It is not clear yet whether the Ukraine crisis will end peacefully or whether war will again erupt on European soil. Nevertheless, several observations are in order.
For years, many in the West have celebrated the reduced role of military force in international relations. Scholars heralded “the end of history” and the reign of a norm-based international liberal order. Yet, whatever progress there was, human nature did not change. As Thucydides aptly pointed out, fear is a basic and powerful instinct.
A fearful Russia amassed many troops along the Ukrainian border to draw U.S. attention to its demands. Indeed, the tacit threat of military invasion got the United States to listen to Moscow’s security concerns.
Russia wants to be treated like the Soviet Union, so it wants a voice in the European security structure.
The turn of events was not a surprise to the old-fashioned, still clinging to a real-politic view of world politics, particularly after Russia swallowed Crimea and encouraged irredentism in eastern Ukraine.
In the face of the expansion of NATO and the European Union eastward and the Western encouragement of the color revolutions, Russia could not remain aloof. On the contrary, the democratic crusade frightened a Russia that was neither invited to join nor consulted.
Russia also resurrected the notions of buffer zones and spheres of influence. It signaled that it might resort to violence to secure larger margins of security, to enforce its demand that states along its border, nominally independent, remain within its security orbit. Considering past invasions from the West, Russian fears are reasonable. America’s sensibilities leading to the Monroe Doctrine were similar.
The Ukraine crisis reminds us of the limits of diplomacy. The United States and its European allies only emboldened Russia by reiterating their strong commitment to diplomacy; It is hardly effective without a credible option to use force.
Ukraine happens to be the first serious international test for the United States after Afghanistan. Washington, unwilling to get involved militarily, has only warned of dire economic consequences, with little impact so far on Russian President Vladimir Putin. A slip of the tongue by President Joe Biden assured him that even a “limited incursion” would be tolerable from the U.S. point of view. But Putin wants more, and it remains to be seen who will prevail in this game of poker.
Everybody, friends and foes of America alike, looks at Washington and sees a feeble administration. The crisis confirms the observed trend of America’s decline in global affairs. As in the past, the United States could leap out of its lethargy and act forcefully, but the world sees such a scenario as unlikely, and perception dictates behavior.
Washington would probably like an opportunity to reset relations with Moscow and dramatically change the global balance of power. Instead, perhaps America should enlist Putin to push back against China, America’s true international challenge. It would seem advisable to resolve the U.S.-Russia tensions over Eastern Europe, allowing Washington to focus on its primary challenge.
The United States should entice Russia to rejoin Western civilization. After all, Russia is culturally part of the West in many ways, including its literature, music, ballet and Christian heritage. In addition, the United States could recognize Crimea as Russian territory and lift sanctions against Russia.
The West could accept the “Finlandization” of Ukraine to allay Russia’s fears. Moscow tolerated a democratic Finland in the Russian security orbit during the Cold War. Détente with the United States might be preferable in Moscow over an embrace by a rising China. Switching sides could signal Russian centrality and prowess in global affairs.
For Europe, the crisis is an eye-opener. Despite talk of a European army and “strategic autonomy,” Europe still needs an American security umbrella to face a more assertive Russia, also a European major energy supplier.
The American behavior in the Ukraine crisis also affects the nuclear talks in Vienna. Tehran, already convinced that America is weak, gets even greater leeway and can further procrastinate. Iran could unleash its proxies against American allies in the Middle East. Israel could decide to avoid notifying Washington before acting forcefully. A Russian victory in Europe could precipitate a conflagration in the Middle East.
Similarly, China could learn that U.S. determination is melting away, and that its threats can be ignored. An attack on Taiwan could follow.
The Ukraine predicament again demonstrates the uselessness of international guarantees. The 1994 Budapest Memorandum, signed by the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States, provided security assurances against threats or force against the territorial integrity of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan in exchange for them giving up their nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, the memorandum was not respected when Russia conquered Crimea in 2014.
International institutions failed similarly. The United States called a U.N. Security Council meeting to discuss Moscow’s troop build-up on its borders with Ukraine, knowing that Russia had veto power. In Washington, this so-called “preventive diplomacy” ended in futile angry clashes between Russian and American envoys.
Ukrainians probably realize that we still live in a Hobbesian world where every state is on its own and life is often “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
Professor Efraim Inbar is president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
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