The result has been that Russia has had to radically scale down its original war goals. While it may still snatch the territory of the Donbas, military analysts suggest that time is running out for Russia’s ability to carry out any offensive operation. Meanwhile, Sweden and Finland appear to be joining NATO, which seems to be the exact opposite of Putin’s strategic goals.
It is easy to paint this as an example of an alliance of democracies that defeats a brutal autocrat and bends the course of history towards freedom and self-determination. But it must be pointed out that part of this political success has been due to the efforts of some less than fully democratic nations. For example, Turkey has prevented Russia from sending more warships into the Black Sea, making the loss of their Black Sea Fleet flagship even more significant.
The point is that if the Biden administration wants to expand the coalition that is pressuring Russia, it will have to talk to more authoritarian countries and portray the conflict as a blatant violation of territorial sovereignty.
This brings me to my Post-colleague Fareed Zakaria’s column last week. Zakaria argues that in order to keep up the pressure on Russia, the United States must compromise with some former autocratic allies. He reiterates a forthcoming report from the Council on Foreign Relations: “The United States would improve relations with MBS [Mohammed bin Salman] and make more explicit promises to protect Saudi Arabia in return for Saudi actions, from working to end the war in Yemen to recognizing Israel to taking more explicit responsibility for the assassination of journalist and post-contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi. “In fact. Zakaria proposes to extend this agreement to include other Gulf emirates as well as Israel.
I am less optimistic than Zakaria that such a large trade could be achieved. A recent Wall Street Journal story noted that Salman does not want to discuss Khashoggi: “The 36-year-old crown prince ended up shouting at. [national security adviser Jake] Sullivan, after he raised the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. The prince told Mr. Sullivan said he never wanted to discuss the matter again, people familiar with the exchange said. And the United States could forget its request to increase oil production, he told Mr. Sullivan. “
That said, Zakaria’s strategic point is worth considering. As I noted last month, “Great power politics requires deciding which threats deserve the greatest focus … When a nuclear-armed state decides to invade a sovereign neighbor without any provocation near the main strategic alliance of the United States, has this threat of having top priority. ” By definition, this means that other issues may need to be toned down in the short term.
I was pleased to observe how the Trump administration always managed to take actions that were contrary to both American values and American interests. However, these are the easy calls. In the case of Ukraine, US officials need to prioritize certain values (unprovoked territorial aggression) over others (human rights, democracy).
I hope the Biden administration conducts internal deliberations on what concessions it would be willing to make in order to engage in some transaction diplomacy with Saudi Arabia. As bad as Saudi Arabia’s behavior has been, Russia’s bad behavior has been worse and deserves a priority of focus.