Right now, the fledgling democracy of the Ukraine is fighting for its life against Russian incursion in the East. Currently the war is in a phase that John Schindler, over at the excellent 20committee.com blog, has termed a “Special War”. To counter this aggression, one of the strategic options on the table is providing military aid to the Ukraine. Schindler argues for:
“Ukraine’s pressing military needs exist in a few areas. Conventional weapons — armor and artillery, and ammunition for them — Kyiv possesses in abundance; they have no need for heavy weapons from the West at this point.
However, there are a few areas where modest Western gifts of essentially defensive weapons — particularly light anti-armor and air defense systems, plus counterbattery radars and tactical electronic warfare gear — would prove a serious problem for the Russians.”
This sounds reasonable to me.
One counterargument is that arming the Ukrainians will ‘escalate’ the war. The premise of this argument is that the situation in the Ukraine is ‘spiraling out of control’, much like the summer of 1914 spiraled from a political assassination in the Balkans to a horrific 4-year bloodbath. For this premise to be true, the situation on the ground must consist of multiple actors, each making belligerent moves that inspire their opponents to make other belligerent moves, and so on, with each iteration ratcheting up the intensity towards an end that nobody desires. This is obviously not the case here. What we have is a peace-loving country that only wants to maintain its freedom and independence. We also have another country, much more powerful than the first, who is trying to destabilize and destroy the first. Third, we have a bunch of powerful onlookers paralyzed by fear. In reality, the trajectory of this war is being driven by one man, Vladimir Putin, who is adjusting the intensity of the Ukrainian War on a dial in the Kremlin.
A much more accurate historical analogy would be late 1930’s Europe. One of the lessons of those dark times is that appeasement against an aggressive dictator is counterproductive. Each time an opportunity presented itself to stand up to Hitler, the West chickened out. Each time, the West lost an ally and gave Germany more precious time to continue rearming, raising the stakes until World War II became inevitable.
In the case of 21st century Russia, Putin invaded Georgia and the West did nothing. Encouraged, Putin took Crimea, and the West did nothing. Feeling no resistance, Putin invaded eastern Ukraine. In 2008, the Russian military was a ramshackled outfit. Russians then began an ambitious modernization program. The Russian army of today is much more capable than it was 6 years ago. This is why the question posed by the isolationist - is the Ukraine worth it? – is so stupid. The premise is invalid. It is not just about Ukraine, just as it was not just about Georgia in 2008. It is about Putin’s next target, and the next, and then the next. Until NATO’s Article 5 is invoked. And now you have a nuclear standoff. And if you blink then, there goes the entire security structure of Europe itself. All the peace that Europe enjoyed under Pax Americana since World War II will have been swept aside.
What we are dealing with is Bonapartism. Though Vladimir Putin’s talents are in no way comparable to Napoleon’s, he has enjoyed enough success for megalomania to have kicked in. History offers few examples of conquerors who stopped. The only example I can think of is Otto von Bismarck. The usual trajectory is for such men to continue until they are killed. So in a real sense Putin is doomed. The only question is how much damage will he do before his demise.
It is for this reason that a proxy war in the Ukraine is the best course of action. The issue here is not even whether Russia gets to keep the Crimean peninsula (ethnically cleansed as it was by Stalin of its native Tartars) or Eastern Ukraine (containing a significant Russian minority). It is that the price Putin pays for his Ukrainian adventures must be maximized. The more he pays now, the less willpower and resources he can muster in the future. Eventually, the Russian people will turn on him.
Which leads to another popular counterargument: that we must leave Putin alone because he is popular with Russians. This is an absurd standard. Should the West have acquiesced to Hitler because he was popular with Germans? In either case, they were (or are) popular because they were (or are) winning. Everybody loves a winner, not so much a loser. Right now, Russians have been shielded from the bad effects of the war by the state subsidies and propaganda. It has been said that Russians are good at suffering, but this is only because they have had a lot of practice. It is not because they like it. After a defeat, or after the oil money runs out, their opinions will be different.
One objection to arming the Ukrainians is that this would be a dangerous move. You know what? This is correct. But you know what is even more dangerous than a proxy war in the Ukraine? A direct conflict between NATO and Russia. It is precisely for this reason that it is in everybody’s interest to keep the conflict with Russia as far east as possible, and, if possible, confined to non-NATO allies. That is why we should do everything in our power to help the Ukrainians win.
The exact parallel here is the Russian Afghan War. This was a proxy war, and against a much more formidable adversary. It worked then, and it can work again. The Ukrainians have a rich history of partisan warfare to draw upon. Dictatorships are brittle in a way that democracies are not. The Soviet Union could not withstand the defeat in Afghanistan in the same way that the Tsar could not stand the defeat against Japan.
Another argument made for abandoning the Ukraine is that the Ukraine, Kiev specifically, is historically the birthplace of Russia; that for Putin, the Ukraine is a holy cause, and that for the US to interfere there would be like for Russia to interfere in Mexico. How would the US like that? The proper answer to this is, do the Ukrainian people have a say in this? If Kiev is the ancient heart of Russia, why do the current inhabitants of Kiev hate Russia so much? The answer does not lie in the 10th century but in the 20th. Does not the Holodomor trump what happened a millennia ago? The Ukrainians hate the Russians because Stalin starved to death 2.5 to 7.5 million Ukrainians. That is why, after World War II, the Ukrainians fought an epic partisan war against the Soviet Union for a decade – another recent epic historical event to trump medieval trivia.
The same can also be said about Russia’s need for buffer states. Do not the inhabitants of these states get a say? There is a reason that the pepole in those countries hate the Russians and prefer the West. The have experienced freedom and know what Russian tyranny really is like. This motivation also speaks to Putin’s strategic stupidity. As I have argued before, for all of his tactical cleverness, Putin is a strategic dunce. He is allying with and helping Russia’s long-term strategic enemies (like Iran and China), while taking the only peaceful border he has, his Western border, which is composed of countries who want nothing but peace with Russia, and turning it into a war zone.
The West needs to understand what it faces squarely and begin to take straightforward action against a menace that has been allowed by wishful thinking and neglect to fester. A long overdue step in this regard would be to help the peace-loving Ukrainian people defend themselves from an unprincipled, power-hungry dictator, who bombed his own citizens to get into power.