While we were grabbing drinks at a bar near Capitol Hill, a Ukrainian friend of mine living in Washington during the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 ruefully quipped to me, “Russia will devour Ukraine no matter what the West says. It’s just a question of how long it’ll take.”
For Russia, Ukraine is a vital component of its defensive perimeter. For the United States, Ukraine is an abstract idea. It is a symbol of democratic resistance to authoritarianism, a lucrative addition to the ailing European Union, and a potential new base to place NATO military assets nearer to an increasingly assertive Russia.
Also read: Arc of encirclement appearing around Russia
But Moscow’s leaders believe Ukraine is an existential component of their national survival. Russian leaders have long viewed Ukraine in the same way that many American leaders have viewed Mexico or Canada: an essential buffer zone protecting the core of their nation from more aggressive powers beyond their territory.
Ukraine was not always part of Russia. For centuries, it was home to Crimean Tatars who notoriously looted and raided neighboring Russia. Finally, under the reign of Catherine the Great, the Ukrainian threat to Russia was ended and the region colonized by Russians.
Ever since that time, Ukraine has existed as an extension of Russian power.
West missed once-in-a-lifetime opportunity
The chance to dislodge Russia from Ukraine and Eastern Europe was a momentary one that occurred in the aftermath of the Cold War. Western leaders opted instead unilaterally to disarm the post-Soviet government of Ukraine, assuming that Russia would never again pose a threat to the West.
That is why, in 1994, then-US president Bill Clinton ignorantly urged newly liberated Ukraine to mothball its arsenal of Soviet-era nuclear weapons, the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world at that time, rather than help Ukraine secure and modernize that arsenal. Kiev was reluctant to abandon its nuclear weapons, correctly believing that those nukes would serve as a deterrent against any future Russian invasion of their land.
The Clinton administration, however, persisted in total de-nuclearization in the aftermath of the Cold War. To sweeten the deal with Kiev, Clinton gave assurances to Ukraine’s leaders that, in exchange for them surrendering their nuclear arsenal to the West, the United States would defend Ukraine in the event of a Russian invasion.
American leaders have never been known for being well versed in history. But this assurance from Washington to Kiev was the kind of guarantee that have started world wars in the past.
Promises made, promises broken
Twenty years later, these promises were tested, when Russian forces swooped into the Crimean Peninsula and annexed the territory during a period of political upheaval in Ukraine.
Since the 19th century, Russia had maintained a naval base in Sevastopol, a key port on the Black Sea. It was the height of arrogance on the part of Western leaders to believe that Russia would simply abandon its port in Sevastopol because the new US-backed government in Kiev wanted it to.
Russian leaders feared that the Western-backed government of Ukraine, which rose to power on a wave of controversy during the Maidan protests in 2014, would take Ukraine completely out of Russia’s orbit and make it part of the European Union-NATO alliance structures, thereby becoming another American proxy on Russia’s doorstep.
After Russia moved swiftly to secure its naval base by annexing Crimea, Moscow spent the next seven years working assiduously to dislodge the West from Ukraine by supporting separatist forces in the east of the country, which was home to a large Russian diaspora.
Flashing red: Russian invasion coming soon
This month, US intelligence officials warned their counterparts in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization about an ongoing Russian military buildup along the border with Ukraine. After news of that warning broke, American astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) were ordered to take refuge in their SpaceX capsule after Russia suddenly launched an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon that destroyed a derelict Soviet-era satellite in low-Earth orbit.
The massive debris field that test had generated directly threatened the lives of the American (and a few Russian) astronauts on board and risked destroying the ISS.
As I reported in the aftermath of the event, the Russian ASAT test was directly tied to events occurring in Europe – specifically, a Russian fear that any potential invasion of Ukraine would be met by NATO defenders.
The ASAT test was an attempt to deter Western military intervention against the inevitable Russian invasion. In fact, unconfirmed reports from Ukraine indicate that Russian special-forces operatives have been spotted operating in the contested areas of eastern Ukraine, supporting separatist paramilitary forces, and likely laying the groundwork for a Russian invasion.
Germany steps up – but to what end?
Surprisingly, Berlin stepped into the fray when German regulators suspended the completion of a long-running, controversial gas-pipeline deal with Moscow. Nord Stream 2, a massive pipeline that would link cheap Russian natural gas to a gas-starved Europe (through Germany), was the dream of Russian policymakers looking to restore Russia’s ailing economy since the twilight years of the old Soviet Union.
The Germans wanted the pipeline. The Russians desired the pipeline. European energy consumers needed the pipeline. But the Americans had repeatedly opposed the pipeline, fearing the geopolitical ramifications of allowing for Europe to become dependent on Russia for its energy needs.
Strangely, President Joe Biden’s administration removed critical sanctions the previous administration of Donald Trump had imposed on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline during a particularly tense moment in Russo-American relations this year. The removal of those US sanctions allowed Germany to approve the long-desired pipeline that was set to go online soon.
If Biden wanted to deter a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine, he had a bizarre way of doing that.
With the German regulatory delay, the pipeline might not be active until 2022. And with gas prices in Europe already soaring, the question remains: For how long can Germany withhold the final approval of NS2? Berlin cannot stand on its own against Russia and it is unlikely that the Biden administration can offer anything other than platitudes to Germany.
And the US appears incapable of formulating any strategy for stopping the Kremlin’s expansion into Eastern Europe short of risking all-out war with nuclear-armed Russia, which is something that neither Biden nor any other Western leader will countenance. Ultimately, Moscow understands this, which is why the recent German move will have no lasting impact on preventing a Russian attack on Ukraine.
Russia’s fait accompli in Ukraine
Russia has several advantages over the United States in Europe. The first is proximity. Russia is simply closer to the countries in question than the US is.
The second is geo-economics. Since the 1990s, Europe has become increasingly dependent on cheap Russian energy sources.
The third is a problem of attention. Whereas Russia can focus like a laser on breaking Europe’s alliance with the United States apart, Washington must manage affairs not only in Europe, but in the Greater Middle East, in the Indo-Pacific, and closer to home, in Latin America. All Moscow needs to do is wait out the distracted and overstretched Americans – which it will do – while the Biden administration flits from one international crisis to another.
Over time, Russia will get what it wants from Europe or, like the Scythians of old, it will burn the house down to prevent the Americans from getting it. My Ukrainian friend’s comments, then, take on new meaning.
He knew something we Americans, blissfully isolated by two oceans from the ravages of European geopolitics, detached from any historical perspective, will likely never comprehend: While we may have all the watches, the Russians have all the time when it comes to Eastern Europe.
The United States cannot be the world’s policeman in today’s geopolitical environment – not unless it seeks to risk nuclear world war. The real threat lies to the East, from China.
Washington must embrace a more realistic European policy as it relates to Russia. War cannot be the answer there. Whether it be in two months or two years, Russia will checkmate America in Europe, because Russia has played its hand there better than the Americans have.