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The critical elements of the United States’ strategy, to bear in mind, are these:

One, the immediate combat in Ukraine is the climax of a crisis that began shortly after the inauguration of the Biden administration. That crisis was a renewed flare-up of the simmering embers of the initial conflagration dating from the Washington-instigated coup of March 2014. Two, the successive phases of that fraught situation must be understood in the context of the growing hostility in Russo-American relations. Its points of punctuation were Moscow’s intervention in the Syrian civil war, and the repeated actions of breaking or withdrawing of successive American administrations from a series of arms control agreements dating from the Cold War which raised Moscow’s concerns about Washington’s military capabilities and intentions (the placing of ballistic missile defense systems in Poland and Romania being a particular source of worry – easily convertible into offensive missile launch platforms), NATO’s eastward progressive enlargement, the sponsored ‘color revolutions’ around Russia’s periphery, and the anti-Russia sentiment aroused by the manipulated ‘Russiagate’ affair. Three, Ukraine has been the occasion – not the cause – of the breakdown in relations between Moscow and Washington.

 

Macro-Strategy

From April 2021 onwards, the contours of the unfolding American strategy were becoming evident. Arrange a provocative incidence around Donbass that sparks a Russian reaction which then could be used to confirm the specious claims of pre-existing Russian plans for invasion. The substantial build-up of Ukraine forces along the contact line, supplied with an abundance of Javelin anti-armor weapons and Sprint anti-missile weapons, foretold preparations for offensive military operations. That means doing exactly what we had been accusing Moscow of planning – a calculated‘projection’ tactic. The expectation was the ensuing crisis would force the West Europeans to go along withcomprehensive economic sanctions (including NORDSTROM II’s annulment) that would produce a collapse of the Russian economy. Any ancillary benefit for the U.S. is the increased European dependence on America for its energy resources. Implicitly, obedience to Washington’s policy preferences reinforced by economic support would confirm and perpetuate their vassal status indefinitely as conferred 75 years ago. 

Hence, the main target was Russia – the deepening of European allience and obedience to Washington, was a collateral gain. A widespread, hopefully global, boycott of Russian natural gas and oil exports was seen draining the financial lifeblood from the country’s economy as revenue from exports dwindled. With the planned move to cut Russia out of the SWIFT financial transaction mechanism, the shock to the economy would cause it to implode. The ruble would collapse, inflation would skyrocket, living standards would tumble, and popular discontent would weaken Putin so that he would either resign or be displaced by a cabal of disgruntled oligarchs. The outcome would be a weaker Russia beholden to the West or one isolated and impotent.

The fate of Ukraine itself was a secondary consideration – as it has been in American strategic thinking since 1991. A complete understanding of the tactics employed by the U.S. should take account of this cardinal fact that very few in official Washington cared much about what it meant for the stability of Ukraine or the welfare of the Ukrainian people. Their eyes were fixed on Moscow. Ukraine was prominent in the minds of Washington strategists as providing a unique opportunity for justifying the imposition of crippling sanctions that would stop Putin’s supposed ambitions in Europe – and beyond. Moreover, the deepening ties between Russia and the powers of Europe would be severed – probably irreparably. A new Iron Curtain would divide the continent, one marked by a line of blood – Ukrainian blood. That geostrategic reality would free the West to devote its entire energy to deal with China. Everything the United States has done vis a vis Ukraine over the past year has been dictated by that overarching goal.

Common to these optimistic scenarios was the hope that the budding Sino-Russian partnership would be fatally weakened – thereby, shifting the balance in favor of the United States in the forthcoming battle with China for global supremacy.

How was the plan designed and decided on? In truth, the overall goals had been in place since the Obama administration. The President himself had given his approval to the Maidan Events, it was overseen directly by then Vice-President Joe Biden who acted as the (usually) absentee prefect for Ukraine between March 2014 and January 2016. The administration moved strenuously to block implementation of the Minsk II accord, remonstrating with Merkel and Macron for agreeing to be its underwriters. That is why Berlin and Paris never made the slightest move to persuade Kiev to live up to its obligations. The specific operation to provoke a crisis in the Donbass was marinating among influential persons (including Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan) in neo-con circles during the Trump presidency – whose incoherence and disjointedness prevented the fashioning of any calibrated policy toward Ukraine or Russia.

The President himself had given his approval to the Maidan Events, it was overseen directly by then Vice-President Joe Biden who acted as the (usually) absentee prefect for Ukraine between March 2014 and January 2016.

The strategy was to ratchet up pressure on Russia to nip in the bud Putin/Moscow’s aspiration to become once again a major player – one dedicated to denying the United States, its privileges as global hegemon and sole master of Europe. The driving force came from the ardent Victoria Nuland and her neo-Con comrades ensconced in the power agencies, in Congress and the MSM. Since Anthony Blinken and Jake Sullivan were partisans of this aggressive strategy, the outcome of whatever modicum of debate occurred was preordained.

Hence, the plan was ready and waiting for a conscious decision by the Biden administration under the sway of reborn Cold Warriors in State, the NSC, the CIA and the Pentagon. The triumph of their will, in a government bereft of contrarian voices and led by a passive, manipulable President, was a sure thing. The Ukraine anti-Russia plan operation took shape with the above-noted build-up of Ukrainian military forces along the Donbass Contact Line, belligerent talk of the need for heavier economic sanctions, and not least a chorus of shrill rhetoric from all quarters in Washington and Brussels.

The Kremlin leadership was well aware of what was going on. The American objective of putting Russia back in its subordinate place was taken as a fact by the Kremlin. A level of uncertainty did exist on the question of what initiatives to expect on the ground: a major assault on the Donbass or lesser provocative acts to force a Russian reaction that could be used as a pretext for imposing sanctions (above all, the cancelling of NORDSTROM II). 

Likely, senior policymakers in Washington themselves had not made a definitive judgment on the tactical issue. Divisions among individual players and a wavering President could have left important matters unresolved within a soft, cloudy consensus. There was visible evidence of this in the repeated juxtaposition, and alternation, of bellicose rhetoric and Biden’s mollifying words in public and the “let’s not go to war” telephone conversations he initiated to Putin which were reaffirmed in press statements. In the end, the red light for a full-blown assault was given. One element of circumstantial evidence supporting this assertion is the absolute surety with which the President, Antony Blinken and CIA Director publicly forecast the imminent Russian “offensive.” They could state that with certainty only because they knew the date set for the Ukrainian military operation to begin – along with the recognition that Moscow was, by then, committed to respond in kind. That understanding was not based on inside information acquired electronically or via a mole; Washington lacks that capability as evinced by its record of having missed every Russian initiative of significance, e.g. the large-scale military intervention into Syria in 2015.

The countdown was punctuated by the 30-fold increase in Ukraine shelling across the Donbass (including residential districts) between 16 February and 23 February 2022. The exact form and magnitude of the Kremlin’s reaction was unpredictable, but that in itself was not a critical variable since the military response per se served Washington’s grand scheme. Furthermore, Washington was confident that the ambitious program of training and equipping the Ukrainian military in place since 2018 (complemented by formidable, layered defenses anchored by a network of fortifications constituting a miniature Maginot line) would prevent a rout by Russian forces and, thereby, create space for the expected corrosive effects on the Russian economy and body politique to register.

In press conference remarks made early in the month, Biden indirectly did call attention to this issue. He stated that a robust Russian reaction would ensure total NATO unity in support of the entire sanctions package. A more minor response, he said, probably would prompt a “fight’ among allied governments as to whether to include expelling Russia from SWIFT and shutting down the NORDSTROM II project. The large-scale Russian preemptive attack on February 24 ensured that the preferred American sanctions option would prevail.

What of Biden’s repeated claim that Zelensky in Kiev disputed the President’s “warning’ that Russia was preparing to take military action? Well, we have seen the transcript of that notorious telephone conservation wherein the former expressed skepticism while the latter loudly insisted that there was no doubt. The only logical explanation for this puzzle is that Zelensky had been kept in the dark about the precise date when the provocation across the Contact Line would be taken. His military commanders, and senior security people might have worked that out with the Americans (who were long active at key decision nodes) without taking Zelensky into their confidence. His penchant for speaking off-the-cuff could have been the proximate reason; the reality that he has been a figurehead president rather than an active chief executive since his 2019 election creating the permissive conditions.

Far-fetched? No – just odd. As Sherlock Holmes counseled us: “Once you’ve eliminated all other possibilities, whatever left – however strange - is the truth.”

 

Reality Behind Scenes

Reality has a way of catching up to us. Sometimes it comes via a sudden shock -Sputnik or Tet. Sometimes it creeps up incrementally - as in Ukraine with each thousand round Russian artillery barrage and the steady rise of the ruble now 25 percent higher than at the onset of the crisis. Dim the lights, the party’s almost over. But that is not the end of the affair. Whatever the exact outcomes, there is no going back to the status quo ante – the world, especially Europe, has fundamentally changed.

Moreover, it has changed diametrically opposite to what was desired and anticipated. The West has inhabited a fanciful world that could exist only in our imaginations. Many remain stranded in that self-deluded mirage. The more we have invested in that fantasy world, the harder we find it to exit and make the adjustment – intellectual, emotional, behavioral. An assessment of where we are, where we might go and the implications over time of the reactions of other parties is a singularly complex undertaking. It requires not just specification of time frames, but also the varying definitions of national interest and strategic objective which government leaders might use as reference marks. The number of permutations created by the array of players involved, and the low confidence margins associated with forecasts of how each will act at crucial decision points down the road, exacerbate the already daunting challenge. Before one even contemplates undertaking such a task, there are a few crucial considerations. 

First, the people who count at the head of governments are not pure thinking machines. Far from it. With the possible exception of Vladimir Putin (and his senior associates), they are persons of narrow intelligence, of limited experience in high stakes games of power politics, who navigate by simplistic, outdated, and parochial cognitive maps of the world. Their perspectives, approximate montages, composed of bits of ideology/bits of visceral emotion/bits of remembered but inappropriate precedents/ bits of massaged public opinion data/ odds-and-ends plucked from NYT op-ed pieces. In addition, let’s remind ourselves that policy-formation and decision-making are group processes – especially in Washington and Brussels – burdened by their collective dynamics. Finally, in Western capitals governments operate in dual currencies: policy effectiveness and electoral politics. 

Consequently, two powerful, in-built tendencies inflect the choices made: 1) inertial extension of existing attitudes and approaches; and 2) avoidance wherever possible of endangering a hard-won, often tenuous, consensus on a lowest common denominator basis. One thing we know with certainty: no fundamental change in thinking or action can occur without determination and decisiveness at the top. 

Necessity is the mother of invention – or so it is said. However, grasping what is ‘necessary’ can be a very tricky business. An actual recasting of how one views a problematic situation is typically a last resort. Experience and history tell us that, as do behavioral experiments. The psychology of perceived necessity is complex. Adversity or threat in and of itself does not trigger improvisation. Even the survival instinct does not always spark innovation. Denial, then avoidance and ‘doubling-down’ on existing policy, are usually the initial, sequential reactions when facing adversity to reach an objective or satisfy a recognized interest. A strong bias favors the reiteration of a standard repertoire of responses. True innovation tends to occur only in extremis; even then, behavioral change is more likely to begin with minor adjustments of conventional thinking and behavior at the margins rather than modifying core beliefs and patterns of action. 

Those truths underscore the American dilemma as the Ukraine venture turns sour on the battlefield and your enemy is faring far better than expected while your friends and allies are faring far worse. Russia has blunted everything we have thrown out them – to the shock of Western planners. Every assumption underpinning their scorched earth assault on the Russian economy has proven mistaken. A dismal record of analytical error even by CIA and think tank standards. Off-the-charts forecasts on the country’s economy, and the global impact of sanctions, crippled Washington’s plan from the outset. Tactical initiatives of a military nature have proven equally futile; another 1,000 vintage Javelins with dead battery packs will not rescue the Ukrainian army in the Donbass. 

Russia has blunted everything we have thrown out them – to the shock of Western planners. Every assumption underpinning their scorched earth assault on the Russian economy has proven mistaken.

So, you are stuck with the albatross of a truncated, bankrupt Ukraine hung around your neck. There is nothing you can do to cancel these givens – except a direct, perhaps suicidal test of force with Russia. Or, perhaps, a retaliatory challenge elsewhere. The latter is not readily available – for geographic reasons and because the West already has expended its arsenal of economic and political weaponry. Over the past year, the U.S. attempted to foment Maiden style regime changes in Belarus and Kazakhstan. Both were foiled. 

There remains one viable sensitive target: Syria. There, the Israelis have become increasingly audacious in goading the Russians by airstrikes against Syrian infrastructure and military facilities. Now, we see signs that Moscow’s tolerance is wearing thin, suggesting that further provocations could spark retaliation, which Washington could exploit to ratchet tensions. To what avail? Not obvious – unless the hawks in the Biden administration are looking for the kind of confrontation that they’ve avoided in Ukraine, until now. 

The implication is that the avoidance and incremental adjustment options are foreclosed. Serious rethinking is in order – logically speaking. 

The most problematic scenario sees the frustration, anger, and anxiety building in Washington to the point where it encourages a reckless impulse to demonstrate American prowess. That could take the form of an attack on Iran in the company of Israel and Saudi Arabia – the regions odd new couple. Another grimmer prospect would be a contrived test of wills with China. Already, we see growing evidence of that in the bellicose rhetoric of American leaders from Joe Biden on down. One may be inclined to dismiss it as empty chest-thumping and muscle flexing. Shadow boxing before a life-size picture of an upcoming opponent – and then placing a video tape of your workout on your Facebook page. However, some influential people in the administration are prepared to pick a fight with Beijing and let the chips fall where they may. 

The likely American reaction to a loss in Ukraine is less dramatic. A ‘sufficing’ policy would aim to encapsulate the entire affair. As best you can, forget about it and bury it diplomatically. The United States has gotten very good at that sort of thing: consider Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria et al. Let the Europeans pay for the country’s maintenance and partial reconstruction. Writing checks is the only thing that Brussels has a talent for. Indeed, just a few days ago EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced in Kiev the readiness of Brussels to accept Ukraine’s petition to be recognized as a ‘candidate’ for membership in the Union itself. 

In the broader compass, Washington could bank its modest winnings. The Europeans are now united in their servitude and obedience to Washington. That spares them the dreaded prospect of standing up – and standing together – to assume their proper responsibilities in the world. Furthermore, any disposition to welcome Russia into a common European space is dead. That applies to economic dealings, including critical natural resource trade and politics. Russia has been severed from Europe definitively for decades if not generations. If that leads to a less economically robust industrial Europe, so be it – that’s their problem. The American economy, too, may suffer some collateral damage. It will get a boost from privileged access to Europe’s energy markets and the weakening of a competitor in goods and services. Serious systemic threats lie down the road a bit. The financial tremors from the Ukraine crisis have accelerated the move away from the dollar as the world economy’s principal transaction and reserve currency. Its retread carries the risk of cutting the ground from under the deficit/debt based American economy. 

On the other side of the balance scale, a confident, intact Russia will find its economic and political future pointed Eastwards. The already profoundly entrenched Sino-Russian partnership is the critical geo-strategic development of the 21st century. That hardly should have come as a surprise; after all, just about all American actions regarding both powers over the past 15 years has led inexorably to that outcome. That includes, of course, the blunder of trying to use a Ukraine crisis as the lever to bring down Putin, and Russia with him. 

Whatever trajectory the contest between the West and the Sino-Russian bloc takes; it, now demand ever a greater imagination and skill to manage that contest without tempting fate than it would have been had the United States been inclined to pursue a more constructive course. One can argue that the historic choice that America has made by following the Wolfowitz Testament as a user’s guide to strategy in the 21st century has been made for reasons lodged deep in the country’s psyche more than those that are the product of reasoned deliberation. Collective American self-esteem, its belief in being Destiny’s child, the ordained number one in the world, has been our society’s foundation stone. We have not matured beyond that magical dependence on myth and legend – to our, and the world’s, misfortune. 

CONTRIBUTOR
Michael Brenner
Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner is Professor of International Affairs Emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh and Fellow of the Center for Transatlantic Relations SAIS/John Hopkins.

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Foreword In response to the shifting landscape of international politics, the most current TPQ issue focuses on "NATO's Changing Priorities." We present thirteen insightful essays for our Summer 2022 edition from prominent figures in academia, journalism, and nongovernmental organizations. Ten of these articles address the changing priorities of NATO in more general terms, while three others...
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