No one wants Ukrainistan, least of all Vladimir Putin.
Its GDP of $98 billion (in constant 2015 US dollars), down 43% since 1989, falls in between Ethiopia and Angola on the World Bank tables. Its population has shrunk to just 35 million according to the country’s National Academy of Science from 52 million in 1989, rather than the 48 million reported in the official census, because nearly half of the working-age population has left. Its corruption ranking stands at 112 out of 116 countries surveyed by Transparency International.
Ukraine has some gas reserves but Russia has roughly ten times more, far more than it can transport without massive investments in infrastructure. Otherwise, Ukraine has no natural resources of note apart from farmland – and Russia already is the world’s largest wheat exporter.
Seizing Ukraine, in short, would be vastly more trouble than it is worth to Russia. To compare Putin’s threats to Ukraine with Hitler’s march eastwards offends common sense: There is no “there” there in Ukraine, nothing Russia wants: no Lebensraum, no productive population, no oil fields or other assets to be acquired by conquest.
If Putin doesn’t want to conquer Ukraine, just what does he want?
He has three objectives.
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The first is to thwart NATO expansion into Ukraine with the attendant threat of US missiles stationed on Russia’s border. As Jack Matlock, US envoy to Moscow 1987-1991, explained February 15 (“Is the Ukraine ‘crisis just another U.S. charade”), there is an analogy to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis: The US put medium-range missiles in Turkey, so Russia retaliated by putting missiles in Cuba – and withdrew them in return for a US agreement to remove the missiles in Turkey.
The second objective is to thwart the dream of Washington’s global liberals and neo-conservatives to overthrow the Russian regime and replace it with a pro-Western democracy. That is a central concern of Russian strategy. Senior officials of the Biden Administration argue in private that regime change in Moscow is both desirable and possible. That is an open secret of American policy, as Benjamin Denison of the Fletcher School explained in a 2020 survey.
State Department Undersecretary Victoria Nuland, the stage-manager of the 2014 Maidan Square coup in Ukraine, saw the fall of the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych as a prelude to regime change in Moscow. Nuland, then assistant secretary of state for Europe, said in Congressional testimony in May 2014, “Since 1992, we have provided $20 billion to Russia to support pursuit of transition to the peaceful, prosperous, democratic state its people deserve.” Imagine if Putin had boasted of spending $20 billion in the United States to promote a “transition” to a different kind of state. “Paranoid Russian” may be a pleonasm, but even paranoids have real enemies.
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Putin’s third objective is to enhance his bargaining position as an energy provider to Europe as well as China. If the Europeans support Washington’s plan to bring Ukraine into NATO, Russia says in so many words, they can freeze in the dark. Russia is discussing a ten-fold increase in its gas shipments to China via a new pipeline slated for completion around 2026.
Washington’s overreach in NATO expansion and its hopes for a Russian regime change have pushed Russia closer to China, despite some important differences. China’s bottomless appetite for overland energy deliveries (outside the reach of the American navy), its capacity to support Russia’s growing electronics industry and its common interest with Russia in suppressing Central Asian jihadists after the fall of Afghanistan create a deep commonality of interests.
But Russian and Chinese interests are not identical. Beijing is not comfortable with Russia’s sponsorship of separatists in Eastern Ukraine. As Foreign Minister Wang Yi said February 19, “All countries’ sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity should be respected and safeguarded.” China has separatists of its own.
Germany is caught in the middle. Washington has demanded a degree of Nibelungentreue (self-defeating absolute loyalty) from Berlin, threatening the Nord Stream II pipeline that will deliver Russian gas to Germans who urgently need it. The Germans have already asked for energy to be excluded from any prospective sanctions. They are also looking for a diplomatic way to distance themselves from Washington on the subject of inviting Ukraine into NATO.
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By apparent coincidence, a smoking-gun document just surfaced in Europe proving that Russia was given solemn assurances in 1991 by the United States, Great Britain, France and Germany that NATO would not expand eastward after the withdrawal of Russian troops from Eastern Europe.
“Newly-discovered protocol from 1991 supports Russian allegations,” Germany’s leading news site Der Spiegel reported February 18. The German dispatch notes, “Russia has insisted for decades that the expansion of NATO eastward violates Western assurances after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now a remarkable document has appeared.”
Reported Germany’s center-right daily Die Welt:
“We have made clear that we will not expand NATO beyond the Elbe River [the former dividing line between East and West Germany],” wrote the German diplomat Jürgen Chrobog about a conference of the United States, Great Britain, France and Germany in March 1991. This document affirms the Russian point of view about NATO expansion. The document was found in the British national archives.
Die Welt noted that the meeting in question was held in Germany’s former capital Bonn on March 6, 1991, with the political directors of the foreign ministries of the United States, Great Britain, France and Germany. Its topic was “the security of Poland and other East European countries,” the German daily reported. “The Political Director leads the political department of the foreign ministry and is considered the closest adviser of the foreign minister.”
The German representative at the 1991 meeting added, “We made clear to the Soviet Union, in the two-plus-four talks as well as other discussions, that we will not expand NATO beyond the Elbe. Therefore we cannot offer NATO membership to Poland and the others,” the document stated.
The American representative at the Bonn meeting, Raymond Seitz, then the US Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Canada, told the group: “We have made clear to the Soviet Union in the two-plus-four as well as other talks that we will take no advantage of the withdrawal of Soviet troops out of Eastern Europe.”
“Two years later,” comments Die Welt, “the Americans changed their policy.”
Other historians have argued in the German press that the document doesn’t really say what it says, but the damage has been done: Most Germans believe that Russia has the moral high ground in the matter of NATO expansion.
Germany’s leaders face a rebellion in the ranks against Washington’s handling of the Ukraine crisis. An opinion poll last week by Germany’s broadcasting association ARD found that 53% of Germans opposed NATO membership for Ukraine, against 28% in favor and 19% who had no opinion.
Parties that backed a tough stance against Russia, notably the Free Democrats, are dropping in the polls; that threatens the stability of the governing coalition, in which Free Democrat leader Christian Lindner serves as finance minister.
America’s ignominious scuttle out of Afghanistan was a tragedy – a horrendous one for the children of Afghanistan, of whom five million are “at the brink of famine,” according to the charity Save the Children.
The Biden Administration’s humiliation in Ukrainistan, by contrast, recalls Karl Marx’s quip that great historical events occur twice, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce.
There will be no piles of body bags, no burnt corpses and no photos of children with distended bellies and hollow eyes – just embarrassed shrugs as America’s NATO allies go their own ways.
Germany never liked the expansion of NATO, which turned the old military alliance into a diffuse and inherently indefensible social-welfare organization. During the Cold War Germany maintained 12 combat-ready divisions; today it has fewer than a hundred operational tanks. It spends just 1.5% of GDP on defense, well below its 2% commitment level.
If NATO were to shrink to a defensible perimeter, Germany in all likelihood would increase military spending, and draw a bright line between NATO and non-NATO territory. As matters stand, Putin has shown NATO to be a Potemkin Village with nothing uniting its members except rhetoric.