I haven’t written much about the progress of the Russia-Ukraine War. I have no special insight into what’s going on in Ukraine, or in Putin’s head, but I think I know something about the USA and its leadership.
The war itself: Russia and Ukraine are both losing. Russia is losing men and materiel; Ukraine is losing land and suffering all the destruction of a war fought on their turf. Many Americans seem to be cheering Ukraine and its resolute resistance, but at what cost, and for what purpose?
Historical analogies: American commentators like to refer to 1938 and Munich. Putin, naturally, is Hitler, and the world must stand up to him since Ukraine is only the first country on his list of potential conquests. If Putin wins in Ukraine, Poland would be next. Or the Baltic States. Because Putin wants to re-create the Soviet empire. Or the Russia of the Tsars.
But I think it’s much more like 1914. A regional conflict that may spin wildly out of control as more and more countries get swept into its escalatory spiral. Russian threats and nuclear red lines are more than worrisome. After all, wars are inherently chaotic and unpredictable, often creating their own bizarre logic of what’s right and wrong, what’s rational and irrational. Anyone who thinks they know how this war is going to end is overestimating the predictability of war. We’re all engaged in guess-work, and where nuclear threats are involved, guess-work is less than reassuring.
The Russia-Ukraine War could escalate to a world war: Already we’ve seen major economic sanctions involving the US, NATO countries, and Russia. Already we’ve seen Russia working with China and other countries to sell its fuel and other products as it seeks to evade those sanctions. Already we’ve seen inflation and recession in the US economy that can be tied back to those sanctions. Meanwhile, the US and NATO have sent tens of billions in weaponry to Ukraine to wage its war, which, to be blunt, is a form of proxy war for the US and NATO. The US president has called for regime change in Russia, declaring that Putin must go. Both Nord Stream pipelines have been attacked. This is not a simple regional war between Russia and Ukraine. It’s already a war with global implications openly funded by the US with the explicit goal of weakening Russia and removing Putin from power.
To use chess terminology, the war still appears to be in its opening stages. Perhaps the middle game has begun; what’s certain is the end game is nowhere in sight. As Matt Taibbi recently noted, the Washington Post observed that “recent events have only added to the sense that the war will be a long slog,” and “all of this adds up to a war that looks increasingly open-ended.” Even worse, the paper noted:
Privately, U.S. officials say neither Russia nor Ukraine is capable of winning the war outright, but they have ruled out the idea of pushing or even nudging Ukraine to the negotiating table. They say they do not know what the end of the war looks like, or how it might end or when, insisting that is up to Kyiv.
Taibbi’s response is telling: “What??? If the White House doesn’t think the war can be won, but also refuses to negotiate itself, or ‘nudge’ others to do it for them, what exactly is its end strategy? Waiting for things to get worse and then reassessing?”
To return to chess: In games involving highly skilled players, often draws are agreed upon early in the middle game, as both players realize they have no prospects for victory and that further play will merely prolong the inevitable. It’s time for the major players in this conflict to agree to some version of a draw, a negotiated settlement, an end to conflict. Chess, after all, is just a game. The players don’t have to worry about dying in a nuclear cataclysm. We do.