The Biden administration needs to make a strategy of crisis prevention its top priority in dealing with Russia. For if the frozen conflict in Ukraine again becomes an actual war, the West would not intervene, and the Ukrainians would lose — an outcome both humiliating and dangerous for the United States, which has portrayed Ukraine as an important partner.
Simply put, the Georgia-Russia War of 2008 should teach us that to arm other countries for war with more powerful neighbors when you have no intention of fighting to save them is not only irresponsible, it is deeply immoral.
The most volatile dispute in this region may not be in Ukraine itself, but Transdniestria, the breakaway Russian-speaking region of the former Soviet republic of Moldova that has since 1992 been protected by a garrison of Russian “peacekeeping” troops.
While no Moldovan government has suggested recognizing Transdniestrian independence (nor has Russia done so), Moldova since independence has been ruled by former communists or moderate nationalists anxious to avoid new conflict. However, this could change as a result of the December 2020 election of the strongly nationalist and pro-Western President Maia Sandu, who has called for the withdrawal of the Russian force from Transdniestria.
From a military point of view, the position of Russia’s force in Transdniestria is acutely vulnerable; because unlike Crimea, the Donbas, Abkhazia or South Ossetia, it is entirely cut off from Russia by the territory of Ukraine and Moldova. In the event of a blockade by these countries, the Russian troops there could not be supplied. Neither Moldova nor Ukraine has imposed a blockade — despite Kiev’s bitter hostility to Russia since 2014 — for fear that Russia would go to war in response. The United States must try to maintain that dynamic. Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center has written that a blockade of the Russian force in Transdniestria “would present Russia with the dilemma of conflict or humiliation.” And there is little doubt what Vladimir Putin would choose.
In the event of war, there is also the danger that Russia would take much bigger parts of mainly Russian-speaking Ukrainian territory. Russia could have done this with ease in 2014, but Putin did not at that stage wish to bring about a complete collapse of relations with France and Germany, in the hope that they might still be drawn into some form of partnership with Russia. Over the past year, however, this hope has almost completely collapsed,even among the most liberal elements of the Russian foreign and security establishment.
And in the event of war, Russia can be confident of victory. The Russian armed forces are overwhelmingly superior to those of Ukraine, and U.S. military aid to Ukraine, while it might shift that balance somewhat, cannot possibly even it.
Most importantly of all, Russia can be absolutely certain that the United States and NATO will not fight for Ukraine based on the experiences in Ukraine in 2014 and Georgia in 2008.
During those crises, the Pentagon was categorically against U.S. intervention, a sentiment not likely to change in the event of a new war, not only because of the catastrophic dangers that a U.S.-Russia war would entail, but also because of the colossal advantages it would give to China.
As for NATO’s European members, even the most virulently anti-Russian of them have done absolutely nothing to prepare for war. Britain for example is engaged in reducing its army to a level where it could not put even a single division of troops in the field. This pattern brings out the essentially theatrical nature of NATO language about “confronting Russian aggression.” No NATO government (including the United States) is actually behaving as if they expected to have to do any such thing.
And Russia is most certainly not going to attack any NATO member. What could Russia possibly gain,compared to the risks it would run and the economic damage it would suffer? Actions like the murder of KGB defectors are ugly and stupid, but they are hardly evidence of desire to launch a world war. In fact, a kind of tacit agreement has been reached between NATO and Russia: NATO will not defend any non-NATO country that Russia might actually attack, and Russia will not attack any country that NATO might actually defend.
There is also no evidence that Russia wants to start a new war with Ukraine. The failure to make any progress towards resolving the Donbas crisis has been due to Ukraine as well as Russia. Thus one essential part of the Minsk II proposed international solution was rejected by the Ukrainian parliament, not Russia: namely that the Ukrainian constitution be amended to grant special autonomy to the Donbas.
If however Ukraine imposes a blockade of Transdniestria or tries to regain the Donbas by force, then Russia will fight — as it fought when Georgia attempted to regain South Ossetia by force in August 2008.
The result would be a catastrophe for Ukraine, and extremely bad for Russia, for it would lead to a definitive break with Western Europe and a lurch towards complete dependence on China. However, it would also be very bad for the United States. If another American “partner” is crushed while the United States stands aside, the damage to U.S. prestige in Asia will be enormous.
China might also decide that the United States will not fight under any circumstances, and take some catastrophically reckless action in consequence. The Biden administration might also want to think about how the Republican opposition would characterize Biden’s lack of action — quite hypocritically of course, since the Bush administration did not fight for Georgia during its war with Russia in 2008.
The Biden administration should therefore aim in the short to medium term to freeze the disputes in Ukraine and Moldova, while reassuring Russia that the United States will not press for changes that are to Russia’s disadvantage.
Ideally, Biden should state publicly that the United States opposes any attempt, by any side, to resolve these disputes by military force, that it supports the proposals of Minsk II for a settlement of the Ukrainian crisis (without trying to force this on Kiev), and that the ultimate decision on the future of the disputed regions must lie with the peoples of these regions, expressed in free and fair votes (which would imply that they would in fact remain separate and/or part of Russia).
Such a new approach would require considerable moral courage on the part of the Biden administration. But if the challenge from China is really as great as the Washington establishment now believes, then such courage is required — because a war in Ukraine would be one of the greatest geopolitical gifts to China that Beijing could possibly dream of.