Discover more from Ari Melber
Looking Past America
Americans say no more "wars of choice," but for real
Hi all - Ari here. Today’s newsletter is on potential Russian aggression in Ukraine, why Putin is playing this card now, and how the United States might respond. Enjoy!
There are many biases in life, and one of the most enduring is our tendency to focus on our immediate surroundings—our life, our town, our country, our planet. What about the other places, countries, and the rest of the universe?! This is definitely a tendency in most of the news. Canadian newspapers focus on Canada; American TV focuses here.
Lately, there’s been a bit more coverage of the situation in Ukraine. It’s important—and not “just” for the people who live there—and it may escalate. So it’s worth getting a handle on some of the facts.
Vladimir Putin has everyone guessing what he is up to, again.
He has not authorized a full invasion into Ukraine. There is a lot of evidence, and some formal intelligence, that he is preparing to do so. The U.S. also told Americans who are in the country for non-diplomatic purposes to consider leaving.
Pres. Biden has been walking a tricky line on this in public, asserting Putin is already in a position to invade, while pledging consequences if that happens. For example, one physical sanction would be to end a profitable underwater pipeline plan that Russia wants (called the Nord Stream 2).
That’s a very brief view of the pending standoff.
For Americans and citizens of many Western nations, there is a strong tension between standing up to Putin’s aggression and avoiding another foreign, proxy war. Indeed, while US foreign policy is notoriously bellicose, the current mood is so dovish—after 20 years of Afghanistan and a pandemic where people are fixated on domestic challenges—few see a major U.S. military response as even “on the table.”
A few more facts, and factors
So what is going on with Ukraine?
For years, it was part of the Soviet Union, providing a warm water port and a window to the West. When the Soviet Union broke apart, that strategically important port resided in Crimea - which is familiar to news consumers abroad chiefly because it’s the region Putin took over, or “annexed” in 2014. (Russia basically runs it, though unlike a complete invasion, Ukraine technically administrates the region.)
Ukraine has ambitions to further align itself with Western Europe, like joining NATO. To over-simplify: that means identifying as a Western European nation opposed to Russian aggression, despite its history. Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, is actually now the seventh-largest city in Europe—behind Berlin, but larger than Rome and Paris. So while we may not think of Kyiv like those iconic cities of Europe, the continent is also changing.
Putin’s current escalation, or threats to stoke that perception and fear, may also serve broader interests than just a land grab in Ukraine. Foreign policy experts note how he repeatedly uses strategies (or ploys) to pressure other countries, and ‘tests’ how far he can go.
For the U.S., that brings us back to the earlier point that just about everyone knows—there’s no appetite for more “wars of choice” abroad.
To over-simplify a bit again: Putin has the measurably weaker military, economy and geopolitical position, but is seizing on temporary public opinion, and gaps in the European alliance, to explore two goals at once: flexing a perception of power broader than his actual position and seeing if he might also pick up more land along the way. From his view, it works either way (even if he backs off a larger invasion). For the West, and the Biden administration, the goal is to find a diplomatic off-ramp, while letting Putin take an ephemeral win in perception, up to a point.
Not “The End”
So that’s just some of what’s going on “over there.”
For tracking the news, I often find myself reading up on developments that are not on tonight’s show, or tomorrow’s… but could become a huge story. And if they do—some of them do—that helps prep; I don’t really know a way to “cram” Russian history 20 minutes before live air. That may sound like a (parochial) work perspective, but the policy challenge is actually similar. We live in the world’s top superpower. When it acts, or chooses not to, hundreds of millions of people can be impacted. Yet as a democracy, we often tackle foreign policy, if at all, by ‘cramming’ and reacting on a pretty narrow basis.