A moment of reckoning has arrived for America — at home, in Europe, and beyond. The question is: Will the United States continue to project itself as a global power as it has done for nearly a century, including two undisputed decades in the sun in a unipolar world after it won the Cold War, dismembered the Soviet Union, and China was yet to rise? Or will it back down in the face of China’s surge, Russia’s resurgence, and weakening of its own domestic polity? Ukraine appears to be the flashpoint where Washington is being tested.
In an evocative reference, British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has said there is a “whiff of Munich in the air” as the US and Russia eyeball each other in Ukraine. He is alluding to the 1938 Munich pact that allowed Germany to annex the Sudetenland in the hope that it would prevent the outbreak of war. It did not. A year later Hitler marched into Poland, triggering World War II. Since then the Munich agreement is widely regarded as a synonym for appeasement. History has condemned then British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain as the architect of the appeasement. It needed a Churchill to push back and retrieve ground at enormous cost.
Will Biden be a Chamberlain or Churchill? So far at least, he has not — overtly at least — been a Chamberlain. Whether he has the grit and tenacity of Churchill will be known soon — hopefully without the cost incurred in WWII – but for now he has held his nerve. Tuesday’s announcement of a partial or modest Russian withdrawal from Ukraine’s border is a vindication of his strong stand, although he feels the danger of invasion has not yet passed.
At the heart of the current dispute is Ukraine’s putative Nato membership. The US and its European allies have gradually driven Nato, which had 12 countries and ended at Italy when it was formed in 1949, to currently 30 countries, including Baltic Republics that were part of the former USSR, and which are now at Russia’s doorstep. Ukraine is one of the last buffers for Moscow.
Russia took the Nato advance stoically for nearly two decades as it recovered from losing the Cold War. With its economy partially restored by oil and gas that it supplies to Europe, notably Germany, and its military buffed up again, Russia now wants to push back. To begin with, it wants an ironclad commitment that US and Nato will not draft Ukraine into the alliance. Then a withdrawal of strategic weapons in Eastern Europe that threaten it.
Acceding to Russia’s demand will lay Biden open to charges of capitulation — hence “the whiff of Munich in the air”. The big question here is, even if the US and its allies offer a Munich to Putin, what’s the guarantee he will not pull a Hitler on them and seek to roll back Nato from other Warsaw Pact countries that bolted from the Soviet sphere of influence when the USSR lost the Cold War? Can the two sides agree on a deal that draws the line at Ukraine — and will that satisfy Russia?
That, of course, assumes that Ukraine itself will accede to a deal that will decide its future. It is in a complicated situation domestically. Parts of eastern Ukraine which are Russian-speaking and abutting Russia are pro-Moscow. The western parts are more inclined towards Europe. It is also a relatively new nation yearning to decide its own future, without being dictated by either side.
Internal cohesion is also what Biden lacks. The US position is weakened not only by European allies that feed on Russian energy, but also by domestic politics. His two predecessors did not push back strongly enough against Putin. Obama was distracted by Iraq and Afghanistan to take on Russian advances into Crimea. Trump went full Chamberlain, virtually giving Putin a free hand — Russia could have taken all of Europe, given Trump’s disdain for Nato.
The Trumpian line that the United States should mind its own business and let Europe handle its problem has many takers in America — even in the Democratic Party — who look at China, not Russia, as the principal adversary.
Indeed, in many parts of the world, it is the US that is seen as a war-monger, pushing Russia into a corner.
The American argument that nations such as Ukraine should be free to decide their own future is undercut by the “sphere of influence” thinking that still holds sway in the strategic community in major powers. Whether it is US or Russia or China, major powers want to retain their sphere of influence.
Whether the US can withstand the Russian pushback in Ukraine also depends on its ability to “walk and chew gum” at the same time, an expression a US official used to assert that Washington could handle many crises simultaneously. For Biden, that would include the crises at home. Americans are tired of foreign wars.
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