The US factor in Ukraine

Ahmed Mahdi , Tuesday 8 Mar 2022

To fully understand the role of the US in the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, one has to look at the pattern of past Russian interventions and the evolving nature of the international order, writes Ahmed Mahdi

The US factor in Ukraine
The US factor in Ukraine

The causes and consequences of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine have obviously become everyone’s question of the hour. As the US is giving the impression of helplessness in stopping the Russian incursion into Ukraine, everyone is wondering about its effects on global US power and the US-led international order. 

To be sure, this is not the first time Moscow has used its military power to intervene in sovereign states in Eastern Europe. Neither is it the first time that Washington has seemed to be unable to use decisive military power to chase the Russian troops back behind the Russian borders. However, the Russian incursions in recent years have been reflections of a changing international order. They are not in themselves the cause of the relative decline of US power, but they are one symptom among others of US decline. 

Before tackling the causes of this relative US decline, and its reflections on the current crisis, it would useful to present a few points about the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. 

The first is about morality. As the average man in the street around the world might ask, “who is the evil side”? “Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?” However, in international politics, there is no such thing as good or evil. (It is not an action movie.) It is in the nature of the great powers to resort to military action if they have to, in order to protect their interests and spheres of influence. Each side views itself as the right side. 

Then there is the question of who started the crisis. As mentioned in a previous article in Al-Ahram Weekly, it was the actions of US which started this crisis. On the one hand, the US says that the Russian attack on Ukraine was “unprovoked”. It is true that Ukraine itself did not take any aggressive actions against Moscow and that Kyiv itself was only taking decisions within its own right as a sovereign and internationally recognised state. 

However, on the other hand, everyone agrees that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Ukraine was in response to what he saw as US and western incursion into the traditional Russian sphere of influence. Since the fall of the former Soviet Union in 1991, the US has been eager to expand NATO membership into Eastern European and ex-Soviet countries in the historical sphere of influence of Moscow. NATO is an expression of US reach and global influence, and the NATO membership of such states emphasises US control over these regions and its strategic and economic resources. 

The Europeans, too, have been eager to expand EU membership into Eastern Europe, in order to expand its economic reach. It was natural that Putin, seeing the western strategic and economic expansion into his traditional sphere of influence, would decide to take whatever measures he thought were necessary to protect Moscow’s interests and sphere of influence. 

However, is what Putin is doing morally acceptable? Definitely not. It is not morally acceptable for a great power, whoever that great power might be, to bomb civilian areas in a smaller, weaker state. It is not morally acceptable to cause death and destruction in a sovereign state that wants to take its own decisions on its own soil and within its own borders, even if these decisions are against Moscow’s wishes.

The second point is about US President Joe Biden’s competence as US president at a time of global crisis. During the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) event in Orlando, Florida, on 26 February, former president Donald Trump criticised Biden for “showing weakness” during the crisis and argued that under his presidency between 2017 and 2021 Putin had not launched any military attack outside Russian borders. 

Trump told his conservative audience that “you remember, though, when so many people in the Democratic Party and during the debates [during the 2016 presidential election campaign] said [I’m] the one who will get us into the third world war. I’m the one who never had any wars!” He accused Biden of showing weakness in his reaction to the Russian offensive on Ukraine, saying that “the world is always in danger with a weak American president.”

To be clear, I am not a Trump supporter, a Biden supporter, or a Putin supporter. I have misgivings about all three. But having said that, I do have a few remarks about what Trump said at the CPAC. 

The first remark is that Trump was correct to say that Putin did not take any military actions against his neighbours during the Trump presidency. (He did raise natural gas prices and threatened natural gas cutoffs, but this is a geo-economic, non-military issue). This was because of two factors. First, Trump had good personal relations with Putin based on business relations and investments with Russian tycoons. Second, Trump has repeatedly shown contempt for international organisations, including NATO and the EU, and this reassured Putin that Trump would not attempt to expand these two organisations into Russia’s immediate neighbourhood, as former presidents Bill Clinton, George W Bush, and Barack Obama had done during their administrations. 

The second remark concerns Trump’s accusation of Biden showing weakness in the face of the Russian aggression on Ukrainian sovereign territory. Is it fair to say that Biden was especially weak in the face of this Russian offensive? This is not in defence of Biden (whom, I think, does deserve the nickname “Ramblin’ Biden” and does indeed show signs of senility sometimes). Nevertheless, I do not see that Biden is particularly weak in dealing with the Ukraine crisis. 

The truth is that no US president can prevent Moscow from projecting its influence in Eastern Europe, if Moscow decides to do so. This is because, geographically speaking, it is very difficult for the influence of the western powers to reach this region. 


US REACTIONS: Republican president Dwight Eisenhower (US president between 1953 and 1961), for example, could not prevent the Soviet incursion into Hungary to crush the anti-Soviet Hungarian Revolution in 1956, even though no one could describe him as a weak man. 

He was a four-star general during World War II, and he led the highly successful Allied offensive in North Africa in 1942 and the Allied offensive in Operation Normandy in 1944. 

As president, Eisenhower took an aggressive approach in foreign policy. During his presidency, the CIA staged a coup against Iran’s democratically elected prime minister Mohamed Mossadeq and helped the US to increase its control of Middle Eastern oil. Eisenhower also took a firm position against the UK, France, and Israel and forced these three powerful countries to withdraw from Egypt during the Tripartite Aggression in 1956. Nevertheless, he could not prevent the Russian offensive on Hungary in 1956, since Washington had no sources of leverage which it could exert in this region of the world at the time.  

Another notable example of a US reaction to Russian aggression on a sovereign state in its vicinity was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 to prevent Islamic, anti-Soviet forces from rising in Kabul. Neither president Jimmy Carter nor president Ronald Reagan could respond with a direct military intervention in Afghanistan. (The memory of the US defeat in Vietnam was still fresh in the American political and social psyche). 

Instead, Washington imposed economic sanctions on the Soviet Union, and, more importantly, supported the Mujahideen in Afghanistan with arms and finance, draining Soviet power until the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. This US policy, which only included economic sanctions and support for the local resistance against the Soviet invasion, was one of the reasons for the US victory in the Cold War. 

With the decline and ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, Moscow’s grip over Eastern Europe did weaken during the 1990s under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, especially with the weakness of the Russian economy during the Russian economic transition in the 1990s. Even when Putin took office as Russian president in 2000, he initially looked unwilling and unable to challenge US power, and then US president Clinton had good personal chemistry with Putin. 

So did his successor, George W Bush. Bush famously said at a joint conference with Putin in Slovenia in June 2001, “I looked the man [Putin] in the eye, I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy, I was able to get a sense of his soul… I wouldn’t have invited him to my ranch if I did not trust him.” (Bush was famous for only inviting people he had very good relations with to his ranch.)

Putin even showed support for the US invasion of Afghanistan following the 11 September 2001 attacks, when US power and anger seemed unstoppable and Putin’s Russia was still not strong enough to challenge it. The good Bush-Putin chemistry was also evident in Bush’s visit to Moscow in May 2002 to discuss strategic relations. 

Disagreements between the two leaders started with Moscow’s opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq. Putin’s aggressive policies were evident in the natural gas cutoffs and price rises in 2006, 2007, and subsequent years. More importantly, Moscow’s defiance was evident in Putin’s offensive on Georgia in August 2008 in support of the pro-Russian separatist regions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia within Georgian territory. Bush, who initially took a military anti-terrorism approach during his first years as president and invaded Afghanistan and Iraq (and failed to control the events in both countries after the invasions), was unable to stop the Russian offensive on Georgia in 2008 and was only able to impose economic sanctions on Moscow in response. 

The same thing happened when Obama was unable to stop the Russian invasion of the Crimea in 2014 and was only able to impose economic sanctions on Moscow. It should be noted, however, that, in both incidents Putin knew the limits of his power and when to halt his expansionism in order not to provoke the West further, especially since the Russian economy needed to maintain connections with the global economy.  


US SANCTIONS: In addition to the current US inability to initiate a military intervention in Russia’s neighbourhood, another sign of its weakness is the nature of the Russian sectors targeted by the US sanctions as a result of the crisis in Ukraine. 

Washington has thus far been hesitant about imposing sanctions on Russian oil and natural gas production, a main lifeline for the Russian economy. The US government is justifying this by pointing to the risks of such a move for global energy prices and US consumers. 

“We don’t have a strategic interest in reducing the global supply of energy,” said White House Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, adding that sanctions on the Russian energy sector “would raise prices at the gas pump for Americans.” 

Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said that sanctions on the Russian energy sector were not off the table. “We’re considering it. It’s very much on the table, but we need to weigh what all of the impacts will be,” she said. But she added that Washington does not want to take this step now. 

“We want to minimise the impact on the global market place... and the impact of energy prices for the American people… We’re not trying to hurt ourselves, we’re trying to hurt president Putin and the Russian economy.” 

Bharat Ramamurti, the US National Economic Council deputy director, said that the White House does not want to make a move just yet, because this would raise global energy prices and would therefore increase the revenues of the Russian economy. “Going after Russian oil and gas at this point would have an effect on US consumers and actually could be counterproductive in terms of raising the price of oil and gas internationally, which could mean more profits for the Russian oil industry, so we don’t want to go there right now,” he said. 

It should be noted that US imports of Russian petroleum are small, only 650,000 barrels of oil per day at current levels. This is a very small amount compared to total US consumption of about 19 million barrels of oil per day in 2020 (during the Covid-19 economic downturn). The cutting off of this small amount in itself would not significantly hurt oil supplies to the US. What would hurt the US economy, though, would be the effect of possible sanctions on the Russian energy sector on global energy prices. 

It is thus clear that except for periods of Russian weakness from the late 1980s until the mid-2000s, no US president was able to force Russia not to apply its power within its own sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, as long as Russia was enjoying full political and military power. Even Trump himself did not use force, but used what could arguably be described as good personal diplomacy. Therefore, given this list of US presidents who were unable to stop Russian incursions into Eastern Europe during periods of rising Russian power, from Eisenhower to Reagan to Bush to Obama, it would be unfair to accuse Biden of being especially powerless in the face of the Russian offensive on Ukraine.  

  Finally, it remains questionable why Trump is accusing Biden of being weak when he himself did not prevent the 6 January 2021 attacks on the US Congress. It sounds ironic that Trump is being critical of Biden for being “too weak” to prevent an attack by a great power like Russia on a neighbouring state thousands of miles away from US shores when he, himself, could not, or would not, prevent his own supporters from attacking Congress in Washington DC.


US POWER: The third point is about the future of US power. Is the war in Ukraine a sign that Russia could replace the US as the global superpower? 

The answer is absolutely not. Despite Russia’s military power, Moscow does not possess the economic power necessary to replace the US as a global superpower responsible for maintaining the economic and geopolitical world order.  

The Russian offensive in Ukraine, and the lack of an assertive US response, is a sign that we are moving from a unipolar world (where the US is the only superpower) to a more multipolar world, where there would be several great powers able to challenge US power. In this new multipolar world order, the US will remain the most powerful country in terms of military and economic power. But the gap between the US and its competitors will become smaller, as the other great powers rise and catch up with it. 

In other words, the US will be “first among equals” (to use the words of a US intelligence report issued in 2012 titled Global Trends 2030, which forecasts what the world system will look like in 2030). Obviously, this movement from unipolarity to multipolarity did not start with the current war. It could be argued that it started with the introduction of the euro as a challenger to the US dollar in 1999, the rise of China’s economic challenge to US supremacy in the mid-2000s, and Russian strategic defiance in the mid-2000s. 

Nevertheless, on the global economic side, the US dollar is still the global currency. The international economic system is based on the power of the US dollar and on institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF, and the World Trade Organisation, which are protected and supported by the US to promote a global liberal order that benefits it and the West. Even Russia and China recognise that they have to participate in this US-led economic system though joining the World Trade Organisation and dealing in US dollars. 

(This is as long as the US allows Russian and Chinese integration into the global financial system and does not impose sanctions on them, as Washington is currently doing with Moscow. As a result, the Russian consumer is starting to feel the bite of the US sanctions.)

The current crisis in Ukraine is another sign that we are moving towards a more multipolar world and that the US, despite being the world’s strongest military power and economy, will no longer be the only great power on the international stage. It is only a question of time before we fully know the nature of these changes in the international system. 

The 20th century was called the “American Century”. But it remains to be seen whether the 21st will continue to be an “American Century” or not.

* The  writer  is  a  political  science  lecturer  at  the  British  University  in  Egypt,  a  member  of  the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs and the  Royal  Institute  of  International  Affairs,  Chatham House, UK.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.


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