Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky came to the United States last month bearing a powerful moral message: Ukraine’s cause in fighting back against Russia is an unusually clear case of good versus evil.
Like Churchill rallying his people against Hitler’s forces in World War II, he urged continued American resolve in ensuring that the war ends in Ukrainian victory, and he warned that any compromise with Moscow will only invite more aggression. America, he argued, faces a stark choice between right and wrong.
If only things were that clear. In fact, the lengthening and increasingly bloody conflict in Ukraine is forcing the United States to grapple with a moral dilemma: a choice not between right and wrong, but between right and right.
It is right to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia’s invasion. After all, Ukraine did not attack Russia, and under the terms of the United Nations Charter, Russia had no legal basis for waging war on its neighbor absent authorization by the UN Security Council. And it is right to oppose Russia’s brutal conduct in the war, which includes strikes on civilian facilities and numerous instances of rape, murder, and abuse of individual Ukrainians, all violations of international law.
But these elements tell only part of the moral tale in Ukraine. German theorist Max Weber contrasted an “ethics of conviction” that battles against all injustice with an “ethics of responsibility” that calls for considering the potential results of such battles when weighing moral choices. An ethics of conviction argued that Western military intervention in Libya in 2011, intended to prevent mass atrocities by the barbarous Qadhafi regime, was the morally correct policy. An ethics of responsibility points out that America’s good intentions resulted in disastrous instability that continues to radiate into Africa, the Middle East, and Europe to this day.
These contrasting approaches complicate our calculations in Ukraine. Viewed through the lens of conviction, the correct response to Putin’s invasion seems clear: one does not indulge evil; one fights and defeats it. Viewed through the lens of results, the case for such an uncompromising approach is far less certain.
For now, the balance sheet in Ukraine features more assets than liabilities. Western aid has been instrumental in preventing Russian forces from capturing the vast bulk of Ukrainian territory and rendering Kyiv a Kremlin puppet, and the United States has so far managed to defend Ukraine while avoiding the escalatory dangers of a direct clash with the Russian military. But the conviction that any compromise with evil is wrong prompted Ukraine (with Western encouragement) to break off settlement talks that were progressing with Russia in April of last year, opting instead for a “counteroffensive” aimed at driving Russian forces off all Ukrainian territory, while so weakening Russia that it could never again contemplate such aggression.
That counteroffensive has gone poorly. If Ukraine continues attacking into the teeth of formidable Russian defenses, it risks depleting its increasingly scarce supplies of men and munitions to such an extent that it could become vulnerable to new Russian advances. Should Russia threaten to overrun Ukrainian forces, could the Biden administration refrain from some form of direct involvement in the war, if that seemed to be the only way to prevent a Russian victory? Having ruled out compromise with Putin, Biden’s political room for maneuver in such a scenario would be perilously narrow. Yet the consequences of a military clash between the world’s preeminent nuclear powers could be horrific for everyone.
Short of a Russian battlefield breakthrough, we must also consider the potential impact on Ukraine of a prolonged stalemate. Zelensky himself has also warned that a long war of attrition would mean “a fork in the road for Ukraine” and a “totally militarized economy.” Having already lost millions fleeing to Europe and Russia, Ukraine would lose even more people, both on the front lines and to emigration. A demographic study published last year indicated that by 2040, Ukraine’s working age population could fall by a third of its present size, with the number of children declining to half its pre-war level. A shrinking Ukraine would grow ever more dependent on the United States and Europe just to support its aging and war-crippled population’s needs for social services.
A prolonged war also threatens to reshape the world order in dangerous ways. The loss of cheap Russian energy supplies is damaging the German economy and fueling the rise of Germany’s leading far right party, Alternative for Deutschland. Western economic sanctions are also driving increased Russian trade and military cooperation with China, Iran, and North Korea, compounding America’s geostrategic challenges.
Is helping Ukraine recover Crimea and Russian-controlled portions of the Donbass worth a radicalized Germany, a threatening entente between Russia and China, an accelerated North Korean ICBM program, and robust Russian-Iranian military cooperation? These are not questions that those favoring an ethics of conviction in Ukraine want to answer. But they are questions that our elected representatives, as agents entrusted with safeguarding the interests of the American people, are duty-bound to consider.
It is right to help Ukraine defend itself against Russian aggression. And it is right to consider the potential fallout from the war on American and world security. Our challenge is to strike a pragmatic balance between these contending interests in justice and order. We will not achieve it through moral grandstanding, but through a judicious blending of military strength with diplomatic skill.
George Beebe spent more than two decades in government as an intelligence analyst, diplomat, and policy advisor, including as director of the CIA's Russia analysis and as a staff advisor on Russia matters to Vice President Cheney. His book, The Russia Trap: How Our Shadow War with Russia Could Spiral into Nuclear Catastrophe (2019), warned how the United States and Russia could stumble into a dangerous military confrontation much like the situation we face over Ukraine today.
Photo credit: President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy talk at the Walk of the Brave, Monday, February 20, 2023, during an unannounced visit to Kyiv, Ukraine. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)
Senator Lindsey Graham had two options walking into the Doha Forum in Qatar this weekend: find a way to triangulate his full-throated support for Netanyahu policies in Israel for the largely Palestinian-supportive Muslim audience Sunday, or wave his own flag without reservation. He went with the latter.
The South Carolina Republican made it clear he was no stranger to the region — he touted a long friendship with his host the Emir of Qatar and lauded the kingdom's role as international mediator and host to America's Fifth Fleet. But he didn't bat an eye to tell this audience — thousands of Muslims assembled from across the Gulf and the broader Middle East, plus attendees from Global South nations and Europe — that the U.S. veto of the ceasefire was one of the few things he thought the Biden Administration got right.
"President Biden ...You have risen to the occasion after October the seventh," he said, addressing the audience Sunday. "I have a world of difference with President Biden on many things. But when he vetoed the ceasefire resolution, he did the right thing and let me tell you why. Every ceasefire Hamas has ever entered has been broken and we're not going to do a ceasefire until hostages begin to be released like promised and would give the Israeli military the time and space they need to make sure that Hamas ceases to be a threat to Israel and the Palestinian people."
"So as a Republican, I am standing behind President Biden's decision, that resolution and the one that comes next."
He also said the only way there will be peace in the Middle East will be to get Iran — the real culprit. And the only way to start building a state for Palestine ith the Israel-Saudi deal the icing on the cake.
"I pledge in front of the world to help President Biden secure the votes in the United States Senate to make it possible for Saudi Arabia to have a defense agreement with us, which would then make it possible for Saudi Arabia, to recognize Israel," he declared. "Before the world I pledge my support, to help reconstruct a new Palestine but none of this is possible until you have a less corrupt younger Palestinian Authority, replacing the one we have. And a Hamas can no longer wreak havoc on Israel, on their own people.”
That potential U.S.-brokered Israel-Saudi deal have been deemed all but dead after the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel. Graham contended that aside from hating Jews, Hamas launched the attacks to kill any hope for that deal to go forward. Observers have come to similar conclusions — that the so-called Abraham Accords had left the Palestinians on the cutting room floor, inciting anger among the militant elements in Gaza. But unlike Graham, these critics' hold that the agreements are the problem — that regional leaders' shouldn't have allowed Israel to shunt the peace process to the side in the first place.
Not only did Graham ignore this fatal flaw of the agreements, he reveled in his own blind spots, choosing to ignore any culpability of the Netanyahu government over the decades leading to the violence and what appears today, an endless bombardment and on-the-ground military operation in Gaza with chances for further talks between the two sides dwindling by the hour. Instead, he appeared to blame Iran for everything.
"The biggest fear of the Ayatollah is that the Arab world, in conjunction with Israel, marches toward the light away from the darkness. (Iran hates) the idea that everybody in this room can find a way to work with Israel and live with Israel where everybody makes money and can live in peace. Because let me tell you, their agenda is different than yours. So I believe we cannot let Iran win."
He said he was committed to a two-state solution, and if there was any moment in his talk where he put any responsibility on Israel it was this: "I'm going to Israel soon and here's what I'm telling Israeli friends — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, none of these Arab countries can help you. Unless you make a commitment for a two state solution. ...To my friends in Israel the best thing you can do to beat Iran is to give the Palestinians a life where they're not dependent upon terrorist organizations that they can live and work and be prosperous."
How Israelis could get there, from here, was not explained by Lindsey Graham, or whether he honestly thought that was possible given the "hell on earth" Gaza is becoming today. But we know he doesn't believe that the civilian crisis on the ground now will reduce the chances for peace tomorrow, because of the way he reacted to U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's remarks earlier this month.
Austin said “the lesson is that you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians. In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”
“Strategic defeat would be inflaming the Palestinians? They’re already inflamed,” Graham continued. “They’re taught from the time they’re born to hate the Jews and to kill them. They’re taught math: If you have 10 Jews and kill six, how many would you have left?”
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Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov speaks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Dec. 10. (Vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”
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UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks in opening session of the Doha Forum in Qatar, December 10. (vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — The U.S. veto of the UN Security Council vote for a ceasefire in the war in Gaza is being met with widespread anger and frustration by the international community and especially in the Arab world, as reflected in opening remarks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Sunday.
Addressing the forum, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the vote was “regrettable…that does not make it less necessary. I can promise that I will not give up.” He said since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in Israel and the ensuing Israeli retaliation in Gaza, “the Council’s authority and credibility were seriously undermined” by a succession of failed votes to respond to ongoing civilian carnage on the Strip.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, foreign minister of Qatar, said the current crisis and the U.S. reaction to it, including its thwarting of the ceasefire call (it was the only vote of disapproval; the UK abstained) was exposing the “great gap between East and West ... and double standards in the international community.” He pointed to those drawing attention to war crimes in “other contexts” (no doubt referring to Russia in Ukraine ) “hesitating to call for the end of these crimes in the Gaza strip.”
He repeatedly called for the creation of new multipolar world order that "respects justice and equality between the people where no people are more powerful than the other."
The U.S. said it did not approve the ceasefire resolution Friday because of the lack of condemnation of Hamas in the language, and that it not include a declaration of Israel’s right to defend itself. U.S. ambassador Robert Wood said halting Israel’s military action would “only plant the seeds for the next war.”
The result is that people here at the forum say they are more convinced than ever that U.S. policy is reflexively and intimately intertwined with Israel's activities in Gaza. As Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of Palestine, charged, Washington has given the “greenest of green lights” to what Israel is doing on the ground. This was exacerbated this weekend with news that the Biden Administration is bypassing Congressional review to send 13,000 tank rounds to Israel. This, despite efforts by Democrats in his own party to condition the transfer of offensive weapons to prevent their use against civilians.
Meanwhile, humanitarian advocates repeatedly called the situation on the ground “unprecedented.” In an interview with Al Jazeera reporter Stefanie Dekker on the dais, Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said his own organization is “on the brink of collapse.” They have lost 134 relief workers in Gaza since Israeli operations began. He described staff in silent stupefaction over the loss of homes, families. “There is no doubt a ceasefire is needed; we want to put an end to hell on earth right now in Gaza.”
Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the National Interest Foundation in Washington, told RS he was struck by the backlash against American brands in his own travels in Kuwait and Qatar over the last week, citing customer and restaurant boycotts of Coke, Pepsi, MacDonald’s, and Starbucks. “It’s horrible,” he said of the lopsided UN vote. “America is losing a lot in the Muslim world.”
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