​​New Myths About America’s Role in the Ukraine War

February 2, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Europe Tags: Russo-Ukraine WarSoviet UnionVladimir Putin

​​New Myths About America’s Role in the Ukraine War

Arguments for American responsibility for the war in Ukraine tend to give undue credit to Russian narratives. An essay in The American Conservative is a case in point. 

“Regardless of what is being said about NATO now, for us it is a symbol of the past,” said Gorbachev in a 1990 interview. This, however, should be viewed in context. Had he suggested, earlier, say, in 1986, disbanding both the Warsaw Pact and NATO, he might have been taken more seriously. However, in 1990, his words could be likened to someone who, having lost a card game, suggests treating the entire game as a mere jest.

Let’s now turn our attention to NATO in its current state. In contrast to the Cold War decades, NATO is a less-than-formidable alliance marked by a reduction in military training and the development of new weapon systems. When Undersecretary of Defense Walter Slocombe stated, “NATO is not an alliance against Russia,” he was essentially correct, as NATO has evolved into an alliance that poses little threat to anyone. Its performance in Afghanistan (so far the only military operation of the alliance) was far from impressive, and the conflict in Ukraine only serves as further evidence of its limitations. In 2022, only six European NATO members met the alliance’s meager target of dedicating 2 percent of their GDP to defense spending.

Interestingly, four of these countries are Eastern European nations bordering Russia. In 2019, three years prior to the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, French President Macron famously referred to NATO as “brain dead.” To illustrate, German combat battalions declined from 215 to thirty-three between 1990 and 2020. Over the same period of time, the number of operational tanks diminished from over 2,000 to less than 100.

In the meantime, Russia has been upgrading and expanding its ground forces. Layne and Schwarz claim that the United States expanded its geopolitical and ideological ambitions with an eye to reinforcing its dominance in Europe, primarily through NATO expansion. But Turkey, which blocked Sweden’s accession to the alliance for months, or recalcitrant Hungary, can be used as evidence of the opposite.

In 2008, George W. Bush proposed Ukraine’s admission into NATO during a summit in Bucharest. However, this faced immediate opposition from key NATO allies, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Consequently, Kyiv was never granted a membership action plan or a concrete date for joining the alliance. Fourteen years later, Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine to prevent the country from joining NATO. Remarkably, Layne and Schwarz suggest that the United States bears the blame for this situation. It is evident that prior to February 24, 2022, Ukraine’s chances of joining NATO were rather remote. Russia’s invasion, in fact, provided fresh momentum to this process. It is difficult to fathom how one could hold the United States responsible for Putin’s unprovoked aggression. However, had Ukraine and Georgia been admitted to NATO, Putin would never have dared to attack these countries.

A recurring argument echoed by the authors, and one often heard among Russia experts in Washington, is that removing Putin from power may not bring about substantial change due to Russia’s deep-rooted state traditions, particularly those related to its security concerns in Eastern Europe. The current Russian political elite resembles a pyramid structure, where one’s proximity to the apex is determined by their personal loyalty to Putin. This pyramid will likely collapse once he departs from the scene, and new people will replace Putin’s loyalists.

A significant part of the Russian economic elite is increasingly dissatisfied with Putins foreign policy, particularly his deteriorating relationship with the West. Apart from the geopolitical implications, such as Russia’s increasing dependence on China and the loss of traditional European markets for its oil and gas exports, numerous elites with vested interests have suffered due to Putin’s foreign policy decisions. Russian elites are unhappy because of their inability to access their luxurious villas in Côte d’Azur and Tuscany. They can’t enjoy winter vacations in Courchevel, and their wives and girlfriends cannot indulge in shopping sprees at the boutiques of Paris and Milan. Moreover, their children and grandchildren cannot attend prestigious British universities and boarding schools. In private conversations, they openly admit that destinations like Dubai, Bali, or Thailand cannot replace the allure of Nice, Palma de Mallorca, or Miami. Publicly disclosed telephone conversations, in which wealthy Russians express anger towards Putin for initiating the war in Ukraine, further support this viewpoint. It is widely believed that once Putin exits the scene, Russian elites will be motivated to end the war and seek reconciliation with the West.

What troubles me the most in this article is the implied notion that Russians are somehow fundamentally different from the rest of the world. According to the authors, traditional insecurities regarding Eastern Europe take precedence for Russians over their own quality of life. Allow me to provide some context: Russia is a country where the average male life expectancy is just 64 years, shorter than in countries like Bangladesh or Honduras. In vast regions of Russia, including Yakutia, Tuva, Buryatia, Bashkiria, Kalmykia, Mari-El, Altai, Kurgan Oblast, Irkutsk Oblast, and Chita Oblast, less than twenty percent of the rural population has access to indoor plumbing. Most areas suffer a subzero January temperature. Russia is also grappling with high male suicide and homicide rates, ranking third globally. In addition, its population is declining, with its birth rate being lower than its death rate. 

One should also take into consideration a massive influx of Muslim migrants from central Asia who are gradually replacing the ethnic Russian population in core Russian territories. The process of depopulation accelerated significantly following the conflict in Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of Russian men of draft age, most of them well-educated specialists, have attempted to evade the war by seeking refuge in various parts of the world, ranging from Mongolia to Argentina. The current state of affairs in Russia clearly is an aberration and cannot endure indefinitely because Russians are fundamentally not different from other peoples, and rationality will eventually prevail. 

The most effective way for Russia to reverse these unfavorable trends is by ousting Putin and his inner circle from power and establishing conditions conducive to genuine democracy. To assist the Russian people in this endeavor, the United States could provide Ukraine with a substantially larger supply of weapons and ammunition, enabling them to vanquish the Russian military on the battlefield. It’s worth noting that military defeats, such as the Crimean War, the Russo-Japanese War, the First World War, and, to some extent, the war in Afghanistan, have often catalyzed significant changes in Russia’s history. A decisive defeat of the Russian military in Ukraine could potentially bring about the desired transformation. 

The issue lies in the fact that, in contrast to Layne and Schwarz’s assertions, the Biden administration does not appear to favor regime change in Moscow, which could be accelerated by providing Ukraine with significantly larger and urgent military assistance in defeating the Russian military on the battlefield. Instead, according to the German newspaper Bild, America and Germany have devised a plan to compel Ukraine to negotiate with Russia by limiting its arms supplies. If Ukraine is coerced into a ceasefire, it could resemble the creation of a new Alsace-Lorraine—a persistent geopolitical issue on the continent that has the potential to flare up again at any moment.

By assisting Ukraine in defeating the Russian military on the battlefield, Washington could potentially address, once and for all, the Russian threat to its neighbors and global security, which would come at a fraction of its military budget. This, not specious claims about American culpability for the war, remains the genuine challenge for the West in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict.

Alexei Sobchenko is a former State Department translator and Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty journalist. He graduated with a degree in History from Moscow State University. Currently, he is a FARA-registered GR representative of the Congress of Peoples Deputies (Russia’s parliament-in-exile) in Washington, D.C.

Image: Shutterstock.com.