Ukraine appears to be the flashpoint where Washington is being tested.
The time for reckoning has arrived for America – at home, in Europe and beyond. The question is: will the United States continue to project itself as a global power as it has for nearly a century, including two unchallenged decades in the sun in a unipolar world after winning the Cold War, dismembering the Soviet Union and China? wasn’t he up yet? Or will he back down in the face of the rise of China, the resurgence of Russia and the weakening of his own domestic politics? Ukraine appears to be the flashpoint where Washington is being tested.
In an evocative reference, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said there was a “wisp of Munich in the air” as the United States and Russia eyed each other in Ukraine. He alludes to the Munich Pact of 1938 which allowed Germany to annex the Sudetenland in hopes of preventing the outbreak of war. He does not have. A year later, Hitler entered Poland, starting World War II. Since then, the Munich agreement has been widely seen as synonymous with appeasement. History condemned the then British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, as the architect of appeasement. It took a Churchill to push back and reclaim ground at enormous cost.
Will Biden be Chamberlain or Churchill? So far at least he has not been, at least openly, a chamberlain. It will soon be known if he has the courage and tenacity of Churchill – hopefully without the costs incurred during the Second World War – but for now he has kept his cool. Tuesday’s announcement of a partial or modest Russian withdrawal from the Ukrainian border is a vindication of his tough stance, though he believes the danger of invasion has not yet passed.
At the heart of the current dispute is Ukraine’s putative NATO membership. The United States and its European allies have gradually taken NATO from 12 countries and ending with Italy when it was formed in 1949, to 30 countries today, including the Baltic republics that were part of the ex-USSR, and which are now at the gates of Russia. Ukraine is one of the last buffers for Moscow.
Russia stoically followed NATO’s advance for nearly two decades as it recovered from the loss of the Cold War. With its economy partially restored by the oil and gas it supplies to Europe, especially Germany, and its army reinforced, Russia now wants to backtrack. For starters, he wants an ironclad commitment that the US and NATO will not bring Ukraine into the alliance. Then a withdrawal of strategic weapons from Eastern Europe that threaten it.
Acceding to Russia’s request will expose Biden to charges of surrender – hence the “smell of Munich in the air.” The big question here is, even if the United States and its allies offer a Munich to Putin, what is the guarantee that he will not draw a Hitler from them and seek to roll back NATO from the other Warsaw Pact countries that fled from the Soviet sphere of influence when the USSR lost the Cold War? Can the two sides agree on a deal that draws the line in Ukraine – and will that satisfy Russia?
This, of course, assumes that Ukraine itself enters into an agreement that will decide its future. She is in a complicated situation at the national level. Parts of eastern Ukraine that are Russian-speaking and neighbor Russia are pro-Moscow. The western parts are more tilted towards Europe. It is also a relatively new nation that aspires to decide its own future, without being dictated by either side.
Internal cohesion is also what Biden lacks. The American position is weakened not only by European allies feeding on Russian energy, but also by domestic politics. His two predecessors did not push Putin back enough. Obama was distracted by Iraq and Afghanistan to confront Russian advances in Crimea. Trump became Chamberlain in his own right, virtually giving Putin a free hand – Russia could have taken all of Europe, given Trump’s disdain for NATO.
The Trumpian line that the United States should mind its own business and let Europe handle its problem has many supporters in America — even within the Democratic Party — who view China, not Russia, as the main adversary.
Indeed, in many parts of the world, it is the United States that is seen as the warmongers, pushing Russia into a corner.
The US argument that nations like Ukraine should be free to decide their own future is undermined by the “sphere of influence” thinking that still prevails in the great power strategic community. Whether it is the United States, Russia or China, the great powers want to retain their sphere of influence.
The ability of the United States to resist the Russian push into Ukraine also depends on its ability to ‘walk and chew gum’ at the same time, a phrase a US official has used to argue that Washington could handle multiple crises simultaneously . For Biden, that would include crises at home. Americans are tired of foreign wars.