Politics & Policy

Better than Worthless

(Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

According to taped conversations leaked in Poland (probably by Russian intelligence), the country’s foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, described his country’s alliance with the United States as “worthless.” At the time he made that statement, Sikorski — full disclosure: He was National Review’s roving correspondent in the 1980s and ’90s — was quite correct.

In a series of decisions, the Obama administration had plainly signaled Washington’s lack of interest in some of America’s strongest allies. Obama canceled the deal to site U.S. anti-missile installations in Poland and the Czech Republic even though their governments had risked political capital to welcome them. He ignored the appeal from 22 Central European leaders to revive America’s commitment to the region. And he clearly prioritized the reset with Russia over its relations with traditional American allies in Central and Eastern Europe.

Since then, however, the Ukrainian crisis has erupted. Much has changed. Today Sikorski would almost certainly be friendlier to the U.S. — and perhaps more critical of his then-favorite Germany — over their handling of the Ukraine crisis. Like the Berlin crisis in the 1960s, the Ukraine crisis has greatly clarified the international scene. Even under this temporizing administration, addicted as it is to half-measures in everything, the U.S. has shown itself willing to commit some troops and resources to Poland and NATO. We would like to see more done; a firm and impressive commitment to NATO now would be worth more than a larger one later. But the alliance with Washington looks a little better than worthless.

On the other hand, the actions of Russian president Vladimir Putin have achieved almost as much for the West. By annexing Crimea and invading eastern Ukraine by proxy, he encouraged Ukrainian nationalism throughout the nation and made it hostile to Russia — Ukraine will now never become part of a Russian system. He has lost the prize he originally sought — namely, keeping Ukraine out of any relationship with the European Union and incorporating it instead into a Eurasian Economic Union. He has aroused NATO and the EU and compelled them to establish warmer relationships with Central and Eastern Europe (and the Baltics). He broke the rules of international good behavior and thus alarmed the Germans, who are sticklers for transnational good conduct; while Crimea is a disputed territory, Berlin cannot give its industrialists a complete assurance that trade will proceed without hindrance. And he has been unable to prevent the election of a legitimate and internationally recognized government in Kiev that has the loyalty of most Ukrainians and that has taken the initiative to fight “pro-Russian” forces in eastern Ukraine. As we write, the Ukrainian army has regained several towns in the region, and its enemies are in retreat.

These are serious reverses for the Russian president. He now faces a difficult choice — either swallow them or launch an undisguised invasion of Ukraine. Both courses have great risks for him and his regime. Accepting defeat would diminish him in general; invading Ukraine would invite heavier Western sanctions and a long guerrilla war even after initial successes. The Ukraine crisis is not over; it may continue for years. But it is beginning to look as if Putin can no longer win it. And Men of Destiny can’t afford major miscalculations, let alone defeats. All of which means that Sikorski — whatever his deficiencies as a diplomat — called the crisis right and deserves promotion to a senior post in the European Union.

If so, we look forward to what Radek, who was always a terrific read at NR, has to say about Obama, Merkel, Hollande, et al. in his memoirs.

The Editors — The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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