The Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) advanced decisively into Russian-held territory in northeastern Ukraine two weeks ago, exposing the weakness, incompetence, and cowardice of Russian soldiers and officers. The tide of this war has turned. The Russian army is on the way to defeat, and President Vladimir Putin could go down with it.
Was it that way? Or was it this way:
The Armed Forces of Ukraine, with the aid of U.S. intelligence, identified a region from which the Russians had more or less withdrawn, leaving its defense to cursorily trained militias from Luhansk, the northernmost of Ukraine’s two breakaway republics. The AFU thus advanced against next to no resistance. The course of the war has not fundamentally changed.
We do not know precisely or certainly what happened, and how, in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine during the first two weeks of September. I incline to the latter version of events, but never mind that. None of this matters as much as it did even a few days ago.
Suddenly, abruptly, we know something vastly more important: Recent Ukrainian advances, under whatever conditions they were achieved, now prove a tripwire, over which the U.S. and Russia, possessing the world’s largest nuclear arsenals, have stumbled into the gravest threat of world war at least since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and probably since the victories over Japan and Europe 17 years earlier.
A pair of speeches on Sept. 21—Putin to his nation, President Biden to the U.N. General Assembly hours later—bring us face to face with this grim new reality. They are “must” to read or hear for anyone concerned with the direction geopolitical events now take. As to a negotiated passage through this dangerous impasse, Biden doesn’t seem to be bothering with even the back-channel contacts President Kennedy used to defuse a potentially nuclear confrontation over the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba.
Let us “think with history” at this critical moment, to borrow a phrase from Carl Schorske, the late and distinguished Europeanist. And let us find causality and responsibility in it. It will then be readily evident that the sobering, sit-up-straight dangers confronting us are the perversely logical outcome of a long succession of deluded and reckless policies Washington has insisted on pursuing and imposing on its European allies over many years—and most actively over the past eight.
David Stockman just published a forceful piece in antiwar.com asserting that the Putin and Biden speeches mark the start of “a disastrous endgame.” He asks, “What in hell were those bloody-minded Washington/NATO neocons thinking?” It is a good question. My answer: They weren’t, and, with exceptions such as the Nixon-Kissinger opening to China, they haven’t for seven and some decades. It is America’s hegemonic hubris and an egotistical will to power that land us in a global crisis that could have been avoided at many turns by resort to the mahogany table. In the war planners, technocrats, rational-choice charlatans, and game theorists who “reasoned” the world into this mess, we find what I call the irrationality of hyper-rationality.
Following the AFU’s recent advances, we had a surfeit of comment to the effect that the fortunes of the Ukrainian forces had changed and that the Putin government could collapse in consequence. “It’s Time to Prepare for a Ukrainian Victory: The liberation of Russian-occupied territory might bring down Vladimir Putin”: This was the headline atop a piece Anne Applebaum published September 11 in The Atlantic. “Instead of showcasing Moscow’s newfound might, the Ukrainian war—now in its seventh month—is laying bare Russia’s weaknesses”: This was Yaroslav Trofimov’s take as published in The Wall Street Journal five days later.
It took less time than I had expected for these irresponsible predictions to dissolve. Ukraine’s successes were indeed a psychological shock and indeed shook the Kremlin leadership—these and other commentators had this much right—but they otherwise got it perfectly upside-down. The criticism Putin has faced lately, and there appears to have been some or much, was leveled most forcefully by hawks unhappy with the Russian high command’s restraint in Ukraine and its reliance on the Luhansk and Donetsk republics to man the front lines. Putin put Russia and the West on notice in his speech Wednesday that both halves of this strategy are now cast aside.
The important elements of that speech are two: Russia will now begin to mobilize and deploy up to 300,000 trained reservists in Ukraine. And referendums are to be held in four regions of Ukraine—the two republics and the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions—to determine whether their residents favor Russian sovereignty over Ukrainian.
In the time it took for Putin to speak, these steps transformed a “special military operation” initially intended to demilitarize and de—Nazify Ukraine into something much larger, more consequential, and more fraught—into, this is to say, a war.
We have read incessantly over the past seven months of Russian incompetence, disorganization, demoralization, and so on: The running theme has been the Russians do not have it in them to prevail. This now seems to me mere cover for those unwilling to acknowledge that Russian forces were not operating at anything like maximum force. As the cliché police have taken a day off, I will say this directly: Putin and his high command have just taken the gloves off. I leave it to readers to think through where this conflict is now likely to head on the ground.
The four referendums have greatly larger implications. We already read that they are a “sham”—the approved term. I do not know where Western officials, reporters, and commentators get this, as these polls have not yet been held. To me we are getting a preemptive dismissal because it is almost assured that those in all four regions will decide they wish to be reintegrated into Russia.
These are Russian-speaking people who have been betrayed since a small minority in the west of the country overthrew their elected president in 2014. These are people whose language was immediately outlawed after the U.S.—cultivated coup. Many of these people—those in the two breakaway republics—were denied the federalist autonomy called for in the two Minsk Protocols of 2014 and 2015 because the Kyiv regime refused to take those commitments seriously. This same many then suffered eight years of shelling, at a cost of roughly 11,000 civilian lives, by those valorous, upright, clean-living Ukrainian forces.
Will these ballots be fixed? I do not know anyone who is in a position to say, but it appears evident in view of the above, and the history of these regions, there is little reason for any such chicanery. The vote tallies in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions may not prove so decisive as in the two republics, but those in all four regions are likely to say, Kyiv’s made a mess of Ukraine. Let’s go home.
John V. Whitbeck, an international lawyer who has advised the Palestinians and who is now a writer, cast a useful light on the legal questions the referendums raise in a piece published the day Russian began its intervention: “There is an inherent, indeed irreconcilable conflict between two fundamental principles of international law—the territorial integrity of states and the self-determination of peoples.” It is implicit in the referendums themselves that Moscow rests its case on the self-determination argument.
Post-referendums, assuming the result is as anticipated, the AFU will be waging war against Russians on Russian territory—not, grotesque as it has been to watch, against its own people. This will change more or less everything. These votes will preclude any prospect of negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv. And the U.S. and NATO will thenceforth be arming the Kyiv regime in a war against the Russian Federation.
Now we approach World War III territory. In this, Putin seems to have taken the gloves off on the diplomatic side, too. Even as he announced plans for the imminent referendums, he redefined the Ukraine conflict into a defense of Russia against an existential threat posed by the U.S. and its allies:
The purpose of this West is to weaken, divide, and ultimately destroy our country. They are already directly saying that in 1991 they were able to split the Soviet Union and now the time has come for Russia itself, that it should disintegrate into many mortally hostile regions…
It is against this background that Putin made his most-noted remark:
And if the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people. It’s not a bluff.
This has been widely reported to be another one of Moscow’s threats to deploy a nuclear weapon. I do not think this interpretation is any more certain than it was on earlier occasions. I tend to put Putin’s statement in the same file with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s earlier in the Ukraine conflict: They are at bottom warning against further threats from the U.S. and the West.
We come to the stiff speech Biden delivered at the U.N. shortly after Putin spoke. It was as if the two were conversing, which seems to me a useful way to consider these two addresses. What did Biden say and what did he not say? These are equally important.
On the “said” side, Biden identified Russia as the primary threat to world order and pledged America’s continuing engagement in the Ukraine conflict:
Russia has shamelessly violated the core tenets of the United Nations Charter—no [sic] more important than the clear prohibition against countries taking the territory of their neighbor by force.
… If nations can pursue their imperial ambitions without consequences, then we put at risk everything this very institution stands for. Everything.
… We chose liberty. We chose sovereignty… We stood with Ukraine.
… So, we—each of us in this body who is determined to uphold the principles and beliefs we pledge to defend as members of the United Nations–must be clear, firm, and unwavering in our resolve.
… We do not seek conflict. We do not seek a Cold War. We do not ask any nation to choose between the United States or any other partner.
It is difficult to take seriously any American political figure who complains about another nation pursuing “imperial ambitions without consequence,” but we must: This is the voice of the world’s most powerful nation.
To begin with, the world is advised that the U.S. has no intention of stepping back from its current course, or even altering it in response to changed circumstances. Implicit here is a recommitment to the delusions of a Ukrainian victory that led to this crisis. The weapons shipments will continue. The wasteful deaths and destruction will continue. The silence between Moscow and Washington will continue.
“We do not seek conflict. We do not seek a Cold War.” Biden has said this many times, and we must conclude at this point the man doth protest too much. The many years of provocations since the 2014 coup, the NATO deployments eastward toward the Russian frontier, the covert disruption of negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv in Istanbul last March—take out the two “nots” in these sentences and you arrive at the truth of things. If Biden is to be taken seriously on this point, why isn’t he on the telephone with Putin as we speak? As things stand, it starts to look as though Washington wants a Cold War well on the way to a hot one.
Not to be missed, there is “We chose sovereignty. We stood with Ukraine.” Here Biden is taking a position on the question John Whitbeck raises. Biden places a higher value on the nation-state and its power than he does on self-determination for the millions of Donbas residents the Kyiv regime has violently alienated for the past eight years with the West’s blessing. Jefferson must be spinning.
The sheer pabulum of which Biden’s speech is mostly made is indicative of what he would not say. This cannot have been lost on the assembled heads of state, the majority of whom do not stand with the U.S. on Ukraine—and the majority of whom know all about Washington’s intolerance should they choose to associate with “partners” the U.S. does not like.
The U.S. takes no cognizance of Moscow’s longtime and continuing security concerns, Biden said by leaving these unmentioned. They are still the “nonstarters” they were called when Moscow put them on paper last December. The U.S. does not care if Russians and the Russian leadership feel under threat. It has no intention of opening diplomatic channels with a view to negotiating a settlement not only of the Ukraine conflict but also of the wider question of a stable European order.
Once again, the world’s most powerful nation, ever boastful of its virtues, has nothing to say to others.
Roger Cohen, in a piece in The New York Times published after the two speeches Wednesday, asserted that Vladimir Putin is now in a state of desperation. “Mr. Putin cornered is Mr. Putin at his most dangerous,” he wrote.
This is more of the incautious bunkum we had after the AFU’s advances. I do not think Putin is cornered. I think he is fed up, altogether rightfully. And I think he is frightened now, as we all must be. As I have argued for many months, he faces an imperium that has decided Ukraine is its make-or-break moment—its O.K. Corral, its big roll of the dice in defense of its declining power.
It is a strange thing to think about. In 1847, the French historian and critic Charles Augustin Sainte—Beuve wrote these words in a notebook:
There are now but two great nations—the first is Russia, still barbarian but large, and worthy of respect…. The other nation is America, an intoxicated, immature democracy that knows no obstacles. The future of the world lies between these two great nations. One day they will collide, and then we will see struggles the like of which no one has dreamed of.
The question of the West and why it had recently coalesced as a political construct in response to the rise of czarist Russia was much in the air by Sainte—Beuve’s time. Jules Michelet, the honored historian, and de Tocqueville had sounded similar themes by then. I have never figured out why the French were onto these thoughts so early. For now we must remark on their exceptional prescience.
I wonder, as of last week, whether Sainte—Beuve’s “one day” has arrived and we are on the brink of those undreamt struggles in consequence of the irresponsible dreams of the irresponsible people who have brought us to this day.