Tuesday, April 19, 2022


Speaking of Which: 23 Theses on Ukraine

I started working on this last week, hoping to sum up much of what we know about the Russia-Ukraine War: the context, including a look back at history; what the conflict tells us about military thinking and international institutions; and how I imagine the crisis can be resolved, and further crises averted. I originally thought of doing a set of numbered theses, but the paragraphs are probably too long to be so considered. Still, they feel rather schematic to me, as I touch on a lot of points.

  1. Three great betrayals contributed to Vladimir Putin's decision to invade Ukraine on February 24. The bad faith from breaking these promises snowballed into future recriminations and fears. These were:

    • The US promise not to expand NATO beyond Germany when East and West merged in 1989. Bill Clinton broke this when he accepted NATO membership for Poland and other former Soviet satellites in 1997.
    • Russia's promise to respect Ukraine's borders and security in 1993, when Ukraine transferred its portion of the Soviet nuclear weapons to Russia. Putin broke this in 2014 when Russia seized and annexed Crimea, and armed a separatist militia in Donbas.
    • The Minsk Protocol was signed in September 2014 to settle the Donbas dispute, but soon failed, as did the subsequent Minsk II agreement. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, elected in 2017, renounced the treaty in 2021.

  2. Perhaps the most important betrayal of all was the informal agreement no one dared write down. On December 8, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus met secretly and agreed to dissolve the Soviet Union, leaving all 15 SSRs as independent states. This was a second coup attempt, after the reactionary "old guard" coup by elements in the military and party failed to depose Gorbachev in August 1991. By that point, the central government was weakened, and independence movements were rapidly advancing in many SSRs, including Ukraine. The coup dissolved the Soviet Union, with a "Commonwealth of Independent States" serving as a clearing house until the military and other shared resources could be divided. The unwritten part was the Yeltsin's assumption that once the dust cleared, nothing much would change: Russia would continue to dominate the periphery, as it had in the Soviet Union and before that in the old Empire. For a while, it seemed to work that way, but then Ukraine started to stray. The definitive break came in 2014, when the Ukrainian parliament impeached "pro-Russian" president Yanukovych, in an effort to realign Ukraine with the more prosperous EU. That's when Putin panicked and went to war.

  3. The Russian Empire grew out of the Duchy of Moscow, founded in 1263 as a vassal state of the Golden Horde. It was initially ruled by the Rurik Dynasty, who before the Mongols interrupted had held power in Kyiv, in a state the Russians later called Kievan Rus (879-1240). Given this history, it's little surprise that Russians have come to think of Kyiv as theirs. The Duchy of Moscow broke free of the Mongols and expanded, in 1480 recasting themselves as the Russian Empire. But Moscow didn't conquer Kyiv until 1667, and it was not until the late 18th century when Russia extended control over most of modern Ukraine, and started a campaign to move Russians into Ukraine (which, to use a term Putin recently reiterated, they called Novorussiya; those Russians mostly moved to the south, which had been ruled by Turks -- the Crimean Khanate fell in 1783 -- and the southeast, a major coal area). Western Ukraine, including Lviv, was ruled by Austria-Hungary up to 1918, then by Poland until borders were redrawn after WWII. Ukraine was briefly independent 1917-20, with revolutions and civil war alongside Russia, before joining the Soviet Union in 1922.

  4. Russian political culture shares a trait with most other declining empires: an exaggerated sense of their own wisdom and benevolence, which convinces them they are entitled to intervene in the affairs of their former subjects. We see this in France's recent interventions into former colonies like Mali, and in the UK returning (under US direction) to Afghanistan and Iraq. We even see this conceit in such long-gone empires as Turkey and Iran. We see a variant of this in the US, which given the global dominance the US has sought since WWII can be applied to countries with only tenuous or imagined relationships. In Russia, this is especially strong, perhaps because the former empire was compact and contiguous -- although Russians have also claimed a pan-slavic identity (such as their bond with Serbia). Their sense of bonds is further shored up by the Russian diaspora: as the Empire expanded (and as the Soviet Union recapitulated the Russian Empire), ethnic Russians colonized their subject territories, sometimes achieving majority status (as in Crimea and Donbas). They became a special focus for Russia's post-imperial chauvinism, in a way that has few parallels elsewhere (although Reagan sending the Marines to Grenada to "protect American medical students" was a supremely Putinesque move).

  5. Americans tend to date the Russia-Ukraine War from February 24, when Putin commenced his "special operations," sending troops into Ukraine from both north (some via Belarus) and south (through Crimea). The invasion had been predicted by US "intelligence" leaks, accompanied by threats of escalated sanctions should Russia follow through on their threats. Ukrainians, on the other hand, date the war from February 2014, when Russia took advantage of widespread protests against the impeachment of Yanukovych to execute a coup in Crimea and an uprising in Donbas. Those regions had Russian majorities, and had reliably voted for "pro-Russian" candidates since 1991. The Crimean operation was over in an instant, and ratified in a referendum on March 16. The Soviet Union had its main naval base in Sevastopol (it retained base rights there until 2017, per an agreement following the independence), and quickly moved operatives in to orchestrate the transfer. Protests in other heavily Russian cities, like Odessa, fizzled out, but the Donbas area broke out into an armed revolt, which Russia backed (and to some extent led). The Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts declared their independence from Ukraine, and Ukraine's military moved to suppress the revolts, clawing back a little more than half of their territory. A cease fire agreement in 2015 effectively froze the conflict, but eight years some 14,000 people were killed. Both sides dragged their feet on implementing the 2015 Minsk Agreement, which called for Ukraine to repeal laws thought to discriminate against Russians, and offered Donetsk and Luhansk autonomy within Ukraine. Zelensky, who was elected in 2019 on a vague promise to resolve the conflict, felt that Minsk would give Russia greater power to meddle in Ukrainian affairs, making it harder to join EU and/or NATO. Meanwhile, from 2014 on, the US and its allies imposed increasingly strict sanctions on Russia's economy, and on individuals believed to have influence on Putin. The impact of the sanctions is unclear, but they were part of a more general American-led effort to marginalize Russia, which included expanding NATO and its armory.

  6. After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, a number of conflicts arose over borders between the newly independent SSRs that hadn't been problems under strong central rule. Transnistria broke away from Moldova in 1991. Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia in 1993. Russia supported those independence movements, so its support for Donetsk and Luhansk wasn't unprecedented. On the other hand, when Chechnya tried to break away from the Russian Federation, the Russian Army was sent in to quash the uprising. The Chechen War (1994-96) failed, but when Putin rose to power in 1999, he launched the Second Chechen War, which ended independence, leaving 50-80,000 total dead. There is a theory, popularized by David Satter, that Putin orchestrated apartment bombings in suburban Moscow, killing more than 300, as a pretext for reopening the war against Chechnya. (As crazed conspiracy theories go, this one doesn't seem especially out of character.) Chechnya provided Putin with his first taste of war, and it felt good. The war lifted him from unknown to Russian hero.

  7. The bigger problem with the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the economic catastrophe which followed. In Russia, the economy contracted by 40% between 1991 and 1998, and life expectancy dropped, as mortality for men rose by 60%. Similar problems beset the other former SSRs, although the Baltic states did better, by reorienting their economies to trade with Europe. Going back to Tsarist times, the Russian economy was designed to take advantage of the Empire's periphery. The bigger problem was rampant corruption, which fueled the rise of a class of oligarchs, and led many to classify the governments as kleptocracies. But Russians like Putin were easily alarmed when former SSRs pivoted away from Russia, and especially in 2014 when Ukraine signed a memorandum to join the EU. That was when Putin put pressure on Yanukovych to cancel the move, and mass protests emerged, leading to the impeachment of Yanukovych and the Russian operations in Crimea and Donbas. This wasn't the first time Russia perceived the threat of outside (especially American) political operations within their former sphere: the so-called Colour Revolutions of 2003-05 had overthrown pro-Russian cronies in Ukraine (Orange), Georgia (Rose), and Kyrgyzstan (Tulip, or Rose).

  8. The most consequential of the Color Revolutions was the one in Georgia, as it brought Mikheil Saakashvili to power. He was outspoken in his desire to join NATO and the EU, while also plotting to retake the Russian-backed breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Putin responded to the threat by sending troops into Georgia, where they quickly won several battles, before withdrawing to new military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The war started on August 1, 2008, and was over by the 12th. American super-hawks John McCain (at the time the Republican candidate for president) and Lindsay Graham were livid, insisting the US should fight to defend Georgia, but cooler heads prevailed, and Condoleezza Rice oversaw the cease fire agreement. This was Putin's second brush with war, and it, too, felt good. The operations in Ukraine in 2014 would be his third.

  9. Russia's operations in Ukraine in 2014 feel improvised, like Putin was trying various things, with a cautious eye toward figuring out just what he could get away with. The best solution for Russia would have been to undo the impeachment and return Yanukovych or some other pliant crony to power, but even if some in parliament were bribed to impeach, much popular opinion had swayed to the side of the Maidan protesters. And then Crimea fell right into his lap, and that was too rich a prize to let go. Crimea had originally belonged to the RSFSR, and was only turned over to Ukraine in 1954. The population was about 65% Russian (vs. 15% Ukrainian, and 11% Crimean Tatar). Russia had a naval base and troops stationed in Crimea. (Annexing Crimea saved Russia from having to build a new Black Sea naval port by 2017.) The land connection was very narrow, and easily severed. And in the east, the Kerch Peninsula came close enough to the Russian mainland that Russia has since been able to span it with a bridge. (The main drawback was that Crimea depended on a canal from Ukraine for water. After annexation, Ukraine dammed the canal. The first thing Russia did after invading this year was to destroy that dam.) Donbas also proved to be relatively easy to infiltrate and supply. There were repercussions for their operations, chiefly in the form of sanctions, which presumably have been a drag on Russia's economy (and oligarchs), but it's hard to say how much.

  10. NATO was originally founded in 1949, not to fight a war with the Soviet Union but to deter one, while uniting western Europe under consistent American command. Deterrence was straightforward, because Eastern Europe had already been ceded as a Soviet sphere of influence at Yalta. Both the US and Russia were war weary, and the US had (and the USSR would soon have) nuclear weapons. NATO saved most European nations (especially Germany and Italy) from the burden of rebuilding their militaries. France and the UK still had foreign empires to lose, so the US cut them some slack. Russia allowed Austria and Finland to carry on as neutral nations. The US worked to suppress Communist movements in its sphere (most violently in Greece, clandestinely in Italy), but didn't lift a finger when the Russians put down rebellions in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968). The Cold War was an arms race, but the hot spots were in the so-called Third World. When Russia let go of its Warsaw Pact allies, the only cause for concern was East Germany, which wanted to unify with the West. Gorbachev reluctantly agreed that a unified Germany would be safer in NATO than as neutral. For one thing, Germany had all the tech it would need to build a nuclear arsenal, but as long as it was covered by NATO had no reason to do so. This concern to "keep Germany down" was the main reason for maintaining NATO after the Warsaw Pact disbanded. But as the 1990s progressed, NATO started finding more reasons to exist. They contributed to America's 1990-91 Gulf War. They reluctantly intervened in Yugoslavia, which had splintered into warring factions in 1991. In 2001 they voted to support America's war in Afghanistan. France, Germany, and Turkey sat out Bush's Iraq War, but in the search for "a coalition of the willing," the US sought allies from Eastern Europe, leading to a second wave of NATO expansion. (The first, in the late 1990s, was sold as a path for Eastern European countries to join the EU, but it could just as well be seen as an arms cartel scam. It's unclear whether fears of an increasingly nationalist Russia drove or were caused by NATO membership.) During the 1990s, Russia had objected to NATO expansion but hadn't seen it as a big threat. However, around 2010, as Obama was getting out of Iraq and winding down Afghanistan, the US military was looking for new budget opportunities, and remembering the Cold War fondly. They were originally talking about a "pivot to Asia," but after Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 it got easier to sell Putin as evil wizard -- and as Putin clamped down on dissent in Russia, to present him as a treacherous foe of democracy. With that, conjuring up ancient fears of Russia, especially in Eastern Europe, which had long felt the stifling force of Russian power, was easy. Why the US should go out of its way to antagonize Russia is hard to fathom. Could it be as simple as that expanding NATO created a new market for politically influential US arms merchants? Conversely, it took market away from Russian arms -- one of the few manufactures Russia could sell competitively. This had the effect of limiting Russian arms sales to countries barred from US arms, like Syria and Venezuela, effectively reproducing the Cold War division without any hint of ideological coherence.

  11. Russians have long been attracted to the idea that a buffer zone of friendly or at least neutral nations around them provides a measure of security against foreign attack. This was tested early in WWII, and turned out to be worthless. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 allowed Germany to expand east without provoking Stalin, and encouraged Stalin to move west to the new German border, occupying territory that had been stripped from Russia after WWI. The additional territory proved to be useless in defense of the Soviet Union after Hitler broke the Pact and invaded in 1941. The Soviet gains of 1939 were wiped out almost instantly, and the Nazis found collaborators who were more anti-Russian than pro-German. Moreover, Russia attempted to recapture Finland in a fruitless war that only detracted from their defense against Hitler. Nonetheless, Stalin returned to the idea of a buffer zone when laying out the Warsaw Pact sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. Russian dominance of Eastern Europe generated enough resentment the arrangement collapsed as soon as Gorbachev decided to let it go. Putin seems to have nostalgia for past empire, even when he allows that reconstituting it is impossible. This is clearest in his equation of anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine with Nazis -- hence his vow to "de-Nazify" Ukraine. The history of anti-semitism and Nazi collaboration in Ukraine makes it a bit too easy to charge Ukrainian nationalists with Nazism.

  12. Then, in 2016, Putin did a very dumb thing: he deployed his hackers to try to tilt the US presidential election to Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton was tied to Obama's turn against Russia, and was clearly the more hawkish candidate, more committed to America's domineering role in world affairs. Trump, on the other hand, was the kind of guy Russian oligarchs were used to doing business with. And Trump seemed to admire Putin, while they shared many of the same prejudices and tastes. Unfortunately, Trump won, and Clinton used Putin's role as a scapegoat, encouraging her fans to become rabid Russophobes. Trump was as obsequious as expected, but he did Russia few real favors, mostly because he handed foreign policy over to neocons who grew up in the Cold War and only became more wedded to raw power in later years. Trump added to Russia's sanctions burden. He figured that a big part of his job was to sell arms abroad, and he tried to cajole NATO into buying more, and deploying closer to Russia. He tore up several treaties, the intent being to stimulate a greater arms race. He had little concern for Putin's affronts to democracy, but that didn't stop others from harping on them. His term corresponds to four years of frozen conflict in Ukraine, where he gave neither side reason to hope or to settle. He likes to boast now that Putin wouldn't have invaded if he were still president. He is probably right, but not for the reasons he offers. Trump likes to think of himself as a tough guy no one else would dare to cross. He isn't, but that doesn't matter. There is a limited number of things the US can do in a conflict with a nuclear power like Russia: sanctions are easy, cyber is iffy, arms are business, propaganda is a given. In such a conflict, both sides calculate carefully what they can get away with, and what they dare not try. Trump makes such calculation harder, because he's so unbalanced and unstable, or to put it more succinctly, stupid and crazy. That may have been enough to get Putin to err on the side of caution. But beyond that, Zelensky is also busy calculating what he can and cannot get away with, and he was able to play Biden for more support than had been possible with Trump (who famously withheld aid when Ukraine didn't dish up the dirt Trump wanted on Biden). So do the math: Zelensky is getting stronger, the US under Biden is more committed in supporting Ukraine, and Putin is getting nervous that his big play in Ukraine might collapse. That needn't have pushed Putin over the edge, but it certainly made it more likely that Putin would panic. While I suspect that Biden's warnings and threats were meant to deter Putin, they also felt like taunts. It's not at all clear that the Biden administration (or its more hawkish allies, like the UK) regards the invasion as the tragedy it plainly is. Rather, they'd like to take it as vindicating their long process of painting Putin into a corner.

  13. All states implement a regimen of laws and rights to govern behavior, and enforce it through police and courts. In nations where the system is widely regarded as just, conflicts are rare and usually resolved without resort to violence. This creates a measure of safety and stability which allows commerce and culture to develop and flower. No such system exists to govern the behavior of states, although many have been proposed, treaties have been signed, and some toothless institutions created (like the League of Nations after WWI, and the UN after WWII). Powerful states refuse to submit even to normative rules, and no one (even collectively) can force them. After the UN was created, the US and USSR tried to use it to protect and advance their foreign policies, and failing that gradually withdrew, in favor of pressing their own local power advantages, or practicing subversion where that seemed the more advantageous path. After the Soviet Union dissolved, there was much glib talk about a "New World Order" with the US as the world's sole hyperpower presiding over a world of unfettered capitalism. But despite having the world's largest economy, with bases around the globe and enough firepower to destroy all life on earth, Americans failed to grasp the first principle of anarchy: when no one has the power, the only viable approach is to seek mutually satisfactory understanding. Even during the Cold War, the US was much more successful in offering generosity -- think of the Marshall Plan, or the deficits the US ran to build up the economies of its allies -- than by bullying. After all, no one likes to be pushed around, and over time the offenses add up into deep resentments: Russia is a seething bed of persecution and paranoia, where each sanction further exacerbates open wounds. US affronts to Russia go back as far as the Civil War, when the US sent troops into Siberia to try to overturn the Revolution. After WWII, they became increasingly regular. The US jihad in Afghanistan was expressly meant to kill Russian soldiers -- the only way they could have been more explicit is if they offered bounties for scalps. Even after Gorbachev and Yeltsin bent over backwards to appease Reagan-Bush-Clinton, the insults kept coming: the "Star Wars" system, which had it worked (not that it ever could) would have allowed the US to launch a "first strike" with no fear of reprisal; the indifference to the Russian collapse in the 1990s; the advance of NATO, playing up anti-Russian fears, not least by separating former trading partners from Russia; then came sanctions as the US felt entitled to judge and punish every Russian infraction.

  14. The triumph of capitalism wasn't very satisfactory either. The elections of Reagan and Thatcher ushered in a meaner and greedier cult, where exploitation became even more predatory. As Communists, Russians already have suspected that capitalism was a criminal enterprise, so when they tried their hand it, it's not so surprising that their new class of oligarchs rose out of the old class of black marketeers. The easiest way to get rich was to steal, and the way that worked in Russia was only slightly more thuggish than in America. (One might be tempted to blame this on the authoritarian bias the Communists inherited from the Tsardom, but capitalism in America's Gilded Age was pretty thuggish too.) Corruption aligned the forces of government with predation, and in a society embracing "greed is good" corruption is rife. Even America, with all the high-minded talk of democracy and women's rights, was easily satisfied with "allies" as autocratic as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Given how doggedly the American right fought against the moderating effect of democracy, they were all the more determined to make sure that no international agreements and institutions would emerge to regulate their game. And in that they had a shared interest with the world's other oligarchs. They even sought to rig trade agreements to prevent governments from putting "public interest" above private profits.

  15. Despite all the provocations, Putin alone bears responsibility for the invasion, and for all the deaths, disruptions, and destruction his army has produced, and also for the damage elicited as Ukrainians have tried to defend themselves. He could have chosen differently. He could have negotiated a reasonable solution. Or he could have simply kept the status quo, more or less indefinitely. NATO was never going to attack Russia. It's unlikely Ukraine would have mounted a serious offensive against his Donbas position, but defending Donbas would have been much easier than attacking Kyiv, and even if Donbas surrendered, he'd still have influence within a democratic Ukraine. And while losing Donbas might have been a blow to his ego, it's effect on Russia's balance sheet would have been negligible. He took a big, unnecessary gamble, and even if he persists and eventually ekes out some concessions, he'll never regain the good will he's lost.

  16. I'm not a big believer in a "right to self-defense," and not just because it's often claimed to justify counter-offense (often going beyond any sense of proportionality). But self-defense is an understandable reaction, and in response to such a calculated and systematic invasion as Putin has launched, it is hard to see any other way to repel the invader. I could even go so far as to assert that military aggressors never learn necessary lessons except in abject defeat -- as, for instance, Germany and Japan did in WWII (a second essential requirement is that they recognize and accept their own nation's responsibility for the war they lost). Given this, I understand Zelensky's desire for arms to help beat back the invaders, and as long as he's not the one responsible for prolonging the war, I wish him success. But I do worry that the US and NATO have their own selfish reasons for prolonging and escalating the war. One must recognize that the only way this ends is through an agreement with Russia. Russia is too big to be bled to death by their losses in Ukraine, and there's no way Ukraine could effectively take the war onto Russian soil (after all, Napoleon and Hitler tried that and failed, even before Russia built a nuclear arsenal).

  17. There is much talk in high places about war crimes, and even the word "genocide" is bandied about. I suspect this is tied to the rather dubious legal theory that when a party is guilty of genocide, other nations are obligated to intervene to protect those being killed. I say this is dubious because any military intervention will result in more people being killed, compounding the original crime. That's just how militaries go about doing their business. Zelensky may think he wants the US to join him, to implement a "no-fly zone" and add to his offensive capabilities, but everywhere the US military enters, atrocities are sure to follow. "War crimes" may seem like a simpler case to make. Indeed, I'd be happy to posit that all acts of war should be considered crimes, but given the anarchy that prevails between nations, there is no practical way to prosecute a side that is not utterly defeated (as Germany and Japan were in WWII, but as Russia will not be here). As such, loose talk of war crimes only muddies the issue, which is reaching an agreement both sides can live with.

  18. It's long been clear what a settlement would look like. It could have been negotiated years ago. The war makes negotiations more difficult, because wars open wounds that confound reason, but the relative balance of "wins" and "losses" in the war barely affects what needs to be done. The disputed territories need to be decided by a fair vote of the people who live there. Before the war, it seemed likely that the separatist-held parts of Donetsk and Luhansk, and even more so Crimea, would have voted to join Russia. How the war might shift such a vote is anyone's guess (the Mariupol seems to be meant to expand Russian control of Donetsk, especially along the Sea of Azov). Exactly how one organizes such a vote will be a tricky thing to negotiate, but I think Ukraine -- at least those who want closer integration into Europe -- should be happy to let go of any regions that would rather rejoin Russia. The second bit is to remove Russian troops from those parts of Ukraine that don't want to join Russia, with credible security guarantees that Russia will not attack or threaten again. Before the war, one might have taken Putin's word for this, but that is harder now. The third part is to unwind the sanctions against Russia. This is where the US and EU need to negotiate, since they're the ones responsible for the sanctions. It's important here that they offer clear criteria for removing all sanctions, allowing a better-behaving Russia to rejoin the community of nations. It's also important that the criteria not require regime change, reparations, and/or prosecutions (even though under any reasonable system of justice, that is exactly what would be required). Moreover, Russia should not be prohibited from anything the US and EU are not also prohibited from. Finally, there should be further negotiations on reducing armed threats worldwide, but nothing specific to Ukraine should depend on such negotiations.

  19. One thing that should be obvious is that prevailing security theories have been proven false, much to our peril. A show of strength does not guarantee the other side will submit. It is just as likely that strength will elicit cunning resistance. This is partly because strength is complex and fallible. This is especially true in the case of nuclear weapons, where the potential danger is so great that the power becomes practically impossible to use. Russia's nuclear weapons effectively took the options of US troops and/or air power off the table (which the US had resorted to several times when facing non-nuclear foes), yet Russia was able to operate conventionally without fear of US nuclear weapons. So-called economic weapons are also problematic. We are running a massive experiment in the efficacy of sanctions, with no real understanding of how they work, what the impacts are, how they might be circumvented, etc. Past experience with sanctions shows that they often backfire, precipitating the escalation they're meant to deter, or that they will prove ineffective beyond polarizing the conflict. I expect that a reasonable analysis of the threats and weapons deployed in this war will show them to be severely wanting. The way forward is not to double down on arms -- the lesson those most invested in NATO would like you to take away -- but to work to rebuild cooperative bonds between nations: an important step there would be to starve conflicts of arms by negotiating mutual arms reduction treaties.

  20. Focus now should be on a cease fire, to limit further harm and encourage negotiations. The lack of emphasis on this by the US and EU, as well as major "neutral" powers like China and India, is not just disconcerting, it's evidence of bad faith. Critics of US policy have accused the hawks of being so obsessed with knocking Russia down, they're willing to fight to "the last dead Ukrainian." Russia and Ukraine, at least, are paying for their intransigence: the former thinking they can still win something worthwhile, the latter unwilling to make concessions that appear inevitable. But the longer the war goes on, the more sunk costs add up, the nastier and more brutal it gets. Warring parties may start with different principles and concerns, but in short course they find themselves in the same rut of terror and vengeance. It is possible that when they first invaded, Russians expected to be greeted as liberators -- much as Americans expected in Iraq and Afghanistan. They certainly didn't plan on committing atrocities against people they hoped to reorganize as allies, but they did, because that's what armies do. Americans, having aspired to "make the world safe for democracy," entered WWII with a moral critique of indiscriminate slaughter, but wound up fire-bombing whole cities, and obliterating two with atomic bombs. Every day without a cease fire continues to propel all sides down that moral slope.

  21. When Yugoslavia started to break up, US Secretary of State James Baker explained American indifference with the line, "we don't have a dog in that fight." Baker clearly had no reticence about fights the US did have dogs in, like Panama, Kuwait, and Somalia (a parting poison pill Bush left for Clinton to throw up). Such benign neglect didn't last: taunted by hawks like Madeline Albright ("what's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?"), NATO took on Bosnia as a make-work project, and secured a treaty ending the war rapidly enough it looked to many like some kind of good deed. The contrast between their "success:" in Yugoslavia and the tragedy in Rwanda the US had neglected created a storm of "humanitarian interventionism" scouring the earth for wars they could stroke their sense of moral superiority by joining. They never really had enough clout to get into a war the neocons didn't already want (Haiti may be the exception here), but they were always ready to add their high-minded propaganda to other war projects (Afghanistan and Iraq, obviously, but they were more prominent in Libya and Syria, which the neocons were happy with but couldn't really explain; Syria was especially a mess, because the US had several dogs in that one, and they were mostly fighting each other). Benign neglect made a comeback under Trump, who couldn't be bothered with "shithole countries," nor did he care what US clients like Israel and Saudi Arabia did with American weapons. Biden has brought ideology back into the mix, but one thing no American foreign policy wonk has considered for decades is the notion that war itself is unbearable in the modern world, and that foreign policy should be dedicated above all else to preventing war. This is an especially difficult concept for a nation that prizes the cult of profit-seeking (capitalism) above all else. It's hard to find anyone in American foreign policy that isn't pursuing or advancing some kind of greedy algorithm. Yet in the anarchy of international affairs, the only thing that works is cooperation, which necessarily starts with a willingness to see others do better.

  22. Robert Wright quotes a very disturbing Biden tweet:

    We are engaged anew in a great battle for freedom. A battle between democracy and autocracy. Between liberty and repression. This battle will not be won in days or months either. We need to steel ourselves for the long fight ahead.

    Recasting this war as one between competing worldviews allows no room for compromise. In claiming higher principles, Biden is setting out on a crusade to destroy not some idea of "autocracy" but Russia itself -- a nuclear-armed state with extraordinary depth and reach, and by his own reckoning a callous disregard for human life. If his goal isn't to get us all killed, he should dampen down the hyperbole. On the other hand, one can sympathize with Biden's sense of the need to defend democracy. But his (and our) enemy there isn't Putin, but the majority of Republican politicians, their financiers and media flacks. Putin's only role in this is as an example of what can happen when right-wingers -- and despite all the ex-KGB nonsense, Putin is pure right-winger on any scale that matters -- get too much power. Nor should we be surprised that he would use that power to start a tragic waste of a war. There are many precedents, like GW Bush.

  23. Which leads me to a final point (for now): American foreign policy needs to stop trying to interfere in domestic political affairs elsewhere, except perhaps to make it clear that we would welcome more progressive, more pacific, more democratic governments everywhere. The reasons for this are myriad, well beyond what I can enumerate here. The world currently faces problems that can only be addressed through cooperation, and that starts with social justice at home.


Apologies for not even trying to provide links. The Robert Wright post is here, and it includes a link to the actual tweet. It's in the free part of the post -- I haven't read the rest because it's subscriber-only (my wife pays him but I don't seem to have the password; there must be a better way than keeping useful reporting and analysis exclusive to the few people who can manage to pay for it -- especially given how ubiquitous misleading propaganda is). Many other sources were consulted in writing this (at one point I had more than 50 Wikipedia tabs open). Recent Speaking of Which posts include numerous links on Ukraine. I imagine I'll do another in the next week or two to follow up on themes here. But there's something nice about keepign this uncluttered.

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