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The Problem with Permitting Putin’s “Sphere of Influence”

In the face of aggressive, acquisitive war, will the free world stand together or stand aside?
February 1, 2022
The Problem with Permitting Putin’s “Sphere of Influence”
(Photo by Alexander DemianchukTASS via Getty Images)

Shrewd observers of U.S. foreign policy have recently claimed that the country is a superpower without a plan, but the truth is much worse: It’s increasingly apparent that America is a superpower without a coherent purpose.

By all appearances, the United States has lost faith in the global vocation it has shouldered since World War II. In the political establishment and among the general public, Americans have come to doubt the necessity of global engagement in defense of the liberal order—or, more astonishingly, even the desirability of a decent world order in the first place. This is a particular shame as well as a grave danger because the present order is very much an American creation, and it serves the national interest better than any alternative order (or disorder) that may follow the Pax Americana.

This loss of national confidence and purpose begins with the collapse of Soviet communism. At the dawn of the unipolar world, Americans openly began to question the value of global leadership. It came as little surprise that so many Americans yearned for a return to normality at the end of the long twilight struggle, believing that the now-vanished evil empire had provided the only reason (or excuse) for an active role in world affairs. Americans were in no mood to be reminded of the inconvenient fact that the postwar architects of U.S. hegemony originally conceived of this unique international role and responsibility not primarily as a bulwark against Soviet expansionism but rather as a general defense against disorder.

The American elite has also come to doubt the capacity of their nation to remain the preeminent world power after the Cold War—a doubt observers from Robert Taft to George Kennan, lest it be forgotten, harbored at its inception. Three-quarters of a century later, having proved the Cassandras wrong, the United States may at last be on the verge of jettisoning the grand strategy and global responsibilities that have created the greatest period of peace and prosperity in world history.

The new (or at least newly ascendant) American aversion to maintaining world order has been disclosed yet again by the tacit acknowledgement on both left and right of Russia’s “sphere of influence.” An emerging coalition of progressives and obdurate paleoconservatives has advocated that Russia be given a veto over Ukraine’s political system and military alliances—to the point of granting Moscow the right to dismember its neighbor. According to the advocates of retrenchment, the alternative to this accommodation is to embroil or risk embroiling the United States and NATO in a shooting war with the world’s largest nuclear power.

According to this view, the unfolding crisis in Ukraine is little more than a border dispute on Europe’s periphery, a quarrel in a far-away country, one might say, “between people of whom we know nothing.” From the self-styled “realist” perspective, the coincidence of Russian might and Russian ambition today furnishes a good opportunity for a declining American hegemon to return to a more modest role in a multipolar world where a “concert” of nations maintain a balance of power. (Traditionally, “realists” are attached to a decidedly elastic definition of “order” that includes the accommodation of hostile powers and the outbreak of civilization-destroying wars.) From the self-consciously progressive perspective, the imperial republic that once proclaimed the Monroe Doctrine can scarcely deign to lecture the Kremlin about the desire for greater strategic depth. Following the logic, it is not only strategically sound but morally right for the Western powers to accede to Russia’s demands and cut Ukraine loose—the Ukrainians will simply have to pay the price for this act of Western righteousness.

This line of thinking is both morally and analytically wrong. A sphere of influence around an imperial republic, whatever its flaws, is not the same as a sphere of influence around an empire of despotism. On this score, the progressive charge of hypocrisy against the United States falls flat. This prejudice leads to a completely amoral view of international politics in which the structures matter for everything and the substance for nothing. The most that can be said for the “realists” is that they do not pretend that moral disapproval of Russian bullying would be effective in itself.

The alleged prudence of catering to Putin’s designs in Ukraine is not evident to those who recall that Russia’s historical sphere of influence does not end with Ukraine, but begins there. Since the Russian empire has penetrated deep into the heart of Central Europe, it’s worth asking what possible concessions the West could offer that would quell Russians’ sense of grievance or satisfy Putin’s ambitions. When an American general at the Potsdam Conference tried to flatter Stalin by observing how agreeable it was to see the Red Army in Berlin, Stalin replied bitterly, “Tsar Alexander I reached Paris.”

Nor are the “bloodlands” on the eastern reaches of Europe, to purloin historian Timothy Snyder’s apt description, the only possible theater of irredentism: Russia has historically made claims to the entire South Caucasus, Moldova, Finland, enormous swaths of Central Asia, and chunks of Northeast Asia. A predictable consequence of granting Moscow a “sphere of influence” is that the Kremlin will endeavor to make it as voluminous as possible. By undermining the security of Russia’s neighbors, and driving them to reinforce their own defense, this policy would stimulate the very insecurity that it seeks to stifle.

Much confusion has surrounded the separate but linked issues in the current crisis. Ukraine is under threat of invasion and domination—exactly the kind of destabilizing and aggressive war the United States and its European allies are determined to prevent. Ukraine is a hostage; NATO is both the interlocutor and the ransom. Putin has asked NATO to violate its core principles and the defense of its member states in exchange for a promise (of dubious value) not to invade Ukraine.

Even if Ukraine were sacrificed to soothe Russian fears and sate its ambitions, what will stop the next ransom from doubling in price? If NATO has withdrawn all military presence from Poland in exchange for guaranteeing, at least for a time, Ukraine’s independence, how much will NATO be forced to give up for Poland’s sovereignty? The borderlands between the Black and Baltic Seas are dense with potential hostages.

Experience seems to teach us that there is no stable balance of power in Europe without the United States. Europe’s postwar paradise has only been made possible by the extravagant American commitment—backed by force and the threat of force—to a continent “whole, free, and at peace.” Ukraine isn’t part of NATO, as the Kremlin apologists on the Greenwald left and the Carlson right never tire of reminding us, but no credible voice has called for dispatching U.S. forces to Ukraine outside of its potential future admission to NATO.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States pressed the cause of inviolable sovereignty for the formerly captive nations behind the Iron Curtain. This project, along with spreading democracy and economic liberalism, was intended to suppress incipient threats in a region that generated major security challenges in the past. To allow Putin’s grasping dictatorship to undo that progress in service of a new balance of power would be an invitation to ceaseless conflict.

It’s worth remembering that this project to thwart the re-emergence of spheres of influence was not limited to the frontiers of NATO. Kuwait was not a member of the Atlantic alliance when the United States sent a vast expeditionary force to roll back Saddam Hussein’s aggression in the Persian Gulf. In 1996, China was deterred from coercing Taiwan not merely by the fact of U.S. military primacy but by Washington’s explicit threat of force. Today, it would be a colossal disaster for a European democracy to be destroyed simply because the “free world”—if that quaint expression still applies—lacked the will to maintain the peace.

The progressive-realist preference for granting a revisionist power its desired regional hegemony, explicitly or implicitly, would mean nothing less than the end of the security order that has kept Europe at peace for so long. To claim that Moscow is entitled to a dominant position in its region is therefore not merely to endanger Ukraine. It is to put Europe itself—America’s single most important strategic triumph and asset—at grave risk of returning to its dark past of unrestrained military competition between rival powers.

So far from being a mere border dispute, Russia’s encroachment in Ukraine is a strategic maneuver to snatch a sovereign neighbor’s territory and permanently close NATO’s “open door.” More important still, it’s a dress rehearsal for an era of prolonged Russian belligerence that seeks to vitiate America’s security guarantee. Although Ukraine is not a member of NATO, its status as a sovereign democracy on European soil makes its freedom from Russian domination a baseline test of the enduring stability and coherence of the regional security order. If Russia is permitted to build an undisguised sphere of influence, Putin’s despotism will invariably be bolstered at home and emboldened in its quest to wreck the Western alliance. This example of America’s waning power and purpose will be noticed by other revisionist regimes keen to fashion geopolitical domains of their own.

None of this is to say that war in Ukraine can be deterred with certainty. Too much depends on the interests, desires, and insecurities of one aging autocrat, and the grisly gang that keeps him on the throne. But neither will capitulation guarantee peace, and further war can be averted by the sort of resolve that America has demonstrated abundantly in the past.

Brian Stewart

Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer. Follow him on Twitter @bstewart1776.