Continually escalating encounters with the United States military while the war in Ukraine rages on is not the strategy of a country on the verge of accepting defeat, but even a cursory understanding of history should not make that surprising. A successful foreign policy requires a recognition of reality sorely lacking on all sides of this debate.
Last week, I opined that our enemies perceive only failure despite our protests to the contrary, comparing the foreign policy approach of President Joe Biden and the broader establishment to a true master of the art, the legendary Teddy Roosevelt, who famously and sometimes infamously talked softly while carrying a big stick. Mere hours after publishing that post, proof of my position was made plain when Russia intentionally downed a US MQ-9 Reaper drone over international waters in the Black Sea in an unprovoked attack on a military asset. Technically, Russia did not fire on the drone, choosing instead to dump fuel from an SU-27 fighter jet after harrying it for some 40 minutes and then likely colliding with a propeller, making it unclear whether the incident can truly be called an act of war, but regardless it comes dangerously close. This Russian provocation comes after reports of increasingly aggressive action in the region since the war in Ukraine began, or even earlier, including the frequent “buzzing” of manned US aircrafts in the region. Some estimates suggest that 90% of our reconnaissance flights are intercepted one way or another at this point. “The greatest risk is miscalculation. The Russians do intercept these aircraft frequently,” Captain Tim Thompson, commodore of the US Navy’s Task Force 67 told CNN a couple of years ago. “They tend to be very professional and safe, but, on occasion, they can be unprofessional,” he continued in a massive understatement. Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation specializing in Russian defense issues, claimed the recent incident “fits with a larger pattern” of Russia “escalating signals before coming too close to a platform” on Twitter. Ms. Massicot claimed this was “a close pass that went bad,” and suggested it was part of a pattern of “(escalating) behavior to compel their target to change course.” The Biden Administration was far more colorful in their response, claiming Russian actions were “unsafe, unprofessional and reckless” through US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.
This is undoubtedly true, but the real question, of course, is what we are planning to do about it? The administration itself has remained tight-lipped about a potential response, which is probably the right decision though their track record does not leave one to think it will be decisive, innovative, or creative by any means. Administration critics, mainly in the Republican party, have taken a more aggressive posture, but one that essentially can be reduced to engaging in an ever escalating tit-for-tat response, which is likely to accomplish little except increase hostilities and possibly unleash a broader conflict. Senator Lindsey Graham, for example, told Fox News’ Sean Hannity that we should shoot down any Russian jet that makes a similar move on a drone. “If you ever get near another US asset flying in international waters, your airplane will be shot down,” he insisted in an ultimatum to the Kremlin, were he the Commander in Chief. “What would Ronald Reagan do right now?” The Senator added, and answered for himself. “He would start shooting Russian planes down if they were threatening our assets. American foreign policy is in freefall.” Sadly, this is something of a caricature of the former President and Republican hero, who was far more visionary and strategic in his foreign policy and despite Senator Graham’s claims, never directly attacked Russian military assets. Generally speaking, President Reagan was not one to engage in tit-for-tat, nor did he escalate anything without having a long term plan for success. The cornerstone of his Russian strategy was, in fact, not attacking Russian assets, but rather engaging them in an arms race Russia could not possibly win because they could not keep pace with the American free market economy. He specifically framed the struggle between the two countries with Russia as the aggressive, belligerent party. “With all this talk about the supposed strain in relations [with the Soviet Union], there is an inference that somehow it is our fault. But we didn’t kill Russian civilians by shooting down a civilian airplane. We didn’t attempt to conquer an adjacent country to ours. We didn’t walk out on negotiations and refuse to give a date for when we would resume,” he remarked clearly indicating his desire for diplomacy rather than war. In other words, he kept the war itself cold while heating up the economic side of the equation, believing correctly that Russia would spend itself into oblivion and he did so without firing a shot.
If anything, Senator Graham appeared to be referring to a different situation entirely. After Libya bombed our barracks in Lebanon, killing three people and injuring over 200, many of them service men and women, President Reagan ordered a devastating attack Libya itself. This action was not merely tit-for-tat. It was decisive and overwhelming with 60 tons of munitions in Tripoli alone and a series of airstrikes on Benghazi, almost killing Libyan leader Muamma Gaddafi himself. Gaddafi talked a great game afterwards, but did absolutely nothing while Reagan remained in office, knowing he was completely overmatched. The difference in approach between Russia and Libya is illustrative of President Reagan’s strategic vision and military acumen in general. Libya, he knew we could crush in an open conflict and demonstrated that was the case, overwhelmingly. War with Russia, however, was a far more dramatic and deadly proposition, and he treaded with much more care, using economic and diplomatic might instead of military. The situation remains similar today. Russia is no longer the Union of Soviet Social Republics or the “evil empire” as Reagan used to say, but they remain the second most nuclear equipped country in the world and any direct confrontation would be devastating to both sides. After this recent incident, some observers have pointed to a similar situation that occurred under former President Donald Trump, when Iran shot down a US drone on June 20, 2019. Many, like National Security Adviser John Bolton, urged the President to respond in kind, but instead, he chose to wait for an opportune moment before striking back by assassinating the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, Qasem Soleimani in Iraq six months later, which proved to be a far more effective move. At the same time, President Trump was in a similar position as President Reagan regarding Russia. He understood that we would swiftly win a victory over Iran the same as Reagan could over Libya, but tread more lightly with Russia, preferring to focus on pushing American military assets into Poland and other shows of strength rather than direct action. He coupled this with a charm offensive in public, and though he was roundly criticized as a Russian stooge, the fact remains that Russia made few aggressive moves on his watch, not invading Ukraine or any other country, or interfering with our military in any meaningful way.
Of course, the fact that Russia’s increasingly provocative actions have occurred after more than a year of sanctions that were supposed to wreck the Russian economy, billions in aid and increasingly lethal weapons that were supposed to help push Ukraine to victory, and endless claims that the free world, led by master foreign policy strategist Joe Biden, was more united than ever. It was only last month when the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley claimed that Russia was already defeated in Ukraine, pay no attention to their control of about a quarter of the country. “President Putin thought he could defeat Ukraine quickly, fracture the NATO alliance and act with impunity,” he told reporters following a meeting with NATO defense ministers in Brussels. “He was wrong. Ukraine remains free. They remain independent. NATO and its coalition has never been stronger. And Russia is now a global pariah, and the world remains inspired by Ukrainian bravery and resilience,” he continued. “In short, Russia has lost; they’ve lost strategically, operationally and tactically, and they are paying an enormous price on the battlefield.” It was also last month when President Biden decided to flex American muscle in an unrelated manner, shooting down a Chinese spy balloon and three other balloons in less than two weeks in the first such incidents over United States airspace in our history. Russia, however, remains undeterred. They continue to fight fiercely in Ukraine for every possible scrap of territory and our best intelligence estimates indicate they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, so fiercely the state of affairs has been compared to the horror of trench warfare in World War I. US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines recently told lawmakers, “Putin most likely calculates the time works in his favor and that prolonging the war, including with potential pauses in the fighting, may be his best remaining pathway to eventually securing Russia’s strategic interests in Ukraine, even if it takes years.” If their increasingly aggressive posture over international waters in the Black Sea is any indication, they are so undeterred that they feel confident enough to intentionally taunt American interests directly and destroy American military equipment with impunity. Putting this another way, how is that possibly the case if our actions were nearly as effective as advertised?
In reality, Russia’s continued willingness to prolong and even escalate a war we and our allies claim they are losing should not be surprising. This has been typical of Russia for hundreds of years, ever since Napoleon marched into Moscow believing he could conquer the country by sacking the capital city, only to find the Russians had readily abandoned it and relocated the seat of power to St. Petersburg. More recently, Russia was soundly and rather unexpectedly whipped by Japan in the second Russo-Japan War between 1904 and 1905. Japan destroyed almost the entire Russian Navy, captured key Russian territory including Port Arthur, most of Korea, and the island of Sakhalin. The Russian army was equally devastated, losing up to 120,000 men either killed, died of disease, or captured compared to half that many Japanese. The Japanese also captured two Russian battleships that they did not outright destroy in fierce combat. A classic example was the Battle of Tsu Shima on May 27, 1905. The Japanese unleashed 2,000 shells per minute, sinking 22 Russian ships, including 4 brand new battleships, and capturing seven others while killing 4,000 Russians. Japan lost a mere three torpedo boats in comparison. Eighteen months into the conflict, it was widely believed Japan could march into Eastern Siberia and there was nothing Russia could do to prevent losing a large portion of native Russian soil. Russia, however, remained uncowed, refusing to accept a “humiliating defeat” even after it had already occurred.
Tsar Nicholas II had to be almost dragged to the negotiating table to even start talking about ending the conflict. US Ambassador George von Lengerke Meyer met with him alone and in secret, conveying a private message from President Roosevelt. “It is the judgment of all outsiders, including all of Russia’s most ardent friends, that the present contest is absolutely hopeless and that to continue it would only result in the loss of all Russia’s possessions in East Asia.” Roosevelt recommended a peace conference on neutral ground, though one that would not be made public until after both parties agreed in private. Roosevelt had already gotten a commitment from the Japanese for such a meeting, but told the Tsar he was approaching him first. Also of critical importance, Roosevelt made no mention that Russia had lost the war or that her native territory was at risk. He even indicated that Russia might still maintain parts of her empire in East Asia. Tsar Nicholas ultimately agreed to the peace conference, but continued to fight over every detail of its arrangement and location, before agreeing to Portsmouth, New Hampshire with Roosevelt himself serving as a mediator. Given the state of military affairs, it was generally assumed at the onset of these meetings that Russia would relinquish claims on Korea and Sakhalin Island as territory that was already lost, and would likely have to pay indemnities to Japan to cover the cost of the war. Russia had no such plans to compromise, however. They refused to even mention the word “indemnity,” prompting President Roosevelt to come up with other ways to describe a possible payment. They also demanded Sakhalin Island be returned to Russian control, even though they had no possibility of taking it on their own without a functioning navy and, speaking of the navy, they wanted the captured ships back free of charge.
Further, they committed to breaking off the peace process in 10 days unless Japan, the victor in the conflict, made acceptable concessions to Russia, the loser. As Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris described it, “His majesty [Tsar Nicholas] would not give up Sakhalin, yet Sakhalin was already occupied by the Japanese. Russia was not conquered – she had merely been beaten in every land battle of the war, and lost almost all of her navy. Her soil was undefiled, but if she did not soon treat with Japan, she could say good-bye eastern Siberia.” So vexing was the situation that Roosevelt imagined marching the Tsar and his diplomats to the end of Cove Neck, NY and running “them violently down a steep place into the sea.” “It was clear the President had little hope of a peace treaty,” the Russian delegate to the Portsmouth Conference wrote before it had even begun, “and he therefore expresses the opinion that it is necessary in any case to arrange matters in such a manner that, in the future, when either of the parties wishes it, it will be possible to begin the negotiations again without difficult.” Against the odds, Roosevelt was ultimately successful, but primarily because he prevailed upon victorious Japan, convincing them that continuing the conflict was not in their interest. They would gain nothing by conquering eastern Siberia while spending a fortune in blood and treasure. Indeed, it was Japan that relented at the end, giving up half of Sakhalin Island and receiving not a single penny in indemnity. The only thing Japan got out of the deal was agreement that they would control most of Korea and half an island. Everything else was in favor of the Russians, though they were the ones that were soundly beaten.
Any student of history at even the most cursory level should know that the situation remains the same today. Whatever President Biden and our so-called leaders claim, Russia will not relent, even if they are defeated. Political stunts like the recent indictment of Russian President Vladimire Putin for war crimes are equally unhelpful. If we truly wish to cease the hostilities, a far more skillful approach is required, one that acknowledges two things. First, the Russian belief that NATO’s westward expansion into former Soviet states is a threat to their sovereignty is not unreasonable. We might disagree, but there is no reason NATO needs to run right to their doorstep, nor has anyone in a position of authority bothered to explain why adding more and more countries to an already large alliance is a net-benefit to anyone. We should be more than willing to limit NATO’s size in a way amenable to Russia. This concession by America, Canada, and our allies in Europe would be perceived as a major strategic victory in Russia and give President Putin cause to begin negotiating. Second, Russia is exceedingly unlikely to give up much – if any – of the territory they have gained in Ukraine, whatever we say or do. This is partially because they already control it and are not leaving anytime soon, and also because many of these territories have long been in dispute and are populated by people who speak Russian and believe they are Russian in truth. The sad reality is that the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, needs to accept this loss and use it as a basis for a negotiated settlement. China, of all countries, is pushing a peace deal to that effect, but neither Ukraine nor the United States seem interested in considering it despite that it better reflects the reality of the situation than our wishful thinking to the contrary. For example, Mr. Kirby dismissed the plan as a “ratification of Russian conquest,” suggesting we believe Russia can be expelled from Ukraine and will accept a “humiliating defeat” even though, unlike against Japan over a century ago, we currently have no means to make this happen for foreseeable future. We can, of course, continue the current course, funneling somewhere upwards of $100 billion per year, providing increasingly powerful arms now including fighter jets, and hope that there is no further escalation. Once again, any student of history knows that the longer a conflict goes on, the larger the chance of it growing far beyond its original cause. We are not going to end this in the near future by humiliating Putin. He is clearly not intimidated, nor will he be. The better course is to acknowledge some of his valid concerns and negotiate a deal that offers him a means to claim a smaller victory while allowing Ukraine to do the same. That’s what Roosevelt accomplished more than a century ago, and what Japan – despite its winning position – ultimately agreed to for the sake of peace. If President Zelensky is the statesman they claim, he should do the same.