The Ukraine war: “The mistakes that have been committed in foreign policy are not, as a rule, apparent to the public until a generation afterwards”


That’s a quotation by Otto von Bismarck, first Chancellor of a united Germany in the 19th century.  I’ve been struck by its relevance to what’s going on in Ukraine, now that President Putin of Russia has taken off the gloves and turned loose his armed forces to obtain by military might what he could not achieve through diplomacy.

I pointed out yesterday that during the dissolution of the Soviet Union, promises were, indeed, made by the West that NATO would not expand eastward into the former Soviet sphere of influence.  Those promises were ignored by the West almost as soon as they were made.  In the process, the advance of European and US influence was seen as an ever-increasing, ever-encroaching threat by Putin and Russia.  It’s hard to disagree with them from a geographic perspective.

Here’s a very useful map from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, dated 2018.  Click the image for a much larger view.

The blue shading indicates NATO’s borders before the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  The dark green shading indicates NATO’s expansion since then.  If you take similar distances and areas, and put them on the map of North and South America below the US border with Mexico . . . wouldn’t we be getting a bit paranoid about such expansion by a former enemy towards us, too?  It would look pretty threatening, no matter how much or how often whoever was doing it swore that there was no threat intended.

That’s what has led directly to Russia’s actions in Ukraine today – that, and NATO’s (and the USA’s) refusal to keep their earlier promises about non-expansion and to face geopolitical reality.  President Putin has come to viscerally distrust anything the West has to say about the matter.  I can’t blame him.  In his shoes, I’d see things that way, too.  Therefore, he’s stopped talking and started doing something about it.

A major problem for this country is that President Biden is illegitimate, incompetent and incapable of directing a US response.  We all know this.  His television and other appearances show a man who’s increasingly in decline, mentally handicapped by the onset of some form of senile dementia.  He’s literally not capable of formulating or carrying out a cohesive US foreign policy.  That means his words and actions are being formulated and directed by others.  President Biden is no more than a puppet on their strings.  He’s a victim of elder abuse by those who are exploiting his mental and physical decline, and he deserves our pity – but he’ll get none from President Putin, or from President Xi in China.  They’re going to carpe diem and wring every advantage they can from the US’s leadership vacuum and lack of strategic vision.  That’s realpolitik – and they’re both very good at it.

US military intervention in Ukraine is all but impossible right now.  The Biden administration – and the Obama administration before it – have politicized and ideologically hamstrung our armed forces until they’re dissipating their focus into all sorts of areas that have nothing to do with their designated mission.

The cultural problem of inattention to warfighting proficiency … comes from the top. The Biden administration is channeling its energy to other priorities: its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, issued last March, prioritizes “a global pandemic, a crushing economic downturn, a crisis of racial justice, and a deepening climate emergency.” When announcing Lloyd Austin as his nominee for defense secretary, Biden extolled the need for the military to distribute vaccines. Defense Department social media accounts stress the agency’s commitment to expanding diversity, ending sexual harassment, and tackling climate damage. These are all important issues, but they are not the reasons the United States has a military. Nor is there adequate funding in the Pentagon’s budget to include them without further displacing money needed for personnel, equipment, and operations. The Pentagon’s embrace of what it calls “integrated deterrence” emphasizes economic and diplomatic tools of defense and sounds a lot like a justification for not using military power to deter adversaries.

Biden’s security strategy pledges to make sure that “the U.S. Armed Forces remain the best trained and equipped force in the world,” but current funding for those forces calls into question that commitment … The United States has for nearly two decades tolerated a growing gap between its military means and its stated strategy. Biden is not wholly responsible for the problem, but it falls to his administration to manage it. And managing it will require Washington to constrict its aims, increase its spending, or find revolutionary ways to improve military performance.

There’s more at the link.  Bold, underlined text is my emphasis.

Given that politicization of our armed forces, and the fact that for two decades they’ve been fighting a war against low-intensity, low-technology terrorism rather than against a peer adversary, they’re ill-prepared and ill-equipped to fight a Russia or a China on even terms.  I simply don’t see conventional US military intervention in Ukraine as feasible.  Nuclear weapons are a different story, but to go that route would be criminal folly, because nobody knows how far it would escalate or where it would end.  The human race can’t afford that, let alone the US people.

This won’t end when the fighting in Ukraine stops.  I fully expect President Xi to take advantage of the shift in world attention to that part of the world to launch his own attempt to take over Taiwan.  That’s very likely to disrupt, if not destroy, half of the computer-chip-making capacity of the entire world.  That would have absolutely disastrous consequences for every country on earth, because almost every modern machine, vehicle or system uses such chips, and we no longer have access to the earlier technologies that didn’t need them.  The machines and factories that used to make them have long since been torn down or scrapped to make room for newer, more modern replacements.  Quite literally, we’d see massive starvation (due to the collapse of computer-aided agriculture) and immense commercial and social disruption (because our modern way of life depends on computers and the Internet – without them, most of the companies and suppliers on whom we rely will close their doors.)

Will that happen?  I don’t know . . . but the USA and NATO may have brought us to the brink of that through their feckless, reckless handling of the Ukraine situation.  President Putin has realized he can’t trust the West to keep its word, so he’s doing something about it.  I’ll be very, very surprised if China doesn’t do the same, taking advantage of the USA’s current lack of leadership and preoccupation with internal matters to achieve its geopolitical ends.  There’s little we can do to stop that happening.

Otto von Bismarck was right.  What we’re seeing in Ukraine, and globally, is the result of a whole generation of foreign policy blunders, failures and missteps.  They’ve happened under both Republican and Democratic presidents, and neither party can be trusted to fix them now.  Every denizen of Washington D.C., almost without exception, is part of the problem rather than the solution.

Tulsi Gabbard, one of the few Democratic Party politicians who’s consistently honest and forthright, is correct.  (Click either image to be taken to the original tweet.)

I’m reminded of the words of Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary in 1914, at the outbreak of World War I.

A friend came to see me on one of the evenings of the last week — he thinks it was on Monday, August 3rd. We were standing at a window of my room in the Foreign Office. It was getting dusk, and the lamps were being lit in the space below on which we were looking. My friend recalls that I remarked on this with the words: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.”

We should all hope and pray, very sincerely, that we aren’t facing a similar prospect right now.



  1. Yeah, this has things exactly backwards. Not stopping Putin in Ukraine will make it more likely that Beijing will roll into Taiwan, and my sympathy for Russia's "legitimate security concerns" after their actions following World Wars I and II, during the Cold War, and after the Cold War, is precisely zero. (See: the Russian occupation in Moldova that's been going on since the early '90s, well before NATO even thought about moving east.)

    Furthermore, NATO's military strength is utterly incapable of invading Russia, and the NATO countries, aside from the Balts and Poles, have been downsizing their militaries for decades.

    If you want to argue that it was reckless to roll NATO east, fine. But Russia is more sinner than sinned against.

  2. @Tom: You're at it again. You're nothing but a shill for progressive-left-wing interests, and you go on and on and on playing the same broken record.

    I've cited historical facts to back up what I've said. Where are yours? If you want to cherry-pick small conflicts like Moldova, fine – what about the "color revolutions" sparked by the Obama administration over the eight years he held office? We've done exactly the same thing as Russia, just through proxies.

    And let's not talk about Afghanistan and Iraq, and thousands upon thousands of dead, maimed and injured Americans whose sacrifice was wasted and thrown away by our politicians (of both parties).


  3. I think that Russia has its own actions to blame for the desires of its former satellites to join NATO. They felt (and Ukraine shows they were correct) that Russia didn't want to give up its foreign empire and wanted to get it back.

    Perhaps not letting them join NATO but instead setting up their own central/eastern Europe defensive pact would have been better. But I don't think it matters. These nations don't want to be under the rule of Russia again and I suspect they'll be helping Ukraine fight anyway. And almost certainly that's going to screw up Putin's plans, because all his previous wars have been against powers a lot smaller and with limited resupply (e.g. Georgia).

  4. Granted that this is the early hours of Russia's invasion, but what I'm struck by is the fact that so far, the Russian equipment has been working much better than most of us expected, or at least those of us in the aerospace community did.
    I'm old enough to remember that a great deal of Russian military equipment was junk, their aircraft were not the best, to be polite, and as for their armor, well, the less said the better. I read analyses of Soviet gear during their Afghanistan intervention, and much of it was on the poor design, and the QC problems. Also, the training of most of their troops was dreadful.
    These days, the design and QC problems are on American equipment; Boeing, LockMart, and a whole bunch of other companies. I spent almost 40 years as a drafter/designer, and only retired when my client insisted on masks and the NottaVax(as well as being incompetent). On my last half dozen assignments, only the civilian oriented 2 had decent QC(although I was brought in to one company to redo their design verification system, which was badly dated).
    If I gambled, which I don't, I would have to wager that Russian military QC is at least on a par with American, if not better.

  5. Yeah, Pooh Bear is surely eyeing the hunny jar that is Taiwan… but I suggest that overt military action is unlikely.
    For one thing, China needs Taiwan's high-tech industry intact.
    For another, well: my wife, who lived in Taiwan for several years, points out that China has long been establishing lucrative relations with the Taiwanese business and political classes. They're playing the long game, and have been for a long time. Throw in the inevitable intermarriages of prosperous families across the puddle, and a big destructive war is unappealing.
    Expect some sort of political realignment, rather than an invasion.

  6. Eric you're on target, China will gain the cooperation of Taiwan ONCE the US Umbrella of "Protection" is shown to be a ratty wreck of bits and bobs.

    No invasion, an acquisition, a business deal.

    Russia is acting out of self-defense and decades of NATO violating their promises to the former USSR. No country can accept cross border shelling of their civilians as in the "breakaway regions" nor the placement of American nuclear weapons on their boarders. It's the Cuban Missile Crisis AGAIN.

    ANY of the "brave" Poles and whatnot that foolishly attempt a cross boarder attack will know that the Bear will eat them.

    I am praying that our Imperial City full of Idiots dithers and jawbones rather than find out EXACTLY what Nuclear Hypersonic Weapons and EMP REALLY MEANS. Russia is DONE with us and our inability to honor any agreements.

    Or a Putin might have said "Sanction THAT".

  7. As Mr. Aesop noted on his site, what about the other actors out there, such as Iran, North Korea, and the like? Given the imbecility of our ruling class, they would be foolish not to take a chunk of the doddering American eagle while it is down.
    I'm reminded of the shark who gets cut, and the rest of the group proceeds to tear the injured one to pieces, devouring it. I have a feeling that we've been cut, and the feeding frenzy draws nigh.

  8. It is not at all clear what the "promise" actually covered. During the last year it has been analysed many times and seems the consensus is that at the time it did not cover eastern Europe. The only one who has no doubts is Putin who at the time was a low/mid level KGB officer.

    The former Warsaw Pact countries that joined NATO did that because that was the only option at the time. Had there been any other way to secure themselves against Russian invasion they would have considered that first, military alliances always have down sides. The dislike they have for SU/Russia is something few US people seem to appreciate.

  9. @TLM: The promise could not have been clearer. I'm old enough to remember the fall of Communism, and the promises that were made. For example, the promises made to Ukraine and Kazakhstan to entice them to give up their nuclear weapons, rather than sell them on the black market. (I had friends who were silo inspectors.)

    The solemn promise that NATO would not extend eastwards past the East German border is quite plain and difficult to misunderstand. It's easy enough to ignore, however.

  10. Putin consolidating breakaway republics back into Russia at gunpoint has a wee bit to do with things too. There's no one bad side in this.

  11. Here is one recount of things ""

    When talks were about what happens in former east Germany it is difficult to include the former Warsaw Pact to that. At the time it just couldn't have been under discussion as the countries were still firmly under SU control (but time wise just barely but still).

    Putin's explanations are so WW2 as who in his right mind would want to invade western Russia in 2022? There is nothing there. Ural and east has the natural resources but who owns the former bumber states has little present meaning, except in the paranoic mind of Putin.

    US meddling with Ukraine had little practical security effects for Russia but apparently was enough to push Putin over. I guess some three letter US agency had something to do with that but so what. Much ado about nothing.

    Again, many Americans don't seem to understand how much hate there exists against Rusians after WW2 occupations.

  12. Perhaps in future, prior to nations signing treaties with America regarding inviolate territory, those nations ought to check with the Apache, Sioux, Comanche, Kiowa, Nez Perce … .

  13. What NATO threat to Russia? Everyone parrots Putin "NATO is a threat to Russia." Blah blah blah. BS! Again and again RUSSIA is the aggressor. NATO is far from perfect but where has it instigated military action against Russia? Ever?

    As for broken promises, Russia is happily breaking them as well. At what point does the 'promise' that the Ukraine not join NATO disappear in the face of Russian aggression???

    How long does Russia get to cry foul (and apologists get to blame the West for this mess) when Russia is just (arguably more) as guilty!?!?!? Requiring buffers between you and 'hostile states' sounds suspiciously like 'living space' a la Germany 1930's.

    No, this finger points squarely at Russia. Helping a Russian neighbor protect itself is NOT a provocation. Blaming NATO expansion is a red herring at best…

  14. Yet no mention of the Russia-NATO cooperation council signed in 2002 but declared null and void after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014. This reads much like Putin's RT network

  15. @Unknown: Kindly explain (in words of one syllable if possible, so that us feeble-minded observers can understand it) precisely how an eight-years-defunct cooperation council has any bearing on current events in Ukraine. We'd all like to know.

    As for sounding like Putin's RT network, there's a reason I haven't quoted that network much – because it's a propaganda outlet, just like almost the entire mainstream media in the USA is a propaganda outlet for the Biden administration. Do your own independent research, find your own authoritative sources, read them with a careful eye out for bias, and draw your own conclusions – just as I've done.

    Regurgitating anti-Putin talking points just won't cut it. We know better.

  16. How does a cooperation council bear on the conflict that caused it to be disbanded? Really Peter, you need that explained to you?

  17. More than a few Russian historians think that Putin's version for this occasion is a tailor made one not bearing much relation to the actual happenings. On the other hand it is not made for foreign consumption, it is purely for internal Russian-only speakers. At this point his non-reasons do not matter all that much, the war is on.

    Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, what do they have in common?

    Many (ex, retired) professional soldiers here (FIN) do not put Ukrainian effort so far very high. Even some of the most elementary preparations have been left undone and so brother bruin Putin has had in many places and easy drive (tanks using motorways in plain sight). Looks like Ukrainians still haven't been able to put up their act even upto basic level, a pity, few things are as satisfying as a dictator getting a beating.

  18. @m4: Let me explain simply. The cooperation council was disbanded eight years ago. It hasn't played any role whatsoever in the area – so what possible current relevance does it have to the present conflict? It's a historical footnote, not a major factor.

  19. You do realise that this conflict also started eight years ago? Just because Russia waited for eight years to mount a full scale invasion does not make the conditions at the start irrelevant.

    You’ve also cited a number of causes that go right back to the dissolution of the USSR, and correct me if I’m wrong but that also happened more than 8 years ago. What possible bearing do these historical events have on the present day that you keep harping on about them? Oh right, you and I both know that we didn’t get here overnight, this path was started on years ago. This very invasion was foreseeable eight years ago, at least by anyone that’s heard of Sudetenland.

  20. We are over extended and they want to add more bases. So goes Rome so goes the USA if you are a student of history you know what followed the fall of the Roman Empire. This will not be fun.

  21. Ukraine was also promised its independence and territorial sovereignty would be irrevocably respected by Russia in exchange for giving up its nuclear weapons.
    This was signed off on by both the Russian Federation and NATO.

    This is on Putin, and NATO is now a paper tiger.

    Anyone wanna place bets on how long it takes the Baltic States, Turkey, half of NATO, and the entire Pacific Rim from Korea to Oz, et al, to start withdrawing from nuclear non-proliferation treaties, and begin IRBM and ICBM missile research programs?

    In 3, 2, …

  22. " the USA and NATO may have brought us to the brink "

    This smacks a little of "if only she would have shut up I wouldn't have to have hit her". The Warsaw Pact countries voluntarily join a mutual defense association and Russia's "only" response is to invade a sovereign country? I understand the theory but those WP countries also had their own security interests and hanging out between NATO and Russia may not have seemed like the best choice.

    Don't disagree with the rest of your analysis as to what comes next though.

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