The US Provoked Russia, Ukraine Pays the Price

The Circus Tiger Bit Back

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Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.

In 1998, as an Air Force major, I attended a military history symposium on coalition warfare that discussed the future of NATO. One senior officer present, General Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley, spoke bluntly in favor of NATO expansion. From my notes taken in 1998:

Farrar-Hockley took the position that to forego expansion because of Russian concerns would be to grant Russia a continuing fiefdom in Eastern Europe. Russia has nothing to fear from NATO, and besides, it can do nothing to prevent expansion. If the Soviet Union was an anemic tiger, Russia is more like a circus tiger that may growl but won’t bite.

That sums up the Western position vis-à-vis NATO expansion and Russia: too bad. You lost the Cold War. There’s nothing you can do.

Until the "circus tiger" finally bit back.

The U.S. and NATO calculated that Russia, now led by Vladimir Putin, wouldn’t bite back. It did so in 2022.

Now, you might argue it’s the tiger’s fault for biting; you might say Ukraine didn’t deserve to be bitten. But I don’t think you can say that US and NATO actions were entirely guiltless or blameless in provoking the tiger. At the very least, the actions were misjudged (assuming there wasn’t a plot to provoke Putin and Russia into attacking).

Ukraine is central to Russia’s concerns. Both countries share a long common border and an even longer history. By comparison, Ukraine, I think, is peripheral to US concerns, just as Afghanistan and Vietnam ultimately proved peripheral. Here I recall the critique of political scientist Hannah Arendt that, with respect to America, the Vietnam War was a case of using “excessive means to achieve minor aims in a region of marginal interest.” Whether in Vietnam or more recently in Afghanistan, the US could always afford to accept defeat, if only tacitly, by withdrawing (even though die-hard types at the Pentagon always want to keep fighting).

All this is to say Russia’s will to prevail may prove more resilient than the current US commitment to Ukraine of “blank check” support.

Ukraine resistance to Russia has indeed been strong, backed up as it has been by bountiful weapons and aid from the US and NATO. Faced by an invasion, they are defending their country. But a clear victory for Ukraine is unlikely in the short term, and in the long term will likely prove pyrrhic if it is achieved.

No one in the US thought that a punitive raid against the Taliban in 2001 would produce an Afghan War that would last for 20 years. When the US committed troops in big numbers to Vietnam beginning in 1965, most at the Pentagon thought the war would be over in a matter of months. How long is the US and NATO truly prepared to support Ukraine in its war against Russia?

In the 17 months or so since the Russian invasion, the US has already committed somewhere between $115-$200 billion to Ukraine and the war. Should that commitment remain open-ended at that level until Ukraine "wins"? What of legitimate fears of regional escalation or nightmare scenarios of nuclear exchanges?

Long wars usually don’t end with a healthier democracy. Indeed, wars most often generate censorship, authoritarianism, suppression of dissent, and many other negative aspects. Think of the enormous burden on Russia and Ukraine due to all the wounded survivors, the grieving families, the horrendous damage to the environment. The longer the war lasts, the deeper the wounds to society.

Scorched by decades of war, areas of Afghanistan are wastelands. Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia are still recovering from America’s orgy of violence there. What will Ukraine have to recover from, assuming it’s fortunate enough to “win”?

I don’t see a quick victory for either side in the immediate weeks and months ahead. Channeling John F. Kennedy’s famous “peace” speech of June 10, 1963, I do believe that peace need not be impractical, and war need not be inevitable. As JFK also cautioned, forcing a nuclear power into a humiliating retreat while offering no other option is dangerous indeed.

Recent attention has focused on the Biden administration’s decision to provide cluster munitions to Ukraine. Russia can, and likely will, match Ukraine’s use of U.S.-provided cluster munitions. Earlier, the US claimed Russia was guilty of war crimes for using these munitions. Now it’s all OK since Ukraine needs them. When they kill Russians, they’re "good" bombs?

I also hear US commentators speaking of "terror bombing campaigns" by Russia. Perhaps so, but when US commentators use that expression, they should fully acknowledge what the US did in Japan, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. No country in the world comes close to the number and amount of bombs, defoliants, cluster munitions, DU shells, and napalm that the US has used in various wars in the last 80 years. When it comes to terror bombing, the US is truly the exceptional nation.

But can the US be exceptional at peace? The US should and must wage diplomacy with the kind of fervor that it usually reserves for war.

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools. He writes at Bracing Views.

5 thoughts on “The US Provoked Russia, Ukraine Pays the Price”

  1. The US & other NATO countries are using Ukraine as cannon fodder. The USSR, Warsaw Pact & Berlin Wall were dissolved long ago. Germany was unified under West Germany’s Government. The US caused the war in Ukraine to occur by expanding NATO and Ukraine persecutes the Russian Speaking Population. The Western Media & Governments keep talking about how sorry they feel for the Ukrainians although they were responsible for the war.
    They justify NATO’s Forever Wars, Israel’s Human Rights Abuses & don’t feel sorry for the people being terrorized there.
    The US gave Israel cluster bombs that it used in Lebanon & possibly elsewhere. The US has always treated Israel as if it was the highest & mightiest country on Earth & now it is treating Ukraine the same way.

  2. This is not going to end until the American people elect a political class that holds diplomacy and rationality in higher regard than swinging blunt instruments without regard for the consequences.
    Put differently, this is not going to end.
    Americans and America are addicted to violence. At present, I don’t see any reason to believe this is going to change.

  3. This is what allot of folks have no clue about. Now, you have been warned.

    Apr 5, 2022 The Impact of the War in Ukraine on Food Security | World Bank Expert Answers

    Even before the war in Ukraine, food insecurity around the world was rising. Ukraine and Russia account for 29% of global wheat experts and 62% of sunflower oil. This invasion is likely to exacerbate food price inflation in emerging markets and developing economies and impact some of the poorest and most vulnerable countries.

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