Let me just express my concern about the war in Ukraine by wondering what “victory” might actually mean for the Ukrainians. Let’s assume for a moment that the coming, much-publicized Ukrainian counteroffensive will indeed punch serious holes in the lines of a battered and demoralized Russian military and that Ukrainian forces won’t just bloodily win back significant parts of their territory (even, say, endangering the Russian position in Crimea), but cause that country’s military to begin to collapse. Think of such developments as something like the ultimate victory scenario (or perhaps dream) of both Kyiv and Washington.
My own worry is that, should such a thing happen — and I’m not faintly predicting it — how might Russian President Vladimir Putin respond? We’re talking about the leader of one of the two most over-armed nuclear powers on the planet who has, in these months, implicitly threatened to use tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield, even if a Ukrainian nuclear plant doesn’t go up in smoke in the fighting to come.
It’s been more than three-quarters of a century since such weaponry was used twice to utterly devastating effect to end a war, a period in which the great powers have nuclearized on an almost unimaginable scale. Worse yet, in recent years, all the nuclear agreements between the U.S. and Russia, the two countries with 90% of the planet’s nuclear weapons, have essentially been canceled, even as both of those powers continue to “modernize” their arsenals to the tune of trillions of dollars. Now, we find ourselves at a moment when a future “victory” for Kyiv could, depending on how Putin responds, be a historic catastrophe for Ukrainians, Russians, and the rest of the world with the possible introduction of such weaponry on a European battlefield. It’s both hard to imagine and all too conceivable.
But as TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, author most recently of On Shedding an Obsolete Past: Bidding Farewell to the American Century, points out today, Joe Biden’s Washington is all too ready to take a chance on just such a future, rather than focusing on how to bring peace to a Europe in ever greater chaos.
The Compulsion to Intervene
Allow me to come clean: I worry every time Max Boot vents enthusiastically about a prospective military action. Whenever that Washington Post columnist professes optimism about some upcoming bloodletting, misfortune tends to follow. And as it happens, he’s positively bullish about the prospect of Ukraine handing Russia a decisive defeat in its upcoming, widely anticipated, sure-to-happen-any-day-now spring counteroffensive.
In a recent column reported from the Ukrainian capital — headline: “I was just in Kyiv under fire” — Boot writes that actual signs of war there are few. Something akin to normalcy prevails and the mood is remarkably upbeat. With the front “only [his word!] about 360 miles away,” Kyiv is a “bustling, vibrant metropolis with traffic jams and crowded bars and restaurants.” Better yet, most of the residents who fled that city when the Russians invaded in February 2022 have since returned home.
And despite what you might read elsewhere, incoming Russian missiles are little more than annoyances, as Boot testifies from personal experience. “From my vantage point in a hotel room in the center of Kyiv,” he writes, “the whole attack was no big deal — just a matter of losing a little sleep and hearing some loud thumps,” as air defenses provided by Washington did their work.
While Boot was there, Ukrainians repeatedly assured him that they would cruise to ultimate victory. “That’s how confident they are.” He shares their confidence. “In the past, such talk may have contained a large element of bravado and wishful thinking, but now it is a product of hard-won experience.” From his vantage point in a downtown hotel, Boot reports that “continued Russian attacks on urban areas are only making Ukrainians angrier at the invaders and more determined to resist their onslaught.” Meanwhile, “the Kremlin appears to be in disarray and mired in the blame game.”
Well, all I can say is: from Boot’s prayerful lips to God’s ear.
Courageous Ukrainians certainly deserve to have their stalwart defense of their country rewarded with success. Yet the long history of warfare sounds a distinctly cautionary note. The fact is that the good guys don’t necessarily win. Stuff happens. Chance intervenes. As Winston Churchill put it in one of his less well-remembered “always remember” axioms: “The Statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”
President George W. Bush for one can certainly testify to the truth of that dictum. So too, assuming he’s still sentient, can Vladimir Putin. For either Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy or Joe Biden to suppose that they’re exempt from its provisions would be daring indeed.
Boot is hardly alone in expecting the much-hyped Ukrainian operation — with June upon us, will it become a summer counteroffensive? — to break the months-long stalemate. The optimism voiced throughout Western quarters stems in significant part from a belief that new weapons systems promised to but not yet actually fielded by Ukraine — Abrams tanks and F-16 fighter jets, for example — will have a decisive impact on the battlefield.
There’s a term for that: It’s called cashing a check before it clears.
Even so, for Boot, the operational imperative appears obvious. With the Russian army currently defending a 600-mile front, he writes, “they cannot be strong everywhere.” As a consequence, “the Ukrainians just have to find a weak spot and punch through it.”
However unintentionally, Boot thereby recalls the infamous theory of warfare devised by German General Erich Ludendorff to break the deadlock on the Western Front in 1918: “Punch a hole and let the rest follow.” In their spring offensive that year, German armies under Ludendorff’s command did indeed punch a gaping hole in the Allied trench lines. Yet that tactical success yielded not a favorable operational result but exhaustion and ultimate German defeat.
Punching holes is a poor substitute for strategy. I make no pretense to be able to divine the thinking that prevails within senior Ukrainian military circles, but the basic math does them no favors. Russia’s population is roughly four times greater than Ukraine’s, its economy 10 times larger.
Western support, especially the more than $75 billion in assistance the U.S. has so far committed, has certainly kept Ukraine in the fight. The West’s implicit game plan is one of mutual attrition — bleeding Ukraine as a way to bleed Russia — with the apparent expectation that the Kremlin will eventually say uncle.
Prospects of success depend on either of two factors: a change in leadership in the Kremlin or a change of heart on the part of President Putin. Neither of those, however, appears imminent.
In the meantime, the bloodletting continues, a depressing reality that at least some in the U.S. national security apparatus actually find agreeable. Put simply, a war of attrition in which the U.S. suffers no casualties while plenty of Russians die suits some key players in Washington. In such circles, whether it comports with the well-being of the Ukrainian people receives no more than lip service.
American enthusiasm for punishing Russia might actually have made strategic sense if the zero-sum logic of the Cold War still pertained. In that case, the Ukraine War might be seen as a sort of do-over of the 1980s Afghan War. (Forget what the next version of that war did to this country in the twenty-first century.) Back then, the U.S. used the Afghan mujahideen as proxies in a campaign to weaken Washington’s principal Cold War global adversary. In its time (and overlooking the subsequent sequence of events that led to 9/11), it proved a brilliant stroke.
In the present moment, however, Russia is anything but America’s principal global adversary; nor is it obvious, given the pressing problems facing the United States domestically and in our own near abroad, why baiting Ivan should figure as a strategic priority. Beating up on the Russian army on battlefields several thousand miles away won’t, for example, provide an antidote to Trumpism or solve the problem of this country’s porous borders. Nor will it alleviate the climate crisis.
If anything, in fact, Washington’s preoccupation with Ukraine only testifies to the impoverished state of American strategic thinking. In some quarters, framing the present historical moment as a contest between democracy and autocracy passes for fresh thinking, as does characterizing American policy as focused on defending a so-called rules-based international order. Neither of those claims, however, can withstand nominal scrutiny, even if it seems bad form to cite close U.S. ties with autocracies like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Egypt or to point out the innumerable instances in which this country has exempted itself from norms to which it insists others must adhere.
Granted, hypocrisy is endemic to statecraft. My complaint isn’t with President Biden fist-bumping Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman or conveniently forgetting his support for the illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq. My complaint is more fundamental: it concerns the apparent inability of our political establishment to wean itself from obsolete thinking.
Classifying the survival and well-being of the Saudi monarchy as a vital U.S. security interest offers a specific example of obsolescence. Assuming that the rules that apply to others need not apply to the United States is certainly another more egregious one. In such a context, the Ukraine War offers Washington a convenient opportunity to wipe its own slate clean by striking a virtuous pose as it defends innocent Ukraine against brutal Russian aggression.
Think of U.S. participation in the Ukraine War as a means of washing away unhappy memories of its own war in Afghanistan, an Operation that began as “Enduring Freedom” but has become Instant Amnesia.
A Pattern of Intervention
The gung-ho American journalists summoning Ukrainians to punch holes in enemy lines might better serve their readers by reflecting on the larger pattern of American interventionism that began several decades ago and culminated in the disastrous fall of Kabul in 2021. To cite a particular point of origin is necessarily arbitrary, but the U.S. “peacekeeping” intervention in Beirut, its 40th anniversary now fast approaching, offers a convenient marker. That bizarre episode, today largely forgotten, ended with 241 U.S. Marines, sailors, and soldiers killed in a single devastating terrorist attack, their sacrifice neither keeping nor making peace.
Frustrated by developments in Beirut, President Ronald Reagan wrote in his diary on September 7, 1983, “I can’t get the idea out of my head that some” U.S. Navy fighters “coming in at about 200 ft… would be a tonic for the Marines & at the same time would deliver a message to those gun happy middle east terrorists.” Alas, by blowing up the Marines’ barracks, the terrorists delivered their message first.
Yet Reagan’s belief that the application of force could somehow provide a tidy solution to dauntingly complex geopolitical problems expressed what would become a continuing all-American theme. In Central America, the Persian Gulf, the Maghreb, the Balkans, and Central Asia, successive administrations embarked on a series of interventions that rarely produced any long-term successes, while exacting staggering cumulative costs.
Since 9/11 alone, U.S. military interventions in distant lands have cost American taxpayers an estimated $8 trillion and still counting. And that’s not even considering the tens of thousands of G.I.s killed, maimed, or otherwise left bearing the scars of war or the millions of people in the countries where the U.S. fought its wars who would prove to be direct or indirect victims of American policy-making.
Memorial Day commemorations, such as those just past, should remind us of the costs that result from punching holes, both real and metaphorical. With something close to unanimity, Americans profess to care about the sacrifices of those who serve the nation in uniform. Why don’t we care enough to keep them from harm in the first place?
That’s my question. But don’t look to the likes of Max Boot to provide an answer.