February 24, 2023
With the world watching, Joe Biden was in Kiev on February 20, 2023 to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and express continued American support for Ukraine’s (US and NATO’s) war effort against Russia. The next day he arrived in Warsaw to express the same message to regional leaders and bolster the case for a stronger NATO – under the pretext of countering current and future Russian aggression (read a transcript of his speech here). The previous week, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin attended the NATO defense ministers’ meeting in Brussels and delivered a short speech full of the same US talking points regarding Russia’s “unprovoked” war and the situation in Ukraine. This is of course to be expected given he is preaching to the choir here. But it is always amazing, when reading the transcript of these types of speeches from government officials, just how similar they are compared to the average mainstream news article or television news coverage on US foreign policy topics, especially the War in Ukraine. Everyone involved sure is good at staying “on message.” In short, you are being propagandized.
It is no surprise this war is seeing relatively little criticism or pushback in the US once it is realized our mainstream media has been derelict in its duty to question government talking points and challenge the assumptions upon which they depend. Sure, you can find challenges to the status quo if you go looking, but this is a numbers game. It is much easier to follow Biden and officials like Austin around the world with cameras and simply reiterate their positions so long as the war remains distant and does not directly impact the American people’s lives. It doesn’t hurt that the people/companies paying the bills for these reporters and journalists are usually involved with the same entities running the wars (or at least profiting from them). Most people that consume any news at all will consume their preferred narratives. Given the scope of expenditures the US has made towards the war effort in Ukraine so far (at least $113 billion and counting) and the implications of potentially devastating escalation however, the American public deserves better reporting and challenges to the official narratives that have dominated coverage. With the expected Russian spring offensive imminent (and already partially underway) Americans must understand this conflict more thoroughly and demand real negotiations finally start – with logical concessions to Russia that restore balance and create the conditions necessary for coexistence – to end the needless continuation of bloodshed. It all starts with questioning the biggest US/NATO talking point in the entire script – “Russia’s attack on Ukraine was “unprovoked.””
It is understandable why it is so difficult to begin this line of questioning. Nobody wants to seem unpatriotic or counterproductive to their nation’s interests regarding a wartime effort. But opposing the current open-ended US/NATO policy towards massive amounts of Ukrainian aid in what amounts to a proxy war against Russia does not automatically mean opposition to NATO and the general interests of ensuring European security. It certainly does not warrant accusations of anti-Americanism or support for the Russian government, as is often the response to any such criticism. On the contrary, true support for American ideals, the primary mission of NATO, and stability on Europe’s periphery requires adherence to certain logical principles and policies – not the least of which is adherence to mutually recognized non-aggression, non-escalation, non-interference doctrines with respect to regional powers and spheres of influence. These principles and policies are being contradicted by our current action that is itself a culmination of decades of malfeasance. If we truly wish to protect US interests, help provide security to Europe, and fix the mess in Ukraine, we need to correct ourselves first. Failing to do so simply empowers the vested interests that have been engaging in such behavior to continue doing it.
Power of the purse, based on the power of principle
We must objectively assess the situation and demand any future strategy and aid we choose to commit towards NATO defense and the Ukraine conflict are in line with these principles and policies. It would not hurt to hit Americans with a little dose of reality as well; things do not always go neatly, nicely, and “legally” in geopolitics and warfare so we shouldn’t let our desire for perfection be the enemy of decent, workable solutions. After all, the United States of America – like so many other political entities before it and since – came about from less than clear, amicable, and “legal” circumstances. When the fog of war inevitably overtakes us, we owe it to ourselves to step back and reorient ourselves to ensure we are still moving on the correct overall azimuth. We do not want to pigeonhole ourselves by committing to lesser, counterproductive goals that seem just and right on the surface but are really poisoned fruit. This is what our current Ukraine “strategy” has become and the situation for the US/NATO/Ukraine is not as promising as government spokespeople and the talking heads in the media lead their audiences to believe.
Civilian and military death totals vary by source because of imperfect information and even because of politics (people use death totals for propaganda purposes) but according to most sources at least 8,000 civilians have been killed in Ukraine over the past year and over 13,000 injured. Thousands or even tens of thousands of military deaths on both sides have also likely occurred since the start of Russia’s Special Military Operation (SMO) last year. Deaths from fighting in the east in the eight years prior to Russia’s SMO also likely number in the thousands. Millions have been displaced. Vital infrastructure has been destroyed that will take years to rebuild and such disruption will indirectly cause more death and tragedy in untold ways. Aside from the blame and formulation of strategy, we must always think of the human costs of war.
According to polls, a majority of Americans in both major parties still favor spending to assist Ukraine in its war effort. The percent of such support is higher among Democrats and lower among Republicans however, numbers no doubt influenced in part by Joe Biden being a Democrat. So far in this conflict the only opposition mounting in Congress to our strategy in Ukraine has been from a small group of “America First”-style Republicans concerned primarily with the cost and a lack of a coherent strategy for victory. A resolution called the “Ukraine Fatigue Resolution” has been introduced in the House detailing concerns over cost and strategy but it does not include any specific challenge to the war effort on principle, or really question the wisdom of the effort compared to the opportunity costs. It does state however, “…The United States must end its military and financial aid to Ukraine,” and “urges all combatants to reach a peace agreement.” It is unlikely to get much support. A true anti-war effort must emerge in the US similar to that of the opposition to the Iraq War in order to sway enough Senators and Congressmen to pressure needed changes and force negotiations. It appears at least for now the anti-war Democrat has went the way of the dodo, but if the situation sours or escalates perhaps we will see a resurrection of this lost movement (based largely on the same principles mentioned in this article).
Unprovoked or Provoked?
Examining the talking points delivered by Defense Secretary Austin, we can see where the narrative takes liberties with reality and pushes the boundaries of pure propaganda. He starts his remarks,
“It’s been nearly one year since Russia’s cruel and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, and nearly a year since Putin’s reckless war of — war of choice plunged Europe into its worst security crisis since the end of World War II.”
Right away, we see the framing of the conflict as being “unprovoked.” This intellectually dishonest, one-sided notion is how most of the Western establishment and press categorizes the SMO Russia launched last year. While it is certainly not necessary to agree with the merits of Russia’s stated justification for their offensive action, ignoring the many provocations by the US, NATO, and the Ukrainian government the Russians clearly identified as reasons for their decision prior to beginning their operation is irresponsible. Attempts to bypass the arguments completely are never proper and it is just an insult to the intelligence of anyone that understands the complexities of geopolitics and has a shred of interest in conducting the objective analysis necessary to make a fair judgment on the situation.
In his February 2022 address announcing the SMO, Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated, “What causes us particular concern and anxiety, about those fundamental threats that year after year, step by step, are rudely and unceremoniously created by irresponsible politicians in the West in relation to our country. I mean the expansion of the NATO bloc to the east, bringing its military infrastructure closer to Russian borders.” He went on to describe many of those threats and the efforts they made to mediate them that were thwarted and/or ignored from their point of view. Furthermore, he stated, “The military development of the territories of Ukraine that has begun is unacceptable for us. The point, of course, is not the NATO organisation itself – it is only an instrument of US foreign policy. The problem is that in the territories adjacent to us, I will note, in our own historical territories, an ‘anti-Russia’ hostile to us is being created, which has been placed under complete external control, is intensively settled by the armed forces of NATO countries and is pumped up with the most modern weapons.” Putin continues, indicating Russia sees these actions as, “A real threat not just to our interests, but to the very existence of our state, its sovereignty. This is the very red line that has been talked about many times. They passed her. In this regard, and about the situation in the Donbass. We see that the forces that carried out a coup d’etat in Ukraine in 2014, seized power and are holding it with the help of, in fact, decorative electoral procedures, have finally abandoned the peaceful settlement of the conflict. For eight years, endlessly long eight years, we have done everything possible to resolve the situation by peaceful, political means. All in vain.” Following the 2014 coup, Putin laments, “The genocide against the millions of people living there, who rely only on Russia, hope only on us. It was these aspirations, feelings, pain of people that were for us the main motive for making a decision to recognise the people’s republics of Donbass. What I think is important to emphasise further. The leading NATO countries, in order to achieve their own goals, support extreme nationalists and neo-Nazis in Ukraine in everything, who, in turn, will never forgive the Crimeans and Sevastopol residents for their free choice: reunification with Russia.” On February 21, 2023 Putin was in Moscow to deliver a speech in front of the Federal Assembly again explaining this rationale and sticking to it one year later. You can read the transcript of that speech here.
The reason US war hawks want to categorize Russia’s actions as “unprovoked” appears to be because addressing the actual provocations would implicate the US, NATO, and the government of Ukraine in contributing to the cause of the current hostilities, including, as Defense Secretary Austin put it, that which “Plunged Europe into its worst security crisis since the end of World War II.” If our actions contributed to the cause, then part of the solution would likely involve a reckoning for the policies, strategies and people that enacted them. Our current crop of decision-makers and their supporting networks inside and outside of government do not want this because they are interested in expanding and continuing more of the same. There are a myriad of interest groups and think tanks one could survey to find examples of their newly revived proposals and recommendations expanding on all of this, such as this one from the Atlantic Council which ironically could just as easily be adopted by the Kremlin (foreshadowing the discussion of the importance of recognizing universal principles and the mutual concerns of all states). So if these powerful interests can preclude any debate on the subject of provocation and accountability with the American public, they will. We as a people however have a duty to discuss it and change course if necessary by ensuring our leaders and representatives enact policy that reflects our will. Did US/NATO eastward expansion and improper interference in Ukraine contribute to provoking this current conflict? Like most things, there is truth on both sides of the argument, the point here is not to “prove” either case definitively, but to simply recognize there is a perception contrary to the extensively-reported western perspective on things. If you have not seen it, consider watching the Oliver Stone-produced documentary, Ukraine on Fire to get a feel for the counter-argument to pro-western perspectives on the 2014 coup in Ukraine and the general US-NATO/Russia dynamic.
Breaking the “Rules”
After wrongfully categorizing Russia’s actions as “unprovoked,” Defense Secretary Austin takes refuge in the notion of a rules-based international system reflecting our values, claiming, “The outcome of this tragic and unnecessary war is profoundly important to Ukrainian security, European security and to global security. Putin just — didn’t just assault a peaceful and sovereign and democratic U.N. member state; he also threatened the hard-won system — hard-won system of rules and rights that has made Europe stronger and safer for more than seven decades.”
This is the system and the values Russia claims were violated, or exploited, in multiple ways leading to the conflict. So again, without properly identifying the causes, we cannot properly analyze and remedy the problem with a truly just and amicable solution, nevermind assign blame. It would be great if all states would follow the reasonable rule of international law, but if/when both “sides” of a conflict have been violating the rules in a multitude of ways, it doesn’t make much sense for one of them to cite the other’s violation as evidence of their guilt compared to their innocence. Breaking the rules with violence or threats of violence is a serious matter and being “provoked” in itself is necessary, but not sufficient, to justify an offensive military operation of the scale of Russia’s. We must consider the severity of the provocations and assess the level of threat compared to the options available to deal with it at the time. We do this all the time in society at trials and in the court of public opinion regarding claims of necessary use of force for self defense. But there are important differences to consider here. There is a massive disconnect between what the general public perceives as normal relations between opposing parties within a state, and the reality of relations between states within the anarchic world system. International relations and great power politics is a different “game” than normal politics and relations between opposing parties within a Rule of Law state. It is also different from disputes over non-security matters that can be settled by a third party or that can be compromised upon without creating a threat to the very being of the actors involved. Within an anarchic state world order, states are the relevant sovereign actors, there is no complete higher law or manifested “social contract” to appeal to currently, despite our attempts to impose one with the UN and international law. It is a logical and moral goal to do so, but we are not there yet. Even our highest international law is vague and leaves open the possibility of the right of states to act in self defense and to act offensively to protect others and certain vital interests. Judgment of such actions will almost certainly be cloudy and divided, as it is here, but everyone involved knows this and when making decisions that drastically impact other states, this must be remembered. As Americans we have a particularly important duty to check ourselves on the international stage because we currently have a dominant position in the world and in the international organizations. Well-known scholar Noam Chomsky, I think embodies the internal conflicts that one wrestles with when assessing these geopolitical situations, as evident here. He has been outspoken both regarding the West’s role in causing this crisis, and also in assigning severe blame to Putin and Russia for their offensive actions with their SMO. But it is difficult to have it both ways. If there is a threat looming and growing, it makes little sense to do nothing and allow it to happen in an attempt to avoid causing harm as well. The harm was already imminent.
Act according to universalizable, mutually-beneficial principles
We see in the international order some of the same problems that exist within a state among individuals, including the threat majorities or powerful factions can pose to minorities or less powerful factions with a “might makes right” attitude. Any act by a state or league of states which can be seen as a threat to the survival of other states, especially regional hegemons, is something that should not be taken lightly. Even if the intentions are good, we must think of consequences and the positions of the other states. Theoretically speaking, NATO expansion in itself is a threat to Russia, but the threat is also magnified when it is accompanied by alleged ill-intentioned actions over the years that erode any confidence a rational actor would grant to another to act in good faith (coups, political interference, sabotage, economic warfare, dishonest negotiations, etc). The US/West has undoubtedly been involved in such activities in the region and we must stop fooling ourselves about it. Clearly Russia is concerned with such encroachments and interference, as any actor in their place would be. It could be countered that “Russia is trying to do the same thing in the region so we must beat them to it and contain them.” There is no doubt some truth to that, and often in actual warfare (direct and indirect) this is unavoidably the case, however it cannot be lost on us just how immature that rationale really is if it is universalized – it essentially undermines the very concept of morality and the duty to abide by moral imperatives in our own acts. It is acquiescence to the law of the jungle. It also makes a poor excuse when it comes time for delivering accountability for the negative consequences of such actions.
Much of what the West has done since the end of the Cold War has essentially pushed Russia into enemy territory rather than treating them as merely an adversary with which a mutual understanding and a cautious “trust, but verify” approach can be maintained. As the relative victors of the Cold War, we missed a lot of opportunities to shape a more inclusive future and walked a lot of dangerous paths. The results were not unforeseeable, to the contrary, similar instances have repeatedly been the case throughout history. One of the oldest examples we have is from Thucydides, who thousands of years ago wrote the much-studied account of the Peloponnesian War. He identified similar arguments about Athenian expansion and dominance over the Delian League as reasons Sparta and its allies felt provoked into the war. We must be wiser (or more accurately, hold leaders accountable) with our actions and how we pursue our goals. International security matters are not as simple as the domestic modes of justice to which we have been accustomed. The history of US policy towards NATO expansion and Russian relations after the fall of the Soviet Union had a rocky start, with a variety of foreign policy experts and scholars from across the political and ideological spectrum disagreeing with the course of action that was chosen – NATO expansion at too quick a pace. Indeed, while the Clinton Administration was debating this in the 1990’s, a letter signed by 50 prominent foreign policy experts in 1997 warned of the dangers associated with such an action and the missed opportunities it would cause. John J. Mearsheimer, one of the leading scholars today criticizing western policy for causing this current crisis, wrote in this Economist Article he believes the major turning point regarding Ukraine specifically was in April 2008 at a NATO summit in Bucharest when the George W. Bush Administration signaled Ukraine and Georgia “will become members” of NATO and pushed for support of the idea. At the time the notion of respecting Russia’s “red lines” was still uncontroversial, and as Mearsheimer notes, Russia was not regarded as much of a serious security threat to Europe until 2014. The proverbial ship may have sailed on the debate over expansion since the 1990’s, but if we recognize some of the predicted dangers have indeed come true and that the policy has its flaws, perhaps we can begin to change course.
The schoolyard logic the war hawks want you and their adversaries to accept
Consider this analogy to further illustrate the point of the difference between rationalized actions of individuals within a state, and those of states as the actors themselves. If you are a citizen of a stable country under a functioning Rule of Law, and you live in a neighborhood with a lot of neighbors, absent any specific reason to believe the contrary you can be reasonably certain that you will be safe from those neighbors. The neighbors, likewise, can feel reasonably safe from you. This is because in a civil society with a Rule of Law basis, there is a norm of justice. The moral “social contract” has been implicitly accepted by all the members of the community and a political entity with power has been constructed to enforce it. There is a credible deterrent against aggressive rights-infringing behavior. Members of the community can feel safe and less suspicious of their neighbors and be more tolerant of behavior that otherwise might seem like a threat to themselves and their families. This same dynamic does not automatically apply in a state of nature without the safeguards of the political community. It may be more difficult to live in close proximity to so many unknown neighbors, which may be armed, possibly ready to attack you or otherwise infringe upon your perceived rights. The bar, all of a sudden, for what you are willing to tolerate shifts lower. In a state of nature, neighbors moving around you and acting too privately might cause you concern. Neighbors arming themselves may seem like a threat, even if they never point them at you. Neighbors allying themselves with each other on all sides of your property may get uncomfortable. This is what it is like in the current anarchic world order of states on the international stage. We cannot only apply the logic we are accustomed to within a civil society to the outside anarchic world order and expect things to make the same kind of sense. Yet this is what too many Americans are doing regarding our understanding of US/NATO/Ukraine/Russia relations. Americans say, “Well Ukraine is a sovereign country, they can seek to join NATO and arm themselves to the teeth as much as they desire. Likewise, NATO can expand eastward and bulk up as much as it wants too. Russia doesn’t have any say in that and they have no right to get angry because they are not being attacked.” This is essentially a merging of the “I’m not touching you” argument one child sibling makes to another in the back seat of the car, and the “I didn’t throw the first punch” defensive argument an aggressor might make upon approaching and provoking another, resulting in a fight. It plays on technicalities while ignoring realities and potential dangers. Absent the security guarantees of a world ‘social contract” an independent rational observer would expect a state that is being threatened to eventually act as any person would act if they were being threatened. There would be warnings not to continue the threatening behavior. There may be attempts to diplomatically resolve disputes but if that doesn’t work there would be threats of retaliation to attempt deterrence against further encroachment. If that did not work it should be expected the threatened party would eventually strike out to back up their threat in order to reestablish deterrence. And if none of that works, there will be warfare between the state actors, just as we could reasonably expect an individual to strike in self defense using deadly force if others do not heed warnings and continue to draw weapons on them.
We all recognize the need for deterrence, but it only works if it can be credibly backed up and the measures can be successfully deployed given the red lines are crossed
In order to work properly, deterrence sometimes needs to be backed up with force or reciprocal action when “red lines” are repeatedly crossed. Recognizing this does not require agreement with the totality of Russia’s offensive actions in this conflict, but it should cause one to view their actions differently than are being portrayed in the mainstream media. We should always seek to universalize the maxim of acts to see if they are valid before judging them while applied to real world circumstances. After all, when the US placed Jupiter missiles in Turkey and Italy during the Cold War and the Soviets responded by putting missiles in Cuba, neither side was satisfied with an argument hinged upon “We can do as we wish, we are not physically attacking you.” What’s more, again, we must remember this situation is far from one that was a slow buildup of non-action followed by a sudden violent Russian action. It appears that way in Western media coverage, but there are many factors that at least somewhat explain Russia’s offensive in Ukraine from their perspective that are less than evil in intent. Whether or not you believe it completely is up to you but we must remember the Russians are going to be equally suspicious of what you consider “good intentions.”
Irregular Warfare and Internal Interference
In his speech defense Secretary Austin notes that NATO “has always drawn strength from its sheer devotion to the values of freedom, democracy and human rights. We’ve seen it in action over the past year, as our extraordinary allies have stepped up to condemn Putin — to condemn Putin’s imperial aggression, to support Ukraine’s right to defend itself and to — to strengthen our collective defense.” After the 2014 coup in Ukraine, orchestrated at least in part by Americans and other Westerners, official Ukrainian policy became dramatically more anti-Russian. The violent impetus for this shift only further delegitimizes claims of Ukraine’s “right” to act independently in accord with Rule of Law.
Given that their current government has benefitted from the corruption and anti-democratic changes brought about by the foreign-backed coup government, which was itself born out of a violent, extralegal act, it becomes more difficult to think of the Ukrainian government as an organic entity that ought to enjoy the assumption of legitimacy among all it’s people and among states. In many ways it has been made an organ of war in a larger ideological fight. It is also notoriously corrupt and mismanaged. Lawless groups in Ukraine, many of which are also viciously nationalistic and anti-Russian, also gained significant power, in part via threats to the Ukrainian government and Zelenskyy himself. These groups have been in part reluctantly used by the Ukrainian government to do some of their dirty work and have somewhat been merged into official roles, including in the military (despite some of these groups also not caring much for those in power within the Ukrainian government itself). It is a mess. The large population of Russian speaking Ukrainians – among others – in Eastern Ukraine, already long mistreated by the more powerful Western regions, became ostracized and eventually attacked by their own government and various violent Ukrainian nationalist groups. Since the coup, Eastern Ukrainians suffered eight years of attacks by their own government and were under bombardment up to and including the week before Russia began its “special operation.” This was all occurring contrary to existing diplomatic efforts such as the Minsk Agreements to establish peace in the region and resolve differences (and as the linked article details, was allegedly a western betrayal and trick to achieve advantage relative to Russia). So to protect this population in a neighboring land, to prevent spillover of hostilities into Russia, and to reestablish deterrence between Russia and a compromised/hostile Ukrainian government acting as a proxy for larger geopolitical adversaries on its border, Russia chose to act militarily. The fighting had already begun, Russia changed the dynamic. Was this justified given the reality on the ground?
Imperfect international law, sovereignty, self-preservation, and self-determination
Russia also invoked Article 51 of the UN Charter before conducting their operation, giving them at least some “legal” cover for their actions. Given the actual wording of Article 51 though, Russia is on shaky “legal” ground here, and one may not agree with Russia’s positions on this, but it must be admitted there have been weaker cases presented by states as justification for their military action in much less dire circumstances. Russia’s stated and implied rationale for its offensive military actions may not be in perfect accord with something like Just War doctrine in many important ways (if any ever can be) but it certainly isn’t so different than much of the 2003 US rationale for military action in Iraq or other US military interventions. Clearly, the international “rules” are a bit toothless – often ignored and often exploited – and we all should know it. Other aspects of Russia’s decision are simply more in line with the logical principles of foreign policy realism and can be understood from a preservation of state power perspective. Every country will be tempted to act the same in this regard taking into account their circumstances and their relations among states.
The situation of the Donbass regions (Luhansk and Donetsk) breaking away, declaring independence, and eventually voting (along with the Kherson and Zaporozhye regions) to join Russia is arguably about as good a case of justified secession as is possible given the circumstances, despite a lack of formal recognition as of yet. Like Crimea before it, detractors question the veracity of the vote, but independent polling in Crimea from 2014 and in 2019 (amidst sanctions no less) shows the a large majority of citizens there are happy with the decision to join Russia. Given the similar circumstances and populations this is likely also the case in these regions. Decisions to create new political entities out of old ones or change borders should not be taken lightly. Normally, when attempted, if there is the will among the population to do so, proceedings ought to be official and legal. This situation is not a danger to universalizing such behaviors that are contrary to this because it is a unique circumstance born of war and violence. It happens from time to time and is sometimes encouraged or recognized by the same people that oppose it here. So when we are talking about abiding by legal rules of the international system, we will inevitably be forced to pick and choose favoring/disfavoring application based on desired outcome – unless we look beyond circumstances to judge how logically-derived principles are being applied. Has the US/West also acted to undermine the values of freedom, democracy and human rights that Defense Secretary Austin identified in his speech by throwing their weight around in the region? Do the people of Eastern Ukraine have a right to self-determination amidst attacks on their homes by their own government?
Unrealistic framing of the conflict hinders successful negotiation
Another disappointing aspect of mainstream media coverage of this conflict is how they portray the intentions of Russia’s offensive. Almost without exception, the narrative is that Putin intended to take over all of Ukraine and topple its government but was thwarted in doing so by the brave Ukrainians aided by Western support. Many also speculate that Russia is bent on restoring the Soviet Union and this offensive is part of that effort. If the attack was “unprovoked” as they claim, this provides a reason for the action to explain Russia’s intent. Defense Secretary Austin reflects this notion in this speech, “But things haven’t gone the way that the Kremlin planned. Putin expected Ukraine to surrender, and he expected the world to submit. History will record something very different. History will remember the courage of the Ukrainian people, and history will remember the determination and strength of the NATO alliance.”
This framing is meant to bypass debate and convince the audience that Ukraine has successfully thwarted Russia and perhaps is even winning the war. This helps bolster support for the current strategy. The problem is, it is not exactly true. In his address announcing Russia’s SMO, Putin declared, “…after the collapse of the USSR, Russia accepted new geopolitical realities. We respect and will continue to treat all the newly formed countries in the post-Soviet space with respect. We respect and will continue to respect their sovereignty, and an example of this is the assistance we provided to Kazakhstan, which faced tragic events, with a challenge to its statehood and integrity. But Russia cannot feel safe, develop, exist with a constant threat emanating from the territory of modern Ukraine.” He continues, “…our plans do not include the occupation of Ukrainian territories. We are not going to impose anything on anyone by force….Our policy is based on freedom, the freedom of choice for everyone to independently determine their own future and the future of their children. And we consider it important that this right – the right to choose – could be used by all the peoples living on the territory of today’s Ukraine, by everyone who wants it.” Addressing the Ukrainian people directly, Putin said, “Today’s events are not connected with the desire to infringe on the interests of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. They are connected with the protection of Russia itself from those who took Ukraine hostage and are trying to use it against our country and its people. I repeat, our actions are self-defence against the threats posed to us and from an even greater disaster than what is happening today.”
It would be naive to simply take Putin’s word on this, but we do not need to do that. We simply need to look at the Russian posturing put in place before, during, and after the commencement of the initial offensive and the current reality on the ground. Russia was never geared up or positioned to invade and hold western Ukraine on a long-term basis. The situation on the ground suggested their strategy was to move in, destroy military targets, and disrupt the Ukrianian government’s ability to counter their offensive in the east while they established better control of the Donbass regions. This is essentially what they did and to that point, the Russians were successful. Russian forces are concentrated behind a relatively stable front that resembles the political boundaries of the breakaway regions that voted to join Russia. Most of the conflict is along this front and Russian strikes in western Ukraine are limited mostly to military and infrastructure targets. Would Russia have preferred a topple of the existing government in Kiev so that can better dictate the terms of future governments and relations? Of course. But things did not go that way and there is no good reason to believe a negotiation could not take place right now based on some non-existing aspiration of Russia to conquer Ukraine.
The difference between western framing of Russia’s intentions and the reality on the ground is important to the current trajectory of the conflict. Again, one does not need to agree with what Russia did in order to recognize the reality of what they did. If the public sees Russia as bent on continuing its offensive westward but failing because the brave Ukrainians are valiantly fighting to stop them, negotiations will seem less appealing as a solution. If the public recognizes the Russians have accomplished much of their primary objective of annexing parts of eastern Ukraine and are focused on protecting the Donbass regions by continuing to degrade Ukrainian military and vital infrastructure while they solidify the red lines that have been drawn and are backed up by political will, negotiations will look more attractive. Some may not like the prospect of territory being annexed via warfare because it sets a bad precedent. It does, in general. But every situation is unique. This particular territory may be better suited for Russia, per the will of the people, and the battlefield outlook may just make it difficult for Ukraine to realistically reclaim it (and why would the people of these regions accept them now if they did?). Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently said in an interview with the BBC, “Any territorial compromises would make us weaker as a state. It’s not about compromise itself. Why would we be afraid of that? We have millions of compromises in life every day. The question is with whom? With Putin? No. Because there’s no trust.” The relevance of his opinion on this is completely dependent upon the continued support of the US/NATO, and of course the reality on the ground. With Russia in the dominant position and a spring offensive looming, Zelenskyy may not be able to talk tough and hold out much longer. Is negotiation for a solution at this point in the conflict being deliberately ignored in order to promote fantastical narratives that bear no resemblance to the reality on the ground?
There is a vicious circle aspect to this entire situation of which everyone must be aware if we want to effectively break the cycle and avoid potential catastrophe derived from too much escalation. Russia’s offensive actually serves the interests of the war hawks in the West in some ways, which is contrary to Russia’s stated goal of limiting NATO’s aggressive posture towards Russia. But as indicated earlier, the offensive was primarily a result of perceived increases in NATO’s aggression. So while NATO publicly laments Russia’s actions, they are busily not allowing this crisis to go to waste by rapidly expanding/shifting structures in ways they could not have without such an impetus. Defense Secretary Austin summarizes, “Almost a year after Russia’s imperial invasion of Ukraine, NATO is more unified and more resolute than ever. We are determined to stand with Ukraine’s brave defenders for as long as it takes, and we are also determined to protect every inch of NATO territory. Putin’s flagrant aggression has changed the security environment for every member of this alliance and for countries around the world. You could see the scope of the global response again yesterday, when some 50 nations of goodwill gathered for the ninth meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group. And these challenges were an important part of this NATO ministerial. We talked today about how to ensure that NATO remains prepared to confront the dangers ahead. At the Madrid Summit in June, NATO leaders agreed on a fundamental shift in our collective defense and deterrence. We are strengthening our capabilities for the long term to deter and defend against all threats across all domains. We’re upgrading our defense plans and putting more forces at higher levels of readiness. Today we discussed the progress that we’ve made since Madrid and our ongoing work as we move towards the Vilnius summit in July. In Vilnius, our leaders will agree on a new defense investment pledge to ensure that the alliance has the resources to carry out these new plans. We had productive conversations about that pledge and we look forward to working with our valued allies to ensure that we all do even more to invest in our shared security. We also discussed our progress in building up ammunition stockpiles and boosting defense industrial capacity. And NATO allies have dug deep over the past year, and both President Biden and I are deeply grateful. But we still have much more to do. Even as we rush to support Ukraine in the critical months ahead, we must all replenish our stockpiles to strengthen our deterrence and defense for the long term.”
Russia, being put in a “damned if they do, damned if they do not” situation, is certainly going to act in a manner that at least increases their strategic positioning while they take a pummeling in the international community. Territory increases and strategic relations/positioning around the world less dependent upon western-dominated systems may be their biggest wins coming out of this. The writing is on the wall for a protracted, bloody stalemate in this conflict if both sides stubbornly refuse to negotiate for peaceful reconciliation that includes some kind of neutrality agreement for Ukraine, new non-aggression pacts (including Russia, Ukraine, US, NATO signatories), recognition of the will of the Donbass and Crimean people, the possibility of more autonomy for other Ukrainian regions that may seek it, resumption of normal trade relations, redevelopment commitments, etc. Only rational action and recognition of logical, mutually applicable principles can break the vicious cycle of escalation. But both sides must want it.
Potential Escalation and the Battlefield Reality
There is another alternative that is even worse than stalemate in this conflict and both the Russians and the West have acknowledged it and made attempts to deter it, however the threat looms. While there can be no doubt this is a proxy war between NATO and Russia, both sides have been careful not to directly engage the other, which may trigger escalation up to and including WWIII/nuclear warfare. NATO military assistance to Ukraine has been expanded to almost its conceivable limit of “non-interference.” Defense Secretary Austin reiterated NATO’s open options however referencing North Atlantic Treaty Article V; “We will not be drawn into Putin’s war of choice. But we will never waver in carrying out NATO’s preeminent task. And that task is to defend this great alliance’s people and their territory. America’s commitment to that core mission is unflinching. America’s commitment to Article 5 is ironclad. And we’re proud to work alongside our NATO allies to defend the forces of freedom and to build a safer world.” Nevermind the irony of that statement given there would likely be zero threat from Russia had NATO simply remained within its logical sphere. The focus here is on article 5. The North Atlantic Treaty, signed 4 April 1949 in Washington D.C., Article 5 states,
“The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area. Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall immediately be reported to the Security Council. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.”
Putin, for his part, indicated in his speech a year ago a similar warning regarding too much outside interference, “Now a few important, very important words for those who may be tempted to intervene in ongoing events. Whoever tries to hinder us, and even more so to create threats for our country, for our people, should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences that you have never experienced in your history. We are ready for any development of events. All necessary decisions in this regard have been made. I hope that I will be heard.”
Such mutual threats are to be expected and each side has so far been careful not to cross the ultimate red lines. But the fact that either side in the proxy war could at any time provoke a situation that could escalate into an excuse to respond against the other directly, or a mistake could occur that triggers the same, is enough for the public to push for diffusing the conflict. Also concerning is the level of confidence American policymakers have in their assessment that Russia is not willing to cross certain thresholds, including the use of nuclear weapons. In this sense, they are playing with fire. This is how we got in this situation in the first place.
Russia wants to project the sense that the newly annexed regions as well as Crimea are a part of Russia so as to deter possible NATO-assisted attacks there (as has been mostly the case for attacks within Russia in general). But the Ukrainians and NATO have so far assessed this “red line” as one they can cross without triggering larger conflict. As I indicated before, this may have been a missed opportunity to shift into negotiations. Now with fighting set to resume we will likely see Russia moving to establish complete control of the remainder of the annexed regions by pushing the fronts to their borders and holding them (see included maps). These regions are strategically important because they provide a land bridge between Crimea and more of Russia. Given the lack of a negotiation framework and accompanying ceasefire, Russia may also move to regain control of other surrounding areas such as Kharkiv, which they abandoned late last year, giving the Ukrainians at least a big propaganda victory, if not much of a strategic one. Click here for a general assessment of the situation on the ground right now beyond the scope of this article.
When asked by a reporter how NATO will support Ukraine during the anticipated Russian spring offensive given Ukraine’s many challenges and vulnerabilities, Defense Secretary Austin responded, “What we’re seeing from Russia is Russia is — continues to pour large numbers of additional people into the fight. And those people are ill-trained and ill-equipped. And because of that, we see them incurring a lot of casualties. And we’ll probably continue to see that going forward. That’s — that’s their strength: They have a lot of people.
Our goal is to make sure that we give Ukraine additional capabilities so that they can be — not only be marginally-successful, they can be decisive on the battlefield in the — in their upcoming offensive. And so you’ve seen us move to provide Bradley fighting vehicles. You’ve seen us move to provide Strykers, Marders, Leopard tanks and a number of other things that we’re pulling together to provide them additional capability that I think will make a pretty significant difference in their counteroffensive in the spring. So we’re laser-focused on making sure that we provide a capability, and not just platforms. So for every system that we provide, we’re going to train troops on that system, but we’re also going to give them additional training on maneuver, on the integration of fires, on sustainment and on maintenance. And so with that additional capability, better-trained troops, platforms that can perform a lot better in this environment, I think they’ll have a real good chance at making a pretty significant difference on the battlefield and establishing the initiative, and being able to exploit that initiative going forward.”
Ukraine may have a worse problem with manpower and training than Russia. Many of the assets allocated for Ukraine beyond what Defense Secretary Austin listed will not be ready for full or proper deployment by the time Russia launches its spring offensive. The billions of dollars of weapons and military support NATO is providing can help keep Ukraine afloat, but it is likely not enough to recapture lost territory before Russia can cement in their hold on it. The press must do a better job questioning the wisdom of such efforts when Ukrainian forces can likely at best stall for the hopes of a better future bargaining position, at worst cause more unneeded death and destruction and trigger escalation before any such opportunity presents itself. Joe Biden said recently, “Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia. Never.” He may never want to accept a Russian “victory” but in denying certain realities and ignoring some of our own improper actions, he may just be dooming everybody to more losses by sticking to a stubborn strategy the hinders logical negotiations that could at least leave everyone with some of what they want.
What should we do?
Question everything. As it stands now, if a politician’s lips are moving about Ukraine, he/she is probably trying to manipulate you. Nobody can say for sure what will happen in this conflict. Politicians talk tough, various interests all have different values and goals, and available information is imperfect. The course of war can likewise change in an instant. Most people want the conflict to end and justice to be served. Maybe this will happen this year, or maybe a stalemate will keep the situation unresolved well past the next election cycle (2024). Regardless, the best way to get there from where we are now, I think, is to begin negotiations with consideration for the logical security concerns of Russia, the will of the people of the annexed regions for self-determination, and the security guarantees, benefits of good governance, and reconstruction plans/economic cooperation desired by the Ukrainian people. But this will not easily happen without a massive shift in sentiment in the West, including a reckoning for the provocations that helped cause the conflict. A massive anti-war push is needed based on principle, not merely politics or cost. Candidates for office must take a strong stance against unwarranted aggression and stubborn extreme policy that seeks some sort of total victory over the opponent. Citizens must demand their elected representatives push for real diplomacy to be a condition for further security assistance. The threat of larger warfare must be taken more seriously and used as a key point in favor of deescalation. The American people inherently do not like top-down governance, bullies, or imperialism. It is time to stop our decision-makers from conducting such behavior on our behalf. A reset of international cooperation on arms control and nonproliferation is overdue, and this effort ought to coincide with this anti-war, pro-negotiation for Ukraine movement. This impacts us all. Our inaction over the decades enabled the long-standing provocations that led to this war, our actions now must impact the decision-makers who can justly end it.