Lack of means is no part of the reason why U.S. policy is failing to restrain Russia. Rather, that reason lies in the U.S. government’s simultaneous pursuit of self-contradictory objectives, what Henry Kissinger extolled as “creative ambiguity.” This has opened a fateful gap between words and deeds. Clear, univocal policy that unites words and deeds, ends and means, has ever been the prerequisite of seriousness.
Ukraine’s 1991 departure from the Soviet Union made possible the Baltic States’ and others’ independence from Moscow. Ukraine, therefore, is the natural focus of Vladimir Putin’s drive to recover as much of the Soviet empire as possible. Nor has there ever been any doubt about any Russian government’s desire to incorporate Ukraine within its grasp. Possession of Ukraine is the difference between Russia being a potentially great power and Russia as just another European country. By contrast, U.S. policy toward the relationship between Russia and Ukraine has always been ambiguous. From Stalin’s time into our own day, it has tried to combine recognition that Ukraine is something other than Moscow’s possession with refusal to interfere seriously with Moscow’s treatment of Ukraine as a possession.
By showing a wide gap between America’s pretensions and practices, this ambiguity has contributed to discrediting America. America’s interests—as well as those of peace in general—would be best served by articulating to one and all precisely what America’s objectives are with regard to that relationship, and then by deploying whatever means might be required to achieve those objectives. In short, let us start being serious.
In 1944-45, the U.S. government agreed to Stalin’s demand that Ukraine be admitted to the United Nations (along with Byelorussia) as if it had been an independent nation—a transparent fiction to increase Stalin’s voting power. Nevertheless, this contributed to keeping alive the Ukrainian people’s desire for independence, especially since during the early postwar period the U.S. government clandestinely armed Ukrainian nationalist rebels. Uncounted thousands died and millions suffered in a fight without hope. But U.S. support for the Soviet hold on Ukraine was so strong that, on July 31, 1991, as the Soviet Union was breaking up, President George H. W. Bush warned Ukrainians to beware of nationalism and to trust in Gorbachev. After the breakup, the Bush administration fostered, and the Clinton administration consummated, Ukraine’s delivery of its third-largest-in-the-world nuclear arsenal to Russia in exchange for U.S. guarantees—loosely worded because insincere—of its independence and territorial integrity. Since 2013, when Putin began using military force to keep Ukrainians from leaving Russia’s orbit, the U.S. has led NATO in loud condemnation and insignificant sanctions, what Theodore Roosevelt called “the unbridled tongue and the unready hand.” As Russia’s modern weapons have outgunned the Ukrainians, our aid to them has consisted of “Meals Ready To Eat.” At least we might have treated the doomed to French or Italian rations, with wine.
This ambiguity has enabled Russia’s rulers to shore up domestic support by charging America with interfering in Russia’s domestic affairs while actually enjoying effective U.S. complaisance. Thus in January 2015, as Putin’s forces were routing a Ukrainian army bereft of Western aid, Putin told his people: “We often say: ‘Ukrainian Army, Ukrainian Army.’ But who is really fighting there? There are, indeed, partially official units of armed forces, but largely there are the so-called ‘volunteer nationalist battalions.’” This is not the army of the Ukrainian people, said Putin. Rather, it is “a foreign legion, in this case a foreign NATO legion, which, of course, doesn’t pursue the national interests of Ukraine.” Rather, he said, is in the service of NATO, whose geopolitical goal is “restraining Russia.” In short, America’s and NATO’s pro forma support of Ukrainian independence is allowing Putin to take as much of it as he wishes while shoring up his own domestic support at our expense.
Certainly, restraining Russia, especially as regards Ukraine, is one of the U.S. government’s objectives and, by extension, NATO’s as well. The independence of Ukraine from Moscow is the key to the independence of Eastern Europe. Not facing something like the Soviet empire again is a core concern of ours. Getting along with Russia is also an important objective of US policy. It would be nice if these objectives were mutually compatible. Minimizing their incompatibility in our own minds does not decrease it, but only leads to policies that work at cross purposes.
All know that the U.S. government has the capacity to inflict such economic damage on Russia via secondary sanctions that Russians will suffer crushing personal costs for Putin’s pressure on Ukraine. All know that the U.S. can impose a serious blood tax by supplying modern arms to the Ukrainians. But no one can tell to what end, precisely, the U.S. might do this, if at all.
It would help the American people, the Ukrainian people, and—because it would help the cause of peace—it would help Russia as well, for the U.S. government to decide precisely what it is willing to do to secure whatever degree of independence it deems appropriate, and then to go ahead and do it. Once upon a time, statements of policy from the U.S. government might have sufficed. But over a half century of “creative ambiguity,” of divergence between “declaratory policy” and what the U.S. government actually does, has destroyed U.S. credibility.
Restraining Russia will take deeds, not words.