I have a sense we’re watching history unfold at present. I’ve always wondered how major conflicts – world wars – really truly started, because they’ve always seemed irrational and avoidable, and surely sensible people would have acted to prevent them. I’ve read plenty of books and taken history classes on the origins and causes of both world wars, but I’ve never really understood the actuality of the day by day inexorable move from peace to war.
But having a chance to live through such a process at present gives me no great pleasure. I should also state, up-front, that while I strongly disapprove of Russia’s actions, and feel very sympathetic for Ukraine, I’m not sure the US has (or should have) a dog in that fight and neither does it have any clearly strategic interests. Perhaps now is the time to finally accept we’re not the world’s policeman, and if that is the case, we should stop our empty posturing that just makes us look weak and ridiculous.
This article rushes to tell us that the US is not obligated to intervene in Ukraine, but it overlooks an interesting complicating factor. This factor dates way back to the early 1990s. Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union on August 24, 1991. Russia gained “independence” from the Soviet Union on December 26, 1991, and in doing so, the USSR, which was always essentially Russia plus whatever other countries it could sweep into its umbrella union, ceased to exist.
During the rule of the Soviet Union, the country had nuclear weapons distributed around several of its member states. With a large navy base in Sevastopol, and five major “Rocket Army” bases in Ukraine, almost one third of the Soviet arsenal found itself owned by newly independent Ukraine, instantly causing Ukraine to become the third most powerful nuclear nation in the world, with over 1,700 warheads variously on ICBMs or aircraft-launched bombs.
This alarmed the western world, and there were credible concerns that Ukraine and other former Soviet countries that also now found themselves overnight transformed into nuclear powers might be or become unstable and lawless, and their weapons vulnerable to being seized by all sorts of terrorist groups. So, the west (mainly the UK and US), using the traditional incentive of paying money and offering to do most of the “heavy lifting” to remove the nuclear weapons, persuaded Ukraine to relinquish its nuclear arsenal in 1994. This was documented in the “Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances” in which the US and UK (the two western signatories) and Russia, also a signatory, made various undertakings, including these as relevant provisions
1. The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine;
2. The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defence or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations;
4. The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance to Ukraine, as a non-nuclear-weapon State party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, if Ukraine should become a victim of an act of aggression or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used;
The document was signed by the Presidents of Ukraine (Leonid Kuchma), Russia (Boris Yeltsin), and the US (Bill Clinton), and the Prime Minister of the UK (John Major). It seems like a ringing and strident endorsement of Ukraine’s inviolable independence, and replacing their nuclear capabilities with the solemn promises of the UK, US and Russia to do whatever might need to be done on Ukraine’s behalf in the future. Or does it?
A more careful reading shows these grandiose statements are actually rather weak and ambivalent and become totally vague when it comes to “So what do we do if someone/anyone attacks and invades Ukraine?”. It is a typical example of politicians promising much but delivering little.
The agreement was tested in February 2014 when Russian forces seized the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine, enabling it to gain control of the former Soviet navy base in Sevastopol. At the same time Russia gave support to (or, depending on which version of the truth you prefer, instigated and was the prime source of) “separatists” in Eastern Ukraine who were apparently wishing either their own independence or to become part of Russia.
Ukraine complained that Russia’s actions were in contravention of the Budapest Memorandum and asked the west to help. The west, in the form of such stirring inspirational leadership as our Secretary of State at the time, John Kerry, duly met, enjoyed some expensive meals, and responded by doing nothing. Oh, Canadian PM Stephen Harper, in a meeting of the G7 at a Nuclear Security Summit in March that year offered to work with the Ukrainian government towards a free trade agreement. The “threat” of entering into a free trade agreement with Ukraine did not frighten Russian at all.
Explaining its refusal to respond, the US said the Memorandum was not legally binding, it was instead a “political commitment”. Unstated was the truth that everyone knows – political commitments are not worth the paper they’re written upon. In 2014, the Europeans (not that anyone cared), and desperate to avoid a confrontation, went even further and said there was no obligation on the UK and US, and the Memorandum merely indicated a “degree of resolve” but “at the end of the day, what can you do?” – a remarkably stupid comment that artfully ignores the obvious response to military aggression.
In 2018, with ongoing tensions, border flare-ups, and threats from Russia, Ukraine again appealed to the Budapest Memorandum signatories to make good on their implied promises. Clearly, nothing happened then either.
This is definitely a case of “a stitch in time saves nine”. If the US and UK had asserted their willingness to respond to a “minor” invasion in 2014, we’d not be staring at a “major” invasion now. You’d have thought the Europeans in particular would have learned that lesson in the 1930s.
And now, well, we’re still not certain about the totality of what is happening and will happen, but one thing is for sure, Ukraine is probably wishing it still had a few of the nukes it gave up in exchange for a “political commitment”. Meanwhile, other nations are observing exactly what a “political commitment” means and how the west responds to such an obligation, and are doubtless pondering the implications and wondering what would happen if, say for example, another nation that shall be nameless but which begins with “Ch” and ends with “na” now were to invade Taiwan.
We are currently in the position where President Putin has amassed almost 200,000 troops on the Ukrainian border, has unilaterally “resolved” the question of the separatist contested regions of Ukraine by declaring them independent and under his protection (which ironically means not at all independent), while President Biden has responded by asking Amex to cut up Putin’s son-in-law’s Amex card and refusing to grant visitor visas to half a dozen or so wealthy Russians. Oh, and we’ve sent fewer than 1,000 troops to Poland, safely out of harm’s way, where they’ll do nothing.
Mr Biden says he will hold President Putin accountable for his actions, and his rhetoric continues to escalate. But what do his threats mean in terms of measurable impactful responses? This article makes it clear that we’re not going to do anything “on the ground”. As best I can tell, and as best President Putin can see, Mr Biden’s “threats” mean nothing. The ridiculously small series of sanctions against wealthy Russians also mean nothing – the affected people have had weeks to transfer their funds away from western banks and either into opaque crypto-currency accounts or into banks in other nations that won’t do the US’ bidding.
If President Biden isn’t going to do anything meaningful – and I’m happy that he doesn’t – shouldn’t he just shut up? Each extra empty statement he thunders forth makes him and us look weaker, not stronger. The more he talks, the more obvious the gap between talk and action.
After decades of economic sanctions against a wide range of different countries, and little or no result or positive outcome in any case, it has become obvious to all that dictatorships don’t care about economic sanctions. “Bring ’em on” is their response. It is also worth noting that with China on Russia’s side currently, to say nothing of various Middle East nations, economic sanctions are at best a very weak form of response. What does Russia need that it either can’t make, source from the Middle East and/or China and/or assorted other “non-aligned” nations, or make do without? Threatening sanctions is a response that reassures aggressors, because the unstated but obvious part of that threat is “Don’t worry, we won’t fight back for real”.
I repeat, I am definitely not suggesting that Ukraine is our fight, although I am concerned at how we can pretend the Budapest Memorandum means nothing. But if Ukraine isn’t our fight, let’s say so, rather than posture with empty threats and vacuous statements that just causes President Putin to laugh and feel even more empowered to be even more aggressive, while broadcasting to the Chinese that what we say means nothing because what we do will be meaningless.
The jingoistic statements about our armed forces being on high alert, and moving our dismayingly vulnerable carriers from one part of the globe to another, mean nothing if that is not a prelude to an active deployment when Russian boots and bombs start crossing the Ukrainian border (which is now underway).
President Putin is a simple man and should be easy to read and understand. He is rigidly fixed on achieving certain goals, and will accept a lot of sacrifice as part of that process. He can see the weakness that surrounds him in the form of almost every western leader (headlines earlier in the week told of how President Macron from France spent some hours pleading with Mr Putin). Pleading with him will not change his mind. He has no pity or sympathy or “good side” in terms of compromising just for compromise’s sake. He doesn’t care if other leaders don’t like him. Unfortunately, our leaders, obsessed with “saving the planet” and “equality” and “multi-genderism” have no comprehension or understanding that such people exist, and think they can shame him into submission. “Don’t you know that each bomb you detonate, each plane you fly, harms the planet?”
Mr Putin only understands and responds to one thing. An equal source of raw, unabridged, fully deployed force and a guarantee that it will be used, not cautiously, timidly, and anxiously with concern for “collateral damage” and seeking to avoid actually harming anyone or anything; but with full savagery and a bloodthirsty eagerness to cause the maximum gratuitous harm and damage to every square inch of contested territory and every person and thing on each square inch. Because that is the way Russia under Putin’s leadership wages war, or so we are told in articles about apparent plans to attack Kyiv, hit-lists of people who will be killed, massive artillery bombardments, and so on. It is the way Russia has always waged war.
I didn’t listen to President Putin’s speech earlier this week, but accounts of it suggest this may be just the first step on a broader plan to reconstitute the Soviet Union in some form, or at least to project Russian power (not “influence” but power) into former Soviet states. If that is what he says, we should believe him. There was an earlier dictator who even wrote a book about his plans (while in a Munich prison) and subsequently proceeded to do exactly what he wrote about, to the astonishment of pacifist leaders in Europe who were braying about world peace and disarmament. Aggressive strong countries prey on passive weak countries.
We can’t afford another round of appeasements and capitulations, because the war that will follow, while likely only lasting a few weeks, risks seeing all major population centers, everywhere in the world, reduced to radioactive rubble. Mr Putin has already threatened that when talking about a level of response the world has never seen before. Russian and China have plans to survive nuclear war, they don’t consider it unwinnable. We have no plans, and foolishly project our own terror/horror of nuclear war onto our enemies, but they have no such fear.
We need a realistic approach to Russia and its leader, not just for today, but for the ongoing future. Our earlier mishandled approach and lack of cohesive (and coherent) “strategy” has brought us to this point. If we’d strongly reacted to Russia’s adventurism in 2014, we’d not have encouraged them to take more now. If we’d treated Russia better after independence, and responded to their desire to align with the west and become “just like us” we’d be allies rather than enemies now. We are more naturally allies than enemies.
The worst part of this, though, has to be the urgent meetings of the US Security Council to discuss the matter. These will achieve absolutely nothing. Why? Because the permanent western powers on the council – certainly the UK and US – will veto any resolutions supporting Russia, while Russia and China will naturally veto any resolutions condemning Russia or imposing consequences or authorizing an UN military response. Like every other matter of global strategic importance, a total impasse.
The UN is great for passing “feel good” resolutions that mean nothing, but now there’s a genuine immediate threat to the planet, what will they do to save the day? Nothing at all.
The cruelest irony is that if we descend into nuclear war now, it won’t be because of the strength of our response. It will be because of the weakness of our last decade and more of empty posturing, broken promises, and passively doing nothing. Yes, the silly slogan is correct, but incomplete : Peace through superior firepower, and a demonstrated resolve to use it.