The Biden government has difficulties managing relations between Russia and Ukraine
It was a bad month for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi. After Zelensky was “blinded” by President Joe Biden’s decision to “blind” sanctions against Nordstrom II, the Russia-Germany liquefied natural gas pipeline, he was also denied a meeting with Biden before he did Russian President Vladimir Putin meets.
Yesterday, Zelensky took the State Department by surprise by announcing on Twitter that NATO had approved his country’s membership, leading to a quick reprimand from Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and a rejection from President Biden himself.
Don’t worry, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan insists that President Biden “stands firmly for Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and aspirations as we move forward”.
Zelenskyi should be forgiven for his doubts. He is now beginning to understand how the Polish national leadership felt in 1939, when the British and French governments gave guarantees to support Poland in the event of an attack by Germany. The guarantee turned out to be worthless. London and Paris were unable to stop the destruction of Poland, but neither did they try.
In 1939, when Stalin and Hitler agreed to the German-Soviet non-aggression pact, Berlin and Moscow needed each other. The Soviets wanted German technology and technical know-how for Soviet military development, as well as a border with the west 300 miles closer. Germany wanted Soviet oil, mineral and agricultural resources for military operations against the Western allies.
Germany’s appetite for Russian resources may be greater today than it was in 1939. Germany wants to end its dependence on nuclear power by drastically increasing its use of liquefied natural gas. In contrast to 1939, the Germans do not see Russia as an existential military threat to Germany.
But Russia’s position vis-à-vis Germany has also changed dramatically. Despite its smaller size after the loss of World War II, Germany’s economic strength far surpasses Russia’s, the two states no longer share borders, and Russia’s military strength – albeit impressive compared to most European states – is only a fraction of that of the Soviet Union. To be honest, Moscow lacks the strength and ability to launch offensive operations against the West.
Most Russians believe that the takeover of Crimea is evidence that Russia has regained the great power status it lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but Russian salaries remain low, food prices are rising, and the number of hospitals is rising sinks. Most Russians also believe that Putin’s policy in Ukraine is primarily a response to NATO enlargement.
However, there is also evidence that a Russian war to subjugate Ukraine would be opposed by a majority of Russians who believe that both countries should be independent yet friendly, with no hard borders, visas or customs barriers. Perhaps more importantly, both Putin and Zelenskyi know that there are at least 30 million Ukrainians who see themselves as fundamentally different and different from Russians in terms of ethnicity, language and culture. These Ukrainians will fight stubbornly to defend their country against any Russian invasion. A war to subjugate Ukraine would be bloody and costly for Moscow as it could threaten the Putin regime itself.
The masquerade is over. Washington recognizes the limits of American military power. Washington and its reluctant NATO allies are even less willing to help Ukraine fend off determined Russian military action than London and Paris were 80 years ago. Make no mistake: Washington’s strategy of engaging European governments with hostile policies towards Moscow is losing steam.
Fortunately for the West, Putin is not Stalin and Russia is not the Soviet Union. Moscow cannot give in to its historical impulse to dominate its western neighbors in order not to harm its economy and society. Germany’s refusal to cooperate with Washington in its plans for permanent hostility towards Moscow and Beijing is clear and public.
The Ukrainians are now learning that the Ukrainians, like the Finns in 1939, are on their own. If Kiev adopts the Finnish model that ultimately succeeded and abandons the self-deceptive Polish model that failed, then Kiev will be much more likely to achieve the prosperity and security of Ukraine without Washington’s involvement than with it.
Do these developments bode well for the Biden-Putin summit? It’s unclear.
In response to President Kennedy’s request for a meeting with no specific agenda, Khrushchev and JFK met on June 3, 1961 in Vienna, Austria. The meeting confirmed Khrushchev’s suspicions. JFK wasn’t just inexperienced; JFK seemed weak and aimless. “He just hit me,” said JFK James Reston of theNew York Times. “That was the worst in my life. He devastated me. “
With every measure of national power imaginable, the United States towered over the Soviet Union in 1961, but JFK’s disappointing performance in Vienna still had repercussions. Within a few weeks, the Soviets were testing JFK by dividing Berlin with a wall that stood until 1989 and 22 months later with the Cuban Missile Crisis.
President Putin will be more polite than Nikita Khrushchev, but Putin knows that Washington has gone too far in Ukraine and is currently supporting an ailing Atlantic Alliance. In that sense, as Ambassador George Kennan warned, every mistake is a product of the mistakes that preceded it. Therefore, Americans and Ukrainians should treat Western media coverage of the Biden-Putin summit with skepticism and judge the event based on what emerges from it.
For President Biden, the question arises: Can he throw the confrontational behavior towards Russia on Russia’s doorstep and instead work with Berlin, Moscow and Kiev on a sustainable solution that meets European, Ukrainian and Russian security needs?
Douglas Macgregor, Retired colonel of the U.S. Army and former senior advisor to the Secretary of Defense, is a Ph.D., author of five books, and a senior fellow with fellow The American Conservative.