Temperatures are rising again in eastern Ukraine with informed commentators suggesting that intensive military action might start when the “mud season” passes. Quite understandably, Americans could suffer from Ukraine fatigue after observing the often bizarre conspiracies that have arisen connecting Kiev and Washington political machinations over the last five years.
Even as Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin traded insults, the Russian president celebrated Russia’s control of the Crimean Peninsula. Unfortunately for Europe, Ukraine remains as the simmering crisis that still threatens to overturn the continent’s “long peace.” Indeed, even as Ukraine-Russia tensions are at the root of almost all of the most acute problems in European security, this tortured bilateral relationship also points the way toward common-sense solutions too.
Some noteworthy American national security commentators claim that the “New Cold War” has little in common with the experience 1945–90, because the new centers of competition are in the cyber and high-tech realms, rather than concerning military competition and nuclear weapons. Yet, such assessments seem oblivious to the steady ramp-up of exercises by large military formations across Eastern Europe in the last five years. Escalating tensions along the front between Russian and U.S. forces are visible along a huge geographic front from the Arctic all the way to the Caucasus and even reaching deep into the Middle East.
U.S. bombers that have been flying regularly along Russia’s flanks have now been permitted to “nest” for the first time in Norway, a neighbor of Russia in the “High North.” Likewise, America’s most advanced submarines have visited the region recently in the wake of NATO’s largest exercises since the end of the Cold War. U.S. forces, including tanks and attack helicopters, have deployed into the Baltic states with new regularity and are now a permanent fixture in Poland. Meanwhile, American drones now patrol along Russia’s sensitive southern flank, including within Ukraine and all along the perimeter of the Crimean Peninsula. Is it any wonder that Russia has at least five major modernizations underway simultaneously for its nuclear strike forces, including new ICBMs, bombers, submarines, drones, and tactical nuclear weapons too?
Too many Washington defense analysts prefer to talk about cyber weaponry while peddling projects for new patches with upgraded cyber defenses. Yet, the broader public remains quite in the dark regarding hundreds of billions going to feed the intensifying nuclear arms race, not to mention the new forces now deploying to Europe—admittedly a friendly locale for the troops. Yet, are these escalatory steps warranted?
Conventional coverage of the Ukraine issue asserts that the country was invaded by Russia after an allegedly corrupt pro-Russian leader was ejected from office by angry protests—the so-called Euro-Maidan events of early 2014. After Crimea was seized by “little green men,” Moscow was unsatisfied and decided to lop off a few more slices of Ukraine in the Donbass region too. While the storyline is not completely false, it fails to recognize some important nuances. For example, the leader of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich, may indeed have been corrupt, but he was also elected in a legitimate, democratic election. An angry mob is hardly the ideal way to remove a democratically elected president, it must be admitted. Moreover, the “invasion thesis” does not quite comport with facts on the ground. For example, there occurred in early May 2014 a major flare-up of pro-Russian sentiment in Odessa that included grave atrocities. Such events fit better into the civil war explanation than the invasion narrative that is so popular in Washington today.
Memories in Washington do not seem to go back any further than the disputed 2016 election or the Euromaidan of 2014. The pervasive lack of historical knowledge in the American capital is, unfortunately, feeding escalating tensions in Eastern Europe. Indeed, American strategists should consider how it was that Americans were highly sympathetic to Tsarist Russia during the Crimean War when Russia faced off against perceived French and British imperialism. Likewise, they should reflect on the fact that if Soviet forces had not paid so dear a price defending the fortress at Sevastopol until mid-1942, they likely could not have prevailed at Stalingrad subsequently. In other words, the Kremlin’s stubborn hold on Crimea in the face of Nazi aggression proved exceedingly important to the Allied victory in 1945. Finally, there is no understanding in the American foreign policy establishment that Soviet internal borders were of little importance, so their impact on post-Soviet politics is also limited. No wonder a giant Russian naval base existed in Crimea after 1991 through 2014 to the present. In other words, the Crimea situation and that of Ukraine generally is much grayer, and less black and white than most Americans appreciate.
So, what is to be done ultimately, besides dusting off some history books? First, the United States should take overt and obvious steps to uproot the militarized rivalries now in full bloom from the Arctic to the Caucasus to see if such steps aimed at de-escalation might be reciprocated by the Kremlin. Second, Washington should seek to re-energize the so-called “Normandy process” that brings Russia and Ukraine into a negotiating format with the leaders of Germany and France to stabilize the situation in eastern Ukraine.
Finally, American diplomats should consider a “grand bargain” that accords full NATO membership to Ukraine in exchange for complete diplomatic recognition of Russian sovereignty over Crimea. While neutralization of Ukraine would be preferable for U.S. national security, such a step is probably necessary in order to get Kiev (not to mention Washington’s myriad hawks) to sign on to any larger compromise that could lead to a relaxation of tensions. For Moscow, the extensive economic benefits would almost certainly outweigh the security concerns. This agreement to “meet halfway” may be the only way Europe can escape the ever-tightening grip of the new Cold War.
Lyle J. Goldstein, Ph.D., is research professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He was the founder of the China Maritime Studies Institute there and is also an affiliate of the college’s Russia Maritime Studies Institute. The opinions in the article are entirely his own and do not reflect any official assessment of the U.S. Navy.