The Stupidest Advice

Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski takes to the opinion pages of the Washington Post urging action on President Obama in response to the situation in Ukraine:

If Ukraine is crushed while the West is simply watching, the new freedom and security in bordering Romania, Poland and the three Baltic republics would also be threatened.

This does not mean that the West, or the United States, should threaten war. But in the first instance, Russia’s unilateral and menacing acts mean the West should promptly recognize the current government of Ukraine as legitimate. Uncertainty regarding its legal status could tempt Putin to repeat his Crimean charade. Second, the West should convey — privately at this stage, so as not to humiliate Russia — that the Ukrainian army can count on immediate and direct Western aid so as to enhance its defensive capabilities. There should be no doubt left in Putin’s mind that an attack on Ukraine would precipitate a prolonged and costly engagement, and Ukrainians should not fear that they would be left in the lurch.

Meanwhile, NATO forces, consistent with the organization’s contingency planning, should be put on alert. High readiness for some immediate airlift to Europe of U.S. airborne units would be politically and militarily meaningful. If the West wants to avoid a conflict, there should be no ambiguity in the Kremlin as to what might be preciptated by further adventurist use of force in the middle of Europe.

Keep in mind that Dr. Brzezinski has been wrong about practically every major foreign policy issue over the period of the last 35 years. I’ve made no secret of my lack of regard for his advice see here and here. I believe that his advice in this op-ed is flawed as well.

Ukraine’s situation is distinctive, different from that of Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Estonia, or Latvia. It was part of Tsarist Russia, it was a republic of the Soviet Union, it is predominantly Slavic, and Russia’s strategic posture demands secure access to Black Sea ports. Is there any real evidence that Poland will be threatened—not feel threatened but be threatened—by Russia? Poland is a member of NATO, as are the other countries mentioned. Ukraine is not a NATO member. Once again, Dr. Brzezinski is asking the U. S. to provide the same assurances to non-NATO members as it does to members without producing a conceptual framework for doing so.

And what would you do if you were Vladimir Putin and NATO forces were put on alert? Would you consider it provocative? I certainly would. Rather than defusing the situation it would be an escalation of it.

I honestly don’t know why the man continues to have access to the editorial pages of major newspapers.

42 comments… add one
  • ... Link

    I think my suggested military moves, to be done at a later time and to reassure potentially concerned allies, makes more sense. And at the moment if Russia is massing forces near its Ukrainian border, those forces won’t be well placed to menace Poland in short order, I would think. (But will welcome correction on that latter point.)

    Also, I really don’t think Putin wants a shooting war with Ukraine. (That is not the same thing as saying he won’t use violence if needed.) Russian forces are superior to Ukrainian forces in numbers – but they have a much larger territory that they need to defend, and not just from Ukrainians. I also have no doubt that Russian forces are superior in terms of equipment, and probably in training as well.

    But Ukraine is a fairly large country at 45,000,000 people, and has a higher population density than Russia. If the Ukrainians decide to fight in numbers, a Russian-Ukrainian war could get nasty for both sides.

    Winning isn’t the only thing. Minimizing losses in a win is also an important strategic consideration. And I think Putin probably won’t want to take the kinds of risks necessary to completely overrun Ukraine. But he’s not giving up Crimea, and if he can secure parts of the Eastern Ukraine (either as a client state or part of Russia proper) on the relative cheap, I suspect he will do so.

  • ... Link

    And I continue to find it troubling that our leadership class do not seem to think the Russians have any legitimate interests outside their borders at all. Kerry’s 19th Century comment was particularly troubling, as though he thinks that there can be no reason a nation could even consider using force. (It’s troubling because he is a part of an Administration that has used or threatened to use the military to overthrow several governments in just the last few years. If he isn’t paying attention to what happened here in the last few years how the Hell can he be expected to understand anyone else’s history?)

  • (It’s troubling because he is a part of an Administration

    It’s troubling because he voted to use force against another country without provocation. I think Kerry is an idiot.

    As to the tactical issues of attacking Ukraine, if I were Putin I would use air power. Russia has an order of magnitude more planes than Ukraine. Heck, they very nearly have more air bases than Ukraine has aircraft. Overwhelming air superiority. Degrade the defenses from the air, then go in with tanks.

    For a comparison of force readiness issues see here.

  • ... Link

    I had forgotten a bit of ancient history, but apparently Kerry had been in favor of the US intervening in Haiti to put a deposed President back into office. (I’m not going to waste time looking for that bit of information, as it really isn’t important.)

    Concerning THAT, here’s a riotously funny bit from Wikipedia:

    On 15 October 1994, the Clinton administration permitted Aristide to return to Haiti to complete his term in office on the condition that he adopt the economic program of the defeated US backed candidate in the 1990 elections, a former World Bank official who had received 14% of the vote. As democracy was thereby restored….

    Funny how restoring democracy meant holding a gun to the new/old President’s head and FORCING him to adopt a program that had been overwhelmingly defeated by the voters of Haiti. But at least the bankers won! All hail democracy!

  • ... Link

    There’s also the bit that we can’t reasonably claim to be in favor of territorial inviolability given our positions in recent times on both Kosovo and South Sudan. I’m pretty sure we were in favor of South Sudanese independence but I’m having trouble finding quick verification – have to take little bits to the park!

    Looking for that verification, though, I see there are positions open at the US embassy to South Sudan. Appoint some of those rich contributors there, Barry!

  • ... Link

    And again, I have no doubt the Russians would beat the Ukrainians in the field, perhaps even decisively so. As we decisively beat Saddam Husein’s forces in the field in 2003. To paraphrase a German soccer coach, “After the war is before the war.”

  • michael reynolds Link

    Winning isn’t the only thing. Minimizing losses in a win is also an important strategic consideration.

    Let’s hope that’s a consideration for Putin. It has not been for Russian leaders down through history. Brute force is the usual Russian style, massive armies prepared to take staggering losses. Their generals in WW2 were as oblivious to their own losses as Haig was with British forces in WW1. Stalin’s generals seemed almost to prefer expending troops, even when they might have won the same battle with maneuver or better use of equipment. Their approach is the opposite of ours – we are very much equipment to the front, men to the rear. (Interestingly, neither approach seems to impress Pashtuns.)

  • michael reynolds Link

    Only two countries in WW2 mounted serious partisan resistance to occupation: Yugoslavia and Poland. And the Yugoslavian forces were killing Nazis almost incidental to murdering each other. The French Resistance is a bad joke. Russian partisans were bad-ass but in a somewhat different category than we’re talking about in an occupied Ukraine.

    I have no idea if Ukrainians are up for serious resistance. There are no Jews left to kill, so they may be able to focus on killing Russians. But we’ll have to wait and see.

  • PD Shaw Link

    @michael, the Ukranians fought for their independent state in the aftermath of the Czar’s abdication, including guerrilla operations. There is some background in Wikipedia under “Ukranian-Soviet War.”

  • Contrary to what the French of today seem to believe, the French Resistance consisted of a relative handful of French Communists. A few hundred from a country of tens of millions. The sad reality is that the people of Western Europe generally agreed with the Nazis. The exception, of course, was Denmark.

  • Ben Wolf Link

    The Ukrainians are not going to fight a protracted guerilla war against Russia and NATO is not going to be joining the crusade, even indirectly. Brzezinski doesn’t seem to really get geopolitics or human psychology in that he appears to believe, in the grand neoconservative tradition, the world is simply an extension of American policy-makers’ will.

    The American people, (whom Brzezinski like so many other chowder-heads in government routinely ignore) are not going to accept war with a nuclear-armed opponent over a country they can’t locate on a map. Notice how the Fighting Pole just assumes the peasants will fall into line and send their children off to die if Washington tells them to.

    I think there’s a lot more going on than deciding how to react to events. We know that elements within our government were furious that Putin helped Obama out of a jam in Syria. We know elements in our government have been funneling aid to the Ukrainian opposition to oust Yanukovych. We know the people calling for war hate the relatively cordial relationship Putin and Obama have formed below the radar (in fact my understanding is that they personally like each other). Frankly I’m suspicious these events were the fruit of deliberate efforts by a faction of American elites to force a confrontation and derail the President’s preferred foreign policy route.

  • michael reynolds Link


    So much of what we accept as truth from WW2 was really propaganda created to ease the transition to a post-war world. We pretend that the Austrians were victims. We pretend the French resisted and universally welcomed us. We conveniently forget that 3 million Indians starved as the Raj diverted resources to the war. We don’t talk much about Japanese biological warfare in China and to a more limited degree against the allies. Or that while fighting the supreme racists we were racist as hell ourselves.

    And of course we are all supposed to forget that Stalin was Hitler’s ally for two years, from the summer of 1939 to the summer of 1941, and that Stalin was not the one to end that alliance. Just as we’re not supposed to talk about the Soviets stabbing Poland in the back, and later, upon ‘liberating’ that country, raping and murdering their way across it.

    The amount of utter bullshit that resulted from cleaning up everyone’s storylines so that we could all somehow get along, is astounding.

  • Cstanley Link

    @Ben- So, was Obama’s State Department part of the conspiracy or do you suppose that the recorded Nuland phone conversation was a hoax?

    Me, I am thinking the administration’s “reset” policy meant that they would use nicer rhetoric while covertly helping EU in its attempts to box Putin in. They tried to play both sides and got burned.

  • Michael:

    I really need to get back to editing my dad’s journals. As I’ve mentioned before he was a tourist throughout Europe and North Africa (mostly Germany) during most of 1938 of all times. Like a good reporter he kept a journal. Every time he filled a journal he’d mail it home. His mother and, later, my mother kept the journals and all the other bits and pieces he sent home and, when I was going through my mom’s house, I found them. I’d known about the last journal, the one he carried back with him when returned, but not the others. It’s full of interesting stuff.

    I have the mimeographed warning the State Department stuffed into the American Express boxes in the Paris office, telling Americans to get the heck out of Europe. Lots of interesting anecdotes. For example, he was in Munich on 9-10 November 1938, if that means anything to you. That was what convinced him to leave Europe.

  • Cstanley:

    I’m reminded of a quote from one of my favorites, Will Rogers: “Diplomacy is the art of saying ‘Nice doggie’ until you can find a rock.”

  • Andy Link

    Agree on ZB – rarely if ever gives good advice.

    On Ukraine, I don’t think the Russians will go past Crimea unless we or the Ukrainians do something really stupid. While Russian can probably defeat Ukraine’s military it won’t be costless and, of course, what is the purpose? War must have some political end.

  • ... Link

    This isn’t the 1940s, Russia isn’t the Soviet Union, and Putin is not Stalin. He would have to worry himself about loses, both material and lives. (On the material side, they don’t have the US backing them up this time.) Putin and Russia also face a different set of challenges than the Soviet Union did during WWII, and wasting their youth would not be to any advantage in current circumstances.

    Not only do I think that Putin does not want a full-scale war, I don’t think he wants Ukraine as part of Russia. He seems to have been content with the Ukraine having semi-client-like status, and probably would have remained content just so long as the EU and NATO didn’t make a grab for the country. (And it beggars belief that the EU and NATO didn’t realize how fucking dumb a move this is, even if the Russians DID NOT put up a struggle.)

    I keep hearing statements such as “Obama is playing checkers, Putin is playing chess.” It looks more like the EU and NATO are playing Risk! to my eyes: Conquer every adjoining territory until there’s nothing left. It appears the Europeans may not have gotten over their imperial dreams after all….

  • ... Link

    Andy wrote: On Ukraine, I don’t think the Russians will go past Crimea unless we or the Ukrainians do something really stupid. While Russian can probably defeat Ukraine’s military it won’t be costless and, of course, what is the purpose? War must have some political end.

    Well, we’ve already done something stupid, and compounded it by letting stupid people continue to speak for us. That said, at least the stupid things we’ve done so far aren’t as stupid as the things so many here (I mean the USA in general, not this website) are suggesting.

    As for war having a political end: Political ends aren’t always chosen well. I hadn’t really thought about this until the last few weeks, but why the Hell is the EU so interested in Ukraine anyway? What Ukraine has that Europe would want could be bought freely enough.

    Otherwise, what? Are they hoping for Ukraine’s 45,000,000 to move to the western parts of Europe as more cheap labor? Perhaps the Germans want them to displace the Turks? Maybe the French want them to displace all the middle easterners and Africans? The Brits want them to push out the Pakistanis?

    I just don’t see what would be so advantageous about the Ukraine being more closely tied to the EU and NATO than it already was. I see lots of potential downside risks: for example, what’s happening now, or Ukraine inevitably becoming another Greece for the Germans to bail out. Or are the internationalists that are running the west just that completely enamored of their own philosophy that they don’t think of any possible negative consequences?

  • I keep hearing statements such as “Obama is playing checkers, Putin is playing chess.” It looks more like the EU and NATO are playing Risk! to my eyes: Conquer every adjoining territory until there’s nothing left. It appears the Europeans may not have gotten over their imperial dreams after all….

    I honestly don’t think that’s the case. I think the Germans are looking for more markets, more countries to build factories in now that the Chinese are, to a greater extent, building their own factories. They believe that the world can now be run on the basis of regulation alone.

    It’s easy to believe that when you’re spending 1% of GDP on your military, forgetting that the U. S. is spending 4% of GDP on its own military which, incidentally, protects your interests as well as its own.

  • ... Link

    They believe that the world can now be run on the basis of regulation alone.

    Yes, that seems to be the internationalist approach these days, and it has infected the elites of all the western powers, from what I can see. But these are the people that think importing tens of millions of peasants into this country will automatically lead to thousands of new Googles, because, you know, Sergey Brinn!

    These people are going to crash about until they start breaking important countries, and not just little shit countries like Libya and Iraq.

  • ... Link

    What I meant by the imperial dream part is that they seem to want more and more territory in their regulatory scheme. I don’t think they’re interested in any armed conflict at all (that’s what the US is for, as you point out), but they DO want places like Ukraine in the EU and in NATO, or so it seems from here. They just don’t expect that anyone would consider fighting for anything anymore, thus Kerry’s 19th century crack the other day.

    Our elites are well past being naive, they’re just plain ignorant, and this is truly terrifying. We’ve got a similar set-up now, in terms of the quality of leadership, that Europe had in the run-up to WWI.

  • Ben Wolf Link


    I think Obama’s obsessive desire to be “the conciliator” derailed his foreign policy goals. He wanted a more cooperative approach but appointed people heavily influenced by neoconservatism to his team, people like Gates, Petraeus and Clinton. They pushed back against the President because they love blowing shit up and in response an “inner” policy group emerged consisting of Obama, Biden and a few others. Since then (and I include Kerry as part of the problem) the official team and their allies have repeatedly interfered in Obama’s efforts to build a better relationship with Russia. These guys are still fighting the Cold War.

  • Cstanley Link

    @Ben- Your second sentence implies that Obama is an idiot.

    I don’t think Obama is an idiot. I assume you don’t think that either, but I can’t think of any explanation for a president wanting to take one approach but neglecting to choose team members who have any interest in carrying it out.

  • ... Link

    I can’t think of any explanation for a president wanting to take one approach but neglecting to choose team members who have any interest in carrying it out.

    First, a President has to chose many people to staff an Administration, and the job of who gets picked will frequently be delegated. The people with the delegated authority may will have a different agenda than the President.

    Second, there are only so many people readily available for the most important jobs. You may run out of people who mostly agree with you before you get down to the positions right under the cabinent level positions.

    Third, political realities may force a President to chose people he wouldn’t otherwise chose. Or at least limit his choices.

    Fourth, the President may have said one thing and meant another.

    Fifth, a President might simply believe that the underlings will do as he wishes, whether they have different beliefs or not, whether he articulates his ideas or not.

  • Michael Reynolds Link

    When haven’t the elites been ignorant? The elites were convinced in 1914 that war was absurd given the growing trade between the relevant nations. Apologies to Paul Simon but a politician sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest. Single-minded pursuit of narrow self-interest is how you get to be elite. It’s the peasants who die for their country.

  • Ben Wolf Link


    Call him what you will, I think Obama has a rather grandiose opinion of his capacity to bring opposing groups together. This is just one more indication his reach exceeds his grasp.

  • Michael Reynolds Link


    Wow. Kristallnacht. Wow. You really should make that available to people at some point.

    Your father had good instincts. Good time to get the hell out of Europe.

  • Ben Wolf Link

    Let’s also keep in mind there’s nothing unusual about an American President battling his own appointees.

  • PD Shaw Link

    Elipses, Ukrainians already work in the EU, I think I read somewhere that remittances from EU constitute almost 5% of GDP, but it dropped with the recession. I think Germany has done well with trade to former Eastern Bloc countries, and probably can reasonably expect increased trade with Ukraine to do the same. I don’t think the comparison with Greece is a good one; I think Greece ended up with a lot of beach resort investment, cheap tourism jobs and not a lot of trade; my impression is that Poland and the Baltic states have had modest, positive growth.

    The U.S. has given Ukraine nearly $4 billion in aid over the last ten years, primarily in helping cleanup Chernobyl, healthcare aid, particularly in HIV/Aids prevention and TB treatment, and training the Ukraine legal system. I think the U.S. sees Ukraine as a poor country with significant “rule of law” shortcomings, and that these will not improve without change from the past. Increased trade with the EU should bring more money to the country and pressure legal reforms.

    I think increased EU trade would be good for Ukraine, but its been oversold in the sense that (a) ultimately Ukraine has to reform its institutions itself, commerce won’t do that for you, (b) increased trade is likely to disrupt entrenched interests and create new problems, and (c) geographic location makes it very unlikely that increased EU trade would ever substitute for Russian trade, just enhance it. Also, there are voices in the administration which have oversold EU association as joining the cool kids and turning their back on the past, which is offensive and not really true. Ask the Poles.

  • Cstanley Link

    I will grant you the grandiosity, Ben, but I think Occam’a razor suggests that the reason Obama doesn’t achieve conciliation is mainly because he doesn’t actually seek it. I think ellipsis’ fourth reason is the operative one (though it is a good list and I’m sure the other factors come into play as well.)

    I think President Obama plays Mr. Reasonable for political purposes, because he knew it would play well with domestic audiences but he miscalculated on how well it would play out internationally.

  • Cstanley Link

    How much did potential energy reserves (frackable gas) affect the push to get Ukraine more aligned with EU, I wonder?

  • PD Shaw Link

    Somewhat OT: Yesterday was Pulaski Day in Illinois, and my wife made Breton Beans, a polish dish. It was quite good (I believe she made it with small navy beans), but I don’t know how a Brittany dish became a Polish fave.

  • PD Shaw Link

    @Cstanley, I’m not aware of the fracking issue. The energy dynamic that I’ve read about is that Russia is building natural gas pipelines to Europe that bypass Ukraine, since Ukraine won’t cede control of the piplelines to Russia. The longterm result would appear to be Russia having more leverage over Ukraine, and Ukraine being less important to Europe.

  • Cstanley Link

    PD- I’ve seen a few articles suggesting that they may have reserves sizeable enough to be worthwhile but no one wants to invest due to the recent political environment (and obviously, not the current one.)

    I’m bookmarking that Polish blog for the recipes…thanks. Never heard of Breton Beans before.

  • Breton Beans appears to be a cousin of Basque Baked Beans (which is well worth trying on its own merits).

  • Veritas Link

    Unfortunately the author’s analysis is so flawed that I would have thought it was written by someone at State Department. Yes the Ukraine was part of Czarist Russia-so were the Baltic states, Finland, Moldavia, Belorus, and the states in the areas bordering Turkey and Iran. In fact so was Alaska (yes I know they sold it but of what consequence is that to the Russians?) Using the author’s logic can we not expect the Mexicans to claim substantial portions of the US since they are occupied by vast numbers of Spanish speakers?

    The fact that the Ukraine is a soverign nation means little to the elites who rule in splendid isolation in DC. Just as western leaders sacrificed the Czechs to the tender mercies of the National Socialists, the author tells us that the Ukraine has a special relationship to Russia.

    Yeah I wish all those other captive nations that also have a special relationship with mother Russia well given the moral fiber of the West.

  • Veritas:

    Thanks for commenting. My objective in posting about the Ukraine situation, not just here but in general, is to acquaint American readers, most of whom probably couldn’t find Ukraine on a map and know very little about the history of the region, with the situation’s realities. I’m not providing normative judgement, just proposals that would result in reasonable, stable outcomes.

    Russia won’t relinquish shipping access to the Black Sea, whether commercial or military,won’t accept a hostile regime in charge in Ukraine, and has the muscle to back its position up. We can’t move naval vessels into the Black Sea without breaking international conventions to which we are party, naval vessels in the Black Sea would be at risk from land-based defenses, the land distance is prohibitive, and air confrontation with Russia would be risking nuclear war. There’s actually very little we can do.

    I think that the Ukrainian people can secure substantial freedom within a context of, at least, non-hostility towards Russia. That might not be the ideal outcome for Ukrainians but in my opinion it would be a stable one and should be a reasonable one.

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