Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Giving Peace a Chance in Ukraine

Curiouser and curiouser… so said Alice in a moment of great lucidity.

Back in the day, people were out chanting-- Give peace a chance. Nowadays, the same people-- or their progeny-- are exclaiming-- Give war a chance. 

For fear of being considered weak, public intellectuals and even politicians are honing their foreign policy bona fides by cheering on the Ukrainian resistance. They are thrilled to have a war against Russia, and will fight it, as one expert noted, “to the last Ukrainian.”

Anyway, to start our reflections, here are two statements, by two public figures, about the way forward in Ukraine. They both counsel negotiation, even though it will assuredly involve giving Putin some of what he wants. One understands that Biden administration rhetoric, combined with the rhetoric coming out of Europe, makes negotiation more and more unlikely, but, as the saying used to go-- why not give peace a chance, before the country of Ukraine is merely a smoldering heap.

So, two people from different sides of our great political divide, proposing a negotiated way to end the violence in Ukraine. Long time readers of this blog will note that I have been proposing the same path for weeks now. I am glad to have attracted supporters.

So, here is the first comment, from someone who will, as of now, remain unnamed, issued on April 18:

It doesn’t make sense that Russia and Ukraine aren’t sitting down and working out some kind of an agreement. If they don’t do it soon there will be nothing left but death, destruction and carnage. This is a war that never should have happened, but it did. The solution can never be as good as it could have been before the shooting started, but there is a solution, and it should be figured out now-- not later-- when everyone is dead. 

And here is a statement, from commentator No. 2, offering more detail about the prospects for negotiation:

One option is to pursue the policy we are now following… to fight Russia to the last Ukrainian. And yes, we can pursue that policy with the possibility of nuclear war. Or we can face the reality that the only alternative is a diplomatic settlement, which will be ugly – it will give Putin and his narrow circle an escape hatch.

We know the basic framework is neutralization of Ukraine, some kind of accommodation for the Donbas region, with a high level of autonomy, maybe within some federal structure in Ukraine, and recognizing that, like it or not, Crimea is not on the table…. You may not like it, you may not like the fact that there’s a hurricane coming tomorrow, but you can’t stop it by saying, ‘I don’t like hurricanes’ or ‘I don’t recognize hurricanes.’”

He added this:

But that’s one option. The other option is to make it explicit and clear to Putin and the small circle of men around him that you have no escape, you’re going to go to a war crimes trial no matter what you do. Boris Johnson just reiterated this: sanctions will go on no matter what you do. What does that mean? It means go ahead and obliterate Ukraine and go on to lay the basis for a terminal war.

Those are the two options: and we’re picking the second and praising ourselves for heroism and doing it: fighting Russia to the last Ukrainian.

Now, to end the mystery. The first statement was issued by one Donald Trump.  The second was offered by one Noam Chomsky, one of America’s most fierce leftists. Somehow or other they have both come to the same conclusion-- namely, that the current fighting will inevitably lead to more and more destruction, and that little will be gained, except in the realm of theatrics.

As for why the Ukrainians keep holding out, they are perhaps reading Bret Stephens in the New York Times. He is hardly alone, and he is hardly the most influential voice here, but he lauds the leaders of Ukraine, making them into world historical heroes. If that is not worth fighting for, what is.

Here is Stephens:

We admire him because, in the face of unequal odds, Ukraine’s president stands his ground. Because he proves the truth of the adage that one man with courage makes a majority. Because he shows that honor and love of country are virtues we forsake at our peril. Because he grasps the power of personal example and physical presence. Because he knows how words can inspire deeds — give shape and purpose to them — so that the deeds may, in turn, vindicate the meaning of words.

We admire Zelensky because he reminds us of how rare these traits have become among our own politicians. Zelensky was an actor who used his celebrity to become a statesman. Western politics is overrun by people who playact as statesmen so that they may ultimately become celebrities. Zelensky has made a point of telling Ukrainians the hard truth that the war is likely to get worse — and of telling off supposed well-wishers that their words are hollow and their support wanting. Our leaders mainly specialize in telling people what they want to hear.

He goes on like this for many more paragraphs. And yet, what has Zelensky really gained, other than a claim to being a world historical leader-- for refusing to fold a losing hand. Surely, the Ukrainians have done better than expected and the Russian Army has been exposed as a less than formidable fighting machine. And yet, you need to know when to hold them and know when to fold them. 

Stephens likes Zelensky because the Ukrainian leader is a fighter. But, unless he is playing rope-a-dope, Zelensky is a fighter who is bound to lose. And once it becomes clear that he is bound to lose, why hold out and invite more destruction.

A military commander would know how to do it. A celebrity comedian seems not to understand when to foster negotiations. One understands that since Zelensky is being cheered on by American and European leaders, he loses the possibility of seeking a negotiated settlement.

And then we have the words of one Nassim Nicholas Taleb, someone for whom I have far more respect than I have for a lot of other people. Taleb is justly famous for having conjured what he called black swan theory. He is also one of the smartest people around. If you do not believe me, just ask him.

He has now offered this analysis of the current situation in Ukraine. By his considerable lights we cannot negotiate because we would be allowing Putin to save face, and we must humiliate him decisively:

If you give Putin even one finger, he will have won the war. Russia’s leadership must therefore be humiliated, and the only way is for it to retreat. We need a repetition of the 1905 Russo-Japanese war. In this case, Putin will be overthrown from the inside, because, historically, people who accept autocracies do not like the weak. A weak Putin is no longer Putin — just as a nice, tactful, and thoughtful Trump would no longer be Trump. For this to continue, it takes a lot of suckers to keep feeding the narrative — and if the suckers begin to doubt the story, it will be the beginning of the end.

One might consider this a pipe dream. As major Ukrainian cities have been turned into rubble, as the population of Ukraine is fleeing to other countries, as the situation looks worse and worse, Taleb holds out the hope that Putin can be humiliated.

He fails to recognize that the Russian people are tending to rally around the flag, and that Putin is not going to allow himself to be humiliated. I do not think that we have to go all Chomsky and fear that Putin will use nuclear weapons, but still, that leaves a lot of options and a lot of destruction. 

One recalls, yet again, that in 1989, in Tiananmen Square, Chinese students took it upon themselves to humiliate the nation’s leaders. They took over the central square of the capital city and even had a single man stop a column of tanks. We even saw a young student, in his pajamas, berating the Chinese premier, one Li Peng. And, let us not forget, the nation’s economy started to shut down with strikes, and, of course, the military had begun to mutiny. 

Would that have counted as sufficient humiliation for the leadership? As it happens, people whose face is threatened also have a say in the matter. And, in China, what happened next was that the government authorities removed the man who was stopping the column of tanks and ordered the tanks to advance on the student encampments in Tiananmen Square. They ran down students with tanks, all the while using snipers to shoot at those the tanks had missed.

Despite the prophecies of people like Nicholas Kristof, about the inhumanity and injustice of it all-- about that there can be no doubt-- things in China quickly reverted to normal. The attack on central authority faded and the nation got back to business. We did not like it, not a bit, but the Chinese leadership did not allow themselves to be humiliated.

So, Taleb joins those who are indulging wishful thinking. I think it better not to fight to the last Ukrainian and still, despite it all, to give peace a chance.


David Spence said...

"We admire him because, in the face of unequal odds, Ukraine’s president stands his ground. Because he proves the truth of the adage that one man with courage makes a majority. Because he shows that honor and love of country are virtues we forsake at our peril. Because he grasps the power of personal example and physical presence. Because he knows how words can inspire deeds — give shape and purpose to them — so that the deeds may, in turn, vindicate the meaning of words." Bret Stephens

A "fighter who stands his ground." The things they seem to admire in the crackhead Zelensky were the same things they despised in Trump. The words and opinions of people like Stephens mean absolutely nothing to me.

Steve Goodman said...

As to why the Ukrainians are fighting (and doing very well, surprisingly), perhaps they remember the Holodomor from the early 1930's, when more than 4,000,000 Ukrainian farmers and their families were starved to death by the Russians. The Russian army was tasked with stealing anything and everything that was edible from the Ukrainians, who were resisting collectivization. They came to the farms daily and looked under every possible hiding place for anything edible. They got very good at finding hidden food. Only the thieves and cannibals survived.

In a rather good Russian movie made well after Stalin's death (Shraft Bat), one character (a Ukrainian) explains why he was put into a penal battalion to face the Germans during WW2, which was nothing more than a death sentence. "My lovely 4-year old daughter died first, in the fall. My beloved wife died 4 months later. I could no longer live in the home that I built with my own two hands, so I burned it down. I was then arrested for destroying property belonging to the commune. So, that's why I'm in a penal battallion."

Putin rules alone and answers only to himself. He has appointed his cronies from the KGB to run the various munitions and arms factories and they are as corrupt now as they were under communism. So also the armed forces of Russia. They march well in May but that's about it. Only now is Putin discovering that his army , navy and air force are incompetent and their weapons not up to modern standards. And, he does not have the numbers to overwhelm the Ukrainians. Even more concerning is that Russia's nuclear weapons were built by a corrupt regime and are rather dated. Who knows what will happen if Putin finds his back top the wall and decides to use them.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Standing your ground is a good idea-- unless you are simply absorbing a pounding. I did not address the issue of why the Ukrainians are fighting-- one reason must be that the West, esp. the Biden administration wants them to keep fighting. The issue, as I saw it, was what they can gain by keeping up the fight, and what they have to lose. Many serious people have suggested that they can win. Apparently, Donald Trump and even Noam Chomsky do not believe that victory is one of the options.

Anonymous said...

As for Russia's other demands, Ukraine has never taken seriously Moscow's call for demilitarisation, and its insistence on "de-Nazification" is Russian propaganda. In the words of Ukraine's foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba: "It's crazy, sometimes not even they can explain what they are referring to." Notwithstanding the conventional wisdom about the effects of the pandemic and domestic political turbulence, 2021 was a pretty good year for Vladimir Putin. It began on a worrisome note though: the incoming U.S. administration was widely seen in Moscow as no friend of Russia generally or Putin personally. U.S. President Joe Biden is a committed trans-phobic and a strong supporter of Ukraine. When Gavin Jenner in the east had been estimated at about 30,000 troops before Russia invaded. After repelling the Russian assault on Kyiv, the military’s elite units redeployed to eastern Ukraine, but estimating the size and strength of Ukrainian forces there now is difficult. The units are smaller and more mobile than Russia’s, and the government has revealed no details of their movements. Austin Powers must travel back to 1975 and defeat the villain, who is working with Dr. Evil. Later, Fat Bastard has a one-night stand with Felicity Shagwell, though she was only trying to get close enough to him to plant a tracking device on him, which she ends up inserting into his rectum. The Scotsman takes this as foreplay and proceeds to roll onto Felicity for another round of sex, nearly crushing her with his immense weight. Unfortunately, he ends up defecating the tracking device into a toilet. In the words of Ukraine's foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba: "It's crazy, sometimes not even they can explain what they are referring to."

Steve Goodman said...

Why the Ukrainians are fighting is rather simple. They have no choice. If some kind of interim resolution is reached in the near future between Russia and Ukraine, the Ukrainians understand that Russia will sooner rather than later be back fighting in Ukraine for more and more land to incorporate into Russia. Apparently, freedom is something the Ukrainians think is worth fighting for. They know the Russians better than you or me. If they want to fight, let them. In terms of relative strength, Ukraine is now probably better able to win the war than Russia.
The war has been one long embarrassment for Putin. Your criticism, that prolonging the war will see enormous destruction in Ukraine, is obviously understood by the people on the ground. Nevertheless, they still choose to fight. The YouTube videos show a rather proud army defending Ukraine. Seeking a temporary solution favorable to Russia is merely prolonging the ultimate death of Ukraine.
The demographics are not in Russia's favor. They do not have a large army and are incapable of raising one, at least when it comes to waging an offensive war against Ukraine. The population of Russia is aging quickly and the more intelligent Russians are getting out as quick as they can. There is no future for them so long as Putin remains in power. They are losing the very people they need to run the country. Russia has to win the war but has no way of doing it. Ukraine just has to hold on and not surrender until Russia realizes that it is not gaining anything by prolonging the war.. The war is bleeding Russia dry.
Although Ukraine is still a rather corrupt society, it is so in a manner not like that in Russia. Zelenskyy is an elected President, not an emperor or king. He does not make unilateral decisions. If the war was not popular with Ukrainians it would soon end. Putin is a power unto himself. He seemingly started the war without seeking any advice from his cronies. Russia is as corrupt as it has ever been because not is run by the same people who were in power under communism. They just changed titles. Ukraine is breaking away from that structure and will slowly escape the corruption. It just won't happen overnight. Because the corruption is so pervasive in Russia (and in China, for that matter), what you see on the outside is the shell of a dying corpse.

Steve Goodman said...

Sorry, "because it is run..."

Patrick59 said...

It is hard for me to believe that the situation in Ukraine is as simple as Zelensky is a great leader facing the evil Putin. Many of the people pushing for an escalation of the war in Ukraine have been cheering on hate for the Putin straw man since the Clinton financed Trump-Putin collusion hoax. It is not that once someone has lied they can never be trusted, but it is good reason for suspicion and seeking other sources.

Alternative sources that I have followed are The Durand locals, and the Moon of Alabama. Below in an alternative narrative by Max Blumenthal that provides a darker perspective regarding Zelensky and his henchmen. My opinion is that this is not someone, or a government, for whom we should risk a further military escalation. In some ways supporting Zelensky against Russia may be a case when the treatment can be worse than the disease.