On January 12, 2022 — a date that will live in hypocrisy — NATO member states declared their heroic determination to fight to the last Ukrainian. They did this by in effect rejecting Russia’s conditions for agreement with the alliance, centered on the demand that NATO rule out further expansion to Ukraine, Georgia and other former Soviet republics.
The hypocrisy and idiocy — over which historians of the future are likely to shake their heads in bewilderment — lie in the fact that NATO has no real intention of admitting Ukraine, nor of fighting Russia in Ukraine. Both Washington and Brussels have openly ruled this out. Indeed, NATO could not do so even if it wanted to. U.S. forces in Europe are wholly inadequate to the purpose, as are what is left of the British and French armies.
Despite all the hysterical rhetoric from European politicians and journalists about the Russian threat, no serious attempt has been made or is being made to build up European armed forces; as witness the consistent refusal of most NATO states — even some of those most bitterly hostile to Russia— to raise their military spending to two percent of GDP.
The real deterrent to Russian military action against Ukraine lies in the threat of greatly intensified economic sanctions — a powerful deterrent, but one that the U.S. Senate is now threatening to throw away by imposing these sanctions in advance, when Russia has not yet taken any action.
If President Putin, and Russia itself, were the forces of instinctive, unlimited aggression and ambition that the Western media has conjured up, then the threat of economic sanctions would be ineffective. Fortunately, Putin has always operated as a ruthless but also cautious, cool-headed, and pragmatic statesman. We can still hope that this will continue to be the case.
Room for Compromise?
But just as NATO has spent the past 20 years assiduously painting itself into a corner with its empty rhetoric about keeping the possibility of NATO membership for Ukraine open, so Moscow is now painting itself into a corner with its ostensibly non-negotiable demand that the United States and NATO officially and categorically rule this out.
There is still a chance that U.S. flexibility in two other areas can avert Russian military action. The first is NATO commitment to deploy no new forces in NATO countries close to Russia’s borders, in return for Russian limits on new deployments and the stand-down of the troops now deployed on Ukraine’s borders.
The second is genuine U.S. and Western support for the Minsk II agreement on autonomy for a demilitarized Donbas region within Ukraine, and real pressure on the Ukrainian government to concede this. Donbas autonomy within Ukraine would be a serious barrier both to Ukraine seeking NATO membership, and to the development of a mono-ethnic Ukraine, and would therefore indirectly meet Russia’s key concerns.
The United States however now needs to move very fast to offer these compromises. If it does not, then a new war looks increasingly possible. This war would be a disaster for all parties concerned: for NATO, whose military impotence would be cruelly emphasised; for Russia, that would suffer severe economic damage and be forced into a position of dependency on China with grave implications for Russia’s future; and above all for the thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians who would lose their lives. In fact, the only country that would benefit unequivocally from such a war would be China —and I wasn’t aware that U.S. and NATO policies are designed to further the geopolitical aims of Beijing.
A serious debate over NATO’s true function
As a result of a long series of steps, NATO today has therefore become an organization profoundly damaging to the real interests of the United States and Europe. It does not have to be this way. If it could return to its core function as the ultimate backstop of West and Central European security, it can still play a modestly useful role. To conduct a serious debate on NATO’s role however it is first necessary to examine with clear-eyed and courageous honesty the reasons why its various member states remain so attached to an alliance whose original purpose disappeared with the end of the cold war.
The reasons are clearest in the case of the United States. Militarily, NATO functions as Airstrip One (George Orwell’s name for Britain in 1984), a base for U.S. power projection in Eurasia, the Middle East and North Africa. Allied to this is the influence that it gives America over what remains — for the moment —one of the three great economic heartlands of the world. Canada, as inescapably situated in America’s sphere of influence, does what Washington says, with the occasional squeal of impotent resentment.
Among NATO’s European members, motives differ. The NATO secretariat exists to guarantee its own continued existence, by whatever means necessary. Some of the East Europeans suffer from understandable paranoia vis a vis Russia as a result of their past sufferings at the hands of Moscow — though as with our attitude to any victim of crime, we should not confuse sympathy for their past suffering with acceptance of the resulting paranoia as rational. As for Turkey, it is still in NATO partly to stop it becoming even more of an enemy, and partly because of the procedural difficulty of kicking it out.
Britain supports NATO essentially as part of the alliance with the United States, which allows Britain to posture as a great power on the world stage by riding on America’s shoulders. France does so for much the same reason, with the difference that while Britain’s interests in this are almost wholly to do with national self-image, France needs the U.S. alliance for a very concrete reason: the increasing necessity of U.S. military support to maintain France’s sphere of influence in Francophone Africa and fight Islamist insurgencies there.
As far as the other West European members of NATO are concerned, the essential reason for their adherence to the alliance is fear — fear of Russia —but above all fear of each other and of themselves. Much of this is due to the Second World War and the ease with which a row of countries surrendered to Germany, while in Germany’s own case there is still a degree to which they fear themselves.
A new and disastrous twist to European fears was given by the shameful European failure in the Bosnian war of the early 1990s. This has left the Europeans with a deep sense (openly acknowledged by German officials in private) that they cannot solve even what (in military terms) are small problems on their own continent without the full involvement of the United States, guaranteed by NATO. And finally of course, America’s military presence as part of NATO spares the Europeans the military spending and the painful military reforms that they would need to undertake if they were to take responsibility for their own security.
These motives may be mildly contemptible, but they are at least modest and rational. The problem is that they have been ingested by two other ambitions that are not modest and rational at all. The first is the U.S. desire for universal hegemony, including the right to dictate other countries’ political systems and what influence they will be allowed to possess beyond their own borders.
The second is the European elites’ belief in the European Union of as a kind of moral superpower, expanding to embrace the whole of Europe (without Russia of course), and setting a liberal internationalist example to the world; but a militarily impotent superpower that relies for security on the United States, via NATO.
These projects have now manifestly failed. The U.S. project for universal global hegemony was shattered by Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and above all the economic rise of China.The European project has been rejected by large numbers of Europeans; and the failure to establish stable liberal democracy in eastern Europe and the Balkans makes it exceptionally unlikely that the EU will seriously plan to extend membership to Ukraine in the foreseeable future.
If we can recognize this failure and return to a more modest view of ourselves and our role in the world, we can also abandon the empty and hypocritical false promise of further NATO expansion and seek a reasonably cooperative relationship with Russia. Or we can go on living in our world of make-believe, though make-believe worlds have a way of being shattered by harsh realities.
Anatol Lieven is Director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He was formerly a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and in the War Studies Department of King’s College London.
(L-R) U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, Russia Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Mikhail Bogdanov, U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman and Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Gennady Gatilov pose for photographers before a meeting on Syria at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva June 25, 2013. REUTERS/Fabrice Coffrini (SWITZERLAND - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.