There's at least two problems with this article.

1.) The author barely mentions Ukraine and its own concerns throughout. We get literally no mention of the 2014 protests in Kiev (and the bloody failed government suppressing of them) that led to a new government in Ukraine in the first place.

Instead, we get vague intimations that U.S. stirred up this whole thing by "seeking regime change in Ukraine".

To put it bluntly, that is made-up nonsense. There are actors in this drama other than the U.S. and Russia, "the Blob" and the KGB, Putin and Biden.

Like Ukraine. It's the seventh-largest country in Europe (44 million people). It has aspirations.. It's not crazy to think that there are people of sound mind outside the infamed "groupthink" in U.S. foreign policy who think that's a causal factor here--and that it should be a consideration.

If Obama, of all people, 8 years ago, was scheming to overthrow Russian influence in Kiev and replace it with some aggressive NATO stooge, he cleverly fooled all of us. He famously won re-election as a dove on Russia and promised to be more "flexible" after the election, mocking Romney for pushing back on it.

A more likely interpretation is that Ukraine turned against their then-current government because its population was sick of being bullied, threatened, jerked around, and ultimately shot by them. (And at least mildly tired of Russia for not just backing it, but dictating its policy.)

You can see this is as "grand game" between great powers (that we're playing stupidly) all you want. At some point, actual human beings enter the frame. That's what Ukraine's doing, and what they've done. It seems obtuse to pretend they don't exist.

2.) The author also fails--once--to mention the actual war (not "warmongering") happening, right now. Russia's response to Ukraine's has already been to illegally annex one of Ukraine's provinces, and to wage an undeclared war in another. For eight years.

Over ten thousand people have died in that war. It's happening right now. People can look it up, like on a map, if they want.

War is not something we're "provoking", or that the "U.S. Blob" is provoking. It's currently underway.

If you're seriously looking at this situation and reacting with "Darn those warmongers in the Pentagon, why are they so aggressive and strategically stupid," we have a fundamental disagreement on cause, effect, and basic reality here.

You might as well blame a abused ex-wife's murder on that handsome guy who smiled at her, rather than the deranged ex-husband. It takes agency away from both perpetrator and victim.

Don't get me wrong, I get it. We are in a fraught situation in the U.S. domestically, and the Biden administration cannot afford further political hits. Foreign policy is a depressing, annoying distraction from the things that really matter, like improving the economy, upzoning, and Build Back Better tax structures.

It's convenient to think of the Ukraine situation as a great-power "Blob-provoked" interference with Very Important Matters. That doesn't make it true.

Biden and his advisors, to their credit, understand that. Center-left pundits are going to have to do the same soon, whether they like it or not.

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Jan 15, 2022·edited Jan 15, 2022

Another example I've just remembered - Shinzo Abe spent his entire premiership trying to secure a rapprochment with Russia, promising billions in investment from Japan and a better relationship partly in an effort to drive a wedge between Russia and China. The sticking point was a resolution of the "Northern Territories" issue, four islands just north of Hokkaido.

Putin merrily strung Abe along for years, securing all sorts of promises after multiple personal summits, before ultimately dismissing the idea. Abe was humiliated, and the only thing he'd achieved was a wedge had instead been driven between the US and Japan instead. The Nothern Territories issue is deliberately kept unresolved by Russia precisely in order to give Russia leverage over Japan - that this leverage might be worth a lot less to Russia than the economic benefits of a good relationship with their neighbour is something that Russian elites beyond Putin are satisfied with due to their peculiar and narrow definition of sovereignty and the national interest.

If we're going to try to copy the "Let's be nice to Russia to separate it from China" strategy, then we should at least try and see whether anyone else has successfully managed this with Putin. As of yet, it hasn't worked, and there's no reason to suggest it would with Ukraine.

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This presents the west as the real aggressor which i think is naive bordering on delusional. It also presents a lot of Russian statements at face value.

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I think Lee has a very different view of what Putin's project is than I do. I think Putin has made it quite clear that he is not interested in a neutral Ukraine. He is interested in a Ukraine that is reintegrated into a Russian empire, at least to the extent that Belarus is now. In the Budapest Memorandum (19940, Russia once before signed onto a joint guarantee of Ukrainian independence, in exchange for Ukraine turning in its Soviet era nukes. Look what came of that.

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Jan 15, 2022·edited Jan 15, 2022

There's a strain of let's adopt a more realist foreign policy in this article, but it's not actually realist in that it focuses a lot on rhetoric and ends up adopting an all or nothing rhetoric that invokes American soldiers dying in Ukraine. That's not actually on the table in this instance. NATO does not admit countries with territorial disputes, but officially declaring that it would never admit Ukraine just gives Putin a domestic and international propaganda win for... practically nothing because Putin already knows this which is part of why he invaded part of it in the first place. Relatedly, Putin lacks credible commitment mechanisms to credibly promise to not do this all again in a year or two. This is key problem in international relations, you might want to make a deal but you lack a credible commitment mechanism to do so.

What is on the table is selling more arms to Ukraine and greater economic sanctions. If Putin knows there is a significant cost to invading other countries, he won't invade other countries. He correctly perceived that there would not be significant cost for annexing Crimea and so he did it. The higher the perceived cost to further invading Ukraine, the less likely he is to do so. The difficulty is making a credible commitment given that there are negative consequences to actually having to follow through vs. simply deterring with a credible threat you don't end up having to carry out because it's credible that you would.

Selling additional arms to Ukraine is a low cost way to increase the price to Russia of an invasion of the rest of Ukraine. The risk is that Putin decides to invade now before the arms arrive or before Ukraine can learn how to effectively use new weapons systems. Again, this comes back to is there a credible commitment of economic sanctions if he launches an invasion? The author calls into question whether this is in US interests, but cutting off Europe's supply of Russian gas through sanctions is of relatively little consequence to the US so while Europe might not be able to credibly promise this the US could under a more hawkish foreign policy if it were in its interest to do.

There is a realist reason why the US provides wide security guarantees: to prevent nuclear proliferation. This is the deal with the US nuclear umbrella: the US will provide a nuclear security guarantee and in exchange the country will not develop nuclear weapons. The real reason US troops are stationed all over the world is to make these guarantees more credible (because they are not completely credible particularly without dead American soldiers) to avoid nuclear proliferation and nuclear war. Policies of containment run a short term risk on the view that in the long run there will overall be less risk to the US of nuclear war if Russia is contained within its own borders vs. if other countries feel they must develop the bomb to provide credible deterrence. Wherever you come down on the best strategy for the US, this is what's at stake for the US, not Ukraine's sovereignty.

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Jan 15, 2022·edited Jan 15, 2022

This argument doesn't stack up. There are several things wrong here - it's a mistake to draw conclusions about how to handle foreign policy in Europe directly from domestic party politics; Western policy is clearly capable of trade-offs in the region; and it sees the solution as simple because it sees the problem through a binary Russia/US lens rather than the correct interplay of olibgations, relationships, and behaviour between Russia, Ukraine, the EU, Turkey, and the US.

First, to the extent whatever Tucker Carlson or Brookings have to say about this issue is relevant, it is not that there are truthtellers on Ukraine in each US political party, but rather as an indication that there is no 'Blob' position on Ukraine. For instance, Brookings, the premier liberal establishment thinktank, has nevered miss an opportunity to call for rapprochment with Russia, and has argued for throwing Ukraine under the bus since Maidan.

Tucker and Brookings are strange bedfellows, because there is not a consensus in US/Western politics on Ukraine policy, despite the clarity of international law and the post-invasion consensus in Ukraine on a pro-Western position. If there is a foreign policy blob in this area, it is among the "Russia experts" (and pro-Russian politicians in Austria, Germany, Italy, France etc) who believe that Russia's behaviour can be controlled by the West if only we do whatever Russia says it wants from us. Even if you want a better relationship with Russia, this is naive and will fail as previous "resets" have, because the competitive relationship emerges from deep beliefs about sovereignty and interests among Russian elites that they are prepared to pay a high price to pursue.

Second, the West has within the past year shown at least twice that it does think about the area in terms of trade-offs. Nary a peep was heard about either the protests in Kazakhstan earlier this month (!) or Armenia's crushing defeat in the Second Karabakh War last year despite the 2018 revolution that had brought a pro-Western president to power in Yerevan. Aside from perfunctory meetings with Tsikhanouskaya, Belarus' fake election has dropped off the agenda now that Lukashenko has reasserted control.

The reason why the West has stuck up for Ukraine is that the trade-offs are worth it. Ukraine is big, democratic, pro-Western, has a capable military and a clear medium-term path to closer integration with the European legal order and economy. Allowing Russia to use the threat of another invasion to spike Ukraine's economic and political reforms because they are too successful would bake-in instability to the Russia-West relationship, as Russia would not be able to resist using similar threats to our allies in what Russia has decided is its "sphere of influence". To the extent Russia has become more aggressive over the past year, it's due to Ukraine's growing confidence combined with flagging signals coming from certain Western capitals, especially Washington.

And this comes to the third point - there is no way a US-Russia deal will actually solve the issue, because Ukrainian society and politics is at this point committed to Ukrainian national sovereignty. Blob thinking in this area has always tended to agree with the Russian posititon that Ukraine is not a "proper country", and its true purpose is in a junior role to Russia. But it is not possible to just turn Ukraine on-and-off again and reset it to this imagined role. Not only is Ukrainian society in a totally different place to where it was a decade ago, but Russia today has nothing to offer potential members of its "sphere" beyond cheap energy (sometimes) and implicit threats. A 'deal' would not be stable.

The West abandoning Ukraine would not change this, and would only induce a more unpredictable and dangerous relationship between Russia and Ukraine that partner countries could not avoid getting tangled up in. The challenge for US policy, and the way to serve its interests, is organising a strong and consistent line on Ukraine across Nato, especially the European Union and Turkey, that ensures Russia understands there are no divisions in the West that can be exploited.

The details of such a line don't really matter at this stage and can be worked out, but reasserting the solidarity of the alliance (which includes getting us Europeans to cough up more for our own defence and pissing off German politicians, many of whom believe that sanctions on Russia would be worse for the European economy than a literal invasion!!) and the commitment to respecting Ukraine's own path are the key building blocks. Doing this and avoiding a conflict then frees up energy, attention, and resources for the US to concentrate on Northeast Asia.

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Similar to another commenter… Crimea? Hello? Author attempts to write a few thousand words on current USA-Ukraine-Russia-NATO situation but spends none of those words building critical context about a CURRENT and violent low intensity war? How does this happen? An argument could possibly be made that, “the article is focused on US policy” but even then, how is a Russian invasion to achieve strategic regional goals and threaten Ukrainian sovereignty not relevant to the article?

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That Crimea is not mentioned once in this article is incredibly telling. Obama's policy of rapprochement made some sense when Russia was not a blatantly obvious irredentist power. (The Georgian conflict at least had some pretense of being about self determination of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.) That changed in 2014. The proscription against the right of territorial conquest is one of the most important norms created in the post war era and we have fought before to maintain that principle, the Gulf War being the most salient example.

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"We should acknowledge Ukraine’s position as a buffer, and try to reach a joint guarantee of Ukraine’s independence and nonalignment"

Wasn't a "joint guarantee of Ukraine's independence" already made in Budapest in 1994? Also, even if we wanted to offer such a guarantee, why would Russia accept it? I would imagine that Putin would prefer a Russia-aligned Ukraine to a nonaligned one. Given that he has recently acquired a Russia-aligned Belarus, I don't see why he would think that stopping at nonalignment in Ukraine's case is the most he could do. Simply turning off Radio Free Europe, as the article suggests, is probably not enough to get him to change his mind.

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Good lord this article is stupid. Putin's Ukraine policy is driven by his domestic politics; there is literally no concession the US and NATO could make that would lead to less Russian belligerence. He needs the rivalry to maintain standing, and he'll invent it regardless of our policy choices. There will be no benefit to any compromise.

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I agree with much of this piece, and I think we need to reserve special scorn for George W. Bush (easily the single worst President of the last 100 years) for offering NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia. Just another absolutely godawful foreign policy decision by that madman! Still, I think the author is arguing against a bit of a strawman here- most of America is pretty clear that we're not going to go to war over Ukraine.

It's perfectly reasonable to discuss consequences for Russia if they do go ahead with a (further) invasion, including devastating their economy, bolstering more US troops and missiles close to Russia, and adding Finland and Sweden to NATO. While at the same time, quietly negotiating to keep Ukraine as a buffer state between NATO and Russia. I think what a lot of the 'why should we do anything for Ukraine' people in the comments here don't understand is that doing *nothing* not only makes us look weak, but *actually encourages further aggression*. Having some consequences is actually better for US security than doing literally nothing!

After this conflict is over though, I do agree with the broader idea that we should be try to be friendlier with Russia (even if a few eastern Bloc countries get screwed), while focusing more on China. Leonid Bershidsky had a really good piece in Bloomberg about how Europe could be offering more of a commercial relationship to Russia's elites post-Putin, if they agree to freer elections https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2022-01-06/the-west-needs-to-dream-bigger-than-vladimir-putin

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Our interests in Ukraine is to preserve the possibility of a liberal democratic order, not NATO membership. On the other hand, it's not clear that Putin in interested so much in preventing NATO membership as to insure that there IS no liberal democratic order in Ukraine, so this will be tricky. The Russian intervention in Kazakhstan is disturbing from this POV.

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Thanks so much for this article, and thank you to Matt for letting Lee write this. This is a sorely needed reality check for liberal internationalists and the liberal media, who have been releasing absolutely maddening op-eds on Russia these past few weeks. Scholars have been predicting that Nato's open door policy would be a disaster for literal decades, and now here we are, still with no one listening. Biden must work towards a de facto, if not de jure, Ukrainian neutrality agreement with Russia to ensure Europe doesn't combust into warfare. The US and its allies know that they are not willing to send their troops to defend Ukraine (as required by Article 5 of NATO's founding charter), so why even give Ukraine the option to join at all?

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Whether rapprochement is possible or not, the writer makes the strong point that it is dangerous to push Russia into a corner.

When amendment of the NATO Treaty was before the U.S. Senate to admit Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to NATO, I guided a tour of about two dozen American editorial writers to explore the issue. We visited Paris, NATO headquarters in Brussels, Bonn, Berlin, Warsaw and Bucharest.

In all these places we talked with government officials and foreign policy scholars. Opinions varied on whether NATO continued to have a viable mission and whether it was a good idea to admit these three new members. But it is my recollection that we heard over and over again that care needed to be taken that NATO did not crowd Russia severely by pushing NATO expansion right up to the Russian borders.

This was not a question of "liking" Russia or whether NATO had the "right" to expand. It was just a commonsense expression of how the new relationship of Russia and NATO should best be managed with an eye to avoiding conflict.

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The argument is correct, but ungenerous (that the majority of Democrats suffered anti-Russia derangement due to intervention is a slur). The analogy to Austria is good; Finlandization might be even better. That occurred under Stalin, negotiated by Zhdanov. Just to emphasize that accepting spheres of influence doesn't mean thinking highly of the regime in power in Russia. Putin showed in 2016 and in many other cases that he can hurt us. Our domestic divisions leave us in a very weak position to project power. When you're faced with power, you have to make concessions. Ukraine not being in NATO is a minor one and I would be overjoyed if that were an adequate concession to satisfy Putin. Probably not, but one should at least try and see. I don't see any reason not to try and make it formal. The mechanism would be an agreement in which Ukraine formally declares its neutrality and NATO/the US formally recognizes it (as well as Russia). This would of course have a whiff of Munich about it but not all appeasement is bad and Putin is not even remotely in the power position of Hitler in 1938.

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The author makes statements about Democratic "derangement" and "Election interference became a scapegoat, with Democrat elites blaming Putin for Hillary Clinton’s defeat" without offering any evidence. I think that most Democratic elites (not "Democrat" elites) are aware of the fact that there is no single reason for Clinton's defeat, and that if any one of several issues had gone differently, she would have won. But they are rightfully upset about the fact that one of those issues was Putin's interference in our election. I've seen nothing to indicate that Democrats have overreacted about it.

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