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.
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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.
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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.
December 27, 2022 at 4:42 pm
The West is blameless, it is not responsible for the backward inferior Authoritarian Cultures and their uncivilized desires to subjugate other peoples and steal their land.
Democracies don’t invade other democracies, only Authoritarian Cultures like Leftist Cultures, violate the sovereignty of other countries regardless of that nation’s form of government. If all Peoples had democratic cultures, the wars would end, and there would be Peace on Earth. The opposite is not true.
American Culture is the most successful culture in history (246 years and counting). The 1st of the 1st World nations, the one all others had to emulate to become 1st World nations. There is no arguing with Success, 1st World cultures (democratic cultures) are superior. Authoritarian Cultures are inferior, they can neither create nor maintain modern civilization without continuous 1st world input.
Communist China would still have the “Water Buffalo” level economy it had before 1st World investors uplifted them. If the 1st World investors responsible for China’s growth leave, China will swiftly fall back to that “Water Buffalo” level of incompetence and corruption. If Communist belligerence in the China Sea results in a Strategic Blockade of China, Chinese GDP will instantly be cut in half from permanently lost trade, world market share, and internal economic dislocation. The continuous 1st World input provided by 1st World investors, necessary for maintaining modern civilization would end.
The corrupt authoritarian culture of the Russians which put and keeps the corrupt little poisoner Putin in power, is completely responsible for all the crimes he has committed. A people get the leadership they deserve.
December 27, 2022 at 5:27 pm
What kind of nonsense is this ?
Russia is 100% to blame.
They invaded !!!!
They chose to !!!!!
The continue to kill and destroy !!!
I must stop to keep my blood pressure down….
December 27, 2022 at 6:18 pm
The blame (for ukro neo-nazi resurgence & the current war) goes straight to the CIA, NATO and latest antichrist biden.
The CIA hasn’t been active just in the Middle-East where it has created widespread havoc and chaos, but also in other parts of the world. Remember Chile coup and latin america’s death squads.
But in the 21st century the CIA has re-focused back on eastern europe after the 1990s balkans conflicts.
The result ?
Rise of extremist fascism in ukraine, thence outbreak of civil war, eight years of trench warfare in the east and finally with biden in the white house with his self-righteous dogbarking, all-out war with russia.
Biden thinks it is his duty as the mike tyson president of USA to remake the world and mold it in the image of uncle sam.
Biden is a false messiah. False messiahs have emerged from time to time in history, but biden is the worst of the bunch as he is gambling with the future or very fate of the whole of mankind.
Biden has no business at all to be in the white house, given his long history of lying and fibbing and his lack of intelligence plus a rapidly failing brain or mind, which has been amplified by his increasing confusion with names and places and even dead people.
Yet biden the antichrist or false messiah is in office and fomenting war against a nuclear power right on its front doorstep.
Shows how imperfect washington is. So, blame must be rightly pointed at washington. The CIA, biden, congress, DoD, media, the arms manufacturers and the war lobbyists.
December 27, 2022 at 6:29 pm
What would the USA do if Russia installed military sites in Mexico, or maybe more Chinese ties with Canada. One sides affair after money. As far as I am conserned the USA is one sided where the ones in congress are profiting from this war. Follow the money and you can see who. Biden has no clue, never has. 50 years in government and he still has did nothing but whine and fill his pockets. Time for the working Americans to wake up.
December 27, 2022 at 6:42 pm
This is a categorical error. Russia I.e. Putin really believes Ukraine is Russia. He does not believe it is in its sphere of influence so any argument re Monroe Doctrine fails AP World History exam. He really believes he is fight to unite Russia. Nothing could/ would stop him. All this article is a litany of grievances that would have warmed the heart of Lindbergh and his pro German pals in 1940.
December 27, 2022 at 6:49 pm
This crisis in Ukraine could have been avoided if the US had lived up to its guaranties it made to not expand NATO on Russias doorstep. American powers in congress are reaping vast quanities of money by continuing this conflict at the expense of the working American. When you push soon you will get a response.
December 27, 2022 at 6:52 pm
Thank you Doug Bandow for this opening of truth.
December 27, 2022 at 7:24 pm
An apologist article, supporting Russia, and inferring that because Putin engaged in aggression over a longer period, that somehow differed his actions from Hitler. Putin’s, purported invasion to “protect” Russian speakers, is no different from Hitler invading Czechoslovakia, to “protect”, Sudetenland German speakers. The annexation of Ukraine territory, makes a mockery, of the purported reason to deal with nazis, in Ukraine.
The green democratic revolution, is downgraded to a forcible change of government, and the author is imbued with the strange notion that Russia, has some kind of field of political influence in its vicinity, despite an economy no larger than the state of Texas. In office Putin has displayed territorial adventurism towards the countries unfortunate to share a border, and the invasion was an opportunistic move, knowing the seat in the security council guaranteed a veto on any deploration of its behaviour.
December 28, 2022 at 1:08 am
The US IS responsible. They have violated the agreement they made with Russia when the USSR fell, to not put eastern bloc nations in NATO. The US is to blame by putting these nations into NATO and then loading missile systems into these client states and pointing said missiles at RUSSIA. That’s one way to keep tensions down. But wait there’s more.
Our national oligarchs have sent their whelps into Ukraine to participate in corruption scandals like the one that flopped with FTX (that the media keeps covering up). Or maybe it’s the bio weapons labs in Ukraine that the tax players are funding.
Maybe it’s the coups Obama orchestrated in Ukraine to install that douchy clown in a green track suit Zelensky. You know so the globalists have at least 1 place they can get cobalt and lithium that isn’t owned by China. ?
Russia to blame? All I blame them for is being the knuckle dragging incompetent military they are. They should’ve destroyed Ukraine in a week. Instead we have the makings of another endless war that the Warmongers will tax my children to fund so that money can circle its way back into their pockets… just like Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and Iraq.
December 28, 2022 at 7:25 am
Are all these guys really this stupid? How many times do we have to say this? This war has nothing to do with NATO and everything to do with Putin’s wanting to rebuild his empire that he believes was stollen from him. All one has to do is look at Belarus to see what Putin is doing. Belarus is a subordinate state to Putin even though he is still trying to wrangle it around. This is exactly what he was trying to do with Yankovich and Ukraine. The war started in 2014 because Putin saw his plans being undone. Putin can control former Soviet bloc countries only when they don’t have a real democracy. So the Orange revolution was the problem he could not abide. The calling of the Orange Revolution as being instigated by the US is nothing more than an excuse to try to take the control he wanted. His first attempt was to use the Georgia method by just grabbing Crimea. He thought he could use that as a point to keep the Ukrainian citizens in line, but that didn’t work and they continued to resist.
So no, this is not the US fault. The only fault of the US is one of missed opportunities to help Russia move more effectively to a real democracy at the end of the Cold War. Surely we should have anticipated what our mockery of Russia could do, but we did not rise to the challenge. But responsibility for this war lies directly and only with Russia.
December 28, 2022 at 4:45 pm
Putin and his Cronies are 100% Guilty of invading Ukraine. I blame The US for having an Incompetent Vegetable POTUS and Brainless Advisors. If Trump were POTUS, Putin would never have taken a chance on invading Ukraine, or any other Country!!
Additionally, NATO/US should have armed Ukraine to The Teeth after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014. The best way to win a War is to be prepared for it! Though NATO/US are supplying weapons, they are not giving Ukraine what it needs to defeat Putin’s Hordes. They need to wake up and start delivering large quantities of Tanks and Combat Aircraft!!
December 28, 2022 at 4:46 pm
No promise was made to not expand NATO eastward. In any case, the NATO issue was just part of Putin’s lies in his Casus belli which was nothing but a pack of lies.
The truth is simple. Putin lusted after Ukraine because it was part of the Russian Empire for centuries, and part of the Soviet Empire which Putin, a KGB thug, is nostalgic over. His goal is to expand the Russian Empire back to the borders of eh Soviet Empire. Ukraine was just the latest target in that push.
December 28, 2022 at 7:21 pm
I’m sympathetic to a number of points the author makes in this article, particularly regarding our serial mismanagement of our relationship with Russia since the end of the Cold War.
Unfortunately, that is water under the bridge. Russia is unfortunately our enemy and a partner, if not ally with China which is our main adversary. The Russians don’t trust us and with good reason. History shows that we aren’t all that trustworthy, despite our endless professions of good intentions.
Many believe that the Versailles Treaty ending World War I was unjust toward Germany. Maybe so, but that fact did little to provide policy options in 1939. Likewise, we’re out of good options at the moment. We’ll have to play the hand we’ve dealt ourselves.
Our best hope is that the Ukrainians continue to bleed the Russians to the point where they’re of little aid to the Chinese. Hopefully if Putin falls the Chechens don’t scoop up the Russian nukes and sell some of them to the Taliban. Hopefully the Chinese see what we’ve put the Russians through and decide to attend to their mounting internal problems rather than bother Taiwan.
A bunch of hopefullys is what you’re stuck with after 30+ years of stupidity.
December 28, 2022 at 9:12 pm
Once upon a time, patriotic peoples could be expected to desire the growth of their nation and its values and its culture. Things which could, and did, occur even without aggressive wars of conquest.
The screed against the unipolar moment suggests Bandow dearly wants the US to become….just another nameless and undistinguishable face in the crowd.
Is that really what we’re supposed to aspire to?
December 29, 2022 at 12:18 am
The real question is why did all of the countries of Eastern Europe want to join NATO. No one forced them to. They understood Russia and Putin and wanted protection. What right does Russia have to decide what another country can and cannot do. Further Putin has always been a bully and wanted to control; never understood that sweetness might be a better approach as well as being a true partner.
December 29, 2022 at 7:54 am
Following Gorbechev, the US should have helped by growing the Russian economy instead of china. The goal should be an alliance. Bringing Russia 1st
Into Nato as a partner would have brought the satellite countries.
We wouldnt be worried about china or dependence on chinese goods.
Its not to late to switch course.
Putin needs to realize this is a waste of Russian lives and Resources.
Washington needs to understand Nato would be stronger with Russia, ukraine, And other surrounding nations.
Negotiations with long term vision ends a war.
Gorbechev and Regan were on the right track.
December 29, 2022 at 1:35 pm
China will never ally with US. Russia might have, but the Bidens chased it right into China’s arms. And there you have it: With Russia as (admittedly Stalin-like) ally, the West might have had a chance in the coming (?) global confrontation.
As it is now, forget about it.