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The situation in Ukraine: Serious, desperate or a bit absurd?

President Biden has declared that, with over 100,000 Russian troops massing on Ukraine’s borders, a major attack was “imminent.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky strongly dissented. Russian President Vladimir Putin denies that he intends to launch an assault on Ukraine or was planning a false flag operation and loudly complains that Washington is not taking Russia’s proposals seriously. Several NATO members simply have no idea what Russia will do. 

Russia demands a NATO guarantee that it will not expand in size or in geography east and will return to a pre-1997 security framework in Europe.  The U.S. and NATO are adamant that the alliance’s open-door policy is non-negotiable. And Washington’s negotiating strategy is to reject or ignore Russia’s proposals, betting that talks on missile limitations and restrictions on military exercises in Europe can resolve the Ukrainian crisis. 

Is this serious, critical or even a bit absurd? And is it vaguely reminiscent of some ominous history? By early 1914, war clouds had darkened the skies over Europe. In Paris, the foreign policy mandarins regarded these conditions as very serious but not yet desperate enough to provoke war. In Berlin, however, a gallows humor took hold. These same conditions were seen as desperate but not serious. 

Today, is this Russian-engineered crisis serious and thus resolvable; desperate in that no diplomatic solution appears possible; or even a bit absurd? After all, what is NATO prepared to do about a former Soviet republic with which it has no obligation or treaty commitment to defend for an “open door” principle it knows it will not or cannot honor, if ever, namely admitting Ukraine to alliance membership?  

The prospect of Ukraine joining NATO even in the distant future probably is about as likely as landing an astronaut on the sun soon. Thus, is inflexibility towards an open door fully justified? Or can a compromise be reached? Worse, is this similar to 1914, when the Central and Allied powers talked by each other?

The questions of whose side Ukraine is on and why its and America’s assessments about what must be done are so diametrically opposed are no longer absurd. President Biden has been sounding every alarm he can about the “imminence” of a major Russian attack on Ukraine. Yet, the U.S. is withholding offensive military systems to Ukraine that could disrupt a Russian assault and greater financial support to bolster an economy gravely weakened by the crisis. And Germany’s donation of 5,000 helmets is unlikely to deter Putin

Zelensky is equally strong in his rejection of an immediate Russian invasion, asking Biden to tone down “hysterical”  rhetoric that he believes is eroding public morale. Concurrently, Zelensky rightly complains that if the situation is so critical, why is Washington so frugal in providing weaponry and wallet? Frankly, this is also a bit absurd. 

The U.S. has put 8,500 troops “on alert” for deployment to NATO’s response force and is already deploying 3,000 more. But the response force can only be deployed upon agreement of all NATO’s 30 members. Suppose one of those members dissents, perhaps to extract (or blackmail) some concession from Washington. How different is that type of leverage from what Putin is attempting by his show of force?

Could some form of a 1914 “sleep walk” to war occur over Ukraine? Suppose Russia finally decides that the deadlock could be broken only by military action. Sweeping into Kyiv to impose a regime change and then withdrawing; destroying a significant portion of the Ukrainian army to dictate or impose a peace or cease fire agreement; or capturing Mariupol and a land bridge to Crimea have been raised as possible scenarios. 

What would NATO do? Declare war, as British Prime Minister Sir Henry Asquith did in 1914? One doubts that.

No one, possibly not even Putin, knows whether the Ukrainian situation is serious or critical. In conditions of great uncertainty, perhaps the most sensible solution is for all parties to take a step back to reconsider events of what has transpired so far; what are possible exit strategies; what creative ideas might relieve the crisis; and whether the current negotiation strategies require adjustment.

This is not 1914. But recalling British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey’s lament on Aug. 3, 1914, hours before Britain declared war on Wilhelmine Germany is prudent: “The lamps are going out all over Europe and we shall never see them again in our lifetime.” 

If mishandled, this crisis could explode. Looking back a decade from now, it would seem absurd to ask what, if anything, could have been done differently to have prevented a possibly disastrous outcome. But, certainly, states are capable of absurdities. Remember 1914. 

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council and the primary author of “shock and awe.” His latest book is, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and that World at Large.”

Tags Joe Biden Post-Soviet conflicts Russia Russian irredentism Russo-Ukrainian War Ukraine Ukraine-Russia conflict Vladimir Putin

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