Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Ukraine: The Sense of an Ending

Now what? Now that Russia’s war on Ukraine enters its sixth week, what can be done? 

Are we happy that Joe Biden is in charge? Or, do we secretly suspect that Joe is not in charge at all. True enough, Biden’s America has joined with other Western nations in going to war against Russia.

How has that been working out?

Aside from the fact that the West, with its gas purchases, is financing a war that it despises, it is also true that the sanctions regime is producing shortages in grain and fertilizer. Around the world, a food crisis is brewing, because of the war and because of the war against the war.

So, is there a way out?

One understands that many Westerners, led by conservatives voices like the Wall Street Journal, keep saying that Ukraine can win. After all, Russia has withdrawn from the Kiev region and that should be a cause for optimism, or some such. That Russia inflicted unimaginable damage on the region and its people ought to cause us to question the Ukrainian strategy-- which feels quite a lot like rope-a-dope.

Of course, the more the Ukrainians believe that the West wants it to win, the longer it will hold out and continue the fight. It might be the case that Ukrainian citizens are being sacrificed and that Ukrainian cities and towns and infrastructure is being destroyed, but Ukraine’s leaders imagine that the West is on their side.

Besides, the West, led by the Biden administration, has granted Ukrainians world historical significance. If you were running the poorest country in Europe and the world offers to make you a world historical hero, what would you do?

As for the rope-a-dope strategy, the analogy might seem germane, but countries are not the same as Mohammed Ali opponents. A country cannot put up its arms as a shield and walk away unscathed after its opponents’ arms start to flag.

Will the Russian army, apparently not exactly a model of military efficiency, exhaust itself and retreat ignominiously behind its borders?

Fair enough, it does not seem likely, but Walter Russell Mead begins his Wall Street Journal column with that option. (via Maggie’s Farm) So, we will consider it:

The first option, helping Ukraine win, is the most emotionally appealing and would certainly be the most morally justifiable and politically beneficial, but the risks and costs are high. Russia won’t accept defeat before trying every tactic, however brutal, and perhaps every weapon, however murderous. To force Russia to accept failure in Ukraine, the Biden administration would likely have to shift to a wartime mentality, perhaps including the kind of nuclear brinkmanship not seen since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. With China and Iran both committed to weakening American power by any available means, a confrontation with the revisionist powers spearheaded by Russia may prove to be the most arduous challenge faced by an American administration since the height of the Cold War.

And that is the most positive case for Ukrainian victory. Dare we say that it does not feel like something that can really happen. One suspects that Vladimir Putin would turn Ukraine into dust before he gives in.

Mead offers two other options. One is a Russian victory:

But the other two options are also bad. A Russian victory would inflict a massive blow to American prestige and the health of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, especially if the West were seen as forcing Ukraine to surrender to Russian demands.

As it happens, America, in the person of Joe Biden has already engaged its considerable prestige in its war against Russia. It is also a war against China and certain other countries that are siding with Russia. 

Anything that looks like a Russian victory or even a Ukrainian defeat-- they are not the same-- will make America and the West look weak.

For now we are ranting about justice, because we always rant about justice. The Ukrainians, thoroughly Westernized as they are, want to bring Vladimir Putin to justice. They like the sanctions war; they like the confiscation of Russian property; but they mostly like the criminal courts, especially the one in the Hague, the one we do not belong to and the one which Russia does not belong to.

Typical of the way we think these days, we do not engage in battle or competition. We punish, one way or another.

As for the earnest fantasy of visiting justice on Putin, what about the Germans who are funding the war by buying Russian energy? And besides, as CNN’s Jake Tapper remarked to a Ukrainian official on Monday, in relation to the analogy of the Nuremberg Tribunals, don’t you have to win before you can try anyone for war crimes?

The third option, Mead suggests, is to freeze the conflict in place, call for something like a cease fire with neither side having achieved its objectives:

Freezing the conflict is also perilous, as this would presumably leave Russia holding even more Ukrainian territory than it did following the 2014 invasions of Crimea and the Donbas. It would be hard to spin this as anything but a partial victory for Russia—and Mr. Putin would remain free to renew hostilities at a time of his choosing.

Now, there is much good to be said for finding a way down from the ledge. For now, it is clear that this would look like a Putin victory, but what other options are there?

If the Ukrainians think that America and the West is going to get more engaged and involved, to the point of sending many more weapons and even troops, they are whistling past the…..

Anyway, David Goldman, someone we respect around these parts, has been channeling Cardinal Richelieu. One does not know enough of French history to see the virtue of it, but you could certainly do worse than the cardinal. (via Maggie’s Farm)

Anyway, Goldman is largely cynical about the prevailing narratives that the Biden administration and its media satraps have been selling. If you find these narratives to be implausible, you have been paying attention. 

Anyway, here the Godman-Richelieu analysis:

Putin isn’t defeated or baffled or confused. He’s turning the crank on the meatgrinder. One doesn’t have to read too far into these lines to conclude that Putin hoped that Zelensky would cut a deal on his terms once Russia invaded, but when Zelensky refused to cut a deal, Putin moved to Option B, which is to erase most of Ukraine from the face of the earth. That’s not as difficult as it sounds. Putin will keep the bits he wants in the Southeast (Donetsk and Luhansk), leave the West to factory farming, and pound the rest to rubble with artillery and air power.

Goldman bases his analysis on a cold eyed view of Ukraine. It is worth mention, at the least, at a time when we are all rallying around the flag-- not the American flag but the Ukrainian flag:

Ukraine’s national population of 45 million had fallen to just 33 million by 2020 because half the working-age population left. Another 5 million refugees have fled, and millions more will leave before Russian cannons fall silent. There won’t be enough working-age Ukrainians left to begin reconstruction. Putin claimed Feb. 23 that the West intended to turn Ukraine into a NATO missile platform with a 300-mile distance to Moscow. If he can’t get Ukraine to accept neutrality with Russian control over its southeast provinces, he’ll eliminate the threat Richelieu-style.

That will surely wipe the optimism off of your face. It gets worse:

It’s horrible. But what’s going to stop Putin? To flatten Ukrainian cities, all the Russians need is artillery. All the Javelin anti-tank missiles in the world won’t do any good.

And then there is another question. How badly are the sanctions and the punishment that the tough Biden administration is visiting on Russia today hurting that country? Are they really a good way to fight a war?

Goldman gives us the bad news:

Meanwhile, Putin’s popularity is at 78% according to independent polls that Western analysts think are accurate, the ruble has climbed back to just about where it traded before the invasion, and the Russian economy is doing “better than you think,” according to the London Economist. Biden bragged that the U.S. had reduced “the ruble to rubble.” He spoke too soon. He declared that Putin “can’t stay in power.” Looks like he can and he will. China’s sitting on the sidelines enjoying the show, and India, which refused to support sanctions against its longstanding ally Russia, will sell the Russians’ consumer goods.

It is worthwhile to remind ourselves of the simple fact, that China and India have not sided with the West, and that they are enjoying the show-- because it exposes Western weakness and even decadence. After all, Paul Krugman announced that the Biden response was a clear sign that the West was not decadent. By the laws of contrary opinion, if Krugman says that we are not decadent, that is firm proof that we are.

Goldman sees us as speaking loudly but carrying a twig. Clearly, the Russian actions are in the realm of evil, but railing against evil and crying out for justice does not create a policy:

U.S. officials can scream all they want about Russian “war crimes” (I don’t know the facts and take no position on whether war crimes were committed or not). I think that Putin is a bad guy and that the Russian invasion was a wicked enterprise. But Putin isn’t going anywhere, Russia isn’t collapsing, and the Russian Army is demolishing Ukraine.

So, Goldman prefers some level of de-escalation and a negotiated compromise-- to the extent that it is still possible. At some point we need to stop the carnage, or at least to ask ourselves what we are accomplishing by pretending that the Ukrainians can win. Isn't time for some serious negotiations?

So, I tend to agree with Goldman here:

That’s why I signed this statement calling for de-escalation of the conflict sponsored by Compact Magazine, founded by my friends Sohrab Ahmari and Matthew Schmidtz. Biden, Blinken, Nuland et. al. have led us into a dead-end crisis that threatens to have a horrifying outcome—and maybe even a nuclear fireball.


Peter said...

Very good points here.

Alas, it gets worse. While the Russians seem to be going slowly, you have to consider the following. They are attacking with inferior forces. On paper, the Ukrainian armed forces are circa 600K. The Russian forces, say, 150K. On the basis of a "normal" conflict, you need a 3:1 superiority to take the offensive. But the Russian army is advancing, perhaps not as fast as people considered it could. But we are having to try and guess out what the military objectives are. Perhaps capturing ground isn't the key here.

The key question is, how long can the Ukrainians keep going before total collapse? I see the Russians taking all of Ukraine east of the Dnieper, and probably adding Odesa as well. The longer it goes on, the weaker will be the West's bargaining position.

Yes, sanctions hurt but will take a long time to come to fruition. It will all be over before then. The hysterical cancellation culture and evident anti-Russian sentiment being displayed in media and via official pronouncements are hugely counterproductive if the aim is to mobilise the Russian people against the conflict. It confirms all the propaganda about what the West is up to. And sanctions aren't even universal with, essentially, the Anglosphere and Europe in on it, the latter also having carved out a huge hole with energy exempt. But I suppose there is a limit to the virtue signalling here when it comes to the economic impact, which for countries such as Germany would be very severe indeed--and far more immediate than those on Russia--if they stopped energy imports.

One area where the commentariat have it all wrong is over the Russian investment of Kiev. Yes, at the beginning, there was probably a hope on the Russian side that the Ukrainians might fold. It was worth a go, as it were. But it seems the main purpose was to pin the Ukrainians in defending the capital while the real objectives were achieved elsewhere. Now that is less important, for reasons below, they are withdrawing. Again, is taking ground the objective? Unclear.

Peter said...

Consider the following aspects of the war and you can see the US and others approach relies on a quick Russian collapse militarily. The "Russians rise up and overthrow Putin scenario" (See prior comment.)
This is what is happening::
1. The Russians have been and continue to systematically take out fuel supplies and degrade the logistic support of the Ukrainian army;
2. There is no Ukrainian air force and all bases are "at risk" of an over-the-horizon cruise missile attack rendering them unusable in the most part. This complicates the movement of any weapons that reach them from the West and their transit to where they are needed. Plus the lack of fuel is becoming a real issue.
3. The army in the East around the Dombas region is close to being surrounded and is immobilised. The terrain there favours the Russians in being open and good tank country.
4. Disinformation produced by the Ukrainians is becoming increasingly fantastical. We have Chernobyl (again) and more recently the "massacre". Now, I am not saying that civilians haven't been executed or whatnot, but the recent video for a variety of reasons doesn't pass the smell test.
(I know I will get vitriol, probably, for stating the above.)

But consider: Who benefits from such "evidence" of a massacre? What, precisely, is the motive and/or reasons for Russians to murder these people at that location and leave the evidence conveniently to be videoed by the advancing Ukrainians? The Russians withdrew in reasonable order (see above), so could easily "clean up" if they had committed the crimes. There are also question marks about the timing of the video and inconsistencies between declarations by the mayor, prior video, and other factors, like the US military's "inability" to confirm the massacre, and so on, which raise questions about the authenticity of the atrocity.

In saying the above, I am not in any way wishing to defend the Russians. Aggression and war are always to be condemned. But the one-sided and uncritical reporting is not helping make anyone see the issues in a logical way and help the situation. Every day of conflict brings untold misery on Ukrainians and Russians alike.

And meanwhile, interruptions to world trade are creating the conditions for global shortages of key foodstuffs.

IamDevo said...

Many cogent observations here. I might only add that we were brought to this pass by the earlier activities of our neocon friends who used Ukraine as a proxy for their war against Russia, which was a continuation of the cold war strategy engaged in by both sides for decades after the end of WW II. Korea, Viet Nam, Cuba, Panama, Afghanistan, etc., up until the fall of the USSR, were ALL proxy wars, in which the Big Players used the Little Guys to bash each other while maintaining enough plausible deniability to keep from nuking it out with each other. So many years of this, "Let's you and him fight" strategy. We let the poor saps in Ukraine think we would back their play if they decided to go beyond what was acceptable to the other side, but now Putin saw his chance (thanks, Biden voters) and we (and by that I mean TPTB, not ordinary American citizens, who are equally victims in this) have been proven to be craven cowards and the Ukrainians are left holding the bag. Even now, "we" continue to goad and support what's left of them, whereas we should be seeking to end this slaughter. Let Putin have his partial victory. Russia will remain what it is, viz., a third world economic cripple, dependent on exports of its natural resources for continued viability. America must heed the advice of Washington ("avoid foreign entanglements") and Eisenhower (beware the wiles of the "military-industrial complex"). We must concentrate on cleaning our own house. God knows there is enough corruption to be found in Washington, D.C. to keep us occupied in that endeavor for years to come

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