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Biden can’t back Putin down, but he can still cut a deal

Russian and Belarusian troops take part in Allied Determination-2022, a military drill in Belarus, February 10, 2022.

Belarus Defense Ministry/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

  • The US is attempting to coerce Russia to back down over Ukraine, but this strategy has failed to bear fruit.
  • The US should instead deescalate by halting weapons shipments to Ukraine, pushing Kyiv toward nonalignment, siding with neither Russia nor NATO, or reviving arms-control talks.
  • Benjamin Giltner is a first-year graduate student at the George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service.

Russia remains front and center on the international stage.

Ukrainian military officials report approximately 130,000 Russian troops remain on Ukraine’s eastern borders. Russian officials claim American officials have ignored its demands that Ukraine be barred from joining NATO and for the US to pull back its military forces from countries in Eastern Europe.

On the flip side, American officials claim to be defending Ukrainian sovereignty and its right to choose its own alliances. It appears that the US has no choice but to use coercion against Russian aggression in Ukraine — fire against fire. President Joe Biden seems to be following this coercive logic with his decision to send 2,000 more troops to Europe.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US has undertaken this coercive posture against Russia. But will this coercive posture work to deter Moscow? It will not for several reasons.

First, NATO expansion has been, in a word, disastrous. As Fiona Hill makes evident in her recently published op-ed, NATO expansion has not helped the situation in Ukraine, resulting in Russia taking “preemptive” military action.

Ukrainian soldiersUkrainian soldiers patrol on the frontline in Zolote, Ukraine, January 20, 2022.

Wolfgang Schwan/Getty Images

From the Russian perspective, NATO expansion is perceived as a threat to its security. As Stephen Wertheim asserts, NATO and its expansion pose the risk of dragging the US into a great power war with Russia. Not to mention Russian historical paranoia toward external threats to its homeland puts this security dilemma-related issue on steroids.

Its geography is smack dab in the middle of Eurasia — a historically dangerous part of the globe. As Mark Galeotti explains in his book on the short history of Russia, Russians remain attuned to their history in facing — and suffering — external threats and invasions, such as when Nazi Germany invaded in 1941.

Moreover, deterrence on behalf of another country is difficult to make credible against an adversary. Christopher Layne makes this point apparent in “The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present,” where he asserts the complexity in convincing an adversary of one’s commitment to bearing the brunt of defending another country. Vladimir Putin seems to have this weakness of extended deterrence in mind.

Despite these weaknesses to the deterrence and coercion strategy in Ukraine, there remains pushback against those who suggest anything short of sanctions or military force against Russia.

A Russian tank and Russian soldierA Russian T-72B3 tank during drills at the Kadamovsky range in Russia’s Rostov region, December 20, 2021.

Sergey Pivovarov/Reuters

A recent New York Times article suggests that those who are not in favor of militarily confronting Russia over Ukraine belong to the far-right of American politics. This is an absurd assertion.

One could hardly classify all Americans opposed to intervening in Ukraine — including John Mearsheimer and Wertheim — as part of the far-right. In essence, this article attempted to ensure that there is no debate on the American response to the Ukrainian crisis.

As Wertheim makes apparent in his book, “Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of US Global Supremacy,” the foreign-policy establishment judges those who do not espouse American global interventionism or supremacy as “isolationists.” This is foolhardy rhetoric in American foreign policy making — especially within a supposedly vibrant democracy.

Alternative perspectives on the way the US conducts itself in the world are valuable — and are needed now more than ever — especially in the Ukraine crisis.

There are several different pathways other than coercion in preventing the invasion of Ukraine and upholding the peace. First, the US should stop sending weapons to Ukraine. Sending conventional weapons will only result in more feelings of insecurity among Putin and the Russians.

Members of the Kyiv Territorial Defense Unit are trained in an industrial area on January 15, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine.Kyiv Territorial Defense Unit members are trained in an industrial area of Kyiv, January 15, 2022.

Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

One possible solution is for Ukraine to become a neutral country between NATO and Russia. Essentially, this would put Ukraine on a similar path to that of Finland during the Cold War. This neutral position could permit Kyiv to become an increasingly established democracy.

Finally, while a complete withdrawal of US weapons from former Soviet bloc countries will be unforeseeable anytime soon, there could be a pathway to conventional and nuclear arms control and reduction between the US and Russia.

Such a move would be similar to that of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) Treaty and Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty I (START). Of course, the prerequisite to these arms reduction talks would be a relaxation of tensions over Ukraine.

Diplomacy is a messy and complex business. It is unusual for a country to achieve all of its ideals and initial goals, making compromise necessary. Moreover, ruling out diplomacy makes alternative paths — including war — appear as more viable options. That’s a risk we can’t afford to take.

Benjamin Giltner is a first-year graduate student at the George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service. He is pursuing a track in national security and diplomacy, as well as concentrations in international politics and grand strategy, and conflict and development. Benjamin is interested in issues pertaining to grand strategy, Europe, diplomacy, international politics, Russia, China, national security, and conflict resolution.

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