At the June 16, 2021, Geneva Summit with Vladimir Putin, President Joe Biden distilled his approach to dealing with Russia as “managing” relations to ensure “predictability and stability.” (Even Putin embraced “stability,” to be sure in his signature Orwellian manner.) And further: “ I told President Putin that we need to have some basic rules of the road that we can all abide by.”
With post-Ssmmit commentary subsiding, it is time to ask why the irreducible precondition to that approach was so sedulously ignored at the Summit, and afterward.
The “rules of the road” were legislated by two global wars.
They are the predicate for international relations in all respects, including cooperation on climate change, arms control, COVID-19, and cyber as sought by Biden.
Rule #1 is territorial integrity and inviolability of borders.
It requires that Russia reverse its invasion of the largest country in Europe, the wellspring of one of Europe’s oldest democratic traditions, and the country that set the tombstone for the USSR. Russia’s tossing the STOP sign and the ensuing handwringing by the West was the launch code for Russia’s global mayhem. It was also the liberating dog-whistle for China, North Korea, and Iran. Even Putin said more than intended, “Now take the situation in and around Ukraine, the Crimea, this was where it all started, right. . . . With regard to Ukraine, indeed, this issue was touched upon. I cannot say that it was done in great detail.”
Russia’s de-occupation of Ukraine should have been the sine quo non at the summit. Yet at Biden’s post-summit press conference, “Ukraine” sounded a total of . . . once. If America seeks “strategic stability,” then without specifically territorial stability we are back to the Stone Age. (Indeed, observations here apply to Georgia and Moldova, as well.) In 1939, the League of Nations expelled the USSR for its invasion of Finland six weeks prior. Iraq’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait failed. Of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, France said at the UN Security Council–“Russia vetoed the Charter of the United Nations.” Yet Putin remains in the UN, with Western democracies insulating his veto on the Security Council, secured for it by Washington.
Biden did not place Russia’s de-occupation front and center . . . or anywhere. Instead of requiring reinstatement of the rule, Biden simply repeated “unwavering commitment” to Ukraine. The acceptance of the status quo was also clear in his statement at the NATO press conference: “We will do all that we can to put Ukraine in the position to be able to continue to resist Russian physical aggression,” “we’re going to put Ukraine in a position to be able to maintain their physical security.” To “resist,” not reverse. To “maintain,” not recover, its security and territorial sovereignty.
Not only did we, but the G7 and NATO sidestepped the need and opportunity to act to ensure the re-establishment of the “rules-based international order.”
Everyone gravely intoned Putin’s lecture that the resolution of “the conflict” must be in accord with Minsk agreements. The 2014 and 2015 temporary, gun-barrel arrangements (manifestly not “agreements”) have failed. Catastrophically.
Yet America (and Europe) is in lockstep with Russia’s ukaz that Ukraine must surrender key aspects of its national sovereignty under the coercive fraud of Minsk. It is beyond bizarre. Russia, a rogue state, uses Minsk to displace the United Nations Charter, Helsinki Accords, and all else that constitutes the “rules-based international order.” We then place our foot on the crowbar, (a) paying homage to the latter, (b) while simultaneously embracing the pre-emptive sanctity of Minsk, yet (c) seeking “stability” that can only be secured under “(a)” that we interred under “(b).” Reflexive control and reality reversal become one as Russia annexes our brain with the same facility as it annexes foreign territory. Taiwan looms next.
It was not Russia’s annexation of Crimea or further invasion and occupation, but its downing of Malaysia Flight 17 in July 2014 that stirred the West from its torpor and caused it to impose sanctions of any note. Their purpose should have been to cause Putin to put his horse in reverse. It was not. Instead, sanctions have remained forward-looking, only. Placing a choke collar on sanctions means we “sanction” (read, “accept”) conquest to date. There can be no reversion to the status quo ante. Body parts cannot be reattached. Add green lighting Nord Stream 2, canceling a U.S. Navy deployment into the Black Sea, walking back support for Ukraine’s (and Georgia’s) prospects for NATO membership, and a freeze on an installment of military aid to Ukraine, release contingent on further aggression. (And it is bipartisan. Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2014: “The immediate concern must be to show Russia that further moves will not be tolerated.”)
But neither the U.S. nor most of the world “recognizes” Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Words.
Biden’s failure in Geneva to require Russia’s de-occupation of Ukraine also gutted the key points of his “Biden Doctrine” that he articulated in May 2020:
“The international system that the United States so carefully constructed is coming apart at the seams.” “Put strengthening democracy back on the global agenda.” “The world does not organize itself. For 70 years, the United States . . . played a leading role in writing the rules, forging the agreements, and animating the institutions that guide relations among nations and advance collective security and prosperity.” “Diplomacy also requires credibility…a nation’s word is its most valuable asset.” “We must impose real costs on Russia for its violations of international norms.” “In order to regain the confidence of the world we are going to have to prove that the United States says what it means and means what it says.” “We have to champion liberty and democracy, reclaim our credibility.”
If that was not enough, Geneva hosted an even more ethereal hologram. To be sure, not of the same genus as President Trump’s sui generis view of Russia, but an illusion nevertheless. The “international order” aside, “managing for stability” with the Kremlin is a self-delusion that, moreover, is “predictable.” It has always worked to the contrary, feeding oxygen into Moscow’s certitude by emphasizing a bi-partisan naivete that has prompted virtually every incoming American Administration’s prayerful overture to the Kremlin.
Washington’s recognition of the USSR in 1933 (as Stalin was starving Ukraine into submission), was based on the genocidaire’s commitment “to refrain from . . . any act overt or covert liable in any way whatsoever to injure the tranquility, prosperity, order, or security of the whole or any part of the United States, in particular any agitation or propaganda.”
How did that work out?
In World War II, as the U.S. stopped its prenatal intelligence operations regarding the USSR, Moscow increased, hyperbolically, its penetration of America. Under Yeltsin, espionage operations against the U.S. increased dramatically at the very time that Washington was working to integrate Russia into a multitude of international structures, not the least of which was Russia’s succession to the Soviet Union’s seat on the UN Security Council.
And have we even begun to absorb the implications of Ukraine’s surrender in 1994 of the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal in exchange for Russia’s, and also America’s and Great Britain’s, “security assurances” under the Budapest Memorandum? A year before invading Ukraine, Putin wrote in a New York Times op-ed: “[I]f you cannot count on international law, then you must find other ways to ensure your security. Thus, a growing number of countries seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction. This is logical: if you have the bomb, no one will touch you.”
Three years later, in 1997, and as President Bill Clinton toasted his lobbying for G7 inclusion of Russia, Russia had other plans:
“It is particularly important to introduce geopolitical disorder into America’s internal activity, and to promote all kinds of separatist and ethnic, social and racial conflicts, actively supporting all opposition movements – extremist, racist, and sectarian groups, thereby disrupting internal political processes in the U.S. It would also make sense simultaneously to support isolationist tendencies in American politics….”
There was more to the manifesto. Russia should also work toward isolating Britain from Europe, introduce discord both within the European Union and between the EU and US, and destabilize Turkey. Ukraine is to be extinguished, and Iran is to be a key player in a Russian-Islamic alliance against America. Familiar?
No secret why our obliviousness. America’s psyche both reflects and feeds a mercantile environment of stability and predictability that makes business possible in the first place. We put our faith in reason and negotiation and worship compromise. We approach international relations similarly, as a relationship among nations to be “managed” for the sake of “stability.”
Our DNA is so tightly wound we cannot contemplate that Russia’s is the opposite. President Jimmy Carter: “It’s difficult to understand why the Soviets took this action [invade Afghanistan]. I think they probably underestimated the adverse reaction from around the world.” Condoleezza Rice in 2008 after Russia’s invasion of Georgia: “Everybody is now questioning Russia’s worthiness as a partner. They’ve come out of this badly. And I think it could help deter them from trying something like that again.”
Russia did not become the colossus that it is, enveloping an entire one-third of Asia, by defaulting to bourgeois rules. Its imperial DNA denies the compromise we worship. In the 1890s, the Russian General Staff conducted a study of Russia’s military campaigns, concluding that between 1700 and 1870, Russia fought 38 wars. Only two were defensive. Yet former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power lauds “Russia’s proud history of standing up to imperialist powers.”
What do last year’s Russian constitutional amendments, and its earlier withdrawal from the 1949 Geneva Convention, portend? One commentator summarized: “The Russian Federation has shown the entire international political community that law is not something written for it.” Russia is aggressive and targets stability. Russia acts, America reacts. Russia disrupts, America seeks to stabilize. Russia has a goal. America has . . . ?
The U.S. contributes 25%, and the rest of NATO and other democracies accounts for more than half of the world’s economy. Russia comes in at 3%. Do we understand how a solitary country, held together with duct tape, can induce a mortal arrhythmia among 30 countries of NATO and the rest of the “Free World?” No, we do not.
Putin is not just a killer. He short-circuits our synapses with the same aplomb as he short-circuits our infrastructure. On our end, seven years of bon mots are an ode to a failure of will. To be sure, it is Europe’s as well. No surprise, then, that the “international system is coming apart at the seams.” It’s vertiginous.
Welcome, China et al, to the Hôtel du Parc des Eaux-Vives.
This is a reprint of a Kyiv Post article dated July 9, 2021 with permission from the author Victor Rud