With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24th and the draconian sanctions enacted by the US and its allies following this event, world geopolitics – along with 30 years of rational energy polices and international finance and global trade arrangements championed by the G20 world leaders following the end of the Cold War in 1991 – suddenly and dramatically changed forever.
How Did We Got to this Point
This precipitating event for this upheaval of world affairs was the Washington establishment’s non-negotiable "principle" (endorsed by both neocon Republicans and neoliberal Democrats) that Ukraine must have the unilateral right to join NATO and thus change Ukraine’s 30-year post-Cold War status as a neutral buffer state in the Eurasian bloodlands. Russia voiced repeated objections and issued warnings over Ukraine becoming a NATO member dating to President Vladimir Putin’s speech to NATO at its 2007 Munich security conference. Russia’s apprehension over the West’s militarization of Ukraine which President Putin took to be a threat to Russia’s security and survivability – similar the 1962 Cuban missile crisis in the case of the US – intensified after the US started sending billions of lethal weapons to Ukraine during the Trump administration. (This was something President Obama prudently would not do foreseeing the potential of inciting a war with Russia. He presciently acknowledged in an exit interview with the Atlantic Magazine in April 2016, "The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.")
During Trump’s term, the UK started construction of a NATO naval base on the Black Sea in Ukraine and NATO built and operated up to Russian’s invasion two training/weapons depot bases in western Ukraine. (These bases were destroyed by Russian airstrikes on March 13th). CIA operatives also amped up their support of Ukrainian ultranationalists fighting ethnic Russiansin the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. As Russian troops marshaled around Ukraine’s border in the spring and fall of 2021, the Biden Administration exacerbated tensions with Russia over Ukraine to the breaking point by announcing an enhanced U.S.-Ukraine Strategic Partnership on September 1, 2021. This document was revealed in a high-profile White House meeting between President Biden and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. It implied to the Ukrainians (and the Russians!) that Ukraine was all-but an official NATO member already and would have full U.S. support in the event of hostilities with Russia.
As numerous foreign policy realists have opined, acknowledging your adversary’s red lines and negotiating around them to avoid turning a confrontation into a hot war is the art of diplomacy. The Cuban missile crisis is apropos to the pre-invasion negotiations conducted by the Biden administration. In this case, conceding Ukraine’s non-membership in NATO to placate Russia’s legitimate security concerns was a ‘throw away’ in deal negotiating parlance. (Remember President Kennedy gave up the obsolete nuclear missiles the US had in Turkey that were going to removed anyhow to placate Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and resolve the crisis in a peaceful manner.) Similarly, Ukraine was never likely to be officially admitted to NATO by alliance’s own admission criteria. This May 2020 scholarly article titled NATO Enlargement and US Grand Strategy: A Net Assessment notes that "Ukraine’s current war in eastern Ukraine with Russian-backed separatists will keep it out of the alliance for now…[NATO] criteria for eligibility make it virtually impossible for any country with a territorial dispute to become a NATO member." This article also notes that NATO’s raison d’état is to be defensive alliance among its existing members for serving their national interests, i.e., no country has a right to be admitted to NATO. The "upshot" of this scholarly paper it that: "Ukraine, though more capable than Georgia, will add to NATO’s military capabilities only at the margins. But that benefit will be far outweighed by the risks that the alliance will assume to defend it."
Given the acrimonious history on this matter, the above cited foreign policy experts all have opined that bringing Ukraine into NATO (first advocated by the Bush II administration in 2008) would be tantamount to daring Russia to start a nuclear war in Eurasia. Thus, unless the Biden Administration was willing to confront this possibility, its prewar position that the NATO question was nonnegotiable was irrational. (Remember, the prewar intelligence assessments were that Putin was coming in for sure after he conjured up a false flag ruse.) It’s not clear at this time to what extent President Zelensky was involved in the prewar decision-making as an independent actor. But since he vociferously denounced Russia’s proposed treaty terms (as proffered on December 17, 2021) throughout January and February 2022, he had to believe the US would have his back if Putin did invade and he needed the cavalry (i.e., US airpower) to come in and save his cities from destruction. I make this conjecture because the only thing President Biden had taken off the table prior to the Russian invasion on February 24th was his assurance to the American public on January 25th (and other times before the war started) that "no US or NATO troops will be sent to Ukraine." This language (surely carefully worded) nominally left open the possibility that if a war did start and the Ukrainians did need air cover, Biden would consider providing it by imposing a non-fly zone. However, when Zelensky got back to his newly declared "strategic partner" in the White House after the first week of Russia’s pounding and requested a US-imposed (or arranged) non-fly zone, Biden vetoed this possibility. When asked on March 11th about his decision to not allow the transfer old Polish Soviet MIG fighter jets to Ukraine (which Ukrainian pilots know how to fly) for imposing a no fly-zone, Biden empathically declared, "That’s called World War Three." Later in the day, Biden expanded his "no World War III mantra" to include any form of direct US military involvement in the war. This word-game ambiguity explains the embarrassing confusion on the transfer of the old Soviet MIG fighter jets for Imposing a no-fly zone. It wasn’t just Zelensky who was peeved that Biden had reneged on the prewar possibility of imposing a no-fly zone. Forty-two (of the 50) Republican Senators signed a letter urging Biden to unblock the transfer of Polish jet fights for use in a no-fly zone. I guess they, too, felt betrayed by the Biden administration’s too-clever-by-half deceptive prewar wording on this matter. But hey, they were all okay with starting World War III!
Given this sequence of events, it’s clear the principals involved in the decision-making on the US, NATO, and Ukraine sides were not being honest with each other and never had an agreed upon strategy and plan for dealing with Putin. This war is beginning to look like a redux of the botched Afghan war pullout in August 2021. Was the Pentagon’s infamous ‘best military advice’ that the fledgling US-trained Ukrainian army could hold off the Russian army on its own with only stinger missiles and javelin anti-tank weapons? (Note to Pentagon: Your record on training foreign armies is now 0-for-3 counting Iraq and Afghanistan. Suggest you get out of this business before you embarrass yourselves again. And please read my book for additional much-needed advice). The question has to asked: Since the US and NATO were never going to be all-in on this war for a good reason (i.e., not starting World War III), why did Biden and NATO (and presumably Zelensky) a priori turndown and refuse to negotiate on Russia’s proposed "security guarantees" and other terms as presented in writing on December 17, 2021, for settling by diplomacy all disputes among NATO, Ukraine, and Russia dating back to 2008? The good news (as of March 14th): The foreign ministers from Russia and Ukraine are now holding direct one-on-one meetings (without Washington’s, NATO’s, or the European’s involvement) to hammer out a ceasefire agreement and negotiate the terms of a comprehensive peace treaty based on the four deal points presented by to Ukraine by Russia on March 7, 2022. President Zelensky is quoted as saying the negotiators are "doing good work." The not-so-good news: The four deal points now being negotiated by two foreign ministers are the same deal points as related to Ukraine that were proffered by the Russians to NATO and Ukraine on December 17, 2021, i.e., the terms the Biden administration and NATO a priori rejected for violating their so-called sacred "principles." It seems the US and NATO were willing to fight this war down the last Ukrainian soldier.
Unfortunately for the citizens of Ukraine and the country’s patriotic but misled leadership, Russia’s vastly superior military hard power (including having 1,500 operational nuclear warheads on alert status) trumps the principles, promises, and encouragement voiced by the Biden Administration and various US senators dating back to 2008. The bottom line: The light armaments and other military assistance provided by the US and other countries sympathetic to the Ukrainian citizenry who are unwittingly caught up in this proxy war between the US and Russia are no match for Russian armor, artillery, missiles, and airpower. This is a war that never should have been fought. Where’s James Baker when you need a competent statesman/women?
What Are the Consequence of this Third Major Post-9/11 Lost-Cause War
The result of this unnecessary and avoidable confrontation between the world’s two foremost nuclear powers – which escalated to a kinetic war being bravely fought by the Ukrainians as NATO cannon fodder – is a non-reversable transition to a multipolar world no matter how this war ends. Countries representing over one-half of the world’s population either voted ‘no,’ abstained, or did not vote on the UN resolution condemning Russia for its invasions of Ukraine. This level of non-support for perpetuating a US militarism-based world order is evidence that a reactionary bipolar realignment is occurring that presage a return to an openly hostile Great Power competition. As these UN votes and non-votes indicate, this competition will pit the Anglosphere, Europe, and Japan against the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) along with most of the Middle East, Central Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Alarmingly, this precipitous devolution to a new world order was set in motion without any discernible foresight by US and European leaders and input by knowledgeable third-party experts on the long-term consequences of this realignment and its effects on the interests of the US and its allies and the well-being of their citizens. Emotion and propaganda prevailed over reason and facts in this war.
This same criticism is applicable to the knee-jerk post-invasion sanctions the US and other US-aligned countries imposed on Russia. The harsh measures that were imposed (which Russia and China had anticipated and planned for) could end up having an equal – if not greater – destabilizing and punitive effects on the US and European economies as they do on Russia’s economy and citizens. Moreover, by weaponizing the US dollar for the first-time history, the US is incentivizing other countries to conduct international trade in non-dollar currencies. Most ominous in this regard is Saudi Arabia’s decision to consider letting China buy oil (25% of Saudi output) in Yuan instead of US dollars – thus negating a 50-year-old deal made by President Nixon. This development could cause the US dollar to lose its sole worldwide reserve currency status, as Fed Chair Jerome Powell remarked at a March 4th Senate Banking Committee hearing. When this occurs, it will be more difficult and expensive for the US Treasury to rollover and refinance Congress’s $30 trillion (increasing by at least $1.5 to $2.0 trillion per year) of outstanding national debt in the form of US Treasury securities and bank notes. Let’s hope there are buyers for all this paper – or our country will go bankrupt.
Given that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24th was a planned and methodical military campaign, it is foreboding to reflect on the decision that Vladimir Putin and his oligarch cronies conscientiously made as they pondered the fate of resource-rich Russia in America’s hegemonic post-Cold War world. These are the precedent acts of unchecked American militarism that caused them (in their reasoning) to resort to kinetic warfare in Ukraine to keep NATO off Russia’s doorstep. First, there was Washington’s (mostly illegal) post 9/11 preemptive GWOT being conducted in 80 countries for over 20 years now and running. This misguided enterprise included a falsely justified regime-change invasion and occupation of Iraq for over seven years. Secondly, NATO’s more than doubled in size (from 12 to 30 member states) with its eastern expansion to Russia borders since the end of the Cold War absent a discernible military threat. (NATO countries’ combined military spending is 15x Russia’s and NATO dominates all other military capabilities categories by 5x to 10x factor.) What was the purpose of this expansion? – a question Putin pointedly asked NATO in 2008? And thirdly, NATO – at the direction/coercion of the neocons and neoliberals who control US foreign and military policy – initiated unprovoked offensive "democratization" wars (i.e., regime changes) in Yugoslavia (which included its dismemberment and redrawing of national boundaries), Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya which all remain impoverished zones. These unprovoked military actions were conducted throughout the 30-year post-Cold War era of American military hegemony and were undertaken even though NATO claims to be a solely a defensive alliance. These NATO "transgressions" are frequently cited by President Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in their public remarks and press conferences for defending Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (Galatians 6:7 – "You reap what you sow.")
Russia’s decision to invade (and perhaps dismember) Ukraine represents the tragic fulfillment of foreign policy realist John Mearsheimer now infamous 2016 forewarning that "Ukraine would be wrecked" if Washington continues lead Ukraine down of the "primrose path" of eventually gaining NATO membership. Professor Mearsheimer (but apparently no one at the National Security Council, the State Department, the Pentagon, or the CIA) knew that the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO represented an existential threat to Russia that its leadership would never tolerate. Unfortunately, this inconvenient real politic fact was overlooked up to the day the first barrage of Russia missiles started raining down on military targets in Ukraine.
This foreign policy malpractice by the US and NATO caused Putin and his cronies to choose to be part of the emerging China-led consortium of countries over the US/European consortium. These authoritarians concluded that the only way to preserve the Russian state and their governance of it was to forsake European integration in favor of aligning with China given what they perceive to be 30 years of NATO treachery. In making this decision, Putin and his associates demonstrate they believe future military and economic power of the China-led block of countries is poised to prevail over the US/EC/NATO-led block in the 21st century’s renewal of a Great Power geopolitical competition. This slap-in-the-face decision by Putin as he levels Ukraine’s major cities should serve as a wake-up call for the American electorate for putting into office new real politic political leadership. And clean out the State Department. (I worked there – it’s a classic Peter Principle organization.)
Who’s going to prevail in this new Great Power competition
Let’s see. A decade ago, the leadership of one side of this competition embarked on a long-term multinational strategic plan (China’s ambitious Belt and Roads initiative) that promotes mutually beneficial economic development in developing countries – as opposed to the US policy of spending trillions building and maintaining US military bases around the world. The BRICS+ group of countries is self-sufficient in energy, food, commodities, and rare earths/precious metals. The other side doesn’t have this competitive advantage in all cases. The BRICS+ countries have stable and visionary leadership – albeit authoritarian in some cases – who oversee (mostly) state-managed economies governed by motives other than ensuring corporate profit maximization.
The opposing Great Power consortium are countries are nominal representative democracies. But in reality they are governed by a top 1% elitist class. This consortium is led by a country whose political leaders’ only job-qualifying skills are knowing what to do and say to get elected in 2-, 4- or 6-year cycles; and then spending most their time once in office raising money for their next reelection campaign. These feats are accomplished by having individual members adhere to their party’s leaderships’ orthodoxies who rely on co-opted media allies to misinform and deceive poll-selected segments of the electorate who their party is targeting in the next election cycle. Their main goal as lawmakers is to get as time on television as possible. Once these predominately non-worldly, shallow thinkers are in office (the current VP apparently doesn’t know Ukraine is not a NATO member), they serve the pecuniary interests of their party’s big donors (whose focus is short-term profit maximization) while racking up multi-trillion-dollar annual budget deficits. Their top priority is fueling the bipartisan Washington War Machine (which now consumes over 60% of all congressional discretionary spending) in an unconstrained and unsustainable manner. ("Houston, we have a problem.")
What factors drove Putin and Russia into China’s obit? I would point to two US domestic political deceptions: first, the fictitious deep state and mainstream media demonization of Putin and Russia over the last six year; and secondly, the Pentagon’s self-serving exaggeration of Russia’s military capabilities (now debunked its muttering performance in Ukraine). These first of these ruses was employed as rank political dishonesty by the Democrats: whatever you think of Trump, he was never a Russian stooge. The exaggeration of Russia’s military power was used both to buttress Congress’s bipartisan insistence on ever increasing defense spending and to justify NATO expansion ostensibly to check Russia’s (nonexistent) aggression. The real purpose of NATO’s unnecessary and provocative eastern expansion was to create new markets for US arms manufacturers who war Congress’s most lucrative lobbyists. As covered earlier in this article, blowback from NATO’s frivolous post-Cold War expansion was the precipitating cause of the Russia-Ukraine war. The sanctions imposed by the US and Europe drove Russia out of Europe and into China’s orbit in the new world order. The European NATO countries were hapless co-conspirators in the events causing this realignment to their long-term determent. I suspect they will rue the fact that NATO was not disbanded in 1991 after the end of the Cold War as it should have been. Stepping back, I see the foreign policy malpractice that led to the Russia-Ukraine war and senseless murder of perhaps thousands of Ukrainians as chattel in this ego driven conflict to be the greatest geopolitical blunder in US history – thus replacing as the Iraq War for that dubious distinction. I never thought that would be possible based on my own involvement in that foolish Middle East enterprise which is now is being repeated and portends to be as equally catastrophic for the populous of Eurasia.
The faux Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times" comes to mind. This expression has an ambiguous meaning – foretelling of both “uninteresting times” of peace and tranquility as well “interesting” ones, which foretell of times of trouble. With a new world order now upon us, it’s anyone guess what the future will be.
Mr. Enzweiler is a Harvard MBA , MIT graduate, and US Air Force veteran who has lived, worked, and traveled extensively in the Greater Middle East, including working as an USAID contractor and US Foreign Service (limited) Officer in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2007 through 2014. He is retired and lives in California and Mexico with his wife Elena. He’s written a book critiquing US foreign and military policy titled, When Will We Ever Learn?, and has written other articles for Antiwar.com and the Libertarian Institute.