War Crimes: Why Turning Ukraine Into Syria Is Terrible Foreign Policy
Photo Credit // UNIAN
One of the best things about Hitchen’s Razor is that claims asserted without evidence can indeed be dismissed without evidence. With regards to the neoconservative left’s lust for a second Holodomor propping up a weak Ukraine after eight long years to prepare, one has to wonder whether they are listening to themselves.
Let’s start with an update. The Russian Federation predictably marched into the occupied regions of the Donbas basin, recognizing formally in arms what had been informally known over the last eight years. The reaction in the streets of Kharkov and Donetsk? Nothing… as in, even NPR reported that while most Ukrainians did not want a resumption of hostilities, many (off the record) looked forward to stability and cheaper gasoline should the Russians return. The Wall Street Journal reported likewise in Mariupol, with citizens there grateful for the subsidies from Kiev but knowing the free lunch would not continue indefinitely.
So much for the prediction of a Ukrainian will to fight.
Meanwhile, the European Union’s response was mixed. Germany announced a return to the Trump-era freeze of Nord Stream 2, the United Kingdom announced a handful of sanctions… and to the horror of many Russia watchers, US President Joe Biden stammered through an announcement that the only penalty for Russian intransigence was sanctions on two banks (but not commercial banks).
Nothing on microchips, nothing on Russian commercial lenders, nothing on banning Russians from SWIFT — nada for the Rada.
To make matters incorrigibly worse, the WSJ is reporting that even the most damning of sanctions that target commercial banks and SWIFT transactions have a work around. Russian lenders, rather than trading in dollars, are simply using either cryptocurrency or Chinese yuan.
Thus the neoconservative left in their gambit to spill Ukrainian blood through halfhearted diplomacy and a refusal — for now — to commit either US or NATO troops to Kiev has succeeded in doing three things: strengthening China, weakening NATO, and emboldening Russia.
The reason for this bloody mess is because they can’t answer the basic question. Or at least when they try, it’s all platitudes:
Question: What is our first order national interest in the Ukraine? Grain supply to the Middle East? Weakening Russia? Improving the Visegrad Group?
Answer: Allowing an irredentist tyranny to swallow up a democratic neighbor would damage the stability of the entire democratic world, and our NATO allies in Eastern Europe in particular. Our interest comes in preventing a return to 20th century “spheres of interest” that would mark every democracy in Eastern Europe as vulnerable to Kremlin subversion or even occupation. This is what our Eastern European allies understand; it is why they are so determined to sound the alarm and to help Ukraine defend itself.
Discard the first two as nonsensical. What seems to be at stake here is whether or not
Syria the Ukraine is within the Russian sphere of influence. Ukraine is no more a democracy than Russia; both major opposition political leaders (both pro-Russian) are currently rotting away in Ukrainian prisons. Supposedly “Lock Her Up” is fascism in the United States, but “Lock ‘Em Up” is the highest order of freedom in Kiev (and “irredentist” when it is Navalny rotting away in a Russian gulag).
This isn’t about democracy at all.
The Maidan uprising wasn’t about democracy at all.
The democratic uprisings in the Middle East weren’t about democracy at all.
Installing the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt before embarking on another democratic uprising to pry Morsi out isn’t about democracy at all.
Question: Is a new Cold War which will drive the Russians further into the arms of the Communist Chinese worth the cost of a pro-Western government in Kiev?
Answer: For starters, it should be the Ukrainian people – not the Kremlin, not Zhongnanhai, not the White House, not the European Commission – that should decide what government is in Kyiv (the actual spelling of Ukraine’s capital, by the way), as they have done in 2014 and 2019.
In case folks missed it, the Ukrainian people never voted for the Maidan uprising. Even the neoconservative left’s new friends at Jacobin Magazine know this, with the United States spending as much as $1 million a day supporting protesters in the Maidan. US Senator John McCain stood shoulder to shoulder with members of the Right Sector in November 2013 pushing for an actual coup in Kiev (it’s spelled Kiev).
This is about power.
There is no science.
Don’t believe this? Believe John McCain:
Asked about Russian president Vladimir Putin’s role in the crisis, McCain said: “There’s no doubt that Ukraine is of vital importance to Putin. I think it was [Henry] Kissinger, I’m not sure, said that Russia, without Ukraine it’s an eastern power, with Ukraine it’s a western power. This is the beginning of Russia, right here in Kiev. So Putin views it as most highly important and he has put pressure on Ukrainians – the price of energy, different kinds of activities. The word is very clear that he has made certain threats. Whether he would carry them through I don’t know.”
More accurately, this is about whether or not the European Union can keep Ukraine out of the Russian near abroad in order to generate a “weak Russia” vs. a strong hegemon in their East. Certainly there are valid security concerns — that’s the reason why there is a NATO in the first place (or to borrow a line from Winston Churchill, to keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down).
Notice what is not mentioned here? Democracy. Put aside all mirages that the neoconservative left is on some noble crusade to uphold democracy or human rights in the Ukraine. If there were, Biden would have put that up front and center.
Instead, Biden’s primary concern to the American public? INCREASED OIL PRICES.
There’s the bloody truth. Why do we care about Ukraine? Because it keeps Russia weaker than the European Union. That’s it, that’s all, there is no second act.
Now we get to have an adult conversation about next moves. If one admits that the United States did indeed replace the pro-Russian government with a more compliant pro-Western government (we did), and if one admits that this is in the long-term strategic interests of the European Union (it is), and if one further admits that without the Ukraine the Russian Federation becomes an asterisk in Europe (they would), and if one further admits that the Russians were not simply going to acquiesce after the Maidan uprising (clearly we see that) then the question is two-fold:
- Do we have a clear and compelling national interest in the Ukraine?
- To what degree is the United States and our allies — either with NATO or with Coalition forces — prepared to assert this national interest?
So if this is about power, then once again we are presented with three options:
- Acquiesce to the political realities in the Ukraine and realize that the 2013 Maidan “democratic uprising” was a bridge too far, one where the Russians are willing to bleed Russians to take back Kiev in a way that NATO is not willing to bleed Americans, Germans, French, Poles, Romanians, Italians, Hungarians…
- Bleed the Ukrainian people in a Syrian-style insurgency against superior Russian arms in the hopes that either the Russian public tire of the conflict (Chechnya) or Ukrainian arms are victorious (Azerbaijan). In Syria alone, 400,000 military deaths and 160,000 civilians have died in the conflict, with over 2,000,000 refugees having been displaced and the nation left in ruins to a victorious Bashar al-Assad — assisted by Russian arms who know how to fight insurgencies and do not have much hesitation inflicting civilian casualties.
- Massively reinforce Ukraine with NATO troops in Kiev and along the Ukrainian border, running the risk of a partition of Ukraine between NATO and Russian forces that would ultimately preserve the maximum degree of territory before demanding (and ultimately fighting for) the Donbas region and the Crimea — in which the Russian Federation will treat such a move as an overt act of war. No longer the Russian-Ukrainian War, the conflict becomes World War III.
Notice that at present, the Biden administration (and the neoconservative left) is hellbent on Option 2. Not because they don’t have the stomach for Option 3 — they simply do not believe the American public will bleed for Kiev — but because they do not have the stomach for Option 1.
Yet as General Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis so eloquently argues, the enemy — in this case, the Russians — gets a vote. For the Russian Federation, forcibly reincorporating the Ukraine into their near abroad isn’t just a question of national interest, it is a matter of existential survival. Western sanctions will not dislodge the Russian Federation on this question, which is why the game theorists at US State Department are scratching their heads as to why sanctions aren’t working. For the Russians, their status as a great power is entirely determined upon whether or not the Ukraine remains in their sphere of influence.
So the question to the neoconservative left then becomes this: how many Americans are they prepared to bleed to defend Kiev. The answer?
We can’t control the casualty and refugee level.
…five to seven million died in the Holodomor…
I’d rather avoid American casualties…
Which means Option 3 is off the table.
Which means that Option 2 — exposing 43 million Ukrainian civilians to the horrors of civil war with acceptable losses of women, children, grandparents and orphans of 5-7 million souls — is the actual policy of an American government advised by the same neoconservative left that gave us Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, Egypt (and very soon the Ukraine).
To intentionally condemn civilian lives to the horrors of asymmetric warfare is the very definition of a war crime. Perhaps we can excuse diplomacy-by-drone during the Obama era; perhaps we can excuse Iraq and Syria as unforeseen consequences. Perhaps we learned nothing from Bosnia or Rwanda? Yet to repeat that very same mistake in the Ukraine? Such a move would no longer be in the realm of the unknown or ignorance, but rather in the realm of negligence.
If that doesn’t sound moral or logical to you given the presupposed stakes (democracy, fascism, rainbow flags)? Then you’re not alone, because this conflict isn’t about moral right at all.
It is about raw and unfiltered power. Not just the Russians, but more to the point where the borders of the European Union ought to be drawn and at what price we are willing to make outsiders suffer that cost (the Ukrainians as non-NATO members clearly on the outside). The neoconservative left will fight the Russians to the last Ukrainian child soldier… provided they can sell the kids the guns.
Or Azov Babushka.
One will have to pardon any rational reader from wondering aloud whether supplying an insurgency with just enough weapons to fight but not enough to win worked in any region of the world ever.
- Certainly it did no wonders for Syria (SPOILER ALERT: the good guys lost).
- Certainly it did no wonders in Iraq (SPOILER ALERT: we are still there).
- Certainly it did no wonders in Afghanistan (SPOILER ALERT: the exact same strategy the Biden administration wants to use in the Ukraine is the same one they said would work in Kabul).
- Certainly it did no wonders for Georgia (SPOILER ALERT: only the presence of US military personnel at the last moment saved Tiblisi).
Naturally, one finds it rather hard to answer questions when your own questions haven’t been answered in turn. Platitudes do not consist of an answer; avoiding the problem where Russia is prepared to bleed in a way the Biden administration will not is a confession in and of itself.
Insofar as my questions really didn’t get the serious answers I expected, I’ll do my best not to do likewise here (or if the question is more “gotcha” than serious, reframe it with the best intention of the opposition in mind):
- How far should we allow Putin to expand his regime’s sphere of influence? To the current NATO borders? To the 1997 NATO borders? To the limits of the old Warsaw Pact?
Unless NATO or Coalition forces are prepared to bleed for Kiev? Plunging 43 million people into a Syrian-style civil war should be unthinkable and certainly not a first line of defense. Our options are either (a) to recognize the mistake, keep Bush 41’s word to Russia, abandon the policy of “democratic uprisings” that have killed millions of innocents for so very little good, and start constructively engaging in realpolitik with the Russian Federation and the European Union, or (b) commit US troops to Kiev in a “coalition of the willing” to keep our promises to the Zelenskii government and insist upon the integrity of the 1994 Budapest Agreement — which the Russians will refuse to allow and thus risk the chance of a much larger worldwide conflict. Otherwise — to the direct question — the Russian Federation will have a vote in that decision; the more serious question is how committed are we to limiting the Russian Federation’s sphere of influence? With armed babushkas? With Polish and Romanian troops? With American troops? What casualties are we willing to absorb? For the Russians this is not a mere national security question — but an existential one. Are we prepared to meet it? If not in Kiev (and there seems to be consensus that the US will not bleed for Kiev) then the question becomes as to whether or not Germany et al. will bleed for the Baltics? Romania? Serbia? Kosovo? Hungary? To date, the EU seems quite tired of US “leadership” on this question…
- How many alliances must be sacrificed to appease Putin? Does that include NATO?
Zero — yet this is a dishonest question. Ukraine returning to a pre-2013 geopolitical sphere does not threaten NATO one iota. Rather, the question is whether or not the European Union and the United States are prepared to bleed Americans, Germans, French, etc. in order to keep Kiev out of Moscow’s reach — or more brutally, how many Ukrainian lives are worth throwing at one of the best equipped and most violent armies in the world?
- What evidence do you have that Putin and Xi have anything near the hostility that Brezhnev and Mao’s regimes had for each other in 1969?
This question is a stalking horse. One suspects that the real question is whether or not Russia and China enjoy a better relationship than Brezhnev and Mao. Considering that the USSR and China engaged in a border war in 1969, any relationship at all would be an improvement. Yet on the whole, the Russian Federation is well aware that the Chinese government has designs on Siberia; Edward Luttwak has written about the tense nature of the relationship between Russia and China extensively (and is not the only one; any Google search will serve).
- How important should democracy promotion and defense be in American foreign policy, if at all? What changed from the 1980s, when democracy promotion was at the forefront of our Cold War policy? Or was the Reagan Administration mistaken to insist that Eastern Europe, South Korea, Chile, the Philippines, and Central America democratize?
Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once stated that we are not in the habit of installing “cookie cutter” democracies on the world. Egypt — after the first democratic uprising — democratically elected the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi to power. Which the United States quickly undid with a second democratic uprising to replace that democracy with General al-Sisi — hardly the ideal American democracy even in degrees. Yet the wider question being asked here — I suspect — is whether or not liberal internationalism should be the centerpiece of our foreign policy. I would suggest that conservative internationalism on par with Jefferson and Reagan (and yes, Kissinger) remains the most serious-minded and realistic approach.
- Regarding Ukraine in particular, what about the elections of 2014 and 2019 made it insufficient to be a democracy? Or does it not matter at all whether Ukraine is democratic?
The 2013 Maidan uprising was a foreign-sponsored democratic uprising designed to pry a democratically elected (if corrupt) pro-Russian government out of power — to the tune of $1 million a day through NGOs friendly to the EU and US. Draw comparisons to January 6th, BLM, Antifa, or truckers as you will… but one now understands why the Russian government felt no compulsion not to repay Secretary of State Clinton in her own coin.
- In the absence of democratic promotion, what values should become the basis for American foreign policy?
Dr. Nau covers the vast majority of what I would consider a path forward. I highly recommend his approach, if for no other reason than it is the approach that beat the Russians the first time.
If we can agree that a mass insurgency of Ukrainian civilians against the full might of the Russian Army is perhaps a non-starter, we might be a lot closer to figuring out what — if any — national interest we have in the Ukraine.
Yet as before, this is not about democracy or rights — this is about a “weak Russia” vs. a strong Russia vis-a-vis the European Union’s desire to keep the Russian Federation down. In this, the Russians get a vote… and unless we are willing to bleed for Kiev the way the Russians are prepared to bleed for Kiev?
Sacrificing 43 million civilians on the altar of <insert how much McCain hates the Russians here> would be such a radical break from American foreign policy as to render it unrecognizable for future generations. Far from “defending democracy” it will merely be sacrificing human lives to the Moloch of geopolitical Leviathans.
What should be clear in this is that my vote is for either a clear-sighted Option 3 (in which the time to do this has effectively dissolved) or a clear-sighted Option 1. Both the US and EU have chronically refused to bolster their defenses against anything other than insurgents over the last eight years, which makes Option 2 possible in say, 2014… but a mirage in 2022 without significant clandestine help that the Russian Federation — because of the existential nature of the problem in their eyes — would not treat kindly and might even expand in other theaters.
NOTE: This is marvelous for helping my writers block at the moment.