Provoked by NATO?

Andrew Busch

In recent weeks, a number of pieces have appeared in conservative venues calling into question U.S. assistance to Ukraine (exemplified here, and here). The criticism of American involvement, though sometimes thought-provoking, is wrong on the most essential points.
This argument holds that Russia attacked Ukraine first in 2014 and more forcefully in 2022 because the U.S. engineered a “coup” against the democratically elected pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych, began pouring Western weapons into Ukraine, and had begun a process of bringing Ukraine into NATO, which posed an unacceptable security threat to Moscow. Today, support for Ukraine is a failed policy from which the West should disentangle itself.
This is, to put it mildly, an undeservedly charitable assessment of Russian behavior. It also sells short the Ukrainian cause and the U.S. contribution to it.
The “Coup” of 2014
Viktor Yanukovych had run for the presidency once before, in 2004, and was defeated by Viktor Yushchenko—but only after a poisoning attempt on the pro-Western Yushchenko failed, leaving him disfigured, and after the Supreme Constitutional Court threw out the initial election results due to massive evidence of fraud favoring Yanukovych. Yanukovych then served for a time as prime minister under Yushchenko, provoking a constitutional crisis in 2007 when his parliamentary majority sought to strip the president of powers. That crisis only ended when new elections were held and Yanukovych lost his majority and his position as prime minister.
Yanukovych was finally elected president in 2010 in what was widely judged a fair election—winning with 49 percent of the vote on a promise to seek membership in the European Union. When, at the last possible moment, Yanukovych pulled a bait-and-switch, abandoning the Ukraine-Europe Association Agreement and signing instead an agreement binding Ukraine to Russia, protests began in Kyiv. As the security services applied brutal force to disperse the crowds, the demonstration grew in size and intensity and spread to other Ukrainian cities. After snipers opened fire on protesters, killing dozens, enraged Ukrainians were on the verge of full-blown revolt. In the middle of the night, Yanukovych fled to Russia, where he still resides and has helpfully offered himself as a replacement for Volodymyr Zelensky should Ukrainians come to their senses. He may have achieved power through electoral means, but he is no democrat. He was before politics a street gangster, a thoroughly Soviet man, and probably the most corrupt president in the short history of a government that has frequently been tainted by official corruption. He was, without doubt, Moscow’s man in Kyiv.
Critics of U.S. policy make much of the supposed role of U.S. diplomat Victoria Nuland in supporting the protests and allegedly naming the next Ukrainian government, claims that come out of a leaked phone call with U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt during the protests. The transcript of the phone call, however, shows that their discussion was not about how to overthrow Yanukovych but how to help the opposition broker a deal with him that would end the standoff—that is, they were doing what diplomats do. It is clear that U.S. policymakers were hoping to steer events, but also that the Ukrainians were acting on their own. In the end, the opposition leaders and the protestors they were largely following did not make the deal with Yanukovych that Nuland and Pyatt were angling for.
Altogether, most Ukrainians do not call this a “coup.” They call it a revolution—the “Revolution of Dignity”—and its casualties “the Heavenly Hundred.” It was a revolution by a civil society that had grown impressively in complexity and resilience since independence in 1991, from the bottom up. It is odd that many who point out that the U.S. experience in Afghanistan proved that civil society cannot simply be invented from scratch no matter how many dollars are dropped over the landscape seem to be convinced that the U.S. invented civil society in Ukraine by dropping dollars over the landscape. In reality, the Ukrainians who rose up did so because they perceived that if they did not, they would be drawn inexorably back into Moscow’s orbit. As Ukraine would be quietly Putinized, the vibrant civil society they had forged would be extinguished. At most, a husk of democracy would remain. They demanded a different route.
Ukrainians did not and do not embrace the EU because they are attracted to its esoteric social policies, its nannyism, or its appeal to the globalist elites of Davos. Their concerns are more straightforward. They want to be rid of their Soviet past. They want to be prosperous and free, so they want to be incorporated into the system of the free and prosperous West. It is not more complicated than that. Someday they may come to find, like the British, that the EU has a downside, that Russia is not the only entity that can threaten their sovereignty. For them, that is a problem for another day.
Provoked by NATO?
Taking advantage of the political chaos following the Revolution of Dignity—and the correct perception that Barack Obama and the West would do next to nothing in response—Russia militarily occupied Crimea, then sent troops to aid separatists in Donbas, some of whose leaders (such as Igor Girkin) were Russian military intelligence officers. Ukrainian nationalism was stoked in three ways. The revolution gave Ukrainians a stronger sense of nationhood, the Russian incursions pushed them to rally around the blue and yellow, and the seizure of Crimea and part of Donbas took out of the Ukrainian electorate the portions of the population most sympathetic to Russia. Between 2014 and 2022, some Russian-speaking regions that had once seemed to be wavering, such as Kharkiv, aligned more firmly with Kyiv as the unhappy economic and political fate of occupied Donbas became clearer to see.
What did not happen, however, was either NATO membership for Ukraine or a flood of NATO weapons. On the contrary, by 2022, NATO had been considering Ukraine for 14 years and seemed highly unlikely to actually admit it anytime in the near future, if at all. Moreover, Obama resolutely opposed the provision of lethal military aid to Ukraine, despite Russian aggression in Crimea and Donbas. Donald Trump agreed to limited military aid such as Javelin anti-tank rockets, short-range man-portable anti-aircraft weapons, and training programs, but not much more. Joe Biden did not significantly expand on that until Russian troops were driving toward Kyiv. With eight years to prepare, the West had not supplied Ukraine with heavy artillery, tanks, anti-shipping or long-range air defense missiles, or combat aircraft. On February 24, 2022, most of its arsenal still consisted of old, if not obsolete, Soviet stockpiles. Not until several months later did the West begin to remedy some of those deficiencies, and some remain today. The Biden administration itself has reportedly used its influence for months to block our Eastern European allies from transferring aircraft to Kyiv.
It is reasonable to conclude that what drove war was not Russian fear of NATO, which in 2022 had neither come close to accepting Ukraine nor significantly armed it. Indeed, even if Ukraine had joined NATO, this would not have posed an “existential threat” to the survival of Russia, any more than the NATO membership of Poland or Latvia. A free and independent Ukraine oriented to the West does, however, pose an existential threat to “Russian World,” the vague idea endorsed by Putin, Russia’s ultra-nationalists, and the Russian Orthodox patriarch, among others. Roughly speaking, in its most aggressive current incarnation, Russian World holds that those who speak Russian, have a cultural affinity with Russia, or otherwise live in territories that were once part of historic Russia should be brought back together under the tutelage of Moscow and in opposition to the West. Opponents of U.S. aid to Ukraine tend to pooh-pooh both Russian World and Putin’s publicly repeated sentiment that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century. Yet it is the imperial dream of Russian World, not Russia itself, that cannot survive if Ukraine chooses a Western path.
The other thing that might not survive a free Ukraine is Vladimir Putin’s regime. From West Germany to South Korea to Hong Kong and Taiwan, the existence of free alternatives has made neighboring dictators nervous. The Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Revolution of Dignity in 2014 provide highly visible demonstrations of civil society putting abusive political leaders in their place. The Ukrainian example is one that cannot help but make Putin uncomfortable. His discomfort was surely heightened by the massive demonstrations, mimicking the Ukrainian revolutions, that took place in Minsk in 2020 protesting the fraudulent “re-election” of long-time Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko. Lukashenko survived with Russia’s help, but the episode sent tremors through the Kremlin and helps explain Belarus’s participation in the campaign against Ukraine. The critics rarely acknowledge this dimension of Russia’s motivation, and so make no effort to answer the question: are we really to throw small nations to the wolves in order to calm the potentially insatiable insecurities of tyrants?
We would do well to listen carefully to Russia’s stated war aims, which include but are far from limited to preventing Ukraine from joining NATO. Others are to disarm Ukraine, rendering it defenseless; change the government, putting into place a Russian puppet; and eliminate “Nazism,” by which they mean eliminating vestiges of Ukrainian nationalism and cultural identity. These are objectives consistent with advancing Russian World and removing a dangerous example from the neighborhood. The apparent moves by Russia toward simply annexing its conquered territories reinforce the broad thrust of these objectives, and Putin himself has made it clear he does not believe Ukraine is or should be a country. On the other hand, in March, Zelensky offered to hold a referendum that would allow Ukrainians to rescind their request to join NATO. Half a year later, Russia is still shelling Ukrainian cities. Apparently, it was not what Moscow most wanted after all.
The U.S. Strategic Interest
The other staple of the critique from the right is that the United States has no strategic interest in Ukraine, or at least none that would justify the billions of dollars sent to Kyiv to support its war effort. The latter argument can be dispensed with most readily. As of August 29, U.S. military assistance to Ukraine had totaled $13.5 billion. In Fiscal Year 2021, the federal government spent $6.8 trillion. In other words, U.S. military assistance to Ukraine had been equivalent to .2 percent of last year’s federal spending.
The real question is whether the United States has a strategic stake in Ukraine at all. The answer is yes.
Most tangibly, a quick glance at a map shows that Ukraine borders no fewer than five NATO countries. Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria would all have Russian troops on their doorsteps if Ukraine were to fall. When Moscow says it wants Ukraine demilitarized, it is unlikely that it is including its own forces in the equation. What would be the impact on the political and military posture of the countries on that new front line? No one knows, and no one should want to find out. On the other hand, the survival of free Ukraine would deprive Russia of not only the proximity but population and resources that it would use to threaten its neighborhood, and us. It was, above all, the loss of Ukraine that disemboweled the Soviet Union, and reattaching Ukraine is a prerequisite for the full revival of the Russian Empire. Altogether, if we are, by necessity, back to containment, containment with Ukraine as part of the West is to be vastly preferred over containment with Ukraine under Moscow’s control.
In the longer term, if Russia is successful in Ukraine, it will surely conclude that it can press forward at some new perceived weak spot. Critics dismiss this danger, as they dismiss the broader imperialist motivations behind Putin’s actions. Russia, the argument goes, lacks the military resources to go further. True, for today—largely because the aid we are giving Ukraine is significantly degrading Russian military capabilities. But tomorrow? Conquest, as military strategists have long observed, does not hinge on numbers. It hinges on numbers multiplied by will. If the United States and its allies abandon the Ukrainians to their fate, why would Putin not make the calculation again, once his forces are replenished, that he has enough numbers to enforce his will against spineless opponents?
Russian World is large, and the work of reconstituting it will be far from complete even if Ukraine is subdued. There would be the vulnerable Baltics, the Central Asian republics, Moldova, what remains of Georgia, perhaps even Poland and Finland. Some are (or are about to be) members of NATO and will enjoy some measure of protection on that account; some are not. However, If Putin is successful in Ukraine because he kept his nerve while the West lost its will, all will be less safe than they were. Russian generals have already spoken of the desirability of creating a land bridge through Ukraine to facilitate operations against Moldova. Former Russian president and prime minister Dmitri Medvedev, a confidant of Putin, has likewise threatened Poland.
Critics sometimes argue that U.S. resistance to the Russian takeover of Ukraine is pushing Russia into alliance with China to the strategic detriment of the United States. Yet Russia and China have already been in de facto alliance for years, holding military exercises together, working together to stymie U.S. diplomacy, and jointly firing rhetorical salvoes against the American place in the world. They are two peas in a pod, with or without Ukraine—chauvinistic, authoritarian, and revisionist imperial powers obstructed by a common adversary.
Can that alliance become stronger? Yes, but only under a specific circumstance, which U.S. and Western aid is working to prevent. Russia may need China more than ever, but China is the stronger partner. There will be no real strengthening of the alliance unless China concludes that closer association with Russia is a net plus. Is that more likely to happen if Russia succeeds in Ukraine or if it fails? Success of Putin’s adventure could also be interpreted by Beijing as a green light for the conquest of Taiwan. At any rate, Taiwan fears this, and has sent aid to Ukraine to forestall it. Open season for the authoritarian axis is self-evidently not in the strategic interest of the United States.
Nor is it the case that the United States has hastily come to Ukraine’s defense and can now back away from it without harm to us or our interests. On the contrary, the United States staked its honor on the preservation of Ukrainian sovereignty nearly 30 years ago when it became a signatory to the Budapest Memorandum. In it, the U.S., Britain, and Russia committed themselves “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and “to refrain from the threat or use of force” against it. In exchange, Ukraine agreed to surrender the 1,700 strategic nuclear warheads it had inherited when the Soviet Union broke up.
The Budapest Memorandum was not a treaty obligation like NATO, but it is reasonably interpreted as a security guarantee. That the United States offered this security guarantee cannot simply be forgotten. Do we think the strategic interests of the United States will be best served by following up a demonstration of our unreliability in Afghanistan with a demonstration of our unreliability in Ukraine? When the going gets tough, the tough get going—home? Interesting. “Come home, America” used to be George McGovern’s slogan.
The Choice
Perhaps the ultimate argument for aiding Ukraine is to survey what is at stake at the highest level. Critics sometimes ridicule the pompous locution of the “rules based international order” and blithely attach Ukraine to the list of recent failed Wilsonian projects. At the end of the day, though, there are rules, once called the Law of Nations and the principles of Just War, that are deeply rooted in our civilization, long predating progressive utopianism. These rules represent an imperfect but necessary attempt to make international relations something other than an unending and merciless war of all against all. Russia has grossly violated them. The war waged by Russia against Ukraine is a naked war of conquest, an attempt to simply wipe a country off the map, the most egregious act of international aggression since Iraq annexed Kuwait by force three decades ago.
Russia has invaded a much smaller neighbor without reasonable justification and waged unremitting war on it. It has flattened cities indiscriminately; murdered civilians with their hands tied behind their backs; systematically employed torture and rape; abducted thousands of children from occupied territories and sent them to Russia; brazenly killed dozens of POWs and threatened to pseudo-judicially execute dozens more; utilized banned weapons including thermobaric bombs, cluster munitions, and anti-personnel mines disguised as children’s toys; undertaken a deliberate campaign to cripple Ukraine’s food supply and threatened to starve tens of millions of people in the Third World who rely on Ukrainian grain; vowed to eliminate all vestiges of Ukrainian culture and taken tangible steps to do so where its armies have advanced; forced millions to flee their homes, generating the largest refugee population in Europe since World War II; targeted schools, universities, maternity hospitals, theaters, museums, residential neighborhoods, and shopping malls, and threatened to unleash radiation on the world through its reckless actions near Ukraine’s nuclear power plants. To set the mood, in occupied Kherson, the Russians are putting statues of Lenin back up. When a Russian diplomat in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, recently tweeted “No mercy to the Ukrainian population,” it was less a threat than an objective description of Russian strategy since February 24. Russia has, in short, waged a war of barbarism, a war one might expect from Genghis Khan, a KGB colonel, or a psychotic spurned lover. To actively oppose this behavior is hardly to dabble in utopianism. It is to recognize that if it is successful and hence normalized, there will be hell to pay for the United States, and the world.
Some on the right suggest that all of this is mitigated, or perhaps even justified, by Putin’s supposed “traditionalism,” which turns out upon examination to be not much more than official opposition to homosexuality. By that standard, we should also have embraced Castro’s Cuba, the U.S.S.R., National Socialist Germany, and the Iranian Mullahs. The fact that the infantile left would orient our entire foreign policy around the question of the rainbow flag is not a reason that anyone else should.
On the other side of the equation is Ukraine, imperfect but worthy of defense against this onslaught. Whatever its faults, it is not in the same category as Iraq or Afghanistan, countries that the U.S. rather extravagantly hoped to drag into the democratic world. Ukraine is not being dragged into the democratic world against its will, its inclinations, or its capacity. It has chosen the West. It has chosen democracy, pluralism, civil society, and religious liberty. It is still undergoing political and social chemotherapy to cure 70 years of Soviet rule, but it wants to be cured, and has already done much to cure itself. Ukrainians have gone into the streets twice to free themselves from Russian domination, to cast their lot with the West, and to give themselves a chance for liberty. For six months now, they have stood up with courage and skill against amoral ferocity married to superior numbers. Their president, offered a flight out when Kyiv was imperiled, retorted, “I need ammunition, not a ride.” The contrast with Afghanistan’s president, who took the ride, could not be greater.
The voices that complain that America is willing to fight to the last Ukrainian have not been paying attention to the Ukrainians. They are the ones facing an existential threat to their country, and they are asking for the means to fight. An entire generation of Ukrainians has grown to adulthood in a free and independent Ukraine, and they have no intention of falling under the Russian boot. They will fight to the end if they have the means. If they find themselves without the means due to our rationalizations, they will fight to the end with IEDs, hunting rifles, bricks, and Molotov cocktails. The end will be uglier. The corpses will be theirs; the shame will be ours.
As Vladimir Putin seeks to correct “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century” by bludgeoning his neighbor into submission, our strategic and moral imperatives coincide. Indeed, they are intertwined. To stand aside from the Russian invasion of Ukraine would be a betrayal of our interests, our principles, our friends, and our national honor, and could well turn into the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 21st century, with far-reaching impact around the world. The question is not whether to help Ukraine, but how.
What Next?
It is here that the conservative critics make a trenchant observation. Their most solid argument against U.S. policy is that the Biden Administration and U.S. allies seem to have been pursuing a proxy war without a clear understanding of how the means, whether military aid or economic sanctions, are connected to the ends. There are risks, not least that the sanctions will backfire and corrode the role of the dollar as the reserve currency of the world. And they are right that American support for Ukraine has hardly been coherent and systematic.
This brief glimpse of realism is squandered, though, by the dreamy conclusion that “Ukraine’s war with Russia is at a decisive point. It is time to end it.” Unfortunately, it is Russia’s war with Ukraine, not the other way around. Russia initiated the war in 2014, expanded it in 2022, and shows no interest in ending it on just terms today. Moreover, Ukrainian policymakers are beholden to their voters, and their voters are in no mood to accept unjust terms. Very quickly the critics’ prescription boils down to either unalloyed wishful thinking or the unspoken proposition that the United States must force its friends to surrender to its enemies by cutting them off at the knees in the middle of a war of aggression waged against them.
Perhaps negotiations will ultimately be the way out, but it is unrealistic to think that Russia will agree to stop its war unless and until it is seriously set back on its heels. Can Russia, with its advantages in resources and population, be set back on its heels by an adequately armed and highly motivated opponent? The Japanese and the Finns did exactly that in 1904-05 and the “Winter War” of 1939. Now Ukraine has gone on the offensive, and has done so with enough vigor and enough success to turn the tide in its favor, at least for the moment. It is too early to know if the Ukrainians’ recent offensives can be sustained and expanded, but that, when properly equipped and trained, they are capable of extensive offensive operations can no longer be doubted.
This analysis would argue for expanding Western military aid to supply more and better weapons, including weapons denied to the Ukrainians so far. The Soviets, after all, supplied North Vietnam with modern tanks, MiGs, and state-of-the-art surface-to-air missiles without triggering World War III.
Would this mean reinforcing failure, as some have suggested? It has been six months since Russia launched its full-scale invasion. It has not been bankrupted nor has its army collapsed in disgrace. But who, on February 24, would have counted it a failure for Ukraine to still be standing today, having held the line, driven the Russian army back from Kyiv, neutered the Black Sea Fleet, retaken wide swaths of territory, and even struck deep into Crimea? What realistic person would have counted the sanctions a failure if their effect was to reduce Russia to firing anti-aircraft rockets at cities? Almost no one. It is not failure that we need to reinforce. It is incomplete success.