Prof. Dr. Masahiro Matsumura
Member of IFIMES Council
With its swift and full-scale invasion from three fronts into Ukraine, Russia is turning the tables on the U.S.-led West by controlling the strategic buffer state. The change will likely be a worst outcome for the Ukrainians, though some geopolitical adjustment is inevitable in the not-so-distant future as a consequence of the evolving grand power shift consequent on conspicuous U.S. hegemonic decline. By achieving an overwhelming military victory, Russia will put Ukraine tightly in its orbit, probably, through a pro-Russian regime change involving external reorientation from the West to Russia. This will probably necessitate Ukraine to be semi-sovereign through demilitarization and neutralization, including complete elimination of the potential for nuclear armament.
It begs the question of why Russia has bluntly chosen to take a military solution and why Ukraine has not pursued an accommodative diplomatic settlement with favourable terms. The recent work of this author prior to the invasion has already analysed the Ukraine crisis from a geopolitical perspective. Yet geopolitics does not determine an outcome but only constrains the scope of possible outcomes. Thus, this piece will inquire the course and circumstances of important events in search of direct causation.
1. Biden’s Inadequate Responses
For the last several months, the Biden administration has spoken tough to Russia without a big stick, contrary to the recipe for effective deterrence policy. At the pre-crisis stage of deteriorating bilateral relations over Ukraine, in a video call with President Vladimir Putin on December 7, 2021, President Joe Biden warned him of severe economic sanctions in the event of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while ruling out military intervention against the invasion, especially any dispatch of U.S. ground troops.
True, given that Ukraine is not a NATO member state, the U.S, cannot exercise the treaty-based right of collective self-defence to defend the country. Neither can the United Nation Security Council authorize a U.N. military sanction against Russia because it is able to veto such a resolution, though the U.N. General Assembly can pass a non-legally binding “Uniting for Peace” resolution against the invasion of Ukraine (UNGA Resolution /ES-11/1) over which Russia has no veto. Neither will the U.S. organize and lead a coalition of the willing against Russia for the defence of Ukraine, with no vital American interests at stake. Moreover, a full-scale conventional war with Russia, a great power possessing strategic nuclear parity with the U.S., is practically infeasible because it involves great risks of escalation into a thermo-nuclear war and a nuclear Armageddon. This is in sharp contrast to the Afghanistan and Iraq cases in the U.S.-led global war on terrorism. Even well before Russia’s aggression, it was crystal clear that Ukraine alone would surely have to resist without any NATO reinforcements, but only with small arms, light weapons and ammunition provided by the U.S. and its allies.
To make the matter worse, international history shows that the effectiveness of economic sanctions is highly problematic, with few cases of success in compelling a determined aggressor to back down, at least in a short term, while sustained sanctions require the strong and yet hardly securable political will and solidarity of sanctioning countries. This will surely apply to the current Russian case because the country has survived those sanctions imposed after its invasion of Crimea in 2014 and already developed significant capacity to resist since then. Moreover, Russia will probably be unaffectable to such sanctions, because China is willing to purchase the consequential surplus of Russian oil and gas, an overwhelming source of national income, and because Russia has significantly de-dollarized its trade and other external economic transactions through cooperation with China and major developing countries . This means that the exclusion of Russia from SWIFT, a predominant dollar-based network for international financial settlement among world banks, may not trouble the country as much as expected.
2. Biden’s Wilful Negligence
Without any good cards in hands, the U.S. in close coordination with major allies should have explored a diplomatic settlement of the Ukraine Question. But the open-source information available suggests that President Biden and his top foreign policy team have taken few effective measures to reduce Russia’s existential concern on NATO expansion to Ukraine, instead having continuously turned away it as a matter of principle, while having urged China bilaterally behind the scenes to help avert the invasion, despite deepening U.S.-China hegemonic rivalry.
Connecting these dots, there is no wonder that President Putin would construe the invasion to be overlooked before Ukraine would become a NATO member state, more bluntly, as a periphrastic acquiescence for invasion. In contemporary times, there are some notable precedents in which the U.S. government made formal statements to put a victim country outside the line of defence, prompting the aggressor country to sweep away the sense of hesitation, such as the Korean War, the First Taiwan Crisis, and the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait. (Whether those U.S. moves were purposeful or inadvertent is arguable and require detailed analyses.)
Contrarily, the Biden administration took some specific measures that would precipitate Russia’s invasion, under the condition of its tenacious policy line on NATO expansion to Ukraine and of continued support for its pro-U.S. government bent on NATO accession, together with significant arms transfers and the related military training. More specifically, just for three to four months prior to the invasion, the Biden administration openly made substantial deliveries of arms to Ukraine, including 180 portable lethal Javelin anti-tank missiles, as well as many portable Stinger anti-air missiles that once harassed Soviet invasion forces in Afghanistan (1979-1989) and ultimately compelled them to make an embarrassing retreat therefrom. The move is revealingly significant because then-President Barack Obama flatly rejected providing Ukraine with Javelins due to high risks of provocation and escalation, that then-Vice President Biden, who took primary charge of Ukraine’s affairs, implored him. Evidently, he dared to commit the well-acquainted risks at the pre-crisis stage in which there was still some good room for diplomatic negotiation, as long as he would be ready to put the issue of NATO expansion on the table. (Despite heavy doses of praise and censure, immediate-past President Donald Trump would surely have attempted to make a grand deal through summit meetings and other direct personal initiatives with Presidents Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky.)
It begs the question of why both the U.S. and Ukraine governments adhered rigidly to the policy line on NATO expansion to Ukraine at the time of the clear and impeding danger of war.
3. Ukraine’s Institutionalized Intransigence Toward NATO Accession
After the Orange Revolution of 2014, Ukraine steadily embedded its NATO accession policy firmly in its legal system, making the policy line irreversible over a change of government. This marks a stark departure from continual shifts between pro-Russia and pro-West external orientation, considerably hardening Russia’s approach to Ukraine that already generated a remote cause of the current invasion.
More specifically, in June 2017, Ukraine amended its laws on national security and internal and foreign policy that enacted its legally-binding commitment to achieving its NATO membership. In September 2018, the country’s unicameral Legislature submitted a bill of constitutional amendments to the constitutional court, the preamble of which confirms European identity of the Ukrainian people. Article 85 of the bill stipulates to empower the Legislature to determine the foundations of domestic and foreign policy and implement the state’s strategic course for obtaining the country’s full NATO as well as EU membership. Article 102 stipulates to designate the President as the guarantor of the implementation of the course. Article 116 stipulates to require the Cabinet of Ministers to ensure the implementation of the course. Most offending from a Russian perspective is Clause 14 Section 15 that makes it possible to lease existing military bases for temporary stationing of foreign military formations, in effect, with NATO forces in mind. In the following November, the court approved the amendment.
Apparently, the above hasty institutionalization during Poroshenko’s presidency (June 7, 2014~May 20, 2019) did not evolve intrinsically out of Ukrainian domestic political dynamics, in general given the active U.S. public diplomacy under Presidents G.W. Bush and Obama that pursued liberal democratic enlargement, and in particular given significant manoeuvrings of the U.S. intelligence circles, both overt and covert, that led to the Orange Revolution in the context of a series of Color Revolutions. It is necessary to check if Joe Biden made notable involvements and, possibly, interferences in the transformation of Ukrainian politics.
4. Biden as a Wire-puller
Biden made six official visits to Ukraine during his U.S. Vice Presidency, as he took primary charge of Ukrainian affairs under the Obama administration. These visits underscored U.S. support for the country in the context of liberal democratic enlargement, and highlighted his personal involvement in providing the support. Already during his first visit of July 2009, Biden reassured the Ukrainian government of US support for Ukraine’s bid for NATO membership as well as for its lower dependency on Russia for energy. He reinforced his rhetoric for the support, considerably and increasingly, before and after the Orange Revolution, to the extent that the Ukrainians would vainly expect U.S. military intervention in the event of Russia’s aggression.
The records attest to Biden’s extensive contacts with Ukraine’s political and business circles. These contacts led to building substantial interpersonal networks that gave him opportunities for political manoeuvring and then significant power and influence over them, particularly because the Obama administration pledged to provide the country with significant military and economic aids as well as to actively promote U.S-led West’s investment in the energy sector, on the conditions of implementation of democratic, judiciary and economic reforms. This involves elimination of corruption, post-Soviet oligarchs, other Soviet legacies and overall Russia’s dominant influence, from Ukraine.
In fact, Biden exercised his power on Ukrainian politics to replace then-Prosecutor General Shokin for his failure to work on anti-corruption efforts, by dangling suspension of the U.S. financial package in front of the Ukraine government. This is highly controversial because Hunter Biden, a son of the then-Vice President, was strongly suspected to be involved in a corruption scandal related to Burisma Holdings, the largest private oil and gas extracting company in Ukraine. The Vice President always took the son with him on his official visits to Ukraine, while the son served as a board member of the company with the monthly salary of $50,000 dollars. It is beyond the scope of this analysis to examine if the case constitutes a simple adult-child’s scandal in which his father is mired or a grand father-son conspiracy to corruption.
Obviously, President Biden has been a protagonist in U.S. policy toward Ukraine that has led Ukraine to solidify its NATO accession policy through constitutional amendment, yet without making necessary military commitments to the defence of Ukraine. Despite his seemingly solid support for Ukraine, President Biden has left Ukrainian President Zelensky at the altar at the critical moment of Russia’s aggression.
5. Biden’s Role from a Bird-Eye Perspective: U.S. Hegemonic Decline
To understand the direct root cause, it is essential to grasp Biden’s role in the macro-historical dynamics of world politics, rather than to ascribe it to his own free will.
For two decades, the U.S. has faced rapid China’s rise involving its relative hegemonic decline, as marked by President Obama’s well-known remarks of September 2013 that the U.S. was no longer the world’s policeman. The decline has been seriously compounded by an imperial overstretch under the condition of growing economic structural vulnerabilities consequent on hyper-dynamic globalization.
Naturally, there has emerged a deeply entrenched divide among the American elites and the public alike, regarding whether to continue or discontinue the hegemonic policy line. The globalist establishment likes to continue the line that will likely worsen U.S. industrial hollow-outs and socio-economic bipolarization. Notably, the birth of Donald Trump’s presidency (2017-2021) demonstrates the rise of anti-globalist counterforces in American politics that challenge the hegemonic line toward multipolarity in tandem with “America First”.
With this backdrop, the Russia Question was on top priority agenda, at least for anti-globalist tactical purposes, even in the prelude stage of the 2017 presidential election campaign, because diplomatic alignment with Russia is essential to utilize the country as a major strategic counter-weight against China, or a prime rival in the making. This involves the necessity of deemphasizing strong American antagonism against Russia and making a deal with Russia to form a common front against China or at least its benevolent neutrality with the U.S. On the other hand, the globalists pursued to hold on the antagonism against Russia, while pursuing to maintain the status quo under globalization, including the strong interdependence with China.
No wonder, the globalists cooked up the so-called “Russiagate” to have vainly impeached President Trump. Having confronted intense counter-offensives of the globalist establishment, he was forced to have removed his first National Security Advisor, Gen. Michael Flynn, at the initial phase of the “Russiagate” after less than a month since the appointment. Mired in the fabricated scandal, therefore, the President appeased the establishment by appointing Gen. Herbert McMaster and then John Bolton to the post, both of whom continued the long-time anti-Russia approach while taking a competitive and then confrontational approach to China, which had made Trump’s China strategy less effective than otherwise. Also, the Trump administration’s first Secretary of State was Rex Tillerson who had extensive expertise on Russia and contacts with Russian leaders through his lifelong career in the energy sector, including a CEO of the Exxon Mobil Corporation. He could have been instrumental for Trump’s Russia policy, but only replaced by Michael Pompeo after 13 months because Tillerson took a strong anti-Russia policy position.
Should President Trump have been re-elected for the second term, he would have adopted at least a partially accommodative approach to Russia in a way to enable formation of a common front against China, with efforts to abandon the long-time hegemonic policy toward multipolarity. This would certainly involve making a deal with Russia to maintain regional stability centered on Ukraine, by transforming the country into a buffer state such as a neutral state or a Finlandized state. In doing so, it would have been possible to strike more favourable terms than those to be set possibly by a catastrophic Ukraine’s defeat in the current war with Russia.
Evidently, the current Russia-Ukraine war has been consequent on the globalist mismanagement of the U.S. hegemonic decline in which President Biden has continually played a central role for more than a decade, in the geopolitical context that constrains the possible scope of outcomes. Nonetheless, what has triggered President Putin to commit the unspeakable act of aggression against Ukraine remains a mystery for years to come as other major wars in world history. For the time being, moral repugnancy to the aggression and consequential humanitarian calamity hampers a coolheaded analysis. / IFIMES
About the author:
Prof. Dr. Masahiro Matsumura is Professor of International Politics and National Security, Faculty of Law, St. Andrew’s University (Momoyama Gakuin Daigaku). He is a Member of IFIMES Council.