Why the U.S. Should Allow Russia to Take Over Ukraine

7 june 2014

Or Why Mars Should Study English

Dmitry Shlapentokh is an Associate Professor at Indiana University, South Bend.

Resume: The U.S. should follow the British wise policy of the early 20th century which implies the accommodation and sharing of power with an adversary. Reality would impose this transition anyway.

The title of this paper looks almost treasonous, or, in any case, absurd. The domination of Ukraine with its natural resources and industry would clearly increase Moscow’s power, at least in the short run, at a time when the relationship between Moscow and Washington has hit a new low. The intensity of the negative coverage of Russia on American TV is unprecedented since the Reagan era. Even in 2008, during Russia’s war with Georgia, it was only the conservative Fox News that presented Russia in quite so negative a light. Now it is done by the more liberal CNN and with such intensity that even travelers at American airports (I traveled during Russia’s takeover of Crimea) discussed the unfolding events; at other times they usually watch the weather channels or market reports.

Observers could also infer that the idea of giving up Ukraine smacked of a new Munich, which led to the absorption of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany. Indeed, the events look eerily similar, if one would remember that the entire Munich crisis was caused, or at least provoked, by the plight of the Sudeten Deutsch. They, in blatant disregard of Western political correctness, indeed, wished to separate themselves from the democratic Czechoslovakia to join the Nazi state.

The last analogy seems to provide additional arguments to stand against Moscow and is widely used by a variety of observers from political commentators to the people on Capitol Hill. This moral indignation is mixed with a sort of surprise. Indeed, Russia seems to have been a spent force for a long time – the abode of corrupt nouveau riche and a Westernized hedonistic middle class (both of whom seem to be concerned only with their investments and comfortable living). No one thought that Moscow would act in an “American” fashion, following the prescription of the neocons. Indeed, in 2008, Moscow acted in Georgia only when its peacekeepers were attacked. Here, the Kremlin engaged in a “preemptive” action, with no direct attack.

Emotions are running high; but the decision-makers should keep themselves from taking hasty actions or even uttering inflammatory words unless they can be translated to action. The logic of events implies that Washington should accommodate Moscow’s domination in Ukraine, or at least any action should be one of conscious decision placed in a broader geopolitical context. The United States should accept a new model of organized and planned retreat, which would bring the U.S much less harm than an imposed retreat, as well understood by increasing numbers of not just foreign but American observers such as Michael J. Mazarr, who teaches in the U.S. Naval War College. The historical lesson of, particularly, British policy on the eve of WWI could well help in these endeavors.


The politicians’ and the general public’s appeal to history, of course, is conditioned by events on the ground. Since the end of the Cold War – and especially during the Bush presidency – the U.S. was overconfident in its might; and several “preventive” wars followed: Serbia/Yugoslavia bombed by Clinton in 1999, the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003. And an attack against Iran has been seriously contemplated; some pundits even envisaging this as a great adventure. In each case, the rationale for the war was different. Still, all of these rationales were actually “excuses for war,” “casus belli” as the Romans put it thousands of years ago. The rationale was not saving the Albanians, punishment of the Taliban for harboring bin Laden, and even less the search for “weapons of mass destruction.” The rationale was to uphold the U.S. position in the oil/gas-rich Middle East or plainly to demonstrate to the world who is the global master.

The Washington elite was so confident in U.S might, the notion that American might would not be challenged for many generations to come, that it did not even bother to engage too much in the usual moralization; and in some Freudian slips its geopolitical libido became unusually frank. Robert Kagan, for example, one of the leading neocons, makes them clear in one of his famous articles. He noted that while Europe is nothing but an effeminate and naïve Venus, who believes in the rule of international law, the U.S. is Mars, who understands Social Darwinism and the Hobbesian nature of the international order. Consequently, Mars discards the niceties of international law and acts as he wishes, following his own raison de etat. The conquest of the Middle East was fully justified by American interests, and even grander plans were designed.

In 2006, a few years after Kagan’s article, the influential Foreign Affairs published an article authored by Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press. The authors noted that Russia and China’s nuclear arsenals are so weak that a “preventive” nuclear strike would eliminate them completely and remove the last restraint for U.S. global predominance. The brazen openness of the article – its sort of peculiar pornographic nature, e.g. that preaching rough force was not hidden by any fig leaf, demonstrating clearly that some members of the Washington elite were so confident in the absolute superiority of the U.S. that they assumed that Washington need not even hide its intentions.

History provides an appropriate analogy and justification. Washington was the new Rome whose military prowess was unmatched. It is true that Rome’s power benefited the conquered barbarians. Still, it was in Rome’s own interest, which defined the actual application of force. Yet, by the end of the Bush era, the “imperial outreach,” if one would remember Paul Kennedy’s famous theory, became evident.

Whatever the politicians pontificated from the Hill, the U.S. in the beginning of the 2000s was not the U.S. of the 1950-1960s. The economic problems became palpable. Wall Street brokers amassed huge profits since the Reagan era, and the Chicago school of economics noted that the death of U.S. industry was just a natural and healthy transition to an advanced “service” economy. The President himself noted that the “fundamentals are right.” Still the economy collapsed in 2008 and was rescued from the Great Depression only by “quantitative easing,” the euphemistic term for printing money, and the assurance that new technology, such as a new way of extracting gas, would make the U.S. the predominant economic power in the near future. Still, the reality made it obvious that the economic foundation had become increasingly weak and could not support the empire based on mercenary armies and general Social-Darwinian make-up. Sequestration became inevitable. At that point, Washington apparently appealed to the model of the Byzantine Empire as was suggested by Edward Luttwak, the influential historian and political analyst. He noted in his well-known book on the Byzantine Empire, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, that the Byzantine Empire survived for a thousand years after the collapse of Rome because it relied not on the sheer force of its armies but on skillful manipulation.

The Obama administration seemed to be following this advice in dealing with Libya when the major job of overthrowing Gaddafi was entrusted to the Islamists; they were supposed to be tamed or pushed aside after accomplishing the job. The plan failed. The victorious jihadists “repaid” U.S. efforts by killing the American ambassador and apparently playing a considerable role in wrecking the very fabric of Libyan life; this is apparently one of the major reasons why Libya is not present on the TV screen as a good example of a prosperous democracy.

Mars, who read Greek, failed in the same way as before when he just read Latin; and this was felt by Moscow who struck against Ukraine on the grounds of saving ethnic and cultural kin.

The event is structurally quite similar to that of 1999 event when the U.S/NATO struck Serbia on the grounds of saving Albanians. Still, it is quite different in one important aspect. In 1999, Moscow screamed loudly in expressing its indignation. Washington ignored them and acted. Now, the story is just the opposite: Washington was indignant and screamed but did nothing and Moscow acted. The reason for this Washington “modus vivendi” is not just the decline in the U.S. economic/military capabilities – it is much deeper than most people on Capitol Hill would acknowledge – but in the wrong assumption about the U.S.’s absolute military predominance. It is based on the premise that the U.S. could hold out against several major powers and at the same time actually ignore the interests of most of its European allies, who themselves are fractured.

It is true that Washington has promulgated its focus on Asia, with China as a major threat, albeit the more assertive Japan could someday revive an old threat to the U.S. At the same time, America continues to be engaged in confrontation with Iran and preventing Teheran not just from obtaining nuclear weapons but even from keeping al-Assad in power. While two fronts are burdensome enough in themselves, Washington added a third – Moscow. And here, as Dmitri Simes noted rightly, Washington actually paraphrased the well-known dictum of Theodore Roosevelt: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” In the present situation, Washington acted absolutely in the opposite way: it screamed loudly without any action. And this is understandable: the military option was not even discussed and viable economic sanctions are also not in place either because of the reluctance of the European allies to implement them in earnest.

Washington is left with no options, and this debacle, added to the withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq and the unwillingness to bomb Syria, requires a new redefining of the U.S. global posture and a different view of its allies. It is true that Washington had a lot of allies after WWII. Still, the approach implied that they play the role of an auxiliary force, and dealing with them requires no real sacrifice.


Still another historical example could be regarded as viable at present, and it is related to the early twentieth-century Britain. Similar to the Cold War America, the nineteenth-century UK had a global span and ambition. It had no desire to share the pie, and for this reason it competed with France in Africa and with Russia in Asia. At a certain moment in Africa, the so-called Fashoda Incident, France was close to war with the UK. Still, with the rise of Germany, which claimed a considerable part of the British colonial pie, London changed its view. It understood that it could not confront all the great powers and struck an alliance with them. The deal implied that Britain was ready to give to both powers what it craved itself: the French would preserve its colonial acquisition and Russia its Central Asia domain; moreover, it could get the coveted Straits and Istanbul in the case of victory in the war.

The U.S. should follow the British wise policy and move from Latin and Greek to English. The U.S., with its economic and military resources dwindling rapidly should choose its enemy – the major and most dangerous competitor and accommodate the appetite of the other. The options are limited. If Washington wants to accommodate Beijing, it should not just assume that the Pacific Ocean would be a Chinese lake but, in the long term, the U.S. should accept China as the global leader. Accepting Iran’s ambitions would imply not just ceding the Middle East with its oil/gas resources to Teheran but an open betrayal of the U.S. allies, a move which would hardly uphold America’s credibility.

The deal with Moscow is much more acceptable. Moscow’s global ambition is limited. Its major stress is domination over post-Soviet space where its ability to control is also quite limited and would be even more limited after the Ukrainian venture. Indeed, the Kazakhstan elite would hardly be anxious to attach itself to Russia in a “Eurasian Union” firmly enough when it watches Moscow’s behavior in Ukraine. Moscow as an American ally, or at least benevolent neutral, could be a good counterbalance to both Iran and China with whom Russia competes in various ways.

Thus, the U.S. could well accept Russia’s acquisition of part of Ukraine. The attempt to pressure Moscow would lead nowhere for Moscow senses Washington’s weakness, which would not change regardless of the occupant of the White House, and regardless of the delusions of the many who still live in a delusional world of the recent past. Pressure – unless both Washington and Brussels would engage in the confiscation of the property of the oligarchs and bureaucrats and put an embargo on Russian oil and gas – would not affect Moscow much.

Moreover, it could well reciprocate: the embargo on Iranian trade would come to an end; P-300 missiles would be delivered; and, in the case of too heavy a pressure, it could even tacitly help Iran to be nuclear. One could remember North Korea, which would hardly be able to create and perfect its nuclear arsenal without China’s help.

It is clear that it is not pleasing for the American Mars to shift from “Latin” – the Roman policy of deploying legions in case of any trouble – to “English,” which implies the accommodation and sharing of power with an adversary. Still, reality would impose this transition anyway, and any military leader would affirm that an organized retreat is much preferable to a disorganized rout.

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