Despite the focus in Washington D.C. on impeachment and how much many defense policy wonks claim Ukraine is critical for U.S. national security, it is time to get real. Ukraine is a distraction and in no way is it essential for U.S. security interests.
Rather, the greatest contemporary challenge for the West at large, and America in particular, is China.
Tragically, America’s foreign policy elite has, thus far, failed utterly to deal with this reality. By contrast, they have successfully facilitated the exact opposite outcome from what is in the nation’s true interest by driving Russia into the willing geopolitical embrace of China and U.S.-Russian relations to a post-Cold War nadir that risks an accidental nuclear confrontation. Thus, American policy has created a set of circumstances where Russia could easily become a major spoiler in the geopolitical contest for Eurasia. This is geopolitical malpractice of the highest order and demands a massive recalibration of policy.
The U.S. should seek no further NATO expansion, offer economic incentives to Russia to look West more than East, and shift diplomacy towards helping Russia maintain a balance of power in Central Asia rather than acquiesce to Chinese dominance.
The tragedy of the present moment did not need to happen.
George F. Kennan, the famed intellectual godfather of the Cold War “Containment Doctrine, prophesied almost exactly what has since transpired in 1997,
“…expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.
Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.”
This, of course, was well before hardly anyone in the West had ever heard the name of Vladimir Putin.
Ironically, after coming to power, even Putin initially argued for Russia to join NATO and was also one of the first leaders to call President George W. Bush after 9/11. Yet none of these outreach efforts by Russia earlier in the 2000s was effectively reciprocated. Rather, Western policy included many missed opportunities. These have littered the past three decades of policy towards Russia- from the NATO Kosovo air campaign (without United Nations Security Council authorization) to the unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Defense Treaty to the destabilization of the Middle East as a result of the 2003 Iraq invasion, and the myriad of “Color Revolutions” within several former Soviet republics.
These actions have reinforced the Russian perspective of being attacked from the West. Too many in the West see this as paranoia or, less charitably, a cover for innate Russian aggressiveness. They should consider Russia’s history of being invaded approximately every century:
- Poland in the 1600s;
- Sweden in the 1700s;
- Napoleonic France in the 1800s, and
- Wilhelmine and Nazi Germany in the 1900s.
This lack of sensitivity regarding the security concerns of a still great power led to the folly of Western Ukraine policy.
Ukraine has a complex history that is vastly broader in scope than just being the home of the Kievan Russ and the genesis of the Russian state. However, the fact that this is a critical perception by the Russians should have tempered the policy of the West to keep the door for NATO perennially open to Ukraine (and to a lesser extent Georgia).
To be clear, this laundry list of Western policy errors does not absolve Russia of its bad actions. But to focus exclusively on the bad actions without contextualizing them makes it impossible to get future policy right. At this point, the West, especially the U.S., must move beyond its lingering animosities and understand what drives Russia.
By contrast, continued confrontation with Russia could easily lead to modern day “Cuban Missile Crisis” or “Able Archer” near nuclear misses which will be even more destabilizing given the advent of hypersonic missiles. Further, it risks keeping Russia tilting to China even as China spreads is economic wings throughout the Eurasian landmass and becomes a geo-economic hegemonic power capable of fulfilling Mackinder’s nightmare of essentially unifying this territory against the West.
Thus, American and Western policy more broadly, should do the following:
- Follow the recommendations of no less a strategist than Zbigniew Brzezinski and “Finlandize” Ukraine. The door to NATO must be closed permanently.
- The U.S., along with Germany, should work attempt to find ways to facilitate more Western investment in Russia outside of resource extraction industries.
- America should closely monitor China’s influence in Russia’s backyard and make clear that if there is to be a sphere of influence in the region, the U.S. prefers it to be a Russian one rather than a Chinese one.
It is time to end the Western policy of confrontation with Russia and focus on China. Putting the conflict with Russia over Ukraine in the rearview mirror is a necessary first step.
*Greg R. Lawson is a contributing analyst for Wikistrat.