June 6, 2022 [LINK / comment]
As had been anticipated for several months, on February 24 the Russian army launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, unleashing destruction and terror not seen in Europe since World War II. Motivated by a deep craving for revenge against the West, President Vladimir Putin seemed to expect that Ukraine would capitulate within a few weeks, but instead he elicited a heroic rally that will go down in history books for many decades to come. Putin has often dismissed the idea that Ukraine is even a real country, but their own people have made a loud affirmation of their nationhood.
As a first step toward formulating a more thorough proposal for U.S. policy-makers, here are my preliminary reflections, written and posted on Facebook several days before the invasion actually began:
It's hard to pick on the Biden administration for its woefully inadequate response to Russia's campaign of aggression against Ukraine thus far, since it's only a reflection of the American foreign policy establishment's obsolete toolbox. Every time some rogue regime threatens its neighbors or commits atrocities against its own people, it's always the same routine: stern talk, economic sanctions, and displays of military might.
What makes the current situation different is that Vladimir Putin is on the verge of outright conquest of a neighboring country in direct violation of the 1945 United Nations Charter and the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. It's more than just a matter of forcibly changing borders, as when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Whether Vladimir Putin gives the order to attack or not is not really the issue here. The very fact that Putin is able to use the threat of invasion and conquest as a means to subdue the free and democratic government in Kyiv is itself a sign that the underpinnings of world order have already come undone. For an ambitious and calculating despot such as Putin, the threat of economic sanctions by western democracies (assuming that the United States can get its allies to go along) is laughably lame.
Given the vast disparity between Ukraine's strategic value to Russia vis a vis its value to the United States, there is no sense in pretending that we might escalate this confrontation in order to dissuade Russia from attacking. Doing so would only highlight the awkward fact that the United States bears a solemn obligation to defend the sovereignty of three former Soviet republics: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. (Does the average American high school student even know where they are located?) Putin's obvious long-term plan is to erase NATO's security umbrella from eastern Europe and restore as much of the old Soviet empire as he can. We may eventually have to choose between upholding our treaty commitments by fighting in the streets of Tallinn and Riga as the first phase of World War III, or retreating from Europe altogether.
The choice facing the Biden administration is clear: either acknowledge that Russia's campaign of aggression signifies the deathknell of the current world order, or downplay its significance and pretend that nothing much has changed. Granted, facing up to harsh dilemmas is not exactly a strong point of the complacent experts in post-Cold War Washington, DC. But if Antony Blinken, Lloyd Austin, Jake Sullivan, and other Biden officials really want to make Russia pay a price for its naked aggression, they will recommend that -- if worse comes to worse -- either Russia be expelled from the United Nations or that the United Nations be expelled from the United States. Perhaps such a threat will serve a purpose, and perhaps it won't. But what's the use of pretending that the U.N. serves any purpose if one of its five founding members gets away with doing exactly what the U.N. was created to prevent? Desperate times call for desperate measures, and like it or not, that's where we are today.
Obviously, the Ukrainians have done much better defending their country than most people expected. Two of the most pertinent reasons are: superior morale and leadership relative to the Russians, and possession of large numbers of advanced weapons provided before the war by the United States and other NATO nations. (Ironically, the presence of such weapons served to validate Putin's claim that Ukraine was serving as an arm of NATO, menacing Russian security.) Anti-aircraft missiles (e.g. Stinger) have kept the skies over Ukraine relatively free of Russian fighter-bombers, and Javelin anti-tank missiles have impeded the advance of Russian mechanized forces.
In the early weeks of the invasion, through mid-March roughly, Russian land forces advanced in two main columns: from Belarus in the north toward the capital city, Kyiv (no longer referred to by westerners with the Russian name "Kiev"), and from Crimea in the south. Within days the Russians took control of the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the eastern edge of the Pripet Marshes, and approached the suburbs of the capital. Maps in the Washington Post indicated that Kyiv was on the verge of being surrounded, but that turned out not to be the case; Ukrainian defenders managed to block Russian tank columns, creating traffic jams that stretched for 20 or more miles. In the south, Russia seized the city of Kherson near the mouth of the Dnepr River, and for a few weeks they seemed to be threatening Nikolaev to the west and even Odesa (formerly "Odessa"), which became Ukraine's only port after Russia seized control of Crimea in 2014. But, as with the northern front, the Russian advance stalled.
Meanwhile, Russia unleashed a massive and devastating bombardment campaign, destroying hundreds of civilian buildings in Kyiv and other cities. It was clearly aimed at subjugating Ukraine by terror tactics, but all it did was prompt a large flow of refugees to Poland and other countries to the west. (Most of those refugees have since returned to Ukraine.) If there was any doubt as to the legitimacy of Russia's claim on Ukrainian territory (based mainly on the large number of Russian-speakers in eastern and southern Ukraine), their barbaric methods have erased them.
By late March it was obvious that Ukraine was not going to surrender any time soon, and Russian forces were suffering high casualties, including several general officers. So, Putin ordered a withdrawal from Kyiv, redeploying Russian ground forces to begin a second offensive in the eastern Donbass region, which is rich in coal and boasts several big steel mills and other industries. This attack began during May and has made slow progress, in spite of fierce Ukrainian resistance. Kharkiv, the second biggest city in Ukraine, remains threatened by the Russian army. At some point, Russia's superior numbers are bound to have an effect, in spite of their lower morale.
The key question now is whether Ukraine will continue to receive enough high-tech weapons from the west to be able to hold their own in the Donbass region. Putin is patient and determined, and the authoritarian system he has established in Russia not only prevents dissenting forces from getting organized, it systematically distorts the people's minds the with fake news propaganda. There is no free press in Russia any more, and if there is any samizdat movement (such as in the latter years of the old Soviet Union), it doesn't seem to be having much of an effect yet.
It is tremendously gratifying that the cause of freedom and democracy has made such a good show in Ukraine up until now. Many Americans have concluded that Ukraine's successful defense validates the idea that we must provide them with ever-more quantities of advanced weapons and other military equipment. But given Russia's numerical superiority, the iron will of Putin, and the likelihood of continued large-scale civilian deaths as the war progresses, the advantage seems to lie on the side of Moscow. Here is where the factor of national interests come into play: the United States has very little at stake in Ukraine, whereas it is of supreme importance to Russia. This would be the case no matter what kind of government there was in Moscow.
Given the disproportionate national interests at stake, it is clear that Russia will hold the initiative at every level of escalation that may unfold in this conflict. Their threats are credible, whereas ours are not. (That's why all those economic sanctions announced by President Biden before and after the war began were such a waste of time.) Since the beginning of June, in response to reports that U.S. might provide Ukraine with longer-range missiles (possibly threatening Russian cities), Putin warned once again that Russia would respond with overwhelming destruction. Past actions indicate that he is dead serious about this.
As for President Biden, it is hard to know what he really intends. Several weeks ago he made an impromptu remark to the effect that Putin cannot be allowed to remain in power. Is regime change in Moscow official U.S. policy? Apparently not, because White House aides quickly clarified that Biden's words did not signify a change in policy goals. Biden's habit of making rhetorical gaffes is not helpful at a delicate time such as this.
On the other hand, is there any way for this war to end with Putin remaining in charge of the Russian government? I told my students in classes this spring that for there to be a real peace, either Putin or Ukrainian President Zelensky has to go. The most likely outcome right now seems to be a protracted conflict with occasional small shifts on the battlefield, somewhat like in the latter two years of the Korean War. Then as now, a negotiated settlement seemed hopelessly unrealistic, with two radically-opposed systems of government locked in a grim stalemate.
The war in Ukraine has given birth (or rebirth) to an old-fashioned idealistic spirit among many Americans. After two decades of mostly futile (intermittent) war in Afghanistan and Iraq, they now see themselves once again as a benevolent force on the world stage. For a while there was a cynical faction, composed mainly of Trump supporters who simply refuse to see Russia as malevolent. (FOX News' Tucker Carlson is their main cheerleader.) But most Republicans and Democrats have come to agree that the United States cannot afford to let partisan divisions weaken us at this moment of peril. That illustrates one of the perennial side-effects of war, which is to galvanize national unity in countries that are under attack. We ourselves are not under attack yet -- but most of us are aware that if one side or the other makes a faulty calculation, we might be.
Are most Americans willing to risk escalation to World War III for the sake of Ukrainian independence? I don't think so. We should provide enough weapons for Ukraine to hold onto as much of their territory as is feasible, but we must be very careful not to give them too many weapons. We don't want them launching some kind of missile strike on Moscow, obviously, even though they might be perfectly justified in retaliating in such fashion. This illustrates the irony that bold, idealistic motivations often result in cynical, half-hearted actions. As Halford Mackinder once wrote, democracies are inherently incapable of thinking or acting strategically, unless their own survival is at risk. That is why, sadly, the best we can probably do for Ukraine is to prolong their agony -- enabling them to fight well enough to survive, but not enough for them to achieve a clear victory. It will be up to Russia to decide what peace terms it will accept and put an end to this horrible, unnecessary episode in human history.
Except for the four paragraphs above written back in February, I wrote this piece while watching the 1962 movie The Longest Day, about the invasion of France by Allied forces on June 6, 1944 -- 78 years ago today. The battle scenes of the D-Day invasion on the beaches of Normandy were overall less gruesome than the 1998 movie Saving Private Ryan, but the theme of bitter sacrifice for a higher cause is at the heart of both movies. At a time when many Americans are complaining about inflation (without taking the time to understand why it has come about), we need to keep in mind the necessity of bearing hardships for the greater good of our country, and of the planet.