America is not the only one to declare that the liberal world order may be at stake.
Imagine Joe Biden throwing a party, and nobody came. This is what is happening in Ukraine. Biden believes that the global dominance of Russia is at stake, and is fighting it at low cost. Here is the war at about four months in, as Biden announces a new aid package of $1.2 billion atop some $40 billion in previous “lend-lease” aid.
Given that core NATO members raise a quiet glass every night to the fact they are not militarily involved in the fight for the Donbas and Crimea (the latter invoking 19th-century memories of the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade, as the area was last seriously contested between East and West when the British fought the Russians there) Joe Biden and the Washington establishment stand alone in thinking Biden leads the West in some sort of epic struggle. Biden will soon be the Emperor of Donbas if he doesn’t have clothes because he is fighting this war with sanctions and arms supplies.
The rumors of the Russian military’s death have been exaggerated. Literally, Ukraine claims kill rates of up to 80% for machines and men that have been produced in months or years. Even with the Ghost of Kiev and lady snipers, Russia’s gains in the east have been limited by massive U.S. arms shipments. The biggest issue with simply trying to outspend the other guy’s money is that artillery, anti-tank missiles and infantry are not as effective. A brave Ukrainian taking on a T-72 may stop the tank (until another comes along) but he cannot retake a village or hold ground against a combined-arms offensive. The flow of U.S. defense-style weapons did its job, and it blunted an offensive. There seems to not be a plan for the next step. The Ukrainians will lose in areas such as Donbas, where Russia has local support. In other areas, like Mariupol, where Russia is prepared to use a scorched earth policy, they are losing predictably.
Selling arms is not enough to win. The first is to find a method of quickly and efficiently training Ukrainians not familiar with weaponry, without increasing the fighting overall. The usual method, either bringing foreign personnel to the U.S. or using American Special Forces trainers on the ground, both dramatically escalate the war and give Russia the excuse to begin killing Americans. The American “volunteers” on the ground now are only going to fool some people for some time before it becomes obvious that the U.S. is deeply involved in the actual fight.
A secondary problem with dropping so many arms higgledy-piggledy into a fluid situation like Ukraine is the prospect of blowback, always a great fear during the CIA-Russian war in Afghanistan. Terrorists from the Middle East would pay what for an antiaircraft missile that can be fired at the shoulder. What number of anti-tank weapons, the pop-up ability that allows missiles strike down on weaker top armor tanks and is classified by China?
“While the response to provide more weapons to Ukraine is understandable, it would be prudent to consider the immediate and long-term security implications,” one think tank said. “We’ve seen time and time again how arms aimed at aiding an ally in one conflict have found their way to the frontlines of unforeseen battlefields, often in the hands of groups at odds with U.S. interests or those of civilians.” Ukraine has a very poor record in this regard; in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, the country lost track of $32 billion in weapons and sold China its first aircraft carrier.
Supply also a problem. America has currently sent about one third of its entire Javelin anti-tank-missile inventory to Ukraine along with 50 million rounds of conventional ammunition, extraordinary quantities that strain production capability. There is still concern about Russian reactions if American-made artillery round fall on Russian territory. The recently shipped 155mm howitzers are seen by many as the first truly offensive weapon the U.S. has introduced into the conflict. Joe Biden sees it as a simple decision–send more guns–but this carries with them considerable risk that no one seems to care about.
But the sanctions would win the war, and Russia was forced to withdraw, possibly at the cost of Putin’s economy collapsing. Problem is, not only have sanctions not been successful but they also helped Russia. Although Russia saw a drop in energy exports due to sanctions from the United States, rising prices caused by shortages of supply have done more than cancel out those sanctions’ negative effects. Russia’s export prices have been on average around 60 percent higher than last year, driven by simple supply and demand. E.U. reduced its direct imports of Russian crude oil by 18 percent, but thanks to Russian re-exporters India and the United Arab Emirates, that has led to no net change in Russia’s overall oil-export volumes.
China has also helped to make up the E.U. China is the biggest single purchaser of Russian energy, but this was more domestically. Japan is the only country that allows unrestricted Russian coal exports. The U.S. also helped by buying highly refined, unrestricted oil products from India and the Netherlands that are at least partially made from Russian crude.
Russia has shown it can also play offense, cutting natural-gas flow to Western Europe by 60 percent, blaming technical difficulties. Germany understood that the recent curtailment of its gas supply was a political decision. The German vice-chancellor stated that Russia’s motive for cutting gas supplies was merely a pretext. Their strategy is to raise prices. Poor Joe doesn’t seem to be able catch a break. Perhaps it’s time for Putin to be shown who the boss is by seizing another mega-yacht.
Where is Biden’s ally? E.U. Japan and the E.U. talk great but they are still hampered by their energy requirements. Joe Biden is traveling to Saudi Arabia this month to trade any American self-respect for oil. The U.N., such as it is, saw 35 key abstentions, including much of Africa, on a symbolic get-out-of-Ukraine resolution. The head of the African Union explicitly called for the lifting of sanctions on Russia. Brazil and Mexico are refusing to condemn Russia. China will not step in. The liberal world order has been threatened by America almost alone. It could be that other countries have not seen much benefit from the liberal world order and will be happy if it passes.
Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.