We are rapidly losing perspective on the war in the Ukraine. Do we really want to end the war and stop the suffering of the Ukrainian people, or do we want to destroy Russia? Demonizing Russia, filling the airwaves with exaggerated rhetoric about atrocities and calling Putin and his henchmen “war criminals” would appear to leave us no morally acceptable choice other than the destruction of Russia. Every newspaper headline and every breathless TV anchor describes every action by the Russian Army as a war crime or even genocide. The media and our politicians have created an atmosphere that will make it impossible for Ukrainian President Zelensky to negotiate peace; agreeing to anything less than the unconditional surrender of the Russian Federation and the arrest and execution of Vladimir Putin would subject Zelensky to accusations of treachery.
If diplomacy is to work, if we are to help the Ukrainians successfully defend their country and salvage peace before thousands more die, we need to get a grip.
Sometimes, it appears that the Cold War rewired our DNA to regard the Russians as our implacable eternal enemy, a dangerous microbe to be eradicated. Otherwise, why did we ignore the advice of our last best foreign policy savvy President, George H. W. Bush, and his awe-inspiring Secretary of State James Baker, to give the Russians breathing space, avoid triumphalism and keep NATO from expanding into the old Soviet space? Instead, succeeding U.S. administrations became cheerleaders for pushing NATO ever closer to Moscow, ignoring the commitments made by our 41st President that if Russia agreed to the reunification of Germany, NATO would not move “one inch” eastwards. (Granted, consistency has never characterized American foreign policy.)
Within a few years we discarded the institutions put in place to tether Russia to Europe, such as the Partnership for Peace, and soon made it absolutely clear that Russia would remain forever outside. We ignored the lesson of the European Union, conceived as a project to tie Germany, the perennial aggressor, into the fabric of the continent so tightly that it would no longer threaten anyone. To add insult to injury, Margaret Thatcher called Russia “Upper Volta with rockets,” a phrase Joe Biden unfortunately repeated a few decades later. Other American politicians called Russia a “minor regional power” implying that the country had no voice nor agency in events affecting its security. Do we use playground insults as foreign policy? Seriously?
Make no mistake, Putin dangerously miscalculated and kicked off a war of aggression that will badly damage Russia. The trick is to stop the war before it badly damages the rest of the world. Destroying Russia economically will harm us as well – nor can we ignore the fact that this is the closest we have been to nuclear war since Cuba and 1961.
Finally, we must prepare for the post-war, something that we are not very good at doing. Zelensky has proven himself a real leader, inspiring his people to blunt the Russian offensive and create an environment for negotiations. He has also shown that he understands what it takes to end the war on terms acceptable to Ukraine’s interests. He knows that those terms will almost certainly include some concessions. Putin needs to survive as well, no matter our atavistic desire to see him dangling from a noose as a war criminal. Zelensky’s job will be to reduce those concessions to the minimum. That minimum will come out in the negotiations – stirring up outrage does not help.
Given Russia’s track record brutalizing civilian populations in Chechnya and Syria, one can excuse pundits who expected the same in Ukraine. In point of fact – and despite the headlines – Russian forces have conducted the war in a relatively restrained fashion. No country, including ours, has ever conducted a war without innocent civilians dying in droves. Precision guided munitions are not surgical scalpels, particularly when we do not know what we are shooting at. Have we forgotten our “righteous strike” at Kabul Airport last August? Ask the Iraqis, the Afghans, the Yemenis, and the Lebanese, among others, what happens when the United States or its allies apply overwhelming firepower to civilian targets. Predictions by pundits and politicians that Russia will replicate the destruction of Grozny, Chechnya’s capital or initiate chemical warfare, inflames sentiments for no good reason; doing so makes no sense and offers no real military advantage.
I suspect that racism motivates Russian restraint. Slaughtering Ukrainians whom they believe to be their close cousins, might destroy troop morale. Killing Chechens and Syrians does not present the same problem. Racism also explains why Europe and the United States have already welcomed two million Ukrainian refugees (and more to come) with open arms while trying to slam the door on far fewer Syrians, Afghans, and Iraqis. Without doubt, Ukrainian civilians have suffered deeply but nothing that we have seen in the current fighting has caused significantly greater civilian loss than the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Comparing the Russian Army to the Waffen SS may make good headlines but (1) makes rational consideration of how to end the war impossible, and (2) is, frankly, dead wrong.
The Ukrainians surprised the Russians, and us, with their skill and determination. They have exploited Putin’s initial mistakes and with adequate resupply and support will probably fight the Russians to a standstill, in effect defeating the Russian attack. Zelensky will have an advantage and he has demonstrated he knows how to use it. He has already conceded NATO membership, a relatively minor concession compared to Ukraine’s other needs. He knows Russian redlines far better than we do. He needs our support to fight the war and he will absolutely need our support when he negotiates the end of the war. We should back him up, not get in his way.