With the US and Russia set to meet in early January, the Europeans are beside themselves and insist on being part of the dialog. Ukraine demands that their interests not be decided without their presence.
The situation could scarcely be more dangerous. In Washington, the bipartisan war party is pushing to intervene militarily. Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker is prepared to start a nuclear war over Ukraine, a bizarre, even demented position that might surprise his constituents.
There is no easy solution to Russia’s challenge and demand for an end to NATO’s, and thus Washington’s, steady march eastward. However, the starting point, contra the claims of Kyiv and its allies, is America’s interest. This decision is not about Ukraine.
For instance, the Brookings Institution’s Steven Pifer contended that “The Ukrainians, in particular, need to be at the table” in any discussion of European security issues. Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, claimed: “President Biden has made it very clear that Ukraine’s decision to join NATO is only a decision of the Ukrainian people, a sovereign and independent Ukrainian state.”
The US cannot promise action by Ukraine, whether fulfilling the Minsk Protocol, accommodating Russian demands, or abandoning its request to join NATO. However, Washington has full authority to decide what the US will do—toward Russia, allies, and Ukraine. And Americans owe Kyiv nothing in making those decisions.
Washington’s bipartisan foreign policy establishment, oft-called the Blob, cares more about the world than America. That preoccupation was evident to Americans and helped explain Donald Trump’s upset victory in 2016. After years of being lied to about foreign threats, promised easy victories, and entangled in other people’s wars, enough voters turned to the improbable figure of the business impresario and reality television star to make him president.
No one was more upset than the Neoconservatives by this result. How to wage constant war when a critic of the Iraq debacle sat in the Oval Office? Although there is much about which Trump deserves criticism, he was the first president since Ronald Reagan not to start a new war. Trump’s constant bluster couldn’t disguise the fact that he really didn’t want to bomb, invade, and occupy other nations. For this he deserves praise.
President Joe Biden appeared to represent a return to normalcy in US foreign policy. He emphasized restoring relations with allies, which in the past meant sacrificing American security so other governments could do less for themselves. The defense dole was to remain forever open, no matter how prosperous or populous the “ally.”
There also was the expectation that Biden would continue adding defense dependents like most Americans accumulate Facebook Friends: The more the merrier, no matter how minimal the connection or capability. E.g., adding Montenegro and North Macedonia to NATO. The next logical candidate would be the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, the star of The Mouse that Roared series. Of greater practical concern was Washington’s continuing promise to include Georgia and Ukraine, which would bring their ongoing conflicts with Russia into the transatlantic alliance. When Americans would be responsible to fight a nuclear power over international issues of at best peripheral interest to Americans.
However, after agreeing to talks Biden may be taking a more sophisticated view of Russia’s ongoing challenge. Although in principle continentwide participation makes sense, there is only one allied decision maker: Washington. The Europeans do not treat their defense or NATO seriously. Frontline states engage in endless caterwauling about Russian threats, but refuse to spend much more than two cents on the euro. In most NATO members more people believe that America will defend them than that they should defend their neighbors. The US should not treat these countries seriously when dealing with its security. Washington certainly shouldn’t let them decide America’s fate.
At the upcoming talks Washington should indicate that the planned meeting is for big boys, nations which are serious about their foreign and military policies and are not content to allow other nations to control their destinies. Which means the US and Russia. These two governments should explore three questions:
-Ukraine’s desire to join the transatlantic alliance. The solution is simple—Washington should indicate that it will drop support for Kyiv’s admission, and any further expansion elsewhere. Adding countries to NATO is not in the interest of the US, which has no recognizable security interests at stake in these nations yet would be expected to do all the heavy lifting in any war with Russia.
-Ukraine’s relations with Moscow. Is Russia prepared to end its ongoing military buildup and support for separatists in the Donbas if Ukraine implements its promises as part of the Minsk Protocol? And would Moscow leave Kyiv free to order its economic and political life as it wished? If so, the US should offer to drop military support for Ukraine and economic sanctions on Russia other than any narrowly applying to Crimea.
-The status of Crimea. Is Moscow prepared to hold an internationally supervised referendum to decide the status of Crimea, which would be accepted as determining the territory’s future status by the US, Europe, Ukraine, and Russia? If not, then Washington should indicate that it would refuse to grant de jure recognition of Crimea’s annexation but limit any economic sanctions to that area.
At the conclusion of the talks, the US should announce the results of the bilateral consultation. The only unilateral US decision would be refusing to go to war for Ukraine, today or in the future. The rest would be up to Europe, Ukraine, and Russia, which should meet and seek a modus vivendi along the forgoing lines. Europe and Kyiv could pursue a different agenda, but Washington’s decision on NATO would stand. Moreover, if they refused to talk or deal seriously with Moscow the US could discreetly threaten to drop sanctions on Russia and military support for Ukraine. Washington has much to gain from an improved relationship with Russia and should put America’s interest first.
Washington’s allies and Kyiv expect the US to spend and risk much on their behalf, but the purpose of NATO is to better protect America, not have America provide defense charity to Europe, including Ukraine. Unfortunately, the latter is in a bad neighborhood. Washington should help the parties find a practical modus vivendi that protects the vital interests of all parties. However, the Biden administration’s most important priority is safeguarding US security.
A 1945 Contributing Editor, Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.