The Cold War was the last time that the United States (US) faced real competition from a peer adversary. It was a formative crisis for most of the current US policy establishment and much of the politically engaged adult population. Furthermore, US trade, culture and treaties tie it strongly to Europe. Therefore, it is understandable that a crisis in Europe involving Russia is currently consuming the bulk of US attention. However, today China is the only country with the potential to contest US global leadership and Europe is not the most important arena for Sino-US competition, nor is Ukraine the most likely flashpoint for a potentially catastrophic great power showdown. The US has recently sought to pivot to the Indo-Pacific. The crisis in Ukraine threatens to defer, if not derail, this necessary re-posturing, but effective compromise with Russia could turn this crisis into an opportunity.
Keeping Ukraine in context
Keeping Ukraine out of Russia’s sphere of influence is not a vital US interest. Defending Ukraine’s ability to preserve its self-determination is ethical. However, as has always been the case in global affairs, power trumps ethics, institutions, and often even strongly-worded threats, condemnations, and sanctions. The US is no longer the undisputed hegemon that it was at the end of the Cold War. In Europe, power and resolve have shifted in Russia’s favor.
Allowing Ukraine to fall into the Russian sphere does not threaten the integrity of NATO, nor the security of its members. Disputing the strategic importance of Ukraine, the Atlantic Council’s Emma Ashford noted that “during the Cold War, the line was a thousand miles further West.” Yet, the US emerged victorious against a true global competitor. Today, Russia does not pose the same peer threat that the Soviet Union did. That role is filled by China. Unlike China, Russia does not have the economic potential nor the stated desire to compete with the US for global leadership. Rather, it wants a buffer zone from NATO military hardware, and European Union political and economic encroachment. This is understandable. The US Monroe Doctrine has long held the Western hemisphere as its sphere of influence. When the Soviet Union brought Cuba into its sphere and militarized it, the US considered it to be intolerable.
It’s no longer 1992
In the heady years after the US emerged victorious from the Cold War, and from which Russia emerged in shambles, more sanguine voices that anticipated the need to consider Russian interests in a future European security paradigm lost out to advocates for rapid NATO enlargement. The ghosts of this decision would come back to haunt European peace in 2008, 2014 and now. Boris Yeltsin’s drunken ravings over NATO expansion in 1994 have been echoed many times by the eminently sober Vladimir Putin. While the US would prefer to continue in its unfettered dominance, it has explicitly stated that it is unwilling to risk US troops in defense of Ukraine. Conversely, Russia has signaled that it sees Ukraine as a vital interest, one that it is willing to go to war over. If Russia is willing to pay the price of sanctions and an estimated 3,000 to 10,000 troop deaths, what will stop it from invading?
If Russia is determined to invade, the more the US protests and invests, the more reputation and resources it stands to lose when it happens. Some prominent voices are pushing the US to take a strong stance, even risking military conflict because China is watching. Russia invading Ukraine would not invite China to invade Taiwan, if the US articulates that it sees Taiwan’s defense as non-negotiable, on par with defending actual NATO members while distancing itself from promises to defend Ukraine. However, putting the US reputation on the line over Ukraine and losing, while shifting resources to Europe that otherwise would have gone to the Indo-Pacific, could make it more likely that China invades Taiwan. Therein lies the greatest strategic risk of the Ukraine crisis; it threatens to derail the urgently needed US pivot to the Indo-Pacific. Taiwan is not just more important to US interests because it produces over 92 percent of the world’s semiconductors critical to all forms of modern technology, but mainly because unlike Russia, China is a peer threat.
Economic and military options?
The US and its allies have limited economic and military options to deter Russia. At best, these would postpone the next crisis. Economic options that would have the sharpest impact are likely to also harm the countries imposing them. For example, removing Russia from the international banking SWIFT system would really sting, but the US and European allies might have already rejected this option due to the potential for major economic harm.
Another strong economic policy would be to block the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. President Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have explicitly threatened Russia that it will be rendered non-operational if Russia invades Ukraine. However, European reliance on Russian oil and high gas prices in the US blunt the West’s ability to harm Russia’s heavily oil-dependent economy without harming itself. Furthermore, China appears inclined to undermine any US imposed sanctions.
Alongside economic options, the US could arm Ukraine to bleed Russia. Skeptics note that no conceivable amount of Western military support will enable Ukraine to defeat a determined Russian offensive. Russian regular units are not the separatist irregulars that Ukrainian nationalists have been fighting in Donbas. Russian regular units made mincemeat of Ukrainian armored battalions in a matter of minutes in 2015. Highly successful Russian use of force could showcase a new revolution in military affairs, a modern version of what the US succeeded in doing when it showed the world the effectiveness of its new military capabilities in the Gulf War. Putin might even prefer this to achieving his goals without bloodshed.
Detente with Russia aids competition with China
Areas for compromise and cooperation between the US and Russia abound, from counterterrorism to arms control. Effective detente would undercut the growing Sino-Russian relationship, which poses a significant threat. In the Ukraine crisis, China backs Russia due to a shared interest in revising the international order through force. Coordination with Russia over European security could pull Russia away from China, a country with which it shares a long and historically disputed border. Good relations with Russia would help the US to compete with China, while an enduring crisis with Russia would tie up US resources in Europe.
In Ukraine, compromise is clearly the best option, although conceding to Putin goes against America’s long-held policy of liberal internationalism. This crisis can be an opportunity to finally develop what US preponderance has allowed it to put off for nearly three decades, a durable European security structure that takes into account the needs, not wants, of NATO and Russia. This would enable the US to more effectively compete where it matters most.
Jeremiah Rozman is a publishing adjunct at the Miryam Institute. He served as an infantryman in the IDF from 2006-2009. He is currently a Second Lieutenant in the US Army. The views expressed do not reflect the position of the US government or military and are the author’s own.