Russian Realism

Permanently isolating Russia could have frightening consequences.

Russia’s destructive attack on Ukraine was unjustified and has earned Moscow opprobrium the world over. The fact that the latter had some legitimate grievances against the U.S. and NATO does not excuse Moscow’s brutal military assault on its neighbor. There was no imminent military threat to be preempted. And Russian President Vladimir Putin had not exhausted alternative strategies. The decision for war was Putin’s and he will forever bear the blame for plunging the two largest European states into catastrophic conflict.

Indeed, the war almost certainly will be remembered as one of history’s great military blunders. Even an ultimate victory for Russia would be dearly bought: Tens of thousands dead, hundreds of billions of dollars expended, hundreds of thousands of Russians in exile, and a youth drain mortgaging the country’s future, with most of the economy under severe Western sanctions and allied restrictions creating potentially permanent barriers to high tech growth. The conflict also has disrupted historical connections to the West and confirmed Moscow’s status as China’s junior partner, while undermining Russian influence elsewhere, especially in Central Asia. Moscow’s global reputation has tanked.

The mix of Russia’s malign intentions and conflict’s ill consequences justifies some U.S. and, even more so, European aid for Ukraine. Weakening the Russian military and preserving Ukrainian sovereignty are worthwhile objectives, but still, only limited ones. Equally important, these goals must be balanced against the costs and risks, especially from an expanded conflict fraught with risks of escalation. Those who consider America to be a hegemon with unipolar power tend to dismiss Moscow’s potential use of nuclear weapons, but never have two major conventional powers possessing nukes confronted each other so closely in a hot war. And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky already has attempted to drag the U.S. into its war, using his own nation’s missile strike on Poland.

Alas, the West, overflowing in hubris and sanctimony, has been no less propagandistic than Russia, seeking to inflate the conflict’s importance and turn an otherwise limited regional fight into a potentially catastrophic global conflagration. To start, the invasion was not unprovoked. Allied officials ostentatiously lied about their plans to expand NATO, violated promises made to Moscow, and ignored the latter’s security concerns, leading to multiple Russian complaints and threats. Ill consequences of American and European hubris were almost preordained. Washington’s credibility and moral standing have been further shredded by two decades of needless conflicts that wrecked several nations and killed a million people.

The claim that the ongoing fight is one between autocracy and democracy is nonsensical. There are relatively few liberal democracies on earth, which is one reason the Global South is less than impressed with Washington’s sanctimonious pronouncements on the issue. Many nominal democracies, such as India, are increasingly ugly places for anyone who believes in individual liberty and limited government. Amid endless Biden administration blathering about its historic devotion to democracy, Washington continues to kowtow to Saudi Arabia. No less avidly, the Europeans have put profit before principle in establishing business ties around the world, no matter how murderous the partner.

Russia does not pose a global threat, certainly not militarily. Moscow has traditionally been ranked number two, but its performance in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine so far have not impressed. Moreover, Russia’s conventional capabilities are well behind those of America, especially in combination with European forces. Yet the more military power amassed by U.S. policymakers, the greater their paranoia. Vladimir Putin and his ruling circle are malign actors, but his Russia is not the same as Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. Militarily, Moscow poses no threat to the U.S. other than nuclear, which is an argument for avoiding, not initiating, conflict.

Moreover, America and Russia have no noteworthy territorial disputes, nor is there any evidence that Putin or any other serious person in Moscow desires war with the U.S. Although it might be unpopular to acknowledge, Washington has been by far the most aggressive military power since the Cold War’s end, causing far greater harm and killing far more people than has any other state. Nothing Russia has done has threatened America in any meaningful way.

Indeed, Putin, despite his many faults, did not enter office with any evident animus toward America. KGB officers were noted for their cynicism and worldliness, not ideological loyalty. He was the first foreign leader to contact President George W. Bush after 9/11and gave a remarkably accommodating address to the Bundestag two weeks later. Unfortunately, it was American behavior—NATO expansion, dismantlement of Serbia, color revolutions on Russia’s border—that most caused Putin to change his views.

Uber-hawks promote the hysterical meme that Putin plans to reconstitute the Soviet Union. Yet he has been Russia’s ruler for more than two decades and has not pursued such a strategy. In 2008, Moscow gained some control over the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, they had long chafed at Georgian rule and Putin attacked Georgia only after the Saakashvili government suicidally shelled Russian forces. In 2014, he grabbed Crimea, which was long ruled by Moscow before its 1954 transfer by Nikita Khrushchev, likely as part of the succession struggle after Joseph Stalin’s death. Russia also promoted separatism in parts of the Donbas, which some Ukrainians later suggested was largely worthless territory best left with Moscow. These are the bases of a revived Russian Empire?

Moreover, Russian aggressions were triggered by events. Again, Western leaders conveniently ignore history in seeking to avoid responsibility for their own foolish, often reckless, behavior. In 2008, the Bush administration insisted on NATO’s promise to induct Tbilisi and Kiev, which caused Fiona Hill, lately of the National Security Council, to warn that such moves “would likely provoke pre-emptive Russian military action.” Washington also declared Georgia to be an ally as the Saakashvili government pushed hard for NATO membership.

Six years later, the U.S. backed crippling street protests against Ukraine’s duly elected, if corrupt, pro-Russian leader. American officials unashamedly discussed who they desired to take over the new government and reiterated their promise to bring Kiev into the transatlantic alliance. If Russia had behaved similarly in North America, hysteria would have filled Washington, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Contra the reigning assumption in the imperial city, actions, even by Americans, have consequences.

In any case, Russia does not pose a conventional threat to Europe. Industrialized states with an aggregate economy upwards of ten times and a population more than three times that of Russia should be able to protect themselves. The continent’s pitiful military forces reflect decades of defense dependence on the U.S., fostered and sometimes enforced by Washington. However, necessity offers powerful incentives. The attack on Ukraine was a dramatic wake-up call for Europe, which should be reinforced by the U.S. ending the continent’s cheap military ride rather than forever reassuring European governments. In any case, Moscow has shown no interest in rolling westward to the Atlantic. Nor does Russia’s bungled war against Ukraine indicate that it could conquer and rule Europe. NATO’s best firebreak to conflict would be avoiding military confrontation with Russia militarily along its border.

Russia is a bad actor, but by the same standards so are many other nations, including this one. Moscow’s best response to most of its alleged infractions is et tu? For instance, consider Russian interference in U.S. elections. Remember the 1996 Time magazine cover celebrating American involvement in reelecting Boris Yeltsin? The U.S. has overthrown, undermined, and opposed far more foreign leaders, including democratically elected ones, than any other nation. Or Russian involvement in Syria? Moscow had decades-long alliance with Syria, which is closer geographically to Russia than to America. The Putin government did what the U.S. does all over the world: buttress what it believed to be a critical ally against internal opposition. The Assad regime was awful, but so were the jihadists, including the local Al-Qaeda affiliate, aided by Washington and its Mideast allies. Or take Russian murders of dissidents abroad. Moscow has cruelly and carelessly killed critics, along with bystanders. Yet the U.S. government long viewed murder as an acceptable weapon, even targeting foreign leaders, such as Fidel Castro.

Obviously, allied misbehavior does not justify Russia’s actions, but it is impossible to take Western hypocrisy and sanctimony seriously. Most of Moscow’s actions, though often terrible, do not threaten the U.S., however offensive they might be. The best response would be to eschew the same practices while denouncing Russia’s—for instance, promising not to interfere in other nations’ elections while insisting that other governments stay out of American politics.

Perhaps the most dangerous argument for Western involvement in the current conflict is to weaken, if not break, Russia by ousting Putin, overthrowing the current regime, and dismembering the country. These sound like national interest objectives, until one considers the likely consequences. Any successor to Putin would almost certainly share his objectives. Harder-line nationalists rather than Jeffersonian liberals would be most likely to succeed him. Permanently isolating Russia, turning it into a giant North Korea, only better armed, could have frightening consequences. Even worse might be a violent, messy break-up, with thousands of nuclear weapons up for bid, bountiful conventional arsenals open for looting, and civil war in the offing.

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is morally wrong and practically disastrous. Western allies are right to take Ukraine’s side. However, Washington’s principal duty is to the American people, not Europe or Kiev. U.S. and European policy should be directed at ending, rather than fueling, the war. Extravagant claims about Ukraine’s global importance, that the future of the world depends on the outcome of the current conflict, are simple nonsense.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.