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How to think about war in Ukraine
Start with the Ukrainians
I keep being asked whether Russia will invade Ukraine again. I don't know. The last time Russia attacked Ukraine, in 2014, I made the correct prediction against the prevailing wisdom. This time we are all aware that Russia might invade Ukraine: after all, it happened once already, not so very long ago, and Russia has more than a hundred thousand troops at the border in addition to the ones stationed in the parts of Ukraine that it already occupies. But I am not sure what will happen next. I am not sure that the Kremlin knows what will happen next. Indeed, I am not sure that there is agreement among Russian elites as to what should happen next.
An invasion of Ukraine would be a horror for Ukrainians, who have done nothing to provoke it. Ukraine has about fourteen thousand war dead and about two million internal refugees from the last Russian invasion, and the suffering this time would be much worse. The forces that Russia has deployed are capable of a terrifying level of destruction. But invading Ukraine would also be an incredibly stupid move by Russia, and more than a few Russians are aware of this. It would probably feel a lot like the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979: seemingly successful at first, then system-destroying after a few years.
But what it is all about? Why now, and why Ukraine? In 2014, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was part of a larger offensive against democracy in Europe and the United States. Russia was able to drive its own political memes through western media, and even create doubt about its own offensive operations as they were underway. Russia's propaganda victory in Ukraine in 2014 spurred it on to cyberwarfare against members of the European Union and the United States. This time around, Russian propaganda has been much less effective. It seems clunky and dull.
Putin’s threat to invade Ukraine is clearly linked to Europe and the United States, but this time perhaps in a different way. Rather than invading without warning, Russia has ostentatiously prepared for an invasion, and then warned the West that whatever happens is all their fault. Russia has elbowed the Europeans aside, insisting on speaking directly with the Americans. This has brought Ukraine (yet again) to American domestic politics, in a configuration that is awkward for President Biden. Perhaps that is the point. Moscow prefers a Trump administration to a Biden administration. Trump has said that he would withdraw the United States from NATO in a second term. Anything that weakens Biden might then be regarded as in the Russian interest, or rather in the interest of the Putin regime.
But is it all strategic? Last July, President Putin published a strange missive about Ukraine and Russia and their historical relationship. It present the kind of argument that makes historians wince. The basic idea is that a thousand years ago there was a country called Rus, the most important city in Rus was Kyiv, and now a thousand years later Kyiv is the capital of Ukraine, and therefore Ukraine cannot be a real country, and everyone involved and their descendants must be Russians or a brotherly nation to Russians. A historian confronted with this sort of mess is in the same unhappy situation as a zoologist in a slaughterhouse. You do have expertise, and feel you have to say something, and so: oh yes, that is clearly a femur, and that cartilage was probably from a snout, and that there is a bit of liver; but this isn't your job, and you wish profoundly that you were somewhere else. So I could say: Rus' was founded by Vikings, Moscow did not exist at the time, Kyiv was not ruled from Moscow until late in its history, the story of the brotherly nations is recent, as for that matter is national identity in the modern sense. But you can't really engage in historical argument with people who are set on believing a myth, let alone with presidents who believe that the past is just there to confirm their present prejudices.
What is most striking about Putin’s essay is the underlying uncertainty about Russian identity. When you claim that your neighbors are your brothers you are having an identity crisis. There is a nice German saying about this: “Und willst Du nicht mein Bruder sein, so schlag' ich Dir den Schädel ein”: if you won’t be my brother, I’ll beat your skull in. That is Putin’s posture. In his essay, what Russia lacks is a future, and the nation is much more about the future than it is about the past.
Nationality is about the way that people in the present think about the what is to come. If Ukrainians regard themselves as a national community with a future together in a state, then the issue is settled. Historically speaking, the idea that a dictator in another country decides who is a nation and who is not is known as imperialism.
The fact that Putin misunderstands the world does not mean, however, that he cannot change it. It seems possible that he actually believes what he wrote. There are people in the Kremlin and in the Russian armed forces who know perfectly well that Putin's view of Ukraine does not conform to reality. If it did so, Ukrainians would have welcomed Russia's last invasion. The official view is that they did, but there are plenty of Russians who know better. And there are even more Russians who do not care one way or the other, but do not share the extreme view of the issue expressed by their president.
The fact that all Russian representatives have to act as though Putin's essay were true creates a problem for American and European negotiators. Putin assigns the West responsibility for something that Russia did, which is to push Ukrainian public opinion towards NATO. In Putin's essay, the claim is that Ukrainians belong to a larger community with Russia, but have been misled by Western perfidy. Now, there is always plenty of perfidy to go around, and reasonable people can disagree about whether Ukraine should be invited to join NATO. But the simple fact is that Ukraine's present western orientation is a result of the last Russian invasion. So the Americans are in an impossible situation. It is America's fault, supposedly, that Ukrainians have turned away from their natural Russian destiny. If Americans point out that Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, and that this stands behind the unpopularity of Russia in Ukraine and Ukrainian desires for security guarantees, they meet obstinate denial and brute hostility. Putin's official ideology is enraged by the basic facts.
When Russia invaded Ukraine the last time, it demonstrated an astonishing ability to win the headlines. Russian forces were less capable of moving the front lines. The Crimean Peninsula, where Russia already had naval bases, was quickly occupied by regular Russian forces without insignia. Elsewhere, relying on local and Russian irregulars and on units of the Russian army sent from far afield, Moscow managed to control much less territory than it expected. The war was cruel with extensive shelling from the Russian side of the border, and the use of Russian anti-aircraft to bring down Ukrainian transport planes (not to mention a civilian airliner, MH17). But the basic Russian strategy of simulating rebellions against the Ukrainian government failed in most places it was tried. Russia now occupies parts of two southeastern Ukrainian districts, Luhans'k and Donets'k under the cover of fake "republics."
This time the forces engaged would be more numerous and better trained. The Russian army is in better shape now than it was in 2014. On the other hand, so is the Ukrainian army. In 2014 Ukraine was in the midst of a revolution, and singularly incapable of defending itself. It is not now in any position to match Russia, but it would be capable of inflicting much greater damage than eight years ago. There is not at present a patriotic euphoria in Russia about invading Ukraine again. Although Russian leaders like to vaunt their toughness, they are almost as sensitive to casualties as American leaders might be. In 2014, the courageous Russian reporters who wrote about Russians killed in action were all silenced. Russian civil society is under stricter control now than in 2014, and it would be a brave and skillful Russian reporter who managed to report on this war. But it will still likely be hard to suppress news of Russian casualties.
The Russian propaganda that worked the last time around was directed against Ukraine, which was portrayed as reactionary or homosexual, nationalist or cosmopolitan, depending upon the target audience. This time, it is more as though we are meant not to think about Ukraine at all, and remain fixed on the geopolitics. The Russian line that America is to blame for suggests that Ukraine is not really sovereign and its people's experiences of war do not really matter. It also distracts us from what Ukrainian policy has actually been.
One of the first actions of independent Ukraine was nuclear disarmament. Ukraine was once the third-greatest nuclear power in the world, at least according to the number of weapons on its territory. It gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994 in exchange for security assurances from the United Kingdom, the United States -- and Russia. Russia's past and threatened invasions of Ukraine harm the global cause of nuclear non-proliferation, because they seem to indicate that countries that give up nuclear weapons get attacked by their neighbors. Under the current presidential administration, Ukraine has been conciliatory to Russia. Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelens'kyi, was elected in 2019 by a weary society on a platform of bringing the war to an end. His gestures of reconciliation to Putin have now been met with Russia's threat of an escalated war. This is perhaps one reason why Russian propaganda focuses on the West and on the United States. If we pause to think about Ukraine as a country, we immediately ask: just why should those people be invaded? Again?
Unlike Russia, Ukraine is a democracy. Unlike Putin, Zelens'kyi came to office in a credible election where opposing candidates (one of them was the sitting president) had access to media and were able to compete. (That is a fundamental difference between Ukraine and Russia: in Ukraine, presidents have lost elections and left office. That has not yet happened in Russia.) One of the central elements of Russia's traditional attacks on Ukraine has been that "Russian speakers" in Ukraine are subject to oppression. This is conceptually misleading, in that most Ukrainians are bilingual in Ukrainian and Russian to one degree or another, and in that language does not determine identity (if it did, I'd be English). But insofar as it is reasonable to talk about "Russian speakers" in Ukraine, the Ukrainian president himself is certainly one of them. Zelens’kyi is from eastern Ukraine, and his dominant language is Russian. So a "Russian speaker" in Ukraine can be elected president. Indeed, "Russian speakers" in Ukraine are far more free in Ukraine in this respect than are "Russian speakers" in Russia. In Russia, there is no democracy for anyone.
Another line of Russian propaganda has been that Ukraine is uninhabitable for Jews. Zelens'kyi is Jewish. Incidentally, the prime minister when Zelens'kyi took office was also Jewish. For several months in 2019, Ukraine was the only country (beyond Israel) to have a Jewish head of state and a Jewish head of government. In Putin's essay, and more directly in a more recent article by his onetime political partner Dmitri Medvedev, this state of affairs is presented as evidence of Ukraine's lack of sovereignty and dependence on the West. Medvedev's language crossed into antisemitic territory.
So what to do? Negotiations seem both necessary and difficult. The Ukrainians should obviously be included. The practice of excluding the country concerned from discussions of its future has a poor pedigree. America is not actually responsible for everything, so it cannot deliver what Russians seem to want, which is an alternative reality where Russia had not alienated its neighbor by invading it; or perhaps an alternative reality in which the Soviet Union had never fallen apart, or one where the old Soviet empire was held together by admiration for Russia. These are dreams that no one can make true. In a clear sign of the awkwardness of the Russian position, Moscow tabled two draft treaties and asked that they be signed as they stand; in them, Americans are asked to accept provisions that the Kremlin must surely know are unacceptable and to sign away the sovereignty of other countries, especially Ukraine.
What seems worth trying are negotiations on a broader basis, not limited to Russia's specific claims or ambitions, but accepting the basic premise that something is wrong in the European security system. Just what that might be will of course look different in different capitals, from Kyiv for instance, but that is what negotiation is all about. One thing that America and Russia do have in common is that their diplomats have been downgraded in recent years. Perhaps they should be given something serious to work on, something that might make some real history.