Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a ceremony to present the highest state awards at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia February 2, 2022. Sputnik/Sergey Karpuhin/Pool via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.

February 03, 2022

The ‘Ukraine’ crisis is only sort of about Ukraine

Originally published in AEIdeas

Search engine optimization is a problem. That’s not a non-sequitur. Headlines about the military crisis Russian President Vladimir Putin has generated must all have the word “Ukraine” in them. But that’s confusing us. Take a recent headline as one example among many: “Vladimir Putin says the West has ‘ignored’ Russia’s key concerns over Ukraine.” That isn’t what Putin said because Russia’s “key concerns” aren’t about Ukraine. They’re about NATO. He didn’t just say “key concerns,” either. Putin said he was dissatisfied with the failure of the US response to address “our three key demands,” not concerns. You’d think from this headline that Putin was mainly worried about something to do with Ukraine or at least claimed to be, and that he had asked the West to allay his concerns. Neither is the case.

So let’s try this again, shall we? Putin demands three key things from the US and its allies that are only tangentially related to Ukraine. First, that NATO commit never to admit another member — not just Ukraine, but any other member. Second, that NATO promise never to station certain kinds of weapons “near Russia’s borders.” And, third, that NATO withdraw all its “military infrastructure” to the locations it was at in 1997 — that is, before the admission of any of the Warsaw Pact states (other than East Germany). In other words, he has delivered an ultimatum for NATO to change the terms of its founding charter and abandon its post–Cold War members. Putin has said that his demands are not negotiable.

In return Putin offers . . . nothing. He denies that the 130,000 troops he’s concentrating on Ukraine’s borders are a threat, which would be funny if it weren’t so alarming, and hasn’t offered to pull them back. He says the illegal Russian military seizure and annexation of Crimea is a done deal and must never be revisited. He has not offered to withdraw the Russian forces he’s sent in to Belarus, on the Polish and Lithuanian borders, even if the West meets his terms. Or to pull back the divisions stationed in Russia directly on the Latvian or Estonian borders. He hasn’t offered to remove his own military forces supporting the proxy republics he established by force and illegally in eastern Ukraine, or to give back to Georgia the territories he illegally seized in the 2008 war he began. There’s no Russian offer at all. Just Russian demands made at gunpoint.

This isn’t primarily a Ukraine crisis. It’s a Russia crisis. More precisely, it’s a Putin-created crisis aimed at destroying NATO. It’s Putin’s attempt to drive the US and its West European allies to put ourselves in a time machine, abdicate our alliance obligations, expose countries previously occupied, brutalized, and exploited by the Soviet Union to Putin’s continued aggression, demonstrate our unreliability as partners, and show our unseriousness about defending our own vital national security interests. In return for a promise of nothing at all. As if a promise made by a hostage-taker and serial liar should make us feel better about any of that anyway.

This is also, of course, a Ukraine crisis. A fragile and flawed but vibrant democratic society faces an existential threat. We ought to care about that. We shouldn’t be comfortable consigning 44 million people to the dustbin of history in a fit of realism. We can decide not to go to war with Russia to defend them, as President Biden has done. But we shouldn’t write them off — which Biden, to his credit, has not done.

The point, obscured by the course our political discussion has taken, is that there’s much more at stake here than Ukraine or NATO expansion. Things like NATO’s survival. Like Europe’s stability and prosperity (and for you realists out there, a big part of US global trade and investment translating to real money and goods for millions of Americans). We need to look soberly at the stakes and at the consequences of losing those things, and then we’ll need to make some hard choices. But it all starts with being clear about what this crisis actually is.

Headline writers (and everyone else commenting about this crisis), please. Help us understand even if it lowers the SEO score.