Foreign Policy Blogs

The Ukraine War and the Testing of America

The Ukraine War and the Testing of America

How much danger does this pose to us?

The Ukraine War and the Testing of America


Ukrainians’ courage and conviction constantly amazes Americans watching the awful news from that nation.  We should take their inspiration to heart.  Not only will watching become more painful, but we will feel our own repercussions.  Some are scarier, and closer to reality, than we might think. 

We understand that Putin cannot afford to lose this war.  He apparently could not leave Ukraine in peace either.  Its independence and liberalization posed a standing rebuke to his rule.  In a certain logic of Russian leadership, any rebuke can lead to ouster or death.

As a possible path to winning, Putin can cast free nations as weak and hypocritical, so long as he continues his attack and the West continues to tiptoe around his red lines.  If we allow Ukraine to be crushed, in this view we reveal the emptiness of our claims of principle.  We “forcefully” pushed our Liberal World Order, starting with color revolutions and progressing to NATO expansion, but cower when force pushes back.  The West is no different from any other regime.  Our rules based order is only an order based on our rules.  Any advance in that perception is a win.

This logic might see America as the font of the trouble.  It is not incorrect: America cannot but stand as a rebuke to any dictator in the world.  This nation conceived itself on a principle, that all persons are equally endowed with rights we couldn’t give away, and that governments’ purpose is to secure those rights.  We rejected a standing government on this premise.  Thus, as John Quincy Adams said, “wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or will be unfurled, there will (America’s) heart, her benedictions and her prayers be.”  We believe all people have unalienable rights and cannot help but favor any who claim them, anywhere on the planet.  Promoting freedom is aggression for any dictator, and the most powerful nation identifies itself this way. 

This zero-sum logic leads to a clear, if we hope distant, danger.  Putin follows that logic in his warning not to “interfere in the Ukraine invasion and his alert of Russian nuclear forces.  On March 9, the Duma formalized his claim that the West is waging “economic warfare” on Russia, the same kind of sham threat he invoked for the invasion.  Putin points the nuclear gun at us, just as he pointed the invasion gun at Ukraine. 

If nuclear wars were deterred by the fear of Mutually Assured Destruction, Putin also saw America’s moral power destroy a Russian state.  He needs to erode that power.  Today he might settle for embarrassing us – if China brokers a peace, an effective dictatorship shows up free societies’ fecklessness.  But ultimately, the only difference between our threat of freedom and his threat of nuclear warfare is who gets destroyed.  In this calculus, a nuclear strike on an American target might help.  Saddling a free society with the choice whether or not to retaliate and risk Armageddon could make free society look either incompetent or immoral.  Putin could get a win.  It is an evil, but strategic, logic.

In Fiona Hill’s words, “yes he would, and he wants us to know that.”  We cannot know why, whether as negotiating maneuver, as key to some grand purpose, or simply to bully.  Michael O’Hanlon points out precedents in US-Soviet behavior.  Lawrence Freedman assesses Putin’s objectives as still strategically defensive.  But Americans cannot dismiss the threat because we think Putin would be crazy to act on it.  And people do copy others’ methods.  The question is how to deal with a strategically logical bully.

Would America abandon a nation under attack precisely for its freedom because Putin points the nuclear gun at us?  Are Americans ready to live under a nuclear threat over Ukraine?  How about for our creed?  We need to think about how we carry our founding tenets.  Our creed is the one thing American cannot afford to lose.  We must ensure its viability and our fidelity. 

This imperative puts certain demands on our responses.  First, our interest is not only to stop Putin but to keep fidelity to our principles.  Stopping him is urgent and imperative but he is not the only threat.  Losing a fully democratic – not just democratizing – Taiwan to PRC coercion would be at least as damaging as losing Ukraine.  Second, any compromise to our principles must be carefully weighed, or rejected outright.  Putin’s raw aggression may justify some easing of scruples, but engaging Venezuela to replace Russian oil – keeping prices down to limit our costs – risks moral debasement.  Third, we need to make clear that our sanctions aim at Putin’s regime, not the Russian people.  We must mount our opposition with judiciousness and clarity lest we paint ourselves as Putin would, interested really in power, not freedom.  Fourth, again, our standing rebuke will draw nuclear threats.  Our own nuclear force is a deterrent, but dictators will test it and confrontation always risks war. 

There is a logic that says Putin will eventually raise another threat, and not stopping him now will create a bigger problem later. By this logic we should defy Putin’s warnings, whether by setting a “no-fly zone” or sealing off western Ukraine from Russian troops.  Tempted as we may be, are we prepared for nuclear brinkmanship, unscrupulous countermoves, and casualties?  Have we devised ways to manage China relations, absorb economic costs, and deal with other painful effects?  The logic of calling the bluff is balanced by logics of prudence and preparation.  Convictions are meaningful only when followers shoulder the burdens, and we must acknowledge the burdens to truly shoulder them. 

Far from least, Americans need to commit at home as well as abroad, in our own lives and with each other, to realize our national identity of the self-evident truths.  We are tired, of pandemic, shortages, the presumptions of experts, the selfishness of the secure, the institutional callousness and personal meanness or condescension.  We are polarized by self seeking factions and their careerist leaders.  But the choices we demand, the equality we deserve, all rest on the creed we all share.  America cannot be the nation conceived in 1776 unless we validate its premises.  Tests are coming. 



George Paik

George F. Paik is a former political affairs officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, as well as a twenty year veteran of U.S. capital markets. He is a current board member and former chair of the World Affairs Forum (a sister to FPA in the World Affairs Councils of America network) in Stamford, CT. His work as a diplomat straddled the fall of the USSR, and included political analysis, human rights, trade affairs, and environmental policy, in postings were in Brazil and Trinidad, and in the Department of State. Financial experience includes stints with Mellon Bank, Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. and People’s United Bank. He currently holds the position of Managing Director at Lord Capital, LLC, a firm focused on international trade finance.

Paik graduated from Harvard University with a BA in Social Studies; he also holds an MBA in Finance from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He counts ten years playing Rugby, with club mates from countries around the globe, as part of his international experience.