms industry will receive substantial contracts, both to equip American soldiers with the “next generation” of cutting-edge weapons and to replenish the weapons stocks that were depleted in support of the Ukrainian war effort. In other words, significant increases in Pentagon spending are all but guaranteed as a result of Vladimir Putin. Further years of significant government deficits are also present, should anyone want to notice.
Ukraine isn’t important geopolitically. It might come as a shock to Kiev’s strongest supporters, but Ukraine is not the center of the universe. It’s obviously important to those who live there, as well as those with family or friends there. The ill humanitarian consequences of the ongoing conflict should be of concern to people of good will anywhere. But Ukraine is largely irrelevant to American security.
Washington never guaranteed Ukraine’s security. Never mind whether it is in America’s interest to go to war over Ukraine, argue some Kiev advocates. Washington committed itself to do so two decades ago through the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances after Ukraine relinquished the nuclear weapons left by the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
In fact, Washington joined Britain and Russia in making a series of commitments regarding Ukraine. But none of them involved going to war. The three signatories lauded Ukraine for signing the nuclear nonproliferation treaty and committed themselves to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and borders; refrain from threatening Ukraine with military force or economic coercion; go to the UN on Kiev’s behalf if the latter faced aggression “in which nuclear weapons are used”; refrain from using nukes against non‐nuclear states; and consult “in the event a situation arises that raises a question concerning these commitments.”
In short, Washington offered Ukraine no meaningful commitment to do anything practical to help Kiev in any circumstance. When the American people rejected their aggressive plans, World War II taught America’s uber-hawks a new defence: Reductio ad Hitlerum. Simply assert that a new Hitler was threatening humanity, and call anyone who disagreed with the deployment of American troops an appeaser. Warn that if no military action was taken, a new dark era will befall the world. Ho Chi Minh, Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, and a long list of other minor tyrants have all been compared to Hitler over the years. Those who opposed war suggestions were labelled appeasers.
Vladimir Putin isn’t in the same league as Hitler or Joseph Stalin. Putin is an old style nationalist who insists that his country’s interests be considered. There is no global hegemonic struggle, no grand ideological contest, no plan for widespread territorial conquest. Putin’s ambitions may outrage the West, but they appear bounded. As Henry Kissinger said of Crimea: “It was not Hitler moving into Czechoslovakia.”
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But consider this less immediate concern: U.S. involvement in the Ukraine war undermines prospects for restoring even a modicum of equilibrium to American politics. Today, of course, there is no existing consensus as to what any such equilibrium might entail. Per Shakespeare, crises abroad provide a convenient excuse for allowing pressing domestic concerns to fester. And so, in America, some 12 million American children live in poverty, more than 100,000 people died of drug overdoses last year, and hundreds of thousands—we don’t even know how many—experience homelessness.
As the Biden administration provides Ukraine with larger sums of money, more powerful weapons, and sends more senior U.S. officials to Kyiv, it is clear that American policy is shifting towards an even-more direct involvement in the conflict. Moreover, the temptation to escalate efforts in Ukraine to save Biden’s presidency is likely to increase if his popularity at home continues to decline. Without a doubt, going down that road would put the American military in danger of engaging in direct conflict while also increasing the likelihood of a nuclear exchange. Thus, Ukraine may well turn out to be “the wrong fight in the wrong location, at the wrong time, and with the wrong people,” to paraphrase a well-known American general.
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