Though I realize that this lecture is currently in vogue among people on the extreme Right of American politics, I highly recommend it anyway. I’ve previously cited Mearsheimer and Walt’s work on Israel, and Mearsheimer’s now-famous lecture on Ukraine has the same clear-eyed quality about it. It is not a defense of Putin, and not to be construed as apologetics for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But it puts things in context far, far better than anyone is doing in the mainstream media. The title is a little misleading, and probably best interpreted as asking, “What is the explanation for the part of the Ukraine crisis that is not Russia’s fault?” The lecture was given in 2015, hence doesn’t directly address the 2022 invasion. But if you listen carefully, you’ll hear Mearsheimer predict and explain the invasion in the same breath. (Here is the print version of Mearsheimer’s lecture in PDF.)
If Mearsheimer is right, then the purpose of the Russian invasion is not what many of us have been led to believe. The aim is not conquest or protracted occupation, but destruction. This hypothesis resolves many puzzles about what Putin has done and why.
Why is he invading? Simply to destroy Ukraine in revenge for the West’s having used it as a pawn in a geostrategic game against Russia.
Why is he invading with relatively few troops (i.e., few relative to what would be required for a protracted occupation)? Because he doesn’t intend to occupy.
Why is he giving the reverse impression? In other words, why is he giving the impression of launching a full scale invasion which is to be followed by an occupation? To lure the Ukrainians into an all-out counter-offensive so as to facilitate their participation in their own destruction, following which, when he is done playing with them, he will retreat to Russia.
Why would Putin repeat the mistake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan? By not repeating it. This is not a replay of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Afghanistan was an act of protracted conquest and occupation. This is just an attempt to create havoc for its own sake.
Why does it look like the Russians are bogged down by Ukrainian resistance? They’re not. It looks that way because they want it to: it provokes the Ukrainians to fight to the last man. But it is doubtful that the Russians have any intention of going anywhere in particular. They’re not in Ukraine primarily to capture territory. They’re there to fuck it up. If they capture territory, they do. Maybe they install a puppet of some kind. If they don’t, they still destroy more of Ukraine, and leave the mess to work itself out to their advantage. Heads they win, tails they win. Either way, the Ukrainians lose. Vladimir Putin is neither crazy nor stupid. He’s not Hitler, either.
How is this our fault? Because we led Ukraine down the “primrose path” of expecting our assistance against Russia in just this situation, a promise we lacked both the will and capacity to deliver on.
Notice that by Putin’s strategy, the sanctions will not work at all. Sanctions will take time to work. But Putin doesn’t intend to spend much time in Ukraine. Once he leaves, it will be hard to maintain the sanctions. We will insist on maintaining them, but the Europeans will want to drop them. Eventually, they will fall apart on their own, as they were fated to do anyway.
Though Mearsheimer doesn’t dwell on this, here is my prediction: eventually, if the American-led sanctions begin to bite at all, Putin will retaliate, not just against Ukraine, but against us. The cheapest and easiest method will be cyberattack. The United States is about as ready for a full-scale Russian cyberattack as it was ready for COVID. Once it hits, Americans will start to cry. And once they do, whatever pathetic assistance we’ve given Ukraine will evaporate, and they’ll be on their own–which is exactly what Putin wants.
Once that happens, Ukraine will, like a beaten child, crawl back to its abusive parent. The role we played in this pathetic farce is analogous to that of the Division of Youth and Family Services on a really bad day–except that the day has lasted decades, and will last decades more. We gave the impression of being a savior to a child in a dangerous situation, knowing full well that we neither could nor would help it when the going got tough. When it did, we huffed and puffed, then cried a few tears, praised its valor, and then sat in front of CNN, watching dear old Dad kick the living shit out of his wayward son.
Pray for Ukraine. It won’t work, but neither will anything else.
It later occurred to me that this is the controversial Mearsheimer lecture that’s been making the rounds. I think Mearsheimer goes too far, but I agree in a basic way with his thesis.
Hasn’t Putin shown, over the past decade or so, that his preference is to control Ukraine through a puppet government like an old-style imperial power? Perhaps he has given up on this and the second-best thing is a gutted, weakened Ukraine (that can be prevented from falling under European influence, joining NATO, etc.)? That would be playing for a near-term draw (but revenge against the U.S., NATO, etc. for threatening, meddling or provoking would not be the primary thing).
FWIW, I go back and forth regarding the morality and wisdom of the Euro-Atlantic embrace of Ukraine, including possible NATO membership. If the Russians were going to do something like this in any case (non-relevant-moral-equivalence scenario perhaps), then the argument that expanding European influence and NATO eastward loses a certain oomph. That’s the line of argument that is carrying the day in my mind right now. However, the “what if Mexico were threatening to join a hostile military alliance?” line of argument (perhaps relevant-moral-equivalence scenario) has some force as well. I’ll continue to chew this over, but in the meantime I’ve donated money to help Ukrainian fighters kill Russian invaders (most directly the funds go for medical supplies, but fungibility – so more/better guns and bullets and more of the right people get killed). I have a Ukrainian friend who will be fighting if/when the fight comes to Lviv.
I’ll listen to Mearsheimer when I get a chance.
I think Putin would like to control Ukraine, but is also smart enough not to over-commit. So it’s very misleading for mainstream journalists to describe the invasion as “full scale.” No one knows that. So far, it is not “full scale.” It’s scaled-down.
Think of him as having a lexical ordering: His first aim is to destroy. His second aim, if the first is satisfied, is to take control. But the constraint on the latter goal is that it’s to be done on the cheap–not as per the Soviet or US invasions of Afghanistan, or the US invasion of Iraq. More, I suppose, on the “model” of Libya. I say “model” because the West didn’t expect Libya to end up the mess that it is, but Putin would be happy to turn Ukraine into a European version of Libya, emptied of all of the western Ukranian trouble makers he doesn’t want in the country. Ukraine would then descend into civil war. He would back the eastern/Russian side in the civil war. We would do essentially nothing (there is nothing for us to do), and he would eventually get Ukraine back on the cheap (by his version of “cheap”).
I understand your hesitation about accepting the NATO expansion explanation for Putin’s invasion, but I think it is the explanation, or the largest part of it. Putin has been screaming about this since 2008. It was, in my view, a gigantic strategic and moral mistake to expand NATO in the way that we did. It made no sense whatsoever, and basically invited this invasion. I wholeheartedly agree with that part of Mearsheimer’s analysis. (I actually agree with the whole thing.)
I’ve said this before, but don’t mind repeating it: we should never have held out NATO membership to Ukraine, but having made the mistake of doing so, we should have taken this opportunity to withdraw it. Is there an iron-clad guarantee that it would have prevented the invasion? No. But it would have been a lot better than the unbelievable bad faith bullshit we engaged in. The arguments that Biden, Blinken, and Price came up with were an embarrassment. I regret voting for Biden at this point. I think he’s a fucking moron. And to be completely honest with you, though I can’t stand Tucker Carlson et al, I actually find Carlson’s arguments in many cases superior to that of his liberal antagonists. This is some sad-sack shit they’re serving up:
Um, Tucker won that round. Sorry.
My own view is that we should do our best to disentangle ourselves from this mess. I was lukewarm about sanctions at one point, but now I have doubts even about that. I actually have come to think that the foreign policy of the US is so bat shit crazy that there is no way to select between better or worse options within its parameters. I think the architects of our foreign policy are fundamentally out of touch with reality. I’m glad I abandoned my plans to join the US Foreign Service when I did. I’d hate to be part of this mess.
I get the impulse to send assistance to Ukraine. I have a friend there, too, an Iraq war vet–a Marine. He went, ironically, to recover from his wartime experiences in Iraq. He became an ESL teacher. I hope to God he’s out.
Apropos of the Kessler-Carlson exchange, I can’t help noting this irony: the same people who want to insist that a fetus is not a child because it lacks the qualitative features possessed by a child, want to insist that a “fledgling democracy” is a democracy even if it lacks the qualitative features that make a democracy a democracy. The sad truth is that Ukraine is not a “fledgling democracy” but a fetal democracy in the second trimester. Kessler struggles as hard as he can to avoid that conclusion, but it stares any impartial reader straight in the face.
If Putin’s intention in this war is merely to collapse the state of Ukraine, as Mearsheimer claims, then not only has he failed already, he was bound to fail. If a state has the backing of its people – and we can see, by now, that Ukraine has that – it doesn’t fall apart just because its territory is raided by a foreign military. If anything, that increases popular support for it; the people see the attack on the state as an attack on themselves. Only conquest and occupation can bring down a state with its people behind it. All Putin is accomplishing by raising havoc is hardening Ukrainian nationalism and turning it against Russia and himself.
Mind you, that doesn’t mean Mearsheimer is wrong. It’s fairly likely that Putin did think Ukraine was an empty shell of a state, propped up by the Western alliance to be an obstacle in his path, and lacked any roots among the Ukrainians themselves. It’d be hard, for instance, to explain him asking the Ukrainian army to mutiny and overthrow Zelensky if he didn’t hold some such belief. But if he did he is stupid, because he ought to have known what the Ukrainians were really thinking before he started this.
The only thing I can see Putin’s war on Ukraine achieving, that is in Putin’s interests, is demonstrating to the world that when a Democrat is in the White House, NATO membership is not worth having. The trouble is, if that’s true, why did Putin object so much to NATO’s extension into former Soviet territory? If Ukraine joining NATO does nothing but feed the egos of US diplomats, and doesn’t give Ukraine any more security than a treaty with the Vatican would, why should Russia care about it? Stalin once said “How many divisions does the Pope have?” – that’s what a true realist would ask about NATO.
Ukraine does not have the backing of the Ukrainian people. It’s divided between eastern and western halves, between two opposed ethno-nationalities. The “backing” is an illusion produced by our fixation on the west.
We can fail to give Ukraine a security guarantee while still using it as a forward base to station missiles and military hardware. We can also back western Ukraine against the east, as we do. And though our exact role in the Ukrainian coup is unclear, there was enough American support for it to be a red flag for the Russians. So Ukraine does more for NATO than feed the egos of Western diplomats, though it does a fair bit of that.
In any case, even if Putin’s fears were groundless, the fact remains: Ukraine’s accession to NATO makes (or made) no sense. Why invite a nation that can make no security contribution to NATO, and which we have no intention of defending against its most likely antagonist?
Storing military hardware in a base you’re not willing to defend is tantamount to giving that hardware to the enemy. It’s something a five-year-old child can see is stupid. If NATO did put a forward base in Ukraine, the world would take that as a security guarantee even if Ukraine weren’t formally a member.
And if the Russian minority in Ukraine (and “minority” it is – they’re much less than half the country) actually wanted Putin to rule them, the troops coming from Crimea and Donbas would be moving a good deal faster than they are. The Russian advance into Ukraine is just as slow and hesitant in the south and east as it is around Kiev itself, which shows that popular opposition to that advance is the same everywhere, not varying by local ethnicity.
Well, let me start further back. I think you’re focusing too much on my claim that Putin isn’t “stupid,” which was potentially misleading on my part. What I meant is that he is not the kind of wild-eyed fanatic he’s been made out to be. His decision is instrumentally rational relative to his ends. They involve no obvious miscalculations or rashness. I made that point only because the conventional wisdom holds that the first phase of the Russian invasion involved a major miscalculation on Putin’s part, which he is now being forced to reconceive. Hence the imminent encirclement of Kiev is (on this view) a “change in strategy,” etc. This article expresses the sort of view I have in mind:
Those are just surmises masquerading as hard knowledge. A lot of people are talking that way, as though a few initial press reports gave us solid knowledge of Putin’s strategy. And they all seem to believe that Putin “miscalculated,” and has been “surprised” by Ukrainian resistance. I don’t believe any of that.
That said, I should probably stress the provisional nature of my own claims, or my own agreement with Mearsheimer. I do agree with him, and do think his thesis offers the best explanation of events, but wouldn’t swear by any of it. It’s plausible conjecture being tried on for size, not knowledge.
Since my view is that all aggression is bad strategy, I do think that Putin is guilty of strategic error, and of course, moral turpitude. This war is absolutely needless and pointless, yet he’s plunged headlong into it. But if you take his ends as fixed, and understand them as Mearsheimer does, the means he’s adopted are well-suited to them. That’s the narrow sense in which he’s “not stupid.”
Anyway, to address your more specific points: I agree that “Storing military hardware in a base you’re not willing to defend is tantamount to giving that hardware to the enemy.” But I don’t see the relevance to my claims. Suppose we (the US, NATO) start to build Ukraine up as a military power but don’t give it a security guarantee. We send military hardware there, and plant missiles there in anticipation of building it up in the future, and (perhaps) giving it a security guarantee then.. Is that stupid? Yes. Does its stupidity mean we wouldn’t do it? Not at all. The fact that the world would take our actions as a security guarantee is true, and precisely what would arouse the suspicions and wrath of the Russians. Yet it might still be true that there was no real security guarantee. Every part of this scenario involves error, confusion, miscommunication, and weakness of will. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen.
In my view, it’s basically what has happened. Since 2008, we have given Ukraine the impression that, while not formally a member of NATO, they were “one of us.” The Ukrainians are about to learn, the hard way, how meaningless that quasi-assurance was–just as the Iraqis learned it a few decades ago.
Beyond that, the idea of putting missiles that close to one’s enemy is often too hard to resist, regardless of the logic or illogic involved. It was dumb of the Soviets to put missiles in Cuba, but they did it. It was dumb of us to put missiles in Turkey, but we did that. We both ended up having to dismantle both sets of missiles, so painstakingly planted so close to the enemy. In retrospect, it seems dumb, but evidently, it seemed like a great idea at the time.
As for your point about the Russian separatists, I think it gets things backwards:
Putin’s troops are not governed by what the separatists want. They’re governed by what Putin wants. Putin no doubt has his own uses for the separatists, but that doesn’t mean that he’ll subordinate his time table or tactics to their needs. And a minority needn’t constitute 50% of a state’s population to constitute a threat to the integrity of the state. Israel’s Arabs are relatively small minority of its population, but are regarded as a major threat to the integrity of the state.
One analogy that’s occurred to me is that perhaps Putin wants to turn Ukraine into the Gaza of Eastern Europe. If he does, Ukraine will become as “attractive” to NATO as Gaza is to, say, Egypt or the Arab world. Putin need not engage in a protracted occupation to do that. He can just imitate Israeli strategy since 2005.
You say that a state doesn’t fall apart simply because it’s raided by a foreign military. Well, what if it’s occupied-from-afar as Gaza has been? Gaza exists in a state of limbo between occupation and non-occupation. The Israelis maintain no garrisons or troops within Gaza, but surround it and effectively control it–and have destroyed it in the process. (They invade from time to time, but never for long.) The Gazans voted for Hamas, so you could say that they’re unified in their animosity for Israel, and unified in their nationalist zeal. But does it really matter? I don’t see how. The Gazans don’t have the weaponry to prevail against Israel, Neither do the Ukrainians against Russia.
I don’t know if Mearsheimer would agree with that, but that’s my interpretation of his thesis: the Russian invasion of Ukraine is Putin’s version of Operation Cast Lead, and Ukraine is his version of Gaza. It’s primarily a wrecking operation, and only secondarily, if that, anything else.
My point about the Russian separatists is not what you took it to be. It’s that, outside of Donestk and Luhansk where they hold power as Putin’s clients, there are no Russian separatists left in Ukraine. The Russian minority doesn’t threaten the state of Ukraine because they’re loyal to that state, and opposed to the state of Russia. I refer you to Peter Zeihan:
As for Gaza – it is not, in fact, within Putin’s power to reduce Ukraine to a state similar to the Gaza Strip. Just for starters, the country has the most fecund cropland on Earth, on which large parts of Europe and Asia depend to avoid starvation. The world can’t afford for all those farms to be taken out of the world economy for years on end. Gaza is just a minor port on the Mediterranean, easily bypassed and ignored.
More importantly, though, Gaza is what it is because Hamas, which controls it, is not actually a state, but an army; it has no use for Gaza as a city to live in, just as a base from which to attack Israel. Bear in mind that Operation Cast Lead was a response to constant artillery barrages into Israel from Gaza. Ukraine has never threatened to attack Russia, and no NATO member nation has suggested aggression on Russia from Ukraine, except in response to aggression from Russia; and Ukraine actually is a state, not a garrison.
So no, I can’t agree that if Putin’s goal is what Mearsheimer proposes it to be, the means he has chosen are well suited to achieve it. The simple fact that Ukraine was not the aggressor, by any imaginable construction of the evidence, ruled out the diplomatic isolation that would allow him to wreck the place with impunity. So that explanation has no advantage over the conventional view that Putin was depending on support from the ethnic Russians in Ukraine that doesn’t exist. Indeed he comes off rather worse than in the conventional view, for it makes him deluded about world politics in general, instead of just one foreign country.
Much to my surprise; I agree with much if not all of this.
(Reponding to Michael Brazier)
Setting aside your interpretation of why Gaza is the way it is (which I’ll ignore as irrelevant to the larger issue), I don’t really disagree with your March 2 comment. I had misunderstood the point you were originally making about the Russian separatists in Ukraine, and don’t disagree with the one you’re making above.
The only quibble I would make is that my point was that Russia is in Ukraine to wreck it, not wreck it with diplomatic impunity. If he anticipated and accepted the costs of diplomatic isolation, then his means remains well-tailored to his ends. This “disagreement” may end up being a quibble, however, since I agree that Putin’s actions are aggressive and extremely irrational. What I really want to dispute are the facile claims people keep making about what he anticipated and what he didn’t anticipate. There is less reason than the conventional view holds that Putin failed to anticipate the obstacles he is now meeting. He might have anticipated them and resolved to accept the cost.
That said, I do think that Mearsheimer’s thesis is overstated, and now think that the conclusions I was drawing from it in the original post were likewise overstated. There’s no reason to contrast his engaging in a wrecking operation with his wanting to conquer Ukraine; he’s done a bit of both, and will probably end up doing bits of both. I do agree that occupying Ukraine is really, really stupid, and if that’s what he has in mind, I am giving him far too much credit for realism.
So I’m willing to express agnosticism about that. Nonetheless, there’s a basic truth in Mearsheimer’s view worth preserving, and that I think others have put better than he has. The truth is that even if Putin’s invasion is an act of aggression, our Ukraine policy has been culpably misconceived. I’m going to write a separate post this weekend offering a modified version of the view I expressed in this one.
“This is not the realism we are looking for.” Maybe this is: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/04/podcasts/transcript-ezra-klein-interviews-fareed-zakaria.html
That’s on my list to read or listen to. But I’m not really sympathetic to realism in the IR sense, so I’m not specifically sympathetic to Mearsheimer’s (or anyone else’s) realism per se. I happen to agree with him on cases, not on his broader theoretical framework. I actually think Mearsheimer’s views on the role of morality in foreign affairs are unclear, and prefer to make moralized arguments for his conclusions rather than arguments from specifically realist premises.
Yes. There is a more moralized, typically left-wing way of getting to a similar downstream conclusion regarding what it is best to do in foreign affairs. But such a position probably should not be characterized as foreign-policy realism.
I forgot to respond to this:
I don’t see why. Is the idea that Republicans are better at keeping faith with America’s professed allies than Democrats? Nixon didn’t keep faith with the South Vietnamese, and the first George Bush didn’t keep faith with the Iraqis and Kurds, whom he incited to rebellion, only to have them be slaughtered.
Schwarzkopf was a Republican. His actions don’t appear to express any particular saavy about dealing with dictators, or reliability when it comes to the welfare of our would-be allies. .
I’ve said this before, but don’t mind repeating it. It was under Trump that Russia actually attacked us.
Confronted with this attack, Trump blamed it on China. I suppose that’s one way of handling Putin’s invasion of Ukraine: blame it on China. But that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. (Trump’s response to Iran’s attacks on US troops in 2020 were no masterpiece of military genius, either.)
Our defeats in Afghanistan and Iraq were a bipartisan affair, begun by a Republican. If this is the paradigm of Republican war-making, then Republicans lead us to defeat.
Democrats were quick to race to the assistance of our allies, South Korea and South Vietnam. If this is paradigm of Democratic war-making, Democrats are more loyal to our allies–then lead us to defeat. (To be fair, Korea was not a defeat, and a Republican got us out.)
The hard truth is that no one has any good reason to rely on the United States for anything.
Putin’s desire for talks fits Mearsheimer’s thesis. I think these talks are a way of asking Zelensky, “Have you had enough, or would you like us to continue? We’re open to either option.” Rationally, Zelensky needs to cut a deal, and we should be helping him cut one. Instead, our ruling class is full of tough talk about the sanctions they want to impose and the arms they want to send, so that the Ukrainians can fight to the bloody end.
I’ve seen mainstream commentators claim that Putin’s desire for talks is motivated by his having encountered unexpectedly tough resistance in Ukraine–as though he didn’t expect the Ukrainians to fight, suddenly realized that they have small arms, and suddenly realized that he’s got to cut and run. All wrong, all the opposite of the truth. It is Zelensky who has had enough, and is beginning to realize (belatedly) that “the West” cannot help him, but is perfectly willing to cheer his people on to their deaths as they watch the whole thing on CNN. With any luck, Z will see how badly he’s been played and betrayed by “the West,” cut some kind of deal with Putin, hit Esc on the whole NATO membership bullshit, and maybe, just maybe, this thing can end without leading to all-out catastrophe. But when you enter a Dante-esque moral landscape like this one, there’s no telling what will actually happen.
That said, though beggars can’t be choosers, I think Zelensky’s desire to hold the talks on neutral territory was prudent. Instead of saber rattling, we should have found them both some neutral territory to hold the talks. Because killing Zelensky or holding him hostage is also compatible with Mearsheimer’s thesis.
I still have to make the time to watch the Mearsheimer video (or read the transcript) but if this crisis is partly our fault because we “led Ukraine down the ‘primrose path’ of expecting our assistance against Russia in just this situation, a promise we lacked both the will and capacity to deliver on.” then I’d call that not much fault at all. Nothing we or Ukraine did compelled Putin to launch this invasion.
Since I’ve not had a chance yet to see what Mearsheimer thought the US promised to Ukraine, I cannot be sure what he bases his opinion on yet. However, the Budapest Agreement (Memorandum) does not commit the US to any specific action; only to providing some vague “support”. The sanctions we are putting into place meet that criteria. We should do more, but we are not doing nothing.
But because entangling defense commitments can lead to catastrophic outcomes (consider WWI.) the measured response of the US and NATO is probably better than something more drastic. I think we should do more, MUCH more, and I hope that the NATO nations are not done with their efforts, but unless we were willing to threaten Nuclear War, we probably could not have prevented a Russian invasion; What we can do is make the Russians regret it, especially the oligarchs who keep Putin in power. Putin might not care about his economy, but hopefully the oligarchs do. Whether we have the will or capacity to make the Russians regret their invasion is yet to be determined.
Whether Ukraine is a democracy is irrelevant. Even if we agreed that it’s not, that does not mean we should not care about Russian aggression. Dictators don’t suit up and settle wars mano y mano. Ordinary people suffer and die during wars. Demanding peaceful resolution is necessary. Ukraine is far more a democracy than are Russia or Belarus. Ukraine is on the path to democracy; Putin wants to interrupt that development.
Sorry about the formatting mess-up. sean s.
(Responding to Sean):
Nothing we did compelled Putin to invade, but much we did convinced Ukraine that they should become a member of NATO. We invited them into the NATO accession process in the full knowledge that we had no intention ever of defending them against Russia. The point is not that we are responsible for Russia’s decision to invade. The point is that we are guilty of bad faith, and that our bad faith has given the Ukrainians all the wrong messages and all the wrong incentives.
The continued talk of arming them, and of the supposed mightiness of our sanctions, and significance of our “support’ is all part of the same set of miscalculations and bad faith. The Ukrainians cannot prevail against the Russians. What we are about to witness there is a cataclysm of historic proportions. Instead of doing our best to de-escalate, we decided–at the Ukrainians’ expense–to take a hard, unyielding line against Putin, falsely depicting him as an unappeasable, irrational Hitler figure, and falsely depicting his threats against Ukraine as equivalent to Hitler’s designs on Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, etc.
As I argued in an earlier post, it was never in our interest to bring Ukraine into NATO. And it was dishonest, besides. We should never have started the process. Once started, we should have stopped it. But when we got to the brink of this abyss, maybe a few months ago, we should have done whatever could be done to reverse it. We could have adopted some face-saving way of reversing the accession process, and cutting a deal whereby Ukraine retained its neutrality as a buffer state between Poland and Russia, a la Austria or Finland. Admitting that we had no desire whatsoever to fight for Ukraine, we took a hard line on its behalf. I regard that as culpably irrational behavior. It doesn’t excuse Putin’s invasion. But the badness of Putin’s invasion doesn’t get us off the hook, either.
Your idea of our “support” for Ukraine reminds me of the “support” my brother gave me during my first real fistfight. The local tough came down the street and called me a “nigger.” My brother, deeply offended, said, “Don’t let him get away with that!” then retreated immediately to the house. Safely inside, he opened a window and said, “Get him, Irfan!” I wound up, and hit my adversary straight in the jaw, as hard as I could. The guy was surprised, but to my much greater surprise did not drop immediately to the floor, as bad guys are supposed to do. Instead, to my alarm, he got very angry. He then thrashed the living shit out of me.
This is about the size of our “support” for Ukraine. It’s no “support” at all. In the case of Ukraine, we are essentially urging its people to commit mass suicide by “resisting” a vastly superior force they cannot possibly defeat. I’m not saying that the Ukrainian military should not fight. I am saying we should stop romanticizing the images we are seeing of ordinary people fighting an invading army with light arms and Molotov cocktails. It’s absurd. And we should not be urging them to resist to the end. We should be looking to find them a way out of their predicament. The main concession Putin wants is in our hands.
I absolutely do not think we should do more than we’ve done, militarily. We’ve already done far too much, almost all of it harmful. There is now loose talk in some quarters about setting up “no fly zones” over Ukraine, or arming a Ukrainian insurgency, or God knows what else. I think it’s insane. There are no good options here, but a negotiated settlement is the best of the now-probably-hopeless ones. It’s probably too late for a negotiated settlement at this point, but it was always too late for a military defense of Ukraine: it can’t be done. (I understand that sanctions can be used as a bargaining chip in a negotiated settlement, but only if we indicate that we’re willing to lift them. I see no willingness on the part of “the West” to negotiate.) The least we can do is stop adding fuel to the fire. But as far as I can tell, that’s all we’re doing.
On democracy in Ukraine, my only point is that in their haste to discredit the Right (e.g., Tucker Carlson), liberals are producing arguments that make even less sense than Tucker Carlson habitually does. Glenn Kessler’s attempt to rebut Carlson on Ukrainian democracy is an example of that. Carlson asserts that Ukraine is not a democracy. Along comes Kessler to dispute that. How does he dispute it? By marshalling evidence that…Ukraine is undemocratic. That’s not a good showing.
I do think that center-left liberals have lost their capacity for objectivity on Ukraine. They’re utterly invested in the idea that Biden, Our Guy, must be doing a great job; hence our Ukraine policy makes sense. Our Ukraine policy is not entirely Biden’s doing, but no, he is not doing a great job. He has better PR than Donald Trump, and seems like a more sensible person. But he missed his opportunity to push this crisis in the right direction. So did Anthony Blinken. And I’m sure Hillary Clinton would have done the same thing they did. On this issue, there is more truth on the far Left and the far Right than in the space between them.
I can only remark that it’s been many a year since center-left liberals had any capacity for objectivity on, well, anything. I can’t think of a single issue on which their position was arrived at by rational processes; they seem to be ruled wholly by sentiment and superficial formulae.
Although I do think that, having put Ukraine in harm’s way by an assortment of unthinking blunders, we are obliged to help them out of it.
Like I said to Irfan: Categorical claims about what “leftists” or “conservatives” say are almost invariably wrong. Such grand generalities betray a blindness on the part of the claimant. One who can’t find something good coming out of a group of persons probably has closed their mind to that possibility. I loathe Trump and Trumpists, but they have on occasion been correct; it’s rare but not impossible. I try to keep an open mind.
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(Responding to Sean)
I didn’t make a categorical claim. A categorical claim is one of the form “All S are P.” I made a generalization: “center-left liberals have lost their capacity for objectivity.” A claim of that form allows for exceptions, which I grant. It’s a claim about what’s true on the whole.
I don’t think it’s unreasonable to take the main mouthpieces of center-left liberalism–the President, the main spokespersons for the Democratic Party, the most prominent legislators of the Democratic Party, the editorial pages of the main liberal newspapers (The New York Times, The Washington Post)–to be representative of center-left opinion. My point is not Michael Brazier’s much broader one, that they’ve lost their sense of objectivity across the board. But I do think they’ve lost it on Ukraine. They don’t want to discuss the history of NATO expansion or its role in bringing about the crisis. There is a rah-rah demand for “unity,” and constant appeals to the idea that “politics ends at water’s edge.” And there are overstatements about the power of sanctions to change Putin’s behavior along with a refusal to deal candidly with the risks, for us, of Russian retaliation.
This encounter shows a remarkable lack of critical thought on Ned Price’s part, a kind of descent into Orwellian doublespeak. But it was ignored within center-left circles. It was only discussed in right-wing and far left-wing media outlets.
It hurts me to have to cite Fox News here, but I do.
Yet another measure is the impunity with which they’ve permitted some of their most prominent spokespersons to indulge in defamations of people within the party who have dissenting points of view. The clearest example is Hillary Clinton’s wild defamations of Tulsi Gabbard.
It’s sad that a person like Tulsi Gabbard has to go on Tucker Carlson’s show to defend herself, but that’s because she can’t get a fair hearing within center-left circles:
Once again, it pains me to be citing Fox News, but it’s not a secret that the center-left Democratic establishment regards Tulsi Gabbard as a pariah. Mention Tulsi Gabbard in any gathering of sophisticated center-left liberals, and you’ll hear scorn for her from people who are perfectly willing to praise the likes of Hillary Clinton or Kamala Harris. You don’t need to go as far as “categorical assertions” to see that my claims are true of a constituency of people, not just a handful here and there.
It would not be unfair, after the Trump years, to say that the political Right in the US has lost its objectivity. I don’t think it’s unfair to make a narrower claim about the center-left.
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(Responding to Michael Brazier)
Can the party currently being held hostage by Donald Trump really point at the Democrats as the paradigm of irrationality?
I am not sure we literally put Ukraine in harm’s way. We gave them the wrong incentives, and they acted accordingly. While that’s bad, I don’t see how we’ve come to acquire an obligation to help them out of it, and in any case, can’t imagine what “helping them out of it” would amount to. The whole problem with our policy is that it failed to see that there was no way out of a predicament like the one they’re in. What we should have done was to ensure that we minimized our contribution to their being in it. Up until a few weeks ago, it may have been possible to bargain Putin out of his invasion by walking back our pseudo-resolution to bring Ukraine into NATO. But at this point, the situation is hopeless. Biden and Blinken missed whatever opportunity there was to avoid this.
We have only two feasible tools at our disposal: sanctions and the arming of an insurgency. I have no strong view on sanctions except to insist that we stop regarding our “unprecedented” sanctions as a cost-free magic bullet. They’re neither thing. The stronger the sanctions, the higher the risks and costs of Russian retaliation. And the costs of retaliation will be higher than most Americans realize. Beyond that, sanctions will weaken Russian, but it’s totally unclear what difference that will make to the outcome in Ukraine. It may not make that much of a difference, and if it does, it will take a long time to work–which will require us to absorb very high costs as well. Our sanctions may be unprecedented, but sanctions against a country like Russia are themselves an unprecedented enterprise. If we were going to impose sanctions, we should have done a better job of using them as a bargaining chip, but it was only too clear that Biden et al had no interest in bargaining with Putin, having painted him as the Hitler of the 21st century (and painted themselves, with even less plausibility, as its Churchills–and I don’t say this as a great admirer of Churchill).
I do have a strong view on arming an insurgency: am absolutely, categorically against it. We should have learned our lesson from Afghanistan and the rest of the Cold War, but I guess we haven’t. Arming an insurgency is just a recipe for drawing the war out in time, and extending it in space. Americans need to learn the virtue of leaving things well enough alone. But they seem unteachable.
Even if inadvisable (and I don’t have any super-strong commitments here), isn’t arming the Ukrainians serving — in an obvious, righteous way — the cause of justice for them and justice in the world at large (with respect to relations between peoples or nations)? Ironically considering our disagreements regarding what to do about social justice, I do have strong moralistic, promote-justice commitments here: arming the Ukrainians clearly and forcefully serves the cause of justice for Ukrainians and justice in the world at large; and this consideration has considerable weight in determining what we ought to do, all-in (even if, all-in, we ought not to arm the Ukrainians). Do I, in this case, care more about justice than you do?
(Shifting to practical suggestions: how about the U.S. and NATO having a contingency plan to protect and defend Lviv — and, say, a 50-mile semi-circle around Lviv, connecting up to Poland’s border on each side? I suspect we have lots of background disagreements here, but consider that — as well as justice being decisively served! — it is not clear that such a move would be more war-between-major-powers risky than what would happen if the Russian army were to march to Lviv and bombard it into submission. Maybe, to address your perspective, consider this option in a world in which we will not cease sending Stinger missiles and Javelin anti-tank weapons to the Ukrainian army and resistance.)
A commitment to justice doesn’t require a commitment to self-defeating and overly risky/costly courses of action. Ukraine’s war against Russia cannot be won. An insurgency would prolong it and widen it. It would also increase the risk of nuclear war. All of those things flout both prudence and justice.
Of course, your first sentence is true. My question is how to decide whether the rest of them are (and what weight to give to justice being done, it not being preordained that justice and prudence always line up). Perhaps another conversation for another time!
“Can the party currently being held hostage by Donald Trump really point at the Democrats as the paradigm of irrationality?” – frankly, yes. The center-left’s lack of objectivity on Ukraine is just one example of similar wild, hysterical reactions to any number of events and issues. This example is clear to you just because you, on calm reflection, disagree with the position the center-left has taken.
Take the second Iraq War, an example now twenty years old. Before and during the major combat operations, the center-left were all in favor of fighting – very much as they are now. Once they were done, and the true capabilities of the Baathists came out (well short of what the intelligence agencies had believed beforehand) the center-left repudiated the war, claiming Bush had deceived them. The actual case Bush made for the war, which was based on Hussein’s intentions, vanished from their memories. They went from “support the troops” to “Bush lied”, as if a switch had been flipped.
I could multiply examples forever, but this is not the time for it. It’s enough to add that none of the Republican factions manage to be both fanatical and whimsical, as the center-left does. The Republican fanatics are consistent in their policies, and their weathervanes never fully commit to any position; such is the norm in politics. The ability to hold positions with furious conviction, denounce all who differ from it, and then turn on a dime and take up exactly contrary positions, is possessed only by the center-left today. (The Communists performed such volte-faces routinely, but even they had some points of consistency.)
“Up until a few weeks ago, it may have been possible to bargain Putin out of his invasion by walking back our pseudo-resolution to bring Ukraine into NATO.” – I strongly doubt this, because I don’t think Putin’s treatment of Ukraine is based on his belief in a threat from Ukraine to Russia in the first place. He seems to think that Ukraine just is part of Russia, as a matter of right, and invading the country is merely recovering what is properly his own. To his mind, NATO withdrawing its offer to Ukraine is like a man who’s stolen a car promising its owner that he won’t drive it – well enough in its way, but it’s laughably short of what’s due.
Which means that, no matter what Ukraine’s relationships with the West were, Putin would have planned to invade it eventually and set up a government obedient to him. NATO’s offer just forced him to postpone that plan until a time when the US was weak, or busy elsewhere – which arrived when Biden was installed as our President.
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Categorical claims about what “leftists” or “conservatives” say are almost invariably wrong. What Glenn Kessler says does not taint all on the Left. I am on the Left and I never even heard of the fool before this.
If foolish claims are made about how Ukrainian democracy implicates our response to the Russian invasion, the correct reply is not a contrary foolish claim, but the reasoned one: it does not matter. It should not matter.
I think a lot of people on all sides are struggling to maintain objectivity in this situation.
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Regarding, “We invited them [Ukraine] into the NATO accession process in the full knowledge that we had no intention ever of defending them against Russia.”
Where do you come by this information? Since Ukraine is not currently a NATO member, our current efforts do not demonstrate what we’d do if it were; so how do you come by that information? Sources, please.
We are in no way responsible for Putin’s decision to invade. It was never necessary. That decision is entirely on him. Our “hard, unyielding line against Putin” was to let the Ukrainians decide whether they wanted to apply for NATO membership. That should be up to them. There has been little doubt that Ukrainian membership in NATO is and was never going to happen soon. The process is quite clear; immediate membership is not in the cards and Putin knows this. So, there is no immediate crisis forcing Putin’s hand.
Ukrainian membership in NATO is a valid security threat to Putin only to the extent that he is a valid security threat to NATO. Putin’s fear of NATO is no more important than Ukraine’s legitimate fear of Russia; or Poland’s; or the Baltic States’, or NATO’s. Russia’s security concerns are no more legitimate than those of Russia’s uneasy neighbors.
But this is not about Russian security concerns. Ukrainian membership in NATO is a threat only to Putin’s desire to rebuild the Russian/Soviet Empire. This is an imperialist power-grab; plain and simple.
Putin’s demands are on the record, and not at all reasonable. Not only does he demand refusing Ukrainian membership in NATO, he demands permanent reduction of troops in NATO nations, limits on drills among NATO nations, and binding agreements (a treaty) that give Russia undue influence over its neighboring nations. I hoped the age of Great Powers dividing the world into “spheres of influence” was over. It needs to be, but Putin demands it be restored.
Ukraine and Russia’s other neighbors should decide their own futures; not us, and not Putin. With regards to Ukraine, our “fault” is encouraging them to consider themselves a real nation.
There is a meme floating around social media comparing Ukraine to a person escaping an abusive relationship, with Russia cast as the abusive ex who just won’t let go. One can quibble with the details or the metaphor, but it’s not far off. Yes, our neighborhood would be much quieter and more peaceful if Ukraine would just crawl back, begging forgiveness, but I’ve never been a fan of “peace at any price”. We may as well face the problem of Putin now, instead of just kicking that can down the road.
“But this is not about Russian security concerns. Ukrainian membership in NATO is a threat only to Putin’s desire to rebuild the Russian/Soviet Empire. This is an imperialist power-grab; plain and simple.
No. it’s a threat to Russians as well, not just Putin. Chomsky has two good videos on this subject matter that Glenn Greenwald shared on his twitter feed. You need to watch them instead of talking nonsense like you always do
I don’t do Twitter, could you kindly provide links to Chomsky’s videos? I can look at them after I get your links.
There are interviews with Chomsky on the website of Truthout. I agree with Chomsky more than I do with Mearsheimer (though their views overlap). I might write another post on Ukraine tomorrow with links from Chomsky and Ted Galen Carpenter, whose views are a more moderate version of Mearsheimer’s.
My sources on our intention to defend Ukraine are all inferences from fact:
I don’t agree with all of what’s said in this piece by Angelo Codevilla below (to put it mildly), but paragraph 8 under “The Neighborhood” is correct, and implies that we have no conventional military option against Russia to defend Ukraine:
We also risk nuclear war in making the attempt:
Even we are not that irrational.
Further: if someone has an intention to do something, then when given the opportunity to do it, they do it. If we had an intention to militarily defend Ukraine, we would have done it. We didn’t do it, so we didn’t have the relevant intention. It makes no difference whether they were a member of NATO or not. Not-being-a-member-of-NATO does not imply that if we have an intention to defend a place, we don’t. Being a member of the NATO alliance is not a necessary condition of our defending a country. (We had no treaty obligation to defend South Korea, but obviously had an intention to defend it despite that.) And the fact that we invited Ukraine into NATO in 2008 and haven’t taken a single serious step in the direction of making them a member strongly suggests that we have no real intention of doing either thing: making them a member or defending them.
Finally: Popular opinion is against military involvement. But America’s leaders can’t fight a war without popular support. They know that, so it’s safe to infer that they have no intention to defend a place that Americans would not support defending. It is, for instance, perfectly legitimate to say that we have no intention of defending Pakistan against India, or India against China, with military force. You don’t need a “source” to make such a claim. It’s a fair inference from clear-cut facts about the world.
I never said we were responsible for Putin’s decision to invade. Nor have I ever said that his invasion was necessary. But the fact remains that our policy vis-a-vis Ukraine was culpably irrational in just the way that Mearsheimer suggests. Mearsheimer goes too far in suggesting that we are literally responsible for Putin’s action. But we are responsible for our own, and they were wrong.
I don’t think it matters that Putin’s demands are unreasonable. What matters is the right way of responding to them. Since we have no desire or capacity to defend Ukraine against Russia, it made no sense to come up with a policy that gave Putin the impression that we were expanding NATO into what he regarded as his heartland. Again, it makes no difference whether it actually is his heartland or not. No useful aim was served by trying to get Ukraine into NATO, and certainly no useful aim was served by insisting on it after seeing Putin’s resistance to it, especially since we had zero options for pushing back, and courted all-out military confrontation (up to and including nuclear war) if we did push back. We should never have gone down this road, but having started down it, we should have hit the brakes a long, long time ago. When we saw, a few months ago, that the road led straight to war, we should have hit the brakes and done a U turn. Instead, we doubled down. Now he will double down. It was avoidable.
I’ve previously offered the analogy of US policy vis-a-vis Japan in the late 1930s. I obviously don’t think that the Japanese were justified or reasonable in their imperialist demands to take over all of East Asia. But I also think our policy toward them was counterproductive. Instead of accepting some of their conquests as tragic-evil fait accompli, and giving them a face-saving way out of a direct confrontation with us, we pushed them and pushed them with ever stronger sanctions that served to strangle them. That was very satisfying after what they did in Nanking, but it was also a recipe for war–a war that ended in nuclear holocaust.
The point is not that the Japanese were morally right for invading Korea, Vietnam, China, Burma, etc. The point is, if there was a way to avoid backing them into a war against us, we should have taken it. But once Pearl Harbor happened, we should not have pretended that it “came from out of the blue.” It was a response to our sanctions policy. In saying this, I am hardly denying that the countries of East Asia were independent countries. Of course they were. But we had lived with the Japanese occupation of Korea without going to war. We might have lived with some kind of negotiated settlement over China without going to war. But no, we had to teach the Japanese a moral lesson. The irony of teaching them a moral lesson over Burma or the Phillippines seems to have been lost on us.
So it is here. I don’t think Putin is justified or reasonable in his demands. But I think our NATO expansion policy has been really, really stupid. Instead of just accepting the fact that, whatever their national aspirations and cultural significance, Georgia and Ukraine were never going to achieve full independence of Russia, we decided to provoke a confrontation with Russia over them. Is it tragic and wrong that they would in some sense remain within the Russian sphere of influence? Yes. But does that mean that we should have provoked an all-out war to “liberate” either one of them? No–a thousand times, no.
We are now facing a serious threat of all-out nuclear war–not over own homeland (which would have been bad enough), but over a country that bears zero connection with our own security:
The whole idea of inviting Ukraine into NATO made no sense from the start. NATO is a mutual defense pact. But we can’t defend Ukraine, and they can’t make any contribution to our defense. All that our moralizing about their membership achieved was to get them invaded while we watched from the sidelines, risking Russian counter-attack in the process, but still totally unable to do anything about the Russian invasion.
You’ve focused on the fact that Ukraine is not a member of NATO, hence we have no obligation to defend it militarily. I agree, of course. But what you don’t seem to see is that the policy of inviting it into NATO has (predictably) made its actual accession into NATO completely impossible. By inviting it into NATO, then declaring we had no interest in defending it, we provoked Russia without deterring it. Having done so, then whether you accept the “wrecking” interpretation or the “conquest” interpretation of Russia’s war aims, either way, Putin makes its accession into NATO impossible. This was all predictable. Indeed, it was predicted, not by Tucker Carlson but by George Kennan. So what was the point? Why did we insist on a policy this rigid for an outcome this obviously adverse?
We couldn’t defend Ukraine against Russian attack.
It couldn’t make a contribution to our defense.
Inviting it into NATO was likely to produce a Russian invasion, yet we did it anyway.
Any response we made to that invasion was unlikely to reverse the invasion but likely to provoke a retaliation. Yet we did that, anyway.
Given (1)-(4), the very act of inviting Ukraine into NATO made it likely that Ukraine would never become a member of NATO. Yet we did all of it anyway, insisting on…Ukraine’s membership in NATO as the justification.
In other words, insisting on Ukraine’s membership in NATO was the rationale for a policy that could only lead to Ukraine’s destruction, hence to its not becoming a member of NATO.
In that light, all of the talk about Putin’s evils, and Ukraine’s independence, and its sovereign rights, is all totally beside the point, the epitome of slamming the barn door after the horse bolted a couple of weeks ago. A country that promotes a 55 year occupation in Palestine, and gets its putative allies destroyed by processes like the preceding one, needs to slow down and STOP before it does any more harm in the world. Instead, it’s pursuing the idea of an insurgency in Ukraine. At that point, I feel like we’ve reached the end of rational politics and entered the world of Monty Python.
I haven’t had a chance to watch the Mearsheimer video yet; I plan to do that this weekend. But at lunch I was surfing the internet and came across an interview in the New Yorker with Mearsheimer from Tuesday.
Why John Mearsheimer Blames the U.S. for the Crisis in Ukraine
So now we have his current views. It’s as I feared: Mearsheimer is a “realist”; which is a polite way of saying stuck in the past. He’s an advocate of Great Power politics. He regards Great Powers as having a right to control their weaker neighbors. I can’t buy into that; it may be how it is, but it can change, and needs to change. Great Powers (draft your own list) were at the root of all the horror of the 20th century; it’s long past time to end the idea.
To be fair, Mearsheimer does not really try to justify Great Power Politics; he just seems to think no one can get rid of it and the Great Powers should not even try. That’s just pathetic.
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I read the Mearsheimer. I’m not sure what I think regarding what the U.S. or NATO did or should now do with respect to expanding NATO eastward — that is a complicated issue requiring lots of strategy-relevant information that I don’t have. However, I disagree with Mearsheimer’s strictly “realist” framework.
Something like this (close to “realism”) is true: if all else is equal, agent A should not do something that is (or that would likely be perceived as) aggressive toward agent B. But, often, all else is not equal. In particular: if B has a fundamentally aggressive, threatening character, then A’s “aggression” is actually a kind of defensive action that is both morally justified and, if performed in a wise manner, generally strategically sound long-term. So, arguably, since Russia is fundamentally aggressive, NATO expansion was morally justified (and, if done wisely, was a good long-term strategy for maintaining peace and not allowing fundamentally non-aggressive, democratic countries to be dominated by the Russians). Ukraine should want to pull this off and we (NATO, the U.S.) should want to help them do it.
As far as I can tell, Mearsheimer simply assumes the relevant sort of descriptive or moral equivalence between Russia and the U.S. (and NATO). Many leftists get to a similar place from a more moralized stance of imputing sufficient turpitude to how U.S. foreign policy functions and the motivations behind it. I don’t think either argumentative route to this conclusion holds up (but this is a much bigger topic, not to be tackled presently). But: what Putin is doing, how he is doing it — and the importance of his mystical-nationalist justifications for it — rather vividly point to the relevant-equivalence conclusion here being false (and this can serve as something like reductio for the arguments).
However — consistent with the no-relevant-equivalence scenario — it is not wise for a potential victim to engage in fundamentally defensive action that is either (i) an ineffective bluff or (ii) easily perceived or rationalized as being aggressive rather than merely defensive (thus allowing the aggressor to think of and semi-convincingly present herself as victim). Arguably, the NATO expansion was flawed in both of these respects — and this needlessly put Ukraine in a dangerous and vulnerable position. In this sense, we bear some responsibility for what is happening. This is the kind of thing that can happen when being moral is more about striking the right pose than it is about good strategic thinking to effectively achieve moral aims at reasonable cost.
(Responding to Michael Young)
I agree with your rejection of IR realism, and of Mearsheimer’s version of it. But I think that all of that theory is a red herring. There is a more moderate libertarian version of Mearsheimer’s argument on Ukraine, and a moralized left-wing version of it, that I regard as an improvement on his main insights.
Here is the libertarian argument, via Ted Galen Carpenter:
Here is the left-wing one, via one of Chomsky’s many interviews on Truthout:
The advantage of their views over Mearsheimer’s is that they don’t seem to imply that Putin’s invasion is justified. They condemn it forthrightly. But they point out that our policy was extremely ill-advised and irrational.
There was no pressing need to push for NATO expansion, and extremely high risks in doing so. It’s irrational to undertake any course of action that satisfies those criteria–no need, high risks–and the attempt to make Ukraine a member of NATO does.
I think we agree on this issue. We differ, perhaps, on the weight to give justice being done (in respect of Ukrainian self-rule) and the relevant moral statuses (being an aggressor primarily, acting in defense primarily) of the U.S./NATO and Russia. These differences probably support finer-grained strategic disagreements.
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A good article on Mearsheimer in The New Statesman (ht: Michael Young):
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