IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Russia threatens Ukraine with its troops, so Ben & Jerry's blames the U.S. Perspective needed.

We should strive to discourage another Russian invasion of Ukraine. But whether that happens is not a decision driven by Biden but by Putin.
Image: Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, founders Ben & Jerry's
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, founders of Ben & Jerry's. Their company's tweet about Ukraine reveals the narcissism in anti-war activism. Ade Johnson / AFP via Getty Images file

As the world faces the possibility that Moscow’s deployment of 100,000 combat troops to the border of Ukraine could herald the most destructive conflict in Europe since World War II, a tweet from U.S. ice cream vendor Ben & Jerry’s briefly monopolized discussion on social media about the brewing conflict in a way no post from U.S. intelligence agencies, professors of international relations or military analysts has.

Perhaps I should say something sneering here about ice cream makers commenting on politics, but experts, not to mention politicians, don’t always get things right. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, longtime champions of left-wing causes, both presciently and bravely opposed Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, widely acknowledged as disastrous today.

But that also doesn’t mean they’re always right. Indeed, their comments on Ukraine — particularly that “sending thousands more US troops to Europe in response to Russia’s threats against Ukraine only fans the flame of war” — reflect a common flaw in progressive thinking. It’s an approach to international affairs that arrives at the same conclusion no matter the differing circumstances: Every war is like Iraq, and the true culprit behind every conflict across the globe is American imperialism.

Some countries in tough neighborhoods do indeed have reason to seek peace but simultaneously prepare for war: You don’t want to be left helpless if it turns out your adversary is an untrustworthy bully.

That worldview is how one can look at Russia assembling over 100,000 troops around Ukraine and issuing ominous yet vague warnings on what it will do if its demands aren’t met and then conclude that, yet again, the threat to world peace worth tweeting about is the 3,000 extra American troops sent to defend two nearby countries that are treaty allies of the U.S. It creates a Cassandra effect where anyone warning of bad developments abroad is dismissed as a warmonger — and the only bad things that matter are those caused by the United States.

If one must be categorical, certainly it’s preferable to always oppose war than to always support it. And Ben & Jerry’s platitude that “you cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war” does underscore a true challenge in international relations known as the security dilemma: When Country A fears aggression from Country B, it invests in military capabilities. That leads Country B to fear Country A and enhance its own military in response — thereby seemingly confirming Country A’s fears, and thus leading to an endless cycle of escalating tensions and defense spending. This principle clearly is in play, for instance, with the U.S.-Russia arms race.

But the security dilemma is not the only dynamic that can foster aggression; so can vulnerability. When aggressive leaders believe they can readily seize what they want using force for little or no cost, they are apt to prey on militarily weaker states.

Sometimes Country B really does have designs on Country A. We can see this in Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait rather than paying loans owed to it, Adolf Hitler’s opportunistic snatch of Austria and Czechoslovakia, Joseph Stalin’s unopposed occupation of the Baltics in 1940 and Vladimir Putin’s seizure of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. Some would characterize various U.S. wars against militarily weaker countries that way, too, like the Mexican-American War in the 1840s or the U.S. invasion of Grenada under President Ronald Reagan.

Thus, some countries in tough neighborhoods do indeed have reason to seek peace but simultaneously prepare for war: You don’t want to be left helpless if it turns out your adversary is an untrustworthy bully. And that’s why mutual, legally binding arms-control treaties are preferable to unilateral disarmament and trust in the good intentions of foreign autocrats (or an intemperate U.S. president).

Back in 1938 under the Munich Agreement, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain famously tried to bargain for peace by treating Czechoslovakia’s sovereignty as something to be traded to Hitler, just as Putin would like the U.S. today to consign Ukraine to a “Russian sphere of influence.”

Chamberlain’s bargain failed anyway — some world leaders, it turns out, truly do have aggressive designs and are not merely misunderstood! We should thank the heavens that London prepared for possible war after the Munich treaty and was thus able to stave off Nazi invasion in 1940.

Today, Ukraine’s vulnerability to Russian power is why it’s at risk of being invaded. And that is why Ukraine wants to gain the security of a NATO alliance, which Moscow is hellbent on preventing. Yes, one can argue Putin lashes out at Ukraine due to his own fear of the United States, but that doesn’t justify domination of Ukraine any more than 9/11 justified invading Iraq, which had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 attacks.

Two months ago, President Joe Biden willingly sacrificed the leverage of an ambiguous stance on intervention in Ukraine by clarifying that he did not intend to send U.S. troops to defend it. This was a tough call: quite possibly consigning Ukraine to the wolves so as to tamp down the risk of war with Russia and undue anxiety of that possibility for Americans.

So when Biden did decide to deploy troops to allies in NATO at the end of January — the move Cohen and Greenfield were so quick to criticize — it was a relatively small, light force that could not possibly take on Russia’s large mechanized army in Ukraine.

The U.S. troops are being sent to reassure allies bordering Ukraine, Russia and Belarus that the U.S. won’t be asleep at the wheel in the event that a major war breaks out on their borders. Poland and the Baltic States have spent the majority of the last century under Moscow’s domination, and the possibility of seeing an independent Ukraine dismembered right on their border brings back more than a little historical trauma.

Is there a possibility of conflict with Russia as a result of the move? Yes. But would there be a possibility of conflict if Washington showed it wouldn’t react at all to the massing of a powerful army near its allies? Also yes.

Washington is pursuing multiple approaches to lowering the likelihood of a Russian attack. One is to increase the perceived potential cost of a conflict by threatening sweeping economic sanctions and dispatching short-range defensive weapons to Kyiv. Sellouts to the arms industry, one inevitably hears, and indeed there is cause to think such transfers are more symbolic than effective. But wouldn’t the right thing have been to give weapons to Poland before Hitler’s invasion?

Moreover, Washington has also engaged with Russia diplomatically. Leaked documents revealed the Biden administration has proposed renewing arms-control measures on offensive missiles and improving transparency and communications with Russia. It has also sought to pre-empt measures by Moscow to create a fabricated casus belli to “sell” an invasion of Ukraine by exposing them.

Unfortunately, Russia’s negotiating positions do not give analysts the impression it wants diplomacy to work because the Kremlin is making extreme demands its diplomats surely know will never be accepted, such as forbidding NATO from ever adding other countries to the alliance or even from sending soldiers to defend NATO member states in Eastern Europe.

We should strive to discourage another Russian invasion of Ukraine. But whether that happens is not a decision driven by Biden but by Putin, who has been deliberately massing forces around Ukraine’s border for months.

It’s healthy for every society to have voices like those of Cohen and Greenfield who are critical of overreliance on military power. But reflexively focusing blame on Washington’s token deployments rather than the world leader preparing for an unprovoked invasion of a fledgling democracy of 43 million reveals a narcissism in anti-war activism that sees every conflict as being all about America. There is a danger here of another Iraq War — but this time the risk is that Putin, not George W. Bush, will needlessly invade another country.