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Joe Biden is not the impediment to peace in Ukraine
Only Vladimir Putin can end Putin's war
The ongoing war in Ukraine is imposing significant economic costs on the world at large (which is bad) and also markedly elevating the risk of a large-scale nuclear war that would kill millions, including your humble blogger and the vast majority of his family.1 So I absolutely agree with the people who are saying it would be desirable to see a negotiated end to the war.
Like many who are following the conflict, I’ve enjoyed the regularly updated maps produced by the Institute for the Study of War. I’ve enjoyed them so much that it’s easy to forget at times that ISW is a pretty hardcore neocon hawk operation. But then they published this reminder, an update that purports to show that Ukraine will be economically and militarily unviable unless it reconquers Crimea and all of the Donbas and argues that the U.S. should encourage them to insist on maximalist war aims. I completely disagree with that — if Ukraine can obtain a settlement with Russia that it finds credible, we should encourage them to make the deal and definitely not encourage them to try to incorporate a large population of Crimean Russians into their country.
But I also really disagree with people like Elon Musk and venture capitalist David Sacks who portray the war as largely driven by intransigence on the part of the Ukrainian government or Joe Biden.
Elon Musk is successfully currying favor with the Chinese government and Sacks is doing fundraisers for even the most hawkish Republican senators, so I’m not sure these critiques are offered in totally good faith. But they’ve been joined by a set of foreign policy thinkers — realists and restrainers — whose views I’ve largely agreed with on most issues, and in particular on Russia, until recently.
But to put it bluntly, I think this whole group is missing the important context that Putin started this war without provocation back in February for no good reason. Russia had Crimea. They had a “frozen conflict” going on in Donbas that was keeping Ukraine out of NATO. By the account of Russia-sympathetic analysts like John Mearsheimer, Putin invaded because he was trying to preempt the emergence of a militarily capable, western-aligned Ukraine. But he fucked up by having no real Plan B, and he has now caused the emergence of a militarily capable, western-aligned Ukraine. And that’s very hard to compromise away, which is why Putin shows no interest in negotiation and is in fact escalating war crimes, including kidnapping Ukrainian children and putting them up for adoption.
I’m not saying the war can’t or shouldn’t end in a diplomatic compromise — it absolutely should — but the onus is genuinely on the Russian government to explain to the world why an un-sanctioned and re-armed Russia won’t start shit again. “We need to give Moscow what it wants or else they’ll unleash nuclear war” is not a viable basis for policy, as I’m sure the whole PayPal Mafia would agree if Putin were asking the U.S. government to confiscate their money and give it to him. For a compromise to work, Russia has to want to compromise. And continuing to support Ukrainian success on the battlefield is the best way to make that happen.
U.S. and Ukrainian interests are pretty aligned
What I think the anti-anti-Russian people get fundamentally wrong is that they seem to believe there is a significant divergence of interests between the United States and Ukraine, whereby the Ukrainian government is incentivized to hold out for unreasonable goals as long as the U.S. is willing to back them.
And it’s true that conflicts of interest between allies are commonplace. The United States and the Soviet Union both wanted to defeat Nazi Germany, but they also wanted to set themselves up for the postwar period. For a while that meant Stalin urging the U.S. to speed up plans to open a western front on the European continent, since he feared the U.S. secret agenda was to have Germany and the USSR bleed each other dry and then sweep in to pick up the pieces. I don’t think American policy was ever quite that cynical, but it’s certainly true that from an American point of view it didn’t make sense to rush, while the Soviets really wanted us to rush. Later in the war the balance of considerations flipped, and American forces wanted to race east toward Berlin in order to maximize our sphere of influence after the war.
But even closer allies can have conflicts.
Winston Churchill wanted to beat Germany but he also wanted to preserve the British Empire. FDR felt the western allies could maximize their odds of success by endorsing a principle of national self-determination as a war aim, even though this would undermine the imperial project. The British needed help, so FDR got his way.
You can also have conflicts in the form of free-riding. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, America’s European allies objectively needed help defending themselves against the Soviet Union. Thus the logic of NATO. Today, though, Europe clearly has the financial resources to defend itself which would let the United States focus on helping Asian allies who actually don’t have the scale to stand alone against China.
This keeps not happening, though, because Europe has no reason to actually invest in the military capacity to defeat Russia as long as they know the U.S. will do it for them. And since Europe doesn’t make the needed investments, we wind up picking up the slack in a crisis — exactly what’s happening today in Ukraine — which only reinforces Europe’s laxity.
In the Middle East, too, I think the United States has gotten way too invested in meeting the regional security needs of allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel. Separate from the exact merits of these countries’ behavior in their various local conflicts, they are much richer and more technologically advanced than Iran. But ever since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the United States has been physically present in this region halfway around the world and tends to become overly invested in things like the Syrian Civil War that have nothing to do with us.
I think these intra-alliance conflict-of-interest dynamics are very real. And I think people who self-identify as “realists” or proponents of “restraint” in American foreign policy have been much more attentive to them than the mainstream national security community, and that is to their credit. But in the specific context of the Ukraine War, attention to conflicts of interest has become like a phantom limb, and they are seeing conflicts that don’t exist.
The war is very bad for Ukraine
This is a really banal point, but at the moment, no country is paying a higher price for the ongoing war than Ukraine itself. Over ten million Ukrainians have fled their homes, becoming either refugees abroad or internally displaced in the western part of the country.
Their frontline communities have been shelled, and Russia has gone through sporadic waves of using missiles or drones to attack Ukrainian sites far from the field. Ukrainian men are being conscripted in large numbers to fight in the war, and many of them are getting killed or maimed. The war has been economically inconvenient for the United States and incredibly painful for Europe, but it’s much worse for Ukraine.
This does, of course, create some real conflicts of interest.
Earlier in the war, it was commonplace to hear Ukrainian calls for direct NATO military intervention in the war in the form of a “no-fly zone.” The Ukrainian case for this is that it would save Ukrainian lives and probably not lead to a global nuclear war. The American counter-case is that it could very possibly lead to a global nuclear war, and almost certainly not save any American lives since Americans are not currently fighting in the war. The Biden administration was right to reject this idea, and it remains borderline shocking to me that there were people seriously advancing it in the media.
But precisely because we wisely rejected the idea of direct NATO involvement, we now have a situation where Ukraine is (appropriately) bearing the vast majority of the real cost of the defense of Ukraine. The United States is using up a lot of military equipment in the war, but it’s being used for the purpose of destroying Russian military equipment. Since we were already fully committed to an anti-Russian military alliance,2 this is actually a really good deal for us. Basically, NATO equipment + Ukrainian lives are being traded for Russian equipment + Russian lives, which leaves NATO coming out ahead. That's doubly true because NATO is much richer than Russia, so we win a long-term game of "everyone explode their weapons as fast as they can make them."
Again, though, what makes that really true is that NATO material is killing Russian soldiers, while Russian material is killing Ukrainian soldiers. That’s a deal in our favor.
Interests are reasonably aligned for now
What this means is that while Ukraine secures most of the benefit of recapturing Ukrainian territory from Russia, Ukraine is also bearing the lion’s share of the cost of doing the work.
I understand that if you’re someone who spent 30 years complaining that Europe was free-riding on American defense commitments vis-a-vis Russia, you might be tempted to apply that same analysis to Ukraine. But the Ukrainians are not free-riding at all — they are fighting the war. If anyone is free-riding in this situation, it’s the same European NATO members who’ve been free-riding all along. The United States has spent considerably more than our European allies on a conflict that is more proximately related to their security than to ours. The counterpoint to this might be that said European allies are paying a much heavier economic price for the sake of upholding the tit-for-tat sanctions on Russia.
But there’s just no sense in which the Ukrainians are free-riding on our military aid.
They are relying on the aid to stay in the fight (Russia is a much larger country), but they are the ones doing the fighting. If you think about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the USSR almost certainly would have been better off had it been more willing to compromise and reach some kind of settlement with the mujahideen. And the Afghans themselves would have been better off with an earlier end to the war. But from an American perspective, a lengthy war was fine. The Soviets were getting themselves killed, and it was just costing us some money.
The Ukrainians have as much or more interest in peace than we do, and this extends to the various scary nuclear scenarios floating around. These scenarios, after all, universally start with Russia using a nuclear weapon on Ukraine. The United States should obviously try to avoid that outcome. But the Ukrainians also do not want to see their country destroyed by Russian nuclear weapons. This is a big, scary risk, but it’s not a conflict of interest. And I do think that in our communications with the Russians, we should remind them that their strategy is failing and on some level, if they want to wreck their military with endless fighting in Ukraine, that’s fine by us. With every month that passes, the Europeans get more detached from their old Russia-centric energy network, and the Russian military gets weaker.
Russia has to want to make peace
The boring truth is that the main obstacle to securing a peace deal isn’t some runaway proxy in Ukraine, it’s Russia.
A bit of context often missing from the story is that from the Ukrainian perspective, there was an ongoing war in the Donbas region long before Russia formally invaded. And when Volodymyr Zelenskyy was first elected in 2019, he ran and won as a dovish alternative to the incumbent regime. Zelensky is a native Russian speaker, and the characters in his television show “Servant of the People” mostly speak the Russian language. As president, he agreed to a controversial German-backed Donbas peace agreement, which earned him lots of criticism from Ukrainian nationalist politicians and “No to capitulation!” protests in Kyiv and elsewhere.
But Zelenskyy went ahead with the peace plans, and for months a rough ceasefire held in the Donbas without people getting killed. For much of 2020, you could read optimistic reports on the success of the ceasefire. Ukrainians have been aware all along of the practical value of peace!
Because Putin’s regime is not transparent, it is hard to tell why he decided in 2021 to turn away from settlement and toward a more menacing approach. But it seems broadly speaking that he also realized the practical value of peace and decided that a strong and prosperous Ukraine that over time integrated economically with the EU wasn’t something he wanted, even if Russia got to hold on to some territory. Opting for war was a huge miscalculation, and for that matter, I think the 2014 seizure of Crimea was probably a big miscalculation as well. Putin fears the existence of a strong and prosperous nationalism-minded Ukraine, but removing a bunch of pro-Russian people from the Ukrainian electorate made that more likely; alienating people with the unofficial war in the Donbas made it even more likely; and going for full-scale invasion has made it more likely than ever.
These prior miscalculations have now dumped a big problem in Putin’s lap that can’t be easily fixed. For all the talk of Ukraine and NATO, it’s worth recalling that not only did the war directly lead to Sweden and Finland applying the join the alliance, but their accession proved to be a bit of a nothingburger. That’s because long before they applied to join, they were already clearly aligned with the western camp — just as Austria, Ireland, Switzerland, and even Japan and Australia are aligned with the western camp without being in NATO. Putin very understandably doesn’t want Ukraine to align itself this way. But as long as Ukraine is an independent country, he can’t actually stop Ukrainian citizens from emotionally affiliating with Europe or stop its government from wanting a trade relationship with Germany and France.
There are a lot of details that can be negotiated in terms of the exact hard security situation, but Putin would need to reconcile himself to the idea of a genuinely independent Ukraine that will align with Russia only insofar as doing so actually makes sense to its population. And there’s no sign he’s done that.
The scary truth
Nuclear war is very frightening.
It’s not literally true that Vladimir Putin could, all on his own, fire off a bunch of ICBMs tomorrow and get billions of people killed. Whatever the formal rules on paper are, whether in the United States or Russia or China or anywhere else, require the cooperation of multiple people to execute a nuclear launch. But it doesn’t require the cooperation of all that many people. If Russia’s governing elite wants an apocalyptic war tomorrow, then we will get one. If they’d wanted to use tactical nuclear weapons rather than give up in Afghanistan, nobody could have stopped them. And if they decide that an independent Ukraine is so intolerable that they are going nuclear over it, nobody can stop them from doing that either.
It’s genuinely alarming.
The whole project of nuclear arms control has become somewhat unfashionable, with most of the key experts and negotiators at or near retirement, few new people going into the area, and the whole thing taking on an air of being passé. I think that’s a mistake, and if nothing else, this war in Ukraine should puncture the idea that nuclear proliferation is a stabilizing force. Nuclear powers, thanks to their ability to deter attack, make reckless and aggressive moves3 with a sense of impunity. But everyone understands that "we have to let Country X do Y because otherwise it start a nuclear war" isn't a principle you can just apply for all X and all Y. So you get this very dicey situation where it's hard for anyone to credibly commit to anything, and nobody is really sure what's going too far or where things will land.
One way that people try to address this psychologically discomfiting reality is to act as if there is some unilateral course of action that Joe Biden could take that would guarantee a non-catastrophic outcome. But there genuinely isn’t one.
Biden can refuse to engage in reckless escalation (as he rightly has with the no-fly zone), and he can quietly remind the Ukrainians that trying to forcibly re-incorporate Crimea’s population into their state would probably be more trouble than it’s worth.
But even though we’re not little kids on the playground, it’s still the case that “Putin started it!” has real relevance here. It was his recklessness that put the world in this situation, and his behavior that has alarmed so many people across the West. He’s made Europeans who counted on Russian energy imports look ridiculous, he’s made Americans who urged us not to overreact to the seizure of Crimea look ridiculous, and he needs to “do the work” of not just making demands but offering some kind of parameters for a settlement that makes sense.
Whatever you may say about the Beltway Bubble or New York media elites, we have skin in the game when it comes to nuclear war.
Officially, of course, NATO is not an anti-Russian military alliance, but at this point I think we can admit that’s what it is.
And yes, I would very much include the 2003 invasion of Iraq under this banner.