At NBC News today, I saw this headline: “Ukraine’s offensive in the east surprised Russia — and it may be a turning point in the war.” Russian forces are retreating, but whether this represents a decisive turning point remains to be seen. Still, Ukraine resistance seems steady, and Russian will unsteady, at this moment in the war.
Surely, this is good news — or is it? With all the fighting taking place in Ukraine, the longer the war lasts, the worst it will likely turn out for Ukrainians. Turning points often are illusory: just ask all those U.S. generals who spoke of turning points in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last two decades. The best case scenario here is for Ukraine to use its military advantage and push for a favorable diplomatic settlement. I would hope Vladimir Putin might also see the wisdom of ending a war that has cost him more than he likely imagined when he started it earlier this year (as Andrew Bacevich explains at TomDispatch).
Too many Americans, it seems to me, are determined to see Russia suffer as much as possible. With Russia, the Pentagon’s argument goes something like this: Putin is a malevolent and irredentist dictator. Without NATO expansion, the Baltic States would already have been reabsorbed by Russia, with Poland and other (former) eastern bloc nations next on Putin’s target list. Putin, a “clear and present danger,” is only kept in line by U.S. and NATO military power, because his goal is a new Russian empire with borders much like those that Russia had in 1914 or, if that proves overly ambitious, 1989 before the Soviet collapse. Only a resolute America (and now Ukraine) stands in his way, but that requires massive military spending in a renewed effort at containment, together with yet more spending on America’s nuclear triad. “Containment” and “deterrence,” once again, are the neutral-sounding words that enable open-ended U.S. military spending against Russia (and of course Red China as well).
Truly what we don’t need is Cold War 2.0. The world barely survived the first one, and that was before climate change emerged as the serious threat that it is today.
In the 1990s, the U.S. and NATO rejected the idea that Russia maybe, just maybe, could be incorporated into the European Community in a security architecture respectful of Russian history and goals while also securing nascent democracies in former Warsaw Pact countries. Today, that rejection is complete, as Russia and Putin are dismissed as irredeemable deplorables, to borrow a phrase from Hillary Clinton.
Yet I wouldn’t underestimate Russian resilience. Just ask Hitler, Napoleon, or Charles XII about that. They all invaded Russia and got spanked. The time has come not to continue the vilification of Russia but to reach accords that Russians, Ukrainians, and other Europeans can all live with.
You wage war long, you wage it wrong, especially when it’s being waged on your turf. Short of total capitulation by either side, which is unlikely, let’s hope Zelensky and Putin can find a way to resolve their differences Let’s hope as well that the U.S. sees the wisdom of facilitating a diplomatic settlement that ends the killing.
Though President Biden previously has suggested Putin must go, I’d be very careful what he wishes for. Russia under new leaders may prove even more volatile and vengeful than U.S. leaders think it’s been under Putin.