Americans increasingly wonder where US involvement in the Russo-Ukrainian war is heading. Although this nation is not officially in the fight, it is a belligerent in all but name. US officials have essentially declared war on the Russian Federation and its president, Vladimir Putin.
In an apparent attempt to assuage popular concern, President Joe Biden addressed the American people – those who read the New York Time, anyway. Unfortunately, he appeared to forget that his primary obligation is to protect the US, not Ukraine. Much that he said was cause for concern.
Perhaps his most misguided statement was: "My principle throughout this crisis has been ‘Nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.’ I will not pressure the Ukrainian government – in private or public – to make any territorial concessions. It would be wrong and contrary to well-settled principles to do so."
He is not alone in those sentiments. Kyiv’s army of American advocates – think tankers, ethnic activists, commentators, lobbyists, and the like – make much the same pitch. Washington should provide Ukraine the weapons that its government wants. The US should do whatever is necessary to help Kyiv win, or at least negotiate from a position of strength. America’s job is to obediently follow Ukraine’s lead and ask for nothing in return.
As retired Gen. Philip Breedlove put it: "We in the West have to decide that Ukraine and its future is to be determined by Ukrainians and we need to keep our nose out of it. We need to support their decision and help them move forward." If Ukrainian President Volodymyr decides the time is right to invade Russia, seize St. Petersburg, lay waste to Moscow, and overrun Siberia, so be it! Washington’s role is to ask no questions, only to make it happen.
Well, maybe not.
Certainly, it is Kyiv’s job to push for whatever it believes to be in its interest. So far Zelensky has shown great skill in seeking, demanding, shaming, begging, insulting, dismissing, embarrassing, appealing, and manipulating, all to his nation’s, or at least his government’s, advantage. Biden would be expected to do the same for America in a similar position.
However, today Biden has different responsibilities than Zelensky. None are to provide a bank check to Ukraine. Contrary to the apparent assumption that America and Ukraine have the same interests, significant differences loom. And the Biden administration should look after the US first.
Although Ukraine’s course is up to Kyiv, the Biden administration’s substantial assistance entitles it to offer its opinion. Moreover, Washington should decide on US policy, including support levels, based on America’s, not Ukraine’s, interests. Kyiv’s requests are just that, requests, not mandates, to be answered based on what is best for Americans.
What considerations should motivate the Biden administration? First is to keep the US at peace. War with Russia, a nuclear-armed power, would be terrible and could be disastrous. For much the same reason Washington should seek to prevent the conflict from spreading to nearby countries, especially NATO members, which could drag in America. In contrast, Kyiv already has sought to bring America into the war, pushing for a "no-fly" zone, for instance, as well as to escalate the conflict, through essentially unlimited arms shipments.
Second is to prevent US support for Ukraine from passing the uncertain "red line" of belligerency, as perceived by Moscow. Great powers regularly fight proxy wars, but they generally limit lethality and maintain deniability. Providing rockets that could hit Russian territory, helping kill Russian generals and sink Russian ships, and publicly showcasing all manner of weapons provided risk pushing Moscow to escalate, either in weapons used (chemical or nuclear weapons) or sites targeted (weapons shipments or depots in Poland).
Third is to avoid pushing Moscow to the brink of conventional defeat. The Putin government could respond to the threatened loss of territory, such as the Crimea or portion of the Donbass seized by separatists in 2014, by initiating a game of geopolitical chicken, moving closer to total war with full-scale mobilization or use of WMDs. Kyiv might be willing to accept that risk, but America should not. Since Ukraine matters more to Russia, the latter will always be willing to spend and risk more.
Fourth is to emphasize the importance of a stable peace. Although a frozen conflict is better than a hot war, it would still be costly. For months or years Ukraine and Russia would be in a state of war, Ukraine’s economy and society would be severely disrupted, Western diplomatic and economic relations with Moscow would be negligible, Russia would be forced closer to China, and the world would remain divided between the US, Europe, and allied states and Russia, China, and the Global South. Moreover, the long-simmering conflict could always burst into flame, with the danger of uncontrolled escalation by governments frustrated by the deadlocked status quo.
Fifth is to avoid treating Russia like a giant North Korea, isolated and in ill-repute, but better armed and with important friends, such as China and India. If resolutely hostile, such a Moscow could cause increasing trouble in Northeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. Proxy wars were common during the Cold War and might again become the great power weapon of choice.
Sixth is to eschew the sanctimony that envelops almost all that the US does internationally. The Putin regime’s behavior has been atrocious, but Washington is no Vestal Virgin, which is one reason so many Asian, African, and Latin American nations went their own way. The US routinely flouts the so-called rules-based order and commits aggression, bombing, invading, and occupying nations irrespective of the dictates of international law. Indeed, Washington’s Global War on Terrorism has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions of civilians. The Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations are complicit in war crimes committed by Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates with American weapons and munitions. In criticizing Moscow Washington should drop its tendentious moralizing.
The Russo-Ukrainian war is a tragedy. It also is a threat. Kyiv has an incentive to entangle its friends in the conflict, even if doing so risks triggering another world war. For Washington the interests of the American people should be paramount. President Biden might declare "Nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine." However, his highest duty is to protect this nation. If he forgets the American people should remind him.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.