Ukraine and the Thucydides Trap - I
by Michael Brenner on 01 Apr 2023 0 Comment

The importance of Ukraine, in the eyes of American officials, goes far beyond the country’s intrinsic geopolitical or economic value. That was as true in 2014 as it was in 2021 – and most certainly now. The United States’ heavy investment in the campaign to pull Ukraine into the Western orbit signals what are Washington’s broader strategic goals. To put it simply: the crisis is rooted in Washington’s preoccupation with Russia. It has very little to do with Ukraine per se. That benighted country has provided the occasion, not the cause of the current confrontation.  


For the past 20-plus years – since Vladimir Putin’s accession to power - the denaturing of Russia as a significant power on the European scene (much less the global scene) has been a bedrock objective of American foreign policy. The country’s Phoenix-like rise from the ashes has been unsettling to Washington policy-makers, politicos, think tankers alike. Even the far more menacing threat to the United States’ dominant global position posed by China has not diminished that concern. Indeed, the dreaded prospect of a Sino-Russian partnership has hardened the ambition to weaken – if not eliminate entirely – the Russia factor in the American strategic equation.  


The current Russo-American duel in Ukraine is the inexorable outcome of mounting tensions generated shortly after the inauguration of the Biden administration. That sense of crisis in turn was at once cause and reinforced effect of a flareup in the smouldering embers of the initial conflagration dating from the Washington-instigated Maidan coup of March 2014. The successive phases of that fraught situation should be placed in the context of growing hostility in Russo-American relations generally during that period.


Its milestones were Moscow’s intervention in the Syrian civil war, the repeated actions of successive American administrations in breaking or withdrawing from a series of arms control agreements dating from the Cold War which raised Moscow’s concerns about Washington’s military capabilities and intentions: NATO’s irrepressible enlargement eastwards (with the attendant deployment of ballistic missile defense systems in Poland and Romania being a particular source of worry – easily convertible into offensive missile launcher platforms), the sponsored ‘colour revolutions’ around Russia’s periphery, and the emotional anti-Russia sentiment aroused by the manipulated ‘Russiagate’ affair. Hence, Ukraine represents the ultimate breakdown in relations between Moscow and Washington.  


From April of 2021 onwards, the contours of the unfolding American strategy toward Ukraine-cum-Russia rapidly gained clarity. There is substantial evidence that President Biden and his senior foreign policy officials made a judgment that there was reason, and opportunity, to rekindle the Ukraine affair.


The objectives were two-fold: i) to resolve the festering twin issues of Crimea and the secessionist regions of the Donbass on Western terms that would restore the full territorial sovereignty of Ukraine – thereby, paving the way for its formal incorporation into NATO &/or the European Union; and ii) to weaken Russia either by intimidating Moscow to make crucial concessions in line with Western visions of Eastern Europe’s political space or by exerting military pressure via the deploying of a much strengthened Ukrainian force on the Donbass border that threatened actual hostilities – whether a Ukrainian irridentist attack across the line of control or Russian preemption. The latter variations would lead to the imposition of draconian economic sanctions, already prepared, whose implementation was eagerly sought by influential parties within and outside the Biden administration.(1) 


The prevailing view of the war’s outbreak pays scant attention to this confrontational thinking. Nor does it give proper weight to the aggressive moves by the Kiev government in line with the American strategy. Russia’s military assault on February 24 cannot rightly be said to be entirely ‘unprovoked’ – justified or not. The marked build-up of Ukraine forces along the contact line, supplied with an abundance of Javelin anti-armour weapons and Sprint air defense missiles, could be seen as foretelling preparations for offensive military operations.


Washington expected, and Moscow understood, that the ensuing crisis would force the West Europeans to go along with a comprehensive economic sanctions package (including NORDSTROM II’s annulment). Crippling sanctions were the centerpiece of the plan to use the Ukrainian crisis to catalyze regime change in Russia. There was complete agreement among Biden’s foreign policy team on the proposition that those draconian measures would produce a collapse of the fragile, supposedly one-dimensional Russian economy. (An ancillary benefit for the U.S. being greater European dependence on America for its energy resources – in particular, LNG to replace natural gas from Russia).


Moreover, the deepening commercial ties between Russia and the powers of Europe would be severed – probably irreparably. A new Iron Curtain would divide the continent, one that now is marked by a line of blood – Ukrainian blood. That geostrategic reality would free the West to devote its full energies to dealing with China. Everything the United States has done vis-à-vis Ukraine over the past year has been dictated by those interlocking objectives. 


In short, the main target of what Washington did about Ukraine was Russia – with an entrenching of the Europeans’ habitual obedience to Washington a collateral gain. A widespread, hopefully global, boycott of Russian natural gas and oil exports was seen as draining the financial lifeblood from of the country’s economy as revenue from exports dwindled. Together with the planned move to cut Russia out of the SWIFT financial transaction mechanism, the shock to the economy would cause it to implode.


The ruble would collapse, inflation would skyrocket, living standards would tumble, popular discontent would so weaken Putin that he either would be forced to resign or be displaced by a cabal of discontented oligarchs. The outcome would be a weaker Russia beholden to the West or one isolated and impotent. As President Biden would say: “For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power.”(2) 


Common to these optimistic scenarios was the hope that the budding Sino-Russian partnership would be fatally wounded – thereby, shifting the balance in favour of the United States in the forthcoming battle with China for global supremacy. How was the plan designed and decided? In truth, the overall goals had been in place since the Obama administration. The President himself had given his approval to the Maiden coup, it was overseen directly by then Vice-President Joe Biden who acted as the (usually) absentee prefect for Ukraine between March 2014 and January 2016.


The Obama government moved strenuously to block implementation of the Minsk II accord, remonstrating with Merkel and Macron for agreeing to be its underwriters. That is the main reason why both Berlin and Paris never made the slightest move to persuade Kiev to live up to its obligations. The specific operation to provoke a crisis in the Donbass was marinating among influential persons (including Tony Blinken and Jake Sullivan) in neo-con circles during the Trump presidency – whose incoherence and disjointedness prevented the fashioning of any calibrated, concerted policy toward Ukraine or Russia, although the weight of sanctions imposed increased over those four years. 


Strategic Context 


Just as policy toward Ukraine should be viewed in the context of Biden’s tough attitude toward Moscow, so the Russian policy should be placed in the wider context of the new administration’s macro decision to confront rivals – actual or potential – across the board. In other words, full-bore Wolfowitz Doctrine.(3) Pressing Moscow on Ukraine has been companion to the project of diluting the historic commitments made in the ‘One China’ accord with Beijing on Taiwan 50 years earlier, and the casting away of the promised renewal of the nuclear agreement (JPCOA) with Iran by setting rigorous conditions that Washington knew Iran never could accept.


This turbo-charging of well-established American strategic plans was not publicized or even hinted at in public communications (with the exception of the Pentagon’s annual National Defense Review and NATO’s New Strategic Concept).(4) It did not attract interest in the media, nor directly engage the wider foreign policy community which, in any case, gradually had formed a consensus on its basic premises and goals over the preceding 20 years.   


So, the American strategy as depicted above did not emerge fully formed from the mind of Biden administration officials. Its primary elements have been in place for a generation. Yet, the underlying premises seem out of line with strategic realities in a basic respect. Objectively speaking, the United States is more secure from external danger than at any time since before World War I. It has no enemies capable or desirous of using military force against either national territory or its core interests abroad.


China is not an avatar of Imperial Japan and poses quite a different order of challenge. Putin’s Russia is not an avatar of the Soviet Union in ideological terms or great power terms. Its promotion of Russian national interests and dedication to securing its place as a significant player on the world stage is what big countries always have done. These circumstances seemingly open the possibility to pursue policies that aim at accommodation with those two powers. 


However, the American perspective on its place in the world deviates from this line of thinking in two critical respects. First, Washington’s principal concern is not security per se; rather it is to maintain its present dominant position in world affairs along with the attendant prerogatives to act and to prioritize its own national interests in all dealings with the rest of the world. Whereas in the post-war decades, it can rightly be said that the United States consciously set out to create ‘public goods’ that served its partners’ interests as well as its own, its measures of success progressively became the consolidation of its global dominance along with the national benefits that flow from it. 



1] This assessment is based on interviews with participants in the administration’s policy-making process. 

2] Remarks of President Joseph Biden in Warsaw March 25, 2022 

3] Wolfowitz Doctrine is an unofficial name given to the initial version of the Defense Planning Guidance for the 1994–1999 fiscal years (dated February 18, 1992) published by U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz and his deputy Scooter Libby

4] 2022 National Defense Strategy (October 27, 2022); and NATO 2022 New Strategic Concept March 3, 2023). 


(To be concluded…) 

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