Course Correcting Toward Diplomacy in the Ukraine Crisis

Course Correcting Toward Diplomacy in the Ukraine Crisis

Washington must come to terms with its role in provoking and now prolonging the war.

Surely, hours after the invasion launched, Washington inserted a new and even more nefarious intention into the fertile discourse. This coincided with the deliberate depiction of Putin’s state of mind as “unhinged” and “erratic,” painted as a congenital aggressor with an unquenchable thirst for power. Some went as far as to claim that his self-imposed isolation during the pandemic had prompted a psychosis. Ultimately, this invented narrative helped advance the myth that his warpath was hell-bent on hegemony. “He has much larger ambitions than Ukraine,” said Biden on the day Putin launched the invasion, “He wants to, in fact, reestablish the former Soviet Union. That’s what this is about.” Later that same day, when asked if there was any intelligence assessment to back up Biden’s assertion, Blinken evaded the question and responded, “You don’t need intelligence to tell you that’s exactly what President Putin wants. He’s made clear that he’d like to reconstitute the Soviet empire.”

This audacious war-aim represented a sudden and monumental change in threat assessment. But elites and the media establishment in the West appeared oblivious. Ironically, despite the long struggle to ascertain the substance of Putin’s thinking, U.S. leaders suddenly became absolutely certain over his calculus and endgame—so much so that there wasn’t a need for intelligence. Indeed, the whiplash caused by the volatility of American threat assessments can make one wonder if the intelligence access, itself, was rapidly evolving or if policymakers were inventing threats along the way—effectively, as a tool of statecraft.

For instance, it was only in the preceding month that Biden estimated that Putin may be inclined to make a “minor incursion” into Ukraine. The White House walked back those comments and then reasserted it meant a non-miliary action, such as a cyberattack. The fear back then was that holding such public perceptions of a small-scaled invasion could inadvertently weaken deterrence and also complicate how the U.S. would respond in case it did happen. After all, a limited military action is likely to only justify a limited counteraction, thereby torpedoing any deterrent strategy. Nevertheless, Biden’s public estimation, even if ephemeral, had contradicted the emerging, yet flimsy, U.S. allegations that a potential Russian invasion was intent on regime change.

Astonishingly, in a span of just over a month, the White House had jumped from being indecisive about a Russian invasion to leaning towards a limited incursion, despite remaining unsure, and then, days later, warning of an intent to overthrow and install a new regime, to finally settle on a bid for regional hegemony to dominate half of Europe.

To be clear, Putin hadn’t made any such statement to resurrect the Soviet Union. Instead, he explicitly contradicted it. Efforts to attribute Moscow’s war aim as empire-seeking often try to decipher and interpret the opaqueness and emotion found in Russia’s romanticism with its imperial history. This leads to selective and unwarranted causal stories that only confirm a preexisting bias. In short, there’s no clear or convincing evidence, at least not in any public record, that Putin rationalized the invasion of Ukraine for the purpose to reconstitute the Soviet Union. Still, the hyperbolic rhetoric—axiomatically, a Napoleonic-level ambition, no less—continued to fall off the lips of political elites, media personalities, and the punditry class.

In hindsight, U.S. officials blame the cautious hesitancy in Europe in hindering its deterrent efforts to prevent war. But in employing a denial campaign by proxy war, the threat inflation that was necessitated for such a strategy had worked to resolve those previous problems. The notional fear that a Russian land army might bulldoze through Ukraine and then roll over the rest of Eastern Europe quickly shaped the early discourse over the war—this, despite the basic and intelligible recognition that it didn’t possess the wherewithal to pull off such a feat.

The benefits of threat inflation induced a proactive and united front among Western governments and spurred a previously timid Europe to adopt aggressive measures in confronting the alleged danger. Equally important, it awarded political leaders the domestic support back home to incur a higher degree of cost and risk to participate in a proxy war against Russia. However, threat inflation is a double-edged sword. As some have warned, its overuse will create the global perception that the Americans employ the same disinformation tactics as the Russians, which will undermine the credibility of U.S. intelligence and threat assessments in the future.

The Malpractice of Crisis Diplomacy

Since the start of the invasion, U.S. policymakers have publicly stated, incessantly, that Russia’s war was “unprovoked.” Their aim is to portray Russia’s aggression as offensively-oriented, rather than a defensive reaction to a perceived and growing threat. Not only does it enable political and popular support for the U.S. and the West to push back against Russia, it also deflects any domestic blame for their own provocative actions and failures to de-escalate the crisis.

In the big picture, the path to war is a tragedy of unintended consequences. It more accurately reflects the demons of escalatory spirals, that which precipitated World War I, but not the bid for regional hegemony that spurred World War II. Contrary to the Western consensus, Russia’s invasion wasn’t abetted by the failure to deter an aggressor, but by the malpractice of crisis diplomacy—on all sides.

Upon closer scrutiny, provocations were abundant. In fact, if Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine’s borders defines when the precipitating crisis started, Moscow’s initial deployment began as a reaction to Kyiv’s incitement. Moreover, the buildup wasn’t the result of a single or unilateral decision by the Kremlin, but rather an iterated and yearlong escalation process. As such, provocative measures by Ukraine and its Western partners were required to intensify the crisis beyond the breaking point—first by prompting, then enlarging, and finally sustaining Russia’s troop mobilization.

The first batch of Russia’s military buildup, approximately 3,000 troops, arrived on the border area on February 21, 2021. Of course, this force wasn’t intended to invade Ukraine. But unbeknownst to many in the West, this earliest deployment was in direct response to provocative actions unilaterally taken by Zelenskyy’s government.

By the start of 2021, having lost the wave of popularity that ushered him into office, Zelenskyy embarked on a risky political strategy to rescue his failing presidency. To shore up the support of Ukrainian nationalists—and cajole engagement from the newly arrived Biden administration in Washington—his government shifted to get tough on Russia. In a range of provocative steps, his crackdown on the Russophone opposition in Ukraine involved shutting down rival media outlets, seizing their assets, and arresting pro-Russian elites on the basis of treason.

In Moscow, Zelenskyy’s campaign represented a political purge that furthered the country’s drift into the Western orbit. But its warning failed to elicit the desired behavior in Kyiv.

Instead of backpedaling after the first Russian deployment, the Ukrainian leader upped the ante. On February 26, Zelenskyy signed a decree that would officially roll out a new government initiative on March 24 to de-occupy and reintegrate the Crimean Peninsula. This prompted Russia, which annexed the territory in 2014, to send a stronger signal so as to draw the West’s attention. This time, it was a massive military deployment to the border area.

Still, Washington didn’t reign in Kyiv’s behavior. Instead, it supported the hard-hitting pivot against Moscow. While it was a bilateral dispute in its embryonic stage, the crisis soon escalated and recklessly revived a strategic threat to Russia’s security.

In response to Putin’s escalation, Zelenskyy upped the ante again. In early April 2021, he publicly renewed Ukraine’s bid to join NATO. In turn, more Russian troops arrived at the border area. But instead of recognizing Russia’s longstanding security concerns, the NATO summit in Brussels issued a communiqué on June 14 that reasserted the controversial decision reached in the 2008 summit in Bucharest. Back then, NATO dismissed Russia’s warnings and invited Ukraine and Georgia to eventually join the alliance. Months later, it precipitated the 2008 Russo-Georgian War.

For its part, Washington mistakenly perceived the source of Moscow’s aggression as offensive, not defensive. As a result, the White House naively pursued a hard-nosed deterrent strategy. To its detriment, it neither sought to acknowledge nor accommodate Russian concerns over NATO’s eastward expansion to incorporate Ukraine.

Despite Russia’s repeated and explicit warnings over NATO enlargement, the U.S. continued to reaffirm its commitment and ongoing support to bring Ukraine into the alliance. In fact, just a month prior to the invasion, the Biden administration not only unequivocally rejected the Kremlin’s key concern, but even barred the issue from being placed on the diplomatic agenda. Effectively, this torpedoed European efforts to find an accommodation, which reportedly was gaining traction.

For many months prior to war, the U.S. doubled down on a foolhardy approach, cajoling its Western partners to follow its lead. In an exemplary feat of cognitive dissonance, the U.S. tried to coerce a nuclear-armed Russia to relinquish a core security interest, all the while thinking it could extend deterrence over a non-treaty partner for which it was bound to never send troops to defend in the first place.