The fatal flaws in U.S. thinking about responses to Russian aggression against Ukraine



1) David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Details Costs of a Russian Invasion of Ukraine; The Biden administration and its allies are developing new possible sanctions ahead of a series of meetings to defuse the crisis with Moscow,” New York Times, January 8, 2022.

2) David Ignatius, “Biden wants to turn Ukraine into a porcupine,” Washington Post, January 6, 2022 (5:17 p.m. EST).

3) David Ignatius, “The Biden administration weighs backing Ukraine insurgents if Russia invades,” Washington Post, December 19, 2021

As far back as December 19, David Ignatius reported on a telltale fatal flaw in U.S. thinking about how it and NATO would respond to a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

He reported that American military advisors and policy makers were discussing how to provide assistance to Ukrainian “insurgents” or a Ukrainian “insurgency”. David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt report on January 8 that policymakers are still using the same terminology.

In doing so they have framed the question in a way which naively fails to take international law into account, much less to use it actively to achieve American deterrence goals, while employing a conceptual framework that assumes Ukrainian defeat. They are talking in terms of providing military assistance to “insurgents” after Russia has taken over Ukraine.

The conceptual framework assumes defeat, while completely ignoring international law and the U.N. Charter.

This approach reveals that the military, not the international lawyers or diplomats backed by international lawyers, are setting the terms of the internal U.S. policy debate.

This development calls to mind the old maxim that “Military justice is to justice as military music is to music.”

In the current situation, we might just as aptly say, “Military foreign policy is to foreign policy as military music is to music.”

It is painful to have to explain to Biden’s incompetent foreign policy team that soldiers of a legitimate government of a sovereign country are not “insurgents” but rather soldiers fighting in the nation’s lawful self-defense to repel aggression against their country involving invasion of its sovereign territory, in flagrant violation of Article 2 paragraph 4 of the United Nations Charter.

The Ukrainian soldiers would constitute a Resistance against the invaders, just as the French Resistance sought to repel the aggression of an invading German army in World War II.

A second, glaring, defect in the American approach to deterring a Russian invasion of Ukraine is the statement by President Biden that he was ruling out the use of force in response to a potential Russian invasion.

In this kind of face-off, it is hard to see the advantage of revealing one’s bottom line in advance of any confrontation. One has to ask how one thinks the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis would have worked out if John F. Kennedy had announced he was taking the use of force off the table. Putin through his surrogates has explicitly referred to the threat of nuclear war. Such threats were enough to make Obama blink in 2014. By taking force off the table, has Biden already blinked?

A third defect in the American approach is that officials are blabbering to reporters off the record, laying out their strategic thinking and what they anticipate Russia may or may not do. This shows the American government lacks discipline among its ranks, opening the way to misunderstanding on the part of Russia.

It is natural for different policymakers to advocate different policy options, such as whether or not to expel Russia from the SWIFT international payments system. It is surprising that such differences seem to persist this late in the game. It us utter folly to conduct these arguments in the press, showing Putin divisions among policymakers that may dilute the impact of any direct communications to the Russians through formal diplomatic channels.

The available evidence suggests there are no strong advocates of using international law among top decision makers in the Biden Administration. This means that the U.S. is not likely to even press its international legal case in the U.N. Security Council and the General Assembly, in effect leaving Putin to trample on the U.N. Charter without even putting up an argument. Putin could hardly wish for more.

With Biden at the helm, with the foreign policy ream that gave us the calamity of the Afghan surrender and withdrawal, negative outcomes with Russia in Ukraine are more likely than they would be if the U.S. had a vigorous foreign policy led by competent and experienced people.

In effect, Biden has acceded to Putin’s assertion that the Ukraine and respective spheres of influence in Europe should be decided by power politics, by Machtpolitik–and international law, the U.N. Charter and the postwar international legal order be damned.

Senators and House members in Congress must stand up and ensure that competent people are running U.S foreign policy, and in a manner that stiffens Joe Biden’s spine.

The Trenchant Observer