Foreign policy debates are often framed as a fight between realists and idealists. The very terms are self-flattering; the former are more often cynics and the latter aspirationalists.
In the American response to the war in Ukraine we are seeing the weaknesses of both, most glaringly in the ways that some practitioners of realpolitik slip into abdication, and thus provide cover for Putin, while some interventionists are proposing actions that would be reckless in the extreme, even if motivated by admirable humanitarian reasons.
How to thread the needle, while a war crime carries on?
KEEPIN’ IT REAL
I have already whinged in these pages about those who blame the US for the crisis in Ukraine. Generally speaking, the left especially is quick to recognize and call out American aggression when it happens, which is all well and good. But when it comes to the sins of our adversaries, such as the guys in the furry hats, they tend to shrug…..or worse, still find a way to blame the US (which only hurts those critics’ credibility in those cases when there are legitimate critiques to be made).
But when it comes to Ukraine, the “blame America” school also includes a number of self-styled “realists,” largely but not exclusively from the right, who define actions on the world stage only in terms of so-called “great-power politics,” divorced from moral considerations.
Faced with Putin’s horrific, unprovoked attack on his weaker neighbor, their response is:
“Whaddaya gonna do? Empires gonna empire. Politics is the art of the possible.”
Again, the problem is that the allegedly clinical, cold-eyed objectivity on which these voices pride themselves is not applied equally across the Risk gameboard. Indeed, many of the “realist” critics go even further, taking an actively Putinist view, arguing that Russia has legitimate security concerns surrounding NATO and related matters. To the point of excusing an invasion.
One does not have to be a mouthbreathing, gun-totin’, flag-waving American exceptionalist to be offended by that.
Before you freak, dear reader, rest assured that I am not going rah rah “America, fuck yeah!” on you. Virulent nationalism—masquerading as mere patriotism, shot through with racism, xenophobia, and jingoism—has always been a pox on this country, like most countries. The last four years under Trump saw that strain explode, even if it included an equally Neanderthal dose of isolationism, and it was revolting. (Ironically, the Trumpists were actively pro-Putin, in their white supremacist, bully-admiring, nihilistic way, and now find themselves in quite the pickle.)
But there are respectable people advancing the “great-power” view and it is worth considering. We can’t get into a McCarthyite mode of accusing anyone with insight into an adversary of being “a useful idiot,” a stooge, or an apologist. (And I know I used some of those terms recently, and I stand by them for the specific people I mentioned, the likes of Carlson, Pompeo, and Trump himself.)
For example, Jack F. Matlock, a vastly experienced career diplomat who was US Ambassador to the USSR under Bush 41, recently made a similar argument, blaming US policy, on the website of the lobby/think tank ACURA—the American Committee for US-Russia Accord—of which he is a member. (Conspiracy theorists take note: in 1962 Matlock was the young Moscow-based Foreign Service officer who interviewed Lee Harvey Oswald and authorized his return to the US from the USSR. No word on whether he knows Ted Cruz’s dad.)
It is admirable to be rigorously self-critical of one own’s motives, and advisable to consider what self-interests drive an adversary’s behavior, know your enemy-wise. It’s the sort of thing that strategic intelligence analysts do for a living all day long, in think tanks in Santa Monica and windowless rooms in Langley, Virginia. But it’s quite another to cross the line from predicting (or explaining) behavior to justifying that behavior.
Somehow these critics are never so forgiving or understanding of the US’s legitimate beefs or self-interest when we engage in aggression abroad.
These criticisms of the shortcomings of US policy therefore must be twinned with acknowledgment and condemnation of Putin’s actions, and his exploitation of them as excuses, or they do merely serve as cover for Russian aggression, inadvertently or otherwise.
Pull the other one, as our British friends say.
HIS STORY, AND HE’S STICKING TO IT
Right now, the “realist” argument on Ukraine is not looking very good.
A leading voice in this group is the political scientist Prof. John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, who has merited mention in these pages three weeks running. The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner was quite hard on Mearsheimer in a recent interview, as you might guess from its title, “Why John Mearsheimer Blames the US for the Crisis in Ukraine.”
Chotiner explains that Mearsheimer hews to the precise school described above, one “that assumes that, in a self-interested attempt to preserve national security, states will preëmptively act in anticipation of adversaries.” All well and good as far as it goes.
But Mearsheimer’s position excuses all of Russia’s behavior as part of “great-power politics,” a courtesy he does not extend to the US.
For years, Mearsheimer has argued that the US, in pushing to expand NATO eastward and establishing friendly relations with Ukraine, has increased the likelihood of war between nuclear-armed powers and laid the groundwork for Vladimir Putin’s aggressive position toward Ukraine. Indeed, in 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea, Mearsheimer wrote that “the United States and its European allies share most of the responsibility for this crisis.”
Uh, does the US not have “great-power” interests of our own? Or is he simply saying that we pursued them in short-sighted fashion that is now backfiring on us?
Chotiner pushes back, saying that American imperialism does not excuse Russian imperialism, and asking whether Ukraine does not have a right to self-determination. Mearsheimer’s answer is, “That’s not the way the world works.”
MEARSHEIMER: (W)hen push comes to shove, strategic considerations overwhelm moral considerations. In an ideal world, it would be wonderful if the Ukrainians were free to choose their own political system and to choose their own foreign policy. But in the real world, that is not feasible. The Ukrainians have a vested interest in paying serious attention to what the Russians want from them. They run a grave risk if they alienate the Russians in a fundamental way.
Mearsheimer does acknowledge that there are moral considerations in foreign affairs. (Probably his most famous and controversial book, co-written with Stephen Walt, is about the pro-Israel lobby in US politics.) But in explaining Russia’s strategic thinking—which is to say, Putin’s strategic thinking, since nations are abstract concepts that tend not to have literal brains, and we’re talking about an authoritarian quasi-monarchy here—he skirts dangerously close to a simplistic advocacy of “might makes right,” or at least it damn sure feels like he does.
If that’s not what he’s saying, he’s not doing a very good job of conveying the nuances or caveats. And once again, America doesn’t get the same consideration.
Mearsheimer repeats the claim that, “If there had been no decision to move NATO eastward to include Ukraine, Crimea and the Donbass would be part of Ukraine today, and there would be no war in Ukraine.” This flies in the face of arguments made by Anne Applebaum, former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, and many others that NATO expansion is a mere fig leaf, and that it is pro-democracy movements in Ukraine, other parts of the former USSR, and within Russia itself that are Putin’s chief fear.
But perhaps Mearsheimer would say that excuses his behavior as well, if all we are concerned about is pragmatism.
Going back in time, he stands by his longstanding claim that “the West, especially the United States, is principally responsible” for the disaster of Putin’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, which was part of Ukraine at the time, I hasten to note. (Mearsheimer believes China is our greatest threat and that we should ally with Moscow against Beijing—a position not unlike what one hears from many Fox News-y Republicans, where that argument tends to have racial underpinnings.)
MEARSHEIMER: My argument is that (Putin’s) not going to re-create the Soviet Union or try to build a greater Russia, that he’s not interested in conquering and integrating Ukraine into Russia. It’s very important to understand that we invented this story that Putin is highly aggressive and he’s principally responsible for this crisis in Ukraine.
He pooh-poohs the idea that Putin has designs on other Baltic states, since he knows they’re members of NATO, while simultaneously saying it’s unwise that they are members. Chotiner points out the inconsistency, which baffles the professor, who replies: “(H)e’s never shown any evidence that he’s interested in conquering the Baltic states. Indeed, he’s never shown any evidence that he’s interested in conquering Ukraine.”
Perhaps the professor’s cable is out.
He goes on to split hairs over whether Moscow installing a puppet government in Ukraine is fundamentally different than conquering and occupying it. (Please explain that to President Zelenskyy before he is shot.) Asked about Putin’s outrageous claim that Ukraine is a “made-up nation,” Mearsheimer seems unbothered, arguing that “all nations are made up.” which, again, I doubt is much comfort to the people in Mariupol currently being shelled by Russian artillery.
It goes downhill from there.
MEARSHEIMER: It’s hard to say whether he’s going to go after the rest of Ukraine because—I don’t mean to nitpick here but—that implies that he wants to conquer all of Ukraine, and then he will turn to the Baltic states, and his aim is to create a greater Russia or the reincarnation of the Soviet Union. I don’t see evidence at this point that that is true.
It’s difficult to tell, looking at the maps of the ongoing conflict, exactly what he’s up to. It seems quite clear to me that he is going to take the Donbass and that the Donbass is going to be either two independent states or one big independent state, but beyond that it’s not clear what he’s going to do. I mean, it does seem apparent that he’s not touching western Ukraine.
CHOTINER: You don’t think he has designs on Kyiv?
MEARSHEIMER: No, I don’t think he has designs on Kyiv. I think he’s interested in taking at least the Donbass, and maybe some more territory and eastern Ukraine, and, number two, he wants to install in Kyiv a pro-Russian government, a government that is attuned to Moscow’s interests.
He also thinks Kyiv can come to terms with Moscow to end this invasion and establish a peaceful co-existence, concluding, “I think the Russians are too smart to get involved in an occupation of Ukraine,” and that Putin “understands that he cannot conquer Ukraine and integrate it into a greater Russia or into a reincarnation of the former Soviet Union….It would be a blunder of colossal proportions to try to do that.”
Right now, Prof. Mearsheimer is not looking like much of a seer.
UNICORNS, RAINBOWS, AND SURGICAL STRIKES
So much for “realism.”
At the other end of the spectrum, idealism has led us into some dark places as well. (Sometimes because that idealism was mixed with—or a cover for—naked self-interest, and not idealism at all. Governments are not monoliths, and the factors playing into foreign policy decisions are almost always multi-pronged and even contradictory.)
US involvement in Vietnam is often portrayed as an idealistic crusade gone wrong, though that itself is largely a fairy tale. It would be hard to argue that our nationbuilding efforts in Afghanistan, despite their noble origin, were an unmitigated success. (Though they may have been a partial one, more so than many recognize.) The deployment of British troops to Northern Ireland in 1969 was ostensibly meant to protect that country’s Catholics from attacks by the Protestant majority, and quickly turned into quite the opposite.
So, yeah, we all know about the pavement on the road to hell.
I was born into and raised in a military family, where rational toughness on national security was in the DNA. (I say again: “rational.”) That worldview evolved during my own service as an infantry and intelligence officer in Germany at the end of the Cold War and in Iraq in the Gulf war, and was radically changed by the second Iraq war, eleven years removed from my last day in uniform, as I watched the Bush 43 administration lead us into a horrific and unnecessary war under false pretenses. Lies, as they are sometimes called.
One of my chief bugbears, then, is the uninformed naïveté of those—typically on the hamhanded and hawkish right, but sometimes also on the idealistic and interventionist left—who are keen to solve international problems with military force. Sometimes that impulse is idealistic, sometimes self-aggrandizing. Either way, it is an enduring delusion that we can pop into messy and complex foreign wars and change their course with a few airstrikes, but without, ya know, really getting our hands dirty.
For very understandable reasons, the airwaves are filled with such cries now.
Many people, including former NATO Supreme Allied Commander General Philip Breedlove, the Russian dissident Garry Kasparov, and even President Zelenskyy himself have called for NATO to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine. There have been calls for other measures that are nearly as aggressive, including active intelligence and targeting assistance.
I could not be more sympathetic to these pleas. Which is not to say that I endorse them, much as it pains me.
For us to stand by and watch Putin wantonly brutalize Ukraine in an unprovoked, unjustifiable invasion, massacring civilians in the process, is gutting. The reptile brain impulse—and a noble one it is—is to ruck up and put American muscle into this fight. But almost without exception, our best military, security, and foreign policy minds all believe that would be not only suicidal, but possibly omnicidal for the human race. For us to intervene in that way not only risks a third world war, but almost guarantees it.
It would hardly be the first regional conflict to spiral into a wider war. And where might that lead? An exchange of tactical nukes on the battlefield? A strategic nuclear war?
The mind reels.
THERE IS A TOWN IN NORTH ONTARIO
In 1992, in the debate over the war in Bosnia, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, frustrated with the post-Vietnam reluctance of the Pentagon to commit US forces to combat abroad, confronted General Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and memorably snapped (screamed, by some accounts): “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”
(“I thought I would have an aneurysm,” Powell recalled. “American GIs are not toy soldiers to be moved around on some global game board.”)
The answer is to Ms. Albright’s query is that no matter how big and how powerful and how good your military is, it’s not a magic bullet. There are constraints on how and when and where it can be used…..and we are seeing that now in Ukraine.
I am a broken record on Clausewitz’s fundamental and most famous dictum, usually rendered as “War is the continuation of politics by other means,” the North Star of all discussions of the use of force as a tool of national interests.
(For an arcane but instructive inside-baseball debate on the topic, I invite your attention to this dissection of the quote in the original 19th century German, by Naval War College professor James R. Holmes, including a heated debate over the significance of the prepositions “by” versus “with.”)
In other words, war is not some separate beast different and apart from politics, but only another tool that political actors—state and non-state—employ to achieve their desired goals. Combatants do not “cross a kind of event horizon, passing from routine peacetime politics into a dark realm ruled by violent interaction,“ such that “a discontinuity separates war from peace.” Conflict is a spectrum, only part of which involves physical violence.
We are arguably at war with Russia right now, just not a shooting one. That is not metaphor. Our weapons in this war are economic, financial, informational, and the like—indeed, an unprecedented range and depth of non-military leverage we are bringing to bear. Putin himself has labeled them as such. (Ironically, the Russians used similar weapons on the low end of the spectrum of conflict in attacking the US electoral system in 2016….and deadly they turned out to be.) It will likely not be enough to save Ukraine. But for now this is the kind of war we must wage, given the geopolitical constraints of the situation.
If that makes you feel helpless and frustrated, imagine how it makes the Ukrainians feel. But what we are seeing here is the limits of military power as a tool of national policy.
NOSTALGIA FOR THE NUCLEAR NIGHTMARE
President Zelenskyy and other prominent Ukrainian officials have repeatedly framed this invasion as a Sudetenland situation. Putin, they tell us—defying Mearsheimer—will not stop with Ukraine: his dream of a USSR 2.0 requires the gobbling up of most, if not all, of the former Soviet empire. Would he be so insane as to attack a country that is part of the NATO alliance and trigger the collective security provisions of Article 5, which is to say, to invite a full scale, planet-threatening world war with the United States? It’s hard to fathom he would be so crazy, but it was also hard to fathom that he would really invade Ukraine in the first place.
In such a conflict, the specter of nuclear war is unavoidable. Not hands-of-the-Doomsday-Clock inevitable, but still a risk much greater than any of us should want to run.
As if to make the point, last week Putin raised the readiness level of Russia’s nuclear forces for the first time since the fall of the USSR 31 years ago. Is this saber-rattling mere gamesmanship, or something worse? I for one don’t want to find out. Just his willingness to do that is a sign of his moral bankruptcy, and his unpredictability.
But that is Putin’s very ploy, to deter us from providing any further help to Kyiv. Here’s Clint Watts, the West Point-educated foreign policy specialist and former FBI counterterrorism expert, writing in the Washington Post:
When in trouble, Russia and its Soviet forerunners have always employed threats of nuclear war. This Sword of Damocles stokes fear at home and abroad, among officials and the public, and slows down the decision cycle of the United States and its allies. The knee-jerk reaction invokes the old Cold War paradigm: We should do nothing more to help the Ukrainians lest it trigger World War III.
Without giving in to that gambit, I think it would be a mistake to think it merely a bluff. Putin’s mental state is already in question. It is not beyond comprehension that if cornered, and losing the war in Ukraine, he could decide to go out in a blaze of glory and attack a NATO country, the consequences be damned. (Watts has suggested that precise thing.)
In The Atlantic, Tom Nichols, also a professor at the Naval War College, writes that such concerns are ”perfectly understandable….now that a paranoid dictator has led Russia into a major war in the middle of Europe, attacking a country that shares a border with four of America’s NATO allies.” Reiterating that a “nuclear crisis is unlikely, but not impossible,” Nichols suggests that the most likely trigger would be not an intentional Russian attack on a NATO member but an accident. (Not super reassuring.) He also writes about the dangers of a tit-for-tat escalation of nuclear signaling, as happened during the 1973 October war between Israel and the Arab states.
I was a boy at Ft. Bragg, NC in October 1973 when, in response to the Yom Kippur war, Kissinger (not Nixon, btw) brought the US military to DECON 3, its highest state of combat readiness short of active combat, prompting the Soviets to do the same and almost precipitating World War III. My father was aide-de-camp to the commanding general of the XVIIIth Airborne Corps at the time; I remember my parents speaking in hushed tones in the kitchen of our quarters, as my mother—who had already been through my dad’s two tours in Vietnam (PS so had my dad) was freaking out. They had both grown up in the “duck-and-cover” era of the Cold War and Red Scare, and been stationed in Germany in the early Sixties through both the Berlin and Cuban missile crises, and Kennedy’s assassination to boot. They could easily imagine the Cold War turning hot.
It’s grim to think we are back to on the knife’s edge of a similar nuclear nightmare fifty years later, and once again right in the heart of Europe.
FIN DE PARTIE
So what is the end game? No one knows, but the smart money is that it’s not good.
By now it is apparent that the Russian invasion is what military people would call—to use the professional term of art—“a goatfuck.” But no matter how badly the war goes for Putin, it is unrealistic to think that he will accept a negotiated settlement that stops short of total conquest of Ukraine and the removal of the Zelenskyy government. Initial thoughts that he might be content with the Donbass—the sort of which Prof. Mearsheimer was so enamored—have quickly proved illusory, raising fears of just how unhinged and brutal the Russian dictator really is. As if, after twenty some years, we needed further proof.
So if we are lucky (!), we will witness a grinding mechanized assault of some weeks’ duration, characterized by indiscriminate shelling of cities and slaughter of civilians, until Russian forces have rendered the Ukrainian military combat ineffective and taken control of the capital and other key objectives. That, as we are already seeing, will not be some lightning fast, brilliantly orchestrated demonstration of modern combined arms combat, but rather, a blunt old school assault, hey diddle diddle straight up the middle, fought by a recalcitrant conscript army reliant on an almost comically inept logistics chain, while it hammers the Ukrainian populace with artillery and levels towns and cities.
That’s when it will get really ugly. The “victorious” Russians will then have to occupy and pacify a gigantic country that they just brutalized and whose citizens are prepared to fight a grinding, decades-long insurgency, if necessary.
As criminal and unjustified as the 2003 US invasion of Iraq was, the initial march on Baghdad was masterful, operationally speaking. Our trouble there began after the capital fell, during the botched occupation, for which Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the rest of the neo-con brain trust had—incredibly—failed to do even the most rudimentary planning, arrogantly expecting our troops to be met with bouquets and kisses. That was a measure of their madness and self-delusion, which prefigured Putin’s.
But Vlad’s situation is far worse.
In Iraq we were at least removing a brutal and hated dictator, even if our reasons for so doing—9/11, WMD, blather about spreading democracy—were canards. Until we fucked it up, we had at least some segments of the Iraqi populace open to our presence. Notwithstanding Russian ethnic minorities in places like the Donbass, Putin is attempting to take out a wildly popular, democratically elected rock star president and force the people into a new Russian empire at gunpoint. Good luck with that.
Russia faces a grueling guerrilla war, much of it to be fought in punishing urban terrain that heavily favors the incipient national liberation movement. Like almost all guerrilla wars, it is one that the occupier is all but doomed to lose, even though he may—temporarily—occupy Kyiv, Kharkiv, Dnipro, and the rest of the country. But in the end, Russian troops will be ousted.
That will also be the phase of the war when the kind of military assistance the West can provide will be an exponential force multiplier. (In fact, it is not beyond comprehension that clandestine US assets are already operating in Ukraine, covertly by definition, and likely with plausible deniability of any official connection to Washington, should they be compromised.)
The repercussions of that long war are equally hard to predict but may well include the beginning of the end of Putinist Russia. That would, of course, be the height of irony, given that Putin invaded Ukraine precisely because he feared that fate. It could happen abruptly, or—much more likely—painfully slowly. It might take a decade or two or three, until Putin dies, followed by a Khrushchev-like period of “de-Putinization.” But history will very possibly remember the Ukraine invasion as Putin’s Waterloo.
And as I say, that is the best case scenario. I might be wrong, but I don’t see one that includes Kyiv staying out of Russian hands. Nor is the notion of Putinism’s long term downfall a sure thing—it may hang on even after his death. The possibilities decline rapidly from there, if Putin precipitates an even wider conflict, or we make strategic errors that contribute to it. Then the “realists” who want to blame America will get their chance.
Let’s not let them.
FIRST PERSON PLURAL
A popular meme these days is to say, “We are all Ukrainians.” A great sentiment. Do we mean it?
If so, let us consider how “we” will beat Putin. We can’t do so in a toe to toe fight, not without risking World War III and Armageddon. But we can make a strategic withdrawal and prepare for the long, asymmetrical war ahead. Therefore, when we think about this fight in Ukraine, we have to think innovatively.
For now, we must wage war on the lower end of Clausewitzean scale: with financial and economic levers, with materiel and intelligence assistance to the Zelenskyy government, with the written and spoken word, with things like the seizure of oligarchs’ yachts, an end to dependence on Russian oil and gas, and the isolation of Russian elitesincluding Putin himself from the global community in which they long to move.
Throughout, information warfare will be crucial. Watts again:
I do not believe the Russian people condone the violence inflicted on Ukraine, and as their sons vanish in combat, the antiwar protests in cities will grow. Information that specifically connects with the Russian people inside Russia offers an opportunity for the West to de-escalate the situation. The Kremlin has fed Russians a steady stream of disinformation to justify the invasion of Ukraine, but do the people believe Putin’s stories? Interviews inside Russia suggest they are increasingly disillusioned. The West should use every digital means available to send the truth about the needless violence Putin has waged.
Watts also proposes that, while not tripping into appeasement territory, we would be wise to offer Putin a face-saving way out of this, for everyone’s sake. That too is an arrow in our quiver.
The West must help repel the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but that might mean providing an exit strategy for Putin that falls somewhere between exposing him to world humiliation and a coup inside Russia—both of which could bring about unprecedented scenarios involving nuclear strikes.
Let us hope it doesn’t come to that, or even a conventional fight between our forces and theirs. Avoiding it will require skillful statecraft, of the kind the Biden administration thus far has shown itself to be very capable, and its predecessor terrifying inept, if not openly complicit with the enemy.
Still frustrating? Unsatisfactory? Insufficient? Yes, but that is the nature of warfare. It’s time we as a people grow up and face it. The Ukrainian people have had no choice.
Illustration: Edel Rodriguez
h/t Richard Berge for sending me Jack Matlock’s essay, Stephen Lee for the piece on the Russian air force, and Scott Matthews for the article on Turkish drones.
Thank you as always to Gina Patacca for her stellar copy editing.