Say an expert tells you that if you don’t follow his advice, the world or a substantial part of it might go up in flames. You do nothing, and two years later no fire is apparent — but the same expert returns, offering the same advice. Would you take his suggestion the second time around?
That is roughly the position of those who argue that we must arm Ukraine. Two years ago the Brookings Institution put out a proposal for arming Ukraine and warned that failing to do so could bring about “worldwide conflagration.” If you haven’t noticed, most of us are still walking about.
Yet in the last month, calls have come again for arming Ukraine. These were cheered, predictably, by Russia hawks such as Senator John McCain — and seconded by critics of my recent piece urging a different course of action. It seems appropriate to answer them.
Casey Michel, writing here at National Review, disputes my characterization of Ukraine as “not a particularly admirable state.” His rebuttal amounts to an assertion that the Ukrainian government’s fight against Russian-backed secessionists is evidence enough that it’s worthy of support.
I don’t think so. Ukraine’s post-independence history has been marked by political instability, corrupt leadership, disputed elections, and dissolved parliaments. Some of this was due to Russian interference. Much of it reflected a native capacity for disorder. Ukraine’s recent treatment of crimes committed during the Maidan strikes even sympathetic observers as having the quality of partisan “revolutionary justice.”
Why should we assume that pro-Western forces will remain in power in Kiev when they’ve been undone by their own corruption before? Do we know that any successor to the pro-Moscow Party of the Regions will be excluded from power? And if it is, will this be accomplished using means consistent with democratic norms?
As for fighting Russians, I’m not sure that alone qualifies a country for American respect and support. If America supplies arms, will the Ukrainian government pass them on to militias such as the Azov Battalion, which is made up of fascists who fight Russians while wearing symbols such as the wolfsangel and the “Black Sun,” last sported in Europe by the Nazis and their SS.
John E. Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, also responded to me at the Atlantic Council’s website. He characterizes the views of “armchair strategists” such as yours truly this way: “They argue that Russia is stronger than Ukraine and can outmatch any escalation, Moscow has a greater interest in Ukraine than Washington, and Ukraine’s government is corrupt and undeserving of such support.”
Yes, pretty much. Herbst says that I repeat the “falsehood” peddled by the Kremlin that the United States “was responsible for Yanukovych’s ouster.” That’s almost true. My view is that the Maidan was a real and organic movement, and that it bears primary responsibility. But the United States was complicit in what it did. We did not invent the divisions in Ukraine, but we did weigh in.
Our own undersecretary of state for Eurasian affairs was humiliated when a phone call of hers was leaked online, in which she told Maidan leaders which political figures the United States would approve of to lead Ukraine. This wasn’t just rhetorical support for the Maidan; it indicates some level of direction and even micromanagement. British commentator Peter Hitchens has often asked: How would Americans feel if Russia’s government tried to handpick political leaders in a destabilized Quebec?
Herbst tries to blur the distinction between our duties to NATO countries and those to non-NATO countries.
Herbst parries my accusation that the United States doesn’t have vital interests in Ukraine by simply repeating U.S. officials describing Russia’s strength (which I don’t doubt) and its deplorable intentions.
He further says we have “a vital interest in the strength and viability of NATO and the European Union.” Ukraine is a member of neither the EU nor NATO. Herbst must know this.
And so, as do many arguing for the U.S. to give weapons to Ukraine in order that more Russians will die, Herbst tries to blur the distinction between our duties to NATO countries and those to non-NATO countries. He does this also by falsely describing the Budapest Memorandum as a promise by the U.S. “to guarantee Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity when it gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994.” (Michel does not go that far, but he does describe the same memorandum’s assurance of territorial integrity as a “U.S. commitment.”)
In fact, the Budapest Memorandum, the agreement by which Ukraine gave up leftover Soviet nuclear weapons, is not a kind of NATO Article V in disguise. It obliged the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia to “respect the independence and sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine.” The Clinton administration never believed that it obliged the United States to defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity. It merely mandated that we refer violations to the U.N. Security Council, which we have done. That Russia has violated the memorandum I don’t dispute.
Herbst concludes that providing U.S. arms for Ukraine to use against Russia would “decrease the odds of a dangerous US-Russian confrontation.” This is a position whose contradictions seem so obvious I don’t think I have to elucidate them.
Not all the responses to me were as even-keeled as these. Some supposed security authorities on the political right have accused me of “Putinism” or even implied I’m a paid agent of Moscow. I assume they do this to chase away the boredom in their lives, or because they know I’m not litigious. But let’s put matters to rest.
On the question of whether Russia deserves to control Crimea, and to retain its major naval station there, I have no opinion. If foreign-policy columns were merely about who we wish dominated one region or another, I’d be spending columns on Central and Eastern Europe elucidating the virtues of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, not Peter the Great.
It’s true that some on the populist right believe Vladimir Putin’s Russia to be an ally of traditional religion and the sovereignty of the nation-state, a counterweight to a global, internationalist order. At best this is a flattering self-image put out by Putin himself. At worst it is a conspiracy theory that is tinged with anti-Semitism. Either way, it’s a fantasy. I don’t even think Putin is particularly great at achieving his own interests.
So, no, I’m not a Putinist. I just think that in the case of Crimea specifically, and Ukraine more generally, Putin has been acting in a way that is consistent with centuries of Russian foreign policy — and that Moscow can credibly outbid the United States in this matter, which Russia sees as essential to its interests. This is especially true when the United States has so little support from its major European allies.
We have to set priorities, and this shouldn’t be one of them.
So much of the case for arming Ukraine turns out to be a set of slogans. I’m told that not doing so means “the end of the post-1945 settlement.” How? For most of that settlement Moscow retained control of Crimea and all of Ukraine. In that time Moscow also aggressed against countries far closer to central Europe, such as Hungary, and did far more in the way of destabilizing democracies. And it did so with a much larger body of sympathetic political actors and intellectuals in the West.
Some are less grand and say that arming Ukraine affirms America’s “commitment to the post-Cold War global order.” Other than opposing Russia at every turn, what does that mean? Does that mean respecting sovereignty and existing borders? America has helped redraw the lines between territories in what was once Yugoslavia, citing high minded reasons of course.
In the real world you have to draw lines that you will defend. Right now the line is NATO. If it were up to me, I would not have introduced into NATO countries that sit, like ducks, between Russia and the Russian exclave in Kaliningrad, but that decision has already been made. And there our promises really are at stake.
By this point, readers may have also noted the primary sleight of hand at work in the case for arming Ukraine. The world order is completely imperiled by Russia, we are told, but at the same time, the risks to confronting this threat are infinitesimal. Russia is weak-willed; it will just take a few anti-tank weapons. When someone tells you there are only minute risks involved in confronting a massive threat, they’re lying to you, and maybe to themselves.
The Budapest Memorandum does not legally oblige the United States to defend Ukraine. Little about the Ukraine government morally compels us to defend it as a model democratic power. Russia’s long history shows us how central Ukraine is to its foreign-policy interests and even its self-conception. Our European allies do not want us to escalate this conflict in their backyard. Ukraine offers the United States few tangible benefits, and its potential to embarrass us is great. Imagine the propaganda value of a video showing U.S. anti-tank weapons’ being manned by a fascist paramilitary sporting the occult symbols of the Third Reich.
We have to set priorities, and this shouldn’t be one of them. Let Ukraine defend its own interests.
— Michael Brendan Dougherty is a senior writer at National Review.