Saturday, February 26, 2022


Speaking of Ukraine

[PS: Added some further thoughts on sanctions to the Bennis comment.]

A couple days ago I thought I had figured a way out of the Ukraine crisis that should satisfy all but a handful of inveterate hawks and neo-nazis. The solution was so obvious I was wondering how I could get a prestige op-ed slot to change the course of history. Of course, it's practically impossible for someone with no credentials and barely 500 Twitter followers to get an airing. But without the benefit of my idea, history shifted the opposite direction, as Russia attacked Ukraine, transforming a threat of war into a cold fact. Or did it? All sides are so preoccupied with propagating their political stances that it's hard to find credible reports of what's actually happening. Nonetheless, while even limited war leaves wounds that are more anguishing and scars that linger longer than mere threats, short of total annihilation the only way this ends is in some sort of agreement. And while war may alter "facts on the ground," the only possible viable solutions are ones that are rooted in justice, and that hasn't changed.

For what it's worth, I didn't see Putin's recognition of the breakaway Ukraine oblasts of Donetsk and Lughansk as much of a problem. All that move did was signal that revival of the 2015 Minsk II Agreement, which neither side had implemented to the other's satisfaction, was not going to work. The idea behind Minsk was troublesome in the first place: the Donbas would in theory remain part of Ukraine but "autonomous," giving Russia a potentially subversive base inside Ukraine. A much simpler and cleaner solution would be to cut Donbas and Crimea free of Ukraine, and accept their annexation by Russia. That would leave Ukraine free both of Russian claims and of a substantial Russophile political base, allowing the rest of the country to align itself with Europe -- presumably what the rest of the country wants.

Of course, one shouldn't simply hand over territory because an aggressive neighboring regime demands it. That would justify charges of appeasement, and encourage further encroachments. However, the principle should be respect for self-determination: the people in a contested area should have the right to decide which nation to align with, or independence, by a fair and internationally supervised election. Moreover, people on the losing side of any such ballot should be able to move, on relatively favorable terms. Such disputes happen often enough that this mechanism should be established as a basic principle of international law, where nations which respect these procedures are recognized as law-abiding, and those who do not should be subject to sanctions.

Russia's motivation for acceding to such procedures would include the expectation that US-imposed sanctions would be lifted. It seems very likely that such a vote in Crimea and Donbass would favor annexation by Russia, while similar votes in other parts of Ukraine would not. It should be hard for anyone to argue against such an expression of popular will. Beyond that, the US, Russia, NATO, and Ukraine need to meet and work toward reducing threats, including nuclear and cyber. The US, as by far the world's most exorbitantly armed nation, has a lot to offer in terms of threat reduction, and all people and nations would benefit from such diplomacy. Of course, such talks should extend to other sectors, including US-China, India-Pakistan, Israel-Iran, Korea, etc., but substantial progress can be made in regional agreements. One can, for example, imagine NATO freezing its membership, unwinding deployments, and reducing exercises in tandem with Russia reducing its threats.

The principle of self-determination can be applied elsewhere: Georgia also has Russian-backed breakaway provinces; the former Yugoslavia still has issues over Kosovo and the Bosnian Serb enclave; Northern Ireland might wish to join Ireland to undo the effects of Brexit. The most dangerous territorial dispute is probably China's claim to Taiwan. This would give China a non-violent way of pursuing reunification, encouraging it to make itself more appealing, rather than more threatening.

Admittedly, all along I assumed that Putin was a rational leader pursuing limited goals in the face of increasingly virulent hostility from the US, whose foreign policy is largely driven by a huge arms industry and monstrous ideological conceits -- most conspicuously a desire to indulge Israel's settler-colonial project, with its roots resonating with America's own 19th century project. While I still reject blanket statements that Putin is evil, that he's engaged in a crusade to destroy democracy, and that he has designs on restoring and extending Russia's empire of yore, I must admit that he has some glaring flaws and blind spots, which have led him to overestimate the value of force and fail to appreciate how badly his use of force makes him look.

I've been critical of the Biden administration in the run up here: their unwillingness to consider limiting NATO and pressing Ukraine on Minsk II implementation, their use of scare tactics to rally public opinion (in Ukraine, Europe, and US), especially their "intelligence" leaks predicting imminent invasion that sounded more like taunts, their use of character assassination making eventual settlement even harder to achieve. Smart negotiators leave one with an honorable exit path, but they've boxed Putin into a corner where he had no choice but to strike back or admit defeat, so they've effectively provoked his bad behavior. On the other hand, the fault is ultimately his, and I suspect it will eventually topple him from power. I don't see that as a plus -- "the devil you know" and all that -- but I also don't see it as tragic either. Putin has done terrible things as leader of Russia, which is a big part of why he's gotten into this mess. The real question is whether the US can come out of this with a generous, constructive approach to world order -- something far removed from the arrogance that developed after the Cold War, that drove us into the manifest failures of the Global War on Terror. Looking around Washington it's hard to identify anyone with the good sense to change direction.

[Note that the area held by separatists is only about half of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, although it does contain the main cities. Delineating areas for such elections is bound to remain controversial.]

The following are some Ukraine links (note dates, as events move fast and people have a hard time separating fact from fiction from pure fantasy).

[2/14] David K Shipler: How America's Broken Promises May Lead to a New Cold War: What's with the future tense? It now appears that the US never stopped its scheming around the old Cold War: it only briefly shifted tactics to appear less threatening around 1990 when Gorbachev was desperately trying to reform the Soviet Union. The US didn't orchestrate everything that followed, but did repeatedly take advantage of disconnects and mishaps to isolate and impoverish Russia, not least by promoting anti-Russian sentiment in territories that been subservient and still had reason to be friendly. Expansion of NATO was a big part of the schema, not because NATO wanted to take advantage and finish Russia off but because NATO needed an enemy to justify itself (and all those purchases of American arms), and Russia was the easiest enemy to paint. It helps here to realize that NATO is basically a scheme for the US to assume control of Europe's armies (somewhat less than formally). The only way Russia can escape the NATO vise would be to give up its army, which means its independence -- a humiliation no Russian leader could survive. On [2/25], Shipler followed up with: A Russian Tragedy, noting that "Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine is also an assault on his own people." Shipler notes how a "sense of persecution echoes into Putin's current remarks." It may be impossible to imagine the world as seen through someone else's eyes, but it might help to try.

[2/15] Masha Gessen: How the Kosovo Air War Foreshadowed the Crisis in Ukraine: Sees 1999 as a turning point in post-Cold War US-Russia relations, one still remembered in Moscow as an affront, as well as a model for how one nation (or coalition, as the bombing was nominally the work of NATO) can terrorize another into submission. As the war started in earnest, Gessen followed up with: The Crushing Loss of Hope in Ukraine [2/23], and also: Russia's Last Independent TV Channel Covers the Invasion of Ukraine.

[2/21] David Remnick: Putin's Preparations for Ukraine: "The autocrat has been trying for decades to end what he sees as a prolonged period of Russian humiliation." Follows up Gessen's note on Belgrade, 1999, with a broader historical accounting. Putin's original motive may indeed have been the humiliation Russia faced following the breakup of the Soviet Union, but note how US politicians and media have striven to humiliate Putin personally, under Obama since 2009, and both for and against Trump since 2016. On [2/26] Remnick also published the more polemical Putin's Bloody Folly in Ukraine.

[2/21] Nonzero Newsletter: Why Biden didn't negotiate seriously with Putin. This is a good idea for an article, and his two major points are reasonable, but I think he messes up on some details. First is the Munich "appeasement" charge. It's been used hundreds of times since 1938 to derail negotiations, without examining what actually happened then and why, let alone what else could have been done about it. The author offers two differences between 1938 and now, which may be true but aren't the ones that matter (that Hitler was crazy but Putin is not, and that Hitler's demand was territorial, but Putin was more concerned with Ukraine's possible NATO membership). The more important difference is that in 1938 the world was dominated by global empires (which the UK, France, and effectively the US, had, with Japan gaining ground, and Germany shut out), whereas today such empires are politically and economically untenable. The consequence of that was that Hitler didn't just want the Sudetenland, he wanted a whole domino chain of additional territories. Sure, maybe Putin wants more than just the Donbas, but his appetite is necessarily limited in ways that Hitler's wasn't. Just because "appeasing" Hitler didn't work doesn't mean that a similar concession to Putin would only make him more voracious. It might not only have avoided this week's war, it would have given the world time to work on reducing the humiliation Russia has been subjected to since the end of the Soviet Union (a defeat in some minds as serious as Germany's war-and-empire loss). The counterfactual also fails: had Chamberlain held firm, would Hitler not have invaded Czechoslovakia? Or Poland? Or Russia? The UK had no troops that could defend Eastern Europe from Hitler. All they could have done was threatened to declare war, which in fact Chamberlain did after Poland. The only effect that declaration had was to move France up Hitler's checklist, force the evacuation of British forces at Dunkirk, and open Britain up to bombing. Yet, somehow the myth of Munich persists: that all it takes to stop an aggressor is a resolute show of strength. Thus the US showed its mettle by refusing to concede anything in negotiations, daring Putin to put his own strength on display. The second reason for not negotiating seriously is the "Putin can't be reasoned with" meme. Some people have psychological theories to support this, while others just rely on facile analogies (like Putin = Hitler, or Putin = Evil). But more likely is the arrogant notion that the US holds all the trump cards, so the only thing Russia can do is back down. After all, they've backed down at each NATO expansion. They've demurred at not implementing the Minsk II agreement. They've watched as the US has wooed Zelensky into becoming a puppet. And if ever they do object, just slap more sanctions on them, and they'll come begging for mercy. Diplomacy may be a lost art, but who needs it when you can get away with extortionate demands? Besides, isn't it comforting to know that when appeasement or its opposite doesn't work, it will be someone else suffering the costs?

[2/22] Patrick Cockburn: Russia-Ukraine is an Information War, So Government Intelligence Needs More Scrutiny Than Ever: More lessons from Iraq than current reporting on Ukraine, but lessons are advised -- and the full extent of deceits from all sides over Ukraine will take some time to work out. Another lesson from Iraq: Putin's Advance Into Ukraine Compares with Saddam Hussein's Invasion of Kuwait . . . a Disaster for Russia. This is a point I sympathize with, but needs to be taken with a couple caveats. First, Saddam was able to put down both popular uprisings and internal division to keep control over Iraq, and there is no reason to think that Putin is less skilled or ruthless in his exercise of power. Second, Saddam ultimately succumbed to a much greater foreign threat, but not even the US is at all ready to invade and occupy (or just blow to kingdom come) Russia. One more Cockburn piece: Russophobia Leads Us to Assume the Worst of Russians -- and Assuming They're Demonic Could be Dangerous.

[2/22] John Judis: A Dissenting View on US Policy toward Russia: He was right to worry that Ukraine "could signal the beginning of a Cold War II," but it would be more accurate to say that Cold War II brought us to the war in Ukraine, a pretty vivid reminder of why such Cold Wars should be avoided as assiduously as hot wars. Even during Cold War I, the Soviet Union sent troops into Hungary and Czechoslovakia to quash rebellion and shore up their control over their frontier provinces. What's different here is that it took Putin eight years to conclude that he had to act, making the final decision more unexpected. But after decades of painting him as an unreformed KGB agent, as a ruthless political dictator who kills his opponents, is it really so surprising that he would rise to the part?

[2/23] Ken Klippenstein: Saudi-Russia Collusion is driving up gas prices -- and worsening Ukraine crisis. Russia and Saudi Arabia are two of the world's three largest oil and gas producers, and unlike the US (the other one), their finances are strictly dependent on keeping prices high. So while the US has been cranking up anti-Russian propaganda, Russia has been ingratiating itself to the oil barons of the Persian Gulf. While Europe as fallen in line behind the US on Ukraine, support has been less forthcoming from supposed allies in the Middle East: see, [2/25] Matthew Petti: US-backed Middle East states cozy up to Russia during Ukraine invasion. Nor is it just the Saudis looking for a windfall. See Kate Aronoff: Vultures Are Circling the Ukraine Crisis.

[2/23] Eric Levitz: Which Russia-Ukraine Take Is Right for You?:] Useful primariy as a compendium of many of the dumb things people are saying as they try to fit events into their preconceived agendas. Note that none of these positions match mine, although I'm not so far from the "anti-war realist" position represented by Anatol Lieven (see articles below). He also refers to what he calls a "far left yet objectively pro-imperial oligarchy" position, and links to a 2014 piece on something called World Socialist Web Site which, well, I don't know who the hell they are, but it should be possible to be very critical of US/NATO foreign policy without supporting or defending Russia. For example, see [2/25] David Broder: Stop Pretending the Left Is on Putin's Side. Also [2/23] Branko Mercetic: With Putin's Ukraine Incursion, Hawks in Washington Got Exactly What They Wanted. Levitz has more on Trumpy-Right posturing, but also see Alex Shephard: Trump and His Putin Apologists Blame "Woke" Democrats for Invasion of Ukraine.

It wouldn't actually be hard for the right to construct a critique of how Biden's handling of Ukraine and Russia has cornered Russia into lashing out irrationally -- especially to link the conflict back to Obama's (and Hillary Clinton's) pivot against Russia, especially to the Democrats' anti-Russia scapegoating for the 2016 election and their subsequent impeachment of Trump. They could even try to argue that Trump tried to restore an element of respect and balance to the relationship, but that he was heckled at every turn by warmongering Democrats and their media allies. But that would require a modicum of critical thought, but their brain rot (and their reflexive demonology) prevents them from even approximating coherence.

[2/24] Zack Beauchamp: Putin's "Nazi" rhetoric reveals his terrifying war aims in Ukraine: As you know, Nazis are pure evil, so we can't have any of that. -- even though of late the term gets bandied about so often, over such trivial concerns as mask mandates, that it's on the verge of losing all meaning. But students of Ukraine recall that there were once real Nazis there -- at least, Ukrainian who hated Russians (and Jews) enough to collaborate with German invaders. One can't say how many Ukrainian nationalists are neo-Nazis these days, but it's an easy charge to hurl, and one invading Russians are likely to apply indiscriminately. Worse, it implies that they have designs not just on the rulers of Ukraine but on the people. Beauchamp also wrote [2/25]: Why the US won't send troops to Ukraine. Something about nuclear weapons, but one could also argue that US troops are incapable of not making any situation worse, even without resorting to WMD.

[2/24] Jen Kirby/Jonathan Guyer: Putin's invasion of Ukraine, explained. Not every point I would make, but a good general backgrounder, noting the confusion sowed by breakup of the Soviet Union, the renascent Cold War driven largely by the expansion of NATO, and the eight years of tensions following the anti-Russian coup in Ukraine and the subsequent pro-Russian revolt. Kirby also wrote [2/25]: US sanctions will squeeze Russia -- but they're unlikely to stop war in Ukraine. As many people have pointed out, Russia has considerable experience with US sanctions by now, and the new sanctions have been widely broadcast as threats, so they've had time to prepare and plan. Also, while sanctions have a "trickle down" effect hurting everyday lives, states that have largely insulated themselves from democratic control just tend to hunker down and redouble their convictions. In the great wave of anti-communist reform from 1989-91, the only regimes that didn't fall were the ones the the US had fought hot wars with and/or subjected to crippling sanctions and blockades -- something also true of non-communist states that had run afoul of US grudges, like Iraq and Iran. On the other hand, the mere threat of sanctions can unnerve countries with a large, globally-connected private sector, such as Apartheid South Africa. That's also why Israel is so agitated over the BDS movement, even though it has virtually no state support in the US and Europe, and even though it's a much more civil way to oppose the injustices of Israel's Apartheid regime than any others.

Sanctions against Russia right now are certainly preferable to more military options, but the US has a bad track record of understanding both what they are useful for and what their limitations are. One can only hope to achieve limited reforms -- which certainly do not include regime change -- with them, and they only have a chance of working if they can be repealed and lifted. But Americans tend to view them more as a way of expressing disapproval without risking military reprisal, and as such as a safe form of aggression (hence the threat rhetoric well in advance of Russia's "special operations"). And since disapproval is usually located in leaders (like Putin) and political systems, it's hard for Americans to rewind them. Hence they remain irritants, leading to future hostilities.

[2/24] Robin Wright: Putin's Historic Miscalculation May Make Him a War Criminal: Sure, as far as I'm concerned it does. I'd say pretty much every time any national leader starts shooting or bombing across borders they're committing war crimes or some sort. However, wouldn't that also apply to Saudi Arabia (bombing Yemen), the US (Somalia), and Israel (Syria), just to pick examples from the last few days I saw in a meme? But in the real world, nobody gets prosecuted for war crimes, unless they've been totally defeated, in which case the trials are regarded as mere "victor's justice." Even then, it's often more constructive to have some kind of "truth and reconciliation process" than something that simply looks like revenge. And in the case of Putin, it's possible that his own people might sack him, but until then the only way to bring this war to a close is to negotiate with him, and that is hardly helped by calling him names. This article has a bunch of examples, including the inevitable "others compared him to Hitler" -- lead example there is professional anti-Russia agitator Michael McFaul -- and an even more fanciful comparison to Stalin and Mao ("ruthless megalomaniac with a giant imperialist agenda" -- that from Nina Krushcheva, who really should know better).

[2/25] Anatol Lieven: Ukraine: What Russia wants, what the West can do: "For those who understand Moscow's establishment and view of their country's vital interests, none of this should be a surprise." Lieven has written numerous pieces on Russian/Ukraine over the last weeks and months: you can reach many of them through this link (and the "Load More" buttons). As he points out, Putin's appetite only grows with apparent victories on the ground, but prospects for occupying Ukraine beyond the Russian-speaking regions are fraught with danger, and there is little way to maintain a pliant government without enforcing troops. Hence, Ukraine is a trap for Russia, much like Afghanistan and Iraq were traps for the US, so the only way to secure gains is to negotiate for them. I've linked to this before, but Lieven's long paper from Jan. 4 remains immensely useful: Ending the Threat of War in Ukraine: A Negotiated Solution to the Donbass Conflict and the Crimean Dispute. Also see American Prospect's interview with Lieven: Worse Than a Crime; It's a Blunder.

[2/25] Phyllis Bennis: Respond to Putin's Illegal Invasion of Ukraine with Diplomacy, Not War. And remember that sanctions may be war by other means, but are acts of war nonetheless. Still, this is one instance where I don't mind them, and am even a bit hopeful that they might work. They give the US and other concerned nations a means of responding without adding to the conflagration, making matters even worse. I'm also curious to see effective they might be, given the extraordinary globalization of finance in the world. It may even be the case that Russia is especially vulnerable to sanctions on individual oligarchs, precisely because they've exported so much of their wealth. Also note [2/25] Marcus Stanley: Why sanctions on Russia are necessary.

[2/25] Ilya Matveev: The Putin Regime Is Straining Under Its Own Contradictions: Interview by Rafael Khachaturian with the editor of Openleft.ru. Not much on the war per sť, but quite a bit on the economic stagnation that has afflicted Russia since 2010 (after a decade of strong growth under Putin, following the disastrous Yeltsin 1990s). Matveev and Ilya Budraitskis also wrote: Ordinary Russians Don't Want This War.

[2/25] Jeffrey St. Clair: Roaming Charges: Insane in the Ukraine. Usual batch of scattered bullet points, many worth reading, as well as unrelenting scorn for American hypocrisy over other nations bombing and pillaging. He also cautions against reading too much into Putin's vow to "de-Nazify" Ukraine ("after all, he hasn't done much to de-Nazify Russia").

[2/26] Jason Horowitz: Putin's Aggression Leaves His Right-Wing Fan Club Squirming: A quick survey of world luminaries on the far right, folk like Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Jair Bolsonaro, and Silvio Berlusconi, although Donald Trump only appears in a picture with Putin. Reminds you that despite the infantile red-baiting Americans habitually lapse into, Putin's international appeal has always been on the right, both for his "strong man" persona and for his knee-jerk conservatism. Also that when push comes to shove, nationalists tend to drift apart, as they discover that being from different nations matters. This is, by the way, one place where comparisons to Hitler are apt. People forget how widely the right admired Hitler in the first years after seizing power, before he launched the genocidal wars that he's now remembered for.

The New York Times has a piece Maps: Tracking the Russian Invasion of Ukraine. As of 11:55 pm ET, 2/26, Russian forces are shows as pushing close to Kyiv and Kharkiv and not quite in either. Unclear whether this is due to restraint or resistance. Russia appears to have moved faster in their breakout from Crimea, but the largest city they appeared to have captured is Kherson, an Oblast capital with less than 300,000 people. (At least that's the only one I recognized. Melitopol has a population of about 150,000.) There doesn't appear to have been any advance from the breakaway areas of Luhansk and Donetsk, although Russian troops have entered north of Luhansk.

I don't have much to report on antiwar protests within Russia, but there is a Wikipedia page on the subject, with extensive footnotes, and a box there with links to other pages on the conflict and war.


Normally, I'd follow this up with scattered links of interest, but the above has taken quite enough of my time, and the other stories can wait. Needless to say, events here are changing very rapidly. For instance, initial sanctions did not include barring Russia from the SWIFT financial system, but there are now reports of this happening.

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