Russia and America: Stumbling to War

Could a U.S. response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine provoke a confrontation that leads to a U.S.-Russian war? 

May-June 2015

AFTER THE Soviet Union collapsed, Richard Nixon observed that the United States had won the Cold War, but had not yet won the peace. Since then, three American presidents—representing both political parties—have not yet accomplished that task. On the contrary, peace seems increasingly out of reach as threats to U.S. security and prosperity multiply both at the systemic level, where dissatisfied major powers are increasingly challenging the international order, and at the state and substate level, where dissatisfied ethnic, tribal, religious and other groups are destabilizing key countries and even entire regions.

Most dangerous are disagreements over the international system and the prerogatives of major powers in their immediate neighborhoods—disputes of the sort that have historically produced the greatest conflicts. And these are at the core of U.S. and Western tensions with Russia and, even more ominously, with China. At present, the most urgent challenge is the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. There, one can hear eerie echoes of the events a century ago that produced the catastrophe known as World War I. For the moment, the ambiguous, narrow and inconsistently interpreted Minsk II agreement is holding, and we can hope that it will lead to further agreements that prevent the return of a hot war. But the war that has already occurred and may continue reflected deep contradictions that America cannot resolve if it does not address them honestly and directly.

In the United States and Europe, many believe that the best way to prevent Russia’s resumption of its historic imperial mission is to assure the independence of Ukraine. They insist that the West must do whatever is required to stop the Kremlin from establishing direct or indirect control over that country. Otherwise, they foresee Russia reassembling the former Soviet empire and threatening all of Europe. Conversely, in Russia, many claim that while Russia is willing to recognize Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity (with the exception of Crimea), Moscow will demand no less than any other great power would on its border. Security on its western frontier requires a special relationship with Ukraine and a degree of deference expected in major powers’ spheres of influence. More specifically, Russia’s establishment sentiment holds that the country can never be secure if Ukraine joins NATO or becomes a part of a hostile Euro-Atlantic community. From their perspective, this makes Ukraine’s nonadversarial status a nonnegotiable demand for any Russia powerful enough to defend its national-security interests.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia was on its knees, dependent on Western assistance and consumed by its own internal affairs. In that context, it was not surprising that Western leaders became accustomed to ignoring Russian perspectives. But since Vladimir Putin took over in 1999, he has led a recovery of Russia’s sense of itself as a great power. Fueled by rising oil production and prices that brought a doubling of Russia’s GDP during his fifteen-year reign, Russians increasingly bridled at such treatment.

Americans would do well to recall the sequence of events that led to Japan’s attack on the United States at Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the Second World War. In 1941, the United States imposed a near-total embargo on oil shipments to Japan to punish its aggression on the Asian mainland. Unfortunately, Washington drastically underestimated how Japan would respond. As one of the post–World War II “wise men,” Secretary of State Dean Acheson, observed afterward, the American government’s

misreading was not of what the Japanese government proposed to do in Asia, not of the hostility our embargo would excite, but of the incredibly high risks General Tojo would assume to accomplish his ends. No one in Washington realized that he and his regime regarded the conquest of Asia not as the accomplishment of an ambition but as the survival of a regime. It was a life-and-death matter to them. 

Just days before Pearl Harbor, Japanese special envoy Saburo Kurusu told Washington that “the Japanese people believe that economic measures are a much more effective weapon of war than military measures; that . . . they are being placed under severe pressure by the United States to yield to the American position; and that it is preferable to fight rather than to yield to pressure.” Despite this warning, the Japanese response to U.S. economic warfare caught the United States off guard, killing nearly 2,500 people and sinking much of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

Pages