First, an update on the Canadian truckers: Justin Trudeau’s government has unleashed police on the peaceful but disruptive crowds. And though I was joking about its possibility, a similar American “People’s Convoy” is indeed headed to Washington, D.C. this week.
In Washington, said convoy may encounter President Joe Biden, whose hands are already quite full with the ongoing standoff in Ukraine. This conflict is deeply rooted in ugly Eastern Bloc politics, and its implications have already been discussed thoroughly within our Opinion section. Each passing day seems to bring the United States closer to full-scale intervention, and only time will answer my two most pressing questions regarding the issue.
First, allow me to back up. Three decades ago, the Soviet Union’s collapse left Ukraine to fend for itself in the zero-sum game of a refined Eastern Europe. The region’s newly elected leaders were not communists, but instead embraced varying degrees of democratic reform; each of their approaches massively influenced the statuses of Eastern European countries today. As a cursory glance at any political map will show you, countries like Estonia, Poland and Romania were liberalized enough to join the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
While such liberalization generally countered Moscow’s influence in the 1990s and 2000s, President Vladimir Putin’s Russia has proven to be a completely different animal in Ukraine. The former Soviet satellite may have gained independence in 1991, but many ethnic Russians still live in eastern Ukraine — a fact Putin often cites when undermining its independence. Growing fearful of Russian influence, the majority of Ukrainians (especially in western Ukraine) began to favor joining the EU, and even NATO by the late 2000s but their government’s poor human rights record left them sidelined from such institutions.
The fear of losing his favorite Soviet child served as Putin’s justification for launching a not-so-secret invasion of Ukraine in early 2014, a time when pro-Putin President, Viktor Yanukovych, was already facing an internal revolution from pro-democracy protesters. This division within Ukrainian society allowed Russian forces to sweep through and annex the Crimean Peninsula on March 18, severely limiting Ukraine’s access to vital Black Sea trade routes. Additionally, Russia occupied the far-east Ukrainian region of Danbas, but neither of Putin’s claims to these territories — which he now calls “independent” and Donald Trump calls “genius” — is recognized by the international community.
This history brings me to my first question: Is the 2021-22 conflict getting the attention it deserves? Weeks ago, my answer would have been “yes, with some doubts,” but now I’m really unsure. Both conventional wisdom and the lingering memories of Iraq and Afghanistan suggest it is unwise to send Americans to die protecting a mildly-authoritarian ally, yet Biden and our foreign policy establishment are certainly flirting with doing so.
When Putin mobilized 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border in late January, Biden responded by deploying 3,000 American troops to NATO allies in Eastern Europe in early February. Some wanted the president to get peacekeeping forces involved, but thankfully Biden has resisted the urge to request these often-useless soldiers.
While the act of deploying thousands of U.S. military personnel overseas received plenty of attention three weeks ago, it is no longer being discussed enough, especially as the region’s rhetoric points to a Russian invasion. On Tuesday, Putin bluntly said the Minsk Agreement — the 2015 ceasefire signed between Kyiv and Moscow — “does not exist.” On Wednesday, the Ukrainian government declared a state of emergency, urging its citizens to leave Russia immediately. And according to NBC News, American officials have already discussed a plan to evacuate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy from Kyiv should Russia invade.
It doesn’t take an expert to know that a government in exile is usually detrimental to the security of a nation, yet the media narrative has largely been as follows over the last month: “Putin is being Putin, America is leading the effort to stop him. Oh wait, now Ukraine is pulling a Kabul and bringing all its people back to defend the homeland?” While the increased attention this week has been good to see, the nearly month-long gap in mainstream coverage will raise more questions than it answers if the conflict escalates.
This brings me to my second question: If Putin and the American legacy media continue to act in bad faith, can Biden walk the fine line needed to de-escalate the situation? More importantly, has he learned from the mistakes made by former President Barack Obama in dealing with Putin in Ukraine? While I don’t think there’s a clear answer so far, I’m not hopeful.
On the positive side: In an expected move, Biden imposed the sanctions package dubbed “the mother of all sanctions” by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) against Russia. Indeed, these sanctions are more severe than anything imposed by the Obama administration, as they target both Russia’s financial institutions and sovereign debt accumulation. They also block foreign investment in the Ukrainian regions recognized as independent by Putin — a clear signal to the Ukrainian people that resisting the Russians is their best chance for prosperity.
However, Russia has proven remarkably resilient to American sanctions in the last eight years — even if the value of its ruble suggests otherwise. Russian leaders have generally responded with apathetic resilience to sanction-catalyzed downturns, which perhaps bolsters Putin’s “the West is out to get us” narrative better than anything else.
It is particularly concerning that Russia could retaliate by cutting Europe’s access to natural gas via the state-run Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would not be affected by American sanctions. Ultimately, this scenario would look a lot like 2014, as the U.S. would have to concede to Putin to avoid another global oil crisis. In said scenario, Russia would likely maintain control of any territory it occupies — and further cement its grip in Crimea and Donbas.
Several European powers, notably Germany, seem to be anticipating a Nord Stream shutdown. Attempting to burn a hole in Russia’s wallet and transition to more domestic energy sources, the German government has halted further construction of the pipeline until the conflict cools off. The White House cheered this move as “a major turning point in the world’s energy independence from Russia.”
But as this statement suggests, not all nations affected by the standoff in Ukraine share Germany’s level of energy independence. Instead of cheering on Europe’s sacrifices from the sidelines, the Biden administration should be prepared to organize an export of crude oil to all affected states in case Nord Stream is shut down. Not only would this send a clear message to Russia, but it would also relieve Americans from the notoriously high gas prices of recent months — which the Ukraine crisis has only pushed higher.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.) articulated this strategy quite well in a series of tweets Tuesday, as he argued that an increase in U.S. oil exports will stabilize gas prices for Americans, Europeans and other people across the world. Unfortunately, I expect nothing from Biden here because his hands are tied to a platform of promoting green energy. Delving into America’s vast oil reserves would hurt his support among young progressives ahead of the November midterms.
So far, I do not believe Biden has made the colossal foreign policy errors of his former boss, which have undoubtedly enabled further Russian aggression. However, the president must recognize that the strategy of “crisis averted, America weakened” will prove about as effective as prolonging the slavery debate in the 1800s. Now is the time for Biden to go to bat for our European allies, for conflict is inevitable if he decides to strike out looking.