JOSHUA TREVIÑO, AUSTIN
A Russian invasion of Ukraine—especially but not only if followed by the promised Western-backed Ukrainian insurgency—is a direct challenge to the American victories in both 1945 and 1989-1991. We owe it to our fathers and grandfathers to safeguard what they won.
To say I’ve been all over the map on Ukraine is to understate matters. In mid-December I had intense conversations with friends who believe that Ukraine is not worth defending. I thought they were wrong. In mid-January I had intense disputations with strangers on the Internet—always the best sorts of interlocutors—who believe that it very much deserves a defense. I thought they were wrong. Through it all, I have maintained only two points of real consistency.
The first is that Ukraine, as a polity, doesn’t amount to much. This is not the same as my estimate of Ukraine as a nation or a culture, as both clearly exist and possess great riches uniquely their own. But as a polity, it appears to be fractious, ill-equipped to defend itself, deeply corrupt, and exceptionally unlikely to survive. Though there is a great deal of romantic rhetoric and narrative floating about now, to the effect that the Ukrainians will rise up, mount a heroic resistance, and so on, I don’t find it particularly persuasive. I think the regions of Ukraine that used to be Habsburg and are peopled by Uniates are likely to fight a Russian invasion with ferocity and vigor. That’s basically the city of Lviv and environs. The rest of it, outside of metro Kyiv, seems like much more of an open question. Vladimir Putin’s recent work on the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians overstated its case by quite a lot, but he was right about one big thing: the phenomenon of a Ukrainian state as such has almost no precedent in the one thousand years of history since Grand Prince St Vladimir of Kyiv led the Rus’ to Christianity.
People who argue that Europeans ought to manage their own affairs tend to not grasp what happened in the several hundred years when they did.
The second point of consistency in my view is that the Russians are definitely going to invade.
Whether we ought to care that they’re going to invade—for more than sentimental reasons—has been the point upon which my opinion has changed over several times in the past weeks. There’s no reason to hide that: a phony consistency is a phenomenon of small minds, which is why you see it so often in the Washington Post. I have also, in candor, sought to find reasons not to care, from a policy standpoint. Russia, to me, is an adversary but not an existential one: the grand-strategic goal of the United States toward it ought to be to coax it into de facto alliance against the People’s Republic of China. It is an end so great as to demand quite a bit by way of accommodation of Russians aims we might otherwise find objectionable. Abkhazia, Crimea, and the Donbas are small prices to pay in exchange for a PLA compelled to defend (assuming Russian access to Kazakhstan and Mongolia) the world’s longest land border. But this is for now strategic fantasy. The Russian desire to revise the strategic outcomes of 1989-1991 outstrips its dread of ascendant China. That won’t be true forever. It is true now, and we must make policy now.
Russia is also a significant cultural repository that deserves tremendous respect, and it preserves certain governing values that our own largely progressive regimes have cast aside. This is not to engage in the mindless and, too often, ignorance-fueled Putin fandom among certain elements on the right. The appeal of authoritarianism is endless to devotees of a particular aesthetic, and it is definitionally un-American. In any case, it isn’t clear that the Russian dictator is especially good at it. He is canny and thrives in an era of strategic incompetence among ourselves. Whether he’d get far versus a mid-tier President of the Cold War era—a Kennedy, or a Carter—is not at all obvious. It is also not obvious that the regime and its forms will survive him. He isn’t a Lenin or a Mao: he’s a Franco or a Salazar. The mechanism of his state is him. You, like me, may enjoy the based narrative of Putinism, but it isn’t the stuff of a DeSantis or a Zemmour. Undergirding the rule of Vladimir Putin is simple murder, sordid mafia stuff more in keeping with the traditions of Michoacán than Moscow, with Russian nationalism incorporated as a sales proposition.
Back in the mists of time, which is to say 2006, I had the privilege of attending the Claremont Institute’s Lincoln Fellowship, wherein I sat through a lecture by then-Claremont President Brian Kennedy that I thought was simply nuts. Kennedy’s message was simple: the Soviet Union never really went away. The security apparatus that ran it went into brief eclipse in the 1990s and was now back in the person of KGB veteran Vladimir Putin. Russian policy and statecraft now had to be understood through the lens of a deliberate recapture of Soviet status and power. This was the era of George W. Bush naïveté toward Putin—and, in fairness, also the era in which Putin was allowing NATO the use of Russian airspace and facilities to supply its war effort in Afghanistan. I couldn’t see past it, and so I rejected Kennedy’s argument.
Brian Kennedy, it took me some years to realize, was completely right. By the time Mitt Romney was identifying Russia as a strategic competitor—and Barack Obama, like the high-achieving midwit he is, was mocking it—it was obvious that Russia under Putin was a committed adversary. Russia and the United States are not driven by strategic fundamentals to clash, even if De Tocqueville did set them forth as dominating opposites among the nations of the earth. The two countries enjoyed friendly relations in the Tsarist era: A Russian fleet visited the United States during the American Civil War, Russia sold Alaska to the United States as a friendly power, and Russia sought American mediation to end the Russo-Japanese War. But then, China and the United States are also not driven by strategic fundamentals to clash: But we do and we will. Not everything is geopolitics. The nature of the regime and its choices matter. In the case of Russia, it lost a war to the United States, and its ruler wishes to revise the outcome.
The war Russia lost was of course the Cold War. (We can dispense here with the fiction, beloved of Solzhenitsyn, that Russia and the Soviet Union were not the same thing. They were not, and yet they were.) As defeats go it was more self-inflicted than externally imposed—there is ample record of the George H.W. Bush Administration actively seeking means to keep the USSR in existence—but the losses were functionally indistinguishable from wartime defeat. The Russian imperium was rolled back to the borders of about three hundred years ago in Europe, and to the borders of about two hundred years ago in the Caucasus and Central Asia. (Only in the Far East did the territorial line hold, and that’s only because the China of 1991 couldn’t do much to change things. Matters are quite different now, but Beijing has no need to press the matter yet.) These are stupefying losses, far beyond a mere Alsace-Lorraine or Upper Silesia, and it is perhaps inevitable that a strong Russian state would wish to revise the outcome.
That inevitability is no reason to acquiesce to it. We won and they lost, and they should have lost. Concurrent with the well-deserved respect for Russian nationhood and culture must be an understanding that the Soviet Union was one of the great and evil slave empires of history, a miserable regime that hated God and liberty in equal measure. It dispensed death and iniquity for nearly a century in nearly every corner of the globe, racking up a toll in humanity into the hundreds of millions. If the nation that hosted it lost a few centuries of its territorial expansion, it is too bad. There is no more post-Soviet Russian right to its western marches than there is a post-Reich German right to East Prussia. They’re gone, they’re lost, and it’s your fault they’re lost.
The Russian rollback is not the only outcome, nor even the primary outcome, of the great settlement of 1989-1991. The strategic verdict of 1945 was the division of Europe between two hegemons; and in 1989-1991 one of those hegemons displaced the other. For the past thirty years, the United States has been the quiet but emphatic hegemonic power across the entirety of Europe—“the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old” indeed!—and for the past seventy-seven years American power has kept Europe almost entirely at peace. We are so complacent and accustomed to this state of affairs that we entirely forget what a titanic achievement it is. Across three centuries, from the Sun King to the Führer, a war in Europe uniquely possessed the potential to plunge the entire world into flames. Nowhere else could do it: the Taiping might slaughter tens of millions in China, or Shaka might transform southern Africa, or the Paraguayan nation might perish in agony, and it would only attract local notice. War in Europe on the other hand was a danger for all humanity—and there was plenty of war in Europe. Europe practiced and mastered violence on a pioneering scale, until its final paroxysm of genocide and conflagration invited in the New World hegemon, to manage, lead, and suppress it in equal measure.
People who argue that Europeans ought to manage their own affairs tend to not grasp what happened in the several hundred years when they did.
A Russian invasion of Ukraine accelerates Europe’s return to its old ways. It doesn’t achieve that all at once, nor even by itself, but it does much to that end. There is quite a bit of irredentism available to nearly every European power—another status quo ante source of bloodshed forgotten by the moderns—and it isn’t confined to the Russians. Finns might yearn for lost Karelia, Italians for Dalmatia, Germans for Silesia and Prussia, Poles for the Kresy Wschodnie, Serbs for Kosovo, Hungary for substantive portions of every one of its neighbors, and on and on. Russia has obviously the most dramatic portion upon which to lay claim, and the most military power and political will to do something about it. Europe’s only real wars since 1945, in the Yugoslav wars of succession, did not possess the same potential that the Russian conquest of Ukraine would. The latter changes things for good, and rings in the end of a glorious peace. When our grandfathers were children, Europe was the sort of place where Belgians had to build fortresses and Italians laid plans to conquer the Balkans. A mountain of skulls later, they mended their ways until foreign duress. It seems madness to let them revert: a continent packed with small and wealthy nations, each capable of swiftly becoming a nuclear-weapons power.
The unilateral revision of the conditions of defeat by the defeated power is a thing with a poor history. It is one thing for the stricken power to be allowed, by the victorious concert of nations, to resume its place and regain its role. France, a mere eight years after the final overthrow of Napoleon, was authorized by the victorious Allies to re-invade Spain. Germany, barely a decade past the overthrow of Hitler, was admitted to the ranks of the Western Allies themselves. These things are not irredentist revisionism: they are examples of the defeated power conforming to the terms of victory. When the defeated power embarks upon its own revision of those terms, though, the results are often grim. In a best-case scenario, you have what happened in the American South, where the dead hand of Confederate mythos stunted a once-vibrant region and consigned it to backwardness and violent bigotry for a century, in defiance of the victors’ original vision. In a worse-case scenario, you have Germany’s bold moves to circumvent and then overturn the peace of Versailles: first in secret, with the German-Soviet military cooperation consequent to the 1922 treaty at Rapallo; and then overtly, with the re-militarization of the Rhineland, the Anschluss, the renunciation of armaments limits, and so on. The problem with that sort of unilateral revision is that its only natural limit is the old peace’s guarantor powers’ willingness to fight. You can swallow up the Rhineland, Austria, the Sudetenland, and the Czech lands, but suddenly you find that Poland was a step too far. Why would it be? There was no reason to expect it after all that had come before. The defeated power’s push for revision, and the victorious powers’ too-long acquiescence to it, ends in a circumstance somewhat to the surprise of all parties: a world war.
Russia now sets itself in the position of the defeated power seeking unilateral revision. What it seeks to revise is, to understate things, extensive.
How much of it do we tolerate? The squalid occupation of the Donbas and the seizure of Crimea did not unhinge the general peace—so far, except to the extent that the toleration of them leads to the full invasion of Ukraine, in which case history may revise its consensus. If we tolerate it, if we accept it, then at what point does our role as hegemon of all Europe come into question? I have written that we fail to appreciate the world-historic value of a Europe mostly at peace: these days you could shoot an archduke in Sarajevo and it would be a strictly local story. What a blessing.
We fail to appreciate what our hegemonic role brings us—not in some sense of a place among the nations, but on Main Street USA. America’s dominance as hegemon across vast swaths of humanity—the whole of the Western Hemisphere, the whole of Europe, much of east Asia, much of the resource basin of the Middle East—translates directly into the power of American currency and the attractiveness of American debt. The American way of life and government has depended upon endless credit for generations now. There are worrying signs that the currency isn’t what it was—the rise of crypto is a key signal to that end—but the extension of credit will continue as long as America is the hegemon. When we aren’t—say, when Russia is successfully using armored columns to reverse the American victory of 1989-1991—then the credit starts to dry up. Austerity America will make 1970s Britain look like a vale of plenty by comparison, and it will sport elements that make 1970s Belfast seem bucolic. There is a great deal of anger and disillusionment these days with the crowd that thinks America ought to fight everywhere, always, and botches things when we do—and most of it is right. But the stupidity of our leadership class in squandering American lives and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan does not change the cold reality that the bounty and blessings of American life rest to a tremendous degree upon our domination abroad. We have a surpassing interest in maintaining it.
It is quite difficult to advocate for an American defense of Kyiv on the grounds that Kyiv is a good in itself. It is quite easy to do so on the grounds that it is necessary to the comforts and security our families enjoy in Leander, Texas, or Apopka, Florida, or Davis, California. Even the incapacities and shortcomings of the Ukrainian polity that began this essay do not negate that. Besides, the United States has traditionally been willing to defend imperfect states in the name of national interest: El Salvador and the Republic of Viet Nam come to mind. I spent much of my childhood in a Republic of Korea that was essentially a semi-fascist military dictatorship. Not too long before we arrived, its government massacred hundreds of its own citizens—who were for the most part merely demanding free elections—in Kwangju. We can face those things squarely and still know that the American defense of a free Korea was (and is) the right call. I profess to no especial insight on Ukraine’s domestic civics, but who is to say its sorry, tumultuous, and corrupt independence era will not, with American tutelage, become something better? Nearly the only thing that could guarantee it becoming something worse would be a Russian invasion.
People whose profession it is to scowl on television and look incredulous are apt to point out that Russia is a nuclear-weapons power, and that therefore any American armed confrontation with Russia must be avoided. It is obviously true that Russia has several thousand nuclear weapons, and it is one of perhaps two to three countries that could end the United States in an afternoon. It is further true that Russian battlefield doctrine, as we understand it, adheres to a reckless belief that tactical nuclear weapons may be employed without necessarily leading to a strategic nuclear exchange. It is probably wrong on this point. All this is true, and yet—this cannot be emphasized enough—when the United States has chosen to militarily confront Russia across the past three-quarters of a century, Russia always backs down. The list is somewhat long, but includes: the Berlin Airlift, American attacks on Russian airbases in the Korean War, American reconnaissance overflights of the USSR, the Berlin Crisis, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Reagan-era USN overflights of Russian Pacific territory, and beyond. This is not to argue that we should engage in these confrontations recklessly, nor that they are risk-free—the Cuban Missile Crisis in particular came within a moment of catastrophe—but simply to note that we usually prevail. In the past decade, the Putinist Russian state has faced a couple of similar moments: the Turkish shootdown of a Russian jet, and the American destruction of a Russian “contractor” unit in Syria. (We may be able to add a third item to the list if we include NATO’s deterrent power in preventing a Ukraine-type crisis from afflicting the Baltic states.) In both cases, the Russian response was the same: nothing. Confronted with equal and superior force and aggression, it backed down.
There is therefore an exceptionally high probability that an American defense of Ukraine would yield the same outcome. More properly: a credible and promised American defense of Ukraine. It seems madness to send Americans to war against Russia, but if avoiding that end is your goal, then the historical tried and true method for achieving it is to be ready for war with Russia. You have to be willing, and you have to let them know.
A Russian invasion of Ukraine—especially but not only if followed by the promised Western-backed Ukrainian insurgency—is a direct challenge to the American victories in both 1945 and 1989-1991. We owe it to our fathers and grandfathers to safeguard what they won. That Russian invasion furthermore promises to set in motion events that lead directly to existential threats to the United States, in the vein of a Europe returned to its old ways, and an American loss of hegemon status. (Add a third item to that list: an America whose resources and strategic thought are fatally distracted from the real battle for the twenty-first century in the western Pacific.) We therefore have an interest in preventing it.
Diplomacy won’t do it. Sanctions won’t do it. Appeals to moral sentiment won’t do it.
The only thing that will do it is the Armed Forces of the United States, arriving in Ukraine and throwing down the gauntlet, preferably alongside the allies whom we defend. It is easy to conceive of the Poles, the Balts, and the British joining us—for starters. They won’t do it, though, unless we lead. When it do, it will look for a while like war. But it is in fact the best chance for peace.
Joshua Treviño is the Chief of Intelligence and Research at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He writes at Armas about culture, events, and strategy, with a particular focus on Texas, Mexico, and China.