It is inevitable in any war — even a proxy one — that identical actions by the “enemy” and by your own side will be portrayed as wicked in the first case, moral and justified in the second.
In much of the U.S. establishment and media however, belief in the innate righteousness of U.S. actions is so deeply-rooted that it can become a serious danger to the successful conduct of Washington policy. Why? Because it blinds American policymakers to the likely consequences of their own actions.
The latest example of this involves the scheduled meeting between President Vladimir Putin and North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un. Most Western analysis has focused — probably correctly — on the likelihood that this will lead North Korea to provide Russia with artillery shells, of which North Korea has enormous reserves and considerable production capacity.
The fighting in Ukraine seems to be moving towards a long-term war of attrition, and in such a war, levels of ammunition will play an absolutely central role. This is not an issue of the wickedness of the Russian invasion and the righteousness of support for Ukraine. It is a matter of hard military logistics.
In return, Russia will at the very least help Pyongyang’s cash-starved economy with subsidized energy. Depending on the scale of North Korean ammunition supplies to Russia, it is, however, very likely that Russia will agree to supply advanced missile technology in return.
This would be a very serious step. While North Korea has possessed the capability to make nuclear weapons since at least 2006, its ballistic missile technology has developed much more slowly, limiting the range and accuracy of its arsenal. If North Korea with Russian help develops a significant number of nuclear missiles capable of striking the continental United States, this would mark an important shift in the military balance of power in North East Asia.
At the very least, it would strengthen the North Korean regime considerably. In the worst case, the desire to prevent this from happening at all costs could propel a U.S. administration into some hideously dangerous preemptive military action.
This anticipated deal between Russia and North Korea has led to predictable expressions of outrage from U.S. officials and journalists. So we must ask: What exactly did the Biden administration expect to happen as a result of its own actions?
This spring, Washington brought intense pressure to bear on the government of South Korea to supply Ukraine with weapons and ammunition, though Seoul had made its reluctance to do this extremely clear. In the end, a compromise was reached whereby South Korea would not supply Ukraine directly, but would “lend” 500,000 artillery shells to replenish U.S. stocks — thereby allowing the U.S. to transfer a similar number to Ukraine.
You do not have to be a Russian sympathizer to see this as a distinction without a difference. Did nobody in the CIA, Pentagon, or State Department warn the White House that this would likely lead to a deal on weapons supplies between Russia and North Korea, and see the potential negative consequences for U.S., South Korean, and Japanese security?
This does not mean Washington could not or should not support Ukraine. However, if Washington wished to do this while avoiding broader negative ramifications globally, then there are only two possible paths to follow. First, refrain from certain actions (like the attempt to universalize sanctions against Russia) that have tended in this direction.
Second, pursue talks with Russia — such as what took place at the height of the Cold War — aimed at formal or informal agreements that would rule out certain international actions by both sides, such as procuring weapons and ammunition from other countries in regions of high local tensions. Despite this Cold War precedent, all proposals for such talks have been howled down with accusations of “cowardice” and “treason.”
This is what the great American Realist thinker on international relations, Hans Morgenthau, meant when he wrote that it is a fundamental duty of statesmen to cultivate the ability to think themselves into the shoes of their opposite numbers — not to agree with them, but to understand how they are likely to behave in a given situation, so as to be able to craft your own policies accordingly. As Morgenthau also wrote, blind national self-righteousness is the greatest single obstacle to the cultivation of this ability.
In the case of North Korea, this attitude long predates the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The description of North Korea as a “rogue state,” endlessly repeated by an uncritical media, has helped to lock in this attitude until attempts by analysts to understand the conflict from the perspective of Pyongyang become completely impossible. Blind hostility to North Korea extends to relations between North Korea and its neighbors — which in addition to South Korea are, it may be remembered, China and Russia, but not the United States.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia drastically reduced its economic relations with North Korea and generally played a constructive role in cooperating with Washington to constrain Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile development. China has maintained trade with North Korea, and this has undoubtedly played a key part in preserving the North Korean state; but Beijing has also used its economic influence to punish overly inflammatory actions by Pyongyang and has put pressure on the recalcitrant regime to engage in disarmament talks.
Yet instead of recognizing this – and in consequence recognizing the consequences for America and South Korea if Moscow and Beijing were to move to actual full-scale support for North Korea – the overwhelming U.S. establishment and media response has been to blame Russia and China for not joining the U.S. in strengthening sanctions against North Korea even further. No understanding at all has been shown of the fears of both countries that an implosion of the North Korean state would create a massive crisis on their own borders.
The U.S. failure to predict the likely — even inevitable — consequences of the U.S.-South Korean ammunition deal was bad enough. Much worse could be the consequences of the Biden administration’s action last month in pulling South Korea into a much tighter security relationship with Japan as well as the United States — a grouping that Beijing will no doubt see as a threat to its interests and a probable future U.S. tool for the containment of China. Once again, has nobody in the U.S. foreign and security establishment warned the administration that the result is likely to be stronger Chinese support for Pyongyang?
On the Korean peninsula, in Ukraine and everywhere else, developing the capacity to understand the motivations and predict the actions of other states requires that U.S. policymakers look honestly at the U.S. record and how America is likely to act and react in given circumstances. This includes self-awareness about the history of the Monroe Doctrine and U.S. determination to exclude any potentially hostile alliance or even influence from countries close to America’s own borders — even if this means supporting or bringing to power some extremely vile local allies.
Thus if American diplomats complain to their Chinese counterparts about Beijing’s relationship with Kim Jong Un, the Chinese might reply wo men de wangba dan. This is (I am told) how you say “our son of a bitch” in Chinese; and it is an ancient Chinese principle most famously stated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
If U.S. policymakers remembered that aspect of their own history and policies, we can begin to develop a capacity for strategic empathy, and avoid increasing the dangers on the Korean peninsula, which Lord knows are dangerous enough already.
Anatol Lieven is Director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He was formerly a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and in the War Studies Department of King’s College London.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un in Vladivostok, Russia, April 25, 2019. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via REUTERS
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%.