Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky enjoyed a reception akin to that of a Roman conqueror during his brief but packed visit to Washington. He made a pitch for more aid with a carefully crafted speech that touched multiple American emotions. Congress responded by approving another $45 billion in aid—more than most NATO countries spend on their militaries in a year or, in some cases, in a decade.
The Wall Street Journal, which has never covered a war that it did not favor, lauded Capitol Hill’s response, arguing: “The U.S. would be far worse off today if Putin had conquered Ukraine.” That’s true, but incomplete. It would have been much better had the U.S. not helped set the stage for the terrible war now raging between Ukraine and Russia. And it would be so much better if the U.S. and Russia don’t end up lobbing nuclear weapons at each other before the current conflict ends.
Where to start with the “what ifs?”
The U.S. would be far better off today had successive administrations lived up to the promises made to both Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin that NATO would not expand forever eastward. Although much obviously went into Putin’s decision to attack Ukraine, there is no evidence that he is a Hitler wannabe bent on world conquest, or even on reassembling the Soviet Union. Adolf Hitler hit the zenith of his conquests within a decade; Putin’s territorial acquisitions after two decades in power were Crimea and influence over a handful of statelets: Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and separatist states in the Donbas. He is no friend of liberty or democracy, but compare Putin’s conciliatory 2001 speech to Germany’s Bundestag with his accusatory tone at the Munich Security Dialogue in 2007. Much changed in his attitude toward the West, without which February’s action is highly unlikely, if not inconceivable.
The U.S. would be far better off today had Washington used the collapse of the Soviet Union as an opportunity to transfer responsibility to Europe for its own defense. With the Russian military retreating eastward even as it rapidly deteriorated, the allies could have safely adjusted to defense adulthood. Moscow’s nationalists would have had difficulty claiming a threat from the West, while the allies would have had a strong incentive to construct a new security order that included Russia. America’s remaining role would have been much smaller, allowing more serious military retrenchment.
The U.S. could have begun the complex process of becoming a “normal” country again, shifting military responsibilities in Asia and the Middle East as well. There would have been no arrogant and reckless unipolar moment – with the invasion of Iraq, intervention in Libya, and decades of conflict in Afghanistan – during which thousands of American and allied troops died and tens of thousands were wounded, while hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed and millions were displaced. More money would have been invested in the U.S. economy and gone to meet Americans’ needs. They would have been most proud of what they were doing at home, rather than about their government’s dubious activities abroad.
The U.S. would be far better off today had it not promised NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine. President George W. Bush – the leader responsible for the disastrous Iraq War, perhaps America’s worst foreign policy mistake of the last 60 years – heedlessly challenged Moscow’s red lines. His officials were aware of the risks of antagonizing Russia. Fiona Hill, made famous by her recent stint with the Trump administration, warned the Bush administration that bringing Kyiv toward NATO “would likely provoke pre-emptive Russian military action.” Having foolishly turned Russia hostile, Washington still had a chance to back away. Had Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili not appeared to be a U.S. lackey in 2008, and had NATO not spent six more years promising membership to Kyiv and Tbilisi, Moscow might have exhibited more military forbearance in 2014.
The U.S. would have been far better off today had it exhibited strategic empathy then, and considered how its support for the forcible overthrow of an elected government friendly to Russia in Ukraine would be received by Moscow. Imagine China establishing the South Pacific Treaty Organization in Latin America, promoting a street putsch against the elected, pro-American government in Mexico, sending officials to Mexico City to express their preferences for the new president and Cabinet, and inviting the new administration to join the alliance, with Chinese troop deployments expected to follow. The response of U.S. policymakers would have been pure hysteria. They would have made no pretense of accepting the democratic decision of the Mexican people to exercise their right to join the international organizations of their choice.
Had the U.S. informally treated Russia’s sphere of influence like America’s Monroe Doctrine, Ukraine might have come through what was the latest of many political crises with its territory intact. Had the allies also not previously put NATO membership forward for Kyiv, it almost certainly would have avoided Moscow’s wrath. That would have meant no seizure of Crimea, no intervention in the Donbas, and no full-scale invasion eight years later.
The U.S. would have been far better off today had it taken seriously Putin’s demands. There was still time for Washington to negotiate, admitting what it claimed to be obvious – that Ukraine would not enter NATO any time soon, and probably never – since in reality neither Washington nor its European allies wanted to fight for Kyiv.
Alas, Moscow had no confidence in any informal quasi-assurances. As noted earlier, the allies had shamelessly broken a gaggle of earlier promises to successive governments. Moreover, the reassurances for Ukraine (and Georgia) never stopped coming. When Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin went to both countries in late 2021, the Pentagon ostentatiously publicized its plan to reassure them that NATO was, of course, continuing to enthusiastically await their entrance.
Putin was not the sucker the allies seemed to assume. Although in February 2022 his demands went much further than NATO expansion, granting his most serious, longstanding condition would have demonstrated the value of diplomacy and encouraged continued negotiation. This would have tipped the balance in the Kremlin against a decision for war – a decision that intelligence reports indicate remained in doubt until the end.
In short, there were many crucial points at which different U.S. and allied decisions likely would have left Europe at peace. That would have been better for America, Europe, and especially Ukraine. The latter is bearing the brunt of the cost of the war. The price of the West’s many mistakes is terrible, as described in Foreign Affairs:
“[A] grinding war of attrition has already been hugely damaging for Ukraine and the West, as well as for Russia. Over six million Ukrainians have been forced to flee, the Ukrainian economy is in freefall, and the widespread destruction of the country’s energy infrastructure threatens a humanitarian catastrophe this winter. Even now, Kyiv is on financial life support, maintaining its operations only through billions of dollars of aid from the United States and Europe. The costs of energy in Europe have risen dramatically because of the disruption of usual oil and gas flows. Meanwhile, despite significant setbacks, Russian forces have regrouped and have not collapsed.”
Vladimir Putin bears responsibility for initiating hostilities and the horrors that have resulted. However, blame for this conflict is widely shared. Western officials cannot escape their role in making war likely, and perhaps even inevitable. Allied governments, especially Washington, should learn from their mistakes.
We should not have to suffer such catastrophic consequences from such an avoidable conflict again.
More: Is Donald Trump Going Crazy?
Author Expertise and Experience: A 19FortyFive 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.