Kiev Bars and Russian Games

Gabriel Coffey, Managing Forum Editor

Russia has over 100,000 troops massed on Ukraine’s border. Ukraine has hundreds of bomb shelters. What has Ukraine done? They’ve converted these bomb shelters into bars and restaurants, which were packed with patrons this past weekend. I suppose vodka tastes better when the prospect of war looms, even if that war is with Russia.

But to characterize the conflict as a war would be fraught. The road to Kiev remains empty. The German chancellor has made one public statement on the situation in the past month. Tucker Carlson rambles on about how the United States should back Russia, not Ukraine. If Vladamir Putin wanted to take the capital, he could. 

Questions of whether or not Putin will do so are almost irrelevant (though I predict he will) because they rely too much on the whims of one man. Instead, attention must be turned to European-American multilateralism, which Putin seeks to destabilize and paint as anti-Russian. 

As for Ukraine, Russia has historic claims to the land. Putin’s rule has been sustained over time by a reliance on Russian nationalism, making Ukraine the perfect vessel for his political consumption. The U.S. and Europe see Russian aggression and dominance in the region as a threat to their hegemony, which is legitimate. As Europe decarbonizes and the U.S. descends the ladder as international hegemon, Russia seeks to hasten the fall of the U.S. and ensure that Europe continues to rely on Russian gas. This forces the real question: What is the U.S., and most importantly Europe, going to do about it?

The answer, in an attempt to be neat, but also concise, comes in three points:

  • Joe Biden is a skilled diplomat in times of tribulation, and now is the time for him to stand up to Vladamir Putin. The test for Biden will be whether or not he can successfully level sanctions, in cooperation with European governments, against a relatively strong Russian economy with a World Bank estimated $600 billion in treasury reserves. This will have to be done carefully so as not to hurt consumers in Russia and Europe (i.e. exclude Russian bank SWIFT from sanctions, which Biden wants to keep on the table), and should span from technology to energy to finance. With Chinese-Russian cooperation perpetually in doubt (remember what happened to the Russian economy when they invaded Crimea in 2014 and China didn’t lend a hand), it is paramount that sanctions hurt the country to a degree that another country can’t merely step in and carry the load. Yet, to suggest that sanctions will patch up everything is naive. They must be carried out in combination with an increase in armaments for Ukraine, which will have to include Europe. Continued discussion of mutual U.S.-Russian interests could also help to forestall invasion.
  • Europe needs to recognize its heavy reliance on Russian gas, rebuke Putin’s meddling and stand up to his demagoguery. This means confronting Putin now, and in the long run securing a stable supply of gas from somewhere other than the Russian-German Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Surely the cancellation of the contract would create an investor-state dispute settlement that Germany would be liable for, but U.S. commitments to paying a portion of that settlement could appease German angst.
  • As for what Ukraine wants, it is increasingly clear that Ukrainian sovereignty is paramount to President Volodymyr Zelensky and the country as a whole. Pro-Russian police have been purged in recent years, and the parts of the country that have an ethnic Russian majority continue to side with Kiev in elections. If there is a moral imperative — and in U.S. diplomacy there rarely is — then an estimated 50,000 deaths in a conflict with Russia should suffice. 

Things are not as neat and concise. Ukraine was sidelined in the diplomatic process, and Europe, particularly Germany, ostracized on matters of sanctions. Russia recently released a doctored video establishing a pretense for invading Ukraine. Experts expect an invasion soon. 

So what of multilateralism, what of a coordinated response to Russia? I suppose George Kennan, of all people, said it best: “The truth is sometimes a poor competitor in the marketplace of ideas — complicated, unsatisfying, full of dilemmas, always vulnerable to misinterpretation and abuse.” The political marketplace is saturated with ideas on Ukraine and it is up to the United States and Europe to piece through them. As for truth … cheers.