Below is my response to an article an inquisitive friend emailed to me earlier this year by Christopher Caldwell. As a number of other voices have done recently, Caldwell argues that Russia’s military action in Ukraine is best understood as a predictable reaction to NATO “expansion”. My friend asked for my perspective and I thought I’d share my response in post form
I’m at a conference this week hosted by a group of American Baptists. Hearing some of these same arguments from that demographic as well. I’d recommend looking up some European sources since this is all happening on European soil. I don’t think I can comment on how America perceives its place in the world any more. I think the common thread that I see in the arguments you’ve sent me (voices I appreciate by the way) is the familiar combination of historical ignorance regarding relations between Russia and its neighbors, a naive belief that Russia will play by Western rules if we don’t disturb them, and an arrogant assumption that the United States is somehow dictating how this thing should play out or “leading the World” by setting an example. That combination by the way is also plainly evident in Germany and France, both of whom share the “great power” arrogance I hear in the antiwar rhetoric in the US. For that reason, they have lost serious standing in the European community as trustworthy decision makers when geopolitics threaten their bratwurst and baguette. So I’m not just picking on the US.
From my perspective – a perspective informed by the current policymakers in Estonia and echoed throughout Eastern Europe, Russia’s actions in Ukraine follow a very clear pattern of reconstructionist ambitions that Putin has stated explicitly for years and pursued militarily in any neighborhood unstable enough not to merit intervention by the West. For the last 20 years, he has been doing precisely what is happening in Ukraine now, only in all of those situations the places he was invading had no strategic importance for world powers so they only crossed US news reports in the ticker tape.
From an Eastern European, British and (begrudgingly) Western European perspective, Ukraine is different for at least three reasons.
First, while it is highly unstable and clearly in the process of individuating as a nation state, it is a geographical territory that is at the heart of EurAsian food and mineral production, and a trade transportation hub by pipeline, ship and land. This is particularly true in the Donbas region. Putin’s destructive military actions in that region might suggest that he is not interested in having those resources, but the general belief now is that his intention is to destroy any competitor’s ability to develop that wealth independent of Russian interests. If he can’t control Ukraine, he wants to make it a cripple. Europe cannot afford to cede control of the Donbass region to Russia.
Second, Russia’s claim that its actions in Ukraine are aimed at protecting Russians is absurd. This is exactly the pretext they have given for invasions of sovereign states all along their southern borders. Each of those land grabs had either military or economic advantage. Protection of russian ethnicity is a lie and a shell game. It’s important to note that this same logic would make any location with a disgruntled Russian population vulnerable to Russian invasion if Putin could provide some pretext of “oppression”. I have a hunch that the refugee crisis caused by the war is an intentional tactic to create more pockets of ethnic russian instability all around Europe adding more opportunities for similar meddling in the future.
Third, Ukraine has demonstrated in its military response, the war-time conduct of its government and populace, and the admirable behavior of its war-torn diaspora that it resembles – or at least is determined to resemble – its Western neighbors rather than its Eastern provocateurs. I can name a handful of continental European countries whose membership in the EU and NATO I would happily exchange for Ukrainian membership. If merit has anything to do with politics (and it doesn’t, I know), then Ukraine would make a wonderful addition to the family.
I know it’s very painful to think of all the money going to a war in Ukraine when Americans are having a hard time buying a hamburger or paying for cable (this was the measure used by one of my conversation partners today, not universal I know but illustrative of the difference in perspectives). For comparison, consider the two charts below. Estonians are paying out .85% of GDP to support Ukraine compared to America’s .25%. Estonians are no stranger to the perennial need for austerity, but this support is also happening when our inflation is at an all time high, 25% to America’s 8%. And the general feeling in Estonia is “we’d give you more if we could”. Why? Chummy buddies? Fuzzy headed liberals? Nope, Estonia is joined in this pattern by Latvia, Poland and Lithuania … all of whom know Russia intimately, have no desire to cosy up to an abusive Moscow, and see the invasion of Ukraine as an existential threat not just financially but politically.
There is no doubt that this war is incompatible with economic prosperity. But that ship sank along with one carrying the liberal belief that free trade would make Russia nice. I believe that the age of Western prosperity will take at least decade to rebuild no matter what we do politically. Europe is not going back to free trade with Russia, at least not Eastern Europe. As a result, environmentalists and champions of nuclear power are getting a massive shot in the arm because none of us want to give Russia leverage to demand our inaction while they rape and pillage at will. Regardless of what you think about the cabal of environmentalism or the US military industrial complex or Congress’ current regime (all of whom will find a way to profit regardless of what happens), this game was set in motion by Russia, not the US and it is going to end badly no matter what.
If “badly” means wiping Ukraine off the map and ceding that territory to Russian influence, the European economy will be undermined for decades and the US will suffer as well since US consumption depends on production and stable supply chains elsewhere in the world. If “badly” means Russia descends into chaos and poverty, that is the predictable result of entrusting all decision making to despots (this eventuality looks to be more and more inevitable, regardless of what happens). And if we keep pussyfooting to avoid either of those scenarios and play the thing out hoping Putin will chill out after blowing off steam in Ukraine, then “badly” could end very badly indeed. Having identified the limits of western resolve, he will recalibrate his reconstructionist algorhythm and try again elsewhere.
Do we do the hard thing now and give the next generation a chance to rebuild or do we enjoy our retirement and pray they’ll have the wisdom and willingness to navigate similar troubles in the future and make the sacrifices we couldn’t stomach?
The predominant sentiment in Estonia, the Baltics and Poland is that “Russia understands power. Hit ’em hard.” This is like the moment an abused kid finally takes a lead pipe to his alcoholic parent. These countries are under no illusion of what such action could lead to because Russia used to be the one holding the pipe in their house. But now that the conflict has started, disengagement is no longer an option.