Allow me to come clean: I worry every time Max Boot vents enthusiastically about a prospective military action. Whenever that Washington Post columnist professes optimism about some upcoming bloodletting, misfortune tends to follow. And as it happens, he’s positively bullish about the prospect of Ukraine handing Russia a decisive defeat in its upcoming, widely anticipated, sure-to-happen-any-day-now spring counteroffensive.
In a recent column reported from the Ukrainian capital — headline: “I was just in Kyiv under fire” — Boot writes that actual signs of war there are few. Something akin to normalcy prevails and the mood is remarkably upbeat. With the front “only [his word!] about 360 miles away,” Kyiv is a “bustling, vibrant metropolis with traffic jams and crowded bars and restaurants.” Better yet, most of the residents who fled that city when the Russians invaded in February 2022 have since returned home.
And despite what you might read elsewhere, incoming Russian missiles are little more than annoyances, as Boot testifies from personal experience. “From my vantage point in a hotel room in the center of Kyiv,” he writes, “the whole attack was no big deal — just a matter of losing a little sleep and hearing some loud thumps,” as air defenses provided by Washington did their work.
While Boot was there, Ukrainians repeatedly assured him that they would cruise to ultimate victory. “That’s how confident they are.” He shares their confidence. “In the past, such talk may have contained a large element of bravado and wishful thinking, but now it is a product of hard-won experience.” From his vantage point in a downtown hotel, Boot reports that “continued Russian attacks on urban areas are only making Ukrainians angrier at the invaders and more determined to resist their onslaught.” Meanwhile, “the Kremlin appears to be in disarray and mired in the blame game.”
Well, all I can say is: from Boot’s prayerful lips to God’s ear.
Courageous Ukrainians certainly deserve to have their stalwart defense of their country rewarded with success. Yet the long history of warfare sounds a distinctly cautionary note. The fact is that the good guys don’t necessarily win. Stuff happens. Chance intervenes. As Winston Churchill put it in one of his less well-remembered “always remember” axioms: “The Statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”
President George W. Bush for one can certainly testify to the truth of that dictum. So too, assuming he’s still sentient, can Vladimir Putin. For either Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy or Joe Biden to suppose that they’re exempt from its provisions would be daring indeed.
Boot is hardly alone in expecting the much-hyped Ukrainian operation — with June upon us, will it become a summer counteroffensive? — to break the months-long stalemate. The optimism voiced throughout Western quarters stems in significant part from a belief that new weapons systems promised to but not yet actually fielded by Ukraine — Abrams tanks and F-16 fighter jets, for example — will have a decisive impact on the battlefield.
There’s a term for that: It’s called cashing a check before it clears.
Even so, for Boot, the operational imperative appears obvious. With the Russian army currently defending a 600-mile front, he writes, “they cannot be strong everywhere.” As a consequence, “the Ukrainians just have to find a weak spot and punch through it.”
However unintentionally, Boot thereby recalls the infamous theory of warfare devised by German General Erich Ludendorff to break the deadlock on the Western Front in 1918: “Punch a hole and let the rest follow.” In their spring offensive that year, German armies under Ludendorff’s command did indeed punch a gaping hole in the Allied trench lines. Yet that tactical success yielded not a favorable operational result but exhaustion and ultimate German defeat.
Punching holes is a poor substitute for strategy. I make no pretense to be able to divine the thinking that prevails within senior Ukrainian military circles, but the basic math does them no favors. Russia’s population is roughly four times greater than Ukraine’s, its economy 10 times larger.
Western support, especially the more than $75 billion in assistance the U.S. has so far committed, has certainly kept Ukraine in the fight. The West’s implicit game plan is one of mutual attrition — bleeding Ukraine as a way to bleed Russia — with the apparent expectation that the Kremlin will eventually say uncle.
Prospects of success depend on either of two factors: a change in leadership in the Kremlin or a change of heart on the part of President Putin. Neither of those, however, appears imminent.
In the meantime, the bloodletting continues, a depressing reality that at least some in the U.S. national security apparatus actually find agreeable. Put simply, a war of attrition in which the U.S. suffers no casualties while plenty of Russians die suits some key players in Washington. In such circles, whether it comports with the well-being of the Ukrainian people receives no more than lip service.
American enthusiasm for punishing Russia might actually have made strategic sense if the zero-sum logic of the Cold War still pertained. In that case, the Ukraine War might be seen as a sort of do-over of the 1980s Afghan War. (Forget what the next version of that war did to this country in the twenty-first century.) Back then, the U.S. used the Afghan mujahideen as proxies in a campaign to weaken Washington’s principal Cold War global adversary. In its time (and overlooking the subsequent sequence of events that led to 9/11), it proved a brilliant stroke.
In the present moment, however, Russia is anything but America’s principal global adversary; nor is it obvious, given the pressing problems facing the United States domestically and in our own near abroad, why baiting Ivan should figure as a strategic priority. Beating up on the Russian army on battlefields several thousand miles away won’t, for example, provide an antidote to Trumpism or solve the problem of this country’s porous borders. Nor will it alleviate the climate crisis.
If anything, in fact, Washington’s preoccupation with Ukraine only testifies to the impoverished state of American strategic thinking. In some quarters, framing the present historical moment as a contest between democracy and autocracy passes for fresh thinking, as does characterizing American policy as focused on defending a so-called rules-based international order. Neither of those claims, however, can withstand nominal scrutiny, even if it seems bad form to cite close U.S. ties with autocracies like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Egypt or to point out the innumerable instances in which this country has exempted itself from norms to which it insists others must adhere.
Granted, hypocrisy is endemic to statecraft. My complaint isn’t with President Biden fist-bumping Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman or conveniently forgetting his support for the illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq. My complaint is more fundamental: it concerns the apparent inability of our political establishment to wean itself from obsolete thinking.
Classifying the survival and well-being of the Saudi monarchy as a vital U.S. security interest offers a specific example of obsolescence. Assuming that the rules that apply to others need not apply to the United States is certainly another more egregious one. In such a context, the Ukraine War offers Washington a convenient opportunity to wipe its own slate clean by striking a virtuous pose as it defends innocent Ukraine against brutal Russian aggression.
Think of U.S. participation in the Ukraine War as a means of washing away unhappy memories of its own war in Afghanistan, an Operation that began as “Enduring Freedom” but has become Instant Amnesia.
A Pattern of Intervention
The gung-ho American journalists summoning Ukrainians to punch holes in enemy lines might better serve their readers by reflecting on the larger pattern of American interventionism that began several decades ago and culminated in the disastrous fall of Kabul in 2021. To cite a particular point of origin is necessarily arbitrary, but the U.S. “peacekeeping” intervention in Beirut, its 40th anniversary now fast approaching, offers a convenient marker. That bizarre episode, today largely forgotten, ended with 241 U.S. Marines, sailors, and soldiers killed in a single devastating terrorist attack, their sacrifice neither keeping nor making peace.
Frustrated by developments in Beirut, President Ronald Reagan wrote in his diary on September 7, 1983, “I can’t get the idea out of my head that some” U.S. Navy fighters “coming in at about 200 ft… would be a tonic for the Marines & at the same time would deliver a message to those gun happy middle east terrorists.” Alas, by blowing up the Marines’ barracks, the terrorists delivered their message first.
Yet Reagan’s belief that the application of force could somehow provide a tidy solution to dauntingly complex geopolitical problems expressed what would become a continuing all-American theme. In Central America, the Persian Gulf, the Maghreb, the Balkans, and Central Asia, successive administrations embarked on a series of interventions that rarely produced any long-term successes, while exacting staggering cumulative costs.
Since 9/11 alone, U.S. military interventions in distant lands have cost American taxpayers an estimated $8 trillion and still counting. And that’s not even considering the tens of thousands of G.I.s killed, maimed, or otherwise left bearing the scars of war or the millions of people in the countries where the U.S. fought its wars who would prove to be direct or indirect victims of American policy-making.
Memorial Day commemorations, such as those just past, should remind us of the costs that result from punching holes, both real and metaphorical. With something close to unanimity, Americans profess to care about the sacrifices of those who serve the nation in uniform. Why don’t we care enough to keep them from harm in the first place?
That’s my question. But don’t look to the likes of Max Boot to provide an answer.
This piece has been republished with permission from TomDispatch.
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%.