“The fact—one that should surprise no one—is that the same folks who gave us the grossly mismanaged withdrawal from Afghanistan have also taught a master class on how to bungle our crucial relationship with an already insecure nuclear superpower.”
s 24/7 Ukraine coverage blankets the news, I keep asking myself this question: Are we really so gullible as to be hoodwinked by a President and political class covering for their massive failures at home and abroad by mustering up a frenzy of dangerously jingoistic militarism that has not only escalated the situation and brought us to the brink of World War III but has imposed—and will continue to impose—senseless costs on an American economy already grinding to a halt?
Let me start off by making this crystal-clear: In no way am I suggesting that any of President Joe Biden’s major missteps, whether now or in the past, in any way excuse Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine invasion in violation of international law and being conducted with reckless indifference to—indeed, the direct intent to inflict—civilian casualties. Although there is no question (details below) that President Biden majorly provoked President Putin, nothing President Biden did stripped President Putin of his free will to do or not do what he is now doing, much less to do it in the manner in which he is doing it. With that said, however, our present sense of justified indignation at the Russian President’s conduct should extend, as well, to our own administration’s dramatic failures that have brought us to this particular precipice. The fact—one that should surprise no one—is that the same folks who gave us the grossly mismanaged withdrawal from Afghanistan have also taught a master class on how to bungle our crucial relationship with an already insecure nuclear superpower.
We have been hearing, since the Ukraine crisis began, vague proclamations from some conservative voices that President Putin would not have invaded Ukraine if former President Donald Trump were still in office, while many liberals have been finding ways of blaming President Trump’s alleged coddling of President Putin for the Ukraine invasion. Say what you want about President Trump: While he was in the Oval Office, our relationship with Russia remained civil and even cordial, while President Putin did not undertake any major new military incursions into neighboring territory of the sort that had gone on under former President Barack Obama, when President Putin took Crimea. When President Biden took over the reins, that relationship rapidly deteriorated. But we need not stop at this level of abstraction. Although (with a few notable exceptions) the media has almost entirely ignored these glaring facts, President Biden took very concrete steps that not only generally antagonized President Putin but that directly precipitated the Ukraine invasion.
To put those colossal missteps in context, the principal point we need to keep in mind is, to quote current Central Intelligence Agency head William J. Burns’ 2019 book, that “Ukraine entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just President Putin). In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to President Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.” Ukraine’s entry into an anti-Russian military alliance would not merely be akin to imagining how we would feel about Canada’s entry into the Warsaw Pact. Modern-day Russia traces its very origins to the unification in the 9th century, under Oleg, ruler of Novgorod, of the Eastern Slavic tribes, creating the first Eastern Slavic state, known as Kievan Rus, with its capital in the modern-day Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. Kyiv, in other words, was the first capital of a united Slavic state, incorporating the ancestors of today’s Russians and Ukrainians alike, long before Moscow emerged as even a minor town on the historical radar in the 12th century. Throughout the ensuing centuries, despite the invasion of the Mongols, subsequent control over large portions of present-day Ukrainian territory by Lithuania, Hungary, and Poland (bringing Catholicism to the Western Ukrainians, while the East remained in the Eastern Orthodox orbit), much drawing and redrawing of borders and periodic stirrings of Ukrainian nationalist sentiment, the Russian and Ukrainian peoples have spent more time united than divided, with people of both ethnicities freely flowing across and living on both sides of the ever-shifting boundary line. To say this much is not to suggest that the current desire of many Ukrainians to go their own way is somehow illegitimate so much as it is to make clear that President Putin’s claim to all or some of Ukraine, however unwarranted and destabilizing it may be, is not remotely akin to the United States hypothetically deciding to invade Canada or Mexico. Much less is President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine remotely comparable to our 2003 invasion of far-off Iraq that unleashed the Islamic State or our Cold War-era interventions in distant nations such as Chile or Iran to overthrow leftist governments and install United States-backed puppet regimes that entailed a bloody 17-year military dictatorship in Chile and the eventual Islamic revolution and rise of the Ayatollahs in Iran.
With those considerations in mind, we can now address the specific question of why President Putin’s invasion did not happen while President Trump was in office but did happen under President Biden’s stewardship. President Trump, for all his faults and maddening inconsistencies, brought a dose of much-needed fresh thinking to our antiquated Cold War policy commitments. Reversing North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansionism under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, President Trump famously called NATO “obsolete,” cut down on the United States’ outsized financial support for the alliance, and after a meeting with President Putin in 2018, even questioned whether the United States would abide by its military commitments to defend NATO allies in the event of an attack, as mandated under the NATO charter’s Article 5. While President Trump also idly mused about expanding NATO into the Middle East, what he did not do was push President Putin’s buttons by seeking to expand NATO to include Ukraine.
These are the kinds of gaffes that will make an already cornered President Putin feel like he has nothing to lose from a fight to the finish.
Entering the White House with his old Cold Warrior mentality, on this as on many fronts, a belligerent President Biden built back dumber. Having infamously told President Putin that he has “no soul” during a 2011 meeting and having called him a “kleptomaniac” in 2019, once in office, President Biden upped his counterproductive inflammatory rhetoric, calling President Putin “a killer” last March. More recently, President Biden’s intemperate insults have reached new heights, with his calling the Russian leader a “war criminal” and a “butcher” and proclaiming that President Putin “cannot remain in power.” These are the kinds of gaffes that will make an already cornered President Putin feel like he has nothing to lose from a fight to the finish.
The unproductive tenor of President Biden’s personal comments was echoed, moreover, on the level of government policy. His administration came out swinging, ending any hope of a long-term rapprochement in relations with Russia, reaffirming American commitments to NATO, levying sanctions on Russia, and reiterating the United States’ specific commitment to Ukraine in an April 13, 2021 call. And then he really began to stray across the Rubicon: In June 2021, after a NATO summit, the United States set out a roadmap for Ukraine to join NATO. While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s subsequent unequivocal June 14th tweet stating that “NATO leaders confirmed [Ukraine] will become a member of the Alliance” was a bridge too far for President Biden at the time, the American President admitted the essence of the discussion.
President Putin’s responsive salvo was his 5,000-word July, 2021 essay declaring the unity of the Russian and Ukrainian people. Undeterred, President Biden kept bull-rushing ahead. Following upon President Zelenskyy’s September 2021 meeting with President Biden in which he pressed for a firm American commitment on Ukraine’s NATO membership, on November 10, 2021, the United States and Ukraine signed a “Charter on Strategic Partnership.” Replete with alarming bluster, the document accused Russia of “malign behavior” on multiple fronts, spoke of “hold[ing] Russia accountable for [its] aggression and violations of international law, including the seizure and attempted annexation of Crimea,” and stated that “[t]he United States does not and will never recognize” Russia’s Crimea takeover. Crimea, notably, is a largely ethnically Russian territory (67.9% Russian and only 15.7% Ukrainian), in which a majority of the population, if polled, would surely choose to be part of Russia rather than Ukraine, a point conceded by even President Putin’s harshest and most abiding critic, jailed dissident Alexei Navalny.
Yet more problematically, the November 10th Charter committed to forging closer ties between the Ukraine and the United States on every level and declared openly “Ukraine’s right to decide its own future foreign policy course free from outside interference, including with respect to Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO.” It is shortly after this provocation that Russian troops began to gather en masse near the Ukraine border in early December. While voicing concern to President Putin about the troop movements, President Biden, in response, repeated assurances to President Zelenskyy that NATO membership was in Ukraine’s hands. President Putin gave the West and Ukraine one last chance in late December, demanding guarantees that, among other things, there would be no further eastward expansion of NATO. Receiving no such guarantees, the die for the invasion was cast.
Now, it may certainly be the case that nothing President Biden did mattered in the grand scheme of things and that invading Ukraine was part of President Putin’s plan all along. That may be. But we do not know that—after all, it would have made little sense for President Putin to have asked for a guarantee that Ukraine would not join NATO and to have invaded even if he had received such a guarantee—and on the face of it, what we see is a series of concrete moves by President Biden that inflamed the situation. All else aside and at the very least, President Biden gave President Putin a pretext to invade. In that light, it is difficult to see President Biden’s rhetoric and actions with respect to these issues since taking office—including his clear personal animosity directed against President Putin himself—as anything other than a Cold War relic mindset that gave rise to needless and reckless provocations crossing what the American foreign policy establishment well knew to be President Putin’s avowed red line.
We have an unfortunate tendency to overlearn the lessons of history and to be perpetually fighting the last war rather than this one.
While, again, none of those provocations are sufficient to excuse President Putin’s own decisions and actions in violation of international law, it is simply shocking that this career politician President and all the ostensibly seasoned foreign policy professionals in his milieu—posing themselves as steadying forces and marked contrasts to what they had characterized as “the former guy’s” dangerously amateurish operation—acted in the cavalier fashion that they did in kindling this powder keg until the Russian President felt increasingly threatened by the imminent prospect of a hostile alliance on his border and in the very heartland of the old Russian and Soviet empire. What President Biden recently said of President Putin goes likewise for the doddering, intemperate President Biden himself: “this man cannot remain in power.” But still more shocking than Bungling Biden’s missteps is that the chronology of provocations I have outlined here has hardly been mentioned at all in a media that, ever since the Coronavirus, appears to have abdicated its watchdog function and taken on the role of amplifying State propaganda. If respected, supposedly objective journalists such as Chuck Todd feel comfortable wearing Ukraine lapel pins on television, how can we possibly expect them to voice criticism of or even question our leaders’ policy commitments?
One such question is what vital national interest of ours it served to amp up tensions with Russia, as President Biden did, and, turning to the present moment, what vital national interest of ours does it serve to send $13.6 billion in American taxpayer money—intended for both humanitarian and military assistance—to Ukraine at a time when the American economy is already burdened by rampant inflation and post-Coronavirus-lockdown malaise? What vital national interest of ours, for that matter, does it serve for us to send arms to Ukraine? And at a time when gas prices are already astronomically high, why should Americans make further sacrifices through an embargo on Russian oil, in which, at least for now, it appears that we will not be joined by Europe?
The justification for such measures has been that if we do not stand up to President Putin now, we will be committing the same error of appeasement that led to Adolf Hitler’s mad sweep across Europe. We have an unfortunate tendency to overlearn the lessons of history and to be perpetually fighting the last war rather than this one. NATO did not exist when Hitler was around. While Hitler took aim at a weak and divided Europe weary from the recent cataclysm of World War I, President Putin knows that if he sets foot inside Poland, Romania, the former Soviet Baltic republics, or any number of other hypothetical nearby targets, he will automatically trigger the NATO Charter’s Article 5, setting off a suicidal clash with the West in which Russia cannot possibly prevail. The regime of unprecedented economic and political sanctions being aimed Russia’s way, moreover, has already substantially impacted Russia’s economy and undoubtedly sown mass discontent with President Putin on his home front. Is it truly necessary to further cripple our own economy in order to prolong a war where, moreover, everything short of a no-fly zone or outright military intervention will leave Ukraine’s leaders and the Ukrainian people claiming betrayal by the West rather than feeling grateful for the substantial sacrifices we are making on their behalf?
Standing up to President Putin and standing up for Ukraine are important, but it is just as important to stand up to President Biden and those many others, both in the political class and in the media, who have escalated this explosive conflict at every turn and are now trying to propagandize us into devastating economic sacrifices and yet-further escalations that may prove still more disastrous. In our headlong rush to muster up a fitting response to President Putin’s genuinely disturbing actions, we must not lose sight of the fact that it is, in the end, not the interests of Ukrainians but those of Americans that must remain our first priority. Seen in that context, President Biden’s return to the long-standing aggressive neoliberal/neoconservative foreign policy status quo promises more costly and perilous entanglements that keep our focus tuned to a foreign channel while our own signal devolves to static.
Alexander Zubatov is a lawyer in New York, as well as an essayist and poet.