Ukraine: Why are we hyping up an invasion we can do nothing about?

President Teddy Roosevelt once said, “speak softly and carry a big stick.”  This is the exact opposite:  We have no stick at all, and yet we’re carrying on as if we had a baseball bat.  So long as Europe is dependent on Russian energy, Russia will do what it wants in Eastern Europe. We should accept it and plan accordingly.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other officials in the Biden Administration are convinced a Russian invasion of Ukraine is imminent, perhaps happening within a week.  On Sunday, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told CNN’s Jake Tapper, “The way they have built up their forces, the way they have maneuvered things in place, makes it a distinct possibility that there will be major military action very soon.”  He continued, “If Russia moves forward, we will defend NATO territory, we will impose costs on Russia, and we will ensure that we emerge from this as the West stronger, more determined, more purposeful than we have been in 30 years, and that Russia ultimately suffers a significant strategic cost for military action.”  Later this week, Vice President Kamala Harris is traveling to Munich to meet with European leaders at a conference to discuss the potential conflict.  A senior administration official told Reuters, “This trip is about engaging our allies and partners and building upon the intensive engagement that is already under way.”  Vice President Harris will “reaffirm America’s commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”  President Biden has also talked tough, telling Russian President Putin that we would respond decisively to any military action.  He said much the same thing last December, “There were no minced words.  I made it very clear: if in fact he invades Ukraine, there will be severe consequences, severe consequences, economic consequences like none he’s ever seen or ever have been seen.”

Unfortunately, this is far more bluster than reality because Europe remains dependent on Russian energy.  Any “severe economic consequences” on Russia will dramatically increase the price of oil and natural gas when the European people are already struggling with shortages.  Last month, Reuters reported that wholesale gas prices in Western Europe spiked some 330% in 2021 alone.  Bank of America estimates that the average household in the region will spend 54% more on gas and electricity this year compared to 2020, with monthly costs rising from 1,200 euros to 1,850.  More dramatic price increases are possible because end costs to customers usually lag behind wholesale prices by some 6-9 months.  “The price you are paying today to switch your kettle on is based on whatever the gas or electricity price was on average roughly 6-9 months ago. It’s like it’s happening in slow motion,” explained Harry Wyburd, an analyst at Bank of America Securities.

European governments have been trying to make up this gap by reducing or eliminating taxes on energy and even direct subsidies, but those measures are only expected to cover about a quarter of the difference.  The result has become a potent political issue driven by a furious populace.  Elections are coming up in France and 57% of voters cited “purchasing power” as a top issue.  Nicolas Goldberg, an Energy specialist at Colombus Consulting, put it this way, “Electricity prices are an explosive subject and political object that will be used by other parties if they don’t keep this (price cap) promise.”  Likewise, 80% of Conservative Party voters in England believe energy bills are a top issue, especially when an artificial cap on prices implemented in 2019 is expected to expire in April, increasing prices by 50% in a single shot.  “The government is in the position that the cap has bought it some time to decide what to do, but the figures involved to limit the rise completely would be huge,” explained Robert Buckley of Cornwall Insights.  It’s estimated that these higher prices will push 1.5 million British households into “fuel poverty,” where a family is unable to afford to heat their homes to a comfortable temperature.

All this is before the impact of any new sanctions on Russian energy and financial markets.  Given that Russia currently supplies about 30% of European petroleum imports, plus 40% of gas and 42% of solid fuels according to Clean Energy Wire, we can expect the impact of any meaningful sanctions to be huge, like nothing the continent has seen in at least 40 years, if not going all the way back to World War II.  Europeans, of course, are also still reeling from almost two years of the coronavirus pandemic, and this isn’t even considering the worst case scenario.  President Biden promised “economic consequences like none he’s ever seen or ever have been seen,” implying a sanction regime that goes further than putting an additional cost on doing business with Russia.  In Iran, for example, the United States has imposed far more crippling sanctions that prevent other countries from doing business with the theocratic state.  These sanctions apply to third parties that deal in Iranian oil and their financial sector, effectively placing an embargo on the country, preventing it from conducting most international business.  In theory, a sanction regime like this could shut off the supply of Russian energy entirely to cripple their economy, but I don’t think anyone reasonably believes Europe would support such a measure.  It’s not even clear the citizens of the United States would as there’d certainly be a global impact on energy prices.  A recent CBS Poll found that 53% of Americans believe we should stay out of negotiations between Ukraine, Russia, and other European nations entirely, much less actually intervene should there be a war.

The Biden Administration surely knows this.  Nothing I’ve written here isn’t already public knowledge, easily found with a couple of quick Google searches.  The President himself might well have been thinking along these lines when he suggested a “minor incursion” might be acceptable at a press conference last month.  This, however, only prompts the question:  If they know there’s nothing we can do to prevent Russia from mounting an incursion in Ukraine, why are we acting as if we can and blustering so much about it?

The Ukrainians themselves aren’t happy about the language we’ve used and the attention we’ve drawn.  Last weekend, their foreign ministry issued a statement saying, “At the moment, it is critically important to remain calm, to consolidate inside the country, to avoid destabilizing actions and those that sow panic.”  Last month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy specifically asked other countries to remain calm as well.  “We don’t need this panic,” he said because he is focusing on stabilizing the economy.  He continued, “The probability of the attack exists, it has not disappeared and it was not less serious in 2021,” “we do not see a higher escalation than the one which existed last year.”   President Zelenskyy “chided,” in the words of Euronews, “even respected heads of state” for making it look like the country was already in a war, “that there are troops advancing on the roads. But that’s not the case.”  “This panic, how much is it costing our country?” He wondered, “The biggest risk for Ukraine” is “the destabilization of the situation inside the country.”  For what it’s worth, the Armed Forces of Ukraine have been claiming they “are absolutely ready to repel the aggressor” and that “the aggressor will not take Kyiv, Odesa, Kharkiv, or any other city.” The Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Lieutenant General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, added, “420,000 Ukrainian soldiers and every without exception commander have already looked in the eyes of death. Commanders of the Forces, commanders of brigades, battalions and companies are specialists in their field and patriots of their state. We will not give away a single piece of Ukrainian land!”

Granted, this may well be bluster as well given Russia’s significant military advantages, but as we have seen in recent history, the existence of a military advantage doesn’t guarantee victory.  Repelling an aggressor is an asymmetric warfare proposition.  Russia needs to take and hold Ukraine.  Ukraine only needs to make holding it hurt enough to force them to withdraw.  This is precisely the thinking the Taliban relied on to prevail in Afghanistan after 20 years of fighting where the difference in military advantage was even starker.  Speaking of which, US prestige is already reeling after our ignominious retreat in Afghanistan last August, prompting one to wonder why would we put our credibility on the line once again with no hope of success?

Alas, I don’t think I can really answer that question.  It could be that both military and civilian leadership in the United States is so deluded they truly believe we have the power to stop a Russian invasion, and that their talk actually means something to the likes of Vladimir Putin.  Others are claiming this is simply a distraction from the President’s troubles at home.  Still others think this is being driven by an establishment political and media class in the United States that still hasn’t found a war it doesn’t think we should fight.  It could be all three.  Either way, it is difficult to see how this ends well at this point:  Putin is going to do what he wants, as he always has.  This is the man that took Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014.  Nothing happened then.  He certainly doesn’t think anything will happen now.

That’s why I think it would be a much better course to follow the Ukrainian advice and remain calm.  Position the issue as a local matter between two sovereign countries because we have no alliance with Ukraine that compels us to act, nor do our allies in Europe via NATO.  Make it clear that we will not condone an attack and it will negatively affect our relationship with Russia moving forward, but don’t overpromise and underdeliver.  Provide aid to Ukraine including military support, but let their leadership do the talking.  Paint Putin as a bad actor on the world stage and use it as an opportunity to increase American energy in the region to prevent him from exerting more influence.  Rally Europe around the idea that they cannot remain hostage to Russian energy for much longer.  Some of these things we’re already doing, but they are overshadowed by the heated rhetoric that’s putting our global prestige and influence on the line once again.  The last thing the world needs is another blow to the belief that America is a force for democracy and stability, and yet that appears to be precisely the situation President Biden is setting up.

President Teddy Roosevelt once said, “speak softly and carry a big stick.”  This is the exact opposite:  We have no stick at all, and yet we’re carrying on as if we had a baseball bat.

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