Zelensky is no Chamberlain; talking is not appeasement
A fascinating aspect of the Russia-Ukraine War is the argument that negotiation would be unwise, especially if Ukraine were to initiate it. Typical arguments include that you can’t negotiate with a dictator like Putin, that negotiation would be a sign of weakness and would somehow reward Putin for his invasion, and that negotiation is ipso facto appeasement that would lead to further (and much wider) Russian attacks. All these arguments are faulty.
First, my pro-Ukrainian friends tell me that Ukraine is winning the war and therefore resolution will come with total victory at the front. Perhaps so, but fortunes of war often prove fickle. If indeed Ukraine has a winning edge, what better time to negotiate? It’s always preferable to negotiate from a position of strength, so now is the time, assuming Putin is amenable. What’s to be lost by asking?
Second, negotiation, again from a position of strength, is the very opposite of appeasement. When Neville Chamberlain infamously negotiated with Adolf Hitler in 1938, he was doing so from a position of relative weakness. Nazi Germany was rearming and mobilizing for World War II, and Great Britain and its allies were very much behind. Hitler, of course, lied that territory in Czechoslovakia was his “last demand,” but few in the know were truly fooled about the danger Hitler and the German military represented. Still, Chamberlain hoped that a viable treaty to prevent war was possible, even as Britain and its allies began in earnest to prepare for war as the “peace” deal was being struck.
Interestingly, Hitler didn’t see Chamberlain’s “appeasement” as a victory. He was livid. Hitler wanted to go to war in 1938. The deal Hitler struck delayed his attack on Poland until September of 1939. By the time Germany attacked Britain and France in May of 1940, the British were better prepared, materially and mentally, to resist Hitler. (The shockingly quick fall of France is another story entirely.)
One could argue that Chamberlain’s failed appeasement delayed Hitler’s war plans to an extent that ultimately favored eventual allied victory. Hitler was, after all, decisively defeated five years after he launched his invasion of France. And, after Hitler betrayed his promises to Chamberlain, there was no doubt whatsoever among the allies that military victory was the only way to end the Nazi threat.
My point is that even Chamberlain’s dreadful “appeasement” wasn’t quite as bad as we’re so often told. More importantly to this moment: No one mistakes Zelensky and his soldier-like image for Chamberlain with his umbrella. Again, Zelensky and Ukraine have fought well; their resistance has been steadfast. Why not negotiate? Ukraine may win more at the negotiating table than it ever could on the battlefield, while sparing the lives of countless Ukrainian (and Russian) troops.
Third, another argument I’ve heard is that, if the war ends by negotiation, Putin and Russia will just reinvade after a period of rest and rearming. Anything is possible, but why would Putin relaunch a war that’s already proven to be a quagmire? And won’t Ukraine also use the time to rest and rearm, with plenty of help from the U.S. and NATO?
Wars don’t have to end in total victory or total defeat. One side doesn’t have to collapse in exhaustion or to flee ignominiously. Wars can be ended by negotiation if both parties are open to compromise. Temper tantrums at the negotiating table are better than more bullets and bombs and bodies.
Ukraine and Russia share a long border and a tempestuous history. They need to learn to live together, else they will surely die together, as they are now. Why not talk and choose life over more death?
A blank check of support is often a dangerous thing, especially in war
Remarkably, U.S. aid to Ukraine may soon exceed $100 billion if the Biden administration’s latest ask is approved. And more than a few Americans believe Ukraine merits this vast sum—and more.
They argue the Ukraine war is a necessary one and applaud the Biden administration for taking a firm stance against Russian aggression. They see Putin as a dangerous dictator who seeks to revive a Russian empire at the expense of Europe, and they wholeheartedly approve of U.S. and NATO military aid. They argue Ukraine is winning the war and that, once the war is won, Ukraine should be invited to join NATO. They see NATO as a benign presence and dismiss Russian concerns that NATO expansion is in any way provocative. And they see negotiation with Putin as at best premature and at worst as rewarding Putin for his Hitlerian aggression.
My stance is different. Yes, I denounce Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and hope that he loses, but I’d prefer to see a negotiated settlement. The longer the war lasts, the more people die, Russian and Ukrainian, and the greater the chance of miscalculationfollowed by escalation, possibly even to nuclear weapons.
I don’t think the U.S. government cares a whit about defending democracy in Ukraine; heck, it barely defends democracy in America. I think the government and specifically the MICC (military-industrial-congressional complex) has several goals:
1. To weaken Russia militarily and economically via what some term a proxy war.
2. To sell more natural gas to Europe (hence the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines).
3. To sell massive amounts of weaponry to Ukraine.
4. To elevate Russia to an “evil empire” once again, ensuring higher Pentagon spending. Notice how there’s been no “peace dividend” in the aftermath of the Afghan War. Indeed, Pentagon budgets have soared since the Russian invasion.
5. To support the narrative of a new cold war against Russia and China, ensuring even more spending on weapons and wars.
6. Finally, as Biden stated openly, the desire to effect regime change in Russia, i.e. the overthrow of Putin by his own people.
Again, I’m no Putin fan, and I truly wish he’d give up and withdraw his forces. But I very much doubt he’ll do that. It seems more likely that both sides, Ukraine and Russia, will continue launching missiles and drones at each other while the war escalates further. Consider recent reports of Ukrainian attacks on Russian barracks in the Crimea even as Russia targets infrastructure in Odesa.
So, while it’s true U.S. and NATO aid will keep Ukraine in the war, it’s also true Ukrainians and Russians will continue to suffer and die in a war that is already escalating in dangerous ways. It all has the makings of a far-reaching disaster, but what we’re encouraged to do is to ask no questions while flying the Ukrainian flag just below our American ones.
A blank check of support is often a dangerous thing, especially in war.
Shooting for total victory for Ukraine may only lead to total war for the world
Recently, I’ve been discussing the Russia-Ukraine War with a friend. He sees it as a “war of national liberation” for Ukraine and fully supports extensive U.S. military aid in weaponry, intelligence, and logistics. Supporters of Ukraine, he said, are much like those who supported republican Spain against the fascist forces of Franco in the 1930s. Vladimir Putin is a dangerous dictator bent on Ukraine’s total subjugation. He must be stopped, and the best way to ensure that is total military victory for Ukraine. He also opined that Ukraine is winning the war and that the $100 billion or so that the U.S. government has pledged is money well spent.
Once Ukraine wins the war, he concluded, it should be fully integrated into NATO, still a vitally important alliance against Russian imperial expansion and exploitation. Ukraine only seeks to protect its own sovereignty and to join European democracies and the EU, a goal the U.S. should actively seek to facilitate.
I wish I could be as confident and certain as my friend of the nobility of both Ukraine’s cause and U.S. participation in Ukrainian politics and the war. Why am I more skeptical than my friend? For several reasons:
The U.S. government has done nothing to facilitate diplomacy and negotiation between Ukraine and Russia. Indeed, the Biden administration has worked to discourage diplomacy.
Ukraine may see itself as engaged in a “war of national liberation,” but for U.S. officials it’s more of a proxy war to weaken Russia. Various sanctions and the destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines suggest powerful economic and financial motives that have nothing to do with safeguarding Ukrainian territory or its “democracy.”
Undeniably, U.S. aid to Ukraine, commitments of which have already exceeded $100 billion, are a major boon to the military-industrial complex in America. When people profit massively from war and death, it’s reasonable to question their motives.
The U.S. military/government exists to safeguard national security and the U.S. Constitution. In that context, the territorial integrity of Ukraine is not a vital concern.
The danger of military escalation in Europe is real. A longer war means more dead and wounded soldiers on both sides; more destruction and collateral damage; and more inflammatory rhetoric about nuclear red lines, dirty bombs, and the like. The longer the war lasts, the more inflamed passions will become, and the more likely efforts “to end Russian occupation” of Ukraine will escalate into something far more ambitious — and likely far deadlier.
To me, neither side appears to be clearly winning and neither is on the verge of victory. If the war lasts another year, or two, or three, any kind of Ukrainian “victory” may be pyrrhic indeed if the country is a blasted husk as a result.
As I explained to my friend, I deplore Putin’s decision back in February to invade. I hope Ukraine prevails. But I believe Russia, Ukraine, and indeed the world would be better off if the war ends via negotiated settlement, the sooner the better. History teaches us that wars often spin out of control when estranged sides insist on total victory.
I added that I’d be careful indeed in placing faith in the wisdom of U.S. leaders or in appeals to ideals of the Lincoln Brigade of the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. Recent wars (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.) should teach us how frequently U.S. leaders lie, and how willing they are to wage long and disastrous wars that compromise U.S. security.
Also, talk of “facilitating Ukraine’s liberation” is both open-ended and ill-defined. For the U.S., is that limited to weaponry and training and the like? Or does “facilitating” mean much more than that, including combat by U.S. troops and the risk of dying or being grievously wounded in the cause of Ukraine’s liberation? If the latter, would you send your sons and daughters to fight in such a war?
Talking about Ukrainian national liberation and protecting democracy seems unproblematic, but, as I asked my friend, are you and yours willing to fight and die for it? When did Ukrainian “liberation” become so vitally important to U.S. national defense? So much so that $100 billion or more of your money is sent there, so much so that the 101st Airborne Division is deployed to Romania as a form of tripwire or deterrent, so much so that plans to deploy upgraded U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to Europe are being accelerated even as recent exercises featured dry runs of nuclear weapons attacks.
Already the Russia-Ukraine War has lasted far longer than experts predicted. Already it has cost far more than anyone expected. Shooting for total victory for Ukraine may only lead to total war for the world.
(Please go to Bracing Views on Substack if you’d like to comment.)
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.
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.
The first presidential election in which I voted was 1984 and Ronald Reagan got my nod. Back then, I was a Cold War officer-to-be and I wasn’t convinced that Walter Mondale and the Democrats had a handle on anything. Today, I’d be more likely to vote for Mondale, I think, but I still have some affection for Reagan, who dreamed big.
Reagan’s biggest dream was eliminating nuclear weapons, which he came close to doing with Mikhail Gorbachev. Apparently, the sticking point was Reagan’s enthusiasm for the Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars,” his misbegotten scheme to defend America against nuclear attack. It’s truly a shame that these two leaders didn’t fulfill a shared dream of making the world safer through nuclear disarmament.
Still, Reagan and Gorbachev did eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons via the intermediate range nuclear forces (INF) treaty, as represented by the American Pershing II and Soviet SS-20 missiles as well as ground-launched nuclear cruise missiles. Sadly, I recall talking to a senior colleague in the early 1990s who relayed an anecdote that he (or someone he knew, I can’t quite recall) had talked to Reagan and praised the ex-president for that achievement, only to be met with a vague look because Reagan apparently couldn’t remember by that point. It appears Reagan did start to suffer from memory loss in his second term in office, and by the early 1990s it wouldn’t surprise me if he couldn’t recall details of nuclear treaties.
Even so, Reagan, despite all his flaws, had a bold vision motivated by human decency. He was something more than a bumbler, and indeed his energy and eloquence were leagues ahead of what Joe Biden exhibits today.
Which put me to mind of this classic “Saturday Night Live” of Reagan in action. Of course, it’s a spoof, but it’s well done and funny while capturing something of Reagan’s own sense of humor:
Please, dear readers, don’t tell me all the crimes of Reagan in the comments section. Nor do I want anyone to whitewash the man. Today, I just wanted to capture Reagan’s abhorrence of nuclear war, which got him to dream of SDI (“Star Wars”) and which almost produced a major breakthrough in total nuclear disarmament.
How shameful is it that Reagan could dream big with Gorbachev but that Biden can’t speak at all to Vladimir Putin?
My esteemed colleague Davout and I have different ways of looking at the Russia-Ukraine War. We thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to share our differing perspectives here, allowing our readers to think over the merits of our approaches and the validity of our conclusions. Davout has framed the questions and made the initial response; I get the last word, so to speak, for each question. Our mutual intent is not to “win” a pseudo-debate but to pose questions and provide answers that inform and stimulate. To that end, here we go.
What caused the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
Davout: Putin’s desire to reestablish Russian hegemony over Eastern Europe and ensure the stability of his autocratic regime has been the main driver of the invasion. In 2005, Putin declared that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” What was catastrophic about it for Putin? The eastern flank of the former Soviet Union, including Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Moldova, and Ukraine shifted from being an appendage of an authoritarian Soviet regime to being a collection of independent democracies or democracies-in-process. Membership in the European Union and in NATO has either been achieved (the Baltic states) or been pursued (Ukraine pursuing both, Moldova pursuing European Union membership only). None of these countries (not to mention the formerly occupied countries of Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia) singly or together have the capacity or will to invade Russia or otherwise project military power across Russian borders. The real threat to which Putin is responding is the example set by the people of former Soviet territories opting for more democratic, less corrupt regimes and societies. That example endangers his own hold on power and pushes his own society toward historical irrelevance.
Astore: Putin was obviously the prime mover of the invasion. He chose the military option, and he surely believed it would strengthen his authority over a former Soviet republic that was tracking toward joining NATO.
When we speak of causes, however, it’s often wise to take a broad view over a breadth of time. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, NATO’s reason for being ended with it. Nevertheless, NATO persisted, expanding to the very borders of Russia despite assurances to Russian leaders that the alliance would not expand eastwards beyond a newly unified Germany. Russian leaders, including Putin, had issued clear warnings that NATO expansion into Ukraine would constitute a “red line,” the crossing of which would likely lead to a military response. Putin’s decision to invade, therefore, was eminently predictable, thus it was also potentially preventable. The United States, which leads NATO, could have sent a clear signal to Russia that Ukraine should and would remain a neutral buffer state. The US chose not to do so.
One may question the premise of Ukraine as a “more democratic, less corrupt regime.” In Ukraine, corruption is endemic, exacerbated by extensive U.S. meddling, as in the notorious coup of 2014 orchestrated in part by Victoria Nuland, citing the support of then-Vice President Joe Biden. And while it’s important to recognize Russian regional hegemonic ambitions, one should never forget the global hegemonic ambitions of the U.S. empire. In sum, the US has not been an innocent bystander here.
US proxy war or Ukrainian war of independence?
Davout: A proxy war is a conflict instigated by a state in which it does not directly engage in hostilities. This war was a war of choice on the part of Putin. It has had the unintended result of inspiring patriotic resistance (even amongst Russian-speaking Ukrainians who were formerly pro-Russian like the mayor of Odessa). In the lead up to the invasion, the US and its NATO allies attempted to dissuade Putin from invading. In the invasion’s aftermath, they have provided critical arms and support to Ukraine and have sought economically to undermine Russia’s war-making capacities. While current official US policy may be the crippling of Russia’s capacity to engage in another such invasion in the near future, the US did not instigate this war in pursuit of this aim. While US and NATO armaments are a necessary factor in Ukraine’s continued defense against the Russian invasion, it is Ukrainian solidarity and resolve and Russian refusal to end its invasion that keep this war going.
Astore: Clearly, most Ukrainians believe they are fighting for their independence. Ukraine has no desire to become a Putin puppet state. Nor, however, do they wish to become a puppet state to the USA.
Lloyd Austin, the US Secretary of Defense, spoke clearly that weakening Russia was a key goal of this conflict. To that end, the US government, in a rare show of bipartisan unity, provided $54 billion in largely military aid to a Ukrainian military with a yearly budget of $6 billion. Such profligacy is not an example of generosity driven by disinterested ideals. Clearly, the US sees this war as the latest front in a new cold war, a way to stress Russia to the breaking point. As President Biden openly stated, that man (Putin) must go.
So, it’s worse than a proxy war: it’s yet another US regime-change war. The stated goal is to topple Putin and turn Russia into a divided and dysfunctional state, much like it was in the 1990s when Western corporations and financial institutions invaded Russia and exploited it in the name of capitalism and reform.
Are there any legitimate parallels to draw between Putin and Hitler?
Davout: Yes, though the parallels with Hitler are not the same parallels so often drawn to delegitimize non-interventionists as appeasers. Historian John Lukacs’s various histories of Hitler’s strategizing in that crucial period after the invasion of France to the start of the Battle of Britain paint a picture of Hitler less as the hubristic dictator irrationally striving for world conquest than as a canny but flawed geopolitical strategist, driven by geopolitical grievance and with a large capacity to hate those who opposed him. Lukacs argues that Hitler was prepared to cut a deal with Great Britain on terms that would allow Germany to exercise hegemonic powers on the continent. It was Churchill’s longstanding aversion to Hitler and Hitlerism and his ability to maintain British popular support for the war that blocked Hitler’s strategy to cut a deal. Once his overture was blocked by Churchill, Hitler underestimated British morale in the Battle of Britain. Then, in an effort to circumvent Britain’s resistance, Hitler gambled that he could cripple Stalin’s war making capacity and knock him out of the war and thereby present England with a fait accompli of German hegemony on the continent. The picture of Hitler Lukacs draws can plausibly be applied to Putin—a grievance-driven leader attempting to restore a lost geopolitical sphere of influence, who has miscalculated the resolve of democratic leaders and peoples and has doubled down on violence.
Astore: In a word, no.
Whenever American leaders want to justify military action and high spending on weaponry, they turn to Hitler and World War II. The claim is made that we must stop the “new” Hitler. We must not be appeasers. Saddam Hussein was allegedly the new Hitler in 2003; his WMD was supposed to be a mushroom cloud on our horizon. But there was no WMD and eliminating Saddam by invasion tipped Iraq into a disastrous civil war from which that country has yet to recover.
Putin isn’t the new Hitler, and his invasion of Ukraine doesn’t represent the kind of existential threat the Third Reich presented to democracies in 1938-39.
Hitler had the finest military machine of his day backed by the economic powerhouse that was Germany in the late 1930s. Putin’s military machine is mediocre at best, and Russia’s economy is smaller than that of California. Putin doesn’t appear to be seeking a huge empire or world domination, as Hitler was. And while Hitler may have temporarily played nice with Britain, that didn’t prevent the Nazis from hatching plans to invade and loot Britain and to massacre its Jews as well.
Of course, Putin was wrong to have invaded Ukraine, but George W. Bush was wrong to have invaded Iraq in 2003. Both these leaders have essentially nothing in common with Hitler, who was sui generis–a tyrannical dictator driven by genocidal fantasies of world dominance by a “master race.”
To what extent is US democracy hurt or helped by the Biden Administration’s policy of military support for Ukrainian resistance?
Davout: Seeing his country in hostile competition with western democracies, Putin has deployed various forms of soft power and hard power to undermine confidence in, and injure the working of, democratic regimes. Hackers and internet influencers employed by the Russian state have intervened in the elections of established democracies either to foster social distrust or to promote candidates (e.g., Trump) and policies (e.g., Brexit) that weaken adversary countries. Military interventions are carried out on Russia’s border to maintain regimes favorable to Putin (as was the case when a popular uprising against fraudulent elections in Belarus was put down with the help of Russian soldiers). Meanwhile, as was documented by the Panama and Pandora Papers, the huge amounts of money pilfered from the Russian people by oligarchs moves through the banking, legal, and commercial institutions of democratic countries (including South Dakota!) with corrupting effect on people and officials alike. To be sure, the US has corruption problems of its own. And US military support of Ukraine will have the unfortunate result of strengthening the position of defense contractors and their lobbyists, Pentagon brass, and congressional hawks. However, it would be worst for US democracy if Russian ambitions to occupy or dismember Ukraine succeed. This would undermine European democracies whose continued survival and flourishing provide democratic reformers in the US with critically important role models and partners.
Astore: US democracy hasn’t been hurt or helped by this war because the US is a democracy in name only.
In reality, the US is an oligarchy in which the rich and powerful rule at the expense of the many. The unofficial fourth branch of government is the US National Security State, a leviathan of enormous power. Its biggest component is what President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1961 termed the military-industrial complex (to which he added Congress as well). This MICC is profiting greatly from this war, not only in the $54 billion in aid provided to Ukraine, but also in the ever-rising Pentagon budget for FY 2023, which will exceed $813 billion, a gargantuan sum justified in part by the Russia-Ukraine War.
The new cold war with Russia, and increasingly with China as well, is strengthening the state of permanent war in America. As James Madison warned, permanent warfare serves autocracy while insidiously destroying democracy. As militarism becomes more deeply entrenched in the US government, and as that same government continues to send more destructive weaponry to Ukraine such as artillery and missile systems, options for de-escalation narrow even as chances for a nightmarish escalation to nuclear war, whether by design or accident, increase.
What would truly strengthen democracy in America, assuming it could somehow be reanimated, is if the USA pressed ahead with all its strength to broker a peace treaty between Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine is getting wrecked by this war, and our aggressive actions, mainly in providing more and more lethal weaponry together with onerous sanctions, are guaranteed to shred more bodies and aggravate economic dislocation both here and in Europe.
Readers, what are your thoughts here?
Coda by M. Davout (6/6/22)
W. J. Astore has asked me to compose a “coda” of sorts, in which I might add some concluding reflections about the commentary provoked by our different views on the war in Ukraine.
Yes, there is a relevant pre-2022 history to the current conflict—decades old promises from US officials to Russian officials about not expanding NATO east of the Oder, a popular pro-West Ukrainian uprising (supported by Western intelligence agencies, some have plausibly argued) against a Ukrainian administration’s decision to reject closer ties with the European Union (as was the will of the Ukrainian parliament) in favor of the Ukrainian president’s decision to push the country toward closer ties with Russia, a counter-uprising in the Donbas that drew Russian political and military support, etc. But there is also the fact of a full-scale military invasion against a country that posed little if any military threat to Russian borders, a military invasion that has led to the needless deaths of tens of thousands of civilians and combatants and the uprooting of millions of Ukrainians.
It is undeniable that the invasion has promoted patriotic solidarity among different language speakers within Ukraine against the invasion, including Russian speaking Ukrainians whose rights Putin’s invasion was presumably intended to defend. It is also undeniable that voter support for Ukraine’s resistance to the invasion is very high in Eastern European countries. More noteworthy is the fact that in Western European countries, governments have been forced to respond to the pro-Ukrainian sentiments of their voters by sending arms to Ukraine and destroying longstanding economic relationships with Russia to the financial detriment of both European businesses and consumers.
So the situation is nowhere near as neat or clear as either my contributions or Astore’s contributions or the contributions of the majority of the commentators would have it be. In this regard, the comments of Denise Donaldson strike me as the most interesting. You can tell that she can see the issue from both sides and is struggling with that ambiguity.
That is the place to be on the Ukraine war, I think: struggling with ambiguity. There is no clearly right answer: the war is not solely a product of American empire, nor is it solely a product of Russian empire. And there are no good outcomes, only bad or worse outcomes.
But, in politics, one has to make choices and, for now, I choose align myself with current US and NATO policy. Not because I am a dupe of the mainstream media or a supporter of the Establishment or the MIC (my earlier posts on this website should put those notions to rest) but because I believe the expulsion of the Russian military from the Ukrainian lands it currently occupies (maybe including Crimea, maybe not) is both possible and more likely to lead to a lasting peace in eastern Europe. And my taking that position does not mean that I do not also see some merit in the points my esteemed colleague WJ Astore (and his many followers) make.
Response by Astore (6/6/22)
I would like to thank M. Davout for his reasoned response and for continuing this important discussion. One thing I can say with certainty: you won’t hear such a nuanced and broad debate in the mainstream media, which basically just sells U.S. weaponry while waving Ukrainian flags in our faces.
Davout suggests that Ukraine posed no threat to Russia. Alone, that is true. But Ukraine was planning to join NATO, a powerful alliance led by the world’s most hegemonic country. Surely, that combination was something for Russia to be wary of, and even to fear.
When Americans think of Russia, many negative images come to mind. The evils of communism. A charging and rampaging Russian bear. But Russia has had its share of devastation. Davout certainly knows the rampage of Napoleon’s empire in 1812. Russia and the Soviet Union were almost destroyed by World Wars I and II. Russian leaders have been reassured by Western leaders before that “we come in peace,” but surely 1812, 1914, and 1941 taught Russia much about trusting Western assurances.
Look at a map. From a Russian perspective, NATO surrounds them. Look at military budgets. The U.S. and NATO combined spend more than 20 times what Russia spends. If the roles were reversed and we were the Russians, might we see this differently?
My point is not to excuse Russia’s invasion but to offer a partial explanation.
I agree with Davout that by this point “there are no good outcomes, only bad or worse outcomes.” Therefore, I choose not to align myself with current US and NATO policy, since I see this as recklessly escalatory and focused primarily on providing more and more weaponry to kill more and more Russians (and Ukrainians too). I propose an immediate cease fire, the end of arms shipments to Ukraine, and negotiation that would end with some territory being ceded to Russia, a promise from NATO and Ukraine that the latter will remain neutral, and a promise from Russia that Ukraine will not be attacked again, and that its territorial integrity will be respected. I would also insist on Russia paying reparations dedicated to rebuilding Ukraine. Finally, the U.S. should end all sanctions on Russia and redirect its aid entirely to rebuilding Ukraine rather than to more weaponry.
I think this approach would save lives and restore equilibrium to Europe while avoiding dangerous escalation that could conceivably end in nuclear war. It’s time for statesmanship and compromise, rather than militaristic grandstanding and mendacious obstinacy.
Sadly, I see no one in the US government with the sagacity and cojones to join Putin and Zelensky in working to stop this war reasonably and quickly.
The U.S. government continues to denounce Putin for “genocidal” war crimes yet continues to persecute journalist Julian Assange for revealing war crimes. Contradiction?
Julian Assange’s persecution really isn’t about Assange anymore. It’s about intimidating other journalists and whistleblowers who’d dare to reveal the crimes of empire committed by the United States.
If I suggest that NATO expansion to the borders of Russia was a provocative move that was almost guaranteed to provoke hostility with Russia, as prominent experts like George Kennan and Henry Kissinger warned us about in the 1990s, does that make me a Putin puppet? Are Kennan and Kissinger retroactive puppets?
If I suggest that sending billions of dollars in weaponry to Ukraine is not in the cause of peace, that more people will die as a result, Ukrainian and Russian, does that make me a Putin puppet?
They say that bipartisanship is dead in Washington, yet why are both parties boosting Pentagon spending and competing with one another on how much weaponry can be sent to Ukraine without provoking nuclear Armageddon? That last part — do we trust the geniuses in Washington to walk that nuclear tightrope?
The Saudis recently made a major $2 billion investment in Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. Looks like they’re betting on a Trump victory in 2024. Speaking of Kushner, he gained admittance to Harvard only after his father made a mega-donation to the school. Or maybe it was a MAGA-donation?
I was asked what I thought of Russia’s new offensive in eastern Ukraine. Here was my response:
The short answer is war is war and it’s going to be ugly, especially in cities and other built-up areas.
Of course, there’s new technology like drones and guided missiles, e.g. Javelin and Stinger. Those missiles will make it more difficult for Russia to prevail. I’m guessing the Russians will use more artillery as a way of neutralizing Stinger and Javelin operators. What that means is more destruction, more “collateral damage.” More blood and guts.
I expect the Russians will lean on “combined arms” operations, meaning closer coordination among infantry, tanks, artillery, and airpower. If you just send in tanks without cover, they’re going to get knocked out, which we’ve seen in videos.
What we could see is guerrilla warfare by Ukrainian forces in smashed cities, which is truly terrible for the people of Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the U.S. keeps sending weapons in the name of peace …
I also got asked whether Putin would resort to nuclear weapons if the war in Ukraine went poorly for him. Here was my response to that:
Putin won’t use nuclear weapons against Ukraine. He’d have nothing to gain here.
The danger of nuclear weapons arises if the war were to widen outside of Ukraine. For example, if NATO enforced a no-fly zone and started shooting down Russian planes, I could see Putin responding with a tactical nuclear strike against a NATO airbase. That would risk a wider nuclear war, truly a horrifying scenario, which is why those who are calling for NATO escalation and direct involvement in the war are being irresponsible.
Of course, “irresponsible” is putting it mildly. “Batshit crazy” is more like it.
If more of America’s politicians were historians, or indeed almost any profession other than “lawyer,” would we see a bit more care and humility in their words and deeds? Sophistry, cleverness with words, fancy rhetoric, and blatant hypocrisy may play well in court when it’s all backed up by money, and lots of it, but it doesn’t necessarily play well on the battlefield. If lawyer-speak and lies won wars, America would be undefeated. (With apologies to principled lawyers everywhere who know the value of personal integrity and who fight for justice.)
“Dream it true” is a slogan I see in ads today in America. MLK had a dream, but he sure worked hard to put it in motion, and for all his work he paid for it with his life. Meanwhile, the dream still isn’t true, which isn’t the fault of MLK, who gave his life for his dream of a better America.
People may think Greta Thunberg is being overly dramatic here in her speech about climate change and the empty words of elite powerbrokers, but I think these are the sanest words I’ve ever heard.
Did you know the USA plans to “invest” $2 trillion in new nuclear weapons over the next 30-50 years? Imagine what $2 trillion could do if focused on green energy and a greener, cleaner environment. More nukes, or cleaner water and air: which should we be investing in? Hmm … I wonder.
In a sad spectacle, former President Barack Obama visited the White House and humiliated his former VP, Joe Biden, as this video shows:
Who cares, right? But I do want to say a few things about this:
Obama stands revealed here as a total narcissist as he basks in the applause and approval of White House political operatives while Joe Biden stands outside the circle of joy, looking lost and insignificant.
Obama’s “joke” of addressing a sitting president as “Vice President” was unintentionally revealing of Biden’s lack of power within the White House and his own party.
I’m not surprised Obama treated Biden in this humiliating manner. Obama intervened in 2020 and made Biden the nominee for the Democratic Party. Recall how he got both Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg to drop out before Super Tuesday, thereby boosting Biden’s vote in his race against Bernie Sanders. Without Obama’s intervention, Sanders would have been the likely winner of the nomination process. But Obama and the DNC could not stomach the idea of a progressive like Sanders winning the nomination, so Biden was propped up as the candidate who could win, i.e., the candidate who could be controlled by corporate forces.
Here’s my biggest concern. Biden isn’t a complete dummy, and no man truly wants to be a puppet of others. So I wonder if we’ll see Biden increasingly go off-script, in increasingly angry ways, that contribute to an increasingly dangerous world.
Biden has already gone dangerously off-script in calling for Vladimir Putin’s overthrow in Russia. To Biden, Putin is a “war criminal” who must not remain in power. It’s possible this heated, somewhat unhinged, rhetoric is that of an emasculated man who knows he’s little more than a figurehead.
Biden turns 80 later this year and says he wants to run again in 2024. Yet, at this Obama celebration at the White House, he looked like a man lost, a bit player in his own house, diminished to the point of irrelevance.
And that’s not a good thing when the U.S. needs effective, sound, and determined leadership.
Yesterday, I was asked to comment on alleged Russian war crimes in Ukraine, and why Russia should be “rightly charged” for them. This is what I wrote in response:
War itself is the crime, unless it’s a defensive war of necessity. Even then, all wars generate atrocity.
I really don’t know if Russia should be “rightly charged” with war crimes. They are “alleged” and not proven. And the U.S. doesn’t recognize the ICC (International Criminal Court at The Hague); we are an “observer” but not a member. So the U.S. can’t formally charge Russia with war crimes since our government doesn’t recognize the court that tries such crimes, as I understand it.
I’ve read about alleged war crimes in Ukraine. They should be investigated. But that investigation will take time, especially if you’re looking for an informed, impartial, one, based on sound evidence. In the meantime, I’d caution against a rush to judgment.
President Biden, of course, has already called Vladimir Putin a war criminal. But if Putin is a war criminal who warrants a trial before the ICC, we must admit that American leaders like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden also warrant trials before the ICC for their roles in facilitating wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as regime change actions in Libya and Syria, among other exercises in imperialism. Consider all the drone strikes executed while Obama/Biden were in power, and all the innocent civilians who were killed, as Daniel Hale (among others) told us, for which he was sent to prison for four years.
In America, war criminals walk free; courageous whistle blowers like Hale are imprisoned.
And we’re going to lecture the world on who’s a war criminal?