Unquiet on Eastern Fronts
Terry H. Schwadron
Jan. 11, 2022
There is a distinctly depressing odor from the stream of developments about U.S.-Russia strife, both from the futility of diplomatic talks and from the ever-present threats of bullies.
Hope for success aside, a big worry is that we refuse to learn anything from the past.
Let’s acknowledge that the deteriorating reality of tens of thousands of Russian guns aimed at Ukraine — all towards restoring some historic Russian nationalism that has nothing to do with making lives of anyone better — is awful. There is only the possibility of disaster ahead for millions.
Understanding the twisted efforts to counter the Russians while avoiding direct conflict also feels tired and less than effective. As I read the foreign policy experts, it is just as likely to see a complete miss this week as any demonstrable success from talks between the United States and Russia, and then involving NATO, led by U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, and Russia get under way in Geneva, Brussels and Vienna.
For much of the talks, Ukrainian officials, presumably those with the biggest stake in the outcome, are not even at the table.
If success is Russian withdrawal, that seems a doubtful realistic outcome.
To block any potential invasion by Russians massed on the Ukrainian border, Joe Biden has vowed extensive economic sanctions and future support for Ukrainian guerilla efforts should there be an invasion. While offering to hear Russia out on a variety of concerns and indicating openness on some incremental issues including joint military exercises in Eastern Europe, Biden is holding fast to threats of these sanctions.
Biden is resisting demands for a permanent block against Ukraine or other nations to join NATO.
We see that Russian President Vladimir Putin is just as insistent that Ukrainians share historic cultural ties to Russia. It’s the same claim as Russia used in 2014 in occupying and annexing the Crimea and that Putin has spouted for years. At heart, it is about restoring the greatness of a broken Russian empire that faces internal and external pressures.
One can only wonder at the effect of Donald Trump’s undercutting of NATO and his admiration for Putin, even while sponsoring some sanctions, has helped bring about.
Listening with Attitude
It’s all well and good that Blinken is telling all that “We will listen,” but Russia cannot impose its demands “in an atmosphere of escalation and threat with a gun pointed to Ukraine’s head.”
The question is not how resolute Blinken or Biden is, but whether Russia is willing to pay whatever the price that NATO allies set, and whether European nations will stand with the United States in enforcing whatever sanctions emerge.
For that matter, it is not clear that the United States has a clear plan or widespread support for it. With our domestic politics so divided, it is an open question as to whether Biden has full support for what would happen next.
As evidence, there is no talk in Washington of offering offensive weapons to Ukraine or deploying U.S. or NATO troops to physically defend Ukraine. We have been sending defensive weapons against Russia’s will as well as more humanitarian goods.
Ukraine’s leaders see themselves as left out of any negotiations and are reaching out on their own to Russia, reports The New York Times. Isn’t this just what we saw happen in the talks with the Taliban over Afghanistan — only to see a U.S.-brokered deal lead months later to the Afghan government abdication and the terrible confusing and divisive withdrawal?
“Fearing the talks will yield little or nothing, and with President Biden’s statement that the United States would not intervene militarily if Russia invades, Ukraine has quietly pursued its own negotiating track with Moscow,” said The Times. “No decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine,” the Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, posted on Twitter.
To satisfy its own internal political needs, NATO already has more than 50 diplomats at the negotiating table, likely too many people and interests to arrive at any effect solution.
Do Sanctions Work?
Meanwhile, the Biden administration is reported to be assembling the set of financial, trade and military sanctions that would be brought to bear against Russia.
According to the reports, the proposals include cutting off Russia’s largest financial institutions from global transactions, imposing an embargo on American-made or American-designed technology needed for defense-related and consumer industries, and arming insurgents in Ukraine who would conduct what would amount to a guerrilla war against a Russian military occupation, if it comes to that.
We’ve used sanctions before, of course. There were sanctions against Russia after the Crimea invasion, and again after 2016 election interference and the SolarWinds cyber-attacks. Plus, there were sanctions against Iran and North Korea over nuclear weapons development — all with mixed results and less-than-complete enforcement.
The open question here: Do sanctions work?
The Times reports that the White House has been reviewing those previous sanctioning efforts. It has found that while sanctions damaged Russia’s economy, they failed to the diplomatic objective. Russia still holds Crimea has ignored most of the diplomatic commitments it made in the negotiations that followed, The Times noted.
This time the White House would target Russia’s largest financial institutions and deny export of parts for computers and military systems. There is talk of cutting off Russia from international banking systems.
Eventually damaging Russia’s battered economy likely will affect Russian consumers rather than Russian military policy, however.
Russia and China have talked about working together against U.S. global interests, however, and Russia can decide to turn off its gas and oil flows to Europe.
The only sure thing here is that intransigence and power concerns top all other agendas — whatever the lessons of history. Sorry, I find that a depressing message, and it is difficult to see any tangible lasting success emerging from these talks.