Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The War Is Right And Just. But Is It Prudent?

From Andrew Sullivan, "A year later, the end-game of the war in Ukraine is dangerously murky":

There are so many ways in which the West’s defensive war against Russia is a righteous cause.

It is right and just to defend a sovereign country from attack by a much larger neighbor; to fight back against an occupying force committing war crimes on a massive scale; to oppose the logic of dictatorships and defend the foundations of democracy; to uphold a post-Cold War international order which forbids the redrawing of borders by force; to unite democratic countries in Europe against a resurgence of imperial Russia; to defang and defeat a poisonous chauvinism that despises modern freedoms for women and gay people.

It is indeed right and just. But is it prudent?

That’s the question I’m still grappling with, in a week which saw the conflict deepen and the two sides entrench their positions further. President Biden’s trip to Kyiv and his speech in Poland have heightened the stakes, turning this into a more obvious proxy war between the United States and Russia … edging gingerly but relentlessly toward something more direct. He’s all in now: declaring that Ukraine “must triumph” and that Russia cannot win a war that the Russian leader deems existential. NATO armaments are pouring into Ukraine at an accelerating rate. The training of Ukrainian troops is happening across the Continent. Germany is sending tanks. Pressure is building on Britain to send fighter jets.

The US is ratcheting up arms production as fast as it can, while seriously depleting our own Stinger surface-to-air missiles, 155mm howitzers and ammunition, and Javelin anti-tank missile systems. These are good times for arms producers:
The Army is planning a 500% increase in artillery shell production, from 15,000 a month to 70,000, according to Army acquisition chief Doug Bush … and intends to double the production of Javelin anti-tank missiles, make roughly 33% more Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems surface-to-surface medium-range missiles a year, and produce each month a minimum of 60 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles — which were “almost not in production at all,” according to Bush.
When Ukraine’s effective military is made up almost entirely of NATO equipment, and trained by NATO forces, there surely comes a point at which claiming NATO is not actually at war with Russia gets fuzzy.

It’s worth remembering how Biden put it less than a year ago: “the idea that we’re going to send in offensive equipment and have planes and tanks and trains going in with American pilots and American crews, just understand — and don’t kid yourself, no matter what you all say — that’s called ‘World War Three.’ Okay?” Well, technically, he’s still right. We don’t have American pilots and troops in the air and on the ground in Ukraine. But we do have them just over the horizon, along with tanks and planes and highly effective drones on the front lines in Ukraine itself. The munitions are being made in the USA — many in Biden’s beloved Scranton! And Ukraine cannot win without them.

And this is not exactly a proxy war like Vietnam — because the country involved is right on the nuclear super-power’s border and was long part of that power’s empire; and any attempt to reclaim all of Ukraine will obviously spill over into Russia proper at some point. And the logic of escalation in wartime has its own momentum, if we don’t want to seem as if we’re losing ground.

Sure enough, every time the Biden administration has said it would restrict the provision of arms to Ukraine, it has backtracked quickly, as Putin digs in. Upwards of 140 tanks are being sent from NATO, and hundreds more may follow. Long-range missiles capable of hitting Russia have also been sent — on the condition they not be used in Russia. The 2022 dynamic was summed up by the Ukrainian defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov:

When I was in DC in November [2021], before the invasion, and asked for Stingers, they told me it was impossible. Now it’s possible. When I asked for 155-millimeter guns, the answer was no. HIMARS, no. HARM [missiles], no. Now all of that is a yes. Therefore, I’m certain that tomorrow there will be…F-16s.
The Russians are escalating as well: they now have 300,000 troops in Ukrainian territory (way more than they had for the original invasion), are ramping their economy into wartime gear, and are still on the offensive (if ineffectively so). Their economy has held up far better than anyone expected. Last March, Biden assured us that “the totality of our economic sanctions and export controls are crushing — crushing the Russian economy.” The actual contraction was 2.1 percent in 2022, according to the IMF. A crinkle, not a crush.

In fact, Russia has merely diversified its customer base: “for all of 2022, Russia managed to increase its oil output 2 percent and boost oil export earnings 20 percent, to $218 billion ... Russia also raked in $138 billion from natural gas, a nearly 80 percent rise over 2021 as record prices offset cuts in flows to Europe.” This year, the IMF predicts that Russia will have a higher growth rate than either Germany or Britain, and in 2024, it will best the US as well. Yes, sanctions will, in the long run, hurt investment and future growth in Russia and cripple technological essentials for war. And tougher sanctions on oil are underway, and could have an impact. But Russia is far more resilient economically than almost anyone foresaw a year ago.

Russia’s isolation? Not so splendid anymore. The West is indeed united, for which Biden deserves real credit; the rest, much less so. India has increased Russian imports by 400 percent. But the real game-changer is China. Its initial neutrality is clearly shifting. Yesterday, Der Spiegel reported that “the Russian military is engaged in negotiations with Chinese drone manufacturer Xi’an Bingo Intelligent Aviation Technology over the mass production of kamikaze drones for Russia.”

Previously dependent on Iran for these weapons, a serious and reliable supply from China will come in handy. More significantly, as Noah Smith notes, in a long war of attrition, as this is becoming, mass production of weapons matters. And China has a much bigger manufacturing base than the West. Will they use it? It must be tempting to pin the West down in Europe. We’ll learn more when Xi visits Putin this spring.

Politically, moreover, Russia appears stable, if brutally controlled. Muscovites remain relatively protected and are carrying on as if the war didn’t exist. The public sphere has become ever more subsumed in militarism, dissent has been largely crushed, and the invocation of the fight against the actual Nazis seems to have helped galvanize public support. Popular backing for the war, even among non-Russian polls, remains high.

The most intense opposition has come from the far right, military bloggers and crazed TV jingoists, wanting to ramp up the action. In the US, in contrast, the opposition is in favor of less, rather than more. The two likeliest Republican candidates in 2024, Trump and DeSantis, favor talks and a peace settlement, along America First lines. As Biden was in Poland, Trump was in Pennsylvania; and DeSantis was urging restraint. The chances of an American pivot on Ukraine seem at this point higher than a Russian one, do they not?

That’s why, I suppose, the chorus of support this past week in Washington — by almost the entire foreign policy Blob — had a slight air of desperation about it. Two Atlantic headlines blared the neocon message: a surreal piece arguing that “Biden Just Destroyed Putin’s Last Hope,” and “Biden Went to Kyiv Because There’s No Going Back.” Anne Applebaum says Biden’s trip is “putting everyone on notice, including the defense ministries and the defense industries, that the paradigm has shifted and the story has changed.” Europe is at war and there is no going back until Russia is defeated and has withdrawn from all of Ukraine. The off-ramps are being removed.

Which is a little bit concerning when the enemy has nukes. That’s why the US stood by when Soviet tanks went into Hungary and Czechoslovakia during the Cold War — a far greater incursion than a fifth of Ukraine. We held back not because it was right, but because the alternative could have been catastrophic. We can pray that nothing happens this time — but prayer is not that effective against a potentially desperate regime fighting for what it believes is its existential survival and for a leader who knows a loss would mean his possibly literal demise. In short: we’re objectively taking more of a risk now than we did for almost all of the Cold War, excepting October 1962, with far lower stakes. Has the nuclear equation changed that much since then?

Wars are dynamic and unpredictable. Will Putin invade Moldova? Will Belarus go all-in against Ukraine? Will this war cement a Russia-China alliance and deepen Russia-India ties? Or will battlefield success for Ukraine lead to some kind of breakthrough, as the current strategy seems to be aiming at? I don’t know, and none of us know. What I do know is that Russia is going nowhere; that getting it out of the Donbas may require a long WWI-style slog; that at some point, a territorial compromise is inevitable; and that the longer this war goes on, the worse the human and economic toll on Ukraine.

And as Ron DeSantis pointed out this week, the strongest argument for war — that anything less would put all of Europe at risk of Russian invasion — is a lot weaker now that the shambles of the Russian military has been exposed. A military that cannot occupy more than a fifth of a non-NATO country on its border is not likely to be entering Warsaw anytime soon. And the conflict has strengthened NATO immeasurably and accelerated Europe’s transition from carbon energy, both indisputably good things.

My worry is that the West is committing itself to an end-goal — the full liberation of all of Ukraine — that no Russian government could accept, without regime change in Moscow itself. Which means, as Biden’s gaffes sometimes reveal, that this is ineluctably a war for regime change in a nuclear-armed country — which is an extremely hazardous enterprise. It’s righteous but dangerous. Putin is very much in the wrong, just as Saddam was. Evil men, vile regimes. But the one thing I learned from all that, is that focusing on morality rather than prudence, and letting the former eclipse the latter entirely, can be a righteous and well-intentioned road to hell.