Stop Tiptoeing Around Russia
It Is Time to End Washington’s Decades of Deference to Moscow
By Alexander Vindman August 8, 2022
For the last three decades, the United States has bent over backward to acknowledge Russia’s security concerns and allay its anxieties. The United States has done so at the expense of relations with more willing partners in Eastern Europe—Ukraine in particular. Instead of supporting the early stirrings of Ukrainian independence in 1991, for example, Washington sought to preserve the failing Soviet Union out of misplaced fear that it might collapse into civil war. And instead of imposing heavy costs on Russia for its authoritarianism at home and antidemocratic activities abroad, including in Ukraine, Washington has mostly looked the other way in a fruitless effort to deal cooperatively with Moscow.
The justification for this Russia-centric approach to Eastern Europe has fluctuated between hopes for a good relationship with the Kremlin and fears that the bilateral relationship could devolve into another cold war—or worse, a hot one. But the result has been U.S. national security priorities based on unrealistic aspirations instead of actual outcomes, particularly during moments of crisis. Even as evidence mounted that Russia’s belligerent behavior would not allow for a stable or predictable relationship, U.S. policy stayed the course, to the detriment of both U.S. national security interests and the security of Russia’s neighbors.
One would think that Russia’s war in Ukraine would have demanded a shift in U.S. strategic thinking. Instead, whether out of habit, reflex, or even prejudice (thinking of Russians and Ukrainians as “one people” or of Ukrainians as “little Russians”), the primary decision makers in charge of U.S. foreign policy still privilege Russia over Ukraine.
The war has now reached an inflection point. The United States must decide whether it will help Ukraine approach the negotiating table with as much leverage as it can or watch Russia reorganize and resupply its troops, adapt its tactics, and commit to a long-term war of attrition. If Ukrainian democracy is going to prevail, U.S. foreign policymakers must finally prioritize dealing with Ukraine as it is rather than Russia as they would like it to be.
“THE UNGROUP” AND ITS LEGACY
Prioritizing Ukraine will require breaking the long-standing tradition of Russocentrism in trilateral U.S.-Ukrainian-Russian relations. In its contemporary form, that tradition dates back to 1989, when senior members of U.S. President George H. W. Bush’s administration set up a secret group of interagency staff members to plan for the possible dissolution of the Soviet Union. On July 18 of that year, Robert Gates, who was then deputy U.S. national security adviser, sent a memo to Bush titled “Thinking About the Unthinkable: Instability and Political Turbulence in the USSR.” As Gates recalled in his 2007 memoir, From the Shadows, he argued that the United States “should very quietly begin some contingency planning as to possible U.S. responses, actions and policies in the event of leadership or internal policy changes or widespread ethnic violence and repression—and consider the implications for us of such developments.”
Soon thereafter, Gates tasked Condoleezza Rice, then the senior director for Soviet and East European affairs on the National Security Council, with assembling an “ungroup” that would take on this “unthinkable” task. (At the time, official U.S. policy still focused on preserving the Soviet Union and supporting reform efforts, so the ungroup’s name reflected both its seemingly impossible mandate and its Top Secret status.) The team Rice pulled together included trusted officials from the Department of Defense, Department of State, and the Central Intelligence Agency. Among them were Dennis Ross, then the director of policy planning at the State Department; Fritz Ermarth, the chair of the National Intelligence Council; Robert Blackwill, the national intelligence officer for the Soviet Union; Paul Wolfowitz, the undersecretary of defense for policy; and Eric Edelman, an assistant deputy undersecretary of defense for Soviet and East European affairs.
Working in secrecy, these officials considered possible scenarios for Soviet collapse and potential U.S. responses. Written evidence of the group’s deliberations—or even its existence—is sparse. (I have mainly relied here on memoirs by people who served as high-level officials in the George H. W. Bush administration, some of which contain details of the ungroup without explicitly naming it, and on interviews with five former officials who were either participants in the group or had direct knowledge of its work.) But the conclusions the ungroup reached are clearly imprinted not just on U.S. foreign policy in the last years of the Soviet Union but also on U.S. priorities in the newly independent Soviet republics. The three greatest threats the United States would face in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the ungroup predicted, would be the proliferation of new nuclear weapons states; “loose nukes,” or the loss, theft, or sale of weapons-grade fissile material, especially to nonstate actors or countries with clandestine nuclear weapons programs; and conflicting loyalties in the Soviet military that might lead to civil war in the newly independent republics or in Russia itself.
U.S. policymakers must deal with Ukraine as it is rather than Russia as they would like it to be.
When the unthinkable became inevitable and the Soviet Union began to crumble, mitigating these threats became the overarching goal of U.S. policy toward the former Soviet bloc. The United States pursued denuclearization in the former Soviet republics and partnership with an ideally strong, centralized Russian government in Moscow. If both goals could be accomplished, so the thinking went, then widespread ethnonationalist conflicts could be averted and command and control of the former Soviet arsenal could be maintained in a stable, whole Russia, thereby reducing the risks of a nuclear catastrophe.
The ungroup didn’t oppose the independence of the Soviet republics, but its fear of worst-case scenarios contributed to missteps and missed opportunities. For instance, it is hard not to hear echoes of the ungroup’s warnings in Bush’s infamous “Chicken Kyiv” speech in the Ukrainian capital on August 1, 1991. Mere weeks before Ukraine’s parliament adopted an act declaring the country’s independence, Bush declined to support the country’s right to self-determination, warning instead of “suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.” In line with the ungroup’s thinking, he privileged a carefully managed Soviet decline over the wishes of Ukrainians, who would go on to overwhelming vote for independence in a referendum at the end of the year.
Bush’s words provoked a visceral response from Ukrainians. For the Ukrainians who still remember the speech, or at least know of it, Bush’s explicit preference for the Soviet Union’s survival and his willingness to openly reject Ukrainian aspirations for statehood and independence were symbolic failures and practical indicators of where Ukraine fell in the hierarchy of U.S. relationships. One might argue that it was reasonable for the Bush administration to prioritize its relationship with the Soviet Union, which was, by any measure, a greater power than any of its potential successor states. It had enormous energy resources, a colossal military-industrial complex, and the ability to create massive headaches for Washington. But managing Soviet and later Russian threats did not have to come at the expense of engagement with the republics. Washington could have pursued both objectives at the same time, adapting to the Soviet Union’s decline while also hedging against future Russian irredentism by supporting self-determination in the emerging post-Soviet states.
Bush’s speech in Kyiv was an ignominious start to the U.S.-Ukrainian relationship.
Instead, Bush’s speech in Kyiv was an ignominious start to the U.S.-Ukrainian relationship that could have easily been avoided. Bush could have stuck to platitudes about the promotion of peace, democracy, and self-determination and omitted the patronizing warning about civil conflict. After all, the United States had little influence over Ukraine’s decision to seek independence or the Soviet Union’s longevity. In the end, neither outcome conformed to U.S. policy preferences.
The Bush administration wasn’t fully united behind this overly cautious approach toward the collapsing Soviet Union; there were dissenters, both inside and outside the ungroup. For instance, as Michael McFaul and James Goldgeier note in Power and Purpose, then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney advocated policies that would prevent the reemergence of a Soviet or post-Soviet threat in Eurasia. He thought the United States should seize the opportunity to undermine a great power rival and extend democracy and Western security institutions farther east.
Cheney’s arguments stopped short of predicting a Russian resurgence—something that was difficult to conceive of against the backdrop of immense economic, social, and political problems in Russia—but they foreshadowed key developments in U.S. foreign policy during the post-Soviet years. One episode from Gates’s memoir stands out: On September 5, 1991, a month after Bush’s Chicken Kyiv blunder, Cheney clashed with Secretary of State James Baker over the effects of the Soviet Union’s impending collapse. According to Gates, Cheney argued that the breakup was “in our interest,” adding that “if it is voluntary, some sort of association of the republics will happen. If democracy fails, we’re better off if the remaining pieces of the USSR are small.” Baker’s response was indicative of the more dominant strain of thinking within the ungroup: “Peaceful breakup is in our interest, not another Yugoslavia.”
According to the former officials I interviewed, those more in line with Cheney’s thinking, including Wolfowitz and Edelman, came to view post-Soviet European security as a zero-sum game with an enfeebled but still dangerous geopolitical rival in Moscow. They also saw a newly independent, vulnerable Ukraine in need of assistance and recognized that, if strengthened, it could serve as a bulwark against Russian revanchism. But these were minority views. Most influential players in the national security establishment agreed with Baker that U.S.-Russian relations had to form the bedrock of any post–Cold War security structure. They believed that if they could get Russia right, the country would become a bastion of stability in the region and even contribute to positive outcomes in Ukraine and elsewhere.
BLINDED BY THE MIGHT
This fixation on dealing with Moscow has proved remarkably durable. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all built their regional policies around their hopes and fears for Russia—hopes for a cooperative relationship and fears of another cold war. Now, President Joe Biden’s administration has come full circle with a risk assessment of Russia’s war in Ukraine that could have been drawn up by the ungroup, one that is more focused on the internal Russian consequences of the conflict than on the consequences for Ukraine itself. The Soviet Union is long gone, but concerns about instability, Russia’s nuclear arsenal, regional conflict, and bilateral confrontation remain. To avoid provoking Moscow, the United States has implicitly acknowledged Russia’s influence in an imagined post-Soviet geopolitical space in Ukraine. It has also often filtered its decisions about Ukraine policy through the prism of Russia, balancing its objectives in Ukraine against its need for Russia’s cooperation on arms control, North Korean and Iranian nuclear proliferation, climate change, the Arctic, and space programs, among other things.
By comparison, the United States has been largely ambivalent toward Ukraine. It has engaged with the country when the two countries’ interests and values aligned. For instance, during the Clinton era, the United States made a clear push for democratization and denuclearization. But once denuclearization was attained and democratization had stagnated under Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, the impetus for bilateral engagement declined. During Clinton’s second term and during the Bush and Obama administrations, the United States shifted away from Kyiv and toward collaboration with Moscow.
Misguided hope for a strategic partnership with a reformed Russia—or at the very least, a stable and predictable relationship with Moscow—seemed to outweigh much more achievable U.S. interests and investments in Ukraine in these years. The United States bought into the myth of Russian exceptionalism and deluded itself with distorted visions of the bilateral relationship, largely ignoring the signs of authoritarian consolidation within Russia and failing to heed the warnings from partners in the Baltics and Eastern Europe. Even worse, because of its desire to accommodate Russia, the United States dismissed democratic progress in Ukraine—for instance, in the aftermath of pro-democratic movements in 2004–5 and 2013–14—and undermined prospects for a more fruitful long-term relationship with Kyiv. U.S. policymakers justified this approach on the grounds that drawing Russia in as a responsible member of the international community would enable democratization in the region. Later, when Russia’s lurch toward authoritarianism became undeniable, they justified it on the basis of stability, succumbing to fears of a return to Cold War–era tensions.
The United States was not necessarily wrong to pursue a mutually beneficial relationship with Russia. Where it erred was in continuing to pursue this objective long after there was no realistic chance of success, which should have been obvious by 2004, when Russia interfered in Ukraine’s elections on behalf of its preferred candidate, or at the very latest by 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia. Instead of looking for more cooperative partners, however, U.S. policymakers continued their futile courtship of Kremlin leadership. As a result, they passed up opportunities to invest in the U.S. relationship with Ukraine, which was always a more promising engine of democratization in the region.
For most of the last 30 years, Kyiv has been a more willing U.S. partner than Moscow. But Washington chose not to see this. Had it been more receptive to Ukrainian overtures and sensitive to Ukrainian concerns, the United States might have offered something more than vague “security assurances” in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which accompanied Ukraine’s fateful decision to give up the nuclear weapons it inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Instead, the agreement—signed by Russia, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States—required only consultations and a commitment to seek UN Security Council action in the event of violations (an obvious flaw, considering Russia’s veto power in that institution).
Other early attempts at bilateral cooperation came only at Ukraine’s insistence. In 1996, for instance, Kuchma requested the establishment of a special binational commission, named for him and U.S. Vice President Al Gore, to increase cooperation on trade, economic development, and security issues, among other things, as part of a closer strategic partnership. Although the Gore-Kuchma Commission was modeled after a similar U.S.-Russian commission, the dialogue it spawned never produced a real strategic partnership. Engagement with Russia was a major U.S. priority; engagement with Kyiv was an afterthought. After all, outcomes in Ukraine were still viewed as dependent upon outcomes in Russia.
The 2004–5 Orange Revolution offered another opportunity for cooperation. After thousands of Ukrainian demonstrators took to the streets to protest a fraudulent presidential runoff election, paving the way for a free and fair vote two months later, the United States could have provided greater financial and technical assistance to Ukrainian reform efforts and nurtured Ukrainian ambitions for European and transatlantic integration. A stronger partnership might have prevented the political infighting and failed reforms that eventually fueled popular disappointment with the pro-European government of President Viktor Yushchenko.
For most of the last 30 years, Kyiv has been a more willing U.S. partner than Moscow.
Instead, the United States opted for a policy no man’s land. At the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration pushed for the alliance to welcome Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO. But the United States and other NATO members declined to spell out what Ukraine would need to do to accede, and they refused to draw up a membership action plan. The resulting declaration produced the worst possible balance of provocation and assurance, giving Russia a new grievance to exploit but making Ukraine no more secure.
These failures had painful consequences for Ukraine. If Yushchenko’s reforms had generally succeeded, Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian candidate who was defeated after the Orange Revolution, might not have won the 2010 presidential election. Without a Yanukovych presidency, the Ukrainian government and armed forces might not have atrophied, and a rapacious kleptocracy might not have taken hold. The 2013–14 Revolution of Dignity, also known as the Euromaidan Revolution, might not have become necessary and Ukraine might not have become vulnerable to Russian aggression and Western ambivalence. The costs of Russia’s 2014 incursion into eastern Ukraine would have been significantly higher if the Ukrainian government and military had been intact and developing. Moreover, Russia would have had to contend with a stronger Western reaction and international opprobrium had the United States and the other signatories of the Budapest Memorandum demonstrated a stronger long-term commitment to Ukrainian democracy, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.
Even if none of this had happened, the West could have responded more forcefully to Russia’s 2014 invasion. A tougher reaction might have deterred further Russian aggression or at least better prepared Ukraine for a larger conflict. The United States and its allies helped modernize Ukraine’s military, but because they did not want to provoke Moscow, they declined to impose stiff-enough sanctions on Russia or provide heavy equipment or extensive training to Ukrainian troops. Russian President Vladimir Putin escalated anyway. Now, the West is scrambling to make up for lost time.
The United States doesn’t deserve all the blame for these missed opportunities. Rampant corruption, political infighting, and abysmal leadership hamstrung Ukraine’s efforts at reform and development for years before the Orange Revolution. And it wasn’t until the 2013–14 revolution that Ukraine truly pivoted toward reform, transparency, democracy, and European integration. But even in the moments when Ukraine was a willing and able partner, the United States was reluctant to cooperate or upgrade U.S.-Ukrainian relations. Apprehension about the political response from Moscow always precluded a closer relationship with Kyiv.
The United States opted for a policy no man’s land toward Ukraine.
This historical failure has become more evident as former U.S. government officials have been forced to defend their records on U.S. policy toward Ukraine. There are very few who can honestly say they did all they could in the eight years since Russia’s first invasion to aid Ukraine’s reform efforts, hasten the country’s integration with Europe, harden its defenses, and bolster deterrence. Whether that is because of willful ignorance or an institutional predilection for coddling Russia, there is no excuse for neglecting Ukraine.
Part of the problem may be a decades-long hangover from the Cold War during which the expertise, education, and training of Eurasia specialists in the national security establishment have atrophied. Moreover, virtually all the experts who have worked for the U.S. government over the last 30 years were trained Sovietologists, not Ukrainianists. As a result, they were ill prepared to recognize and understand Ukraine as a fully distinct cultural, ethnolinguistic, historical, and political entity. Rather, these Sovietologists, and the Russianists and Kremlinologists who filled their shoes, saw Russia’s “near abroad” as always having been in Moscow’s orbit. The physical borders of a newly independent Ukraine might have been clearly demarcated, but the mental boundaries of Ukraine’s geopolitics were still fettered to the imperial center in Moscow.
To make matters worse, area studies also declined after the collapse of the Soviet Union, leading to a dearth of funding for the languages and specialized knowledge needed to develop regional expertise. Those Soviet studies programs that survived were rebranded as Russian and Eastern European studies, Russian and Eurasian studies, or some other variant of this formulation, suggesting an equally privileged position for Russia relative to the rest of Eurasia.
With a few exceptions (most notably, Harvard University’s Ukrainian Research Institute), most U.S. universities train their students in the Russian language, with a focus on Russian history, culture, and literature. Although the Slavic academic community has begun to reevaluate Russocentric approaches to the study of Eurasia, this shift has not yet been felt within the U.S. government. Russian and Eastern European expertise—or what little of it exists in government—has been treated as a proxy for knowledge of Ukraine. In the time I spent on the National Security Council, from 2018 to 2020, the results of this cumulative bias in national security education became obvious. Very few officials had specialized knowledge of the region, let alone of Ukraine, and among those, even fewer had Ukrainian language skills.
UNGROUP THINK ENDURES
The bias against Ukraine and toward Russia continues to this day. The Biden administration seems unable to accept that as long as Putin is in power, the best the United States can hope for is a cold war with Russia. In the meantime, Washington should be making every effort to prevent the conflict in Ukraine from turning into a long war of attrition that will only increase the risks of regional spillover as time passes. That means supporting Ukraine in full and giving it the equipment it needs to force Russia to sue for peace, not quivering in fear every time Putin or one of his mouthpieces says something about Moscow’s nuclear arsenal. The United States is a superpower. Russia is not. The Biden administration should act as if it knows the difference and deploy its vast resources so that Ukrainians can dictate the outcome in Ukraine.
But old habits die hard. According to two former senior U.S. officials who worked on Ukraine policy, including one who served in the Biden administration, the senior leadership of the National Security Council has acted as a spiritual successor to the ungroup. NSC officials have sought to limit military support for Ukraine based on a familiar logic—that it might escalate tensions with Moscow and upset remaining hopes of normalizing relations with the Kremlin. Even as Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin have pledged to give Ukraine all the support it needs to win the war, NSC officials blocked the transfer of Soviet-era jets to Ukraine, declined to provide Ukraine with sufficient long-range air defenses to clear the skies of Russian planes, withheld the quantities of long-range rocket systems and munitions needed to destroy Russian targets within the theater of war, and halted discussion on the transfer of manned and unmanned aircraft required to neutralize Russian long-range attacks on Ukraine’s cities.
According to former officials, the NSC leadership believes that the war will pose significantly greater risks to the United States and global stability if Ukraine “wins too much.” They wish to avoid the collapse of Putin’s regime for fear of the same threats the ungroup identified three decades ago: nuclear proliferation, loose nukes, and civil war. And they have sought to reduce the likelihood of a bilateral confrontation between the United States and Russia, even at the risk of greatly overstating the probability of conventional and nuclear war. “While a key goal of the United States is to do the needful to support and defend Ukraine, another key goal is to ensure that we do not end up in a circumstance where we’re heading down the road towards a third world war,” said Jake Sullivan, who heads the NSC as Biden’s national security adviser, at the Aspen Security Forum last month. In this excessive concern over how Russia might react to U.S. policies, one can see the shadow of the ungroup.
The senior leadership of the NSC has acted as a spiritual successor to the ungroup.
Planning for every contingency is a responsible way to manage national security threats, but lowest-probability worst-case scenarios should not dictate U.S. actions. By looking for off-ramps and face-saving measures, the ungroup’s successors are perpetuating indecision at the highest levels of the Biden administration. Time that is wasted worrying about unlikely Russian responses to U.S. actions would be better spent backfilling allies’ weaponry, training Ukrainians on Western capabilities, and expediting more arms transfers to Ukraine.
The United States is slowly coming around to providing some of the right capabilities, but not in the necessary quantities and not before U.S. torpor degraded Ukraine’s ability to hold and reclaim territory in southern Ukraine and the Donbas. After months of deliberation, the Biden administration finally agreed to transfer high-mobility artillery rocket systems known as HIMARS, but it has refused to provide the longest range munitions needed to hit Russia’s long-range strike capabilities and military stockpiles. It remains unclear whether the administration will eventually send the munitions that can travel 190 miles, a significant improvement over the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System munitions it is currently providing, which can travel only about 45 miles. The United States has also shied away from providing Ukraine with medium- and long-range surface-to-air missiles that could target Russian aircraft, missiles, and in the worst-case scenario, delivery systems for any possible tactical nuclear weapons. Ukraine could force Russia to the negotiating table faster if it had such capabilities. And providing sufficient weapons wouldn’t significantly undermine resourcing worst-case-scenario war plans against Russia. The U.S. government can do both.
The Biden administration has rightfully, if belatedly, begun to speak about a policy of Ukrainian victory on the battlefield, but it still has yet to match this rhetoric with the requisite military support. Thus far, the Biden administration has transferred a modest $8 billion in weapons to Ukraine. Additional security assistance has been blocked or delayed by the NSC or bogged down in the bureaucracy of the Department of Defense. Congress has passed a Lend-Lease Act for Ukraine, reviving a World War II–era program that gives the president enhanced authority to lend or lease large quantities of defense hardware to Ukraine. The Biden administration should be making greater use of this authority. It should also be leading the effort to establish logistical and sustainment centers within Ukraine, not hundreds of kilometers away in Poland and Romania but as close as possible to the eastern and southern battlefields. If Ukraine wins this war, it will be thanks not just to weapons and will but to staying power.
The United States should also do more to resolve the issue of grain exports. Russia’s blockade of Ukraine has disrupted global food-supply chains and prompted a growing list of countries to impose grain export bans. This problem will only intensify as Russian forces continue targeting grain storage facilities and transport networks and loot Ukrainian harvests in occupied territories. Providing escorts for Ukrainian merchant vessels and opening a humanitarian shipping corridor is one potential solution, albeit a risky one. More likely, grain shipments will continue to be transported slowly and inefficiently by rail, barge, and truck to countries such as Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Romania, and Bulgaria. Ukraine uses a wider rail gauge than its EU neighbors, and while rail capacity is up, the current speed and volume of rail transports is insufficient to remove the existing export backlog.
Transportation costs as well as the availability of trucks, barges, and suitable rail cars is another problem. The European Union has rolled out a plan for “solidarity lanes”—alternative logistics routes for Ukrainian agricultural exports through the EU to third countries—but this ad hoc emergency response is emblematic of the West’s failure to plan for long-term contingencies. In the two months since these lanes have been established, they have failed to clear shipping bottlenecks and left agricultural produce stranded short of its destination. On July 22, Russia agreed to allow grain exports to proceed. But just one day later, Russian missiles struck Ukraine’s largest seaport and cast the deal into doubt. Depending on when one starts counting—the 2014 seizure of Crimea or the February invasion—the United States and the EU have had either five months or eight years to plan for major export disruptions of this sort, so it is disappointing that they have had to scramble to piece together a patchwork solution to a predictable problem.
Again, however, this lack of preparation is more understandable when viewed through the West’s Russocentric lens. Planning for major disruptions in agricultural exports made little sense as long as a wider war was inconceivable. And even in the event of a war, the overriding Western assumption was that Russia could conquer Ukraine or force Kyiv to capitulate in short order; business would find a way to continue with only minimal disruption. The same faulty logic explains how Europe allowed itself to become dependent on Russian oil and gas—and how it has struggled to wean itself off these resources even after the danger they pose has been revealed. The United States and the EU must learn from these failures and interrogate the assumptions that blind them to potential threats, no matter how far-fetched those threats may seem in peacetime.
A FOOTHOLD FOR DEMOCRACY
The Biden administration has made democratic renewal a cornerstone of its domestic and foreign policy agendas. There is no better way to demonstrate democratic resolve than by defending U.S. values and interests in Ukraine. A Ukrainian victory would not only limit Russia’s capacity for future military aggression but also cement democracy’s foothold in Eastern Europe, offering a powerful lesson to would-be authoritarian aggressors and democratic nations alike. A Ukrainian loss, by contrast, would signal an acceleration of the wave of authoritarianism and democratic decline that has washed over the globe in the last decade.
To ensure the triumph of democracy in Ukraine, the United States must first change its thinking patterns and learn from decades of mistakes. Recognizing the poisonous Russocentrism of U.S. foreign policy is the first step toward a better approach to U.S.-Ukrainian relations. As Russia’s war effort falters and the prospect of a direct confrontation between the United States and Russia begins to look unthinkable once again, it will be tempting to revert to old ways of thinking and plan for normalized relations with a post-Putin Russia. But such an outcome would once again risk privileging Russia over Ukraine. Even if Putin is deposed or replaced through some other means, the United States should not assume Russia can change for the better; rapprochement must be earned, not given. By freeing itself from its Russocentrism, Washington will also be better able to engage with and listen to its partners in Eastern and northern Europe, which have greater proximity to and more clarity on national security threats from Russia. Their knowledge and expertise will be critical to Ukraine’s victory over Russia, future Ukrainian reconstruction, the prosecution of war crimes, prosperity in Eastern Europe, and eventually, the establishment of thriving democracies across Eurasia.
Beneath the United States’ misplaced aspirations for a positive relationship with Russia lies immense hubris. Americans tend to believe they can accomplish anything, but perpetually discount the agency of their interlocutors. In truth, the United States never had the influence to unilaterally change Russia’s internal politics. But it did have the ability to nurture a more promising outcome with a more willing partner in Ukraine. Unless the United States fundamentally reorients its foreign policy, away from aspirations and toward outcomes, it will miss an even bigger opportunity to bring about a peaceful, democratic Eastern Europe.