Russia’s war in Ukraine isn’t going as planned with fierce fighting in contested regions, but the expulsion of Russia from Ukraine no longer appears to be the objective in Washington, at least in some quarters. Calls for a negotiated peace have been met with skepticism and scorn while Ukraine’s fast track application to NATO and their desire for Russian regime change were not, even though both would start World War III. Sadly, there are some wars you stumble into…
Recently, the mainstream media has been flush with news of Ukrainian victories on the battlefield against the invading Russian army. Last Wednesday, CNN reported that “Russian forces appear to be buckling under growing pressure as Ukraine continues to regain territory in the south, where Russian soldiers have been forced to retreat from previously-held settlements as Kyiv progresses with its counteroffensive towards the Russian-occupied city of Kherson. Despite losing territory in the south to Ukrainian military at rapid pace, Putin on Wednesday signed several laws ratifying the Russian Federation’s claimed annexation of four Ukrainian regions – Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson.” Currently, Ukraine controls 43.2% of Donetsk, 28.5% of Zaporizhzhia, 17.5% of Kherson, and .3% of Luhansk according to CNN’s metrics. The Russians are, of course, counter attacking, launching a barrage of pre-dawn missile strikes on residential buildings in Zaporizhzhia and claiming they will seize the nuclear power plant nearby. It is too soon to tell if Ukraine can continue these gains or will ultimately be pushed back, but clearly the war is not going the way Russian President Vladimir Putin had planned and we should back the Ukrainians in their effort within reason. No fair-minded person should want to see Putin succeed in an unprovoked invasion against a sovereign country in the middle of Europe.
Unfortunately, Washington elites and their allies in the mainstream media appear completely incapable of doing anything “within reason.” Between grandiose claims that Russia is on the verge of a humiliating defeat and equally grandiose talk about the need for regime change in Russia, it has become frighteningly clear that our initial goal of protecting the territorial integrity of Ukraine without the direct involvement of US troops has shifted. The reaction to billionaire Elon Musk’s recent proposal for a potential peace agreement on Twitter is a perfect example. Mr. Musk proposed a redo of the rigged elections in the contested regions “under UN supervision,” with Russia leaving “if the people” decide that way. He believes Crimea should be “formally part of Russia, as it has been since 1783 (until Khrushchev’s mistake).” In addition, the water supply to Crimea should be assured and Ukraine should remain neutral in the future. There’s nothing unreasonable about this proposal. Russia has held Crimea since 2014, and the territories in question have long been disputed. A free and fair election can allow them to determine their own fate. It is also strikingly similar to the framework of peace talks facilitated by Turkey this past March. The Washington Post reported at the time that “The centerpiece of the Ukrainian proposal was a pledge that the country would give up its bid to join NATO in exchange for a security system guaranteed by international partners including the United States, Turkey and others. Ukrainian negotiators likened the offer to Article 5 of NATO’s charter, which ensures the alliance’s collective defense. The guarantor parties — including European countries, Canada and Israel — would provide Ukraine with military assistance and weapons if it were attacked, the negotiators said. Ukraine, in turn, would ensure it remained ‘nonaligned and nonnuclear,’ although it would retain the right to join the European Union.” Crimea would be part of a separate series of meetings with up to 15 years to resolve the dispute. The talks ultimately failed, but in those relatively early days of the war, Russia, Ukraine, the United States, and our allies clearly believed a negotiated peace was both preferable and possible.
Over the past six months, however, something has radically changed and a negotiated peace is rapidly become unacceptable. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham chastised Mr. Musk’s proposal on Twitter, claiming “With all due respect to Elon Musk – and I do respect him – I would suggest he needs to understand the facts of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Suggesting we end the Russian invasion by simply giving Russia parts of Ukraine – after all the suffering – is dumb. It is also an affront to the bravery of the Ukrainians fighting to defend their homeland.” The Ukrainians themselves agreed, attacking Mr. Musk personally. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy asked who do you like more, the Elon Musk that “supports Ukraine” or the one who “supports Russia.” Andreij Melnyk, the outgoing Ukrainian Ambassador to Germany replied only with obscene language. National Public Radio described Mr. Musk’s position was “anathema for Zelenskyy, who considers them pro-Kremlin. The Ukrainian leader has pledged to recover all the terrain conquered in the war and considers Crimea as Ukraine’s to reclaim as well.” Perhaps needless to say, they didn’t bother to ask, since when? At what point did the objective become retaking lands Ukraine hasn’t possessed in eight years and refusing to negotiate about what has long been in dispute? Once upon a time, President Joe Biden stated flatly that a “minor incursion,” as in Russia seizing the disputed territories would not justify a massive global response, but suddenly the objectives have shifted, considerably, and without any discussion or debate. The Biden Administration’s silence on these matters is quite telling: Ukraine is only able to continue this war because of the billions of dollars of aid provided by the United States and our allies. President Zelenskyy is unlikely to have made such bold comments without knowing the financial and military support would continue, essentially indefinitely.
Even more troubling, President Zelenskyy recently announced that he intends to apply for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on a fast track, and he is refusing to meet with his Russian counterpart until Vladimir Putin is no longer in power. As Reuters reported, “Zelenskiy signed the NATO application papers in an online video clearly intended as a forceful rebuttal to the Kremlin after Putin held a ceremony in Moscow to proclaim the four partially occupied regions as annexed Russian land.” “We are taking our decisive step by signing Ukraine’s application for accelerated accession to NATO,” the Ukrainian President said in a video statement. He also claimed his country was committed to the idea of co-existence with Russia “on equal, honest, dignified and fair conditions,” but that is impossible with Putin in power. “Clearly, with this Russian president (that) is impossible. He does not know what dignity and honesty are. Therefore, we are ready for a dialogue with Russia, but with another president of Russia,” he said. In other words, Ukraine is now openly calling for regime change and the response from the United States is equally telling one again. These are major escalations by any objective standard. President Putin has long insisted that he views the eastward expansion of NATO and encroachment on formerly Russian states as a threat. He may be right, wrong, or just plain crazy, but clearly this is what a man armed with some 6,000 nuclear weapons believes. He has just as clearly shown his willingness to use military force to get his way. Ukrainian membership in NATO has never been a realistic option for obvious reasons: Even if you set aside the Russian President’s concerns, Article 5’s mutual defense guarantee would instantly invoke a world war. Russia is in Ukraine right now. The commitment that an attack on one is an attack on all means some thirty countries including the United States would have to declare war on Russia or the alliance means nothing. Perhaps even worse, President Zeleskyy is going beyond a call for World War III: He seeks a war with the purpose of removing President Putin, meaning he believes the world should move from defense, defending the territorial integrity of Ukraine, to offense, unseating the current President of a foreign power, one with his finger on the trigger of the aforementioned nuclear weapons.
In any rational world, both of President Zeleskyy’s power plays would have been rejected out of hand, if not outright condemned, as serious provocations and escalations of the war with the potential to unleash catastrophic effects on the entire globe. Ukraine is nominally our ally. I say nominally because the history of corruption in the country runs deep, and despite a mere thirty years of existence, there has been not one but two (almost) civil wars. Ukraine is not England or France. By what right does their leader whose entire existence right now is predicated almost entirely on foreign dollars demand a conflict on a never before seen scale and to direct that conflict towards regime change in Russia? Madness is the only word to describe it, and yet as Politico reported lawmakers were “split” on Ukraine’s NATO bid, meaning there are those in our own government who believe a world war is the best option right now. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi refused to explicitly say yes or no. Instead, she offered a hazy, “We are very committed to democracy in Ukraine, but I would be for them having a security guarantee.” Democrat House Member Mike Quigley offered this outright support, saying “Ukraine’s fight is the reason we formed NATO in the first place. After the Second World War, we recognized that an authoritarian regime cannot be allowed to wipe out a democratic country. I think we need to support this.” The Biden Administration was reportedly taken by surprise, and then appeared to take issue with only the timing. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said we should consider it “at a different time,” whatever that means. All of them were silent on the regime change question as far as I can tell, meaning that it is at least a consideration, and perhaps we can glean something of the administration position in recent comments from Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The world was abuzz after it appeared two pipelines shipping Russian oil to Europe were sabotaged. It is unclear who is responsible. Many believe it was the Russians, though why they would intentionally destroy infrastructure that literally fuels their economy is unclear. Some believe it was the United States. At first, Secretary Blinken said, “There are initial reports indicating that this may be the result of an attack or some kind of sabotage, but these are initial reports and we haven’t confirmed that yet,” he said at a press conference with India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. “But if it is confirmed, that’s clearly in no one’s interest.” A couple of days later, he had a completely different take. “It’s a tremendous opportunity to once and for all remove the dependence on Russian energy and thus to take away from Vladimir Putin the weaponization of energy as a means of advancing his imperial designs,” Secretary Blinken said at another joint press conference, this time with Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly. “That’s very significant and that offers tremendous strategic opportunity for the years to come,” he added. The sudden shift from the damage to the pipelines being in “no one’s interest” to a “tremendous strategic opportunity” has prompted speculation that the United States is ultimately responsible, but regardless it is clear the administration sees opportunity in punishing Putin and Russia. This is not a good or bad thing of itself, especially in the context of our so-far ineffectual sanctions regime, but a lack of clarity on the regime change question prompts any reasonable person to wonder how far President Biden feels this “tremendous strategic opportunity” can be pushed. This is doubly frightening when much of the media is already onboard. The Daily Beast recently declared that “Putin Has Left the World No Other Option But Regime Change.” CNN’s Nic Robertson opined that ‘Putin has his back to the wall with the clock ticking ever louder,” saying “Time is running out for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and he knows it.” Apparently, everyone is suffering from collective amnesia: Our track record on pursuing regime change has been disastrous. We have failed everywhere we tried. Afghanistan is back in the hands of the regime that launched 9-11. Iraq has been a mess for almost two decades. Libya is no longer a functioning country. Egypt is barely functioning. Why would anyone think we can succeed in a country the size of Russia with a lot of nuclear weapons?
Ultimately, history is filled with examples of wars that began as a result of choice and others that happened almost by accident. World War I is the classic, modern example of a war no one believed could happen. The expert class insisted large scale military conflicts over a prolonged period were no longer possible. At most, there would be a few battles over a couple of weeks. Others believed the working poor were united regardless of country, and would not fight for a nationalist purpose. Still others thought mankind had grown too sophisticated or cultured to slaughter each other in trenches. The lead up to the war was defined by one short-sighted decision after another, each side upping the ante without any thought to what might be unleashed. Even after Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on June 28, 1914, many still thought war was impossible. Four years later, some 14 million soldiers and civilians were dead in the bloodiest conflict the world had ever seen. The parallels to the situation today are striking. Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated over a dispute between Austria and Russia over Serbia. Serbia, like Ukraine, wasn’t exactly the beating heart of Europe, nor was the strategic value anything worth the lives that were ultimately lost. The war didn’t stop there however: Austria declared war on Serbia in retaliation, then Russia intervened in support of Serbia. France and Great Britain were quickly pulled in as Russian allies. Germany was likewise committed to Austria. Today, NATO countries are committed to Ukraine, but have so far not directly intervened, fighting a defensive war that limits the risk of a wider conflict. This appears to be changing, however, and the desire to expand the conflict is growing in government and media circles. In the meantime, no one knows what a Russia that feels forced to defend itself might do and how our current network of alliances might respond. The one thing we can say for sure: It could be more deadly than anything we’ve ever seen, and we should not stumble into this blindly because of shifting goals and objectives.