Most people today did not experience the tragedy and trauma of the last world war. Less than half remember the dangers of the Cold War when two superpowers threatened one another with nuclear annihilation. But even then, the American people seemed incapable of demonstrating wisdom in choosing their national leaders.
This matters because the president makes the final decision in foreign and domestic policies. The question often asked is this: are we, as a people, better off today than we were in, say, 1945? If we are honest with ourselves, the answer must be “no.”
Our honest answer has less to do with political parties than the utter ignorance of the people who choose their president. Since 1945, we have had two bloody wars (Korea and Vietnam) and a series of smaller but more costly conflicts in the Middle East. There was no American victory in either Korea or Vietnam, and we cannot say the U.S.-led coalition accomplished much toward preserving our true national interests in the Middle East, either.
We cannot lay our inept foreign policies at the feet of the American voter. They do not influence the president’s choice of cabinet officers. But we can criticize the American voter for choosing inept presidents who select their cabinet and whose “final say” makes us either more secure or less so.
President Joe Biden’s recent marathon presser revealed to the world what a horrible choice American voters made when they elected him president. But Biden announced more than his incompetence. He revealed that today’s world is as dangerous as ever. Without much notice by anyone, Joe Biden has moved us closer to yet another major (regional) conflict.
After a long period of domination by Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, and Russia, we did not see a fully independent Ukraine until late in the last century. In size, Ukraine is second only to Russia on the European continent. Between 1921-1991, Ukraine was part of the U.S.S.R. Today, around one-quarter of the people living in Ukraine are ethnic Russians — and this matters because Russia and Ukraine are in a state of war.
The issue confronting these two countries today has historical roots. In 1783, Catherine the Great of Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula to secure warm-water access to the Russian heartland. Control of the Crimean Peninsula and most present-day Ukraine (once known as “New Russia”) has served Russia in two fundamental ways. First, the Black Sea area provides Russia with access to maritime trade with the countries surrounding the Black Sea and access to the Mediterranean Sea. Second, Ukraine and Crimea provide a defense shield to the Russian heartland.
In 1990, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) involved fifteen countries of Eastern Europe comprising more than 8.6 million square miles. The largest of these was Russia. The next largest Soviet Republic was Ukraine. When the U.S.S.R. collapsed in 1991, its fifteen separate republics declared their independence, and Russia lost most of its regional influence, particularly in the area of the Black Sea.
Bulgaria and Romania not only became independent nations, but they also joined the alliance of western European states known as NATO. Worse for Russia, Georgia and Ukraine announced their intent to follow suit, and Turkey began to cultivate relationships with former Soviet republics, mainly Moslem and Turkic speaking countries, including Ukraine and Crimea (an autonomous state of Ukraine).
Within two decades, Russia began to feel the pressure of encroaching NATO states in the area of the Black Sea, significant because 15 buffer states no longer protected the Russian heartland. When Georgia attempted to join the NATO alliance in 2008, Russia engineered a breakaway effort among ethnic Ossetians and then used those disturbances as a pretense for military intervention.
Similarly, Russia had no intention of allowing Ukraine to join the NATO alliance or control its access to the Black Sea region. Consequently, in 2014, Russia invaded portions of Ukraine and seized and annexed the Crimean Peninsula for the second time.
Russia’s aggressive behavior toward both Georgia and Ukraine demonstrates its willingness to use military force to safeguard its interests in the Black Sea area. It is also remarkably consistent with the behavior exhibited by the United States during the so-called Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Crimean Peninsula has once more become a springboard of Russian power and influence in the Black Sea area and the Mediterranean region. Turkey’s control of the Bosporus and Dardanelles (a choke point that might deny Russia’s access to the Mediterranean) explain why Russian President Vladimir Putin has been working to create a closer relationship with Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It works to Russia’s advantage that President Erdogan has become frustrated with the NATO alliance.
For Russia, homeland security and its ability to project its power and influence top all other considerations because Russia has a substantial economic interest in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. The Black Sea is an important trade and transportation artery, and the port of Novorossiysk is vital to both Russia and Central Asian countries to export grain and oil.
Russia is investing in new infrastructure to protect its Black Sea trade corridor and create alternative routes to skirt Ukraine. Experts believe that a series of oil and gas pipelines through Turkey will buttress Russian-Turkish ties, improve Russia’s leverage with Turkey, and provide Moscow with new export routes bypassing Ukraine.
What’s more, Russia is expanding its energy ties with Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Serbia, giving Moscow a geopolitical weapon to undercut NATO influence in the Balkans. Russia’s energy pipelines do generate revenues, but more than this, they are part of Moscow’s regional defense strategy.
The Russian economy is not Moscow’s only concern. After viewing the accompanying linguistic/ethnic map, “civil disturbances” within Russian-speaking Ukrainian communities could “justify” further Russian military intervention (as in Georgia). Should that happen, what could the NATO countries do about it?
Today, Russia views Ukraine’s growing ties with NATO as a threat to its physical and economic security. In the past, Russia has demonstrated no hesitance in using its military to defend its interests. With that in mind, was President Biden wise to threaten Moscow with severe economic sanctions?
Cornered animals are dangerous. Perhaps the situation would be less dangerous if the west was dealing with less pig-headed Russians and Ukrainians, and maybe it would help if there were adults sitting at the negotiating table. Adversarial relations only keep everyone tense. People who are tense shouldn’t have their hands on atomic triggers.
The attitudes reflected by NATO and Russian diplomats does not bode well for future relations between East and West, but as a practical matter, how should the west expect Moscow to react to NATO missiles in the Ukraine and other former Soviet republics? What could possibly result from Russian/Ukrainian intransigence, NATO poking Russia with a stick, and Joe Biden’s incompetence?