History will mark the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a devastating attack on the peaceful community of democracies. And that America and its allies—so inured with a sense of moral and systemic supremacy—committed six strategic errors that summoned aggression and ultimately let an invasion degrade into a humanitarian tragedy.
First, at the end of the Cold War, America and its allies opened the Western market economy through the World Trade Organization and other mechanisms to Russia and China following the thesis that participation in free markets would instigate democratic reforms.
Instead, Russia and China transformed socialism into forms of crony- and state-capitalism that empowered ruthless, autocratic regimes.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin maintains his military machine and internal repression apparatus with revenues from oil, gas and other commodity sales to the West. Chinese President Xi Jinping can rule without elections by delivering export-driven prosperity and imposing an Orwellian system of behavioral control.
Second, the West appeased Russia when it invaded Georgia and the Crimea and, after establishing a nascent democracy, the United States abandoned Afghanistan to the mercies of the Taliban.
Third, appeasing Russia by limiting NATO forces and positioning only defensive weapons in the Baltic states, Poland and southeastern Europe. Putin still created a fable about NATO’s aggressive intensions, appealed to Russian cynicism, and invaded Ukraine.
Now, absent NATO kinetic intervention—specifically, an allied-enforced no-fly zone—or providing the Ukrainian government with jet fighters, Putin won’t leave Ukraine empty-handed.
Fourth, appeasing Russia by not equipping Ukraine with offensive weapons. Moments after crossing its frontier, if Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky could have rained missiles on approaching Russian forces and hit several strategic targets inside Russia, then Putin’s adventurism would have looked much less appealing to his military and countrymen.
Fifth, American and European energy policies are fundamentally flawed. Fossil fuels will remain necessary for years, because wind and solar power can only be built out as fast as new battery technology falls in price.
Russian energy leverage over Europe is potentially very short term. Europe has adequate LNG terminals to import much of the gas it needs and could build capacity within three years to eliminate Russian natural-gas imports.
Sixth, American troops in Germany and the still modest NATO contingents stationed in states bordering Russia remain an inadequate deterrent, and U.S. forces have grown terribly vulnerable.
At his Feb. 24 press conference, President Joe Biden was asked what Putin meant when he referenced his nuclear weapons in his speech justifying seizing Ukraine. Biden said “I have no idea.”
Missed was that Putin also brandished “several cutting-edge weapons” that could defeat any adversary. Russia and China possess hypersonic missiles and antisatellite and cyber weapons that could crack an American warship in two, disable the navigation systems of the U.S. fleet and wreak havoc on the American power grid.
The United States spends $768 billion on defense—Russia $154 billion and China less than $250 billion. I doubt Defense Secretary Secretary Lloyd Austin could adequately explain why U.S. forces lack comparable weapons.
Like other top-level Biden appointees, he’s good at forming task forces, producing vapid reports and satisfying the diversity and inclusion requirements of progressives in Congress and the bureaucratic interests of his departmental employees.
However, the Pentagon’s November Global Posture Review failed to offer an adequate strategy to reconfigure and modernize American forces in the Pacific to the China challenge and missed Ukraine badly.
How long would it take for American isolationists on the hard left and right to win the argument to let Russia have the Baltic states or Poland if Putin made the lights flicker and paused transit systems during a Manhattan rush hour or smashed an abandoned Midwestern factory with a missile.
Before jumping in patriotic fervor consider how much support Europeans could offer. Germany, the continent’s largest NATO member, can hardly muster an army.
For the moment, the political climate in Europe has moved in favor of beefing up NATO defenses and finding alternatives to Russian natural gas.
However, effective deterrence and hardening of economic resilience will require substantial new spending when Germany and the broader continent are grappling with the huge costs of modernizing their aging industrial base.
It’s going to take firm diplomacy to ensure the Europeans muscle up enough, but the endurance of continental resolve ultimately may prove wanting. And the Biden administration lacks the political will to stare down the green lobby and encourage U.S. shale producers to manufacture and export the additional LNG that Europe needs.
Presidents Putin and Xi can accomplish at lot more mischief before Inauguration Day 2025.
Peter Morici is an economist and emeritus business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.
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