Putin is Right about One Thing

It is generally held that in the international arena nations do and should act out of national self-interest.  Accordingly, moral considerations, in the words of the canonical 450BC “Melian Dialogue” of Thucydides, are only for equals and otherwise the strong do what they will and the weak obey.  Of course, others might argue that such thinking is atavistic in light of the 2005 UN World Summit and the agreement of all UN members on their responsibility to protect (R2P) the citizens of all states from mass atrocities such as genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, or crimes against humanity that are today occurring daily in Ukraine.

Given that this norm is at best aspirational and has no authoritative enforcement mechanism, we are sadly asked to think about the horrific war in Ukraine in terms only of strategic national interest, including whether Putin is right in thinking that Ukraine truly matters geopolitically. (As a Jew, I do so with difficulty, having believed, wrongly, that “never again,” meant never again for all peoples.)

Putin is far from being mentally unfit -- even if he horribly miscalculated -- as he realizes that with an enslaved Ukraine, Russia can aspire once again to great power status and, without it, it can’t.  In terms of geography, Ukraine is the second-largest state in Europe, blessed with fertile soil, abundant natural resources, a likely prosperous future, and populated, we now know, by citizens cut from a wholly different and heroic cloth than most of us in the West.  It was and continues to be the breadbasket of Europe and much of the rest of the world.  Depending on which geopolitical side it lands -- unlike so many NATO member states -- it will play an important role in shaping the balance of power in Europe, if not the world, for the rest of this century, and the balance of power still matters because it is the foundation on which great-power relations rest.

Europe is currently engulfed in the largest land war since the end of World War II, yet NATO has largely been missing in action at this critical moment. NATO, in a fashion similar to domestic welfare agencies, has created dependent vassal states lacking in the courage to defend themselves and the requisite autonomy to act independently of their imperial master.  In short, NATO has sapped dependent nations of the will and need to fight as they luxuriate in the corrupting and decadent belief that the United States will, when the time comes, save them once again.  (But as the United States after serving as one of the three guarantors of the territorial integrity of Ukraine in the OSCE’s Budapest Memorandum of 1994 has failed to honor its commitment, maybe they should rethink this).  France’s Emmanuel Macron is right, European nations need to build back the capacity and the necessary virtue to defend themselves.  If they are unable or unwilling to do so, then it isn’t the job of young Americans and American tax dollars to do so for decadent nations unwilling to fight for their countries’ freedom.  The American defenders of NATO, wrongly I believe, hold that it is in America’s national interest to do so, quite likely due to their belief that European nations are too hedonistic to act collectively in defense of their own freedom.  It is time for European nations to stand on their own two feet rather than being vassals of the United States.

Similarly, one must consider the underlying logic of NATO’s collective defense posture. Isn’t the underlying logic of the United States towards European weakness in tension with the dominant realist criteria of strategic interest described above and that putatively prevents the West’s active intervention in Ukraine?  If only strategic interests matter, why then should a country, say North Macedonia, believe that when invaded and occupied in a day with nuclear war threatened by Putin that NATO, i.e. the United States, will rise to the occasion and protect it against a violent aggressor? Our failure to support Ukraine more actively must necessarily raise such questions in the minds of American dependencies in NATO and this should lead them in the direction of independence, autonomy, and moral renewal.

Let me ask, too, with the exception of brave Georgia, why have the countries of Eastern Europe, especially the larger ones -- many who have acted extraordinarily unselfishly in their exemplary humanitarian efforts -- failed overtly to come to the defense of Ukraine?  Shouldn’t they have been willing, due to their shared history of suffering from Russian oppression and their regional proximity, to have transferred their Soviet-era jets to Ukraine or maybe, too, have committed troops as “little green men” without hiding behind the unforthcoming imperial cover provided by their putative protector, the United States? The MIG fiasco in particular did not only make the current American administration’s fecklessness apparent but, in dissimilar ways that of Poland’s, whose lack of courage in its leadership is in direct contrast with that of Ukraine’s citizens and leadership.  Is the answer as to why NATO’s eastern members -- countries maybe still filled with men of daring and courage -- have overtly failed to act militarily due to the slavish welfare-like dependency that America and NATO have fostered in comparison to the bravery so apparent in Ukraine?

That being said, maybe the one-time brave Poles and others are simply waiting for their time to act virtuously and heroically.  If true, why don’t Poland and Lithuania, threaten -- it need not be actually done -- a land blockade of Kaliningrad (former Konigsberg) in response to Putin’s siege of Kyiv?  They can threaten something reminiscent of the US naval blockade of Cuba in 1962 and/or the USSR’s land blockade of Berlin in 1948-49.  Again, it need never take place, but the threat of Polish and Lithuanian forces arraying themselves on their own sovereign territory might be salutary for both countries in truly recovering their independence and virtue and, in rejecting America’s benign imperialism and, potentially useful in further taxing Russia’s overextended military.

In conclusion, if commonplace morality were to be observed, in which Ukraine comes as close as any state in the past fifty years to being unequivocally in the right and acting virtuously, the United States should be far more energetically assisting Ukraine in its own defense.  This is our legal and moral duty under the UN Charter and, equally or more so under the unanimous UN R2P 2005 agreement to protect other nations from mass atrocities. 

If, however, these internationally recognized norms are to be ignored and we are to act narrowly on our national self-interest, we should be doing the same for a nation that has uniquely earned the right through its government’s and people’s bravery to be allied with states in the West. America might remember that its independence was won due to the courage of its citizens and the massive intervention of a great power in support of it and that bankrupted itself in the process, France. Putin is right in his valuation of the importance of Ukraine in his pursuit of Russian imperial dominance, even if wrong about almost everything else.  In opposition to his goals and in pursuit of a balance of power, Ukraine is worth fighting for, the rest of Eastern Europe, up to now, much less, and NATO not at all.

Barry Shain teaches at Colgate University, specializing in eighteenth-century political theory, in particular that of the American Founding period.

Image: G20 Argentina

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