‘Realists’ Warn Against Ukraine Escalation

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‘Realists’ Warn Against Ukraine Escalation

The neocons’ war-and-more-war bandwagon is loaded up again and rolling downhill as “everyone who matters” in Washington is talking up sending sophisticated weapons to Kiev to escalate Ukraine’s civil war, but some “realists,” an endangered species in U.S. foreign policy, dissent.

A man takes a picture as he stands on a Soviet-style star re-touched with blue paint so that it resembles the Ukrainian flag, Moscow, August 20, 2014. (Photo: Maxim Shemetov / Courtesy Reuters)

In recent years, Official Washington – the politicians, the think tanks and the major news media – has been dominated by neoconservatives and their sidekicks, the “liberal interventionists,” with the old-school “realists” who favor a more measured use of American power largely marginalized. But finally, on the dangerous issue of Ukraine, some are speaking up.

Two of the few remaining “realists” with some access to elite opinion circles, Stephen M. Walt and John J. Mearsheimer, have written articles opposing the new hot idea in Washington to arm the Kiev regime so it can more efficiently kill ethnic Russians battling to expand their territory in eastern Ukraine.

As classic “realists,” these two academics do not argue so much the moral issue of whether the eastern Ukrainians should be slaughtered in the Kiev regime’s determination to crush all resistance to its authority or whether the U.S. support for last year’s overthrow of elected President Viktor Yanukovych was justified. Instead, they focus on whether arming the Kiev regime makes sense for U.S. interests.

But what is most remarkable about the two articles – one in Foreign Policy and the other in the New York Times opinion section – is that they deviate from the relentless pro-escalation “group think” that has dominated the U.S. policy debate, across the board, on Ukraine. It’s almost shocking to encounter two foreign policy experts who aren’t on the latest rush-to-war bandwagon.

Granted, their arguments are relatively narrow, focusing on the likely consequences of shipping weapons to the unstable Kiev regime, but still – such skepticism about the conventional wisdom is almost heretical these days.

In Foreign Policy, Walt notes that despite the emerging consensus to ship arms to Ukraine, “few experts think this bankrupt and divided country is a vital strategic interest and no one is talking about sending U.S. troops to fight on Kiev’s behalf. So the question is: does sending Ukraine a bunch of advanced weaponry make sense? The answer is no.”

Walt contends that many of the prominent Washington figures advocating weapons shipments have been wrong before about the results of expanding NATO eastwards in the 1990s, predicting that the move would not threaten Russia and contribute to enduring peace in Europe.

“That prediction is now in tatters, alas, but these experts are now doubling down to defend a policy that was questionable from the beginning and clearly taken much too far,” Walt wrote. “As the critics warned it would, open-ended NATO expansion has done more to poison relations with Russia than any other single Western policy.”

Misreading Moscow

Walt also notes that the arm-Kiev advocates were misinterpreting Russia’s posture regarding Ukraine and thus were applying a “deterrence model” to a “spiral model” situation, i.e., that Russia was not the expansive and aggressive power that Germany was in the 1930s but rather a cornered and weakened ex-superpower fearful of what it views as encroachment against its dwindling sphere of influence.

In the case of an emerging power like Nazi Germany, deterrence would be the strategy to block its expansion, but a declining power like Russia believes that it is the one on the defensive and thus its reaction to an aggressive military response would be to increase its paranoia and thus create a spiral toward a worsening conflict and greater hostility, not toward a peaceful solution.

“When insecurity is the taproot of a state’s revisionist actions, making threats just makes the situation worse,” Walt wrote.  “When the ‘spiral model’ applies, the proper response is a diplomatic process of accommodation and appeasement (yes, appeasement) to allay the insecure state’s concerns.

“Such efforts do not require giving an opponent everything it might want or removing every one of its worries, but it does require a serious effort to address the insecurities that are motivating the other side’s objectionable behavior.”

But the problem with Walt’s prescription is that it goes against the “group think” of Official Washington, which “knows” that Russian President Vladimir Putin is the new Hitler instigating the Ukraine crisis as part of some master plan to conquer much of eastern Europe and build a new Russian empire.

Though that scenario lacks any evidentiary support – and goes against the facts of the Ukraine crisis which was actually instigated by the European Union and neocons in the Obama administration – it is a storyline that nearly every important person in Washington believes. Which is what makes Walt’s accurate assessment so startling.

Walt describes the dominant view as: “Vladimir Putin is a relentless aggressor who is trying to recreate something akin to the old Soviet empire, and thus not confronting him over Ukraine will lead him to take aggressive actions elsewhere. The only thing to do, therefore, is increase the costs until Russia backs down and leaves Ukraine free to pursue its own foreign policy. …

“In addition to bolstering deterrence, in short, giving arms to Kiev is intended to coerce Moscow into doing what we want. Yet the evidence in this case suggests the spiral model is far more applicable. Russia is not an ambitious rising power like Nazi Germany or contemporary China; it is an aging, depopulating, and declining great power trying to cling to whatever international influence it still possesses and preserve a modest sphere of influence near its borders, so that stronger states — and especially the United States — cannot take advantage of its growing vulnerabilities.

“Putin & Co. are also genuinely worried about America’s efforts to promote ‘regime change’ around the world — including Ukraine — a policy that could eventually threaten their own positions. It is lingering fear, rather than relentless ambition, that underpins Russia’s response in Ukraine.

“Moreover, the Ukraine crisis did not begin with a bold Russian move or even a series of illegitimate Russian demands; it began when the United States and European Union tried to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and into the West’s sphere of influence. That objective may be desirable in the abstract, but Moscow made it abundantly clear it would fight this process tooth and nail.

“U.S. leaders blithely ignored these warnings — which clearly stemmed from Russian insecurity rather than territorial greed — and not surprisingly they have been blindsided by Moscow’s reaction. The failure of U.S. diplomats to anticipate Putin’s heavy-handed response was an act of remarkable diplomatic incompetence, and one can only wonder why the individuals who helped produce this train wreck still have their jobs.”

Safety in Numbers

But the reason that people like Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, who helped plot the overthrow of the Yanukovych government a year ago, is that they represent the neocon/liberal-interventionist dominance of Official Washington. That’s also why key media advocates for the Iraq War, like the Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt and the New York Times’ Thomas L. Friedman, still have their jobs; they ran with the powerful herd and are proof that there really is safety in numbers.

Citing the “spiral model,” Walt warns that the current popular idea of arming the Kiev forces “will only make things worse. It certainly will not enable Ukraine to defeat the far stronger Russian army; it will simply intensify the conflict and add to the suffering of the Ukrainian people.

“Nor is arming Ukraine likely to convince Putin to cave in and give Washington what it wants. Ukraine is historically linked to Russia, they are right next door to each other, Russian intelligence has long-standing links inside Ukraine’s own security institutions, and Russia is far stronger militarily. Even massive arms shipments from the United States won’t tip the balance in Kiev’s favor, and Moscow can always escalate if the fighting turns against the rebels, as it did last summer.”

Walt also saw danger signs around Washington’s take-it-or-leave-it style of negotiating, rather than trying to reach a solution that would work for both sides. He wrote:

“Instead of engaging in genuine bargaining, American officials tend to tell others what to do and then ramp up the pressure if they do not comply. Today, those who want to arm Ukraine are demanding that Russia cease all of its activities in Ukraine, withdraw from Crimea, and let Ukraine join the EU and/or NATO if it wants and if it meets the membership requirements. In other words, they expect Moscow to abandon its own interests in Ukraine, full stop.”

Though the facts and logic rest with Walt’s argument, he is confronting one of the most single-minded “group thinks” in modern U.S. history, even more unquestioning than the certainty of 2002-2003 that Iraq possessed WMDs and was about to share them with al-Qaeda.

A Second Voice

Similarly, Mearsheimer warns that the idea of shipping advanced weaponry to Ukraine “would be a huge mistake for the United States, NATO and Ukraine itself. Sending weapons to Ukraine will not rescue its army and will instead lead to an escalation in the fighting. Such a step is especially dangerous because Russia has thousands of nuclear weapons and is seeking to defend a vital strategic interest. …

“Because the balance of power decisively favors Moscow, Washington would have to send large amounts of equipment for Ukraine’s army to have a fighting chance. But the conflict will not end there. Russia would counter-escalate, taking away any temporary benefit Kiev might get from American arms. …

“Proponents of arming Ukraine have a second line of argument. The key to success, they maintain, is not to defeat Russia militarily, but to raise the costs of fighting to the point where Mr. Putin will cave. The pain will supposedly compel Moscow to withdraw its troops from Ukraine and allow it to join the European Union and NATO and become an ally of the West.

“This coercive strategy is also unlikely to work, no matter how much punishment the West inflicts. What advocates of arming Ukraine fail to understand is that Russian leaders believe their country’s core strategic interests are at stake in Ukraine; they are unlikely to give ground, even if it means absorbing huge costs.

“Great powers react harshly when distant rivals project military power into their neighborhood, much less attempt to make a country on their border an ally. This is why the United States has the Monroe Doctrine, and today no American leader would ever tolerate Canada or Mexico joining a military alliance headed by another great power.

“Russia is no exception in this regard. Thus Mr. Putin has not budged in the face of sanctions and is unlikely to make meaningful concessions if the costs of the fighting in Ukraine increase. … The possibility that Mr. Putin might end up making nuclear threats may seem remote, but if the goal of arming Ukraine is to drive up the costs of Russian interference and eventually put Moscow in an acute situation, it cannot be ruled out. If Western pressure succeeded and Mr. Putin felt desperate, he would have a powerful incentive to try to rescue the situation by rattling the nuclear saber.”

In other words, the dominant neocon-to-liberal-hawk axis of Washington is pushing the United States into a dangerous confrontation that could easily be avoided if traditional diplomacy were allowed to work – and the reasonable interests of the various parties were taken into account.

While the outer-limit endgame of the Ukraine crisis could be the ultimate endgame of nuclear war, the core issue in dispute is remarkably pedestrian – the pace of Ukraine increasing its economic ties to the EU while maintaining many of its traditional business ties to Russia.

This disagreement should have been resolved fairly easily within the political structure of Ukraine’s constitutional process. In November 2013, President Yanukovych – after learning that the cost of abruptly cutting ties to Russia would be a staggering $160 billion – asked for more time to work on the problem.

But, amid mass protests by western Ukrainians against Yanukovych’s decision, Nuland and other U.S. neocons saw an opportunity for another “regime change” – and some neocons, like National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman, hoped that Ukraine could be the route toward ousting Russia’s Putin, who had offended the neocons by opposing their “regime change” strategies for Syria and Iran. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Neocons’ Ukraine-Syria-Iran Gambit.”]

After the coup ousting Yanukovych last Feb. 22, ethnic Russians in southern and eastern Ukraine resisted the new right-wing regime in Kiev, which was backed by neo-Nazi militias. Crimea’s leaders and voters opted for secession from the Ukrainian madhouse and Putin agreed to take the strategic peninsula back into Russia.

Ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine also rose up and were targeted by the Kiev regime for an “anti-terrorist operation,” which involved shelling their cities and unleashing brutal neo-Nazi brigades to go door-to-door killing suspected separatists. Conservative estimates of the death toll – primarily among ethnic Russians – now exceed 5,000 and some estimates are many times that number.

But Official Washington views the conflict almost entirely through the neocon prism of “Russian aggression” and “everyone who matters” is now intent on escalating the bloodshed by upgrading the lethality of Kiev’s arsenal. That’s why it’s startling to hear a couple of rare and “realist” voices of dissent.

Robert Parry

Robert Parry

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat. His two previous books are Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth'.

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