Ukraine: Actions, Consequences, And The Unintended Consequences That Matter More

by Ranjan Sreedharan - Mar 14, 2022 05:22 PM +05:30 IST
Ukraine: Actions, Consequences, And The Unintended Consequences That Matter MoreThe Russia-Ukraine crisis
  • The current Russia-Ukraine crisis was brought about in a large measure by the inability of the Biden administration to think through unintended consequences of its actions.

As the war in Ukraine progresses, a lot is being written about it and much of it in angst. My intention, then, is not to add to the clutter but to offer a realist’s perspective shorn of emotion, which is not the fashion currently. I begin with some thoughts about the context of the conflict which are not new, before moving on to some points that are my own. Here we go.

When you live next door to a bear, the simple rule to live by is that you do not go and poke it in the eye. But, by harping on NATO membership, Ukraine did precisely that. And today, as Russia and Ukraine fight it out on the ground, and as Putin draws condemnation for the resort to military might, the US and its allies must be called out for their role in stoking this needless conflict. Quite simply, by not smacking down Ukraine’s NATO pipedreams, the West let go of an opportunity to act like an adult. After all, telling a few home truths to a petulant kid demanding more than its share of pink candy is the minimum behaviour expected of an adult.

Instead, in going down the grandstanding route and quoting high moral principles which it itself does not follow, the US has set Ukraine up for a mighty fall. It seems that President Biden, smarting under the scorn that came his way following America’s debacle in Afghanistan, saw this as an opportunity to stand up and be seen as an authoritative world leader and reclaim the ground ignominiously lost in Afghanistan. But make no mistake, the heaviest price for all this ‘image management’ will be paid by the people of Ukraine who stand to lose the most. The West’s virtue signalling will come at the cost of Ukrainian blood and tears. When your primary motive is something other than the long-term wellbeing of Ukraine and its people, this is to be expected.

As for the right of independent nations to choose their alliances, does anyone care to remember the Cuban missile crisis of 1962? That was when Cuba was put through a prolonged naval blockade and the world came perilously close to the brink of a nuclear war all because Cuba had exercised its sovereign right to join a rival military alliance. The same thing happened in 1983 when the US invaded Grenada and overthrew its left-wing government because it was getting too close to Cuba and the Soviet Union. The right of sovereign states to choose their alliances is like the right to free speech that much of the world swears by. We know for sure that the right to free speech is almost never an absolute right since all kinds of restrictions have been put on it everywhere (ostensibly) in the interest of social harmony.

In any political game, each side likes to pretend that they have a monopoly over virtue, but it's for the intelligent bystander to see through all such pretensions. In real life, the world is rarely about black and white and more about the shades of grey. Today, I would have unhesitatingly recognised the West as the lighter shade of grey had they displayed the minimum common sense to counsel Ukraine about the realities of international power politics that made their desire to join NATO a non- starter and then offered to negotiate with Russia on the finer points of making Ukraine a neutral buffer state. Instead, they led that hapless nation up the garden path.

All this was predicted by the international relations scholar, Prof. John J Mearsheimer, in a speech delivered at the University of Chicago in June 2015 where he declared, “The West is leading Ukraine down the primrose path and the end result is that Ukraine is going to get wrecked.” In fact, much of what I have written so far was said by Mearsheimer in a 2014 article published in the Foreign Affairs magazine with the title, “Why the Ukraine crisis is the West’s fault: The liberal delusions that provoked Putin.” And so precise and prescient his words were, it’s worth quoting extensively from that article.

“One also hears the claim that Ukraine has the right to determine whom it wants to ally with and the Russians have no right to prevent Kiev from joining the West. This is a dangerous way for Ukraine to think about its foreign policy choices. The sad truth is that might often makes right when great power politics are at play. Abstract rights such as self-determination are largely meaningless when powerful states get into brawls with weaker states. Did Cuba have the right to form a military alliance with the Soviet Union during the Cold War? The United States certainly did not think so, and the Russians think the same way about Ukraine joining the West. It is in Ukraine’s interest to understand these facts of life and tread carefully when dealing with its more powerful neighbour.

Even if one rejects this analysis, however, and believes that Ukraine has the right to petition to join the NATO, the fact remains that the United States and its European allies have the right to reject these requests. There is no reason that the West has to accommodate Ukraine if it is bent on pursuing a wrong-headed foreign policy, especially if its defence is not a vital interest for them. Indulging the dreams of some Ukrainians is not worth the animosity and strife it will cause, especially for the Ukrainian people.

NATO has expanded in the past because liberals assumed the alliance would never have to honour its new security guarantees, but Russia’s recent power play shows that granting Ukraine NATO membership could put Russia and the West on a collision course.”

The costs for America

Talking of ‘liberal delusions’, it is always easy to quote high moral principles when the cost falls elsewhere. The US has emphatically asserted Ukraine’s right to choose its alliances, but the tab will be picked up almost entirely by the Ukrainians and, to a lesser extent, the Russians. However, there is reason to believe that Biden and his team may have overreached and will end up paying some heavy costs of their own. Sanctions on Russia will no doubt do serious harm to Russia but here we have people who are accustomed to hardship. In contrast, the American populace is so thoroughly mollycoddled that when the pandemic struck, they needed dollops of handouts from their government as pacifiers (often more than what they earned before) to see them through the ordeal. Safe to say, the tolerance for pain among Americans would be way lower than the Russians.

The disruptions that will now follow, such as a spike in oil and gas prices and all other commodities, and its incremental boost to a US inflation already at third world levels, will have drastic repercussions on the American political landscape. For all those looking for a regime change in Russia, be aware that while regime change in Russia may or may not happen any time soon, it will certainly happen in the US. It is now quite likely the Republicans are set for a landslide in the coming midterms to give them control over both the Senate and the House of Representatives. With firm Republican control over Congress and a conservative majority already ensconced in the US Supreme Court, one of the first casualties for liberals will be “Roe v. Wade”, the landmark ruling on abortion rights that has stood ground since 1973 but now looks wobbly.

Further, given that the surge in inflation will accompany a slowing US economy, the US Fed will be caught in that proverbial place between a rock and a hard place. Raise interest rates and the economy’s growth slows down to a trickle; hold back and inflation entrenches itself even more. If the past US experience with fighting inflation is anything to go by, it is no easy battle and will almost certainly involve tipping the economy over into a recession. The chances that the US presidential elections in 2024 will be once again held against a backdrop reading “It’s the economy, stupid” look very bright indeed. If the Republicans manage to present a half-credible candidate other than the erratic Trump, they will have the White House sewed up for the next 8 years, the way the luckless Carter presidency gave way to the dawn of the Reagan era.

The prospect of “It’s morning again in America” should normally send chills down the spines of the liberal intelligentsia now busy with drumming up outrage against Russia but then reading the writing on the wall has never been their strong point. And so, all the gains they have made in advancing their social agenda in the US will be up for systematic reversal, only because they made the mistake of taking their eye off the ball at home (where the real game with all their pet causes at stake is being played out).

Incidentally, Biden did himself no favour by killing the Keystone pipeline the first thing upon taking over, or by parroting the climate warriors in their demonisation of fossil fuels which has affected investments in the sector and reduced US petroleum output to levels significantly below what prevailed before the pandemic under Trump. Actions have consequences and thanks to the entirely predictable surge in oil prices that followed, Putin is now sitting on US$ 630 billion of forex reserves, up from US$ 440 billion in January 2021 when Biden took office. That will help him ride out the sanctions at least for a while even as his access to the dollar and euro components get taken for now away by the sanctions.

I come to another problematic aspect of the ‘liberal’ mindset.

With all the grandstanding and claims to the moral high ground, not to mention that singular ability to rush forth into trouble spots bearing the moral certainties of a religious fanatic, they end up so emotionally invested in the headlines of the day that they become clueless about the 'unintended consequences' of their actions. I repeat, actions have consequences. Anticipating these consequences does not require an extraordinary mind. But actions also have unintended consequences, and to get a sense of what these are likely to be requires a practical mind that understands, or tries to understand, how the world actually works. Instead, if the purpose of your existence is to remake the world into a better place (whatever it means), your ability to see nuance and think through the second, third or fourth order consequences of your actions is automatically impaired.

It is no accident of history that the quest for utopia of any kind, religious or political, is littered with human corpses.

Adding complexity to all this is that unintended consequences take years to show up, if not decades. NATO expansionism over the last two decades provoking today’s horrific response from Russia is one example. For a full seven years after he made his predictions about Ukraine, Mearsheimer appeared to have been talking through his hat. The rise of China presents a civilisational threat to the West. An unwelcome consequence of the West’s failure to accommodate Russia’s legitimate concerns over continuing NATO expansion is that a new global alliance is taking shape which can only accelerate China’s rise and spell bigger trouble for the West down the road.

The ability to see the larger picture, to be cognisant of the tectonic shifts being set off by your actions today, requires a sense of detachment and distance. When you give in to self-righteousness and pair it further with demonisation of the other side, that capacity to stand back and see the larger picture taking shape before you gets undone. Eventually, you reap what you sow, no matter that the sowing was accompanied by many invocations to high-minded morality. The world of realpolitik has little to do with the ‘good vs. bad’ paradigm; instead, it has a lot to do with the via media and the compromises that force you to swallow pride even as you ‘know’ the other side is the devil incarnate.

A school bully analogy

Here is an analogy to simplify the issue at hand and get a hold of its longer-term implications. If you have a school-going kid, you will know that schools can have bullies who use their might to ride roughshod over other students. It’s not a happy situation, so what is the way out? I would say, there are two ways out, one being the natural (or endogenous) solution while the other is an artificial (exogenous) solution.

The artificial solution would have the school install (at considerable cost) surveillance equipment all around its premises and employing people to keep track of the feed. This can be supplemented by stationing security guards (more cost) and have them constantly patrol the classrooms and playgrounds.

The natural or endogenous solution is to get your child to try and adjust to the uncomfortable reality in the least painful way possible by developing appropriate workarounds and coping mechanisms. It would have you convey to your kid the need to follow certain precautions in school, such as giving a wide berth to the bullies and not doing anything to provoke them, moving around the school campus in groups etc.

The problem with the exogenous or artificial solution is that it works only so long as the infrastructure put in place works with precision. The moment there is a system failure, it presents a window of opportunity to the bully who will now be only too happy to exercise his muscle-power unchecked by authority, much to your child’s detriment. Moreover, all that security apparatus works only during school hours. What if the bully has an encounter with your child outside the school? The natural or endogenous solution is clearly not an ideal or perfect solution in any way. But, in its own imperfect way, it is also a realistic solution that is more likely to lead to some kind of live and let live arrangement that even bullies can come around to.

I began this article by faulting NATO for its failure to act like an adult and impose some discipline on Ukraine. It’s an important point because now that Ukraine is learning a few things the hard way, it is time for NATO to act like an adult and start counselling its members from the former east bloc, especially the three Baltic states. Begin by reminding them the obvious, that they are tiny powerless countries sharing a border with a great power who has little love lost for them given their penchant for thumbing their nose at Russia. They must be told in no uncertain terms to tone down their rhetoric against Russia, not poke the bear in the eye, and begin rebuilding their bridges with that country. Quite simply, their sense of security today is derived entirely from an artificial or exogenous construct called NATO and its collective security architecture.

In practice, NATO is overwhelmingly reliant on US military power at a time when the world’s balance of power is in a state of flux. We have a rising power and another power that disagrees it is a declining power, but I wouldn’t bet my house on that. Over the course of the next two or three decades, it’s entirely conceivable that earth-shaking realignments may happen, with the US losing its will and capacity to fight distant wars and risk nuclear annihilation where its direct interests are not stake. That is when the endogenous solutions, the bridges you have built today and the compromises you have made, will come to your aid.

Assigning blame

History is clear that while NATO’s expansion began under Clinton, all subsequent US presidents have played along, each one taking in more members during their tenure. But now that things have come to a pass under Biden, who should bear the most blame? I would argue it’s Biden.

Imagine five of you hop into a car and decide to head to the beach, some distance away. The first person drives the car for so many miles in a set direction towards the beach, before giving way to the second person who also does the same. The third and fourth drivers continue in the same direction and the fifth driver takes over at a point when the beach is within striking distance. What if this person continues to drive the car in the same set direction only to crash it into the waves?

Would you accept an excuse that goes, “I only did what the others before me did”? When you take over a position, the direction would have been set by your predecessor but the responsibility to make necessary course correction is always yours. As Biden took office, the expanded NATO was a fait accompli and no one expected him to reverse course. But it was entirely for him to take fresh stock and see whether further expansion was needed or not.

Unfortunately for Biden, having squandered his political capital in Afghanistan, he was in no realistic position to offer even reasonable compromises to Russia. A willingness to discuss neutral status for Ukraine would have invited a backlash from the Republican opposition as well liberals within his own ranks. We often hear the claim that liberal democracies don’t start wars. Thanks to examples like Iraq, Libya, the former Yugoslavia etc., that assertion has relatively few takers outside of the Western world. With Ukraine, we come to another flaw with liberal democracies. When led by a leader down on credibility and low on political capital, a liberal democracy is more likely to start a war by passing up on the chances to make reasonable compromises.

Tailpiece: Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) and its embedded asymmetry

Over many decades now, a nuclear war never took place even as the world went through multiple flashpoints because the principal adversaries understood the principle of deterrence known as MAD or ‘mutual assured destruction’. A nuclear war would assure the annihilation of the attacker as well as the counter-attacker, and therefore made no sense. While that principle stays true even today, I would posit that since the end of the cold war—with one side losing face and power, and new nuclear armed actors springing up around the world—a fundamental asymmetry has crept into the equation that makes nuclear war more likely than in the heydays of the cold war.

I first got a whiff of this asymmetry as a college student when Margaret Thatcher, leading the Conservative party, squared off against Neil Kinnock’s Labour party in the British general elections of 1987. One of the bitterest disagreements between the two parties was whether Britain should continue with its independent nuclear deterrent; that small component of submarine launched nuclear missiles independently maintained by the country even as its membership in NATO brought it under the protective umbrella of the US nuclear force. Labour wanted Britain to embrace unilateral nuclear disarmament, a stance that allowed Thatcher to score easy points by pooh-poohing the idea. Thatcher’s argument was instinctively easier to understand—give up the independent nuclear deterrent and Britain becomes a sitting duck in a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union.

Those were days when I was a flaming left-winger, and I was emotionally invested in seeing Thatcher off for good. The thought struck me that Thatcher’s logic had a serious flaw that the Labour party had just not cottoned on to. I was distressed enough to decide to write to Neil Kinnock laying out my arguments in some detail. The chances of the Soviet Union singling out Britain for a nuclear strike were quite remote because that would anyway invite full US retaliation. However, in the much more likely event of a war between the US and the Soviet Union, an independent British deterrent would actually become a perverse invitation for a Russian nuclear attack. That’s because for the Soviets, after letting loose missiles on all the high value targets in the US, it would make sense to pivot to Britain for more high value targets even at the cost of additional missiles raining down on them.

Because, these additional missiles could only have targeted the relatively unimportant cities and sites that the American missiles had opted to give a pass to. The Soviet Union would therefore be in a position to inflict massive additional damage to its enemies against which the incremental destruction from British missile strikes would pale in comparison. For the record, I did get a reply from a clerk at the Labour party office in London who thanked me for my support and for good measure threw in some of the Labour party’s campaign material and talking points.

Today, there are some in the West who would dismiss Russia as a gas station with nuclear weapons. Wouldn’t it be downright silly then to get into a nuclear exchange where you destroy a gas station many times over, while the other side has a rich buffet to pick from. In calling it mutually assured destruction, the impression gains ground that both sides suffer equally. In truth, the outcomes may be equal, but the losses are far from equal. That asymmetry, I believe, matters more than it’s currently given credit for. And it will matter more and more as the ownership of nuclear weapons gets more and more decentralised. When you are dressed in a fine wool suit, it’s in your interest not to get into a mud fight with a bare-chested ruffian. That should be a sobering though for the world today. North Korea, for instance, is a bare-chested ruffian. Are there more of them out there? That topic is best left for another day.

(Ranjan Sreedharan is an occasional writer whose area of interest is the interface between politics and economics. He tweets at @ranjansr )

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