Last week Florida governor Ron DeSantis kicked the foreign policy establishment hornets’ nest in his response to a questionnaire Tucker Carlson sent to potential 2024 Republican primary candidates. Asked about our Ukraine policy, DeSantis called the Russo-Ukrainian war a “territorial dispute,” which his critics claimed suggested a moral equivalence between the two sides. But such criticism and dudgeon still leave unaddressed DeSantis’ questions and caveats about our “vital national interests” being served by our open-ended, yet hesitant support of Ukraine.
Politics, of course, is a big reason for the attacks on DeSantis, as well as our muddled policies on Ukraine. You know politics is afoot when ad hominem attacks and distortions are deployed. Phrases used to smear DeSantis like “pro-Russia stance” and “sides with Russia against the West” are political dog-whistles for inciting attacks on a likely presidential candidate whose youth, political success, and anti-“woke” pushback scare the Dems and Republican Petainists.
This political weaponization of “Russia,” moreover, is a continuation of the 2016 campaign and the subsequent assaults on Donald Trump’s administration and person, fueled by the big lies of “Russia collusion” claims that Trump was under Putin’s thumb. Wasn’t that why Trump was “soft” on Putin?
That canard is easily exploded. It wasn’t Trump who, through Dmitri Medvedev, promised Putin “flexibility” on missile defense systems for Poland and Czechoslovakia, and followed through by stopping their delivery. It wasn’t Trump’s administration that prioritized a solicitous “reset” of relations with Russia. It wasn’t Trump who scoffed at his presidential election opponent’s warnings about Putin’s malign intentions, by saying “The Eighties called and they want their foreign policy back,” or who met Putin’s 2014 adventurism in Crimea with carefully parsed diplo-rhetoric and flabby sanctions.
Of course, all that went on during the Obama-Biden administration. So what happened since then that turned Putin from a candidate for a “reset” in relations, to an existential threat to our national security? Was it Hillary Clinton and the Dems losing the election? In other words, partisan politics of the sort we see in the attacks on DeSantis.
After all, Putin hasn’t changed, nor have his revanchist ambitions to restore by force an ethnic Russian Empire. Nor has his penchant for utter brutality in dealing with his enemies. The bombardment of Grozny during the Second Chechen War in 1999 left urban devastation not seen in Europe since WWII, until the current indiscriminate missile and artillery attacks on Ukraine’s cities and civilians. That’s also the same Putin who in 2008 snatched South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia, then in 2014 moved on to eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
So back then, where were all today’s critics who scold those who question the reasons for our unlimited materiel and fiscal support of Ukraine without a plausible, specific plan for winning or even ending the war? The warnings about the moral hazard of letting Putin get away with taking territory by force were just as cogent in 2008 and 2014. How can we now believe these critics, or take their heated rhetoric seriously, when the current crisis is the poison fruit of the obvious moral hazard created when Putin was appeased in 2008 and 2014?
Nor is critics’ credibility enhanced by the piece-meal, slow-motions arming of Ukraine, or by Biden’s compromise of NATO’s deterrent power by ruling out from the start troops on the ground, or publicly doubting the efficacy of his own sanctions, or forbidding weapons like F-16s and missiles that can reach Russian territory.
And why, given those stakes, did we do nothing for nearly a year as Putin positioned his invading force on Ukraine’s border? If Russia is such a dire threat to the “rules-based international order” that our own interests and security are in danger, shouldn’t we be more vigorous in minimizing that risk?
That failure to act brings us to the NATO nations, who the hawks claim will be in Putin’s sights. Their long refusal to provide sufficient money for building militaries of a size and lethality able to meet Putin’s challenge in the east, has encouraged his aggression. And if they were serious about that threat, wouldn’t they have been concerned about getting themselves hooked on Russia’s natural gas and oil, instead of snickering at Trump’s prescient warnings at the 2019 NATO summit in Brussels? Would Europe and the U.S. over the last two years have compromised their energy supplies––and national security–– by chasing the ignis fatuus of “net-zero carbon”?
This rich-world’s fantasy alienates much of the world that needs cheap energy in order to grow their economies and improve their people’s lives. For them, China, Russia, and Iran––the last two possessing nearly 14.3% of the world’s oil reserves, and all three uninterested in eliminating fossil fuels––appear a better bet than a smug, scolding, virtue-signaling rich West that is willing to sacrifice the Rest on the altar of the “green” cult.
Imagine, on the other hand, NATO nations with respectable militaries befitting their wealth and global presence. Imagine a U.S. with energy independence and resources that could meet Europe’s needs so those nations don’t have to go through North African cut-outs to buy Putin’s sanctioned energy. Imagine a U.S. that spends the money on defense needed to back up its “rules-based international order” rhetoric and lofty declarations of principles like the sanctity of national borders. In that alternate universe, would Putin have dared to challenge NATO?
But even in this world, NATO nations are collectively rich enough to afford militaries that could deter Putin’s adventurism. European NATO members include five of the world’s 10 richest nations by GDP (U.S, Germany, UK, France, Italy). Those four European nations’ combined nominal GDP is $12.5 trillion. If a nation, these four would rank the third-richest in the world. Add in just four more of the 30 NATO nations (Spain, Netherlands, Turkey, and Norway) and these eight European NATO nations combined have a GDP of $16.07 trillion, just short of China’s $17.7 trillion. Russia’s GDP, by the way, is just under $1.8 trillion. It’s not money that is lacking, but civilizational confidence and morale.
This wealth also raises questions about the dangers of a Putin victory like those set out by the Wall Street Journal: “And what if Russia swallows all or most of Ukraine? Mr. Putin will then set up shop closer to the Polish border and be even stronger as a malign force in Europe. The U.S. will be drawn deeper into the continent’s problems, not free to focus on the threat posed by China, which in any event will conclude that the U.S. is weaker.”
First, China already has concluded we’re weaker, which is why they sent a spy-balloon over our missile silos, and is canoodling with Russia and Iran. More important, this scenario is weakened by Putin’s current difficulties in subduing Ukraine, whose economy is one-ninth the size of Russia’s. Corruption and incompetence in Russia’s weapons procurement, as well as the Ukrainians’ fierce resistance and bravery, have led to a stalemate. Nor are there, as of now, plausible grounds for achieving a cease-fire and negotiating an armistice, let alone a peace treaty. If the rich NATO nations continue to stint military spending on forces impressive enough to concentrate Putin’s mind, the meat-grinder will continue until Ukraine runs out of troops.
And even if Putin should end up with Eastern Ukraine, an attack on Poland would be unlikely, especially given that Poland is building up its military capacity despite its $675 billion GDP. How much more unlikely would be an attack against any coalition of European NATO countries? As John Bolton asked recently, “Where is the hidden Russian army that threatens NATO? If it exists, why isn’t it already deployed in Ukraine?” The NATO nations have exaggerated Russia’s military capabilities and let Putin bluff them into continuing a half-hearted support of Ukraine. Bolton again:
“We support Ukraine’s defending itself, but not enough to be too effective. This formula for protracted, inconclusive war ignores risks to America as well as Ukraine. Critical U.S. munitions supplies are being depleted, and our current capacity to restock is insufficient, mirroring concerns about replacing our aging nuclear-powered submarine fleet while also supplying Australia under the Aukus deal.”
As the Romans used to say, right now the NATO nations have a wolf by the ears. Given the domestic political costs of escalating their support enough to settle the conflict, we will muddle along with our Mr. Micawber foreign policy, just waiting for “something to turn up” while we politicize and try to silence dissent. No wonder Iran, Russia, and China are licking their chops.