Source Responsible Statecraft
WASHINGTON, U.S.--The increasingly volatile situation involving Russia and Ukraine has the entire world on edge. Vladimir Putin’s decision to recognize the “independence” of two separatist regions in Ukraine, and especially his deployment of Russian “peacekeeping” troops to those regions, has dramatically escalated tensions. Although a full-scale invasion and occupation of Ukraine is not certain, even that scenario cannot be ruled out.
One point is clear though: the West’s proclaimed commitment to support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity does not include U.S. or NATO military forces. Biden has confirmed that he “would not send American servicemen to fight in Ukraine” under any circumstances.
U.S. and Western officials are grappling with the embarrassing fact that they oversold their backing for Kyiv and now face the reality that Putin has called their bluff with an invasion and occupation of at least some of Ukraine’s territory.
It is a spectacularly bad idea. Assisting guerrillas to maim and kill Russian soldiers might well create an irreparable breach between Russia and the West. The new cold war already is chilly enough without adding to the dangerous tensions.
Some of the Ukrainian factions that the United States and its allies would be supporting are more than a little unsavory. Western media outlets recently suffered serious embarrassment when they featured flattering news stories about how a Ukrainian military unit was training children and the elderly in the use of weapons, so that they could resist Russian invaders. It turned out that the unit giving the instructions, the “National Guard,” had close ties to the openly neo-Nazi Azov battalion.
Washington’s experience in trying to vet factions in other countries to warrant similar U.S. support is not an encouraging one. U.S. backing for the Afghan Mujahedin in the 1980s ended up strengthening and disproportionately benefitting the most radical Islamic factions who were battling the Soviet army of occupation.
Other U.S. Cold War ventures did not fare much better. The United States embarrassed itself and thoroughly compromised American values by supporting unworthy, even odious, foreign clients in proxy wars against regimes that U.S. policymakers designated as adversaries.
Such follies did not end with the passing of the Cold War. Barack Obama’s administration supported a motley collection of insurgents in Syria who were seeking to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad. Most of those factions proved to be radical Islamists, not advocates of Western democratic values.
Finally, embarking on a proxy war against Russia could lead to an ugly counteroffensive. Moscow would have an abundance of opportunities to retaliate. U.S. troops are still present in Iraq and Syria, and they are extremely vulnerable.
Moscow could even work with the chronically restless and oppressed Shiite majority in Bahrain, a country ruled by Washington’s ally, the Sunni governing elite.
Before they launch a proxy war in Ukraine, U.S. leaders need to remember that the United States is not the only country that can pursue the option. Washington’s dismal history with that approach over the decades is an additional reason to renounce the scheme in this case.