“Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across.” ― Sun Tzu
October 18, 2022
The February 2022 military invasion of Ukraine – Moscow’s “Special Military Operation” – triggered intensifying counter-involvement of Washington and Brussels, transforming the crisis into an international conflict. This internationalization was welcomed by President Zelensky, who coupled defending the “values of Europe” and “the free world” with his requests for more effective weapon systems and financial backing. Having received this backing, President Zelensky felt confident enough to walk away from peace talks with Moscow and conditioned their resumption on a full recapture of territories (including the Crimean Peninsula) annexed by Moscow.
Reputable military officers and experts, along with Western think tanks and scholars, have concluded that the Biden administration’s approach toward Russia was effective enough to stop Russian military advances in Ukraine and produce internal instability in Russia. Some even initially predicted the end of Vladimir Putin’s rule after hundreds of Russian soldiers were killed during the first stage of the invasion. President Biden himself said, “for God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” However, Moscow’s counter-sanction measures prevented the projected economic and political collapse at home, and the territorial gains in eastern and southern regions were redefined as Russian successes. Although failing to topple the Ukrainian government, the Russian military and local allies captured or destroyed important industrial and trade infrastructures that caused Ukraine’s economy to decline by 45 percent.
This paper will briefly present the background context of the conflict to assess Washington’s policy assumptions toward Ukraine. The paper will then explain how Washington’s approach has created a set of unanticipated second and third-order effects that prevent Moscow from securing a golden bridge option to retreat or to attain a projected military victory.
How We Got Here
There are many accounts of how the crisis in Ukraine unfolded. From a Washington/NATO perspective, the current crisis in Ukraine started with an “unprovoked attack by Russia that Vladimir Putin had been planning for months.” This said, there were local and international precursors as well. At the local level, the crisis in Ukraine began when a deepening rift within the political elite in Kyiv undermined the ability of the national government to advantageously manage the country’s geopolitical position – being located between “a Constrained E.U. and Assertive Russia” – as noted by Taras Kuzio, a leading expert on Ukraine.
Since its inception in 1991, the national government followed a two-track foreign policy: integrating the country economically into the European Union while seeking to benefit from its historical relationship with the Russian Federation – as 44.5% of the population speaks Russian. For example, after becoming prime minister in 2010, Mykola Azarov joined the European Union Association Agreement instead of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).
This choice was based more on practical need than a philosophical or ideological preference. (A distressed Ukraine needed at least $10 billion in foreign assistance to avoid bankruptcy). While Prime Minister Azarov’s government requested $27 billion (€20 billion) in loans and other assistance from the European Union to bring the country up to E.U. standards, the E.U. offered only $838 million (€610 million). Prime Minister Azarov and President Viktor Yanukovych then chose to reject the deal with the E.U., even though the Ukrainian Parliament had approved it. Without coordinating with the parliament, the government advanced negotiations with the EEU, and joined in mid-December 2013. This agreement reduced natural gas prices to one-third and provided $15 billion in loans – assistance that was viewed as vital to Ukraine’s economic recovery and development. Still, government opponents in parliament called it a total sell-out to Moscow; this division led to demonstrations and civil unrest in Kyiv that would become known as the Maidan Uprising.
This internal division had international ramifications. Making the position of the United States clear, White House spokesman Jay Carney said, “the deal between Kyiv and Moscow for Russian financial aid will not address the concerns of the tens of thousands of Ukrainians protesting Yanukovych’s decision to abandon an agreement with the E.U.” Washington supported the protests against Yanukovych’s government; Western politicians visited their camps in Kyiv. On December 12, 2013, a U.S. delegate led by U.S. Senators John McCain and Chris Murphy visited the rally in Kyiv and told protestors, “We are here to support your just cause … the destiny you seek lies in Europe.”
Senator John McCain (second from left) addresses protestors in Kyiv-Dec. 12, 2013
This high-level U.S. delegation emboldened the protestors in obtaining resources and direction toward ending the Yanukovych government. In January 2014, the U.S. brokered a transitional government and a new constitution after the protesters took over the parliament and key government buildings in Kyiv. Moscow accused Washington of “crudely interfering” in the internal affairs of Ukraine; an intercepted conversation between Victoria Nuland, deputy undersecretary of State, and Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, included a discussion of the composition of a new government in Ukraine that would replace Yanukovych’s government before the end of his term in 2015.
Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey R. Pyatt (center) met Ukrainian opposition leaders Vitaly Klitschko (L) and Arseny Yatsenyuk (R)
Within Ukraine, Yanukovych’s government struggled to manage the political turmoil in Kyiv, unable to stop the growing unrest that was exacerbated by a collapsing economy. Yanukovych removed his prime minister in the hopes of replacing him with Yatsenyuk, a parliament opposition leader, but Yatsenyuk turned it down. By February 2014, tensions between the government and the parliamentary opposition in Kyiv had escalated. Clashes between the police and protesters resulted in the killing of six and injuries to dozens. Washington and Brussels warned of sanctions against the Ukrainian government, particularly travel bans and asset freezes for those supporting President Yanukovych. On 21 February, with E.U. and Russian mediation, President Yanukovych and the leaders of the parliamentary opposition signed an agreement that settled the political crisis in Ukraine. The next day, Verkhovna Rada (the unicameral parliament of Ukraine) abruptly voted to remove President Yanukovych and chose Oleksandr Turchynov as acting president and prime minister. Even though Yanukovych initially refused to resign, the Ukrainian president fled to Russia an hour later when armed protestors overran the government buildings.
Tensions at both local and international levels escalated with the removal of Yanukovych’s government. In addition, the removal of Yanukovych without the impeachment process as specified in the Ukrainian constitution – which requires a three-fourth majority vote – rapidly turned the political rift between the government and the parliament into a national crisis. These developments resulted in widespread protests and rallies against the new regime in Kyiv, which sped across the Crimean Peninsula, Donbas, Luhansk, and other Russian-speaking Ukrainian regions.
A tug-of-war between Washington and Moscow deepened the Ukrainian governing crisis. Moscow called the change of government in Kyiv a Washington-orchestrated coup d’état, endorsed the protests and rallies against the new government, and supported the rising separatist movement in the East. In contrast, Washington called the new government a democratic result of the “Maidan Revolution” and supported the new Ukrainian leadership at its helm. Anti-government armed separatists took over government buildings in the eastern region and declared themselves the autonomous Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). The new government in Kyiv refused to recognize the separatists and considered them terrorists and insurgents. Washington began to provide assistance and training in support of the Ukrainian government’s Counter-Terrorism Operation and counter-insurgency efforts. In March 2014, the Ukrainian forces crushed separatists in Sevastopol and Luhansk. During the same month, Moscow reinforced its military presence inside the Crimean Peninsula and announced its annexation in response. The Obama administration condemned the annexation and imposed sanctions against Russia. The Washington-backed government in Kyiv and Moscow-backed separatists fell into a long-running civil war in Ukraine.
Ukrainian separatist forces
On 12 February 2015, then-Ukrainian President Pet Poroshenko and the Ukrainian separatist leaders agreed to end the hostility by signing the Minsk Agreement, which was mediated by Germany and France, and endorsed by Russia. The agreement consisted of a package of measures, including a ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front lines, the release of prisoners of war, constitutional reform in Ukraine to assure autonomy to the two separatist republics in Donbas and Luhansk and a granting of the responsibility for the country’s international borders with the Ukrainian government. However, the Ukrainian Right Sector and other ultra-nationalist armed militia rejected the agreement and so the fighting continued. Three years later in 2018, not a single provision of the Minsk Agreement had been fully implemented.
Zelensky and Putin met for the first time during the Normandy Talks in Parise-Dec. 9, 2019
By 2020, Moscow assessed the growing Washington-backed Ukrainian military buildup in the east, the rise of far-right nationalists, and the emboldened efforts toward the country’s membership in NATO as existential threats. By 2021, the eight-year civil war in Donbas and Luhansk regions resulted in over 14,000 deaths and the destruction of local livelihood, according to a UN report. The Kremlin engaged in amassing a military buildup along the border with Ukraine. In December 2021, Moscow proposed the establishment of a security agreement with Washington and Brussels that called on NATO to deny membership to Ukraine and to roll back NATO’s military deployments in central and eastern Europe. Washington offered diplomatic negotiations on aspects of the proposal, but cited denying Ukraine NATO membership and pulling back military from eastern Europe as non-negotiable items. During this period, U.S. intelligence assessed the Russian military buildup as not designed for political posturing but as the precursor to a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine. Although this assessment was rejected as far-fetched by many NATO countries in western Europe and even by the Ukrainian government, it proved accurate. On 24 February 2022, Moscow announced the beginning of a Special Military Operation, and Russian forces crossed into Ukraine from three different directions, with the aim of taking Kyiv during the first phase of the invasion.
The Russian military faced unexpectedly hard-hitting resistance from Ukrainian armed forces and civilian defenses, forcing it to retreat from Kyiv and shift its focus to Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions. The port city of Mariupol was captured on 20 May and the Russian military advanced into the Kherson region, allowing them to establish a land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula. On 2 September, Biden asked the U.S. Congress for $13.7 billion in new money for the Ukraine war, including $7.2 billion for weapons systems. On 12 September, the Ukrainian military recaptured significant territories and dozens of settlements in the Kharkiv region. In response, Moscow called for a partial mobilization aimed to engage 300,000 additional military personnel. By 30 September, after conducting what Washington and Brussels condemned as “sham referendums,” Moscow declared Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia parts of Russia, sharply escalating tensions and leaving no prospect for a peaceful future on the horizon for Ukraine.
The map of the Russian military invasion of Ukraine – February 22, 2022
The Policy Assumptions
The Biden Doctrine toward containing the Russian invasion is comprised of three integral pillars: a) support the Ukrainian defense forces until the Russian military and their local Ukrainian allies are defeated; b) impose comprehensive sanctions on Russia’s essential economic capabilities, and c) build a global coalition to support a and b. Senior Washington officials anticipated that a concerted alignment between the three pillars would mobilize “angry” Russian citizens against Moscow due to economic collapse and a damning military defeat in Ukraine, bringing an end to “Putin leadership in the Kremlin.” Yet so far, none of those objectives have been achieved, mainly because of the following:
Principles of National Security: Prominent scholars of foreign policy understand the Biden Doctrine as reinforcing the ideological promises of liberal democracy against totalitarianism via the expansion of NATO. Some scholars of foreign policy see this doctrinal prophesy as global hegemony, originally introduced by conservative Republicans and later embraced by liberal Democrats in the 1990s. Some argue that the Biden Doctrine toward Ukraine is a transformation of the “preemptive strike” approach of the Bush-Cheney Doctrine (2001-2009). Others even argue that the adoption of “preemptive strike” as an instrument of foreign policy puts the ideological foreign policy reasoning of neoconservatives and liberal globalists on the same moral ground. When it comes to NATO expansion, the Biden Doctrine rejects the “realpolitik” approach to national security requirements common during Reagan’s presidency. It also criticizes the hesitation of Obama, and even ridicules former German Chancellor Merkel and former French President Sarkozy’s rejection of Ukraine’s membership in NATO.
Debilitating Russia’s economy to defeat it militarily in Ukraine can be considered a preemptive measure designed to inspire “regime change in Moscow.” Those critical of the Biden policy in Ukraine, such as Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, view such intent as an ideologically based construct rather than one based on the tangibles of national security priorities. They consider this approach counter to the long-standing American desire to avoid getting entangled in foreign wars. Doug Bandow, a former advisor to President Reagan, argues that the Biden Doctrine is “a reasonable diplomatic end but not a very good cause for war.” Regardless of the criticism of or support for the Biden Doctrine, it is impacted by these second-and third-order effects:
Avoidance of National Reconciliation: Within Ukraine, President Zelensky initially dismissed the U.S. intelligence warning of Moscow’s intention to invade in February 2022, leading Kyiv to assess disgruntled Ukrainian separatists from an internationalized anti-Russian prism. Even though many Russian-speaking Ukrainians did not support the separatists and rejected Moscow’s military invasion, the fighting to save the “Russian-speaking population” (claimed by the separatists) gained momentum and grew louder. From this internationalized prism, Kyiv shoved almost half of the country’s population, who demanded a different governing arrangement, directly into Moscow’s camp. This approach has militarized the essence of national reconciliation and opened the country up to far-right ideologies that are fueling ethno-linguistic hostilities. From a Ukrainian public policy approach, Kyiv has failed to manage the major ethnic-linguistic duality of the conflict, which is approaching civil war. As a result, it has denied Ukrainians the ability to a) achieve a genuine national reconciliation program to address the legitimate grievances of Russian-speaking Ukrainians under the influence or control of separatist forces; b) negotiate directly with Moscow, particularly to make the Minsk Agreement possible; and c) turn support from Washington and Brussels into strategic opportunities to achieve a and b.
The internationalization of the crisis in Ukraine and the furthering of an outside-in approach toward the local separatist movements within the country has failed to win the hearts and minds of the populations influenced or controlled by the separatist forces. This in turn has provided the needed oxygen for the Russian forces who crossed into Ukraine and failed in their initial objectives. With separatists increasingly emerging as a decisive force on the side of the Russian military, Moscow’s military operation is achieving local depth in terms of human resources and human intelligence gathering.
Politicization of Military Planning: From a national security perspective, Kyiv minimized the effectiveness of its highly skilled military and their outcomes to generate “unconditional” support from Washington and Brussels. This minimization has prevented military leaders from deploying forces in defense of strategic positions and instead dispersed its forces to defend a very long frontline, not all of which is worth defending from a military perspective. This was the case when military forces were tasked with the defense of undefendable locations such as the Azov Industrial Complexes in Mariupol and Severodonetsk that produced an agonizing number of casualties. Additionally, individuals with far-right and ultra-nationalistic ideologies have gained entry across the armed forces, including militia groups that were formed during the Maidan Uprising.
Ultra-Nationalists and Far-Right entry across the Ukrainian armed forces
War-gaming Russia’s military capabilities and invasion scenarios in Ukraine suggested that Kyiv should have pulled core military forces from Donbas and positioned them on the western side of the strategic River Dnieper so as to a) sustain the essential core force; b) hold Russians on the East side of the river; c) secure the needed offensive postures with support from the U.S. and NATO, and d) reinforce the terms of the Minsk Agreement via negotiations to end the conflict. Instead, sporadic, unorganized, and chaotic low-intensity defense operations allowed the Russian and separatist forces to encircle Ukrainian military units, level their positions with massive artillery barrages, and follow with capture-and-kill missions, often employing mercenaries like the Wagner Group. The minimization of the Ukrainian military robbed it of the opportunity to mobilize large-scale defensive operations. They also missed their chance to stall Russian advancement in the Kherson region, preventing them from capturing Mikhailov and Zaporizhzhia, where Russia has taken over the largest nuclear plant in Europe. In addition, a large-scale defensive posture could have prevented the country from mobilizing untrained civilian populations into defensive units that often fought heroically but were eventually overwhelmed by battle-hardened separatists, pro-Moscow mercenaries, and Russian military forces. A large-scale defensive posture would have offered Ukrainian defense forces maximum offensive capabilities, particularly once they obtained advanced weapons systems such as HIMAR, provided by the U.S. The HIMAR weapons system has boosted the morale of the troops, despite the chaotic operational environment that prevented the Ukrainian military from realizing its full benefit.
The U.S. assisted M142 HIMARs multiple rocket launchers to the Ukrainian armed forces
Weaponization of Financial Institutions: The crisis in Ukraine is the first in recent history that extends well beyond “the conventional operational battlefield.” Washington’s sanctions and Russia’s counter-sanctions have weaponized the global financial system to coerce, manipulate, and disrupt a rival power, creating profound consequences for the future architecture of the system. In response to Washington’s and the E.U.’s comprehensive sanctions against Russia, Moscow nullified established trade contracts and attempted to force buyers of its oil and gas to pay in rubles, even though the purchase agreements were dollar-denominated.
While the sanctions forced Russia to default on its loans for the first time in 100 years, Moscow has worked around them, stopping the fall of its currency by selling discounted oil and gas to China, India, South Africa, Argentina, Mexico, Turkey, and numerous other countries. Moscow’s ability to sustain up to $20 billion in energy exports per month assured lenders that Russia has cash, despite the country being removed by Washington from the U.S.-controlled SWIFT system. Jeffrey Frankel, professor of Capital Formation and Growth at the Harvard Kennedy School, called the increasing value of the Russian currency “an unusual situation.” Moscow has reduced prices of gas and oil by 30%, encouraging other nations to take advantage of these prices which in return increased purchases of Russia’s energy on a global scale. As a result, the Russian ruble jumped to 45% against the U.S. dollar since January, with one dollar worth 53.45 rubles – making it the strongest currency in the world by the end of June. Nevertheless, the long-term effectiveness of Moscow’s counter-sanction measures is highly questionable. For example, Russia has the funds, but can’t make the scheduled payments, as the U.S. Treasury Department continues to block Moscow from servicing its debt via American banks.
Looming Global Energy Crisis: Soon after Moscow’s military invasion of Ukraine, the E.U. moved to abandon receiving gas from Russia, with the hope of receiving supplies from other countries instead. Since the assumption in Washington and Brussels was that the Russian military would be defeated within months if not weeks, it did not anticipate that the cash-hungry Russia could be cut off from supplying energy and funding a highly expensive military presence in Ukraine at the same time. In contrast, Moscow’s ability to sustain substantial energy sales enabled the Kremlin to impose punitive measures against the E.U. members who imposed sanctions and supplied weapon systems to Ukraine. Initially, Moscow cut off gas supplies to Poland, Bulgaria, and Finland. In late July, Russian state-owned Gazprom brought the gas flow of Nord Stream I down to 20% in order to prevent Germany from increasing reserves ahead of the winter; by 1 September, it stopped supplying gas altogether. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock accused Moscow of “blackmailing,” while France accused Moscow of turning the gas supply into “a weapon of war.” In response, E.U. Council President Charles Michel tweeted, “We will accelerate our path towards energy independence [from Russia].” As the price of gas in Europe heaved 10 times since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the price of oil reached $500 per barrel (compared with $71 in 2021). The lack of imported gas from Russia, which usually accounts for 40% of gas supplies, has deepened growing concerns about upending industries, angering consumers, and panicking politicians across Europe.
With the looming winter, European nations are rushing to secure liquefied natural gas (LNG) from other countries. Italy has secured gas from Algeria while other European leaders have reached out to Qatar, Libya, and Azerbaijan to secure new LNG deals. Germany is hoping to import LNG from the U.S. and Canada, and toward this end is urgently building five floating LNG terminals, as are Finland, Netherlands, and Italy. Yet this unexpected urgent demand is tapping the same suppliers that are already committed to Asia; a global energy crisis would further increase the prices of oil and gas. In Britain, the energy crisis coupled with an economic catastrophe is shaking the core of the nation. In the U.S., oil and liquid gas shipments to Europe began to have a negative impact on the price of gas at the pump, which previously reached up to $4.17 per gallon on average in March 2022, a record high since the 2008 financial crisis. U.S. LNG alone might fall short to replace the European reliance on Russian gas, unless the Biden administration approves off-shore exploration and substantial increases in fracking, both of which are controversial and pose a political risk from the Democrats’ support base. Yet despite the Biden administration’s promise of a growing supply of LNG and oil to Europe, “governments don’t make deals when it comes to directing U.S. oil and gas resources to specific nations,” Amy Myers Jaffe, managing director of the Climate Policy Lab at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, said in an interview with Politico. American energy companies are private and operate within a free capital market that dictates the highest bidder secures business. In addition, already-escalated tensions between environmentalists and public health advocates with the fossil fuel industry and their demands for more taxpayer subsidies, more land opened for drilling, and fewer environmental and health safeguards are challenging. Additionally, the fact that the U.S. – as the greatest supplier of oil and gas – still relies “on energy sources that are both controlled by the global market and highly susceptible to international conflict and manipulation by autocratic regimes” further complicates the issue.
Unrealized NATO Membership
Ukrainian membership in NATO has been a complex issue affecting the restoration of peace and stability in that country. Moscow views Ukrainian membership in NATO as an “existential threat,” while President Zelensky and his government bet their leadership to make such a membership possible. Already, thousands of Ukrainians have lost their lives and the country is ruined to secure this possibility. American politicians and leaders have had a range of opinions over the post-Cold War existence and expansion of NATO. Originally, the debate over the expansion of NATO goes back to the last two years of George W.H. Bush’s presidency. Then, during the first term of the Clinton presidency, the expansion of NATO as internal political rhetoric was picked up initially by conservative Republicans headed by Newt Gingrich in 1994. Later in the Clinton Administration, liberal Democrats began adopting it into their foreign policy, centered around the “Engagement and Enlargement” Doctrine. The expansion of NATO was supported by only four senior Clinton advisors; the absolute majority of the rank and file of both military and civilian leaders in the administration viewed the expansion of NATO as an unnecessary risk that was asking for trouble with Russia. In 1997, George Kennan, the eminent architect of the Soviet “containment” strategy and a former ambassador to the Soviet Union, warned that the expansion of NATO would be a “fateful error” because it would “inflame the nationalistic anti-Western and militaristic tendencies” across the Russian population. Thomas Friedman, a prominent foreign policy columnist, called it the “most ill-conceived project of the post-Cold War era.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan, widely considered the most knowledgeable U.S. Senator, warned “we have no idea what we are getting into.” Repeatedly, Henry Kissinger suggested the neutrality of Ukraine. In March 2014 he wrote to the Washington Post, “if Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other – it should function as a bridge between them.” On 24 May 2022, Kissinger was consistent with his previous remarks, suggesting that “Ukraine should cede territory to Russia to help end the invasion.”
Prominent American politicians are still anxious to lead the country into a direct fight with Russia and hesitate to support Ukrainian membership in NATO. On 30 September, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi stood for “a security grantee” rather than NATO membership. Even the Biden administration was surprised when Zelensky forwarded an appeal for accelerating NATO membership on the same day Putin announced the annexation of Ukrainian regions. In response to Zelensky’s urgent appeal, the E.U.’s foreign policy chief stated that Ukraine’s application to join NATO is not a “fundamental issue at the moment.”
Missing the Road to Peace
The essence of a peace settlement to end the bloodshed in Ukraine stands on: a) the status of Donbas, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia regions that Moscow now claims for Russia; and b) Ukraine’s membership in NATO. Ukraine has lost much fruitful momentum for a negotiated settlement with Russia, including the Minsk Agreements I and II in 2014 and 2015, the Normandy Four Summit in 2020, and the negotiation in March 2022 mediated by Turkey. Another missed opportunity arose in early September 2022, when the Ukrainian counter-offensive recaptured thousands of square miles from Russian and allied forces but in the absence of any negotiations by Kyiv, which could have transferred an important military victory into a strategic opportunity.
“We need tools to meaningfully end war in Ukraine, not more weapons” American Friend Service Committee
Russian claims over four regions in eastern and southern Ukraine, the possibility of deployment of hundreds of thousands of troops, and the looming threat of weapons of mass destruction have all changed the environment for a negotiated settlement for Zelensky’s government as well as for Russia. The annexation has complicated the doctrinal principle suggested by Sun Tzu of building a “golden bridge” for your adversary to retreat across. Traditionally, diplomacy has been the art of dealing with one’s opponent in a sensitive and thoughtful way. With the current complex nature of the conflict in Ukraine, it is difficult for both Washington and Ukraine to build a “golden bridge,” as the destination to cross is abhorred by current Ukrainian government leaders and the Biden administration. President Zelensky expressed his willingness to negotiate peace with Russia but with a different president – “not Putin.”
That said, both Moscow and Washington have expressed their openness for a negotiated settlement, even though the lines and scope of the battlefield have shifted dramatically. The underperformance of the first lines of diplomatic negotiations between Washington and Moscow presents a strategic failure. This shortcoming has prevented second-track diplomacy between Moscow and Kyiv by France, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia from reaching a strategic outcome, dangerously escalating tensions across all parties and causing more death and destruction in Ukraine. This lack of diplomatic progress has already sparked widespread panic among the populations across Europe, the U.S., and Russia about the possibility of the catastrophic use of nuclear weapons.
On 9 June 2022, Moscow announced the change of Russia’s nuclear deterrent policy, allowing Moscow to use atomic weapons in response to a conventional strike targeting the country’s critical infrastructure. On 9 September, Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s National Security Advisor, responded to Putin’s recent nuclear threat by saying “there will be catastrophic consequences for Russia.” Indeed, Putin’s nuclear threat is not aimed at Ukraine but at NATO, and its advising, arming, and funding of Ukrainian forces. Later, in his announcement recognizing the four Ukrainian regions as part of the Russian territory, Putin considered this annexation as a non-negotiable issue for any discussion to settle the conflict. On the same day, Anthony Blinken, the U.S. Secretary of State, highlighted that the U.S. and allies “will continue to assist Ukraine in its fight to defend its territory against Russian aggression,” but he fell short of presenting a possible diplomatic ending to the conflict. Since the essence of statecraft is to de-escalate a threat as opposed to respond to it with another threat, diplomacy is the moral high ground for preventing war and geopolitical violence. The U.S. Congress began to move to pass bipartisan legislation, the Non-Recognition of Russian Annexation of Ukrainian Territory Act. In the same vein, Senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) unveiled legislation that would cut off military and economic aid to any country that officially recognizes the annexed territories as Russian. These legislative approaches can be utilized toward emboldening effective diplomacy, although with the emergence of new power centers in transnational politics, nations can sustain relations with Russia without recognizing territories annexed by Moscow, as they did after the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
The above-mentioned rapidly escalatory developments within a short period of time have removed the shared baseline for a political settlement between Ukraine and Russia. As Rajan Menon, director of grand strategy at the Defense Priorities, said, “the result is that the war will drag on.” With the absence of a negotiated road map for peace, the current rout in Ukraine requires Washington to sustain higher levels of political will across its European allies. Still, populations rapidly grow anxious, and far-right politicians reemerge to rise at the moment when established political leaders and national governments exhaustedly struggle to prevent the emerging crises caused by second and third-order effects. More importantly, Washington needs to convince Americans to endure $5 to $6 billion a month and hope the conflict doesn’t turn into a nuclear war. In addition, securing an estimated $349 billion (one-and-a-half times the country’s pre-war GDP) to rebuild Ukraine at a time when the U.S. national debt is $31.12 trillion (as October 2022) and Americans face 8.2 percent increases in prices in September (compared to September 2021) is a daunting task.
Meanwhile, the E.U. is experiencing a rapid increase in the annual inflation rate from 3.0% (in July 2021) to 10.1% (in August 2022). Demands are high for conflict de-escalation to halt the looming financial and economic crisis and push the population and industries toward recovery. Further, the extension of Russian trade in rubles across the world has begun to shape a de-dollarization process in international financial systems that could negatively impact the U.S. more than any other country if it is neglected. Moscow’s de-dollarization effort could also accelerate China’s effort in pushing its global currency, the Renminbi (RMB), to be developed into a global reserve currency against the U.S. dollar.
The Ukraine conflict is a war of choice for the U.S. It would be noble for the Biden Administration to not pay attention to what Washington wants, but to address what Moscow might do as the country’s recent change in nuclear deterrence makes the use of atomic weapons by Moscow legal. Such devoted attention should offer a point of departure toward building a “golden bridge” for the Kremlin, as President Kennedy did in 1962 when he successfully ended a nuclear standoff. Kennedy followed a “try-and-see” policy comprised of a naval blockade of Cuba and progressive communication, including an exchange of letters with the Kremlin. The Biden Administration’s doubling down in support of the government in Kyiv after the annexation of the country’s four eastern and southern regions alone is not sufficient; what is needed are progressive lines of communication and objective negotiations in order to make coercive diplomacy work.
Dr. Neamat Nojumi is an American social scientist researching diverse issues relevant to international security, global governance, public and foreign policy. He worked as a research professor at George Mason University, a research fellow at Harvard Law School, and a senior advisor within the U.S. government. He is the recipient of awards and recognitions from world leaders and national and international institutions.