April 20, 2021

Ukrainian Kryptonite

Russia’s strategic aggression is meant to challenge an obviously weak Joe Biden.

The change in U.S. administrations has, predictably, emboldened our enemies around the world — most notably China and Russia. Regarding the latter, tensions are again forming on the Russia-Ukraine border.

It would be ironic if relations between Russia and Ukraine, which Democrats used to undermine President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, including an impeachment attempt for what Joe Biden actually did in Ukraine, boomeranged and took an even bigger bite out of Biden before he’s finished his first 100 days in office.

Unfortunately, that bite likely would be accompanied by a significant diminution of U.S. power and prestige, potentially knocking us from our leading role on the world stage and inviting more mischief from our rivals. Ukraine could end up being the kryptonite that takes out the world’s last true superpower.

In 2014, a pro-European Union revolt ousted the pro-Russian president of Ukraine. Even though his ally was defeated, Vladimir Putin took advantage of the resulting chaos to annex the strategically important Crimean Peninsula. He also sent “little green men” — individuals wearing sanitized uniforms (no identifying insignia or patches) who were most likely Russian special operations forces — into Eastern Ukraine, where they helped organize and lead pro-Russian separatist militias. In both cases, Putin couched his actions in terms of moving to protect Russian-speaking and culturally Russian groups in Ukraine from oppression, which played (and still plays) well with his domestic audience.

While the operations to seize Crimea were largely successful, the outcome in the East was less conclusive: Russia refers to the provinces as “People’s Republics” and provides plausibly deniable support to the rebels, while Ukrainian military units man WWI-style trenches and a pan-European entity monitors the oft-violated ceasefire agreement — to the tune of 28 Ukrainian soldiers killed so far in 2021.

There’s no question that Russia has been moving large quantities of troops and equipment into the region on its side of the border with Ukraine and into Crimea, with some estimating that as many as 100,000 troops have been assembled. Assessments of the activity run the gamut from being certain that the scale of the movements mean an invasion is imminent, to equal certainty that the absence of any effort to hide the movements means there is virtually no threat of invasion.

Putin may be the only person who really knows what his intentions are, and even he is most likely waiting to see how Biden and company respond before deciding how he wants to use his Ukrainian pawn. Sadly, most objective observers would favor Putin in a simple game of checkers with Uncle Joe, never mind the three-dimensional chess match that is often used to characterize U.S.-Russia relations.

A Russian invasion and seizure of additional land in Ukraine is not in and of itself a significant threat to U.S. interests. The real danger is that it reveals to the rest of the world how impotent and poorly led the U.S. — in theory the world’s last superpower — really is. In fact, that may well be Putin’s primary goal. The more President Biden and his national security team threaten, pontificate, and protest — Putin’s a killer! — they invert Teddy Roosevelt’s “speak softly” maxim and set all of us up for failure.

The danger is that Putin acts, perhaps seizing another big chunk of Ukrainian territory, and Biden continues to babble. If that happens, we can expect Putin to keep his foot on the gas and to see similar challenges from other adversaries — China, Iran, and North Korea, as well as perhaps al-Qaida and ISIS.

Indeed, if you’re being called out by the French president, you know things are bad. “Look, I think what happened a few years ago when Ukraine was invaded, it’s not a failure of diplomacy, it’s a failure of our collective credibility vis-à-vis Russia,” said Emmanuel Macron. “And I think when we put red lines, we have to make them respected by our people and the others. And I think we have to be clear and tough. And I think what happened first in Syria provided the feeling to President Putin that now it was a part of rebels and it provoked and basically invaded Ukraine. … And I cannot tell that this is a failure of diplomacy. It was a failure of a naive approach vis-à-vis Russia. … When we put red lines, we have to be sure to be credible and to make these red lines respected by the authors.”

Assuming Biden and company do eventually decide to take action, the division the Democrats and their Leftmedia allies have sown in our society will make it very hard for this — or any — administration to muster the support necessary to pursue potentially costly geopolitical goals, no matter how necessary or noble. Add the “woke” cancer spreading in our military, and “checkmate” is probably already on the tip of Putin’s tongue.

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