A War of Miscalculation: Part II

It happens that during the most momentous American foreign policy challenge since 9/11, a number of personal circumstances, many of them delightful – we welcomed our first granddaughter; an unexpectedly heavy (but welcome) time commitment to a volunteer opportunity – have prevented (and for a period into the future, may well prevent) much contribution to this site.  I am confident that no one following these pages has felt the loss very keenly; there has been enough commentary about the Ukrainians’ struggle to repel the Russian malefactors to suit any appetite.  I had a number of notions about Part II of this note when Part I was published; given the lapse of time, it has been recast.  A few current impressions:

President Joe Biden and his team have thus far done a masterful job.  While I agree with those who cringed when Mr. Biden called Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal and later uttered his declaration that Mr. Putin should not remain in power, these are relative nits; the President simply said out loud what all can see:  there will be no European stability nor Russian vitality while Mr. Putin remains in power.  On the important matters, Mr. Biden has rallied formerly squabbling and diverse NATO allies, mostly maintained the support of an otherwise sharply-divided American public, kept China largely on the sidelines, and (so far) avoided a nuclear conflict while slowly degrading (by facilitating Ukrainian resistance) Russia’s and Mr. Putin’s standing on the world stage.  In Part I, I asserted that America and its NATO allies should ship the Ukrainians all materiel they wanted short of nuclear weapons; much has been done; I join those that assert more can and should be done.  While I did and do disagree with Mr. Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, I can’t think of another major American politician on either side of the aisle who could have achieved in the Ukrainian crisis what he has through his manner, experience, and relationships.  He’s been close to spot-on.

The magnificent resistance of the Ukrainian people and their President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to Russia’s malign invasion has shown the world how a free people will fight to retain their freedom.  From the geopolitical perspective, the invasion to this point has clearly been a Russian military humiliation and a strategic debacle.  Credible reports indicate that Russian President Vladimir Putin is isolated and perhaps misinformed.  At the same time, while all who saw President Zelenskyy’s speech to the U.S. Congress found it compelling, I thought Mr. Zelenskyy also sounded desperate.  He is obviously acutely aware that despite his bravado, his people’s bravery, and Western aid, each day his people are dying, and his country is being pulverized by Russian missiles.  Mariupol is rubble.   The possibility that Mr. Putin is becoming unstable is a terrifying prospect given the nuclear and chemical weapons at his disposal.  At the time this is typed, negotiations between Ukraine and Russia are in progress.  While most NATO observers understandably doubt Russian good will, and there is a tendency, from across the ocean, to urge Ukraine to keep the fight going, to press home its seeming current advantage, it is the Ukrainians – not us — who are suffering and it is their country that is being destroyed.  I wouldn’t like it, but I would understand Mr. Zelenskyy’s acceptance of peace terms that included a confirmation of Ukrainian neutrality and Russian acquiescence to a robust defense pact between Ukraine and a U.S. – European consortium in exchange for Ukraine’s formal cessation to Russia of Crimea and the parts of the Donbas and Luhansk regions (not the entire regions) that were already under Russian separatist control when the conflict began.  (Realities being what they are, such concessions by Mr. Zelenskyy would, borrowing a phrase from former U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz, simply be giving Mr. Putin the sleeves from Mr. Zelenskyy’s vest.)  Even so:  this is not the time for the Ukrainians or NATO to ease up, even in the unlikely event that the Russians are serious.  They must continue to apply all military, economic, and other means to tighten the international vise on Russia until any settlement is achieved. 

There is a delicate word that at least I have yet to see raised anywhere – a word that I would suggest is even more explosive and challenging to prospects of peace than declaring Mr. Putin a war criminal or seeking his removal from power:  reparations.  Mariupol is the easiest example:  Who is going to rebuild it?  With what?  How about other severely damaged Ukrainian cities?  If a peace settlement is reached, who is going to remove the remains of destroyed Russian materiel strewn across Ukraine?  With what?  How is provision going to be made for Ukrainian families who have lost bread winners?  I have heard reported that $300 billion of Mr. Putin’s supposed war chest has actually been frozen by the West (not great planning on his part).  Do western democracies simply confiscate the sums they have frozen and provide them to the Ukrainians to rebuild?  A related issue:  What Russian agreements will be sufficient for the relaxation of Western sanctions?  These are sensitive issues.  If Russia is willing to pull back – a prospect truly to be doubted at this point – negotiators will need to address recompense for Ukrainian losses while being mindful that demands too punitive upon Russia, while warranted and even if accepted on paper, may – as the severe peace terms imposed on Germany by the Allied Powers at the end of World War I – simply breed future conflict.

As noted above, U.S. and NATO sources have publicly stated this week that Mr. Putin may not know the truth about the extent of the reverses Russia has absorbed and the losses it has sustained because his advisers fear for their own safety if they tell him the truth.  The New York Times has reported that Mr. Putin seemed “genuinely unaware” that Russian conscripts are being killed in Ukraine.  I view these statements and reports from two perspectives:  while they may, as some commentators claim, “play with Mr. Putin’s head” and might cause him to reconsider any unrealistic expectations about the invasion’s success that he may still hold, I fear that they also may also expose and endanger the source(s) which the U.S. has clearly placed very close to Mr. Putin.  It’s a calculated gamble as to whether the potential benefits of these statements and reports outweigh the risk to and of losing such a valuable intelligence source(s).  

Mr. Putin has made clear that he views Ukraine as part of Russia and Ukrainians as Russians.  All biographies of Mr. Putin establish that he is an avid reader of Russian history.  He has undoubtedly thrilled to the accounts of the manner in which Russians, due to sheer toughness and love of their Motherland, persevered through unspeakable hardship to ultimately repel France’s Grande Armee in 1812 and Nazi Germany’s Wehrmacht in 1942.  Mr. Putin’s greatest miscalculation in launching his malign offensive may ultimately prove to be his failure to understand that while the Ukrainians have Russian grit and tenacity, they do not consider Russia their nation.  They see Ukraine as their homeland.  Perhaps, prior to the invasion, Mr. Putin should have conducted a séance to hear from M. Bonaparte and Hr. Hitler how well an attacking force fares against a people with Russian spirit and pain threshold when they are defending their Motherland.

As the war continues, I would submit that the Biden Administration’s foreign policy opportunities are likely to expand at the same time that its domestic challenges may mount.  More on these as time allows.

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