Reprinted with permission from the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft
Hawkish critics of the Biden administration have been constantly agitating for escalation over Ukraine for the last year and a half.
Whatever Biden has done in support of Ukraine, hawks complain that he has been too slow and too stinting in what the U.S. provides, and they have often urged Washington to intensify or widen the war. Fortunately for the U.S. and Europe, Biden has ignored their most aggressive demands and slow-walked the rest.
The latest proposal from a prominent Biden critic, however, promises to repeat some of the worst mistakes of the Cold War while having little or no effect on the fighting in Europe.
Wall Street Journal columnist Walter Russell Mead thinks that the right way to wear down Russia in a war of attrition is by attacking Russian interests in far-flung, peripheral areas around the world. Mead claims that “we operate in a target-rich environment” for bringing the “cost of war home to the Kremlin,” and he lays out a series of policies that are either unworkable, counterproductive or useless.
Among other things, he calls for the U.S. to “roll up” the Wagner Group in the Sahel, work with Turkey and others to “make Mr. Putin’s presence in Syria ruinously expensive,” bring pressure to bear on Russian forces in Moldova, and “target Mr. Putin’s Latin American allies.”
Even assuming that it was practical and wise for the U.S. to do any of these things, it is hard to see how they would significantly impair Russia’s war effort or aid Ukraine in a war of attrition. If the U.S. managed to make things difficult enough for Russian forces and mercenaries in other parts of the world that it was no longer worth it for Moscow to keep them there, that would just lead to additional resources and manpower being redirected to fighting in Ukraine.
It isn’t clear why Mead believes that the U.S. and “its allies in Europe and the Gulf” have the capabilities to eliminate Russian influence in the Sahel. French influence is in retreat in many countries, U.S. partners keep losing control in military coups, and so-called “allies” from the Gulf are not reliably on the same side as the U.S. in political and military crises across Africa. The problem wasn’t that the U.S. and its allies were “standing passively by” but that they were actively pursuing militarized policies that have repeatedly blown up in their faces. Russia has managed to exploit some of the resulting upheaval to its advantage.
While he doesn’t spell out exactly how the U.S. would go about “rolling up” Russian mercenaries, it would presumably involve a larger military footprint and an even more interventionist policy than the one the U.S. already has. How the U.S. is supposed to operate in countries governed by juntas that work with Russia is also conveniently left out. Is Washington supposed to “roll up” these junta regimes, too? Good luck to the U.S. officials that would have to explain why more American troops are being sent into harm’s way in West Africa for the sake of a dubious effort to bleed Russia.
Mead never explains why Turkey and unnamed “neighboring states” would want to take part in his anti-Russia coalition in Syria. Neither does he explain why inflicting losses on Russia in Syria wouldn’t prompt Russian-backed reprisals against U.S. forces there and elsewhere in the Middle East. He ascribes virtually unlimited power to the U.S. and its allies to cause serious harm to Russia without considering potential costs or thinking through what would happen next. Mead’s recommendations would be effective in antagonizing Moscow and inviting retaliation, but they would do virtually nothing to aid Ukraine. Striking at mercenaries in Mali and soldiers in Syria isn’t going to help Ukraine overcome its disadvantage in manpower or eliminate Russian defenses.
The proposal for Latin American states may be the most far-fetched of the bunch. The U.S. already punishes several regional countries with close ties to Moscow with devastating sanctions, and this has caused those states to rely more on Russia. Mead doesn’t specify what he means when he says that the U.S. should “target” these countries, but it isn’t hard to imagine that he might be suggesting some effort at regime change. There aren’t many things that would damage the reputation of the United States in Latin America more than reverting to the bad old days of sponsoring coups to force neighboring countries to toe Washington’s line.
If the U.S. took “a concerted approach toward pushing Russia out of the Western hemisphere,” it would undermine its relations with many of our neighbors and possibly even drive some fence-sitting states closer to Moscow. Far from weakening Russian influence, heavy-handed attempts at bullying Latin American countries would be a propaganda coup for Moscow and they would make a mockery of Washington’s claim that every country can choose its own partners and allies.
The last thing the U.S. should be doing is escalating its rivalry with Russia in other regions. It would threaten to hurt U.S. interests in the targeted areas, and it would expose U.S. forces already there to additional risks while putting more of those forces into dangerous situations. It could also create additional enemies and alienate potential partners as Washington makes clear that its policy in Ukraine takes precedence over everything else. The U.S. has a hard enough time making the case for its support for Ukraine in many parts of the world, and it would face even more skepticism if it decided to start bringing the war to other continents by striking at Russian interests.
Mead bills these absurd proposals as “smarter and politically more sustainable ways” to aid Ukraine against Russia, but there is nothing smart about further stoking instability in the Sahel and Syria in the name of hurting Moscow. This puts a rivalry with Russia ahead of the lives and interests of people in the affected countries. It repeats the Cold War error of treating these countries as nothing more than battlegrounds to be contested and then abandoned when the rivals lose interest. None of this would help Ukraine in the slightest, but it would likely increase costs for the United States and for the nations that would be affected by these foolish proposals.
Instead of trying to widen the conflict to other corners of the globe, the U.S. should focus its efforts on trying to find a way to halt the fighting in Ukraine through a ceasefire that can become the basis for a more lasting armistice.
Daniel Larison is a columnist for Responsible Statecraft. He is contributing editor at Antiwar.com and former senior editor at The American Conservative magazine. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @DanielLarison and at his blog, Eunomia, here.