As president, Barack Obama promised a “pivot” to the Pacific, yet still wound up sending more troops to Central Asia and the Middle East to address the threats from the Taliban and the Islamic State. President Biden has promised another pivot to the Pacific, yet he is now considering sending 8,500 more troops to Eastern Europe to address the threat from Russia as it mobilizes for a potential invasion of Ukraine.
As the old Yiddish saying has it, “Man plans and God laughs.” However much the United States wants to focus on the growing threat from China, it cannot simply ignore other threats in vital regions such as the Middle East and Europe. We have to be a superpower that can walk and chew gum at the same time.
But while Biden’s get-tough approach with Russia has bipartisan support, he is being criticized by some thoughtful analysts who argue that the United States has no stake in defending Ukraine and that it should be up to our European allies to counter Russian aggression. Journalist Peter Beinart, for example, suggests that the United States needs to recognize a Russian “sphere of influence” in Eastern Europe, while former Trump Defense Department official Elbridge Colby writes, “We don’t and won’t have a military big enough to increase commitments in Europe and have a chance of restoring our edge in Asia against China.”
This is not the mindless pro-Russian cheerleading of Tucker Carlson. These are serious thinkers, and their concerns deserve a serious response.
It’s true that during the Cold War the United States learned to live with Soviet control of Eastern Europe but only because we had no other choice; we weren’t going to fight World War III to liberate the “captive nations.” But we never endorsed Soviet sovereignty over the Baltic republics or Soviet domination over the Warsaw Pact nations. When the Berlin Wall fell, the United States welcomed the Eastern Europeans into the club of Western democracies.
Ukraine hasn’t advanced as fast as other newly independent nations — it is not a member of NATO or the European Union — but the vast majority of its people have made clear that they want to be a pro-Western democracy, not a corrupt, repressive satrapy of Moscow. NATO troops won’t fight for Ukraine, but NATO nations should at least help Ukrainians to defend themselves.
Beinart argues for a “Finland model” of a neutral Ukraine, but under the current circumstances — with Russia having already invaded Ukraine once and now threatening to do so again — making concessions to Russian leader Vladimir Putin would only invite greater demands. Indeed, even Finland is now debating NATO membership, because it is worried about the Russian threat.
Russia expert Fiona Hill warns that Putin’s agenda extends beyond Ukraine — "he wants to evict the United States from Europe.” Given that the European Union is one of the three largest economies in the world and a bastion of democracy, we cannot simply leave the continent at Putin’s mercy.
But wait. Aren’t the Europeans powerful enough to stop Russia on their own? In theory, yes. In practice, no. The European Union is much richer and more populous than Russia (Russia’s GDP is smaller than Italy’s). But even though Europe has been spending more for defense since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, European militaries are still too disjointed and weak to deter Russia’s newly modernized military machine on their own. The United States has far more critical enablers, from cargo aircraft to drones, than our European allies — and far more experience in conducting combined-arms operations.
Europeans have been discussing creating joint military forces for years, but those plans have never gotten very far because no European nation wants to give up control of its own armed forces. And, despite growing alarm about the Russian threat, Europe remains divided about how to deal with it. Britain, for example, just airlifted anti-armor weapons to Ukraine — but had its aircraft fly around German airspace because Berlin has expressed opposition to arming Ukraine. Germany won’t even let Estonia supply German-made weapons to Ukraine. Germany, which relies on Russian natural gas, is much less willing to confront Moscow than Britain, which doesn’t.
The countries pushing for the toughest line — Poland and the Baltic republics — are the ones that feel most threatened by Russia. Because they are members of NATO, we are legally and morally bound to defend them. Sending more U.S. troops to their soil will strengthen deterrence and help to avert a wider conflict.
Slightly increasing our military commitment in Europe — still vastly reduced from the height of the Cold War when we had more than 400,000 troops stationed there — will not change the fact that the U.S. military is mainly focused on China. We have fewer than 70,000 troops in Europe, while 375,000 military personnel and civilians are assigned to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. But what happens in Europe has profound implications for Asia, too. If we don’t ensure that Russia pays a high price for its aggression against Ukraine, that will send a message to China that it can attack Taiwan with impunity. By countering Russia’s power grab, we send a signal that right, not just might, still matters in the world.