In his opening remarks at the Fourth Ukraine Defense Contact Group on July 20, U.S. secretary of defense Lloyd Austin touted Kyiv’s military accomplishments and issued a warning to Moscow. “Russia thinks that it can outlast Ukraine—and outlast us,” he stated. “But that’s just the latest in Russia’s string of miscalculations.” Russia’s miscalculations in this conflict—underestimating both the strength of Ukrainian resistance and the unity of the West—are indeed serious and real, but such blunders are not unusual in the early stages of wars, including wars where, in the end, the erring side proved victorious. The Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939-40 is a prime example. Russia’s early miscalculations are therefore a poor guide in predicting the outcome of its burgeoning confrontation with the West, especially if we fail to take stock of America’s no less serious miscalculations in dealing with post-Soviet Russia.
Five key examples come to mind.
The first is the West’s staunch dismissal of Moscow’s numerous and increasingly dramatic warnings that NATO expansion toward its borders would be viewed as an existential threat to Russian security and encounter the strongest possible resistance. Under several different U.S. administrations starting with President Bill Clinton, America and its allies took the position that, since the West had no intention of attacking Russia, Moscow’s concerns could be safely ignored. As George F. Kennan and other American critics of NATO expansion anticipated at the time, however, Moscow adopted an increasingly determined stand against expansion, culminating in the deployment of force against Ukraine. Rather than acknowledge this development as evidence of Western mistakes, the West’s foreign policy elites instead now portray Moscow’s (in their view) unreasonable position as proof of Russia’s inherently aggressive nature. The problem with this view is that it contradicts what these policymakers told the Western public in the 1990s when decisions regarding NATO expansion were first made, that Russia was in essence a friendly but irrelevant geopolitical power. Since then, they have elevated their search for a new post-Cold War mission for NATO—and, tacitly, a new enemy—above the broader imperative of integrating the new Russia into the global order and, in the process, establishing a stable and secure Europe.
If the initial miscalculation was strategic and even moral in nature, the second was primarily tactical—but no less important in contributing to Moscow’s decision to invade Ukraine in February. In the absence of reliable information on Vladimir Putin’s thinking, the Biden administration opted to persuade itself that Moscow had either already decided to use force or, on the contrary, bluffed to secure concessions on NATO expansion. Considering that the numbers and disposition of Russian forces were neither adequate for a full-scale invasion nor sufficiently focused for a narrower offensive in the Donbass, one might think there was a good possibility of Russia engaging in diplomacy, hoping to obtain results without war but prepared to go on the offensive if talks failed. Yet such logic concerning the ordinary conduct of major powers proved alien to the Biden administration, which attributed sinister motives to Russian behavior: either Moscow’s attempt at diplomacy was a cover for a predetermined attack or just cheap blackmail. In the administration’s defense, Russian requests came in the form of rather categorical demands, including a guarantee from NATO barring Ukrainian membership in perpetuity. Such demands are not unusual, however, for an opening bargaining position. Washington had every opportunity to test Moscow’s flexibility in proposing negotiations, starting with the obvious point of agreement, namely, that NATO would not invite Ukraine to join its ranks anytime soon. Instead, President Joe Biden chose to call Putin’s bluff—with predictable results. Does anyone really believe at this point that had the administration proposed serious negotiations on Russia’s Ukraine concerns rather than contemptuously dismissed them, Moscow would still have ordered an attack? The Biden administration provided an additional incentive for Moscow to attack, moreover, by stating in advance that under no circumstances would the U.S. use force to defend Ukraine. Greater tactical ineptitude is difficult to imagine.
The third miscalculation involved overestimating the degree to which the United States could count on international support in a protracted confrontation with Russia. Make no mistake: Biden and his advisors have done a remarkable job mobilizing the collective West against Moscow. The level of Western unity and will to act has not only been greater than anything the Russian government anticipated but actually more than most in the West themselves expected. The problem is this: the United States, Europe, and their Pacific allies no longer command unchallenged global dominance—economically, politically, or even militarily. Considering how much is now at stake for Putin, forcing his retreat from Ukraine will require a determined effort by more than just the collective West. But such determination has not been apparent. Out of economic self-interest, governments from Riyadh to New Delhi to Beijing have proven reluctant to approve sanctions against the Russian energy sector that would deprive them of cheap and reliable supplies. While not supporters of Moscow’s actions, these governments do not believe that the Russian invasion represents a threat to them, or that it is so exceptional as to require that any responsible government act against it. Now that Washington’s efforts at persuasion have proved insufficient, the Biden administration is resorting to threatening severe consequences against anyone who refused to cooperate with U.S. sanctions—including China, another nuclear great power, or such American adversaries as Iran, already under severe U.S.-imposed sanctions. These efforts sent a clear message--nations outside the West were to follow the dictates of American might, rather than right. Many of these nations appreciate that most Western governments are more democratic than anywhere else. But these same nations—particularly those that have colonial or, in the case of China, neocolonial experience—have another notion of democracy, namely, democracy in international affairs where sovereign states are allowed to select their own form of government and define their own destiny. This concept is what Zbigniew Brzezinski once called the yearning for dignity. It is in this dignity department that, for quite a few developing nations, Vladimir Putin, with his emphasis on working with existing governments (their imperfections notwithstanding), seems to offer more than Joe Biden. It is one major reason that efforts to isolate Russia globally were, from the outset, conceptually unsound.
Fourth, with the isolation of Russia proving less absolute than Washington had hoped, the United States has had to rely primarily on Western sanctions and Ukrainian successes on the battlefield. On the economic front, there was no clear plan on how sanctions could alter Russian conduct in a reasonable timeframe before Western unity began to fray and there was less and less Ukrainian territory to defend. The Biden administration has approached the situation in a manner reminiscent of the Johnson administration’s escalation in Vietnam: introducing sanctions stage by stage, often less because they are expected to change Russian behavior, and more because there is simply a need to do something that will demonstrate the administration’s resolve both at home and abroad. Five months after the start of the conflict, it is fair to say that while sanctions have created clear inconveniences for the Putin government and economic damage in the long term, life in Russia remains remarkably normal. The ruble has not only stabilized but strengthened, inflation is increasingly being brought under control, and there are no visible interruptions in the supply chain. Traveling both to Moscow and the provinces suggests that many Russians feel their lives are essentially normal, without any painful interruptions. These developments explain the Biden administration’s increasing talk of a protracted conflict, which would allow time both for sanctions to inflict damage and for the United States and its allies to continue their unprecedented level of military assistance, training, and intelligence sharing with Ukraine. The question of where these efforts will ultimately lead remains unanswered, and there is scant evidence they will prod Russian conduct in a desirable direction. At this point, the optimism expressed by Secretary Austin and others in the Biden administration is more an article of faith than anything else.
The United States and its allies can shift the military dynamics in Ukraine’s favor—from delivering more American HIMARS systems and other high-capacity weapons to Kyiv to providing more training to the Ukrainian military. The problem is that Russia enjoys multiple options in deciding how to respond, and, indeed, can escalate rather than retreat. The most obvious option is acquiring weapons similar to the HIMARS that might be available from China and North Korea. The Chinese may be reluctant to go that far, but North Korea—which recently recognized the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” and is under severe sanctions itself—may be willing to oblige. Russia may also decide that avoiding general mobilization is no longer feasible, a move that would address its current manpower shortage. And whether the West likes it or not, there finally remains the option of using tactical nuclear weapons—a recourse that NATO itself once considered viable in confronting Soviet conventional superiority in Europe.
Last but not least, the collective steps taken against Russia thus far have had unintended consequences. From an American perspective, the most damaging of these is the growing impression among the majority of Russians that the West has launched an undeclared war against them. Regardless of who is responsible for the war, which power has international law on its side, or who presents a more reliable account of the situation on the battlefield, what is most important for a number of Russians is the growing conviction that Mother Russia now faces a moment of truth, confronted with a powerful assault by its enemies who make no real distinction between damaging the Russian government and punishing the Russian people. This development has become glaringly apparent in a variety of public opinion polls (including those conducted by opposition-minded groups) and in my numerous conversations in Moscow, including with figures who dislike Putin and only reluctantly acknowledge the emerging consensus in Russia.