Is Biden sleepwalking into war with Russia?

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Is Biden sleepwalking into war with Russia?

A grinding local conflict on Europe’s periphery. Russian nuclear threats. Slowly escalating NATO military aid to Ukraine. Critics of American policy, urging caution, argue that the United States is sleepwalking into a great power war. Their diagnosis, that Washington is slowly but surely marching toward a direct conflict, might prove correct, but only if Washington follows their advice.

The “sleepwalking” metaphor in international relations gained new popularity with the 2012 publication of Christopher Clark’s history of the July crisis of 1914, which was widely read in Washington. In The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, he concluded: “The protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.” Put simply, actors across the continent took understandable steps in the pursuit of their countries’ own interests but failed to foresee how those actions could interact to bring on a world-changing conflagration.

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Proponents of a contemporary sleepwalking thesis are perhaps less kind to today’s main characters than Clark was to the subjects of his study. Clark told a story “saturated with agency,” as he described it. But restraint-oriented critics of today’s Ukraine policy, on the Right and the Left, point to a Washington that is on autopilot, driven by an unthinking foreign policy blob.

These critics make three simplistic arguments. Former President Barack Obama, during his time in office, was the most prominent advocate of the first: Russia will always care more about Ukraine than the U.S. does and thus will never back down. A second “sleepwalking” argument has it that continuing arms deliveries to Ukraine will almost inevitably lead to direct NATO engagement, and war between two nuclear-armed powers will result. As Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) put it, “Sending 31 Abrams tanks to Ukraine brings us closer to a major world war. … You can bet we’ll be sending American troops to Ukraine to operate these tanks.” Then there is the third argument, which French President Emmanuel Macron summed up when he argued that Europe had stumbled into World War II by humiliating Germany in 1918 and cautioned that humiliating President Vladimir Putin today will lead to future Russian aggression and revanchism.

Macron fears that a Ukrainian victory could give way to a dangerous, modern-day interwar period. But he fails to understand that that period is already behind us. There are striking parallels between Russian behavior of the 15 years preceding Russia’s escalation of the war in February 2022 and the behavior of interwar Nazi Germany. Putin leads a defeated empire, sitting atop a nationalist regime with revanchist claims over his neighbors. This is akin to Germany in the 1930s. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the annexation of Crimea was the first armed annexation in Europe since the annexation of Sudetenland. Nor is it a coincidence that, having gone unpunished, both cases only whetted the appetites of the aggressors, with wider wars ensuing. It was their unbending conflict aversion that led democratic leaders in the 1930s and the 2010s to sleepwalk into war.

Despite the important parallels between the interwar years and the last decade and a half, there is one key difference: The 1930s democracies forced the Czechoslovaks to surrender to Hitler, while the 2020s democracies have belatedly assisted the Ukrainians. Biggs and his brethren believe that military aid will lead to war between NATO and Russia, but the real risk of a bigger war will come from insufficient or failing support.

If this war ends with Ukraine’s borders changed, de jure or de facto, it will be a victory for Russia — a terribly costly victory but still a victory. Considering domestic U.S. politics, the incapacity of President Joe Biden to reenergize support for the war, and the already diminishing support for arming Ukraine among American voters, the prospects for some measure of Russian success may grow despite Ukraine’s herculean efforts. A depleted Russian military may be unable to recover for a decade or more, but it will recover. With a better-equipped and better-trained military, assuming the Russian armed forces are capable of learning from their debacle in Ukraine, Putin, or his successor, will be tempted to come back for more, guided by the current war’s failures.

As long as the current political system in Russia holds, it will remain a threat to the European order. But a decisive Ukrainian victory will forestall the next aggression, possibly long enough for Russia to emerge from totalitarian darkness and cast aside its expansionist impulses. Those arguing that the Biden administration is sleepwalking into war with Russia are concerned about the next 12 months. But the greater threat will manifest over the next 12 years or more unless Washington gets its policy right today.

The coming Ukrainian counteroffensive will likely be a decisive moment in this war and could dictate the fate of Europe in the 2030s. Refusing to prioritize Ukrainian victory risks a future in which NATO’s southeastern front is far more vulnerable, Russia can create new crises at will, and Russia will be in a far stronger position once it recovers and rearms. In prioritizing the avoidance of an unlikely war with Russia today, the Biden administration and its European allies are making a future, wider war all the more likely.

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Were the U.S. to prioritize rapid Ukrainian victory, and thus provide Kyiv with everything it needs as fast as Kyiv can absorb it, it would be likelier to bring about a remade European security environment in U.S. and NATO interests, including Finland and, presumably, Sweden in NATO; Ukraine whole, independent, and NATO-aligned; and Russia weakened and chastened.

To achieve a decisive victory, Ukraine needs to shatter the Russian army or force it to leave Ukraine. Even if neither task is completed in the coming months, the writing must be on the wall. Ukrainian victory is imperative, not only for Ukraine’s own sake, but to ensure that Europe in the next two decades will be whole, free, and at peace.

Michael Mazza is a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior nonresident fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute. Shay Khatiri is a senior policy analyst at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America and publishes The Russia-Iran File Substack newsletter. 

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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