Senator Ted Cruz thinks the United States should arm Ukraine so it can beat Russian-backed separatists in the east. As much as we’d love to help plucky Ukraine resist the giant bear to the north—and we have a solid precedent under our belts—it’s a terrible idea.
Backing the Mujahideen against the Soviet Union during its occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s worked smashingly well. Moscow learned the hard way that it could no longer project enough hard power to shield its vassal states from local uprisings and everything fell apart almost instantly.
Afghanistan was hardly the only country in the Soviet sphere disgruntled with communist rule. Eastern Europeans never acquiesced to it in the first place. They had it imposed on them by the victorious Stalin atop the ashes of the Nazi regime. The Hungarian Revolution in 1956, which began as a seemingly harmless student revolt, brought down the local Russian puppet state. Moscow panicked, deployed thousands of soldiers and tanks, and reimposed the brutal old order. It did the same during the Prague Spring in 1968.
But after the debacle in Afghanistan, Russia lacked the resources and will to repeat it. Nothing could hold back the rising tide of mass discontent in Europe, and barely six months later the Berlin Wall fell.
But Ukraine isn’t Afghanistan, and it is not Hungary. It’s where Russian civilization was born, as the medieval state Kievan Rus in the 10th century. For Russians, losing Kiev to Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union was a bit like Jews losing Jerusalem. Their toleration of a sovereign Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet system was always conditional on Kiev taking orders from Moscow. As soon as that ended with the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych last year, so did its independence.
Russia will no sooner surrender to American-backed forces in Ukraine than we would surrender to a Russian-backed insurgency in Vermont. The situation is hardly analogous—unlike Vermont, Ukraine is a country—but from Vladimir Putin’s point of view it’s precisely analogous.
This is all about NATO expansion which scares the daylights out of the Russians. It shouldn’t, but it does, and it’s not hard to understand why. Just ask yourself how the British would feel if the USSR won the Cold War and the Warsaw Pact expanded to Paris and Brussels. London would feel like it’s “next.” London would have cause to feel like it’s “next.” That’s exactly how it looked from Moscow’s point of view when former vassals like Lithuania and Estonia joined up with Germany and France—and the United States.
It’s a paranoid analysis, but Russia has always been paranoid.
“I believe the Russians are mobilizing right now for a war that they think is going to happen in five or six years,” said US Army Commander in Europe Lt. Gen. Frederick “Ben” Hodges. “Not that they’re going to start a war in five or six years, but I think they are anticipating that things are going to happen, and that they will be in a war of some sort, of some scale, with somebody within the next five or six years.”
The solution from Russia’s point of view—as always—is to either control or destabilize as many “buffer” states as it can. Any of its smaller neighbors that get a little too uppity will find themselves undermined from within or outright invaded, and in the modern era they’re likely to find scraps of territory “annexed” by Moscow to indefinitely prevent them from joining NATO. No one in NATO wants to admit a nation as a new member state that has a disputed territory conflict with Russia. It’s dangerous. That’s ultimately what Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 was about, and it’s the main reason Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula last year.
Putin has already achieved his primary objective and doesn’t need to do much else at this point except not lose the rest of the war. If the United States gets even indirectly involved, he’ll just ramp it up. He needs to win in Ukraine far more than we do, and unlike us he’s more than willing to deploy his own forces directly.
There is no chance Ukraine could ever win a total war against Russia. All it can do is make continued Russian intervention too costly. While it may appear that arming Ukraine will make Russian intervention too costly, it will only inflame Moscow’s anxiety and make losing Ukraine too costly for Russia.
Maybe—maybe—if Kiev wins the war in the east on its own and cedes lost territory to Russia, a Ukrainian rump state could join NATO and prevent something like this from happening again in the future, but that’s only remotely possible if Putin doesn’t feel like he must best the West in his own “near abroad” or lose everything.