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Democracy’s Trenches

The idea that the war in Ukraine is not our business is seductive but dangerously mistaken.

· 11 min read
Democracy’s Trenches
A destroyed monastery in Dolyna, eastern Ukraine on December 26, 2022. Photo by Sameer Al-Doumy via Getty

The West’s democracies are fighting a war in Ukraine; the test in the New Year will be if they can keep fighting it. Some supporting states’ wills may bend. In Italy, the new Prime Minister Meloni has so far been staunch in her support (unlike other members of her coalition government) but many of the people she governs are not. A cold winter, rising poverty, and a general feeling that the war will be a long one are all likely to erode determination and may yet force a truce. And if Ukraine can be made to sue for peace, those now calling for a negotiated end to hostilities—the well-intentioned and the cynical on the Left and Right alike—will claim it is a victory for common sense.

Ukraine has been a battlefield for a little over 10 months, but a new front may also open in the battle for democracy to the east. China regards Taiwan as an errant province that must be brought to heel in the name of imperial integrity, just as the Russian leadership sees Ukraine. Taiwan recently extended its compulsory national service from four months to a year in anticipation of a Chinese invasion. President Xi Jinping’s purge of relative moderates from the leadership and assumption of power-for-life are both ominous signs, and during the Christmas period, Chinese jets have overflown Taiwan in record numbers.

For the time being, Xi Jinping has domestic problems to contend with. He is sitting atop a sharp rise in COVID infections and deaths produced by the abrupt discontinuation of the country’s failed zero-COVID policy in the face of widespread public protest. Xi can reduce infections by clamping down again, a policy sure to result in a new public outcry. Alternatively, he can continue to loosen restrictions at the price of hundreds of thousands more deaths. A short victorious war might offer an attractive diversion from this unappealing choice.

Defence commentator Lyle Goldstein is at pains to puncture thoughts of brave little Taiwan succeeding in holding China at bay. “Taiwan,” he argues, “is about 15 times smaller than Ukraine, while China’s defence budget is at least four times larger than that of Russia. Much more concentrated firepower in a smaller area implies that China might succeed in coercing or even conquering Taiwan in short order.”

Nevertheless, if the democracies’ leader in Washington continues to cleave to a doctrine of no surrender to imperial brutality, a two-front proxy war is quite likely to be their lot. And it will weaken the West as huge sums will need to be diverted to arm Ukraine and Taiwan (although they will need to find a way to get arms past the inevitable ring of Chinese warships). At home, meanwhile, European states will need to continue the already costly process of re-arming themselves.

Since these states are democracies, their citizens also need to think about what they believe should happen in this time of growing peril. They too will have to decide to continue the defence of open societies, and be ready to support the actions of their governments which strive to do so through the hard times that will inevitably follow. If democratic populations agree to go on absorbing the costs of supporting Ukraine, it will be because they have been persuaded, not just that the Ukrainian cause is just but also that Ukraine fights for us. As Timothy Snyder has put it, “a Russian victory would strengthen fascists and other tyrants … this war, in other words, is about establishing principles for the twenty-first century. It is about policies of mass death and about the meaning of life in politics. It is about the possibility of a democratic future.” If Snyder is correct, then Ukrainians must retain the ability to fight, and even to win, because their cause is ours.

There are, to be sure, alternatives to this uncompromising approach. Their advocates can shade into faint-heartedness and worse, but the more interesting among them claim to be informed by a harsh “realism.” They recommend less—even much less—than total defeat for Russia, and reality, as they perceive it, is harsh indeed. On December 19th, 2022, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights estimated that 6,826 Ukrainian civilians had been killed, of whom 428 were children. A further 10,769 were reported wounded, of whom 790 were children. Earlier in the month, Mykhailo Podolyak, an aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, had told reporters that his general staff reckon between 10,000 and 13,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed, and that Russian military losses were “seven times” those of Ukraine. US military estimates in November put the number of dead and wounded at 100,000 on each side of the conflict.

This is not carnage of the First World War order, during which a million men—British, French, and German—were killed or wounded on the River Somme between July and mid-November in 1917. Nevertheless, thousands of Russian and Ukrainian families have been deprived of sons, fathers, and brothers; many thousands more have been robbed of their limbs, minds, or mobility and left disfigured and traumatised for life. Ukraine is now a partially destroyed country, in which cities are filled with buildings reduced to gaunt skeletons.

In August 2022, the World Bank and the European Union estimated that the material damage to Ukraine was $348.5bn. By the end of October, after Russia began a strategy of destroying energy and other infrastructure, the Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyal put the cost at $750bn. By early 2023, the price will be a trillion-plus. Ukraine could afford only a fraction of this: Zelensky has demanded that Russia pay for everything, but good luck with that. So, Western democracies will be asked to foot the bill when this is all over, and from economies which have already sustained considerable damage from the war itself.

Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger—an arch foreign-policy realist who will be 100 in May—has produced a plan which the Spectator headlined, “How to Avoid Another World War.” Kissinger believes a peace process should contain two main elements: “to confirm the freedom of Ukraine and to define a new international structure, especially for Central and Eastern Europe. Eventually Russia should find a place in such an order.” This is some way from a Ukrainian victory, and it is an attempt to preserve Russia as a major state. Kissinger speaks for many in the West who believe it is essential that the war be brought to a rapid conclusion without humiliating Russia.

Kissinger reasons that Russia is so historically and presently important to the world and so potentially dangerous (even—or especially—in defeat) that the prudent course must be to ease its leadership into a recognition that it has failed to subdue the Ukrainians and cannot accomplish its war aims:

For all its propensity to violence, Russia has made decisive contributions to the global equilibrium and to the balance of power for over half a millennium. Its historical role should not be degraded. … Even if [its nuclear] capability is diminished, the dissolution of Russia or destroying its ability for strategic policy could turn its territory encompassing 11 time zones into a contested vacuum. Its competing societies might decide to settle their disputes by violence.

To get Ukraine’s leadership to co-operate with such a plan, Kissinger recommends a closer but unspecified relationship with NATO:

A peace process should link Ukraine to Nato, however expressed. The alternative of neutrality is no longer meaningful, especially after Finland and Sweden joined Nato. This is why, last May, I recommended establishing a ceasefire line along the borders existing where the war started on 24 February. Russia would disgorge its conquests thence, but not the territory it occupied nearly a decade ago, including Crimea. That territory could be the subject of a negotiation after a ceasefire.

Other plans for a negotiated peace in a similar vein proliferate. In December, Robert Skidelsky, best known as the biographer of Keynes and now a cross-bench (i.e., independent) member of the UK’s House of Lords, argued that unconditional support for Ukraine—the assumption “that Ukraine, with NATO military support and economic sanctions on Russia, will soon complete the reconquest of Ukraine, including Crimea”—makes no sense.

[N]either Russia nor Ukraine can achieve their war aims at the present level of hostilities, so the pursuit of victory is bound to bring escalation on both sides. Russia will intensify its air war, and NATO will provide Ukraine with more weapons to shoot down Russian aircraft. At what point such escalation leads to the accidental or deliberate deployment of tactical nuclear weapons is anyone’s guess, but the danger must be there … that is why the war should be ended as soon as possible, and that can be done only by negotiations based on a ceasefire.

He places one condition on negotiations: they must not be conducted with President Putin. The idea is that Putin’s circle, which includes his would-be replacements, would therefore be incentivised to depose him. Under such circumstances, the thinking goes, Russia might be permitted to retain most of the regions already conquered, and a new dictator would be able to announce significant gains for the imperium, an end to the slaughter of Russian youth and sanctions on Russian billionaires. The country would also be allowed to remain, at least in its own eyes, as a major world power.

There are large holes in these plans and others like them. Since both Ukrainian and Russian leaderships have described the conflict as existential, neither will agree to compromise so long as even a remote possibility of victory remains. And once that possibility is exhausted, the victor will be in no mood to make concessions to the loser given the losses incurred to date. There is little reason to suppose that the Ukrainians will be sympathetic to the need to spare Putin embarrassment as it presses its advantage against Russian forces. And Putin’s bar for avoiding humiliation is likely to be considerably higher than Kissinger’s.

Fred Kaplan, formerly the Boston Globe’s Moscow correspondent during the end of the Soviet Union, used a column in Slate to call Kissinger’s plan “ludicrous,” adding that it had “the glow of fantasy … fuelled by nostalgia for Golden Age nostrums that have no cure-all value for the war that’s actually happening.” Kaplan argues that Putin has no interest in any deal that does not include the submission of Ukraine to Moscow rule. (That objection also covers Skidelsky’s plan, unless a Brutus in the Kremlin can be persuaded to knife Putin’s Caesar in exchange for peace.)

But the artful combination of carrot (peace, possible NATO membership, an end to the Putin presidency) and stick (escalation, more expensive carnage, a possible nuclear conflagration) has won these plans supporters in non-combatant nations which are nevertheless suffering from the conflict’s second-order effects. So far, Western populations remain largely supportive of the Ukrainians’ dogged and courageous resistance, but should war weariness gather as the conflict drags on, pressure to coerce the Ukrainians into making concessions may yet determine the war’s outcome, irrespective of what is happening on the ground.

Elsewhere, the strategic and moral complexities of the Ukraine war have been made to serve the imperatives of social media and the political posturing of demagogues. The participants in these discussions use the killing fields of Donbass and Lugansk to parade their performative ignorance, which is framed in a mixture of abuse, vilification, and self-pity. A few weeks before the Russians invaded Ukraine, Donald Trump told a rally in Conroe, Texas, that “Putin would not dare invade if I was President.” On September 28th, he used his captive network Truth Social to announce that he is prepared to lead peace talks with Putin. Following Zelensky’s visit to Washington on December 21st to request more military aid from Congress, Trump’s son, Don Jr., described the Ukrainian leader as “basically an ungrateful international welfare queen.”

A large part of the US Right, formerly hawkish on foreign affairs, has fallen into step behind Trump on this issue. Fox News presenter Laura Ingraham described aiding Ukraine as nothing more than “an elite vanity project from a foreign-policy establishment that has been wrong on most everything for the last two decades.” On the same programme, she solicited the inexpert opinion of frequent guest Glenn Greenwald, a ferocious enemy of aid to Ukraine and opponent of liberal interventionism of any kind anywhere. In lieu of informed analysis, Greenwald provided the usual conspiratorial boilerplate about a military-industrial complex only interested in lining its own pockets.

“The most important question is the one never being asked,” he informed Ingraham’s viewers, “which is in what way does this serve the interests of the American people? It doesn’t, obviously it serves the interests of a tiny sliver of people in Washington, weapons manufacturers, people in the security state who get money and power from these sorts of things. And right at the moment that when their market for these weapons disappeared when the US finally got out of Iraq and Afghanistan, lo and behold, there’s this new market in Ukraine.”

The debate about Ukraine, he added, had been “suppressed” which has led to “an absence of any attempt to resolve the war diplomatically, which is what you would be doing … if you actually cared about the Ukrainians. The Biden administration instead has been escalating the war, seemingly deliberately, which is what you would do if you don’t care about the Ukrainians but care about weapons manufacturers and the power of the US security state.” Greenwald’s view—a crude version of the conspiracy theorist’s all-purpose cui bono heuristic—appears to allow no room for Russian moral responsibility or for the understandable desire on the part of the Ukrainians (in whose name he speaks) to defend their sovereign country from imperial conquest and subjugation.

The most determined anti-Ukrainian voice on the mainstream Right probably belongs to Ingraham’s Fox News colleague Tucker Carlson, who opened his fulminations about Zelensky’s visit to the US by complaining that the Ukrainian leader had been dressed in a green sweatshirt and cargo pants. This apparently paramount concern was, Carlson muttered, a sign of “maximum disrespect.” He continued: “Zelensky put a salesman’s gloss on what otherwise might look very much like a scam. So the tens of billions of dollars you’ll be sending me is not charity, Zelensky explained. It’s not a gift. It’s not like the 20 bucks you gave the homeless guy at Union Station this morning for a quart of vodka. No, it’s not that at all. This money, Zelensky said, is, quote, ‘an investment.’ Ooooooh, an investment.” So when, Carlson demanded, will Americans get their “dividend cheques”?

TUCKER CARLSON: Why all the hysteria over not clapping for Zelenskyy?
Fox News host Tucker Carlson discusses how Americans have reacted to Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s address and the Ukraine-Russia War on ‘Tucker Carlson Tonight.’

Even by Carlson’s standards this is wilfully obtuse, and a more honest commentator would have correctly explained Zelensky’s point and then set out why he disagreed with it. Zelensky’s argument is a serious one—it holds that a determination to thwart Russia’s invasion is, for the West’s democracies, a meaningful expression of a belief in the value of democracy itself. One can counter the realists’ consequentialist arguments about the dangers of escalation with a consequentialist argument about the dangers of appeasement. But Zelensky also believes that there is a categorical imperative at stake here: observation of international rules and borders are worth defending for their own sakes. The notion that the rape of a democratic country by a fascist power is not our business is seductive given the costs, but it is dangerously mistaken. It is and remains democracy’s business.

John Lloyd

John Lloyd was the FT’s Moscow correspondent from 1991–95. He is co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and his forthcoming book is about the rise of the New Right in Europe.

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