I have an op-ed out in the New York Times today arguing that we must intentionally ground our response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in careful, cost-benefit calculation instead of emotional reaction or moral fervor. The piece is given the unfortunate title “Ukraine’s Cause is Righteous. That Shouldn’t Shape Policy.” My argument is not that the rightness of the Ukrainian cause does not matter, but that in moments of crisis it is easy to do things that feel right even if they do not help us achieve the right outcomes. The righteous demand to do the right thing—now!—unnaturally speeds the tempo of decision making and warps the policy review process. The end result are statesmen rushing into policies whose consequences they have not fully gamed out.
These points are not new to you all: I made them all at greater length in an essay published on this website two weeks ago. Like that essay, today’s New York Times piece hearkens back to the poor policy planning process that preceded the invasion of Iraq. This comparison is not playing well on Twitter. This is partially because the idea that Iraq was a problem of moral imperatives gone wrong is not intuitive to folks who have not studied the origins of that war in close detail (e.g. see here, here, and here), and there was no space to provide those details in the column. But a lot of what is riling people up is the implicit moral comparison they think is being made between the neocons of Bush ’43 and Western leaders today. But that is not my argument! The comparison is necessary not because an invasion and a stand against invasion are moral equivalents, but because in both situations we find American statesmen working outside of the normal policy process in the immediate aftermath of an emotionally charged attack on innocent people.
In moments like these it is the job of the op-ed writer to slow the policy process down, not speed it up. Our role is to center the conversation on long term consequences. Leaders careening from event to event often lack the breathing space to think about ultimate outcomes and second order consequences of the policy options presented to them.
So what is the realistic range of long term scenarios here? If we are honest about the pace of Russian gains, two outcomes strike me as the most likely. The first is an unjust negotiated settlement:
To cease hostilities, the Russians have already demanded that Ukraine recognize the independence of Donetsk and Lugansk, acknowledge Russian sovereignty over Crimea and amend its Constitution to ensure future neutrality. These demands will grow more onerous as the Russian advance creeps forward. Left unspoken in these negotiations is the matter of Western sanctions. Mr. Putin will require at least a partial face-saving victory to end this war. A promise to decrease sanctions might meet this need. This outcome would not be just, but it would hold the best potential for saving the most Ukrainian lives.
But there is a second option, and were I forecasting instead of counseling, I would describe it as the most likely. Call it “Cold War 2.0:”
Refusal to settle on the part of the Ukrainians or their Western backers will likely lead the Russians to commit to the permanent occupation of the territory they’ve taken. This is the most probable outcome of any policy predicated on inflexible Western ultimatums. In this scenario, sanctions would stay in place for decades. A new iron curtain would fall across Europe, separating Belarus, Russia and occupied Ukraine from the West. Though terrible for the Russian and Ukrainian peoples, this may be a strategically stable and even strategically advantageous state for the United States and its NATO allies.
A Russian economy stalled by sanctions will have trouble funding the expansion and modernization of the Russian military. This diminished Russia, forced to carry the military and economic costs of occupying and pacifying a resistant Ukraine, will find it difficult to repeat its aggression against other recalcitrant parts of the traditional Russian imperium, like Finland and the Baltic States. Maybe the West is willing to accept this outcome, but it carries its own risks.
This future is not too different from what Brian Balkus predicts for the future in his most recent piece for Palladium. Russian military modernization will be set back a generation by sanctions and war; European rearmament will allow the United States to shift more of its focus and forces towards the Pacific. This may be a grand outcome—but is it intentional?
Read the full piece at the New York Times.