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Outside the Box: The U.S. spent years ignoring Russia’s incursions, and now the consequences are dire

Before Russia invaded Ukraine, polls delighted in showing that many Americans had no clue where Ukraine was located.

On an unlabeled map, their guesses were spread all over the place, with a hit ratio of about 60%. And as bad as that physical geography lesson is, maybe it is our politicians who need the real lesson in determining where something is located. The answer to “Where is it?” is not always spatial. 

Physically, historically, we know Ukraine lies in Eastern Europe and is much more Russian than it is Western European. President Putin is correct in noting that there are Russian-speaking people there (as there are in Brighton Beach, New York City, too!). But put all that on the back burner.

The real location of Ukraine is “on the globe of Earth” as an independent sovereign nation. And by not helping it to defend its borders when threatened by a much stronger bully, we, the United States of America, and countries of Europe — and especially members of NATO — have helped to create a new world environment I would rather not live in. The cold war is back!

Sense of insecurity

There is a sense of insecurity in the air for any — and every — country that is a former member of the USSR, and maybe more too. Putin has threatened Sweden and Finland that they should not join NATO. On the other hand, Hungary has sided with Russia and is not allowing weapons into Ukraine from its country across its common border with Ukraine. 

I now know why John McCain saw Antony Blinken as a dangerous man. McCain, bless his soul, was right. Blinken found it all too easy to whip up U.S. support to do nothing in Europe as Ukraine was threatened, especially after the horror show of a withdrawal from Afghanistan that probably served to green-light this move by Putin.

By having a secretary of state and a president who only comprehend physical geography, we have been made insecure. Apparently, Afghanistan policy was only about that place, with no broader context— at least to them. If they thought their Ukraine sanctions made by pinky-promising Putin they would stand by while he ravaged Ukraine would dissuade him, instead of encouraging him, they were seriously confused.   

The U.S.’s responsibility

What makes Ukraine — and every other country — part of America’s most vital interest is that it exists and is a free, independent state, with borders that have meaning, regardless of where they are. The point is that it is geopolitics more than geography that matters. When we see vulgar bullying prepared to violate another’s borders and we “vow to stand by and watch,” we have committed a grave error and sin. We have participated in making the world a less safe place. Ukraine’s blood is on our hands.  

This “policy” is so suspect and so wrong-minded, it makes me wonder if this administration is capable of thinking outside the physical. They know where Ukraine is, and that is about it. You’d think Joe Biden having been the peace czar for Ukraine under Obama would know more — especially since his son got rich there. The U.S. currently is resetting its policy in Ukraine to show more support only because Ukraine is so successful in fighting off the incursions and because sanctions alone failed to deter. There is no joy in Ukraine for U.S. foreign policy.  

Economists tout property rights in pointing out that without them, there is no private property. If you can’t legally own what is yours, it can always be taken by force. This is the world Putin lives in as he as grabbed Crimea, then several Ukraine regions, and now he has gone back for thirds. China is of a like mind, having grabbed the South China Sea — a grab not recognized by the World Court. It has its sights set on Taiwan, too. We are at a crossroads with traffic flowing on them and no one wants to direct it.

Germany’s split from Russia

We can see this as the geopolitical event, which it is.  But it also an economic event. The U.S. position in Europe is winning the day, at long last. Germany has lost its sense of kinship with Russia and now can see it cannot depend on that country for energy needs or expect it respect international law. Germany will raise its NATO contribution to 2% of GDP, as Obama had requested and as Trump tried more aggressively but got pushback. The pushback is gone. More funds will be diverted everywhere to national security. Germany’s green agenda will be under pressure as well because of this.

Putin’s demands for what gives him security essentially gives everyone else insecurity. This is not a problem solved by diplomacy. We now have a land war in Europe, and Putin has upped the risk by making his nuclear weapons ready. Clearly, Putin is someone you cannot bargain with, trust or ever turn your back on. He has played all too many U.S. presidents and secretaries of state who repeatedly tried to appeal to his humanity.

Hillary Clinton tried to reset relations with Russia by offering a giant reset button to Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Instead, five years later, Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine while stirring instability elsewhere. It is not clear what kind of diplomatic relationship the U.S. can have with Russia as long as Putin calls the shots there.       

Robert Brusca is chief economist of FAO Economics. He worked at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York from 1977 to 1982, including a stint as chief of the International Financial Markets Division.

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