Granting, therefore, that the vigorous anti-Russian turn in Ukrainian policy is seen as a big problem by Putin, it remains very difficult to see how the use of force would solve it for him. There is talk about such a rescue operation by some Russophones, but not Russian officials or legislators. No way exists of getting a clear read on how the Russophone population outside Donbas would react to a Putin move to save them with a military invasion, but I don’t think it would be favorable even in the short term, for the simple reason that it could not be clean and would entail significant human and material losses. For the majority of Ukraine’s Russophones, I think that would look like a bad bargain and not something they would want. If they don’t want it, there would be minimal desire in Russia to give it to them.
Lessons Learned, Gains Consolidated
So, Biden was wrong and Zelensky was right. There will be no war. The one in the east, as a consequence of a Ukrainian reconquest of the Donbas or Crimea, has been put on extended hiatus. The one conjured up by U.S. intelligence is a fiction. That war is not imminent does not mean that it’s entirely foreclosed down the road, as the arms buildup and the war of venomous accusation is intrinsically dangerous. So, too, the probable motives of both Russia and the United States, which argue strongly against an imminent war, may change. The misperceptions which now rule the day in Washington, especially a view of the adversary which sees it as basically deranged, are not a good omen.
A lingering question remains. Did Washington’s alarmists really believe it themselves, or has consent been manufactured by a war scare whose utility they plainly saw, but the details of which they didn’t really believe? It’s a tough choice between the two, with alternative one telling us that they’ve been playing it straight and alternative two suggesting that we’ve all been the objects of a calculated plan by guys playing four-dimensional chess. The conclusion I reach, with some awkwardness, is that both alternatives, though seemingly contradictory, have been at play in Washington’s funhouse mirror, thick with distorted shapes and grotesque visages. What cannot be denied is that the war scare, with the media dutifully performing its stenographic role, has brought great advantages to the hawks. The LNG folks have made considerable progress in their campaign to prevent the opening of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The increased deployments to Eastern Europe and arms sales to Ukraine gratify the interests of the military-industrial complex. The anti-Russia coalition, which draws as much from sheer ideological enmity as anything resembling self-interest, has advanced its campaign to gain legal authority from Congress to impose a total shutdown in relations with Russia. That looks to me like three wins for the hawks.
The cleverest feature of the administration’s approach is that, when there is no war, Biden and Blinken can claim that it was all due to them and their solid statesmanship. Deterrence has been successful! Our firm leadership made it so! We’re not quite at that part in the unraveling of the plot, but getting closer, as U.S. intelligence seems not to be getting its predicted 175,000 troops. At the last congressional briefing on February 5, the latest intelligence estimate was that 130,000 troops were mobilized, with only 62,000 combat forces deployed, scattered all around Ukraine’s periphery. Count on it, the reduction in future numbers (as the Russian exercises wind down) will be attributed to the wise leadership of the Biden administration.
David C. Hendrickson is President of the John Quincy Adams Society and the author of Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition (2018).