The Guns of February: Can America Avoid War in Ukraine?

By Ben Mainardi

An American National Guard winter training exercise in 2020.
Image Credit: Scott Thompson/DVIDS

As the German army marched through Belgium on the eve of the First World War, the British ambassador to Germany, Sir Edward Goschen, delivered London’s ultimatum to the German Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow and Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg that demanded withdrawal from Belgium.

Goschen recorded the response of the German officials, who replied that:

“What we had done was unthinkable; it was like striking a man from behind while he was fighting for his life against two assailants. He [Bethmann-Hollweg] held Great Britain responsible for all the terrible events that might happen. I protested strongly against that statement, and said that, in the same way as he and Herr von Jagow wished me to understand that for strategical reasons it was a matter of life and death to Germany to advance through Belgium and violate the latter’s neutrality, so I would wish him to understand that it was, so to speak, a matter of ‘life and death’ for the honor of Great Britain that she should keep her solemn engagement to do her utmost to defend Belgium’s neutrality if attacked. That solemn compact simply had to be kept, or what confidence could anyone have in engagements given by Great Britain in the future? The Chancellor said, ‘But at what price will that compact have been kept? Has the British Government thought of that?’ I hinted; to his Excellency as plainly as I could that fear of consequences could hardly be regarded as an excuse for breaking solemn engagements…”

The answer that one might have given to Bethmann-Hollweg’s question was no, they had not thought of the price that would be paid. The British government, in all fairness, not knowing the nations that would become embroiled in the First World War, could not plan for what the conflict would cost them. 

Ever since the Great War, the British government of Herbert Asquith (1908-1916) has been criticized for not issuing an ultimatum until after Germany had encroached on Belgium sovereignty, let alone entering the war at all. While no one knows whether doing so would have truly averted catastrophe, it can safely be said that not acting more quickly and forcefully resulted in such an unfavorable outcome.

Today, likewise, the world stands on the edge of a potentially catastrophic war. As Russian forces mass along the border with Ukraine and within Belarus, anxieties over what exactly these troops are intended for continue to rise. Statements by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are becoming increasingly belligerent and signal a desire to alter the political status quo in Ukraine.

For its part, the Biden administration has begun taking steps to curb Russia’s aggressive actions. It notably backed a sanctions bill, while also issuing vague statements about Russia facing “a disaster.”

As the United States and other nations of the West continue to debate on how to realign their sanctions against Russia, it is worth acknowledging that the effects of such sanctions are rather dubious. Of course, they severely harm the economies of target states. Thus far, however, sanctions alone have seldom proved sufficient in achieving their intended political aims. 

Particularly, in the case of Russia, sanctions have not forced a withdrawal from Crimea and the curtailing of Russian sponsorship of rogue actors abroad, nor have they prevented Putin from manufacturing the situation at hand. In large part, economic sanctions remain a stopgap measure to ease the conscience of the public and political leaders, doing little for victims of the sanctioned aggressor. 

Correspondingly, it is becoming increasingly common to hear calls for more hawkish steps to be taken to avoid repeating the mistake of appeasement. These assertions follow a similar chorus: “after all, the British and French governments appeased Hitler in Europe and look what happened.” This line of thought is rather troubling.

What is perhaps most interesting about these claims, however, is the conspicuous absence of the Second World War’s Asia-Pacific Theater from such platitudes. Indeed, Americans often forget about the outbreak and course of the war in the Pacific, aside from the attack on Pearl Harbor and the deployment of atomic weapons. 

In facing Imperial Japan prior to the emergence of hostilities, however, the United States and other Western powers took a harsh line that could hardly be compared with the West’s policies of appeasement in Europe.

The American, British, and Dutch governments imposed massive sanctions on Japan, cutting Japanese access to almost 80% of its oil needs and many other strategic resources. 

It was hoped that, in taking a strong position against Japanese imperialism in China through economic strangulation, Tokyo could be coerced into withdrawing from China altogether.

Of course, just as did the appeasement of Hitler, this policy yielded precisely the opposite intended effect. What Washington, London, and the Dutch government-in-exile had not counted on was that this move ensured Japan would wage war against them. In just over a year, Japan attacked all three powers in a massive offensive campaign from Pearl Harbor to Hong Kong. 

Thus, while the outbreak of the Second World War is largely lauded as a case study in needing to take a hard line against aggressive foreign policy actions, doing so almost entirely ignores the reality that this approach guaranteed war in the Pacific.

What should policymakers make of all this? Is the Ukraine Crisis then a no-win scenario destined for war? Those that argue for rapid and bold action against Russia do not seem to recognize that the actions they demand may be just as likely to provoke an even greater conflict than they anticipate. 

Indeed, Putin has threatened to invade NATO countries before over much lower stakes. Likewise, the advocates of sanctions misunderstand how their course of action is unlikely to harm the Putin regime in a meaningful way politically and carries just as much of a possibility of stoking the crisis as it does in mitigating it.

So, is the United States of America today ready for war with Russia? Quite simply, no. 

American forces are not deployed to intervene on behalf of Ukraine in a meaningful capacity before Russian objectives could likely be achieved, let alone in defense of actual NATO allies in the Baltic. 

Unless major troop deployments are undertaken very soon, entering a war with Russia over Ukraine risks, in keeping with the Second World War analogy so many commentators are making use of, a repetition of what has come to be known as the betrayal of Poland.

And if war does indeed come, would American and allied leaders have truly weighed the possible costs of confronting Russia? Lest anyone forget, Russia maintains the world’s largest nuclear weapons arsenal and has spent years heavily investing in its nuclear modernization program.

While it is highly unlikely Russia will use nuclear weapons, it might consider a retaliatory strike should a conflict in territories bordering its heartland end in military defeat. 

At the same time, placing 8,500 troops on standby is extremely ineffective when estimates of Russian forces on the border range from 70,000 to 175,000 troops. Not to rule out the possible Russian cyber retaliation on targets in the American homeland.

Washington must recognize that it is walking a tightrope between appeasement and provocation, something which cannot and should not be easily dispensed with because of the cavalier talk emerging out of some quarters of the Beltway. 

It is necessary to develop well-considered, proportional, and concrete actions; conveying them clearly to Moscow in the full knowledge of what the consequences may bring. 

Whether deploying military forces to Ukraine with the consent of Kiev or imposing additional sanctions on Russia, America must realize that its actions will also have consequences that could ripple throughout the international system; a fact evidently missing from almost all comments from American political leaders. 

Nonetheless, if the United States is truly committed to protecting Ukraine’s sovereignty and preventing Moscow from rolling the iron dice, as did Berlin over a century ago, it cannot simply rely on economic sanctions. It must organize a multilateral coalition that would be willing to take concrete actions, should they be necessary.

Ben Mainardi is a regular contributor for the Review and holds a Master’s in War Studies from King’s College London. His thesis centered on great power competition and theories of limited war.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s