For Ukraine, Europe and Russia, the war is a lose-lose-lose (Pt. 3)
This is part 3 in a 6-part exchange between Konstantin Kisin and myself. I will be writing parts 1, 3 and 5; Konstantin will be writing parts 2, 4 and 6. The subject of our exchange is whether the West is following the right strategy in Ukraine. Konstantin and I have previously discussed the issue on my podcast, as well as on Twitter. We are now doing so via this Substack exchange.
Konstantin: Thanks for your reply. There are more areas of agreement than I had expected too. I think the most significant are: we both believe the war could have been prevented; and we both believe Ukraine may have to give up Crimea and the Donbas as part of a final settlement. However, there are also areas of disagreement, which I would like to address here.
The first concerns how the war might have been prevented: I believe diplomacy could have worked; you believe deterrence could have worked.
Before explaining why I’m sceptical that deterrence could have worked, I would briefly note that Mearsheimer is not the only political scientist who has characterised the “Revolution of Dignity” as a coup. In his book Ukraine Over the Edge, Gordon Hahn refers to the “coup d’etat”, while in a study presented at this year’s APSA conference, Ivan Katchanovski argues the event “fits definitions of a coup”.
You say that Putin was provoked into seizing Crimea “by the West’s weakness”. I assume you mean that if the West had adopted a more hawkish stance, Putin would not have acted as he did? This seems like an odd way to use language. It may be true that Putin could have been deterred, but what actually provoked him was the “Revolution of Dignity”. You can’t be provoked by the absence of deterrence.
In any case, let’s take the “Revolution of Dignity” as given, and deal with the period from March of 2014 up to February of 2022. You criticise Obama for “letting” Putin take Crimea, and imply the West could have pre-empted further Russian aggression through a show of “force” – e.g., by providing more arms to Ukraine. This may have worked, but there are two reasons why I’m sceptical.
First, the West did provide arms to Ukraine during the relevant period. “The United States has committed more than $2.5 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since 2014,” the Pentagon’s press secretary announced last June. The US also began integrating Ukraine into NATO, as I noted in my first article. “NATO have been there since 2014,” Jens Stoltenberg stated recently, “trained, equipped and supported Ukrainian armed forces”.
Of course, the West could have provided even more arms, but I fear that would have prompted Russia to invade even sooner.
Second, Obama had good reason for being wary about arming Ukraine, namely that Russia has “escalation dominance” – because Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not a core US interest. This wasn’t just Obama’s pet theory; until recently, many people worried about it. And the former president arguably had a point: Russia massively escalated in February of this year.
I therefore believe Europe should have used diplomacy to resolve the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Which brings me to our second point of disagreement.
You say there “will never be such thing as a neutral Ukraine”, and that Mearsheimer uses the term to mean a country that is de facto controlled by Russia. But I don’t see why this should be the case. And with respect to Mearsheimer, I believe he means a country that is not formally aligned with either Russia or the West.
Polls taken prior to the “Revolution of Dignity” showed that Ukrainians who favoured EU integration were only slightly more numerous than those who wanted to join the Eurasian Customs Union. This changed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the start of the war in Donbas because most of the pro-Russian sentiment was concentrated in those regions.
But given how divided Ukraine was, neutrality is the only policy that would not have made a significant share of Ukrainians worse off. Had the country remained largely intact – say, if Minsk 2 had succeeded – politicians in the east would have presumably retained their ties with Moscow. But equally, politicians in the west would have retained their ties with Brussels and Washington. So Ukraine need not have been controlled by Russia.
Our third point of disagreement is the most significant. In your concluding paragraph, you say “there will be no long term solution unless Russia is permanently deterred from further aggression”, and we need to strike a balance between “raising the cost for Russia without provoking nuclear escalation”. I take from these statements that you believe now is not the right time to negotiate?
If so, I would have to disagree. I believe the best time to negotiate was right at the start; the second best time was after Russia’s withdrawal from Kiev; and the third best time is as soon as possible. It’s true that negotiations might not lead anywhere. But we could at least try – by using the carrots and sticks I mentioned last time.
The main upsides of waiting are twofold: to improve Ukraine’s bargaining position; and to further degrade Russia’s armed forces, thereby reducing the chances of future aggression. However, these have to be weighed against the downsides: more people killed; more damage to Ukraine’s and Europe’s economy; and the prospect of catastrophic escalation.
Regarding the latter, you make the entirely valid point that giving into “nuclear blackmail” comes with its own risks. But we should bear in mind that “escalate to de-escalate” using nuclear weapons is part of Russian military doctrine. And there are other, somewhat less catastrophic forms of escalation: Russia might ramp up its attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure to the point where the country has little or no power.
Overall, I’m not convinced that delaying negotiations makes sense. As the war drags on, the costs for Russia rise; but so do the costs for Ukraine and Europe. From what I see, it’s a lose-lose-lose.
Image: Mstyslav Chernov, Remains of an Eastern Orthodox church, 2015
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