“To defend civilization, defeat Russia.” Writing in the unfailingly bellicose Atlantic, an American academic of my acquaintance recently issued that dramatic call to arms. The stakes in Ukraine are said to be nothing short of existential. Illustrating this assertion are images flooding the internet (to include the Atlantic's own website) depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin with a Hitler mustache and haircut.
Cast Putin as the latest manifestation of the Führer and the resurrection of Winston Churchill can’t be far behind. And, lo, more than a few observers have already begun depicting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as the latest reincarnation of America’s favorite British prime minister.
These days, it may be Western-supplied missiles downing “kamikaze drones” rather than Spitfires tangling with Messerschmitts over southern England, but the basic scenario remains intact. In the skies above Ukraine and on the battlefields below, the “finest hour” of 1940 is being reenacted. Best of all, we know how this story ends — or at least how it’s supposed to end: with evil vanquished and freedom triumphant. Americans have long found comfort in such simplified narratives. Reducing history to a morality play washes away annoying complexities. Why bother to think when the answers are self-evident?
A Case of Whataboutism?
Not that donning the mantle of Churchill necessarily guarantees a happy outcome — or even continued U.S. support. Recall, for example, that during a visit to Saigon in May 1961, Vice President Lyndon Johnson infamously anointed South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem the “Churchill of Asia.”
Alas, that exalted title didn’t spare Diem from being overthrown and murdered in a CIA-facilitated coup slightly more than two years later. U.S. complicity in bumping off South Vietnam’s stand-in for Churchill marked a critical turning point in the Vietnam War, transforming an annoyance into an out-and-out debacle. An appreciation for such ironies may help explain why Zelensky’s preferred anti-Nazi isn’t Winston Churchill but Charlie Chaplin.
All of that said, defending civilization is an honorable and necessary cause that deserves the support of every American. Where things get sticky is in deciding how to frame such an essential task. Put bluntly, who gets to choose what’s both honorable and necessary? In the editorial offices of the Atlantic and similarly Russophobic quarters, the unacknowledged assumption is, of course, that we do, where “we” means the West and, above all, the United States.
Timothy Snyder, a self-described “historian of political atrocity” who teaches at Yale, subscribes to this proposition. He recently weighed in with 15 reasons “Why the World Needs Ukrainian Victory.” Those 15 range widely indeed. A Ukrainian victory, Snyder asserts, will (#1) “defeat an ongoing genocidal project”; (#3) “end an era of empire”; and (#6) “weaken the prestige of tyrants.” By teaching an object lesson to China, it will also (#9) “lift the threat of major war in Asia.” For those worried about the climate crisis, defeating Russia will also (#14) “accelerate the shift from fossil fuels.” My own #1 is Snyder’s #13: a win for Ukraine will “guarantee food supplies and prevent future starvation.”
Put simply, according to Synder, a Ukrainian victory over Russia will have a redemptive impact on just about any imaginable subject, transforming the global order along with humanity itself. Ukrainians, he writes, “have given us a chance to turn this century around.” Again, let me emphasize that what gives me pause is the “us.”
That Professor Snyder along with the editors of the Atlantic (and similarly pugnacious publications) should focus so intently on the unfolding events in Ukraine is understandable enough. After all, the war there is a horror. And while Vladimir Putin’s crimes may fall well short of Hitler’s — whatever his malign intent may have been, stalwart Ukrainian resistance has certainly taken genocide off the table — he is indeed a menace of the first order and his reckless aggression deserves to fail.
Whether Ukrainian bravery combined with advanced Western weaponry will, however, have more than a passing impact on world history strikes me as a dubious proposition. Granted, on that score, I may be in the minority. Along with causing immense suffering, Putin’s war has unleashed a tidal wave of hyperbole, with Professor Snyder’s 15 reasons but one example.
As someone who makes no pretense to being an “historian of political atrocity” — the most I can muster is to classify myself as a “student of American folly” — my guess is that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will have about as much lasting impact as our own invasion of Iraq, its 20th anniversary now approaching.
Bold to the point of recklessness, George W. Bush and his associates set out to alter the course of history. By invading a distant land deemed critical for this country’s national security, they sought to inaugurate a new era of American global dominance (styled “liberation” for propaganda purposes). The results achieved, to put it mildly, were different than expected.
However grotesque, Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine seem almost modest by comparison. Through an invasion and war of choice (styled an anti-fascist crusade for propaganda purposes), he sought to reassert Russian dominance over a nation the Kremlin had long deemed essential to its security. The results achieved so far, we can safely say, have proven to be other than those he expected.
When the Russian president embarked on his war in 2022, he had no idea what he was getting into, any more than George W. Bush did in 2003. Admittedly, the two make odd bedfellows and one can easily imagine each taking offense at being compared to the other. Still, the comparison is unavoidable: In the present century, Putin and Bush have been de facto collaborators in perpetrating havoc.
Some might charge me with committing the sin of whataboutism, pointing an accusing finger in one direction to excuse iniquity in another, but that’s hardly my intent. There’s no letting Putin off the hook: his actions have been those of a vile criminal.
Civilization at Risk?
But if Putin is a criminal, how then are we to judge those who conceived of, sold, launched, and thoroughly botched the Iraq War? With the passing of 20 years, has some statute of limitations kicked in to drain that conflict of relevance? My own sense is that the national security establishment is now strongly inclined to pretend that the Iraq War (and the Afghanistan War as well) never happened. Such an exercise in selective memory helps validate the insistence that Ukraine has once more conferred on the United States the primary responsibility for defending “civilization.” That no one else can assume that role is simply taken for granted in Washington.
Which brings us back to the nub of the issue: How is it that this particular conflict puts civilization itself at risk? Why should rescuing Ukraine take priority over rescuing Haiti or Sudan? Why should fears of genocide in Ukraine matter more than the ongoing genocide targeting the Rohingya in Myanmar? Why should supplying Ukraine with modern arms qualify as a national priority, while equipping El Paso, Texas, to deal with a flood of undocumented migrants figures as an afterthought? Why do Ukrainians killed by Russia generate headlines, while deaths attributable to Mexican drug cartels — 100,000 Americans from drug overdoses annually – are treated as mere statistics?
Of the various possible answers to such questions, three stand out and merit reflection.
The first is that “civilization,” as the term is commonly employed in American political discourse, doesn’t encompass places like Haiti or Sudan. Civilization derives from Europe and remains centered in Europe. Civilization implies Western culture and values. So, at least, Americans — especially members of our elite — have been conditioned to believe. And even in an age that celebrates diversity, that belief persists, however subliminally.
What makes Russian aggression so heinous, therefore, is that it victimizes Europeans, whose lives are deemed to possess greater value than the lives of those who reside in implicitly less important regions of the world. That there is a racialist dimension to such a valuation goes without saying, however much U.S. officials may deny that fact. Bluntly, the lives of white Ukrainians matter more than the lives of the non-whites who populate Africa, Asia, or Latin America.
The second answer is that casting the Ukraine War as a struggle to defend civilization creates a perfect opportunity for the United States to reclaim its place at the forefront of that very civilization. After years wasted wandering in the desert, the United States can now ostensibly return to its true calling.
President Zelensky’s astutely crafted address to Congress emphasized that return. By comparing his own troops to the G.I.s who fought in the Battle of the Bulge and quoting President Franklin Roosevelt on the inevitability of “absolute victory,” it was as if Winston Churchill himself had indeed reappeared in the Capitol to enlist Americans in the cause of righteousness.
Needless to say, Zelensky skipped past the distinctly un-Churchillian lapse in that tradition signified by the presidency of Donald Trump. Nor did he mention his own flirtation with Trump, which included assurances that “you are a great teacher for us.”
“America is back,” Joe Biden declared on multiple occasions during the first weeks of his presidency, and the Ukrainian president has been only too happy to repeatedly validate that claim as long as the flow of arms and munitions to sustain his forces continues. This country’s disastrous post-9/11 wars may have raised doubts about whether the United States had kept its proper place on the right side of history. With Zelensky signaling his approval, however, Washington’s participation in a proxy war — our treasure, someone else’s blood — seems to have quieted those doubts.
One final factor may contribute to this eagerness to see civilization itself under deadly siege in Ukraine. Demonizing Russia provides a convenient excuse for postponing or avoiding altogether a critical reckoning with the present American version of that civilization. Classifying Russia as a de facto enemy of the civilized world has effectively diminished the urgency of examining our own culture and values.
Think of it as an inverse conception of whataboutism. Shocking Russian brutality and callous disregard for Ukrainian lives divert attention from similar qualities not exactly uncommon on our very own streets.
As I began work on this essay, the Biden administration had just announced its decision to provide Ukraine with a handful of this country’s most advanced M-1 Abrams tanks. Hailed in some quarters as a “game changer,” the arrival of relatively small numbers of those tanks months or more from now is unlikely to make a decisive difference on the battlefield.
Yet the decision has had this immediate effect: It affirms the U.S. commitment to prolonging the Ukraine War. And when credit earned for sending tanks is exhausted, the editors of the Atlantic backed by professors from Yale will undoubtedly press for F-16 fighter jets and long-range rockets President Zelensky is already requesting.
Consider all of this, then, a signature of America in our time. Under the guise of turning the century around, we underwrite violence in faraway lands and thereby dodge the actual challenges of changing our own culture. Unfortunately, when it comes to rehabilitating our own democracy, all the Abrams tanks in the world won’t save us.
This piece has been republished with permission from TomDispatch. It has also been corrected to reflect the accuracy of an illustration paired with a piece featured in The Atlantic on Jan. 23, 2023.
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.