Yes, you should care about Ukraine

(Photo by ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images.)

Before diving into this newsletter, I don’t want anyone to misunderstand me. I do not support a US military response if Russia invades Ukraine, and I do not support giving Ukraine a military security guarantee outside of its possible future admission to NATO. I believe that the United States should take urgent action short of war to try to deter a Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the event of war, the United States should provide weapons and other forms of support to help Ukraine maintain as much territorial integrity and independence as possible.

However, it is important to specify Why I believe America should try to aggressively deter Russia rather than just sit back and quietly let Putin invade, dominate, and potentially annex significant parts of Ukrainian territory. And while part of this case is idealistic – rooted in concern for the human rights of Ukrainian citizens and their right to self-determination – part is also deeply pragmatic. It’s bad for america if Ukraine falls.

A bizarre coalition of left and right American voices appears to be at odds. On the right, Tucker Carlson was particularly aggressive. In a series of segments on his top-rated cable news program, he defended Russia’s interests in Ukraine, said NATO exists “mainly to torment Vladimir Putin” and openly questioned why we are not not on the “Russian side”.

In a recent monologue, Carlson repeated the themes of Russian and Soviet aggression apologists for generations – Russia’s aggression is really defensive. “He just wants to keep his western borders secure.”

Moving from right to left (although it might be a short trip these days), Glenn Greenwald tweeted this yesterday:

Greenwald is a longtime Russia apologist and, like Carlson, has a huge platform. Their themes are similar: Russia has an intense national security interest in its “near abroad,” the nations on its border. NATO’s encroachment on this near abroad is rightly alarming to Russia and, after all, wouldn’t we be alarmed by a similar hostile encroachment on our own borders?

Notably absent, of course, any meaningful concern for Ukrainians, but this is part of the whole point of “America first”. It is our concern for the rights of others, the argument goes, that entangles us in costly overseas deployments, and those costly overseas deployments hurt American interests at home.

Of course, to ask whether the Americans would allow a “hostile” presence on our borders is to ask the question of what, exactly, is really hostile to Ukraine. It is a nation still newly liberated from the Soviet Empire, it has a fraction of the military might of Russia and it has absolutely no designs on Russian territory. Despite Russian fears, it seeks NATO membership as an act of self-preservation, not as a first step towards conquest.

What is real hostility? Former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul puts it well:

To the extent that Ukraine is a threat, its democratic example is a threat to Russian authoritarianism. In contrast, a prosperous democratic Mexico or Cuba is no threat to the United States at all. It would be a blessing, just as a prosperous democratic Canada has been an asset to American peace and security for generations.

In short, there is no moral equivalence in how Russia and America view their respective “near abroads”.

But let’s dive even deeper. Beyond moral principles, there are three major reasons why Americans should be alarmed by Russian aggression. I will address each in turn.

First, history teaches us that Russia’s desire to dominate the nations along its border expands as the Russian border expands. A simple glance at maps of the vast Russian empire of the 19th and early 20th centuries or of the Soviet Union at its height demonstrates that “Russian interests” and the Russian frontier have already extended to the western Ukraine. In the past, Russia swallowed not only Ukraine, but also Belarus, the Baltic States and Poland. And with each move west, her territorial insecurity has grown with her.

Put it another way. If Russia engulfs Ukraine up to, say, the Dnieper River, that doesn’t make Russia “safe.” It only pushes its zone of insecurity and its desired zone of domination much further west. It puts more free nations under threat, and as those free nations come under threat, it increases the pressure on their conventional allies to make their security guarantees more concrete, including through forward deployments. And that raises the tension even more.

Do you wonder why Eastern European states were so keen to join NATO? They have known this model for centuries. They know that inclusion in NATO is now – and in the foreseeable future – a guarantor of peace and security within their borders. Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin said it well:

Second, the reintroduction of great power territorial aggression would once again destabilize the world order.. Since the indescribable horror of the First World War, there has been a concerted effort to essentially outlaw wars of aggression as instruments of national policy. The Kellogg-Briand Pact (associated with the League of Nations) represented the first attempt to combine treaties and international cooperation to deter and prevent great power conflict.

But treaties do not apply by themselves, and the first attempt to create global stability failed when Hitler recognized the war-weary weakness of (mainly) Britain and France.

Article 2, paragraph 4 of the United Nations Charter contains an aspiration similar to the Kellogg-Briand Pact. It is said:

All Members shall refrain, in their international relations, from resorting to the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the Nations United.

Again, none of this is self-executing, but since World War II the combination of international alliances and demonstrated military capability and will has kept the great powers from going to war with each other. , at least between them. We enjoyed a respite from the times of conquest.

Russia’s 2014 land grab in Crimea represented a blow to European stability. A direct invasion of Ukraine, with all the horrors that would invariably occur (including a ground war with all the capabilities of modern weapons) would represent exactly the return of the pattern of conquest that has – time and time again – led to war catastrophic.

Third, what starts in Europe rarely stays in Europe. Dating back shortly after the founding of the nation, the United States encountered the same pattern. Europe goes to war, we seek to remain at peace, but in the end we end up in combat. It is often forgotten that our War of 1812 was a footnote to the Napoleonic Wars, a fight begun in part because of British restrictions on American trade (designed to block trade with Napoleon’s France) and the British impression of American sailors to help meet the Royal Navy’s desperate manpower needs.

And don’t forget World War I, when Wilson ran his re-election campaign boasting that he had “put us out of the war.” In 1917, we were sending hundreds of thousands of soldiers “over there”. In 1918, the US Army fought the largest land battle in its history, committing more than a million troops to the Meuse-Argonne Offensive and causing nearly 150,000 casualties, including 26,000 men killed in action.

We need not rehash the history of the Second World War, but suffice it to say that the indescribable horror of the conflict taught our nation a vital lesson: we must use our strength to prevent war, not to end it. And so once back in Europe, we never left, and the peace of the great powers prevailed.

We cannot be arrogant enough to assume that we can manage or limit an open war between Russia and Ukraine. The reintroduction of large-scale ground warfare in Europe may have unpredictable and destabilizing consequences. Moreover, as Michael Schuman notes in Atlantic, Chinese eyes are fixed on the Ukrainian border:

China’s Xi Jinping, too, has a geopolitical grievance in his neighborhood — in his case over Taiwan, the microchip-rich island that Beijing says is and should always be part of China. Like Putin, who wants to bring Ukraine back under Moscow’s control, Xi fears that a former piece of his country’s empire is drawing closer to the United States and its allies. How Xi interprets (or worse, misinterprets) the outcome of the Ukraine standoff could influence if and how China tries to reunite with Taiwan, and thus has implications for East Asia’s security and stability. ‘East.

I agree with his conclusion: “What can be said with more certainty is that Ukraine and Taiwan both show how easily American weakness – or even the mere perception of weakness – could unravel the strained networks and alliances that support the American world order and usher in a new era of global conflict and instability.

decades of American Pax– the peace secured by an American nation that decided not to retreat to its borders after World War II – has been good for America and good for the world. We have been spared the growing horrors of global fighting. An era of free trade combined with a world that enjoys largely secure borders has helped reduce global poverty to a degree never seen before in human history.

At the same time, the United States prospered. We remain as we were when the peace accord was signed on the deck of the USS Missouri, the most powerful and prosperous nation in the world. Deterring Russian aggression is not “just” a moral stance in favor of a free people against authoritarian aggression, it is a pragmatic gesture that preserves the international order that has helped keep America peaceful, powerful and free.

One last thing …

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