Not every war is unnecessary or avoidable, but history might well judge the Russo-Ukrainian war as both, not least because the United States and its European allies could have prevented it, but didn’t.
The decision to go to war was Russia’s, and Russia bears ultimate responsibility for what happens now. But that does not absolve the West of its strategic incompetence and complacency, and it does not mean the United States and its allies are guiltless in all of this.
At multiple points leading up to the current crisis, there were ways for the United States and Europe to create off-ramps for both Moscow and Kyiv, to shepherd a negotiated settlement so that both sides got a minimum of what they needed, and some of what they wanted.
What might that have looked like? For Moscow, a recognition of its strategic claim on Crimea and the port of Sevastopol as the home of its Black Sea Fleet. For Kyiv, the promise of political independence and greater integration with Europe in exchange for territorial concessions.
The West should have also considered the folly and recklessness of floating the idea of NATO membership for Ukraine, something no serious person ever thought Russia would accept without going to war to prevent it. And yet as far back as 2008, the United States openly discussed the possibility of Ukraine’s membership in NATO, even as Kyiv still claimed sovereignty over Russia’s most important naval base in Sevastopol. Under these conditions, the idea of Ukraine joining NATO was preposterous.
Instead, for years now the West has encouraged Ukraine to take a hard line on Russia, with false promises that the U.S. and NATO would stand up to Moscow and defend Ukraine when it came down to it, or that Ukraine would become a NATO member and thus secure its untenable borders.
As the political scientist John Mearsheimer argued back in 2016, the West has been leading Ukraine “down the primrose path, and that the end result is that Ukraine is going to get wrecked. … What we’re doing is encouraging the Ukrainians to play tough with the Russians. We’re encouraging the Ukrainians to think they will ultimately become part of the West, because we will ultimately defeat Putin and we will ultimately get our way, time is on our side.”
That encouragement — false encouragement, as it turns out — made the Ukrainians unwilling to compromise with Russian or consider Russian demands that were not unreasonable, given the historically unique circumstances of modern Ukraine’s borders and the problems those borders have always presented.
What’s more, the West’s encouragement of Ukraine did not match up with the West’s policies toward Moscow. You don’t tacitly commit to defending Ukraine from Russia while simultaneously making your nation energy dependent on Russia, as Germany and other European powers have done over the past decade, or flood your financial sector with billions from Russian oligarchs, as London has done.
The Biden administration not only encouraged European energy dependence on Russia (by waiving sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline last May) but substantially contributed to it by reversing the Trump administration’s achievement of U.S. energy independence. As my colleague Tristan Justice explains, President Biden’s energy policies have taken away the ability of the U.S. and its allies to sanction Russian oil exports, a key source of the Kremlin’s wealth:
“From Russia, the United States still imports nearly 600,000 barrels of oil every day. In contrast, the Keystone XL Pipeline Biden shut down was supposed to transport 830,000 barrels at peak capacity. Biden didn’t sanction the Russian energy sector, because he couldn’t have. Trump could have, and probably would have.”
All of this adds up to an historic failure by the West. For many years, the U.S. and its NATO allies knew that revisionist powers like Russia and China were unhappy with the post-Cold War international order, determined to revise it according to their strategic ambitions. It was up to the West, and especially the United States, to ensure that those attempts at revision did not take the form of all-out war, either on the European continent or in Asia.
Already, though, we see Beijing extending a hand to Moscow, calling for negotiations that could at this point only end with Russia achieving its strategic aims in Ukraine.
Simply put, the West has not done what is necessary to preserve the U.S.-led international order, and now that order is unraveling in real time.