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Strategic Interests and the Better Angels of Our Nature

Critics of US support for Ukrainian resistance to Russian hegemony span the ideological spectrum from MAGA right to doctrinaire left. Their number is small but vocal, and in some quarters well funded. Their capacity to influence public opinion and shape policy may well grow with elections in 2022 and 2024.

On May 19 eleven Senate Republicans joined fifty-seven colleagues in the House Know-Nothing caucus when they voted against the latest aid package to Ukraine. Libertarian gadfly Rand Paul is a leading voice in the faction advocating that the US step aside and allow Russia to have its way in Ukraine. They are part of a right-wing coalition that includes the Koch political network, the Cato Institute, the populist oriented American Movement, and the magazine American Conservative promoting what is dubbed a realist foreign agenda (Markay, Republicans plot). Some are populist isolationists who cite concerns about inflation, the deficit, and domestic priorities such as hardening schools to protect against mass shootings and building a wall on the border. Others advocate courting Russia as an ally in confrontation against China; their quarrel is not with an active and assertive foreign policy but about the object toward which it is directed.

It is a bit ironic and more than a trifle unsettling to find myself in agreement with these nimrods on some points. There should be examination and reassessment of foreign policy, the defense budget, and so on. Beyond that I soon part company with them on countless matters practical and principled, starting with conviction that none of this precludes support for Ukraine.

Last week, speaking at the World Economic Conference in Davos, Switzerland, Henry Kissinger, éminence grise of realpolitik,* called for the US and Europe to pressure Ukraine to cede territory to Russia in exchange for peace. Kissinger has in mind a return to the status quo ante, with Russia retaining control of Crimea and informally controlling the easternmost regions of Luhansk and Donbas. Volodymyr Zelensky responded with a statement that negotiations can happen if Russia pulls troops back to where they were before February 24 (Bella, Kissinger says).

Elsewhere Zelensky has spoken of reclaiming all of Ukraine's territories. Ukraine's military intelligence chief said in an interview that he does not know of any borders except the borders of 1991 when Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union. (Knox, ask Zelensky). This reflects popular sentiment. Tim Judah reports the effect that Russia's conduct of the war has had on Ukrainian attitudes: "The legacy of this war is that millions of Ukrainians now hate Russia and Russians with a passion that, for many, was not so strong even after the annexation of Crimea and the creation of the two pseudo-states in Luhansk and Donetsk by Russia in 2014" (Russian Terror). Those who call for capitulation will point to this and blame Ukrainian intransigence for prolonging the war.

Kissinger's position is shared by scholars in the realist school of international affairs and improbable allies from the left who paint Russia as the aggrieved party defending itself against NATO expansion. The presumption on which it rests is that if not now then at some point sooner rather than later Putin will recognize the limits of what he can accomplish and settle for return to the status quo ante. There are indications that to the contrary he is after more than informal control of those eastern regions. A typical report, one among many, comes from Iuliia Mendel, a journalist and former press secretary for Zelensky whose family lives under Russian occupation in the southern region of Kherson. Mendel makes "emotionally grueling" calls to them every day. In Kherson Moscow imposed an occupation government that has appealed to Putin to join Russia. On May 25 Putin signed a decree offering fast-track Russian citizenship to residents of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. Many fear that Russia intends to hold a rigged referendum to annex the region or create a people's republic as happened in Donbas in 2014 (In occupied Kherson).

Washington Post columnist Katrina vanden Heuvel, who is also publisher and former editor of The Nation, challenges the orthodox view on the war and portrays its critics as voices of restraint calling for compromise. On May 11 she called for the US to pressure Ukraine to allow Putin to keep Crimea and what he can take in Donbas in exchange for Ukrainian neutrality, "territorial integrity," and the lifting of sanctions (Endless war in Ukraine; I discussed her position in my May 15 newsletter). On May 24 she wrote of seeking "persistent and tough diplomacy to attain an effective cease-fire and a negotiated resolution, one designed to ensure that Ukraine emerges as a sovereign, independent, reconstructed and prosperous country" (We need a real debate).

She presents her argument in the very real context of the war's impact on the world economy, the price of fuel, global food scarcity, and the horrendous cost in Ukrainian lives and property alongside competing crises such as climate change, the pandemic that is still with us, and the numbing roster of conflicts and humanitarian tragedies throughout the world. The call for an effective cease-fire and a negotiated resolution is well and good but means little in the absence of explanation as to how Ukraine might emerge as a sovereign, independent, reconstructed, and prosperous country when Russia retains Crimea and substantial territory in the eastern and southern regions. Nowhere does she mention how reconstruction will be funded or the fate of Ukrainians who have been forcibly deported to Russia. Beyond pro forma acknowledgement that Russia's assault is illegal and brutal, she is silent about Russian responsibility for shelling and bombing of schools, hospitals, cultural centers, and homes, executions of civilians, rapes, a mad and depraved will to devastation in what looks an awful lot like an effort to erase Ukraine and Ukrainian culture from the world stage.

Vanden Heuvel goes on to charge that in the media and political establishment public discussion and debate is for the most part one-sided or even nonexistent. She cites Noam Chomsky and John Mearsheimer, R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, as dissenters who have been marginalized and worse, "demonized or slurred for raising cogent arguments and providing much-needed context and history to explain the background of this war." This is not accurate.

Chomsky and Mearsheimer represent sentiments not widely held, although they are becoming more common. Vanden Heuvel provided no examples of the demonization and slurs she attributes to their critics. A cursory search turned up plenty of disagreement and counterargument but nothing in the way of demonization or slur in the much maligned mainstream media. Maybe she has in mind Twitter and other social media gutters where demonization and slur are coin of the realm to which everyone who is anyone and many who are no one of special note are subjected.

Vanden Heuvel herself is writing in the pages of The Washington Post, about as establishment as it gets. Chomsky's opinions on the situation in Ukraine were reported last week in two articles in Newsweek (Hajjaji, Noam Chomsky says; Stanton, Henry Kissinger, Noam Chomsky). Any number of left-leaning journals and websites provide a platform for him on any topic he wishes to address, outside the mainstream but readily available. Mearsheimer has been interviewed at length on the PBS NewsHour (Woodruff, U.S. shifts goals) and in The New Yorker (Chotiner, Why John Mearsheimer Blames). The Economist published an article by him in its By Invitation section (John Mearsheimer on why the West is principally responsible).

In the New Yorker interview Isaac Chotiner pushes back on some assertions, for instance, Mearsheimer's insistence that Putin's intent was never to conquer and hold Kyiv but rather to install a government friendly to Russia over which he would have some say, a distinction with not much difference. He does this respectfully throughout the interview and certainly allows Mearsheimer to have his say.

Four Ukrainian academic economists—one at City University of New York, two at UC Berkeley, and one at VoxUkraine NGO—responded to Chomsky with detailed critique of fallacies in his line of argument and point-by-point rebuttal (Gorodnichenko, et al., Open Letter to Noam Chomsky). Among the points addressed are Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, suggestions that Russia was threatened by NATO, the relevance of past atrocities committed by the US in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, Putin's stated goal that the purpose of the special military operation is to denazify Ukraine, and the proposition that Putin is interested in a diplomatic solution. The tone of the open letter is illustrated in its concluding paragraphs:

Professor Chomsky, we hope you will consider the facts and re-evaluate your conclusions. If you truly value Ukrainian lives as you claim to, we would like to kindly ask you to refrain from adding further fuel to the Russian war machine by spreading views very much akin to Russian propaganda.

Should you wish to engage further on any of the above-mentioned points, we are always open to discussion.

Nazism is brought into the discussion by vanden Heuvel without elaboration, simply a stated fact, absent analysis of Russian talking points about drug-addled Nazis and denazification. Ukraine indeed shares with other countries in Eastern Europe a dark history of right-wing extremists, xenophobic groups, antisemitism, and Nazism. The history and its legacy are complicated. Ukrainian nationalists initially welcomed Germans as liberators during World War II and collaborated with the German occupation. Some had ties to Nazism. Other factors were also at play. The famine caused by Stalin's policies that in 1932–1933 claimed the lives of 13 percent of the population and a tradition of Ukrainian resistance to Russian rule surely had something to do with choices to side with the Germans. For his part, Putin holds that Ukrainians are Russians and Ukraine is only a region within Russia. Ukrainians dissent.

The 2014 Maidan uprising led to the ousting of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych after he bowed to Russian pressure and reneged on a planned agreement that would have brought Ukraine into closer association with the European Union. Neo-Nazi and other far-right nationalist groups involved themselves in the uprising but portrayal of the overthrow of Yanukovych as a neo-Nazi coup is a distortion. Their influence today is negligible. Nationalists make up a small percentage of the population, and the vast majority of Ukrainians have little interest in anything to do with them. The US and countries of Western Europe may have a larger contingent of right-wing groups than Ukraine. (Traisman, Putin's claim).

On February 27, days after the invasion, Jewish Journal published a statement by scholars of World War II, Nazism, genocide, and the Holocaust that categorically repudiated the assertion that Russian troops are in Ukraine on a liberation mission: "There is no Nazi government for Moscow to root out in Kyiv. There has been no genocide of the Russian people in Ukraine." The statement went on:

We strongly reject the Russian government’s cynical abuse of the term genocide, the memory of World War II and the Holocaust, and the equation of the Ukrainian state with the Nazi regime to justify its unprovoked aggression. This rhetoric is factually wrong, morally repugnant and deeply offensive to the memory of millions of victims of Nazism and those who courageously fought against it, including Russian and Ukrainian soldiers of the Red Army.

We do not idealize the Ukrainian state and society. Like any other country, it has right-wing extremists and violent xenophobic groups. Ukraine also ought to better confront the darker chapters of its painful and complicated history. Yet none of this justifies the Russian aggression and the gross mischaracterization of Ukraine. At this fateful moment we stand united with free, independent and democratic Ukraine and strongly reject the Russian government’s misuse of the history of World War II to justify its own violence. (Taborovsky, Finkel, Statement on the War)

Foreign policy realists like Kissinger and Mearsheimer hold that strategic interests trump moral considerations. Great powers do what they can get away with. The prey of great powers live with it or suffer the consequences. Mearsheimer makes no bones about this:

In an ideal world, it would be wonderful if the Ukrainians were free to choose their own political system and to choose their own foreign policy.

But in the real world, that is not feasible. The Ukrainians have a vested interest in paying serious attention to what the Russians want from them. They run a grave risk if they alienate the Russians in a fundamental way. (Chotiner interview)

Only a blockhead or a sophomore would question the necessity to take strategic interests into account even in the face of authentic, compelling moral considerations. Competing interests, feasibility, and reasonably anticipated fallout from the effort to do the right thing all matter. This does not however render the moral dimension null and void. It is not self-evident that moral considerations have no place in calculation of strategic interests, although this too comes with a caveat: Moral imperatives are often invoked to provide cover for self-interest in international as well as personal affairs.

The capacity to support Ukraine is not unlimited. An array of priorities compete for finite resources. Already the Western coalition shows signs of fracturing. Valid concerns go hand in hand with distortions, half-truths, and oversimplifications in arguments for accommodation with Russia voiced in high places and in the low quarters of populist demagoguery. Joe Biden made clear at the beginning that he will not call for sacrifice of American blood. How far he has the will or the political capital to ask for continued sacrifice in treasure is an open question. Mitch McConnell and Republican leadership have stood with Biden on Ukraine despite the rumbling within their ranks and despite being unable to resist taking potshots at him for not being more reckless. Poltical courage has not been notable on that side of the aisle during the Trump era. That it will hold up for Ukraine over the long haul is a lot to hope.

Events of this year confirm Putin's status as heir to Stalin, just as Stalin was heir to Russia's most cruel and rapacious tsars. He is more willing to sacrifice blood and treasure than the West is. It is hard to envision how accommodation with Russia will not entail its retention of eastern and southwestern regions while Kyiv is left with a rump state landlocked by Russian control of the Black Sea whose shattered infrastructure sets it up to be a failed state where Russia will have opportunity to maneuver a puppet government into place. The proposition that an independent, reconstructed, and prosperous country might emerge from this state of affairs reflects either wishful thinking or bad faith. It is not hard to imagine a scenario where Rand Paul, Henry Kissinger, Noam Chomsky, and Katrina vanden Heuvel are the faces of consensus on Russian aggression in Ukraine and I am once again in the minority faction.

Our own country is exhibit A for just how far the West falls short of living up to principles, values, and ideals that we like to believe animate the better angels of our nature. Yet individuals and maybe even nations are sometimes touched by those better angels. Noble ideals about liberty, justice, and the right of peoples and nations to self-determination have long moved human spirits to act on behalf of causes greater than immediate self-interest. We witness this today in the sacrifice and determination of Ukrainians to defend their country. Moved by their example perhaps we will be touched by the better angels of our nature.

*Cooler heads at the editorial desk prevailed upon the author to refrain from referring to Kissinger as the doddering old man of realpolitik.

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