The Ukraine war reaches its Gettysburg moment. Will we see a draft that could end Putin, or the disintegration of western unity?

The early 1900s baseball star (and sometime philosopher, they often go together) ‘Wee’ Willie Keeler put it perfectly – that the key to the sport is to ‘hit ‘em where they ain’t.’

The same simple, effective philosophy, to an even larger extent, explains Ukraine’s dramatic strategic offensive of last week to the northeast of the country, relieving the pressure on its second city, Kharkiv.

While the world, including the Russian general staff, was engrossed by the much-advertised Ukrainian offensive in the south around Kherson – a centre of over 200,000 people and the largest city to be captured by the Russians so far – the Ukrainians adroitly followed Keeler’s maxim. So when Russian troops were dispatched from the Kharkiv area to support its defenders in Kherson, the Zelensky government masterfully struck the suddenly-undermanned northeast.

In the space of just as few days, the front lines – which had stabilized into almost World War I-style trench warfare following the petering out of the Russian offensive in the Donbas in June – were magically opened up by Ukraine’s surprise attack.

In the course of just the past few days, Kiev has retaken up to 700 square miles of territory in the northeast, even as the Russians have scrambled to repair the breach in the line. At a tactical minimum, it is the greatest Ukrainian victory in the war since March, when it dramatically turned Russian forces away from the gates of Kiev itself.

So is this Ukraine’s ‘Gettysburg Moment’ – the decisive battle that will determine not just the immediate and tactical, but the outcome of the war itself?

More than a few caveats are in order before we answer this central political risk question. For while what is strategically going on is momentous, there is a lot of terrible fighting still to come. It must be remembered that, as of this morning, Russia still controls a significant 20 per cent of Ukrainian territory. For all of Kiev’s undoubted heroics, all it has managed to do up, until the present, is to show its vital western backers it can heroically lose the war at a far slower pace than had been expected.

Furthermore, geography matters mightily in evaluating the (relatively) good news. Liberating the northeast is important, but it is not the key to the present situation; the struggle for Kherson has far more strategic impact, since re-taking this major city would upend Vladimir Putin’s current ‘southern strategy’ in Ukraine.

While stopped in his earlier blitzkrieg effort to quickly decapitate the Ukrainian government, take Kiev, and make the country a genuine colony of the Kremlin, Putin has been far more successful in the south.

He has largely succeeded in militarily establishing a land bridge – connecting Rostov on Don in Russia itself, much of the Donbas, and the City of Mariupol (making the Sea of Azov a Russian lake), linking a good portion of the north coast of the Black Sea to already-held Crimea.

If Putin can stabilise the Donbas, he may settle for this major bite of the Ukrainian apple, declare victory and initiate a cease-fire – in essence partitioning Ukraine itself. This is the major strategic gambit of the war at present; comparatively, the Kharkiv region is a sideshow.

But for all these necessary caveats, the Ukrainian offensive might just herald the climax of the present conflict. There are two major – and woefully undiscussed – reasons for my bold political risk call (and do remember that my firm said there would be an invasion in the near term in November of last year).

First, the strategic initiative in a war matters; someone is always on the offensive and someone on the defensive. Since the Ukrainian army’s heroism before the gates of Kiev in March, the strategic initiative has been largely with the Russian army. They have glacially, and at great loss, inched their way forward in the Donbas, taking the whole of Luhansk, and much of Donetsk in the late Spring-early Summer of this year. It is been slow, ugly, and unedifying, but the Russians have retained the initiative until their latest June offensive petered out over the summer.

Now, beyond doubt, in both the northeast around Kharkiv and the south around Kherson, the strategic initiative has gone over the Ukrainians; they are in the offensive driver’s seat now. While it is true that this may be a short-lived phenomenon (winter will likely put on end to both armies’ freedom to manoeuvre and stage large-scale operations), for the present the momentum of the war has swung back in the Ukrainians favor. This is a truly momentous development.

Second, as the great Prussian military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, put it, war is politics by other means. Both Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky have real political challenges ahead, which amount to the decisive factors as to which side will ultimately emerge victorious in the conflict. The present Ukrainian offensive amplifies their present political difficulties, throwing into stark relief the political risk factors that will determine the outcome of the war.

For the Kremlin, their choice of words about the Ukrainian conflict is instructive; they call their barbarity a ‘special military operation;’ God forbid it is discussed as a war. This is not just the usual Orwellian pronouncements of an increasingly totalitarian state. For were Putin to admit that his dreams of federation with Ukraine had been this terribly miscalculated, that the country did not welcome the invading Russian forces with open arms, but instead fought them tooth and nail for control of the country, would be to call Putin’s strategic judgement, and Putin alone, into dangerous question.

A ‘war’ would require a general draft of the Russian people – another hardship visited upon them by their beleaguered leadership. The political risk trap for Putin is that he has to finish his invasion of Ukraine with one hand tied behind his back. For him to unleash total war, which he may have to do to actually conquer a country as vast and well-defended as Ukraine, would be to admit his great miscalculations in the first place. The all-out draft he needs to win could paradoxically bring about his end.

On the other hand, in the words of Tennesse Williams’s tragic heroine, Blanche DuBois, the Ukrainians are dependent on the kindness of strangers – particularly the United States, which has accounted for a decisive 70 percent of all military aid given to Kiev. It is estimated that Ukraine, a political and economic basket case even before the war, needs around $9 billion a month just to keep going.

The political risk danger point is the West is afflicted with a serious cost-of-living crisis, with the beast of inflation loosed from its cage, and with an energy-induced recession about to hit the European continent. It is an open question, as energy is rationed in Europe and America has to weather significant economic troubles of its own, how long Washington and the others are prepared to write tens of billions dollars of open-ended checks for a Ukraine unable to re-take ground in its own country (in essence, just losing gallantly) as its own people suffer for a strategic cause that is secondary at best.

It is in this larger political and strategic context that the present Ukrainian offensive must be seen. If Zelensky’s forces can re-take ground around Kharkiv, the political pressure on the Biden White House lessens, and the necessary cheques will keep being written.

In such a situation, the pressure on Putin to institute a wide-ranging draft to avoid disaster becomes almost unbearable. On the other hand, a stalled offensive would keep the political heat on western leaders from their increasingly restive publics, even as Putin has time to put his announced new 130,000 men in the field by the Spring.  It is for these other, whispered, political risk factors that we have indeed arrived at our ‘Gettysburg Moment’ in Ukraine.

The Tsar’s throne trembles – as the consequences of Putin’s war haunt Russia in the Caucasus

It is not too much to say that Vladimir Putin’s miscalculations over Ukraine have birthed a new era. At the strategic level, the Russian President is guilty of three seminal errors.

First, his battle plan for invading Ukraine was far too byzantine – a fussy three-pronged assault that quickly bogged down partly as a result of this very complexity.

Second, he didn’t believe that Ukraine was truly a nation, that the country (particularly its Russian-speaking eastern portion) would rally around its beleaguered government in Kiev, let alone heroically fight for it.

Third, the Kremlin didn’t count on quick and decisive Western support for Ukraine, embodied in the crippling sanctions imposed on a shocked Russia. These three dramatic miscalculations led to the failure of the Russian blitzkrieg.

But the war, far from making little geostrategic sense as much as the British commentariat presently opines – the very same people who blithely assured us that the invasion wouldn’t happen in the first place – is eminently explicable in realist terms.

Like his hero, Peter the Great, the present Russian Tsar wants to restore Russian prestige by resurrecting a very old, organic geo-political concept that has protected ‘Mother Russia’ for centuries, that of strategic depth.

When Russia has been successful in the past, it has arrayed a series of satellite countries in front of it, providing itself with geographic space as invaders have come on. In traversing the great distances from their homelands through the satellites and then, at last, entering the vast Russian steppes, the invaders have been swallowed up by the immensity of the country itself.

Indeed, Russian defenders have three times (against Charles XII of Sweden in the eighteenth century, Napoleon in the nineteenth century, and Hitler in the twentieth century) traded land for time, and then let the Russian winter do its fearful work. It is neither odd nor anachronistic of Putin to wish to re-establish either Russia’s great power status, or the strategic depth paradigm that underwrites it.

Again, looking historically, the invasion of Ukraine is not an isolated event. Instead, Putin has been setting about this plan for the entirety of his time in power. He has restored traditional Russian influence in the Balkans. In saving the dictator Alexander Lukashenko from his people last year, he has made Belarus a firm satrapy of Moscow. Following his invasion of Georgia in 2008 and after successfully brokering an end to the Armenia-Azerbaijan war of last year, the Kremlin was back as the dominant force in the Caucasus region.

Even the old naval base at Tartus has been reclaimed, following Russia’s successful intervention in the bloody Syrian Civil War. But the final piece of the puzzle, the jewel in the crown of any strategic depth strategy, must leave Moscow with a pliant Ukrainian client state next door, rather than the pro-western regime which presently exists there. That is why Putin raised the sword and rolled the dice; but in failing in his initial blitzkrieg, he has greatly endangered his other quasi-imperial gains.

In settling the Armenian-Azerbaijani war of 2021, Putin emerged as the kingmaker of the Caucasus. Its recent slide back to tension reflects the waning of Russian influence over the region.

The six-week war of last year over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh—an Armenian-populated enclave within Azerbaijan that has been dominated for a generation by Yerevan—resulted in a surprising Azerbaijani victory. The bloody conflict (up to 6600 were killed) was dominated by Baku’s use of new technology, specifically Israeli- and Turkish-manufactured drones, which routed the antiquated Armenian forces. Much of Nagorno-Karabakh, de facto in Armenian hands since the 1990s, reverted to Azerbaijani control.

Before its traditional ally, Armenia, was wholly militarily humiliated, Putin jumped into the fray, organising a ceasefire, which was secured by Russia placing 2000 soldiers along the line of contact between the two sides during a cooling off period.

Further, Putin has cleverly managed the diplomacy so that both sides are beholden to Moscow, with the Kremlin emerging as the steadfast friend of Yerevan, and the newfound friend of Baku, traditionally the ally of Turkey.

However, with the Russian cat away, the local mice will play. Clashes on March 24th-25th occurred along the line of control, with Moscow accusing Azerbaijan of violating the truce. While both Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev, and Armenia’s Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, agreed to peace talks brokered by Charles Michel, the EU Council President, in Brussels this week, it is likely the old great game in the region is afoot, as Russia’s increasing weakness is palpably clear to all.

Given their substantial losses in Ukraine, Putin has been forced to transfer troops away from its two sponsored, separatist enclaves in the nearby country of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, for use as reinforcements in the current war. Surely Azerbaijan is watching like a hawk as to whether the Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh will be the next to go.

Traditionally allied to Turkey, perpetually wary of Moscow’s influence in the Caucasus, and supremely confident after their military victory of last year, it is clear that Azerbaijan is probing Russia’s commitment to the region, given the dumpster fire in Ukraine. With the modern-day Tsar’s powers ebbing, the rest of his satellite strategy for retaining its great power status is increasingly in peril as Baku clearly aspires to finish the job, taking the rest of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.

Even in quiescent Georgia, which Putin dismembered following a short war in 2008, recent political tremors are indicative of Russia’s increasing weakness. South Ossetia, a small enclave in the north of the country of only 50,000 people, plans to take steps to formally join next-door Russia itself, to the strenuous objections of Georgia.

Anatoly Bibilov, the President of the breakaway republic, recently announced his intention to hold a referendum ‘linked to the window of opportunity opened in the current situation,’ meaning the Ukraine war. Given that the Russian-speaking enclave has strong historical ties to North Ossetia, already formally a part of Russia, a successful referendum outcome would be a foregone conclusion.

However, it is another symbol of Russian weakness, not strength. In essence, Moscow is engineering this gambit to bank its winnings from 2008, even as it is being forced to withdraw some of the 10,000 troops it put in place in both separatist enclaves following Russia’s successful prosecution of the 2008 war. As its power in the Caucasus wanes, today’s Tsar is trying to salvage what he can from Russia’s strategic depth strategy.

War always brings a myriad of unintended consequences. The strategic irony is that, in this case, even as Putin strove with a successful lightning invasion of Ukraine to complete his life’s work of restoring strategic depth for Russia’s defense, in failing he has imperiled the other satellites he has already managed to dominate. It is not just a pliant Ukraine Putin has lost. Indeed, as events in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia show, the whole Tsarist edifice Putin has painstakingly put in place is now in the greatest of danger.

This post was originally published in Conservative Home

Ukraine is the victim of Europe’s refusal to wean itself off of Russian gas

Either you master history or history masters you. Decades worth of political risk analysis can almost always be boiled down to this aphorism.

In the case of Europe’s dealings with Vladimir Putin, rather than mastering history, Europe has vainly tried to take a holiday from it; we’re now watching the doleful results.

First, let’s dispense with Prime Minister Johnson’s speculation that the Russian President is somehow an “irrational actor”.

While his methods are odious, there is nothing in political risk terms regarding Putin’s strategy that strikes me as remotely irrational. Forget the smoke and mirrors about Ukraine’s possible NATO expansion; Putin knows this is not going to happen in his lifetime, if at all. The real reason for Russia’s aggressive actions could not be either more organic or reasonable from the Kremlin’s point of view.

Putin, in his Peter the Great Tsarist pose, wants to restore Russia’s strategic depth, the force that has been the cornerstone of the country’s strategic playbook for the past 300 years.

Mother Russia managed to see off wars of annihilation with Charles XII of Sweden in the 18 century, Napoleon in the 19 century, and the Kaiser and Hitler in the 20th century, all by trading land for time. Surrounded by pliant client states, Russia’s leaders let the invading armies march into the vastness of their country, all the while waiting for time to pass and Russia’s game-changing winter to come. Rather than being irrational, this has formed the basis of a very successful strategic orientation since time immemorial.

With the demise of the USSR, all this was lost, as Russia was weak, led by the chaotic Boris Yeltsin, and NATO expansion proceeded ever closer to Moscow. Upon taking over in late 1999, Putin has made it his life’s mission to restore Russia to at least great power status, even if it will never play in the superpower league as the US and China. To do so, the plan is to restore the country’s lost strategic depth.

This Putin has begun to do. Russian influence in the Balkans has grown, even as Belarus and the Caucasus states (following the Azerbaijani-Armenian war) are now firmly in Moscow’s orbit. But Ukraine remains the jewel in the crown of the strategic depth strategy, for without it in the political fold, as Putin himself remarked in his national address, hypersonic missiles can strike Moscow in just minutes time.

So, Putin looks around, and what does he see? He sees a distracted America pivoting to the Indo-Pacific, where much of the strategic risk is a contest with China and much of the economic reward of the world’s future growth are both lodged.

Then he turns to the EU, and he sees absolutely no threat. The EU is economically sclerotic, politically divided, and militarily impotent. Above all an isolationist Germany, the economic motor of the continent, is addicted to Russian energy, getting over one-third of all its natural gas from Russia. With the addition of the mammoth Nord Stream 2 pipeline this economic dependence was set to become servitude. It is hard to expect the Germans to be tough with anyone who can make them very cold in the winter.

There have been warnings about this for decades, which predictably fell on deaf ears. In political war games I did to help the EU grapple with its energy dependence on Russia there was a predictable outcome: Europe needed to diversify its gas imports, taking more from Norway, Algeria (Europe’s other two major suppliers) as well as Qatar and the US. I was profusely thanked for my efforts, paid in a timely manner. And of course, nothing happened.

If the UK truly wants to “do something” about Putin, even at this late date, it must join with Europe in crafting a dramatically new energy policy, where the sources of supply are finally taken into primary account in political risk terms. The UK has avoided the Russian energy trap, getting less than five percent of its total from Putin. It can and must team up with a befuddled Europe, looking at an energy plan that does not castrate the continent, particularly when it is necessary for it to stand strong in relation to the Kremlin. Putin’s adventurism is not irrational; Europe’s energy policy is. 

This post was originally published in City A.M.

We must stop pretending the EU is a great power

This is a tale of two delusional think tank meetings I have recently attended, illustrating how far gone is most political risk analysis regarding the status of the EU. Cheerleading has taken the place of thinking, as the simple fact is that Brussels is funding many of the supposedly independent observers at such conclaves. To expect critical thinking from “experts” whose financial imperatives revolve around keeping the EU’s mandarins happy is to expect too much.

At the first meeting, I found myself sitting on a panel with an American Wilsonian. He was representing the Democratic Party view of US relations with China, while I represented the Republican Party view. After a good discussion, questions came from the primarily European audience. The first revolved around the fact that the questioner wanted to know where the EU fits into the strategic picture of the Sino-American cold war, as wasn’t it so that Brussels must be counted as the world’s third great superpower?

Even though it was a Zoom call, my Wilsonian counterpart — whom I agreed with over almost nothing — and I exchanged ironic glances. Finally, for all his innate pro-EU inclinations, he brutally told the questioner the truth: The EU, while a trading superpower and a huge internal market, simply doesn’t play at the global strategic level as a great power (let alone a superpower), as it is less and less economically dynamic, is endemically politically divided and is militarily (other than France) impotent. In the shocked silence that followed, I quipped that I wanted to cede all my time to my Democratic counterpart for having the temerity to tell the brainwashed audience the truth — that the EU simply isn’t a great power.

If this is so, my second think tank meeting focused on the nub of the problem: A mercantilist, neutralist, isolationist-leaning Germany. In standard fashion, the German think tank denizen sent to debate me made all the usual excuses; while I am right to be critical, Germany (in that most galling of phrases) “would now do its homework,” easily overcoming a generation’s-worth of historical and empirical evidence to the contrary, and would decisively right its ship of state over the coming months.

Exasperated, and tired of the analytical lying at cocktail parties, I brutally interjected that the reality is that Germany would do nothing over the next year and change nothing, as its people prefer their cosseted lifestyle (and genteel decline) to the real sacrifices that would be involved in paying for a relevant military and crafting a common European foreign policy. I was met by hateful stares and a sullen, unchallenged silence, for what could they say, given the last decades of Berlin’s holiday from history?

Crises intellectually clarify, even for the most obtuse observers. Two recent challenges to Brussels from the world’s revisionist powers, China and Russia, ought to make plain that wishful thinking has taken the place of facts-based political risk assessments of an EU that is so much less than meets the eye.

First, tiny Lithuania — to the fury of Beijing — has decided to favor Taiwan in the crafting of its foreign and economic policy. China responded by putting pressure on Vilnius and defying the EU, particularly Germany, to do anything about this. While in the past few days, the EU launched a legal action against China at the World Trade Organization (WTO) after Beijing restricted or blocked imports from and exports to Lithuania, Berlin responded precisely as I would have predicted — that is, in a neutralist, isolationist, mercantilist manner — and not as EU cheerleaders would have it. Glumly aware, as an export-driven superpower, that China, for the fifth year in a row, is its largest export destination, Germany is pressing Brussels to tone down its criticism of China and to de-escalate the controversy.

Major German companies, particularly carmakers heavily dependent on trade with Beijing, have warned Vilnius that they will pull out of Lithuania unless the dispute is quickly settled. For, despite all its usual blather about how much the EU means to it, when push comes to shove and with its now economic interests on the line, Berlin has seen to its commercial interests  at the expense of European unity.

Likewise, over the Ukraine crisis, in a basic way President Vladimir Putin is airing his grievances. As such, in the earliest days of the crisis, Moscow met with the US, NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, not with the EU.

Why should he? In practical terms, Moscow met great power to superpower (the US), with the world’s most important military alliance (NATO) and with the largest gathering of transatlantic states (the OSCE). The EU simply does not play a major role in strategic terms; for Putin to prioritize meeting with Brussels would have been a colossal waste of time. While a shocked Brussels looked impotently on (and I am shocked that they are shocked), Putin made it clear that, in a crisis, the EU simply does not have the relevance its cheerleaders dream of. Nor is this state of affairs likely to change.

Instead of swallowing comforting, if delusional, fairy tales about its far-flung importance, it is time to analytically shout from the rooftops the obvious: That the EU emperor simply isn’t wearing any clothes.

This post was originally published in Arab News.

A realistic approach may help master the crisis in Ukraine

At present, the only great power combination that can really threaten America’s global position in our new age is an ironclad alliance between revisionist powers China and Russia. And, for all their shared antipathy to the U.S., and for all that they strategically tilt toward one another, Beijing and Moscow are not there yet.

Russian resentment at taking a back seat to China does not fit comfortably with President Vladimir Putin’s Great Russian nationalism. On the other hand, China’s desire to economically — and eventually, militarily — challenge Russia for dominance in Central Asia does not make the two easy bedfellows. At the highest level, all American foreign policy must be about not throwing its two rivals into each other’s arms.

Of the two, China — the only possible peer superpower competitor — is the greater threat. Given that Russia is an uneasy part of Western civilization, it also makes it a better long-term option to pry away from the dangerous, putative Sino-Russian alliance. Even the outspoken Russia critic, former acting director of the CIA Michael Morell, recently said that “it is too bad we cannot have closer relations with Russia, because it could be a strategic partner with us against China.” This is why it is overwhelmingly in America’s interests, if it can be managed, to avoid open conflict with Russia over the Ukraine crisis.  

But how does this long-term geostrategic reality mesh with the immediate crisis in Ukraine? To be clear, the harsh, recent U.S.-Russia negotiations had an old, Cold War vibe. However, there are important differences between now and then. The current conflicts with the Kremlin are about Russia’s real or imagined security phobias and idiosyncrasies, not a fight over competing global ideologies. This is a new great power struggle, but not an ideological battle. As such, theoretically, the chasm between the two could be bridged.

Second, present weaknesses in the Western alliance are only spurring on Putin, even before Russia strikes. De facto neutralist Germany took unplugging the Kremlin from the global SWIFT banking system off the table, and the new governing coalition of Olaf Scholz is hedging on Germany’s earlier commitment not to allow the massive Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany to come online in the case of Russian invasion.

President Biden, in his news conference last week, suggested that a limited invasion might trigger only limited sanctions. Such weakness is no way to make fraught negotiations work. 

Instead, Washington and all the NATO allies must make it clear to Moscow that no effective “win-win” negotiations can be undertaken with the Russian military threat imminent. Any significant U.S. step toward Russia under current circumstances would be interpreted as just another sign of weakness by the Biden administration.

Instead, allowing that a cooling-off period can be managed, negotiations should be held with the clear intention to strengthen America’s geopolitical posture, while proposing to Russia a fair deal.

Some of Russia’s concerns can be acknowledged, in terms of verbal understandings, if not treaty obligations. George Friedman put it explicitly: “Russia has been invaded in the 17th century by the Swedes, in the 19th century by the French and in the 20th century twice by the Germans. In each case, they won the war or survived it by strategic depth.” 

Obviously, Ukraine is the number one priority for Russia, as far as a goal to reinstate some of the strategic depth lost with the fall of the USSR. They fear that another sudden outburst of aggression will — as it has done time and again — come from Europe, and they will have to defend themselves on frontlines dangerously close to Moscow. This is particularly relevant in our era of hypersonic missiles.

But the U.S. should make clear to the Kremlin that Russia’s neighbors also have an understandable historical dread of Russian aggression. Such trepidations may be alleviated by the further expansion of NATO to their territory, if they so wish, and when all other NATO members agree — which (crucially) so far, they do not. We must remind Putin that no NATO expansion to the East has happened since 2009 because of Germany’s and France’s fervent opposition, and that this is unlikely to change. While the U.S. cannot give in on the theory of further NATO expansion, reality can be directly conveyed to the Russian delegation. In practice, politically there is absolutely no appetite in the alliance for expansion to Russia’s borders, nor will it occur in the near term.

Leading European NATO powers (Germany, France and Italy) openly oppose further NATO expansion. This is not only because of the energy crisis and the German dependence on Russian gas but also because of their long-term interest in developing Russian markets and natural resources. The last thing any of these states wishes to do is to take a stick to the Russian beehive.

Putin’s preference, in time-honored Russian fashion, is to secure the country’s western borders. Negotiations on a renewed European security system could offer Russia enough strategically and tie Moscow’s hands for many years while the intricacies of a compact are developed, greatly reducing the dangerous incentive for it to form a military-political alliance with China.

The Russian proverb says that “a bad peace is better than a good war” — especially if the war can escalate in an age of nuclear weapons. Instead, a realistic approach could allow us time to find solutions acceptable to both sides, including agreements on limitations of strategic weapons deployment in Eastern Europe, military maneuvers, and offensive arms sales to Russian neighbors.

Quiet, realistic understandings, short of flashy treaties that are impossible to pass in the U.S. Congress, may be possible regarding NATO’s Eastern borderlands. Given the geostrategic stakes in play, thinking creatively is worth the effort.

This post was originally published in The Hill.

To avoid calamity with Russia, the US must help Ukrainians to help themselves

If the 20th century teaches us anything, it must be that either you master history or history masters you. In his 2014 book, “The Sleepwalkers,” historian Christopher Clark makes it tragically plain that “the protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers … blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.”

By taking their eye off the ball over what seemed yet another minor Balkan crisis — following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo — Western statesmen neglected to take seriously a calamity that would come to sweep away their glorious belle epoque world, at the cost of 20 million deaths in the charnel house of World War I.

Today’s statesmen simply must do better than what happened during that fateful summer of 1914. For now, Presidents Biden and Putin have avoided a massive escalation between the U.S. and Russia, but systemic challenges plaguing Eastern Europe’s borderlands remain.

The West must not be caught sleepwalking again.

What can the U.S. do to avert this coming storm? First, we must clearly understand the geostrategic stakes. Ukraine is ground zero in this conflict. Ideally, Putin hopes to grab Kyiv and subjugate Ukraine as a vassal state. The second-best outcome for the Russian president is that his current brinkmanship yields fruit in the form of panicky Western appeasement. 

His price for pulling back? A Russian veto over any further eastern expansion of NATO. Whatever one thinks of further NATO membership, Washington must categorically reject this. The U.S. is an autonomous superpower; it does not let other countries tell it who it can, and cannot, ally with. To give Russia such control over U.S. foreign policy would telegraph to the rest of the world that America has embarked upon a dangerous new age of isolation. This would have long-term consequences in the global balance of power to the detriment of the U.S.

Putin’s third best strategic option is Ukraine as a domestic basket case, refuting the very notion that an aspiring Eastern European country’s westward tilt can yield independence, prosperity and democracy. Putin can live with each of these three strategic outcomes. It is up to Biden to deny him these clearly articulated goals. 

Ukraine’s resurgence rests on a three-legged policy stool: a resurgent military, a vibrant domestic political scene, and an autonomous energy policy. While much attention has been focused on the first, equally important is the United States’s involvement in helping to nurture the latter two imperatives.

In terms of domestic politics, that means America must remind novice President Volodymyr Zelensky that personality-driven populism is a dangerous road for him to travel upon. Zelensky was catapulted to the Ukrainian presidency by virtue of the character he played in the popular political satire, “Servant of the People.” In it, a decent, ordinary schoolteacher, Vasyl Holoborodko, remakes Ukraine’s murky politics. Coming to office with a broad mandate for change, Zelensky won an overwhelming 73 percent of the vote in the Ukraine presidential election. But, after taking office in May 2019 — much as has proven true for political populist amateurs around the world — Zelensky has found governing harder than satire.

Now, more than two years into his term, Zelensky has run into real political difficulty. An October poll taken by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found the president’s approval rating has plummeted to a subterranean 25 percent, and 59 percent of the voters don’t trust him. 

First, the leaked Pandora Papers revealed that Zelensky held several offshore financial holdings in the British Virgin Islands, Cyprus and Belize — hardly the actions of a scourge of the oligarchs. Second, he sacked his youthful reformist ally, Dmytro Rozumkov, from his position as speaker of the Rada, Ukraine’s parliament. 

Third, Zelensky has chosen to pick a fight with Ukraine’s richest businessman, who is a major player in the country’s media and energy sectors. While government figures long have been welcome on his television stations, recently opposition political figures have appeared on his programs more often. This seems the likely cause of this unedifying fight; Zelensky is growing thin-skinned when it comes to the absolutely pivotal notion of freedom of the press and would like to have unfettered opportunities to promote his agenda in any media in the country. This conflict in the face of the imminent Russia threat undermines Ukraine’s security.

For all these reasons, the U.S. must support Ukraine robustly, while reminding Zelensky that America supports the country’s democratic future, rather than the personal prospects of any one man.

Lastly, Ukraine must deal with its looming energy crisis. Perilously, more than half of the country’s electricity is produced at aging, state-owned nuclear power plants, run on Russian fuel. In another sign of Ukraine’s dependence on Moscow, only one of these power plants has its own fuel storage facility; the rest are bound to export their waste for storage in Russia. An overwhelming 70 percent of Ukraine’s coal imports comes from Russia. 

Rather than push through the necessary reforms, the Zelensky government is accusing DTEK, a private company that manages a large part of Ukraine’s thermal generation, of poor planning for the winter to come. But, as DTEK CEO Maxim Timchenko put it, “As we approach winter every year, we cannot assume that we have a crisis. We need to prepare for winter in advance.”

The Ukrainian government, which accumulated large debts to energy producers from renewable sources since 2020, has recently paid these off, with the exception of DTEK’s, which is a major investor in this sector. 

Over the pivotal energy issue, the U.S. has a large policy role to play here, sustaining Ukraine’s energy (and thus political) independence. The Biden administration should strongly support Kyiv’s efforts to integrate its energy grid with European Union energy markets as soon as possible. Otherwise, Putin can turn on and off the power to Kyiv at will. Predictably, on Nov. 1, that is what he did — the Kremlin stopped thermal coal exports to Ukraine just as the cold winter is setting in. 

It is time to end America’s passive approach to the coming crisis in Ukraine. The best way to avoid sleepwalking into calamity is to swiftly and decisively help Kyiv to help itself, in order for a far more resilient Ukraine to meet the perilous times ahead.

This blog post was originally published in The Hill.