With Putin’s Ukraine Incursion, Hawks in Washington Got Exactly What They Wanted

The latest escalation in the Ukraine crisis requires us to hold two ideas at the same time: that Vladimir Putin bears much responsibility for the immediate crisis, and that the long-standing US refusal to accept limits to NATO expansion helped bring it about.

People arrive at a recruiting office to register themselves after declaration of mobilization in the Donetsk region under the control of pro-Russian separatists, on February 23, 2022. (Stringer / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

This week saw the most dramatic escalation of the slow-burning Ukraine crisis yet, as Russian president Vladimir Putin formally recognized the independence of the country’s breakaway eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, and sent Russian troops into the area, supposedly for peacekeeping purposes.

The first thing to say about this is that it’s reckless and illegal. Under the Minsk accords that both Russia and the West have been pushing for years as a settlement to the mini–civil war that’s been roiling eastern Ukraine the past eight years, these regions were meant to gain autonomy while staying part of Ukraine. Putin’s move effectively rips that agreement up.

Second, under international law, there are processes in place for carrying out peacekeeping missions; unilaterally sending troops into a neighboring country with which you’re feuding is not it. This is why Kenya’s UN representative, who had abstained from voting to discuss Russia’s actions earlier this month, said yesterday the move “breaches the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” comparing it to the way African countries’ borders had been drawn and redrawn by dying empires. The “rules-based international order” may have its problems and be selectively invoked, but at its core it is a fundamentally good principle: that the strong cannot simply do whatever they want to the weak.

And Putin has now given plenty of indication he’s happy to ramp up his intervention. Sending in “peacekeepers” is one thing. Doing it after recognizing the independence of regions controlled by separatists that you back — something Putin had rejected only last week — and after a speech effectively charging the country they’re located in is really your territory, signals less-than-benign ambitions.

Acknowledging all of this, however, doesn’t leave the West blameless in what’s now happening. Or as political scientist Stephen Walt recently put it: “one can believe that Russia’s present actions are wholly illegitimate and also believe that a different set of US policies over the past several decades would have made them less likely.”

Or a different set of US policies over the past few months. Already, the army of war-hawk pundits that has been predicting — salivating over, may be more accurate — a Russian invasion has seized on this latest move as vindication of their usual talking points: Putin is Hitler, he seeks to revive the glory of the Soviet Union, he can’t be reasoned with, and only a show of force, not further “appeasement” or negotiations that “reward” his behavior, can make him stop. This is, incidentally, exactly the approach Washington and its allies, principally the UK, have taken to get us to this point.

Throughout this crisis, the Western position has been to take a caricaturishly hard line against negotiation. All the way back in December Putin put together his initial, maximalist opening bid calling for, most prominently, a legal, written pledge that neighboring Ukraine and Georgia wouldn’t join NATO, for Washington reenter the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty Trump had recklessly pulled out of, and a host of less realistic demands about NATO activities in former Soviet republics. But it was the first item on the list that was what Putin was really after. Limits to NATO’s eastward drift, after all, had long been a sore point for not just Putin, but even pro-Western Russian elites for years, something various US officials and thinkers had once openly recognized as understandable.

So, knowing that Moscow was now threatening military action against Ukraine if its objections to NATO enlargement continued to be ignored, what did Western officials do? They refused to budge on the matter again and again as the months wore on, even as, absurdly, they acknowledged Ukraine wasn’t joining the alliance anytime soon, and they made clear they wouldn’t fight to defend it. It’s the geopolitical equivalent of a gunman waving a pistol at your friend, demanding that you rule out any future plans to climb Mount Everest, only for you to cross your arms and refuse.

The Western need to posture as tough and uncompromising at all costs reached especially silly heights earlier this month, when British foreign secretary Liz Truss — who had earlier celebrated her fancy dinner with the wife of a Putin appointee who’d paid her party a small fortune — sat down for talks with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. When Lavrov, in response to Truss’s demands that Russia withdraw troops from its territory bordering Ukraine, asked if she recognized Russia’s sovereignty over the Rostov and Voronezh regions, Truss replied that the UK would “never recognize Russian sovereignty over these regions ” — prompting a more informed diplomat to jump in and explain to her those were Russian regions.

It was an embarrassing episode, but it revealed a lot about the US and UK negotiating position: namely, that they were committed to taking a mindlessly hard-line stance in negotiations, even when it didn’t make any sense.

Meanwhile, as they effectively refused to negotiate, the United States and UK turned to a “strategic communications campaign” where, over the course of weeks and months, they made umpteen predictions about an “imminent” Russian invasion that repeatedly failed to eventuate, and fed reporters dark prophecies of false flags and even a coup. The evidence for these was unclear because officials refused to release it, but the panic it inflamed led to the withdrawal of ceasefire monitors from eastern Ukraine, which in turn saw ceasefire violations in the region explode — creating the very pretext Russia has now used to send in troops, which Western officials have naturally pointed to to claim they were right all along.

Perhaps the Kremlin really was doing exactly what the Western officials claimed. But with evidence of this still being withheld, at this point it’s just as likely that those officials helped trigger the very thing they were trying to prevent, with the withdrawal of monitors leading to a rise in fighting that Putin exploited.

All of which has led us here. It’s not clear what Putin is now planning. Is he simply upping the ante to wring concessions from the West? Is he planning to carve out an independent, pro-Russian buffer from Ukraine, or even annex this part of the country? Or is he planning the most over-the-top of the Western predictions, of marching to Kiev and toppling the Ukrainian government, saddling him with a headache that could easily become his very own Afghanistan? At this stage, we can’t say.

What we can say is that Putin’s actions have so far not risen to the point of a full-scale invasion, as even US officials acknowledge, which means a diplomatic solution is still possible. And Western elites would be wise to pursue it before Putin passes the point of no return, because the alternative won’t be good for anyone.

Consider the potential ramifications for Biden alone. If fighting in Ukraine damages energy infrastructure, or if Western governments end up sanctioning Russian fossil fuels, it could send inflation soaring even further in the United States, especially with Russia now the second-biggest foreign oil supplier to the United States.

It could get even worse if, whether through sanctions or Russian retaliation, exports of Russian wheat and commodities dry up, hitting food prices, as well as the semiconductor industry whose struggles have seen US car prices and car thefts surge, along with a variety of other industries reliant on Russian raw materials and consumers. Ditto for Ukraine, also major world exporter of both grain and raw materials used to make semiconductor chips and other products.

Even if the United States finds a way to escape these impacts, other countries will not, potentially fueling destabilization around the world and creating a series of fires Washington will have to scramble to put out. Europe, a major buyer of Russian oil and gas, will be particularly hit hard, remittances to Eurasian countries will dry up, and the price of food for countries like Egypt heavily reliant on Ukraine and Russia will jump, increasing the risk of political upheaval. When people get hungry enough, they tend to revolt.

Then there’s the potential for war to escalate. Fighting between Ukraine and Russia could easily spill out beyond the former’s borders, ensnaring other countries, even NATO allies, setting the stage for catastrophic nuclear escalation. Even the less bad, more likely scenario of Russia fighting a US-trained insurgency in Ukraine indefinitely is no good, with far-right militants gaining weapons and fighting experience in a place that, like Syria, already has the makings of a global nexus for violent extremists, these ones of the white supremacist variety. The fact that, in this case, it would be happening on Europe’s doorstep should be even more alarming for Westerners.

Unfortunately, it sounds like the White House has now decided Putin’s incursion, whether it ends up “limited” or something even more dangerous, means diplomacy is now off the table. Whatever the explanation for Western obstinacy, it’s ordinary Ukrainians who will suffer, along with everyone else who feels the conflict’s ripple effects, among them the Congressional push to flood Ukraine with weapons where they will unavoidably get in the hands of neo-Nazis and other extremists.

Putin is ultimately responsible for whatever horror he unleashes. But save some outrage for those Western governments and officials who chose to make war inevitable by refusing to compromise, sacrificing a country they regard as little more than a chess piece.