Abstract: Inflamed by images of Russian destruction and unspeakable atrocities, most Americans have been rooting for the Ukrainians as they attempt to repel the invader. If the fighting continues throughout the summer and into the fall, the sad reality is that more Ukrainian cities will be turned into rubble, and the deaths and displacement of civilians will continue. The war has the potential of widening to include direct attacks by Russian offensive systems on our NATO partners outside the confines of Ukrainian territory – even by tactical nuclear weapons. Now is the time for the U.S. and its NATO allies to focus on an end-game based upon a negotiated settlement. The question is, can peace come to Ukraine short of the destruction of half the country, given the growing influence of what has emerged in the U.S. as a “War Hawk” sentiment uniting both Democrats and Republicans? This piece is an extensive study of “Putin’s War” — approximately 60 pages in length. Some of its conclusions may seem controversial to readers with entrenched political viewpoints. It challenges as overly simplistic the “sound-bite” explanation of the invasion as an act by a crazy tyrant, hell-bent on reconstituting the former Soviet Empire; and it questions the narrative that there was nothing the Biden Administration could have done to prevent it. Putin is responsible for the carnage. Nevertheless, a more sober understanding of Russia’s security concerns is needed in order to bring the conflict to an end — although such considerations are instinctively dismissed by pundits and politicians, as they default to more morally satisfying positions. This paper begins by examining the complex record of U.S. diplomatic interactions with Russia and Ukraine since the end of the Cold War, focusing on the “Great Schism” between Washington and Moscow that widened in 2012. It asks why the current U.S. administration ignored warnings by past U.S. statesmen about Putin’s “Red Line” and pushed so hard for Ukraine’s accession into NATO — and why Putin’s offer to negotiate was rejected. The study continues by providing an analysis of Russia’s political objectives and military strategy at the beginning of the invasion, describing how Russia failed to achieve those goals, why the Ukrainians have performed so well, and why Russian threats of using tactical nuclear weapons should be taken seriously. This monograph-length treatment of a war that continues to affect millions concludes with a template for ending it.
Links to Headings: The Barbarians at the Gate, From Heart to Head – An Alternative View, Shifting Paradigms at the End of the Cold War, Diplomacy and the Art of “Relationship-Maintenance,” Twenty Years of “Cooperative Threat Reduction,” Bipartisan Support for the U.S.-Russian Relationship – the First 20 Years, My Difficulty in Writing About the Ukraine War, Assessing Putin’s Mind-Set on the Eve of the Invasion, The Geopolitical Foundation of Russian Strategic Thinking, Moscow’s Soft Underbelly, The Lead-Up to the War, The Origins of the Great Schism, The Russian Presidential Election of 2012, Bill Clinton’s Rescue of Boris Yeltsin, McFaul’s Performance as U.S. Ambassador, The Georgia War of 2008, The 2014 Euromaidan Uprising, What Use Is Russia Anyway?, The Expulsion of Russian Diplomats After the 2016 Presidential Election, NATO Expansion, The Biden Administration’s Redux, Missed Opportunities to Avert the Invasion, Russia’s Political Objectives at the Beginning of the Invasion, Russia’s Initial Military Strategy, Why the Initial Russian Strategy Failed, What the Biden Administration Has Gotten Right, What the Biden Administration Is Getting Wrong, The Nuclear Threat, Russian Atrocities, Ending the War, Prequel: “Long, Long Ago. . . ,” About the Author.
The Barbarians at the Gate
Like many of you, I have been transfixed by reports about the ongoing war in Ukraine. As of this writing, Russia’s conflict with its southern neighbor has entered its fourth month. Frankly, I don’t know how anyone can listen to news broadcasts or read newspapers or social media postings and not be astounded by the courage being displayed by President Volodymyr Zelensky and his fellow Ukrainians in this modern-day David and Goliath struggle.
Clearly, Zelensky’s inspiring leadership and the Ukrainians’ determination to blunt the attacks by the Russian invader have accomplished what no political leader in the United States or Europe had been able to do at the opening stages of the war: Three months ago, they galvanized free citizens throughout the world, who compelled their reluctant governments into tossing lifelines to a sovereign nation, struggling to survive.
As emotions have risen with reports of Russian atrocities, those initial moderate steps to assist Ukraine have since expanded significantly. In our efforts to come to the aid of a David, we have now become de-facto belligerents in a dangerous proxy war against a nuclear-capable Goliath, with tensions between two superpowers now having risen to levels not seen since 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
While Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian onslaught continues, Americans emerging from the Pandemic are getting a sense of what the “old normal” once felt like. Most of us are bouncing back with relatively little effort. However, a few Americans are finding the light of spring and summer too bright and the task of re-acclimation too daunting. Some of us may feel the need to retreat back into the security of our living rooms and await further instructions from the CDC.
Gradually weaning ourselves off of our home entertainment systems, Americans could be experiencing the after-effects of ROKU-Separation Anxiety Syndrome (ROSAS). Pronounced “RO’-ses” by Dr. Fauci, the main symptom appears to be the urge to binge on a Netflix mini-series every now and then – perhaps one with an absorbing “morality play.”
However, the price of streaming services such as Netflix and Prime continues to rise (like everything else). Viewers might want to trim their costs of living by sticking with basic TV news or newsprint, while Fauci and his fellow health experts “follow the science” on this new phenomenon.
By spending more time with some hard news, Americans will discover that the valiant Ukrainians are already providing a compelling tale before our very eyes. Reality TV on steroids, its stars are genuine heroes; and those heroes are paying for their lives in real blood and real misery.
On the one hand, the plot of the unfolding war in Ukraine is all too familiar. For most of us, what may come to mind is an episode in the Star Wars series, whereby the Evil Empire strikes out against a liberty-conscious people, and these rebels resist the bad guys against all odds. As a Hollywood analogy, I would prefer the feature film, “300,” with the muscular Gerard Butler playing the role of King Leonidas of Sparta, who sacrificed himself and his personal retinue in order to save a corner of an imperfect Europe from the advancing Persian horde.
While the initial plot-line is straightforward, the moral underpinnings for this later Ukrainian saga may be only vaguely familiar to many Americans and Europeans, particularly those growing up after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. So here is the recap:
In the Euro-American tradition, citizens expect few things from their governments: equality under the law, a fair shake at prosperity, unfettered political discourse, and a healthy environment in which to raise their families.
However, the pursuit of these ideals takes a back seat whenever liberty is about to be lost.
Looking at the broad sweep of history, one realizes that this moral or “principle” is a golden thread woven into the very fabric of Western civilization ever since the days of the ancient Greeks. Liberty is the sine qua non of modern liberal democracies; and it remains very fragile.
In the coming weeks, as we think and pray about the Ukrainian patriots, let us also learn what they are teaching us about this this sacred principle.
No doubt, Ukraine is an imperfect country, still struggling with the chronic corruption it inherited after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. However, in less than a generation, its citizens have developed a distinct political identity of their own – one with an amazing understanding of what it means to be a sovereign nation-state.
Despite its own set of oligarchs and history of cut-throat politics, Ukraine has been a better place for post-Soviets to live than Putin’s Russia. Now entering the fourth month of the war, no one would have predicted at the beginning of 2022 that the Ukrainian nation would have rallied around an ex-comic-actor to resist the onslaught of the second most powerful military force in the world.
Let us therefore look upon the valiant people now defending their homeland as the 21st Century descendants of those 300 Spartans holding off Xerxes and his army at Thermopylae. May we be inspired by their example of sacrifice – undertaken like Leonidas’s small force as their Greek allies first dithered over the price of olive oil – never to forget that it is our devotion to liberty above all else which sets us apart from the barbarians at the gate.
From Heart to Head – An Alternative View
At the gut-level, most of us are indeed rooting for the Ukrainians. Some Americans are even flying the Ukrainian flag next to the Stars and Stripes. Our hearts and prayers remain with these Ukrainian heroes, and particularly with those non-combatants, who continue to suffer and become displaced.
However, now is the time to detach cold logic from these understandable emotions. This is difficult at present, particularly while American and European sentiments continue to be inflamed by images of Russian destruction and unspeakable atrocities.
There is a distinct probability that the war will widen and that devastation in Ukraine will accelerate if the fighting continues. The U.S. and its allies therefore need to focus on a near-term end-game based upon a negotiated settlement.
The question is, can peace come to Ukraine short of the destruction of half of the country, given the growing influence of what has emerged organically in the U.S. as a “war party”?
Sometimes called the “Victory Lobby,” I will refer to this group throughout the rest of this monograph simply as the War Hawks.
Given the current divisiveness in the U.S. body politic, the rise of a War Hawk sentiment seems to be the sole phenomenon uniting Democrats and Republicans in a common cause. Politicians and pundits are outdoing each other in brazenly demanding Putin’s head and the destruction of his military – even if this is accomplished on the backs of suffering Ukrainian civilians and innocent soldiers on both sides of the conflict.
Remember the “slam dunk” narrative promoted by Republican and Democratic politicians and fanned by the New York Times on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq? We Americans prefer our options to be presented in morally black and white terms.
However, as President Barack Obama used to remind us: “Beware of false choices.”
I realize that the notion of questioning the U.S. Administration’s dizzying statements and retractions about the war in Ukraine may not be in vogue. Anyone not fully supporting the narrative at the moment invites immediate ridicule from our Agitprop press. Heretics are soon outed as a “enablers” or “supporters” of the Russian “tyrant.” But such epithets are pure nonsense. We need more debate and more critical thinking about the war before we can figure out how to end it.
No American politician is directly accountable for Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.
However, as one who has studied the fields of “Russian Military Thought” and nuclear strategy over a career, I believe that diplomatic missteps since the fall of the USSR in 1991 – in particular, over the last 10 years – have had rippling effects upon our ability to control recent events in Eastern Europe.
U.S. errors tending to the Russia and Ukraine “accounts” rendered the Biden Administration apoplectic during the run-up to the Russian invasion in February. It is clear also that past malfeasance in U.S. diplomacy is now placing us at a disadvantage in implementing solutions that could contain the conflict and bring it to a swift conclusion.
If the fighting continues throughout the summer and into the fall, the sad reality is that more Ukrainian cities will be turned into rubble and the deaths and displacement of civilians will continue.
The war also has the potential of widening to include direct attacks by Russian systems on our NATO partners outside the confines of Ukrainian territory – even by tactical nuclear weapons.
The fighting and carnage need to stop. In order to bring this about, we first need to be honest about our actions in the years leading up to the Russian invasion and our ability to impose any settlement on Putin’s Russia, now that U.S. credibility with Moscow has all but been squandered.
In addition, the subtext of “vendetta” – now underlying the increased rhetoric about “victory” being heard in the halls of Congress – needs to be checked.
Shifting Paradigms at the End of the Cold War
My involvement in U.S.-Russian and U.S.-Ukrainian affairs goes back several decades. It began in 1982, during my first of two tours of duty at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, when I first served as a defense attaché.
Prior to 1991, Ukraine was one of 15 “Union Republics” of the former USSR. The Defense Attaché Office had only 12 accredited officers to cover a country with 11 time zones; so we had to divide up the nation for reporting purposes. I was assigned Ukraine and the Transcaucasus.
During that first diplomatic assignment, I made a number of trips by plane and train from Moscow to points in Ukraine, spending a great deal of time in Kyiv and other provincial cities, usually teaming up with a Brit or Canadian diplomat. My wife and I also made several road trips from one end of Ukraine to the other in a rickety old Soviet-made Lada that our office had purchased for that purpose.
During this low-point in U.S.-Soviet relations, official contact with Moscow’s military was almost non-existent. For many reasons I cannot explain here, living and working in the Socialist police state was always challenging and sometimes dangerous.
In order to observe what was going on in the western part of Ukraine, during one trip, my wife and I crossed over a highly sensitive border area into Hungary and returned the same way several days later. As there were only several entry points into the country for Americans, we were surprised that Moscow had approved the trip. It turned out that we were the first Americans during the Cold War permitted to use that checkpoint. Today, tens of thousands of refugees continue to flee from Ukraine through that same Carpathian mountain pass.
Places in the news, such as Kyiv, Kharkiv, Vinnitsa, and L’viv, which I have visited over the years, therefore, are all too familiar to me.
During the late 1980s, as the Berlin Wall was about to crumble, a new diplomatic paradigm would emerge: We would cooperate with former Cold War adversaries on newfound converging interests.
I would return to Ukraine several years after that first diplomatic tour in Moscow under the protocols of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. One of the sites to which I led my team of inspectors was a base called Lozovaya – at that time, one of the largest tactical nuclear storage facilities in the USSR. Lozovaya is located a mere 50 miles south of Kharkiv, the largest city in Ukraine’s eastern half. At this point during the current war, Russian forces have pulled back from the major industrial and transportation hub of Kharkiv and the area around Lozovaya, leaving the urban areas in rubble. Intensive fighting, however, continues not too far away.
Later, I would lead a U.S. delegation of military and civilian personnel to Kyiv for the first series of Joint Staff Talks with the newly established General Staff of the Republic of Ukraine. (We also held periodic staff talks with the Russian military.)
At the time, I had just been appointed as the first director of a division established on the Joint Staff with the expressed mission of normalizing relations with Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia. Senior military leaders in the U.S. were ready to roll up their sleeves and start breaking down decades of Cold War barriers.
Later in 2008, as the civilian Director for International Nuclear Energy Policy at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), I would oversee a program for upgrading the safety of nuclear reactors in Ukraine. I was particularly horrified to learn that one of the nuclear power plants at which U.S. contractors had been working was attacked by Russian ground forces during the initial stages of the war and remains occupied. As reported in the news, Zaporizhzhiya is the largest nuclear power facility in Europe.
Diplomacy and the Art of “Relationship-Maintenance”
As the Soviet empire was going through its death throws from 1989 to 1992, the U.S. defense establishment was concerned about the security of our former adversary’s nuclear arsenal. We were also apprehensive about potential mis-reading of early warning indicators that might set in motion a series of nuclear exchanges. Senior U.S. defense officials were particularly uneasy about the potential for mishaps whenever U.S. and Russian forces operated in close proximity.
In response, the U.S. military, with bipartisan support in Congress, took the lead in negotiating a series of Dangerous Military Activities agreements with the Soviet armed forces. These accords featured protocols designed to prevent accidental encounters between military units, and included methods and frequencies for communicating between aircraft and ground-based air defense facilities. These initial efforts, pursued under the Crowe-Akhromeyev Accords, were expanded and deepened in the years following Gorbachev’s announcement on Christmas Day 1991 that the USSR was no more.
With the full endorsement of the administration of President George H.W Bush, the U.S. Air Force aggressively pursued this new mission of building relationships with former Cold War adversaries by initiating a series of exchange visits by bomber and fighter units in 1992. In addition, U.S. and Russian commanders and launch teams began visiting each other’s missile silos and underground command facilities.
Each visit was established under a mutually negotiated calendar of Military Contact Activities. The program would establish formal and informal communications between commanders at various levels. During the exchanges, Russians and Americans would engage in frank discussions about military doctrine, warfighting strategies, and most importantly, steps that needed to be taken in order to avoid accidental launches and nuclear accidents.
The U.S. Army initiated a series of U.S.-Russian peacekeeping exercises; and the U.S. and Russian navies would work on refining longstanding “Incident at Sea” protocols and increase the frequency of good-will visits to ports previously off limits during the Cold War.
During my second tour at U.S. Embassy Moscow (1997-1999), I worked closely with General Eugene Habiger (recently deceased), the Commander in Chief of U.S. Strategic Command. We shared a long-term vision of establishing professional ties with the nuclear chiefs of the Russian services.
To deepen the U.S.-Russian military relationship, we routinely hazarded end runs around the Russian FSB (formerly the KGB) and the GRU (the military’s intelligence organization), who were always opposed to direct military-to-military contacts.
Senior Russian commanders were our partners in this experiment in relationship-building and maintenance. They risked much more than we did. Despite the constraints posed by their own security services, these senior Russian military leaders pursued the relationship, because they truly believed that working together to prevent future conflicts was in the best interests of both our peoples.
Each side concluded that the best way to prevent the rise in tensions and unintentional nuclear disasters was to reach out with concerns to their opposites – outside of the normal bureaucracies, which tended to impede frank and open discussion. Habiger’s extraordinary initiatives were documented by a CBS film crew; and footage would be featured during two segments of the CBS program, “60 Minutes,” during the late 1990s.
As Air Attaché, I routinely hosted senior Russian military officers at my modest apartment on the Embassy compound. On two occasions, when General Habiger and his staff came to Russia for a visit, my wife and I crammed the commanders of the nuclear forces and their senior deputies into our home for impromptu buffet dinners.
I will never forget the faces on our teenage kids one night, as they poked their heads into our living room and saw the most powerful brass-laden military commanders in history draped over the arms of our sofas or sitting on hastily borrowed chairs. During these occasions, senior U.S. and Russian commanders would eat, drink, exchange jokes – and discuss nuclear doctrine until well-past midnight.
During this second diplomatic assignment, our office in Moscow also facilitated a series of U.S.- Russia Theater Missile Defense exercises. The purpose of this series of exchanges was to understand the other side’s operational procedures and to better distinguish between actual missile launches and mere technical glitches.
The U.S. military was also concerned about what Y2K unknowns might pop up during the transition from one millennium to the next. To mitigate the impact of early warning anomalies during the changeover, one of my talented assistant air attaches spearheaded an initiative to get a Russian early warning officer into the NORAD command center near Colorado Springs on New Year’s Eve 1999/2000.
Working at a console equipped with a direct hotline back to General Staff headquarters in Moscow, the Russian officer carefully watched the screens of the sensitive U.S. early warning system alongside his American counterparts, while the rest of the world was happily bringing in the millennium.
Twenty Years of “Cooperative Threat Reduction”
The highly successful Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program began just a few years after the Crowe-Akhromeyev accords. The first phase was initiated towards the end of the Administration of President George H.W. Bush and was funded under DoD’s budget. The program expanded significantly during the presidency of Bill Clinton, whose seasoned Russian affairs experts embraced this notion of relationship-building with extraordinary gusto.
U.S. activities initially focused on assisting Russia and the three post-Soviet states of Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan with the dismantling of their bombers, missiles, launchers, and submarines that were slated to be scrapped under START. Several years later, the program would take on additional steam when the Department of Energy (DOE) obtained its own funding for dealing specifically with the security of the nuclear warheads and weapons-grade material. After retiring from the Air Force, I joined the Civil Service and would manage one of those programs.
DOE was expanding its nonproliferation directorate under its newly established sub-entity – the National Nuclear Security Administration. The U.S. was making good use of the unique expertise found in our National Laboratories (such as Oak Ridge, Lawrence Livermore, Sandia, and Los Alamos) to improve the security of Russian sites containing nuclear warheads and weapons-grade material.
The premise of these twin U.S. government (DoD/DOE) programs was that Russia, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, lacked the funding, security infrastructure, and security culture to properly secure its own nuclear weapons and material, and to eliminate its launch systems.
To be fair, the Russians had been reasonably responsible stewards of their nuclear arsenal throughout the Cold War. However, it was a low national priority for the cash-strapped Russian economy after the collapse of the USSR, and some storage facilities needed urgent repair. In addition, we determined that security systems and practices were outmoded and lagged behind those that we had developed in the U.S. Therefore, to prevent terrorists from getting their hands on Russian nuclear weapons, the U.S. believed that it needed to jump in with both feet to help fix the problem.
Boris Yeltsin believed that U.S. assistance with the problem was necessary. When he became President in 2000, Vladimir Putin concurred with the assessment that it was in both countries’ interests to keep the partnership going. The programs took on additional steam as a result; and it continued for another dozen years.
In 2003, I was appointed as the director of DOE’s warhead security program for the Russian Federation. My job was to focus on securing Russia’s “loose nukes.” The nascent efforts first begun in the late 1990s had stalled. Within four years, with renewed effort on the part of our experts from the national labs and support from the Bush-43 Administration, our teams had turned around the program; and we were well on our way to securing over 80 sensitive Russian military sites containing huge quantities of weapons-grade material and nuclear warheads.
Third-party critics in the U.S. would occasionally attempt to derail the program, viewing it as “U.S. taxpayer-funded welfare” for a former Cold War enemy. However, the focus of our “Threat Reduction” projects was always to enhance U.S. security interests – e.g., to make it extremely difficult for terrorists to obtain a Russian nuclear bomb or manufacture one from unsecured Russian fissile material and then smuggle it into the U.S. or the territory of an ally. The Russian motive was to prevent a weapon from getting into the hands of Chechen terrorists and being exploded on Red Square. Slightly different perspectives – but close enough!
The events of 9-11 only served to underscore the importance of redoubling our cooperation with the Russians. The U.S. and Russia found themselves sharing even more of the same interests, as U.S. and NATO began operations in Afghanistan to defeat a common foe – Islamic extremism.
By installing state-of-the art security systems and by training Russian personnel in modern security practices, we reduced the risk of a successful attack from terrorists or theft from corrupt Russian insiders from relatively high to relatively low levels. The total cost of the several hundred contracts negotiated to upgrade the sites was an estimated $1.2B. Our counterparts at DoD also participated in warhead security efforts in Russia, but due to DoD’s priority of eliminating Russian launch systems under START, they would upgrade fewer storage sites.
During the two-year period of work required at minimum for each site, during which the new security systems were being designed and installed, our teams enjoyed unprecedented access to highly sensitive nuclear facilities all across Russia from the Kola Peninsula in the northwest to the Kamchatka Peninsula jutting into the Pacific Ocean. In a number of instances, our access to sites continued during the post-upgrade “sustainability phase.”
As we worked on this monumental task, we established an extraordinarily high degree of trust with our Russian military counterparts and security contractors. We routinely met face-to-face when traveling to Moscow or talked weekly by phone to work through the issues. The relationship was professional and geared to problem-solving. Long-term friendships were established along the way.
To be sure, it was no cake walk doing business in Russia. It was uncharted territory, and we had no precedent to guide us. I had to make thirty trips to Russia in four years’ time to sort out unforeseen difficulties.
There were always bureaucratic obstacles on both sides to deal with, and we encountered a great deal of unknowns, such as unpredictable climatic conditions, horrible roads, mosquito-infested swamps, and Siberian permafrost. Our technical experts routinely risked injury while traveling within Russia. But everyone understood the importance of the mission; and the teams stuck with it until the work was done.
Key to the U.S. success was the knowledge that the work was also the priority of senior administration officials – and that they always had our backs.
Bipartisan Support for the U.S.-Russian Relationship – the First 20 Years
Three successive presidential administrations – Bush-41, Clinton, and Bush-43 – recognized the critical importance of “relationship maintenance” when it came to the Russian political and military leadership. They invested a great deal of political capital to stay actively engaged – particularly whenever hiccups, slights, or fissures were encountered along the way.
As each party (Republican and Democratic) turned the White House over to the subsequent administration, one sees that the depth and breadth of security cooperation with the Russian Federation had been expanded considerably.
Unfortunately, by 2012, this favorable trend in the U.S.-Russian relationship had taken an unfortunate turn. Minor fissures in the partnership had erupted into major cracks, as both Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama were about to begin their follow-on terms as presidents of their respective nations. It was only two decades after the “Golden Years” of the U.S.-Russia partnership had first begun.
My Difficulty in Writing About the Ukraine War
Having worked first-hand with Russian and Ukrainian military officers and defense officials over the years, I have to admit that this has been a particularly challenging monograph for me to write.
I am saddened by the fact that the people of these two closely intertwined nations are engaged in such a brutal and largely unnecessary war. Over the years, so many Russian military officers that I have come to know have had Ukrainian surnames or mentioned to me at some point that one of their parents or their grandparents had roots in Ukraine. For many Ukrainians that I worked with, their family situations would be reversed.
In many respect, this conflict is a “cousins’ war.” As Americans know from studying the English Civil War in 17th Century, the American Revolution in the 18th Century, and the American Civil War in the 19th Century, cousins’ wars often take on extraordinary brutality.
My first response, like most Americans, is therefore heartfelt. At the emotional level, the war in Ukraine does indeed seem like the classic “David and Goliath” struggle, described at the beginning of this monograph.
The Russian invasion was, on its face-value, an illegal act according to international norms; and Putin is the guy who drove it (although we all should acknowledge the obvious – that the Russian population is not responsible for Putin’s actions). Therefore, my first impulse has been for the U.S. to do everything in its power to come to Ukraine’s aid.
On the other hand, as a participant in the now collapsed U.S.-Russia partnership, I have been compelled to take a more sober look at how the U.S. and Russia have come so dangerously close to exchanging blows over the war in Ukraine. I have asked myself over the last few weeks whether, through benign neglect, hubris in strategic over-reach, or even diplomatic malpractice, the U.S. contributed to the long slide to this conflict. . . and now to our flirting with the fringes of a more devastating nuclear conflict.
The answer is a rather complex one. If unraveled, it may become disconcerting to those seeking guilt-free black-and-white answers. Unfortunately, the logic of “Occam’s Razor” is no longer up to the task in producing moral clarity in the 21st Century.
Part of the problem is that, over the last few months, both political parties in U.S., supported by the echo chambers in their respective news outlets and on social media, have united in embracing a Manichean view of the conflict as an eschatological battle of good vs. evil.
Assessing Putin’s Mind-Set on the Eve of the Invasion
In seeking some explanation for Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine, pundits on both Progressive and Conservative media outlets have characterize “Putin’s choice” as devoid of any rationality – essentially an act by an unhinged madman, hell-bent on reconstituting the former Soviet Union. According to this narrative, Putin is motivated by his desire “to re-establish Russia’s Greatness, a goal he has sought for several decades.”
This major European war has already killed tens of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians and has displaced millions of Ukrainian civilians, who have fled from their homes during this horror. At this point, the issue as to why Putin initiated the war is probably moot for them.
Nevertheless, I would venture the less popular view that the above media-driven sound-bite explanations of Putin’s motives for invading Ukraine are both incomplete and inaccurate.
It is vital to reconstruct several of the pre-war turning points in order to better understand why Putin wanted to invade Ukraine in the first place. This is necessary, not only as a case study as to what the U.S. might have done differently in the years and months leading up to the Russian invasion, but also to prevent the escalation of the war to beyond Ukraine’s borders.
Equally important, Russia’s underlying interest in invading Ukraine – although it is routinely misstated and then rejected as illegitimate by Washington’s political class – has to be understood more precisely if ever a negotiated end to this tragedy is to be pursued.
First, as for the “crazy-Putin” part of the narrative, one can state the obvious: It is difficult for anyone to psycho-analyze the mental state of any national leader from afar, including that of Vladimir Putin. One can make several observations, however.
Since his legend was born in 1989, when he single-handedly faced down an angry mob of Germans about to storm the KGB station in Dresden armed only with a pistol, Putin has been known as a risk-taker, a skilled bluffer, and a rational decision-maker.
After he became the Russian President in 2000, Putin added to that legend his reputation as a decisive “man-of-action” on the domestic and international scene. During the few instances when his bluffing didn’t do the trick, he employed physical violence to produce the desired outcome.
In terms of temperament, Vladimir Putin is the polar opposite of Joe Biden: Putin speaks softly. . . and he carries a big brutal stick. He is never hesitant in using it when persuasion fails; and he seldom fails to follow up on his threats.
Up until the present war, Putin’s decisions have tended to be based upon the proper weighing of costs and benefits. The trouble with most tyrants like Putin is that, over time, success tends to breed a belief in the infallibility of one’s own personal judgment. Putin has always thought that he possessed a superior faculty for sizing up his opponents.
At some point, a dictator’s circle of advisors becomes reduced to a small group of sycophants, and he goes with his instincts without seeking views from outside his immediate entourage. Add in a touch of paranoia and isolation due to the Pandemic, as may have been the case with Putin, and you miscalculate the level of resistance you might encounter in invading a neighboring country.
Perhaps for the first time in his life, Putin made an enormous blunder in trying to subdue Ukraine. He never anticipated the enormous fight that the Ukrainian patriots would put up. Moreover, he never anticipated the charisma and communication skills of a comic-turned-President, who would galvanize world public opinion against him.
To be fair, none of us did.
Russia’s strategic goals in invading Ukraine are perhaps easier to explain – although I am not under the illusion that any American politician or pundit would accept my explanation of them.
Putin’s original objective in sending his armed forces into Ukraine is a bit more nuanced than a simple desire to reconstitute the old Soviet Union.
First off, Putin has always been an opportunist, but he was never a committed Communist. While he is always looking to expand Russia’s influence, he has no intent of reviving the old Socialist system and all of its side effects of consumer shortages, long lines, black marketeering, and chronic poverty. Those characteristics are always the unintended consequences of centralized economic planning.
As I speculated in a Strategic Review article in the early 1990s, the corrupt but seemingly democratic Yeltsin would be followed by a Peronista-style leader, who would give semblance to domestic prosperity by promoting a form of crony-capitalism, as once reigned in Eva Peron’s “Don’t Cry for Me” Argentina.
Today, as the incarnation of my imagined dictator, Putin appears to be quite happy allowing small mom & pop businesses to thrive along-side the Gucci outlets and the petroleum monopolies, so long as he can engage in governmental racketeering in order to control them and milk their bank accounts.
Putin’s economic model is simple: Let the markets run their course, but influence their direction. One can extort more money from those with assets than from penniless peasants. This is best accomplished not by re-constituting GOSPLAN (the former Communist Party’s central planning entity), but by employing the good offices of the tax police, the Federal Security Service (FSB), and the chief prosecutor’s office.
In terms of the “vision thing,” Putin’s self-image is certainly wrapped in the traditional Russian messianic ideal of uniting all Russian-speakers and related ethnic groups into a Slavic core. And this is where his territorial ambitions begin to take shape.
Several decades ago, I drew a map for Pentagon officials depicting what a futuristic Russia with a Slavic core might look like. It included the current Russian Federation, of course; but it also consisted of Belarus and other republics where large concentrations of Russians lived: the northern stretch of Kazakhstan and Ukraine to the east of the Dnipro River.
Putin does see himself as the redeemer of a Russian-dominated Slavic union. However, traditional “Russian Military Thought” – a concept only marginally understood in the West – has played the most important role in shaping Putin’s strategic vision as defender of the realm.
The Geopolitical Foundation of Russian Strategic Thinking
While the “system of military thought” in Russia is always viewed through the patina of Moscow’s quasi-mystical belief in itself as the “Third Rome,” its practical application remains grounded in a realistic self-assessment of the nation’s strengths and weaknesses as a land power straddling two continents.
As such, the dominant influence on Russian strategic planning throughout the 20th Century and into the 21st has been that of Geopolitical Theory, a system first articulated by Halford Mackinder, the onetime director of the London School of Economics, in the early 20th Century.
While Russian leaders seldom give credit to its origins in Western Europe, Mackinderan geopolitics continues to be taught at Russia’s war colleges and KGB institutions, the latter where the young Putin received his professional training for his career as a case officer. Putin believes in geopolitical theory. Accepting it as imbedded in the DNA of Russian war planning is vital for understanding Putin’s primary instinct when he decided to invade Ukraine in February 2022. Moreover, recognizing it as fundamental to the overall Russian military mindset may be the key that unlocks a solution for ending the war.
A term with expanded usage today, the theory of classical “Geopolitics” posits that the Eurasian landmass can be conceptually viewed as consisting of three concentric components. The most critical part is the “Heartland,” for which Moscow is the approximate center point. Next in importance is the “Rimlands,” a wide belt arcing mainly around the southern part of the Eurasian landmass. This is followed by the “Insular” regions of Western Europe, the Americas, and the Indo-Pacific.
Most arm-chair strategists in the West, including U.S. naval theorists, reject Geopolitical Theory out-of-hand, because the U.S. is an insular power with two oceans and a strong navy to protect it. Such critics also believe that the key to world power is controlling the international sea lanes, not landlocked parts of Eurasia. But that is not the point. Russian military leaders do believe in it, and they plan for Eurasian wars with its concepts in mind.
Moscow’s Soft Underbelly
O.K, let’s unpack some of this theoretical mumble-jumble.
Looking at the long sweep of history, Russian strategic thinkers have long considered the wide belt of land spanning around the southern regions of eastern Europe, running around the Caspian Sea westward to Romania and up into Poland and the Baltic states, as the most vulnerable approaches to the heartland of central European Russia.
During the Medieval period, everything that threatened this Slavic core – Goths, Huns, Magyars, Turco-Tatars, and plagues – came streaming out of Asia across the Steppe of southern Russia and what is now Ukraine.
Starting in the early 18th Century during the reign of Peter the Great, Russia had to defend against invasions from Europe, first in the form of Sweden’s army of Gustavus Adolphus from the northwest, then from Napoleon’s much larger coalition from Prussia and Poland. Later, during two World Wars, the Germans would come from the west with even larger forces on multiple fronts, devasting large swaths of European Russia in the process.
Several of the largest and most consequential battles in Russian history were fought in the terrain located in the eastern part of Ukraine and on adjacent Russian territory. These battles included Peter the Great’s “Poltava,” located southwest of Kharkiv; two major WWII clashes fought over Kharkiv itself; and the largest tank battle fought in history around Kursk, located just to northeast of the Ukrainian border and the disputed Luhansk district.
Ukraine is not just a nebulous “sphere of influence” that Putin wants to control – as American pundits tend to assert with little forethought. It remains a critical part of Russia’s defense-in-depth strategy.
For the Russian military, the Baltic states, Poland, and the Balkan countries are always useful to dominate as buffer areas. However, occupying them is no longer desirable or achievable.
On the other hand, controlling what happens in Ukraine in the strategic sense remains vital to Russian national interests. Therefore, any non-Slavic foreign power controlling Ukraine or stationing troops on its territory poses an existential threat to the Russian heartland.
During the Cold War, Geopolitical principles influenced the General Staff’s development of three continental Theaters of War – the Far Eastern Theater to defend mainly against China, the Southern Theater for the Islamic threat, and the Western Theater to deal with NATO.
The Western Theater was furthered divided into three “theaters of military operation” (TVDs). The most vulnerable sector – given the break-up of the USSR and NATO expansion in the direction of Moscow – has been the Southwestern TVD, which today runs through Ukraine.
To further define the problem for Russian general staff planners — the historically Russian-speaking territory of Ukraine located to the east of the Dnipro River provides the soft underbelly approach for enemy land armies and tactical aviation formations.
NATO is a “defensive” alliance, right? It has no plans to invade Russia.
However, noting that NATO forces have already been employed in the 21st Century to nations beyond the confines of Europe (e.g., Libya and Afghanistan), the Russian High Command believes that there is a fine line between operations conducted under the alliance’s Article V provisions for “collective defense” and military adventurism abroad.
Today, we discount NATO’s threat to Russia because Western war planners have tended to consider intent as well as military capability in our threat assessments. That is why the U.S. is not particularly concerned about the Royal Canadian Air Force. Unless Ottawa decides to re-ignite the 1859 “Pig War” over the international boundary running through the Pacific Northwest, we have little to fear from our northern neighbor.
Russian strategic planners tend to discount near-term intent and concentrate on potential military capability. Concepts such as defense-in-depth therefore play a critical role in their calculations concerning conventional war.
The other day, I looked at a chart of Ukraine and Russia. I turned it upside down to get a sense of Moscow’s view looking south. I measured the distance between Moscow and the now mothballed bomber base at Poltava – a facility used by B-17s of the U.S. Army Air Forces flying shuttle missions into Nazi Germany during World War II.
I estimated that a NATO F-35 fighter-bomber taking off from Poltava or any re-activated airfield located in the northeastern part of Ukraine might take as little as 35 minutes to reach Red Square in downtown Moscow. A missile launched from a B-52 flying over Ukrainian airspace would take less than half that amount of time.
Putin has been clear for years that such a scenario is unpalatable – that it threatens Russia’s vital interests. But have we been listening? Would the U.S. have tolerated a potentially hostile power with its offensive systems based in a neighboring country, less than an hour away from striking a major U.S. city?
During the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, we certainly did not.
The Lead-Up to the War
Lest I be accused of being an apologist for a brutal dictator, I will be clear: I share the conventional view – even the simplistic sound-bite version of it – that Vladimir Putin bears full responsibility for starting the war and its horrible consequences – although I would widen the direct responsibility to include those “power ministries” responsible for Russia’s security: the military High Command, the FSB (FBI), SVR (CIA), and MVD (national police).
Ukrainian (and Russian) blood is on Putin’s and his enablers’ hands alone.
Although the provision of joining NATO had been incorporated into the Ukrainian constitution, the Zelensky government did nothing to provoke Putin.
Equally important, it should be obvious that neither President Trump nor President Biden bear direct responsibility for the ongoing carnage caused by Russian military operations in Ukraine.
What may be fair game, however, is the consideration how President Biden’s problematic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan may have factored in on Putin’s timing. Did Putin’s assessment of the U.S. President’s weakness translate into his decision that it was “now or never” if Russia were to derail Washington’s drive to bring Ukraine into NATO?
Moreover, given increased European reliance on Russian petroleum – and Biden’s greenlighting of the Nordstream-2 pipeline – did Putin believe that the Americans and Europeans would just slap his hand with a relatively mild package of sanctions, as they had back in 2014, after Russia seized Crimea? After all, then Vice-President Biden was in charge of the Russian & Ukraine portfolios, wasn’t he?
From December 2021 until February 2022, the Biden Administration did an admirable job of warning the world about the build-up of Russian forces and that the probability of an invasion was high.
However, it was clear in the period before the war began that, after years of diplomatic malfeasance in the management of the Moscow and Kyiv “accounts,” the U.S. had all but lost its influence over Moscow.
This then was the “inconvenient truth” that neither President Biden nor Secretary of State Anthony Blinken wanted to publicize – that the U.S. government had too few tools left in its diplomatic bag, no residual trust remaining between Washington and Moscow, and little temperament with which to seek out-of-the-box solutions. This left the Biden Administration with the weak threat of imposing economic sanctions as its only strategy for preventing the war.
Moreover, by November 2021, the U.S. Administration’s public loathing of Putin seemed to be out in the open and had reached its ugliest point in U.S.-Russian relations.
In turn, the Russian leader and his national security establishment shared the belief that Moscow’s repeated concerns about NATO expansion were being ignored. Putin could no longer trust a Democrat in the White House to see his point of view – or to negotiate in good faith.
While both sides played a role in the schism that had been widening over the previous decade, the reality is that Washington – by the eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 – had burned all of its bridges to the Kremlin. The question is how did this all happen?
The Origins of the Great Schism
Maintaining a relationship with difficult party – whether it is with a cranky corporate customer or just a teenager who thinks you are ruining their life – is a challenge. To smooth out the rough patches, it requires imagination, a great deal of patience, and a little love, if one can grin and bear it.
Often one party in the relationship has to expend a great deal of energy in order to keep things on an even keel. They have to be the “adult-in-the-room” and bite their tongue. Doing so is not considered “appeasement” in either family matters or in the corporate world; it is prudent, particularly if one wants to advance the interests of all parties involved. When it comes to dealing with an international competitor with nuclear weapons, it is just common sense diplomacy.
For most of the Cold War and into the 1990s, Democratic Party administrations grasped these principles when it came to building and maintaining relations with Moscow. At times, they would go overboard as apologists for the Russians, even taking their side on issues ranging from missile defense to the now discarded START II treaty. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the administration of President Bill Clinton finally got the balance about right.
Clinton’s team in the 1990s included some of the sharpest minds ever produced by the Democratic Party’s foreign policy establishment. Guided by seasoned statesmen, who were knowledgeable about Russia – such as Madelyn Albright (recently deceased) and Strobe Talbott at the State Department, and Bill Perry and General John Shalikashvili at the Pentagon – they built upon the prudent handling of the disintegration of the Soviet empire by President George H.W. Bush by widening and deepening ties with both Moscow and Kyiv.
In hindsight, the Clinton Administration’s singular mistake was encouraging Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his economic advisors into moving out quickly to privatize state-owned enterprises. Moscow would push forward before laws and administrative mechanisms could be put in place. Such measures might have prevented rampant corruption, as shares of large Soviet-era industries first went on the market. This was an honest error, motivated in part by the prospect that the Communist Party might retake the Russian presidency in 2006 (more on this later).
However, this rushed transformation of the economies of the post-Soviet states resulted in a major unintended consequence: the creation of the system of Oligarchs that continues to plague both Russia and Ukraine to this day.
Clinton would support a team of Democratic Party economists, including Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, in advising the Yeltsin Administration how the Russians might go about this major economic overhaul. A young Stanford professor by the name of Michael McFaul would join in on this largely experimental undertaking in 1994, when he was helping to set up the Moscow Carnegie Center, an affiliate of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. McFaul would play a role in the Great Schism in U.S.-Russian relations that would open up wide two decades later.
It seemed to have happened by mutual consent.
It takes two to tango, and the leaders of the U.S. and Russian governments had taken to a mutual disliking. There was no formal divorce, no signing ceremony; but the “golden years” of U.S.-Russian cooperation were clearly over by early 2013.
In retrospect, the rift became apparent a year before, as Vladimir Putin, after having sat in the shadows of leadership as Prime Minster as required by the Russian constitution, had decided to run again for President and was re-elected in early 2012. President Obama was running for his second term a little later that same year.
It was being whispered in Washington’s corridors of power: the U.S. administration was experiencing a bout of “Russia fatigue.” President Obama preferred not to focus on Europe’s problems; his real international interests lay elsewhere.
Barack Obama would expend the balance of his presidency’s foreign policy energy on two primary issues: (a) the “Pivot to the Asia-Pacific,” and (b) the striking of a nuclear deal with Iran.
Congressional funding for the highly successful Cooperative Threat Reduction programs first initiated by Senators Nunn and Lugar in the early 1990s was slated to sunset in early 2013. However, most professionals in the U.S. government – and many of our Russian counterparts in the military – had hoped to continue with projects that had furthered the security interests of both nations.
More work was needed on the nuclear non-proliferation portfolio – in sustaining the upgrades in security systems we had put in place around nuclear storage sites, in enhancing the Russian “security culture,” and in maintaining the overall defense relationship. Interlocking ties had been formed over the previous two decades. Moreover, for relatively low cost, the U.S. was benefitting significantly from routine access to Russian facilities, military commanders, and governmental decision-makers.
As had happened several times over the previous two decades, it appeared as though Putin’s pride in having to rely on U.S. funding and technical assistance and the resistance of the counter-intelligence services were the chief factors in Russia’s impulse to terminate the programs. Russia was also recovering its finances as the price of petroleum was in an upswing.
I had faced similar resistance in the early 2000s, when the Department of Energy was planning for a significant expansion of the Russia warhead protection program. While Russian security interests put up their usual grumbling, we also had to endure several attempts to derail the program from individuals within the U.S. Government, who (as some today) seemed stuck in an old Cold War echo-chamber of perpetual animosity towards our Russian partners.
Through a series of background papers and briefings delivered to Stephan Hadley (Bush-43’s Deputy National Security Advisor), we were able to do end-runs around saboteurs in both the Bush and Putin Administrations. We were persistent with our military and civilian counterparts in Russia, who were willing and eager to press on.
What eventually broke the log jam was the enlistment of the good offices of soon-to-be Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, both who expended a great deal of effort to convince their Russian counterparts of the mutual benefits of our critical work.
This high-level intervention paid off. The result was that the U.S. Government went on to secure the largest cache of “loose-nukes” in the history of the U.S.-Russian relationship. Routine contacts and cooperative relationship continued with renewed interest for a number of years afterwards.
By contrast, when the Russians proposed ending the twenty-one-year-old engagement programs in 2013, the Obama Administration dispatched considerably lower-levels civil servants, who, with little clout and apparent disinterest on the part of senior political appointees, had little choice but to acquiesce.
While hundreds of security assistance projects were terminated, the era of highly productive military contact activities and routine communications between senior U.S. and Russian military commanders had all but ground to a halt.
About a month into the current war in Ukraine, I listened to a briefing by Pentagon Spokesperson John Kirby. He reported that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin seemed perplexed by the fact that he had tried dialing his Russian counterpart in Moscow to discuss Russia’s rumored plans to deploy chemical weapons toward Ukraine.
. . . but no one answered.
I thought to myself, “Do you guys even get it?”
[Several weeks ago, the Pentagon reported that Secretary Austin did finally have a conversation with Russian defense minister Sergey Shoigu. Let’s hope that they will speak again.]
The Russian Presidential Election of 2012
President Barack Obama had forgotten the cardinal rule of international diplomacy: sometimes the U.S. needs to rise above disputes with difficult interlocutors, in order to keep key relationships on an even keel. To that principle, I would add a corollary: Never attempt to effect personnel changes in Russia; it will always backfire on you.
In a sense, the highly successful threat reduction and military contact programs were collateral damage in the fight that the U.S. Administration had picked with Putin a year earlier in the run-up to his re-election.
When he entered office in 2009, President Obama had enlisted Stanford University professor Michael McFaul as his senior NSC director for the Russia account. McFaul had spent a semester as a student in St. Petersburg; and he had returned in the 1990s on a short stint with Carnegie. He had no professional foreign policy experience before being brought into the White House. However, McFaul had taught two popular courses at Stanford. One was “Russian Foreign Policy.” The other was “Regime Change.”
It was clear when McFaul started working at the White House that he thought there was “unfinished business” from the Yeltsin years, and that the U.S. should take a proactive approach in correcting Moscow’s divergence from its true democratic potential.
One man stood in the way of McFaul realizing his vision: Vladimir Putin.
Avoiding the use of the words “Regime Change,” a termed coined during the administration of George W. Bush and thus viewed by Democrats as pejorative, McFaul referred to his program for Russia as “Democracy Promotion.” The Russians were convinced that this was merely the Stanford professor’s code term for “Let’s get rid of Putin.”
Over the next several years, McFaul’s faulty knowledge of the Russian language would tend to get in way of his efforts to effect internal change in Russia.
The first instance was when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Sergey Lavrov, her Russian counterpart, with a large button labeled “Overcharged” in Russian, when it was supposed to say “Re-Set.” Whether or not McFaul had actually coined the term, he was certainly responsible for the concept and should have caught the error. McFaul would be responsible for subsequent syntactic fiascos as Obama’s lead for all things Russian.
Recovering from that embarrassing attempt to exaggerate Bush-43’s lack of progress advancing the Russia “account,” McFaul did oversee one noteworthy success in 2011, during the interregnum presidency of Dmitry Medvedev. It was the negotiation of the New START treaty. This nuclear accord extended and modernized somewhat the original START treaty, which had been negotiated during the earlier administration of President George H.W. Bush.
The late Ted Warner, an old pro with whom I worked during the Clinton years, was brought out of retirement to negotiate the details. The treaty did result in a net decrease in deliverable warheads; however, some of the numerical reductions were achieved by a slight-of-hand trick – the counting of each bomber as carrying only one nuclear weapon, when in reality the aircraft were capable of dropping or launching between 16 and 20 weapons each.
As a result, New START did relatively little to change the overall strategic balance or reduce the likelihood of a nuclear exchange beyond that provided in the “Moscow Treaty” signed by Putin and President George W. Bush back in 2002. The Moscow Treaty had been seen by both sides as a necessary modernization of the original START treaty.
In many respects, the Obama Administration’s “New START” was merely Old START of the two Bush presidencies repackaged. It failed to capture Russia’s numerical advantage in tactical nuclear weapons, and it left in place inherent instabilities in the calculations as to when “to use or lose” these highly destructive weapons during a nuclear exchange (discussed later).
In 2011, as the Russian parliamentary and presidential campaigns were about to go into full swing, McFaul would make a series of “rookie mistakes” in international diplomacy – and the repercussions would reverberate to this day. He would venture a ham-fisted foray into the minefield of Russian electoral politics and attempt to discredit Vladimir Putin on the eve of the Russian elections.
Secretary of State Clinton would put her full support behind McFaul’s efforts, leading the charge in late 2011 with a vigorous claim that the Russian parliamentary elections (which took place before the presidential election) had been rigged. The implications were that Putin’s upcoming election would be a sham as well; and Clinton was putting Moscow on notice.
Judging from pro-democracy protests in Moscow and other Russian cities that Putin’s re-election as president might not be a sure thing, the U.S. Government funneled approximately $22.2 million through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to NGOs working in Russia on projects related to “human rights, democracy, and governance.” Some of the funds would go to a Russian NGO named “GOLOS.”
While similar USAID programs had been countenanced by previous governments in Russia, Ukraine, and the other post-Soviet states – this time, they were clearly unwelcomed by the Kremlin.
During the run-up to the parliamentary elections in late 2011 and on the eve of the presidential election in March 2012, the optics of the U.S. largess to pro-democracy groups in Russia could not have been worse. Moscow considered them to be a poorly disguised attempt to support Putin’s opponents. These Clinton State Department efforts, which were steered by McFaul, would lay the groundwork for the downward trend in U.S.-Russian relations over the next 10 years.
In theory, USAID funds were to be made available to train all political movements in Russia, including election monitors. However, in practice, Putin’s United Russia party had little desire to participate in the programs; and therefore everyone knew that the lion’s share would go to organizations opposing Putin’s re-election.
Victoria Nuland – who was the State Department spokesperson at that point in her career – insisted that United Russia had participated in USAID’s democracy-building activities, and that the program had always been even-handed. Putin surrogates vigorously denied both assertions. Their arguments may have been exaggerated, but the U.S. programs had provided fodder for Putin’s subsequent claims of U.S. involvement in internal Russian political affairs.
Coupled with Secretary Clinton’s strong condemnation of Russia’s parliamentary elections, this all seemed to like U.S. meddling in foreign elections, which former KGB agent Putin had known the U.S. had done in times past. Putin recalled the time when an earlier Democratic administration had become involved in influencing the outcome of a Russian presidential election. The results had been dramatic.
Bill Clinton’s Rescue of Boris Yeltsin
It happened back in 1996. Putin had recently joined the presidential administration of Boris Yeltsin. On the eve of his re-election bid, Yeltsin’s poll numbers had sunk to 6 percent. Everyone thought that the first democratically elected President of the new Russia would be voted out of office.
According to Dick Morris, in early 1996, President Bill Clinton was frantic about the prospects of Yeltsin’s defeat and a Communist (Gennady Zyuganov) returning to power. Clinton was up for re-election later in the year; and his prospects would plummet if he were blamed for having lost Russia.
Morris developed a back-channel whereby the U.S. President would be kept informed of Yeltsin’s campaign progress and pass electioneering advice to him.
In addition, three seasoned American campaign operatives, one Democrat and two Republicans, secretly traveled to Russia. Sequestered away from prying eyes in a Moscow hotel, the Americans would feed to Tatyana Yumasheva (Yeltsin’s daughter and campaign advisor) the results of focus groups and advice ranging from how to hold campaign rallies to the need to run negative TV ads against Yeltsin’s Communist opponent.
Yeltsin’s campaign began to make progress. During the first round in early 1996, Yeltsin secured 36 percent of the popular vote. It was enough for a run-off.
Bill Clinton decided to pull out the stops by convincing the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to provide Russia with a major loan. The amount would be $10.2 billion, and the U.S. taxpayer’s share would amount to approximately $1.6 billion.
The IMF loan did the trick: Yeltsin would win the run-off in June 1996 with 54 percent of the popular vote.
Nothing smells like election interference as an infusion of $10.2 billion in cash.
Having witnessed first-hand the Americans’ consequential involvement in the 1996 presidential elections in Russia, Putin believed it was about to happen again in 2012. This time, the U.S. effort would be choregraphed by Hilary Clinton’s State Department.
Earlier in the campaign, Putin’s re-election seemed like a sure-thing. However, due to pro-democracy protests in Russia and McFaul’s growing chorus of “Never-Putiners” back in Washington, the process had become a bit more complicated.
Putin then discovered that the worst was yet to come. Obama had nominated McFaul to be the next chief diplomat in Russia.
Ambassador “Regime Change” would arrive in Moscow about two months before the presidential elections. There was plenty of time for the Stanford professor to stir up trouble in Mother Russia.
McFaul’s Performance as U.S. Ambassador
To say that Mike McFaul was the wrong person to send to Russia at the wrong time would be an understatement.
In short, Putin was waiting for him; and the fledgling diplomat never knew what hit him.
On his second day as Ambassador in January 2012, McFaul held a meeting with a large group of pro-Democracy groups opposing Putin’s re-election. These included some of Putin’s most vocal opponents.
It was not uncommon for U.S. ambassadors to meet privately from time-to-time with leaders of the Russian opposition and even with dissidents during the Soviet era. In the 1990s, I had accompanied the U.S. ambassador to a closed meeting with Yeltsin-opponent and Communist Party chief Zyuganov.
However, for McFaul to hold such a public event as one of his first official acts after arriving in Moscow – one in the middle of a major political campaign – was out of the ordinary.
According to Russian media, when one anti-Putin attendee left the meeting, he was asked about the purpose of the session with the newly arrived U.S. ambassador. The answer was, “To receive our instructions.”
Whether or not that response had been manufactured by a pro-Putin reporter, the damage had been done. The subject of the meeting and the remark would provide Putin and his advisors with anti-American headlines for Russian news broadcasts for some time afterwards.
McFaul would compound his problematic reception in Moscow by launching the first-ever social media campaign waged by a U.S. Ambassador in Russia; and it was not to praise Putin. McFaul’s efforts were naive, ham-fisted, and doomed to failure from their beginning.
Long before Trump could barely spell “Twitter,” McFaul was busy using that platform together with Facebook to openly converse with and lend support to Putin’s detractors, always “speaking from the heart” about his true feelings concerning the wrong track that Russia was being taken down. He brazenly criticized Putin when exchanging tweets with Putin’s chief nemesis Alexei Navalny.
McFaul relished the opportunity of giving interviews on Russian TV; although he tended to get ambushed by well-prepared moderators.
McFaul’s faulty knowledge of conversational Russian made matters worse. On one occasion, he referred to Russia as a “wild country,” when he meant to extend a compliment. On another instance, he Tweeted that he was heading out to a conference in “F**kburg,” when he meant “Yekaterinburg.” There were other linguistic snafus, but you get the point.
Like a kid walking around with a “kick-me” sign on his back, the unexperienced diplomat was mercilessly hounded by the Russian press throughout his tenure. He seemed easily baited; he was caught on tape responding visibly upset to one Russian reporter. For Vladimir Putin, Mike McFaul was the gift that kept giving.
Needless to say, McFaul’s feeble efforts at “Democracy Promotion” had little chance of affecting the outcome of the election. Putin would coast to victory on the first ballot in March 2012. But the damage had been done to U.S.-Russian relations.
Putin would later use what he claimed was U.S. inference in the elections of 2011 and 2012 to shut down USAID programs in Russia. To put an exclamation point on the episode, he confiscated all unspent U.S. taxpayer funds sent to GOLOS for election monitoring.
McFaul would hang on as U.S. ambassador until the Sochi Olympics in early 2014; but he had had enough by then. Cutting short his only stint as a U.S. diplomat, he returned to his “Ivory Tower” at Stanford University in California and began writings books about his achievements as President Obama’s Russia expert.
In the telling of his tumultuous tenure in Moscow, McFaul would emphasize that he was the unsuspecting target of Vladimir Putin – a foil for the dictator’s rationale for reconstituting the old Soviet Union. McFaul has never acknowledged his role in helping to widen the crack in U.S.-Russian relations.
Secretary Clinton and President Obama would try to cover over McFaul’s missteps and undiplomatic temperament, stating that he was merely following U.S. policy, and that he enjoyed their support. Several former ambassadors were recruited to come to his defense, stating that it had just been a case of “Mike being Mike” . . . he was “a new type of ambassador” . . . or that he was just “speaking truth to power.”
McFaul would later reveal that he been declared persona non grata by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs – e.g., he was banned from Russia for life. It is a distinction he says that he wears as a badge of honor.
Despite its public support of McFaul’s “Democracy Promotion” efforts in Russia, the Obama Administration tried some damage control by replacing him by an unassuming but highly polished career diplomat named John Tefft. As the Deputy Chief of Mission during my second tour at U.S. Embassy Moscow, Tefft was the perfect choice. Unfortunately, at that point in time, there was relatively little that the seasoned professional could do to put the train back on its track.
Retreating to more friendly ground in academia, McFaul would soon find a second career as a cable news commentator. He became the Russia scholar-expert for the Democratic Party arguing vehemently in support of the accusation that President Trump had worked with Putin to steal the 2016 presidential election from Hillary Clinton.
Today a member of the informal War Hawks faction, Mike McFaul is openly calling for “regime change” in Moscow as the surefire way to achieve victory in Ukraine.
The Georgia War of 2008
Progressive and Conservative media pundits over the last few months at times have asserted that the fissure in U.S.-Russia relations began under Bush-43’s watch in August 2008, when a border conflict broke out in the Transcaucasian Republic of Georgia – or perhaps a year prior, when Putin made a speech in Munich warning about NATO expansion.
These are overstatements; and they may lead to incorrect conclusions as to “who lost Russia?”
While Russian President Medvedev made good use of the Georgia War as a “shot-across the bow” regarding NATO expansion, the circumstances leading to the fighting were entirely different. The casualties by comparison with the war in Ukraine were minimal, and the impact on Russia’s relations with the U.S. and Europe were quickly repaired.
The Georgian border war was relatively short – 12 days from the first shot to the cease fire. While over 10,000 civilians were initially displaced, less than 250 combatants lost their lives. French President Sarkozy took the lead in negotiating an armistice in which Russia’s ground forces and their Abkhazian and Ossetian allies ceded undisputed territory captured during the conflict back to Georgia.
While the Bush Administration condemned the Russian-led incursion, it resisted Georgian calls to provide an infusion of military equipment – unlike what the Biden Administration has increasingly done over the last few months in Ukraine.
Some observers believe that President Bush’s decision not to pour in military aid to Georgia encouraged Georgian President Miheil Saakashvili to make concessions, including placing Georgia’s desire to join NATO on hold. This helped bring the fighting to a swift halt.
Bush also had the good sense to prevent the conflict from becoming a U.S.-Russia proxy war by letting the French take the lead in the negotiations that ended it.
It is true that Moscow always had a hard time of accepting the presence of an independent Georgia in the volatile Transcaucasus. In the 1990s, the Russians had fought two brutal wars in Chechnya over control of the oil and gas pipelines transiting the region, and to check what they thought was the advance of Islamic fundamentalism. Moreover, the presence of a NATO outpost on that southern flank would made the region far more complicated for the Kremlin.
However, tensions in and around Georgia had been brewing ever since the Russo-Georgian War of 1921. The brief fighting in the late summer of 2008 was more about settling historic scores between hostile ethnic groups and the problems created by Stalin’s policy of forced transportation of minorities than NATO-Russia competition.
An additional factor was that an investigation by a European commission concluded that the Georgians had fired the first shot.
Russia had been a member of the NATO-Russia Council since May 2002, participating in a number of military contact programs, education opportunities, and peacekeeping exercises. Three council meetings had already taken place in 2008 before the fighting broke out.
While the Russian presence at NATO had been suspended during the short border conflict, Council meetings resumed in early 2009, along with many of the other lower-level activities. Russia’s participation in NATO Council meetings would continue for five more years, when the Russians seized Crimea during the Obama Administration.
When President Barack Obama took over the White House in early 2009, it was therefore political hyperbole for Secretary Clinton (and Mike McFaul) to assert that a “Re-Set” in U.S.-Russia relations was necessary. There were always going to be ups and downs.
However, by comparison with the manner in which the Obama Administration turned over affairs to the incoming Trump Administration in 2016 (discussed below), it is clear that the Russia “account” had been left by George W. Bush to the new Democrat in the White House in relatively sound order.
The 2014 Euromaidan Uprising
Ever since Mikhail Gorbachev declared the end of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day 1991, the status of an independent Ukraine has posed a bit of a dilemma for incoming U.S. administrations.
On the one hand, U.S. foreign policy experts have always viewed the prospects of integrating Ukraine into the rest of Europe as potentially the ultimate strategic prize of the post-Cold War period.
However, for complex reasons – such as Soviet-era legacy issues (e.g., economic integration with and energy dependence on Russia), ethnic ties, oligarchic control of internal politics, and chronic corruption – over the decades, Ukraine has met few of the expected benchmarks required for entry into European institutions, such as the EU and NATO.
Successive U.S. administrations and European governments have spent millions of dollars to help Ukraine make the transition, and they have received spotty returns on those investments.
As with Russia, the U.S. had poured tens of millions of taxpayer dollars into Ukraine to foster democratic activity and train election monitors. Those efforts would have mixed results for long-term U.S. interests in the winter of 2013/2014, during what became known as the “Euromaidan Uprising.”
In early 2013, the Ukrainian Rada (parliament) ratified a “Political Association and Free Trade Agreement” with the European Union (EU). By agreeing to it, Ukraine would commit to a long-term series of steps to clean up internal corruption, establish judicial reforms (e.g., rule of law and regulatory reforms), and to reduce its national debt.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, viewed as an ally of Vladimir Putin, was then offered a counterproposal by Moscow: to join Russia’s “Eurasian Economic Union.” Putin proposed to incentivize the deal by purchasing $15B in Ukrainian Eurobonds, wiping out a large chunk of Ukraine’s national debt. Putin’s offer also included a 60 percent reduction of the price of Russian-supplied gas through GASPROM.
Riots erupted across Ukraine as Yanukovich announced in December 2013 that he would not be signing the EU agreement and was considering Putin’s offer.
The ensuing Euromaidan Uprising of November 2013 to February 2014 would serve as a watershed moment for both internal Ukrainian politics and the further downward spiral in U.S.-Russian relations.
Pro-Western protestors on Kyiv’s main square (the “Maidan”) clashed with police in bloody confrontations over the winter months; and they would eventually force President Yanukovich to flee for his life to Russia. His abdication in February 2014 would be followed by his formal removal from office by the Ukrainian Rada.
Putin was outraged by what he labeled as “a coup of a democratically elected president.” He asserted that it had all been orchestrated by the Obama Administration and its West European allies.
The uprising was largely organic and not instigated by the U.S. or the Europeans – although the Obama Administration clearly supported Yanukovich’s ouster. Moreover, several embarrassing actions by State Department officials lent credence to Putin’s later claim that the Obama Administration could not help from becoming involved in the internal affairs of a nation considered vital to Russian interests.
First, Victoria Nuland, who had been promoted to Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, would visit Kyiv at the height of the crisis to help steer events. The EU would also dispatch representatives. The U.S. administration did little at first to coordinate efforts with the Europeans; and each party was somewhat wary about what the other might be doing to influence the formation and direction of an interim Ukrainian government.
A one point, Nuland was filmed walking behind the barricades of the anti-Yanukovich protestors, openly showing her support for their pro-Democracy efforts – even handing out cookies to civilians defending the square against anti-riot police. When she was later asked about the incident, Ms. Nuland quipped that she had been handing out sandwiches, not cookies.
Perhaps most damaging, Putin released the transcripts of an intercepted phone call between Nuland and Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, during which the two discussed U.S. plans regarding an interim Ukrainian government after President Yanukovich’s departure.
According to the transcript, Nuland is heard advocating the appointment of those Ukrainians she thinks will be acceptable to Washington. She appears to instruct Pyatt to make sure that several Ukrainian politicians (such Vitali Klitschko, the current mayor of Kyiv) are prevented from holding key positions in the new Ukrainian government. She also indicates that she intends to leverage her contacts in the U.N. to run rough-shod over the more conservative approach being offered by the EU representatives.
Nuland is also recorded as insisting that Arseniy Yatsenyuk, an ally of hers, should become the interim Prime Minister.
Pyatt agrees with the plan. The phone call comes to an end as Nuland remarks that Jake Sullivan – the national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden – is looped in on her thinking; and that Sullivan will have Biden [as the titular head of the “Ukraine account”] make some phone calls.
Anthony Blinken, serving as President Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor at the time, was undoubtedly also keyed into these U.S. attempts to shape the follow-on Ukrainian government.
Shortly thereafter, the Rada announced that the interim Ukrainian cabinet would in fact be headed by Yatsenyuk. He would remain in power as Prime Minister for two years.
Putin’s response to these rapidly evolving events in Kyiv was swift. For some reason, the Russian reaction seemed to have taken the Obama Administration by surprise.
On 27 February, Russian special operations forces began seizing key locations in Crimea. By 17 March, it was all was over. A quickly formed pro-Putin parliament in Crimea declared the peninsula’s independence from Ukraine.
A few days before then, just as Russian troops were tidying up Crimea, Putin launched major offensives into the districts of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.
Eight years after those fateful events of 2014, the sad result is that Ukraine has made some effort on its benchmarks for joining the EU, but it has shown much less progress on those requirements for NATO. However, it has managed to enshrine its desire for NATO membership in its constitution. Not all NATO members agree that this is good enough.
Moreover, the current Ukrainian president (Zelensky), who had been elected largely on an anti-corruption platform back in 2019, would still be fighting Russian troops in the east and dealing with oligarchs from within, when Putin decided to go “all-in” three months ago.
In a recent podcast recorded at Stanford University, former Ambassador Mike McFaul confirmed that Vice-President Joe Biden had been calling the shots for the Obama Administration during the Euromaidan Uprising that had led to the Russian invasions of Crimea and the Donbas.
By and large, the same U.S. officials who were responsible for the miscalculations and missteps in 2014 are back in charge of U.S. policy for Russia and Ukraine today.
What Use Is Russia Anyway?
During most of his first term in office, President Barack Obama had avoided direct interaction with Vladimir Putin. The affable Dmitry Medvedev was serving as Russian head of state; and the two seemed to get on well. All that changed as a result of the Russian parliamentary and presidential elections in 2011 and 2012, for the reasons described earlier.
Soon after Putin’s inauguration as the leader of Russia in March 2012, presidential atmospherics took a turn for the worse. It became clear during subsequent months that there was mutual animosity between the two world leaders – surpassed only by the rift that would ensue between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Syria, the Palestinian Question, and Iran.
Content to leave the Russia and Ukraine accounts in the hands of Vice President Biden, President Obama would focus his foreign policy energy on the Asia-Pacific.
Obama wanted one major foreign policy win before he left office. That legacy would be a multinational agreement to constrain the Iranian drive to develop a nuclear weapon. His achievement would be called the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.”
One of President Obama’s impediments to negotiating the “Iran Nuclear Deal” was the fact that Putin had been the main enabler of the Iranians in their quest for a bomb. The Kremlin had been underwriting Teheran’s efforts at developing nuclear technology for decades. This is in part because nuclear technology continues to this day to be the most lucrative money maker of Russian exports, not far behind that of its fossil fuels.
Russia needed to be at the table and buy into the deal. The Russians therefore became members of the “P5+1” group of nations that would negotiate and sign the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Ensuring Putin’s acquiescence on the nuclear agreement with Iran became the defining objective of U.S. diplomatic efforts toward Russia during the remainder of the Obama Administration.
To ensure his support, Putin needed two concessions from the American president.
The first quid pro quo was the expansion of the Russian footprint in the Middle East, which had largely disappeared after the “Yom Kippur War” of 1973.
Putin got his wish after President Obama failed to follow-up on his “Red Line” warning of “consequences,” should Bashar al-Assad use chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war. About a year after the U.S. President’s threat, Assad’s forces began using Sarin gas.
President Obama decided not to take military action in response to Assad’s crossing of the line.
John Kerry, who had replaced Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, brokered a deal whereby the Russians would remove and destroy 600 tons of the Syrian chemical weapon stockpile.
Putin took this as a green light from the Obama Administration for expanding Russia’s influence in the northern Levant. For the first time in nearly 40 years, the Russians deployed an expeditionary air force abroad, which would then begin air operations against the Syrian rebels in their support of Assad.
Assad would be back using chemical weapons on his civilian population; and Russia would use its aircraft to destroy civilian neighborhoods in Syrian cities.
The un-checked Moscow-Damascus genocidal actions would create the largest refugee crisis in Europe since the end of the Second World War. The flow of several million migrants westward would result in an upswing in popularity of anti-immigrant parties throughout Europe and the British exit from the European Union. In addition, the massive refugee crisis would indirectly further the political aspirations of a billionaire-developer in the U.S., named Donald Trump.
Next Concession for the Iran Nuclear Deal:
Russia always opposed a European missile defense system. Putin needed some relief on that front as well. Although its purpose was to defend Europe against an attack from Iran, Moscow planners had always believed that a missile defense network deployed in Eastern Europe could be adapted to intercept Russian intercontinental missiles, not just Iran’s.
Citing the technical limitations of the system negotiated earlier by the Bush-43 Administration, President Obama would cancel the European Ballistic Missile Defense Program during his first term. Announced with little advance warning to the Czech Republic and Poland (where the radar systems and launchers would have been deployed), the actions threatened to topple governments in Prague and Warsaw.
The Obama Administration’s rationale was that a better concept was in the works; but everyone understood the cancelation as a concession to Putin.
The Russians were relieved. Moreover, they fully expected that nothing would become of any follow-on missile defense system, although NATO would announce that negotiations for basing rights in Romania would begin subsequently.
With Russian support, the Iran Nuclear Deal was wrapped up in July 2015.
Ten months later, in 2016, the Obama Administration announced that the first of an “Aegis-Ashore” battery had become operation in Deveselu, Romania. The facility would serve as the backbone of Obama’s revised European missile defense shield.
Needless-to-say, Putin was not happy with what appeared as Obama’s bait-and-switch on missile defense.
The Poles warned that the Russians would retaliate by moving nuclear forces closer to their border.
The Russians did end up deploying nuclear-cable missiles to the Kaliningrad enclave on the Baltic Sea next to Poland, ostensibly in reaction to the Obama Administration’s new European Missile Shield. Whether or not the deployment would have occurred without the Aegis missile defense program, Moscow’s offensive nuclear systems in Kaliningrad posed a direct violation to the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987.
In 2018, the Trump Administration appealed to Moscow to remove their missiles; but Moscow refused to comply. In February 2019, the Trump Administration announced that it was withdrawing from the INF treaty.
Former Obama Administration officials mercilessly criticized the decision.
The Expulsion of Russian Diplomats After the 2016 Presidential Election
For over two years (2017-2019), a team of 17 highly experienced prosecutors led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller conducted an extensive investigation into allegations that the campaign of Donald S. Trump had coordinated with the Russians to influence the 2016 Presidential Election.
Mueller (a Republican) selected 13 Democrats, 2 Republicans, and 2 Independents to conduct the investigation. In March 2019, Mueller’s team reached its conclusion in the Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election.
The “Mueller Report” stated that the investigation could find no evidence that members of the Trump campaign had “conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
Yet 25 months earlier, the Obama Administration expelled 35 Russians as it was closing up shop at the White House to further the narrative that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton had lost the 2016 presidential election because of Moscow’s meddling; and that Trump had somehow colluded in that effort.
For a lame-duck president to make such a major foreign policy decision to expel foreign diplomats without consulting with the incoming administration was unparalleled in the history of presidential transitions. In hindsight – given the conclusions in the Mueller Report more than two years later – it was one of the most damaging decisions in the 10-year downward spiral of U.S-Russian relations; and it was one more incident that would affect the Biden Administration’s ability to prevent the war in Ukraine.
To justify its decision to expel the Russians, the Obama Administration coordinated with the heads of three U.S. intelligence organizations to rush through a report. It was published in an unclassified summary on 6 January 2017 under the title, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intensions in Recent U.S. Elections.”
The intent of the assessment was to justify the expulsions, hobble the incoming U.S. President domestically, and prevent him from restoring relations with the Russian Federation.
Any Democrat and many Republicans with a microphone over the next few months would cite this intelligence assessment as the “smoking gun” for Russian interference. Moreover, most Democrats would extrapolate the findings to further the narrative that Trump had been Putin’s collaborator.
As time went on, politicians would inflate the conclusions; and even the number of intelligence organizations would grow each time a member of Congress cited the report. Some Democrats would wildly proclaim that ALL agencies in the intelligence community organizations had “fully endorsed” its findings.
The trouble is that, of the 16 agencies in the U.S. intelligence community (IC), only three (plus the Director of National Intelligence overseeing the IC) played a role in producing the assessment. Thirteen agency-members of the IC were either not consulted – or they deemed it as so political or so rushed – that it was better for them to not participate in the process at all.
Two of the most politicized intelligence entities – the CIA and the FBI (both headed by vocal adversaries of Trump) – were the only members of the 16 independent organizations to go on record stating that they had “high confidence” in the key finding:
“Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances, when possible, by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.”
Most strikingly, the National Security Agency – the organization most likely responsible for providing data upon which the IC assessment was hastily assembled – rated its confidence in the finding as only “moderate.” Even the intelligence bureau in John Kerry’s State Department did not participate in the assessment.
For those of us who have been consumers of U.S. intelligence, any IC assessment fully endorsed by only 2 of the 16 agencies – and for which the least-partisan agency had reservations about – would be the equivalent of receiving a “D” on a final exam.
Did the Russians attempt to meddle in the U.S. 2016 elections?
Answer: You bet!
Did Putin prefer a Republican over another Democrat?
Answer: A Republican, no doubt — given Putin’s past experiences with Democratic administrations.
Did the Russian efforts change any voters’ minds?
Answer: Probably very few.
The January 2017 IC report emphasized one thing: Its purpose did not include a determination as to the actual effectiveness of Russia’s meddling.
Neither would the Mueller Report, which was far more extensive, produce anything definitive as to how the Russian effort manifested itself in term of vote counts.
One should conclude from these glaring omissions in both the IC assessment and the Mueller Report that any opinion as to how many voters’ minds were actually changed due to the Russian interference campaign back in 2016 would be highly speculative.
Despite all the hyperbole, in reality the Russian attempt to influence the U.S. Presidential Election of 2016 was an uncoordinated effort that lacked anything close to Stalinist conviction. This is because Moscow clearly followed the U.S. polls and had concluded, like everyone else, that Clinton would become the next U.S. President.
It turns out that the purpose of Moscow’s limited effort to meddle in the 2016 election was not so much about getting Trump elected as it was to tarnish what the Russians thought would be the incoming Clinton Administration. This is borne out by the fact that Moscow’s influence campaign in 2016 was conducted on the cheap.
The only minor success of the Russian GRU (military intelligence directorate) was to hack into the unclassified computers of John Podesta and other workers at the Democratic National Committee; and that was accomplished through unsophisticated social engineering techniques.
A little-known Russian organization, the “Internet Research Agency” (IRA), planted most of the social media bots and third party postings. They paid Facebook the most – roughly $100,000 for 3,500 ads favoring Trump or opposing Clinton. The Russian entity also attempted to organize several campaign rallies via the social media giant. These efforts evidently eluded Facebook’s “speech-moderating” algorithms.
The IRA was responsible for approximately 80,000 postings spread out over the campaign season. By comparison, Facebook has over 4 billion postings every 24 hours.
Given the estimated $1.7B in known U.S. taxpayer funds that Democratic administrations had spent in attempts to influence the internal political direction of Russia and Ukraine since 1996, Putin got a lot more bang-for-the-Ruble than the U.S. in terms of impact.
To be even more conservative in calculating costs, if one doubles the amount that Russia spent trying to influence the 2016 Presidential Election in the U.S. and halves the amount the U.S. spent trying to influence political outcomes in Russia and Ukraine over the years, Moscow’s ratio of resources expended compared to that of the U.S taxpayer would amount to only 0.003 percent.
Putin was as surprised as anyone else by the results of the election. Realizing that accusations of “Trump Collusion” were nonsense and hoping that Trump would soon weather the storm, Putin would refuse to rise to Obama’s bait and decided not to retaliate by sending U.S. diplomats home from Moscow. However, Putin’s patience with internal U.S. politics would eventually run out; and tit-for-tats over numbers of diplomatic personnel would resume seven months later.
Trump, who had intended to restore business-like relations with Russia in his own “Re-Set,” was constrained from mitigating the damage done to U.S.-Russian relations while Mueller methodically went about his investigation for more than two years.
Obama’s decision to expel Russian diplomats for mainly domestic political purposes in December 2016 had poisoned the well.
President George H.W. Bush’s main foreign policy achievement at the end of the Cold War was managing the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet empire and to lay the foundation for a working relationship with Boris Yeltsin’s new Russia. In doing so, his administration successfully facilitated the massive withdrawal of Soviet “Groups of Forces” from central Europe and the re-unification of Germany. Bush would pursue no expansion of NATO beyond the German-Polish border.
Bill Clinton would be the first U.S. President to initiate the enlargement of NATO beyond Germany; and that first expansion would include Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic (March 1999). George W. Bush would sponsor the accession of the three Baltic states, plus Romania and Slovakia (March 2004). All eight of these countries had suffered immensely at the hands of the Russians during the Twentieth Century; and their accession was justified on the basis of their economic orientation to the west, their historic vulnerability to Russia, and their clear security benefit to the alliance.
The further expansion of NATO was motivated more by political “coup counting” than any major security concern or clear benefit to the alliance.
In March 2004, during the Bush-43 Administration, NATO would also accept into its ranks the non-frontline states of Slovenia and Bulgaria. Barrack Obama would add Croatia and Albania (April 2009). Donald Trump would complete the expansion of NATO with the inclusion of Montenegro (June 2017) and North Macedonia (March 2020).
Putin understood that the inclusion of these last six nations in NATO were largely symbolic. One only need look at a map of Eastern Europe see why their territories posed little threat to Russia’s strategic interests.
While Putin always opposed the growth in NATO membership, the process up to this point had been gradual and measured. The Russian leader would grudgingly resign himself to the inclusion of these countries because, aside from accepting the accession of the relatively non-threatening Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia, the arrangement left the western part of Russia with a buffer zone and considerable strategic depth for defense.
No U.S. presidential administration before Joe Biden’s would push so rigorously for Ukraine’s accession into NATO. For over two decades, many foreign policy experts considered the prospect as Russia’s “Red Line.” In turned out that they were correct.
Throughout the Cold War, senior U.S. statesmen serving in both Republican and Democratic administrations – such as Henry Kissinger, George F. Kennan, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Clinton Defense Secretary Bill Perry, and Obama Defense Secretary Ash Carter – warned that there would be an eventual reckoning with Russia over NATO expansion.
Perry wrote in his memoirs that he was so concerned about Clinton’s sponsoring of the first phase of NATO enlargement that he almost resigned his post as head of the Pentagon.
Fiona Hill, who would later testify against President Trump during his impeachment hearings, advised President George W. Bush not to invite Ukraine to join NATO.
Current CIA Director Williams Burns, a longstanding Democratic Party loyalist, while serving as Ambassador to Russia in 2008, stated that “Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin).”
After the crisis over Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 had simmered down, President Barack Obama gave an interview to Jeffrey Goldberg for The Atlantic, in which he defended his measured response to Putin’s actions. Goldberg summed up the Obama Doctrine as it applied to Russia and Ukraine as follows:
“Obama’s theory here is simple: Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not an American one, so Russia will always be able to maintain escalatory dominance there.”
Goldberg continued by quoting the President:
“The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.”
In the parlance of U.S. national security-speak, Obama was summing up the consensus view since the end of the Cold War: Ukraine was clearly in Russia’s vital interests, but not in ours. Russia might conceivably go to war to prevent Ukraine from exercising its right to join NATO. However, it was illogical for the U.S. to risk a war with Russia in order to defend Ukraine’s desire to do so.
The Biden Administration’s Redux
After taking the oath of office in January 2021, President Joe Biden would pick up the management of the Russia and Ukraine accounts about where the Obama Administration had left off. He would assemble the same team that had managed the Russia and Ukraine portfolios during the Euromaidan Uprising, the Russian seizure of Crimea, and the beginning of the long war in the Donbas back in 2014.
Each player had been promoted to a higher position in the new administration. Joe Biden, as President, was of course in charge of overall U.S. policy toward Russia and Ukraine. Anthony Blinken was back, this time as Secretary of State; Victoria Nuland returned as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs; and Jake Sullivan had been elevated to the position of National Security Advisor to the President. One more Obama Administration official was back: former National Security Advisor Susan Rice – this time as Biden’s chief domestic policy advisor. Professor Mike McFaul, as the Democratic Party’s perennial “Russia expert” from Academia, would provide the intellectual backstopping on cable news and other media outlets.
Biden would ignore his previous boss’s views about how Russia’s interests in Ukraine would always trump ours. The new leader of the free world would make another go at Putin. This time, the chief vehicle for advancing his team’s goal of “democracy promotion” in Russia would be to push for Ukraine’s accelerated accession into NATO.
During the 2020 presidential campaign, Victoria Nuland would sketch out a presumptive Biden Administration blueprint for dealing with the troublesome Russian tyrant in her July/August Foreign Affairs article, “Pinning Down Putin: How a Confident America Should Deal With Russia.”
Nuland was the perfect person to send up the trial balloon. A former public servant in the State Department, she had served in both Democratic and Republican administrations. Nuland had been appointed U.S. Ambassador to NATO by Bush-43, before settling down with Hillary Clinton’s State Department as a Democratic Party loyalist.
In her article, Nuland called for the U.S. and Europeans to build on their strengths to “put stress on Putin where he is vulnerable, including among his own citizens.” They should “raise the cost of Russian confrontation and militarization. . .” through advance weapons development and “establish permanent bases along NATO’s eastern border.”
According to Nuland, “Ukraine is another battlefield for democracy that the United States should not cede to Putin.” The U.S. and its allies should “make clear to Russia that the road . . . goes through Ukraine. . .”
Six months later, Joe Biden would achieve his life-long goal of becoming President of the United States.
If the new U.S. Administration had ever hoped to establish positive atmospherics for solving international problems with Russia, that train went off the tracks only six weeks later. It almost seemed intentional.
In an interview with George Stephanopoulos in March 2021, President Biden made two astonishing declarations.
First, Biden stated that, during his first meeting with Putin, he had told him “I know that you don’t have a soul.” (This of course, was a glaring dismissal of Bush-43’s remark years before that he had “looked into the eyes” of Putin and “had seen his soul”).
What really set off an international firestorm, however, was Biden’s response to Stephanopoulos’s next question as to whether the President thought that Putin was “a killer.”
Biden didn’t hesitate in answering: “Yes.”
Putin challenged Biden to a debate over the remark; but the U.S. President did not pick up the gauntlet.
Biden’s unprovoked opening salvo against Putin would be followed up several months later with his administration’s initial move to make Ukraine a NATO member.
At the end of the June 2021 meeting of NATO heads of state, Brussels would issue a lengthy communique, which restated the alliance’s core values and mission areas. While the document expressed increased concerns about Russia’s treaty violations and force posture, it was mainly boilerplate language.
Backed by the Biden Administration, however, a paragraph about Ukraine’s membership in NATO was included in the communique. Paragraph 69 stated the following:
“We reiterate the decision made at the 2008 Bucharest Summit that Ukraine will become a member of the Alliance with the Membership Action Plan (MAP) as an integral part of the process; we reaffirm all elements of that decision, as well as subsequent decisions, including that each partner will be judged on its own merits. We stand firm in our support for Ukraine’s right to decide its own future and foreign policy course free from outside interference. . .”
By supporting this insert into the statement by the heads of state, member-states confirmed NATO’s “open door policy” and the right of sovereign states to choose their alliances.
The statement served as a signal to Kyiv that it needed to pick up the pace in checking off the list of prerequisites required for membership.
However, the NATO declaration regarding Ukraine also implied what everyone had always known:
All 30 NATO members would have to be convinced of Ukraine’s readiness for membership before it would be accepted. Moreover, current members would need to agree that Ukraine’s accession would be in the alliance’s best interests. The reality was that NATO was well short of unanimity on both of those points.
Part the problem was that Ukraine was still perceived as a chronically corrupt state. On the eve of the Russian invasion, it was still slipping down on the ranking of states monitored by the Berlin-based anti-corruption watchdog “Transparency International.” Of the list of 180 states, most NATO members fell into the top 20 percentile – e.g., they were not particularly corrupt. Montenegro, a new member with a checkered past, ranked 64. By comparison, Ukraine was ranked 122 of 180, just behind countries such as Algeria, Egypt, and Zambia. Putin’s Russia was still perceived as more corrupt than Ukraine with a ranking of 136 out of 180 on the index, but that was hardly anything for Kyiv to brag about.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki alluded to Ukraine’s deficiencies in meeting the benchmarks of the NATO MAP after President Biden’s meeting with Ukrainian President Zelensky in September 2021. She conceded that the Biden Administration still had concerns. Obfuscating her remarks somewhat, she said, “There are steps that Ukraine needs to take. They’re very familiar with these: efforts to advance rule of law reforms, modernize its defense sector and expand economic growth.” She could have listed more.
By Fall 2021, it was clear that there were two camps in NATO with respect to Ukraine’s entry into the alliance. The U.S. and frontline East European member-states, such as Poland and Romania – who were always eager to have a large buffer between themselves and Russia – were willing to move out on Ukraine’s accession. However, the largest European members – Germany and France – remained agnostic.
Then in an astonishing move, on 10 November 2021, the Biden Administration threw its full support behind Ukraine’s membership in NATO by signing the “U.S.-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership.”
Clearly designed to persuade the doubters among the 30 NATO member-states, the Charter unequivocally stated, “the United States supports 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.”
More importantly, the document implied that Ukraine had made some progress on the Membership Action Plan. The U.S. would be intensifying efforts to accelerate Ukraine’s completion of the checklist.
In an interview given to the Wall Street Journal, Robert Service, a leading scholar of Russian History at Oxford University, stated that the Biden Administration’s signing of the “Charter on Strategic Partnership with Ukraine” in November 2021 was the West’s chief blunder that caused the Ukraine War.
According to the Oxford professor, the Charter had given heft to NATO’s June 2021 communique and made it likelier than ever that Ukraine would join NATO.
Service called the U.S. move “shambolic management.” “It was Putin’s last straw.” Preparations for Russia’s move into Ukraine moved forward after that.
Oxford’s Russia expert added that Washington’s accord with Kyiv offered the latter encouragement on the NATO question but gave no apparent thought to how such a tectonic move would go down with Putin. Service emphasized, “Nothing was done to prepare the Ukrainians for the kind of negative response they would get.”
Missed Opportunities to Avert the Invasion
On 17 December 2021, two months before the war, Putin floated a comprehensive proposal that he indicated would render his pending “Special Military Operation” unnecessary.
Putin’s “Agreement on Measures to Ensure the Security of the Russian Federation and Member-States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization” offered a few starting points for negotiation. As always, they contained a few items that the Russians knew they would have to compromise on.
In the Russian proposal, NATO would commit to the following:
- States who had become members prior to May 1997 would not deploy forces to the territory of states that had become members after that date (Article 4)
- No further enlargement, including Ukraine (Article 6)
- No military exercises in Ukraine, Eastern Europe, South Caucasus, and Central Asia (Article 7)
Article 4 and the prohibition of NATO exercises in Article 7 – as it pertained to NATO’s newest members – were clearly throw-away positions designed to appear as compromises by the Russians.
Moscow’s core goal in the proposal was to seek an agreement on Article 6, which would prevent Ukraine’s (and Georgia’s) entry into NATO.
Other items in the Russian proposal, such as re-invigorating the NATO-Russia Council, placing a hotline between Moscow and NATO headquarters, exchanging threat assessments, and working to minimize dangerous incidents at sea, were entirely reasonable.
If taken seriously by the Biden Administration, the Russian offer to negotiate could have prevented or delayed the Russian invasion.
Only four days after Moscow unveiled its proposal, Steven Pifer, a former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, would publish for Brookings an apologia for the Biden Administration’s decision not to follow up on the Russian offer to negotiate.
Pifer conceded that the proposal contained a number of elements that could provide the basis for negotiation. However, the document included the poison pill of placing limits on NATO’s “open-door policy.” In attempting to explain the Administration’s bizarre logic, Pifer suggested that the Russians really did not want to negotiate. They intended for NATO to reject their proposal out-of-hand, thus providing a pretext for their invasion.
The former Obama official added that the manner in which the Russians openly published their proposal indicated that they were not serious about talking.
Evidently, the Russians needed to have sent their proposal in a diplomatic bag.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s excuse for not talking with the Russians was equally unconvincing. Dissembling his arguments, Sullivan remarked that the U.S. and NATO could not negotiate without the presence of the Ukrainians. He quipped, “nothing about you without you.”
However, there was nothing in the Russian proposal that would have precluded the Ukrainians from having a seat at the table.
In an incredible disclosure, Derek Chollet, counselor to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, summed it up by stating that the issue of Ukraine joining NATO “was not on the table in terms of negotiations.”
Instead of acknowledging the Russians’ long-standing redline regarding Ukraine’s inclusion in NATO or Putin’s proposal as a basis for negotiation, the Biden Administration squandered the last few weeks before the invasion peddling the narrative that Moscow was about to launch a “false-flag” operation as a pretext for a possible incursion.
The forecasted Russian provocation never materialized – but the invasion did.
There had been one more pathway forward that the Biden Administration could have pursued – one that had a high probability of averting the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The pre-war solution should have been for U.S. and its NATO allies to propose a 10-year moratorium on Ukraine’s membership in NATO in exchange for Russian forces returning to their home barracks. The proposal could have included an enduring armistice for Luhansk and Donetsk, followed by a plebiscite to determine the future status of these two Russian-speaking districts of eastern Ukraine (more on this concept later).
Given Ukraine’s difficulties in meeting the benchmarks of the Membership Action Plan, putting a pause on Ukraine’s entry into NATO would have had a negligible effect on the country’s long-term aspirations of joining the alliance. So long as Russia posed little threat to the undisputed portions of Ukraine, Kyiv could have used the period to work on anti-corruption reforms, furthering its economic integration into the European Union, and building up its armed forces.
If the Administration indeed believed that Putin was the chief antagonist in the mounting conflict, then Washington, Brussels, and Kyiv could have waited him out – rather than engage in a devastating and dangerous proxy war.
Ten years from this October, Putin will be 80 years old. Considering the Byzantine aspects of the post-Soviet political system that Putin helped to create, he could very well be irrelevant at that point; and a younger generation might be in charge by then.
Now, as the war continues with more devastation — fueled in part by a dramatic escalation of military assistance from the West and the redoubling of Russian efforts in eastern Ukraine — the War Hawks in the Administration, the Congress, and the media are irrationally calling for “victory” against the Russians, without explaining what that actually means. The current narrative therefore continues to posit that there was never anything that the Biden Administration could have done to deter Putin’s evil intent.
As this analysis has demonstrated, the issue of Ukraine’s membership in NATO – and the existential threat perceived by Russia of NATO forces stationed in Ukraine – was indeed the main casus belli for the current conflict.
The key question is why did the Biden Administration fail to use all of its energy and creativity to seek a solution that would have addressed Russian concerns and avoided all the carnage?
Were former Obama officials, who had been re-called to serve in the Biden Administration, trying to re-litigate their handling of past crises, such the Euromaidan Uprising of 2014?
Was it their intent to use Ukraine as a cudgel for “regime change” in Moscow, as McFaul always envisioned and was implied in Victoria Nuland’s Foreign Affairs article?
Had U.S. officials concluded that they had burnt all of their bridges to Moscow and had nothing left in their diplomatic tool bag but the threat of economic sanctions as a “deterrent”?
Or was it just plain hubris?
We will never know for certain whether a moratorium on NATO enlargement would have prevented the war in Ukraine, because it was never seriously considered by the Biden Administration.
The sad truth is that, because of the conflict, Ukraine will not be joining NATO in the near future. Moreover, U.S. diplomatic malfeasance over the last ten years is indirectly contributing to our lack of vision, indeed our inability, to see a way of ending it.
Most heartbreaking for the Ukrainians, however, is the knowledge that they actually believed – when they entered into the Strategic Partnership with the Biden Administration six months ago – that salvation through NATO membership was within their grasp.
Russia’s Political Objectives at the Beginning of the Invasion
Putin’s initial objective in November 2021 had been to use the “coercive diplomacy” offered by the build-up of Russian forces along Ukraine’s eastern and northern borders to reverse the momentum of Ukraine’s accession into NATO. Having failed to bring U.S./NATO and Ukraine to the bargaining table or to make any concessions, Putin’s military columns poured into Ukraine on 24 February with the intent of swiftly toppling the Zelensky Government and seizing as much Ukrainian territory as possible.
The clear objective of the military operation was to deny the U.S. and NATO the possibility of stationing forces close-in to the Russian heartland. Putin’s minimum territorial objectives at the beginning of the invasion was to capture the capital of Kyiv and seize that half of Ukraine located to the east of the Dnipro River.
Putin’s secondary objective was and is the weakening of NATO by driving a wedge between its 30 member-states. This has been an important long-term goal of every regime in Moscow since NATO was first founded in 1949. Effecting a split in the Euro-American alliance remains part of the calculus in just about any foreign policy decision coming out of the Kremlin.
Putin does not intend to invade the Baltic states in the near future. They are not part of his Slavic core. In addition, Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which governs NATO’s responses to attacks upon member-states, would place a serious constraint on Putin’s freedom of action in the Baltic region.
However, had the Russian invasion of Ukraine swept the Zelensky Government from power and pacified the entire country – and had NATO split apart or faltered in its response – Putin, ever the opportunist, would have set his sights on the subsequent demilitarization of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. At present, the Baltic states appear to be safe because Putin has his hands full in Ukraine, and NATO remains united.
Putin and his High Command do not have an interest in reconstituting the old Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, as many pundits have asserted. His objectives have remained far more limited.
To revamp the former Warsaw Treaty Organization, the Russians would have to tangle with Poland and Romania. Putin understands that Russian forces would get clobbered if they attempted to enter the territory of these historically anti-Russian states. That said, Russian missile strikes on depots currently being built up by the West in Poland and Romania are not inconceivable; and the probability of this happening goes up if a major Russian defeat in eastern Ukraine appears imminent.
At the beginning of the invasion, Putin most likely envisioned an end-state for Ukraine in which most of the country situated to the east of the Dnipro River would be annexed into the Russian Federation outright. He would then create a rump-state west of the Dnipro, with a regime loyal to Moscow duly installed in L’viv. This pacified “Vichy-style” polity would then be demilitarized and placed off limits to all foreign troops, except for Russian military units. Given the historic hostility shown to Moscow by Ukrainians living in the western part of the country, Putin probably never considered that he had the resources with which to lock down and annex the entire country.
As we all know, Putin’s initial goals have been upended. What follows is a brief analysis as to why this has occurred.
Russia’s Initial Military Strategy
Russian military planners have long studied the classic military theorists of the 18th & 19th Centuries (such as Suvorov, Jomini, and Clausewitz) and the great Soviet-era thinkers (e.g., Frunze, Tukhachevsky, and Ogarkov).
The Russian High Command expected the war to be over in a matter of days or weeks. As such, it seems to have favored Jomini in its direct linear approach toward achieving victory – e.g., that the “will” of the Ukrainian nation could be swiftly broken by seizing two key strategic loci: the capital of Kyiv and the large industrial-transportation hub of Kharkiv.
On paper, such a direct strategy appeared more executable for forces lacking the proficiency in large-scale maneuver warfare.
However, had Putin read more closely his Clausewitz, he might have come to the conclusion that the “center of gravity” in terms of breaking the will of the Ukrainian nation was not one or two geographic points on the map. It was Zelensky’s small but deadly territorial defense forces.
In hindsight, the better theater-level plan would have been to draw Ukrainian units defending the eastern half of the nation out in the open where they could have been destroyed by superior Russian artillery and tank formations.
Wholly counter-factual at this point, the campaign strategy that might have worked for the Russians should have started with an initial demonstration in the Luhansk and Donetsk sectors. This would have been followed by the main Russian thrust – a lightning-fast Ogarkov-style pincer movement launched from Russian territory near Rostov-na-Donu in the east, cutting straight through Mariulpol’ along the coastal highway near the Sea of Azov (bypassing the port if necessary), and linking up with forces coming up from Crimea at Kherson and Zaporizhnia.
At that point, combined Russian forces could have advanced northeast of the bend in the Dnipro River but stopping well short of Kyiv in the rear of the Ukrainian defenders. This campaign strategy could have set up a significant portion of Ukrainian forces in the east for destruction outside of the two large urban centers of Kyiv and Kharkiv.
A follow-on offensive could have been a swift advance on the port of Odessa, which would have had the effect of depriving Ukraine of most of its ports on the Black Sea.
Putin and his generals most likely chose the direct approach to Ukraine’s capital (Kyiv) and second largest city (Kharkiv) because they believed that an invasion featuring blitzkrieg-like maneuvers would be too risky for his unpracticed armor and motorized rifle units. As a result, much of the Russian force invading Ukraine became bogged down and suffered major losses in two urban slug-fests.
Having now withdrawn his forces from the fight for Kyiv and Kharkiv, Putin appears to be splitting his ground forces to achieve two fairly conservative military goals: (a) strengthening and widening his hold on the littoral along the Sea of Azov in the south; and (b) engaging in a war of attrition in the east around the districts of Luhansk and Donetsk.
Why the Initial Russian Strategy Failed
You have probably read or heard that the failure of the initial Russian offensive was due to logistical problems. Putin’s ground forces certainly encountered a host of them; however, there were other factors in play as well.
For one, the largely organic logistical issues encountered by elements of the Russian ground forces advancing on Kyiv were exacerbated by the topographical features of the region in which the capital is situated.
As is often the case with river systems in Ukraine and the European part of Russia, water tends to run north or south, collecting along the way in large marshlands. Some of the Russian forces advancing on Kyiv were required to negotiate the large Pripyat marshes in Belarus to the north and work their way down the west bank of bog-laden Dnipro tributaries before getting anywhere near the Ukrainian capital. Knowing the terrain much better, Ukrainian defenders were well-prepared to engage with the Russian columns, as they lined-up stuck in the springtime mud – sitting ducks awaiting their own slaughter.
Closer to Kyiv, the broader expanses of the river provided the Ukrainian defenders with additional advantages. Russian combat units approaching the northern suburbs of Kyiv from opposite sides of the Dnipro were unable to re-enforce one-another by crossing over the river, while Ukrainian forces enjoyed the use of interior lines; and they effectively used bridges located closer to the center of the capital for repositioning troops where needed.
Kyiv has several other features that provide the defenders with physical advantages. The first is an extensive subway system built deep below the surface by the Soviets during the Cold War. The other is a natural tunnel system and series of subterranean caverns that run for hundreds of kilometers.
Another important physical advantage for Ukrainian forces during the first phase of the war was that much of the fighting was conducted in towns and cities. A long-standing military maxim since the time of the Napoleonic Wars has been that it takes roughly three-times the number of soldiers to defeat a prepared defensive force. In urban warfare, that 3-to-1 ratio favoring the defender increases significantly. Sadly for Ukrainians, the rubble left in Kyiv and Kharkiv by retreating Russian forces proves that point.
Another Napoleonic maxim posits that morale plays a key role in determining a unit’s combat effectiveness. This is where Ukrainians, defending home and hearth, continue to enjoy a significant advantage.
In the years before the war, Putin boasted of having increased the professionalism of his armed forces by adding significantly to the number of “contract” (or enlisted) soldiers. However, the Russians continue to rely primarily on the same system of forced conscription employed back in Suvorov’s day.
In Russia, males between the ages of 18 and 27 are called up twice a year (spring and fall). Additionally, in recent years, the period of service for draftees has been reduced from two years to one. Thus, a sizable portion of the non-officer soldiers sent into Ukraine had as little as three months and no more than one year of actual training and experience.
In addition, the war in Ukraine is the first major conflict initiated by Moscow in over a hundred years in which Russian soldiers were deployed to combat zones without the “benefit” of a Zampolit. In the past, this “deputy commander for political affairs” had been responsible for several Communist Party functions. One task was to indoctrinate and motivate the troops with regime-approved propaganda. The next was to counter-sign the unit commander’s orders. The third was to shoot on the spot any soldier who, while under fire, had turned around and was attempting to retreat.
Although small by comparison, the percentage of seasoned veterans with the skills and motivation necessary for battlefield success has been much higher for the Ukrainian territorial defense forces.
Since 2014, Ukraine had been rotating its officers and conscripts into fighting positions in the Luhansk and Donetsk districts. Although a large portion of Ukrainian defenders are reservists called to active duty, many of them had already received valuable combat experience by the time that the full-blown Russian invasion began in February 2022.
The last point of comparison has to do with the general approach toward military leadership.
The Russians have historically trusted only its senior commanders with campaign details; and Moscow’s High Command expects its generals and colonels to carry out operations, even down to the tactical level, if it becomes necessary.
Trained to respond to orders and fearful of making decisions on their own, rank-and-file Russian conscripts tend to be reticent about taking the initiative. This is the reason why nearly two dozen Russian general officers have lost their lives during the first three months of the war: They were up front directing traffic and telling their soldiers where to shoot.
Western militaries – and the U.S. in particular – have trained their junior officers and non-commissioned officers to think and act on their own. As Eisenhower once said, all military plans go out the window when first contact is made with the enemy. Therefore, modern Western military doctrine emphasizes that combat leaders at all levels understand the general mission, and that young lieutenants and seasoned sergeants are trained to be capable of improvising when road-blocks during combat operations are encountered.
The U.S. and our European allies have been training the Ukrainian military for several decades. Together with NATO’s Partnership-for-Peace program, these efforts have helped to improve the leadership skills of the lower ranks. This is perhaps why we see a number of press reports in which a Ukrainian sergeant, recalled to active duty from the reserves, has mounted a spirited counter-attack against opposing Russian troops on his own initiative.
No doubt, many aspects of the Western “way-of-war” have rubbed off on Kyiv’s military and is being translated into battlefield success.
What the Biden Administration Has Gotten Right
At first stunned by an invasion that it had been warning the world about, in several weeks’ time, the Biden Administration recovered and began sending in a trickle of combat materiel that would play a vital role in helping Ukrainian forces blunt the initial Russian offensives.
The three most effective weapon systems at the beginning of the conflict were the Javelin anti-tank missiles and the shoulder-mounted Stinger anti-aircraft missiles provided by the U.S., and the remotely piloted vehicles (e.g., “drones”) provided by the Turks. Similar materiel provided by other NATO allies were also used effectively by Ukrainian forces.
Another significant factor was the supply of battlefield intelligence from U.S. and its allies. According to the Wall Street Journal, information provided by NATO “eyes-in-the-sky” AWACS aircraft flying over the Black Sea has been a particularly effective “force-multiplier” for Ukraine.
The Biden Administration made two critically important decisions during the first two months of the war. The first was a courageous decision to reject Zelensky’s repeated calls for NATO to declare a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine. The second was the Biden Administration’s veto of a proposal made by several NATO nations, such as Poland, to provide Soviet-era aircraft directly to Ukraine.
Implementing an effective “no-fly zone” would have been a risky endeavor. This is not just because NATO pilots would have to engage directly with Russian pilots in the skies over Ukraine. Creating and maintaining a no-fly zone would also require that long-term “air superiority” be established. In order to do so, an array of aerospace assets would have to be employed in a concerted air campaign designed to suppress enemy ground-based radars and missile systems, and to destroy Russian aircraft on the ground – most of which would be based in Russian territory. In addition, NATO pilots would have to engage with anti-aircraft units embedded with Russian ground units already fighting on Ukrainian territory.
There are several issues regarding Poland’s supplying of MiG-29s to Ukraine.
First, the Ukrainians do not seem to be flying all that many sorties. During the first two months of the war, Kyiv’s air force averaged no more than 50 sorties a day compared to 250 sorties flown by the Russians. Kyiv probably has more operational combat aircraft at its disposal, but it seems to be holding them in reserve. The question is why?
Are the Ukrainians conserving their small air force for a future Russian advance beyond the Dnipro? Is it due to a shortage of spare parts? Is it the limited range of their MiG-29s? Or is there some other motive working here?
Second, an infusion of a squadron of Polish MiGs would rightly arouse suspicions by the Russians that NATO would also be supplying the pilots.
The proper compromise, which the Biden Administration has prudently approved, is for the Polish Air Force to supply the Ukrainians with just spare parts for their aircraft.
Secretary of State Blinken can take some credit for vigorously coordinating the Europeans’ responses, particularly regarding economic sanctions – although the measures taken to date have had a marginal impact on Putin’s war machine.
Moreover, the Administration’s efforts are partly responsible for blunting Putin’s secondary political objective — that of dividing NATO.
Because of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Finland and Sweden have applied to join the alliance. The Biden Administration has correctly endorsed their immediate accession into the alliance. (Turkey is the only NATO member-state opposing Finland and Sweden joining the alliance.)
Both northern nations would bring to NATO highly professional and relatively deadly military organizations. Finland and Sweden have each benefited from their status since the end of the Second World War as an “armed neutral.” The ambiguity provided by their neutrality has made the strategic picture more complicated for the Russians; although it has always been assumed that, should a general war break out between NATO and Moscow, the two nations would throw in with the Western alliance. Their accession into NATO would make their assumed positions explicit commitments, and it would also extend to them the defensive umbrella provided by Article V.
While Putin of course opposes NATO membership by both Finland and Sweden, he apparently sees their membership in the alliance as having a relatively minor impact on Russia’s overall strategy for defense.
Finland shares an 830-mile border with Russia; however, a substantial portion of it consists of marshland and forests, which are typically impassable except in winter. The main threat posed by Finland is to nearby St. Petersburg, which is located at the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland, less than a two-hour drive from Helsinki. That sector, however, has always been highly fortified.
Perhaps the greatest peacetime concentration of military forces in the world is located in the Murmansk-Severomorsk region of the Kola Peninsula, where the formidable Russian Northern Fleet is based. The adjacent North Cape of Scandinavia, which is possessed by NATO-member Norway, had already posed a jumping off point for Western forces contemplating an attack against that highly militarized part of the Russian north.
What the Biden Administration Is Getting Wrong
About 45 days into the conflict the Administration and its NATO allies seemed to strike a balance between providing Ukraine with sufficient military support and doing so in a manner that would not provoke Putin into to widening the conflict, including the introduction of tactical nuclear weapons.
That brief period of measured but prudent support to Ukraine has since passed.
Emboldened by the pull-back of Russian units from around Kyiv and Kharkov, the War Hawks in the U.S. have been ratcheting up their calls for the dramatic expansion of military assistance to Ukraine. Instead of using Ukraine’s surprising but still limited battlefield success as a basis for negotiation, U.S. politicians in both parties are risking a major escalation in the war and a devastating reversal of short-term gains by wildly calling for “victory” and the punishment of Putin.
In recent days, Russian forces have all but taken the Luhansk district. This has happened while politicians and pundits in the U.S. have been waxing confidently that the Russians have been on their last legs.
Visiting Kyiv recently, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi exclaimed, “Our commitment is to be there for you until the fight is done. . . We stand with Ukraine until victory is won.” To this Churchillian-sounding slogan, she might as well have added a demand for Russia’s “Unconditional Surrender.”
Moreover, the very notion of seeking a negotiated end to this horrible conflict takes a punch in the solar plexus whenever President Biden goes off script by indicating that the U.S. would “respond in kind” should Russia use chemical weapons – or by calling Putin a “killer,” “murderer,” “butcher,” or “war criminal” – and then demand his removal from power.
In correcting his gaffs, Administration fixers may try to explain away such rhetoric as the President “speaking truth to power” or “just Joe Biden expressing his personal feelings.” However, the President’s angry ad-libbing on the world stage does little to create an atmosphere for a negotiated end to the conflict – or to keep the war from escalating. His remarks certainly do not inspire confidence that he is up to the task of managing the U.S. response to what may be the most dangerous and devastating conflict of the 21st Century.
Many Republicans, such as Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have joined in on the chorus. The only temporary vocal opponents to the $40 billion military aid package just passed by Congress were Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Bill Hagerty of Tennessee. However, their arguments for delaying the bill seemed to be limited to the need to prioritize domestic challenges in the U.S. over the war in Ukraine, concerns about how to pay for the unfunded package, and the lack of an auditing mechanism to ensure that large portions of the assistance do not end up on the Ukrainian black market.
Most of the fighting, civilian losses, and destruction of cities, town, factories, and infrastructure has been confined to Kyiv, Kharkiv, and the eastern half of Ukraine. While there have been deadly missile attacks against targets in the west, Ukrainian territory located to the west of the Dnipro River has largely escaped the wholesale destruction experienced in the east.
The unintended consequence of massive military aid packages from the U.S. and other NATO countries is that this situation could change in the coming weeks.
As military aid is ramped up, large depots will be built up in the western half of Ukraine; and highways and rail lines will be increasingly used for conveying copious quantities of heavy equipment and supplies to the front.
The Russians understand quite well that the interdiction of an enemy’s combat potential in rear areas is always preferable to dealing with it on the front lines. Therefore, supply points and transportation hubs, such as L’viv, Lutsk, Zhytomir, and Vinnytsa, will experience increased destruction and loss of life as the Russian military steps up missile and bomber attacks against cities located to the west of the Dnipro River.
Even Avril Haines, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, warned Congress recently, “The most likely flashpoints for escalation in the coming weeks are around increased Russian attempts to interdict Western security assistance flowing to Ukraine. . .”
Moreover, the extraordinary expansion of aid envisioned by the American $40B aid package, if not managed properly, could create bottlenecks at border crossings through which materiel will be funneled. Pre-positioned depots in NATO nations, such as Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania, could become tempting targets for Russian missile attacks, including by systems armed with nuclear warheads.
The Nuclear Threat
It is astonishing to hear the cavalier manner in which many U.S. politicians and media pundits are dismissing warnings from Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that Russia might use tactical nuclear weapons if NATO increases its lethal assistance to Ukraine.
Serious military analysts are taking a more sobering look at the issue. Some are considering plausible scenarios as to how Putin might cross the nuclear threshold if he becomes cornered.
Recently, Gregg Herken considered three such possibilities for Political Magazine.
The first option for Putin would be to detonate a low-yield warhead above Novaya Zemlya, the old Soviet test site in the Arctic. While the nuclear fall-out would be minimal, the psychological impact of this first above-ground nuclear explosion in 30 years would be enormous and could drive Ukraine and its NATO supporters to the negotiating table. It would certainly cause the Swedes and Finns to rethink their applications for NATO membership.
The second scenario would be a high-altitude detonation over Ukraine. While the blast effect on the earth’s surface might be kept to a minimum, the electromagnetic pulse could knock out electronic components below and blind Kyiv’s command and control system.
Putin’s third option would be to interdict U.S./NATO equipment flowing into Ukraine by launching a small tactical nuclear weapon against a supply depot or transportation hub located to the west of the Dnipro River.
Each of these scenarios would represent a dangerous escalation of the conflict. Moreover, anyone believing that any nuclear detonation in eastern Europe might be trivial should watch the HBO mini-series Chernobyl.
During her recent testimony on the Hill, IC chief Haines stuck with the Administration’s attempt to downplay the probability of a nuclear exchange. However, even she conceded that Putin might introduce tactical nuclear weapons should he “perceive that his rule or Russia itself is in peril.”
Biden’s CIA Director William Burns added the warning that “none of us can take likely” Putin’s threat of introducing tactical nuclear weapons.
Nevertheless, when Defense Secretary LLoyd Austin was asked by a reporter what the U.S. might do if the Russians detonated a nuclear weapon, he dismissed the question by responding that “we had the means to deal with the problem.”
Interpretation: We actually have little recourse; and you should avoid thinking about it.
Other Administration officials have nonchalantly stated that the U.S. would not respond in kind to an attack in Europe by a Russian tactical nuclear weapon; and that such an event would simply further Putin’s international isolation.
More wishful thinking.
Nuclear weapons, however, are a different kettle of fish. Besides their destructive capability, they are incredibly unstable in terms of their employment. Nuclear war planners have long considered the central problem: once a single nuclear warhead is detonated, maintaining any “escalatory control” over the employment of additional weapons becomes highly problematic.
The least of the problem is the imbalance between the number of Russian tactical weapons in Europe compared to those of the U.S. and NATO.
Over the decades, the Russians have retained thousands of nonstrategic nuclear warheads on various launch systems as a hedge against the Chinese and NATO. The U.S. has never been able to limit these deadly systems under arms control treaties. The one exception was the INF Treaty, which, for several decades, had banned systems with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. That treaty has now been relegated to the “wastebin of history.”
In the European theater, Russia has an estimated 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons to be deployed on various launch systems. By comparison, due to popular objections in Europe and politically binding Presidential Nuclear Initiatives undertaken during the Bush-41 Administration, the U.S. possesses only an estimated 150 weapons stored in 5 locations in Europe. This limited tactical nuclear arsenal consists of antiquated B-61 gravity bombs, intended to be dropped by “dual-capable aircraft.” Their presence in Europe has been mainly to re-assure our NATO allies of the continuing U.S. commitment to their defense.
The more worrisome conundrum for nuclear planners, however, has been how to deal with the concept of “strategic stability.” Referred to by different names depending upon the scenario, the issue can be summed up as a calculation as to when an adversary believes that he needs to launch all of his deployed nuclear weapons – because he might lose them if he hesitates.
U.S. nuclear warfighters have long worried about the “use it or lose it” feature of nuclear arsenals. The U.S. believes that strategic stability during an actual nuclear conflict is enhanced by our capability to hold our fire when we see incoming Russian Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) or their sea-launched equivalents (SLBMs), assess the situation after receiving the first salvos, and then still have sufficient nuclear weapons with which to hold Moscow’s high-value political and military targets at risk.
During a Russian first-strike scenario, the U.S. considers its missiles deployed on submarines already on patrol at sea to be the only survivable leg of our “Triad” of ICBMs, SLBMs, and bombers. The issue is that the Russians do not approach the “second-strike” problem in the same way as we do – and this is the central challenge during periods of high tension.
The Russians place a great deal of reliance on their land-based ICBMs and their SLBMs deployed on submarines. However, since the end of the Cold War, their submarines have experienced difficulties deploying out to sea, where they would be more difficult to target. The result is that, during crises, their second-strike forces may have to pull their alerts in port, where they are more vulnerable. During the opening stages of a nuclear exchange, the Russian general staff might be induced into launching its SLBM force prematurely.
Regardless of the scenario, the likelihood of a launch due to accident or the misinterpretation of technical indicators goes up significantly when tensions are heightened.
During the Cold War, a NATO exercise called “Able Archer-83” was intended to test the Allies’ response to a simulated detonation of a nuclear weapon in Europe. The Soviets completely misinterpreted the exercise and thought that it might be a cover for a bolt-from-the-blue nuclear attack by the U.S. The Soviets brought their strategic forces into a state of high-alert, even loading nuclear bombs onto aircraft placed on standby.
At one point during the crisis, a Russian early warning operator noticed what appeared to be an incoming missile. Luckily, he had the good sense to recognize the signal as a possible glitch in the system.
It was later determined that heightened tensions over the pending U.S. deployment of Pershing II missiles to Europe had been a contributing factor. The Soviet leadership was quite aged at the time and always seemed paranoid about what President Ronald Reagan might have up his sleeve.
Years later, after the Cold War ended, the Norwegians launched a research rocket from their northwest coast. Its purpose was scientific – to study the Aurora Borealis over the Svalbard Archipelago. The problem was that Russian early warning monitors thought that the missile had been launched from a U.S. submarine on patrol in the Arctic Sea and was heading toward Moscow. Their initial assessment was that the warhead would explode in a high-altitude burst intended to blind their command and control systems. Russian procedures required an immediate response.
Fortunately, relations between Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin were at its zenith; and the Russian general officer on duty at the time calmly followed his checklist until the situation was clarified. It was later disclosed that the Norwegians had provided advance notification to the Russians via two separate channels. Unfortunately, due to human error, neither warning had made it up the chain of command to the Russian officer responsible for missile defense. Both notifications had been misplaced in the bureaucracy.
Over the years, during war-games, U.S. military planners and nonproliferation specialists have performed various calculations weighing the probability of a nuclear weapon exploding versus the consequences of the detonation. In each instance, whether the detonation had been planned in advance, or whether it was a result of miscalculation or accident, the evaluation of the “consequences” was the chief factor in determining what actions the U.S. needed to take.
Therefore, I am aghast when I hear commentators or political leaders brazenly call for the U.S. to double-down on efforts to defeat the Russians in Ukraine, because Putin’s warnings about using tactical nuclear weapons are mere “saber-rattling” – or there is “little probability” that he will follow up on his threat.
Some irresponsible U.S. politicians have gone so far as to assert that we are “self-deterring” ourselves by just listening to such talk.
Back in 2003, when I began my watch as director of the Energy’s Department’s “loose-nukes” security program for Russia, I asked my boss to sum up what he really wanted me to do. I will never forget his response. It taught me something I will never forget about the concept of “probability” when it comes to nuclear weapons.
He said, “Slawter, your job will be to do everything you can with the taxpayer funds I give you, leaving no stone unturned, to prevent a stolen Russian nuclear weapon from ever detonating on the Washington Mall. It just takes one to get through. That’s the only probability you need to remember. Should you fail – and if you survived the blast – you will be the one explaining to the reconstituted Congress why you hadn’t done enough.”
It is clear from the outstanding reporting of Western correspondents and Ukrainian investigators that there have been a number of horrible atrocities perpetrated by Putin’s military on Ukrainian civilians and soldiers. While a number of Russian soldiers directly responsible for the acts have been identified by Ukrainian survivors, relatively few of them have been captured by the Ukrainian military as of this date.
The Zelensky government may prefer to try Ukrainian-held Russian soldiers in Ukrainian courts. Three Russian POWs have already been convicted and sentenced to life in prison. This is a mistake and may result in Ukrainian POWs captured by Russian forces being placed on trial in retaliation. The better course of action would be to turn over those accused of war crimes to an internationally convened tribunal.
The most likely venue for trying war criminals is the International Criminal Court (ICC) at the Hague, which was established by the “Rome Treaty” in 2002.
While the Biden Administration would most likely support investigations and prosecutions by the ICC, the U.S. is not a party to the Rome Treaty. This is for several prudent reasons:
First, the U.S. Department of Defense is wary that its military operations around the world would be systematically stymied by frivolous charges lodged against American military personnel by adversaries abroad and by those in the U.S. seeking to curtail what they view as military adventurism.
Second, while it is not perfect, the U.S. has a better track record than any military in the world for policing its own through the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Third, the U.N. provides for alternative methods of trying accused war criminals, such as international tribunals convened by interested parties for a limited scope.
It would be a huge mistake – and one that the U.S. Senate would oppose – should Progressives in the Biden Administration use the Russian atrocities in Ukraine as a justification for joining the ICC in an effort to constrain future U.S. Presidents in their freedom of action.
Unfortunately, the arrest and trial of Russian commanders higher up the chain, including Vladimir Putin himself, will remain problematic. The challenge is always going to be that the country of the accused party has to first be defeated – as we did with Germany and Japan at the end of World War II. Short of engaging in a nuclear confrontation, Biden will be unable follow-up on any of his accusations against Putin as a war criminal.
As Americans become more emotionally invested in the Ukraine war – in part because of widespread reports of Russian atrocities – we also need to distinguish between willful acts by individuals or local commanders and the far more typical horrors of a major European land war.
Let’s return briefly to one of the more unfortunate aspects of the “Russian way of war.”
Since the time of Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, the Russian defender during the “Battle of Borodino” (the inspiration for Peter Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture), the Russians have placed a great deal of emphasis on artillery. Napoleon Bonaparte taught the Russians how to lead with it. The Red Army would experience significant battlefield success with artillery during the final stages of World War II. The rubble of Warsaw and Berlin would testify to this.
During its two wars fought in Chechnya in the 1990s, Yeltsin’s army led with indiscriminate artillery barrages against built-up areas (the second war was managed by Putin himself).
While all modern militaries use precision-guided munitions, the Russian defense establishment apparently had not invested sufficiently in them before invading Ukraine – nor have Russian commanders seemed all that concerned about collateral damage when it has come to using destructive artillery fires against built-up areas. In addition, there are few internal legal and policy checks on Russian generals, as is usually the case with the U.S. and its allies.
Russian conscripts assaulting large built-up areas have been taking losses in part because of their lack of training in urban warfare. As such, the default tactic for minimizing Russian casualties has been the firing of mostly unguided munitions from artillery batteries into buildings. The results have been horrifying for Ukrainian defenders and civilians trapped in their neighborhoods.
Ending the War
The logical means of preventing further wartime atrocities, more destruction of urban areas, additional civilian and military casualties, and the widening of the war – including the introduction of tactical nuclear weapons – is for the U.S. and NATO to back a cease-fire-in-place, with the eventual phased withdrawal of forces back to their positions at the beginning of the war.
The U.S. goal should be a negotiated settlement of the outstanding political-military issues, not an ill-defined “victory” over Putin’s Russia.
The contours of a political-military settlement were sketched out broadly at the failed talks in Istanbul. Kyiv indicated that Ukraine’s accession into NATO is now off the table – although Zelensky is still insisting on Article V-like “legal guarantees” from individual NATO member-states.
For his part, Putin has greenlighted Ukraine’s further economic integration into the Eurosphere. On 17 June, the European Commission, the permanent bureaucracy for the European Union at Brussels, recommended that Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia be advanced to formal “candidate status”; and on 23 June, the members of the European Council (heads of states) approved that recommendation for Ukraine and Moldova. Past applicants granted candidate status have taken as many as 10 additional years in implementing the reforms required by Brussels before they were approved as full EU members.
As long-time military strategist Edward Luttwak recently noted, the main stumbling block remains the status of the Luhansk and Donetsk districts in the eastern part of Ukraine. He proposes giving Putin a face-saving measure by holding plebiscites, as was successfully done for disputed territories in Eastern Europe by the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. An open plebiscite should be conducted for Crimea as well.
For the results be accepted as legitimate, the plebiscites would have to be internationally orchestrated and monitored. A multinational election board would be established in order to determine who could vote, as millions of displaced Ukrainians have been fleeing from these areas since 2014; and international monitors need to be in place in order to ensure that the plebiscites are fair and open. In addition, the voting should take place in locations from which military forces have been withdrawn (this might be problematic for Crimea, given the realities on the peninsula since early 2014).
With its large Russian-speaking and Russia-oriented population, Crimea would most likely opt to remain with Putin’s Russia. If so, then Kyiv, Brussels, and Washington need to be prepared to accept the results, regardless of the clear violation of international norms that occurred when Russia seized the peninsula back in 2014.
While Putin’s take-over of Crimea was an illegal affront to Ukraine’s sovereignty, most international diplomats and long-term observers of Russia, Ukraine, and the former Soviet Union have always thought of Crimea as a Russian enclave; and that it was mainly due to a fluke of historic nostalgia that Communist Party Chairman Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea to the province of his birth back in 1954.
While Luhansk and Donetsk are also populated by traditionally Russia-leaning populations, the results of plebiscites conducted in these two districts would be more difficult to predict; and the solution may be that they end up being partitioned between Russia and Ukraine.
Zelensky’s insistence for legally binding commitments from the U.S. and selected European states to come to Ukraine’s defense – similar to NATO’s Article 5 – is a non-starter; and the Biden Administration should make this clear to him. An agreement of the type Zelensky envisions would require either a Senate-ratified treaty or a legally binding agreement confirmed by Congress. Either agreement would be a hard sell.
The best deal that Zelensky could get – and it would satisfy Putin’s interests as well – would be a withdrawal of Russian troops in exchange for pledge not to allow any foreign troops on the eastern half of Ukraine for a definable period (perhaps 10 or 15 years), but to permit U.S./NATO forces to be stationed on a rotational basis to the west of the Dnipro River, mainly for training and military exercises. U.S./NATO could use that period to re-build the Ukrainian military and improve its overall combat capability, including the establishment of a capable air force.
Getting a cease-fire in place and troop withdrawals moving would pose the greatest challenges. However, they could be achieved by implementing, in phases, a series of Confidence and Security-Building Measures (CSBMs). Similar approaches have been used with the Russians in the past, mainly though the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
The first step would be the immediate establishment of a Special Verification Commission (SVC) made up of representatives from the two warring parties and key European states, such as France and Germany. The SVC would serve as a mechanism for monitoring progress on the CSBMs and resolving disputes.
The initial CSBM after the declaration of a halt in the fighting would be for the two sides and their supporters to cease shipments of lethal materiel into the theater of military operations. One side should be given the first 48 hours after the armistice is declared to cease their shipments; and the other side would reciprocate by the end of the next 48-hour period. For instance, U.S./NATO might be the first side to halt its shipments of lethal military aid to Ukraine as a good-faith measure; and the Russians would then be required to reciprocate.
Using the same formula, the next series of CSBMs would be the incremental withdrawal of forces from their current positions back to their locations as of 24 February 2022. At a specified safe distance of separation between various combatant formations, international peacekeepers would be inserted into the vacated zones as monitors of the armistice.
If the initial military CSBMs and the armistice hold, then a multilateral commission can take charge of planning for the plebiscites.
Let’s face it: Ending the war by driving the Russians out of the entirety of Ukraine or by replacing Putin – as the Biden Administration and the War Hawks in the U.S. still hope to do – would be plausible only if nuclear weapons had never been invented.
If the White House is truly committed to ending the war in a manner that prevents the escalation of the conflict, ends the suffering, and preserves Ukraine’s existence as an independent nation with its pre-war territory intact, several additional measures need to be adopted by the U.S.
First, President Biden should publicly declare that the U.S. is not seeking Putin’s removal from power and is committed to an immediate cease fire and a negotiated settlement.
Next, White House advisors, to avoid future gaffs and retractions, should designate a more nuanced and reasonably sounding official, such as Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, to be the lead Administration spokesperson for the war in Ukraine. Blinken can continue using the tools left in the U.S. diplomatic bag to keep the international sanctions regime together and manage U.S. relations with NATO.
Secretary Blinken should also spearhead international planning for rebuilding Ukrainian cities and infrastructure – and to work on facilitating the return of Ukrainian refugees to their homes. After a peace agreement is in place, the war-torn country is going to need a reconstruction program equal to that of the Marshall Plan for Europe after World War II.
Third, Defense Secretary Austin and Secretary Blinken should make it clear to President Zelensky that, regardless of the $40B military aid package recently authorized by Congress, continued U.S. military assistance will be contingent upon Ukraine’s good faith progress toward a negotiated settlement with the Russians; and that driving Russia completely out of Ukraine, including the disputed districts of the Donbas may not be achievable. The two U.S. cabinet officials should also warn their Russian counterparts that deliveries of U.S./NATO military equipment will immediately resume should Russia violate any of the provisions of the negotiated armistice.
Last, because of years of U.S. diplomatic malfeasance, which has resulted in the complete break-down of trust between Moscow and Washington, the Biden Administration should learn from the example of President George W. Bush during the Georgian War back in 2008. The U.S. needs to relinquish any perceived lead in overseeing a negotiated end to this European war to an established European leader – such as France’s recently re-elected President Emanuel Macron.
Prequel: “Long, Long Ago. . .”
I have been blessed with the opportunity of participating in various aspects of the Russia/Ukraine portfolio as a military officer or civil servant spanning four presidential administrations. Before ending this rather extensive analysis about the Ukraine War, allow me to leave you with a particularly positive memory of what it was like working with one of them. As I mentioned at the beginning of this monograph, I thought they had struck the right approach and exhibited just about the right balance in its relationships with the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union.
It took place nearly 30 years ago. The Administration of President Bill Clinton believed it needed to intervene in order to avert a conflict between the Russian Federation and the newly independent Republic of Ukraine over the status of nuclear weapons left on the latter’s territory after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The Russians claimed the nukes and launch systems in Ukraine as their own. In early 1993, Moscow had been making noises about seizing the weapons by force. It was similar to Putin’s more recent warnings about Ukraine joining NATO. This had been the worst-case scenario foreseen by Bush-41 several years before; and the Clinton team made the bold move in late 1993 to intervene diplomatically. The two principal sides in the dispute – Russia and Ukraine – allowed us a seat at the table in order to keep the crisis from blowing out of proportion.
I played a minor role as the representative of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and military advisor to a small interagency delegation led jointly by Ambassador-at-Large Strobe Talbott (soon to be Deputy Secretary of State) and Secretary of Defense William Perry. Les Aspen had suddenly stepped down as Pentagon chief, and Perry received word during one of our shuttle flights that he was now the head of the U.S. Department of Defense.
The U.S. team included some of the greatest foreign policy minds of that bygone era – such as Assistant Secretaries of Defense Graham Allison and Ash Carter (Carter would later serve as President Obama’s Secretary of Defense), and Jim Timby, the cerebral arms control professional from the Department of State. Up-and-coming foreign affairs specialist Victoria Nuland was Talbott’s chief of staff and organized the logistics.
U.S. policy was to reduce the number of post-Soviet nations possessing nuclear weapons (Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine) down to just one – Russia. We facilitated an agreement whereby Ukraine agreed to ship their nuclear warheads to Russia for eventual dismantlement; and Russia would supply uranium fuel rods for Ukrainian reactors, as the latter depended upon nuclear power for a large part of their energy needs. The negotiations involved shuttling between Moscow and Kyiv and resulted in the “Trilateral Statement” of January 1994.
In the end, the U.S. would agree to pay for the secure transport of the nukes from Ukraine to Russia, the destruction of the missiles and bombers on Ukrainian and Russian soil, and for the Russians to manufacture the fuel rods and ship them to Ukraine. (Similar arrangements would be reached with Kazakhstan and Belarus.)
Besides keeping their cities from going dark, the Ukrainians also received “political assurances” (not “legally binding guarantees”) from the U.S. and Russia not to violate the fledgling state’s borders.
Eleven months later, the U.K. joined the other interlocutors in signing the “Budapest Memorandum of Security Assurances” of December 1994. The accord lasted almost 20 years – until the Russians seized Crimea in 2014. (BTW: The Trilateral Statement and the Budapest Memorandum did not contain legally binding commitments to come to the defense of Ukraine.)
It was an exciting time for me. My role was to coordinate the team’s negotiating points with the Joint Staff, the Service Chiefs, and the Commander-in-Chief of Strategic Command. Some of this was done real-time while flying onboard the USAF VIP aircraft. The purpose of my presence also included advising the U.S. delegation on the organization, order of battle, and doctrine of the post-Soviet states’ nuclear forces – although most members of the U.S. team understood the particulars as well as I did.
I remember us plopping down together on the floor of the aircraft’s conference room in order to review the state-of-play. Bumping up and down as the aircraft flew through the occasional turbulence, the team would work out the next series of moves for this game of high-stakes nuclear chess. Ideas would be proposed. . . but most were readily discarded. Then one crazy notion would seem to make sense and stick. Suddenly, Bill Perry, a mathematics Ph.D., would sing out his favorite phrase: “O.K., folks, let’s see how we can multiplex this!” (Multiplex? Had there been smart phones back then, I too would have had to Google the term.)
We sat cross-legged or inclined in a lose circle trying not to spill too much of the coffee and pastries being fed to us by the flight stewards in order to keep us awake. I listened in awe to these brilliant leaders, as they brainstormed their way around every possible obstacle.
Absent myself, I knew that I was sitting among the greatest concentration of brainpower that I would ever encounter. Although I was multiple “pay grades” below these senior civilian officials, they each treated me with extraordinary respect and kindness – encouraged me to express my views, although in retrospect I probably contributed very little. For me, it was a masterclass in diplomatic problem-solving.
Everyone was sleep deprived. When the team would run out of ideas and become somewhat dejected, someone would break up the depressing mood with a hilariously funny joke. Then Perry would clap his hands as a quarterback faced with the third down and 10 yards to go; and recharged, the group would get back to putting a few more pieces of incentives and supporting arguments into the impossibly complex puzzle.
These senior Clinton Administration officials never placed blame on any side or person – never called anyone names – and they never indulged in the thought of giving up, going home, or resigning themselves to “que sera, sera!” No one considered what impact their decisions might have on Bill Clinton’s poll numbers back home. It was always about U.S. interests and keeping the peace between the Russians and Ukrainians.
They persistently stuck with it until they finally convinced Moscow and Kyiv to agree to a deal.
Would God had granted us the same caliber of statesmen to guide our nation before the war in Ukraine first began.
* * * * *
Bruce D. Slawter, Colonel, USAF (Ret.), lived and traveled in Russia, Ukraine, and the newly independent states of the former USSR for 25 years on U.S. Government business. He served a total of 44 months (two tours) at U.S. Embassy, Moscow; taught Russian military strategy at the Air Command & Staff College; led teams on treaty inspections in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus; and established two Pentagon organizations for normalizing relations with Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia (Air Staff and Joint Staff). As director of DOE’s warhead security program and director for international nuclear energy policy, his teams upgraded the security and safety of over 85 military storage sites and civilian reactors in Russia and Ukraine containing large quantities of nuclear weapons, weapons-grade material, and nuclear fuel.
The opinions expressed in this monograph do not reflect the views of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the Department of Energy.
Copyright © 2022, Bruce D. Slawter
All rights reserved.