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Russia-Ukraine War Update

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By Ministry of Defense of Ukraine – commons file, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61588059

I’m going to start by engaging in a partial, tepid defense of Henry Kissinger. This war is extremely likely to end in a negotiated settlement, the terms of that settlement depend on a fluid military situation, and we should be open to the possibility that the war will end with Russia in control of Ukrainian territory. I absolutely do not share Kissinger’s timeline for ending the war, although I do think it’s a good idea for Ukraine to continue to pursue negotiations without any specific preconditions. However, I do not think that the US should commit publicly or privately to liberating every part of Ukraine that Russia occupied in 2014, or even that it should commit to liberating every part of Ukraine that Russia has taken in this war.

In a sense this entire conversation is premature because the nature of negotiations over an end to the war will depend upon how the military situation develops. Russia has made slow, steady gains in the Donbas and has entrenched its positions near Kherson, even as the Ukrainians have pushed back near Kharkiv. We are not in a position to take as granted that Ukraine will be able to inflict a decisive enough defeat on Russian forces to cause a general collapse of the Russian position. Although there are good reasons to believe that Ukrainian forces will grow more lethal over the next few months, we do not have good information on how badly the Russians have mauled Ukraine’s frontline formations in the Donbas. So on the one hand there is at the moment there’s no reason to overthink the provision of further military assistance to Ukraine; Ukraine’s military victory is by no means guaranteed, and any additional assistance at the very least improves Zelenskyy’s negotiating position. On the other hand, it’s premature to be planning a victory parade through Mariupol, much less Sevastopol.

Part of the problem with Kissinger’s remarks (and this is echoed in lots of other commentary) is the sense that Moscow is owed a certain place in the sun and that thus we should refrain from “humiliating” Russia. For my part, I certainly don’t hold to the idea that Russia’s delicate psyche needs to be protected from harm, or that the West needs to create the conditions under which Putin can declare victory. Russians should fully and absolutely have every reason at the end of this war to conclude that Vladimir Putin took them into an unjust war in which they suffered disastrous defeats. That said, folks aren’t wrong when they point out that Russia is a giant country that’s very important to parts of the global economy, including especially the food and energy sectors. There needs to be some way back and at least parts of that way back cannot be contingent upon regime change in Moscow. Folks also aren’t wrong that turning Russia into North Korea is unlikely to generate the kind of political change that we want to see in the Putin regime.

And as I argued back in April, there are absolutely scenarios in which the US should exert leverage in order to affect the course of negotiations between Russian and Ukraine. Retaking the territory that Russia has seized since February 23, much less the territory it seized in 2014, may be an exceedingly hard slog, and it may fall to the United States and its NATO partners to weigh in on intra-Ukrainian debates about how seriously to commit to liberating the country. In the parlance of our times, the US is in a position to help Ukraine avoid the trap of having its ego write checks that its body can’t cash.

In my view, US interests are served by the continued existence of the democratic Ukraine that is capable of defending itself, free to associate itself with multilateral international organizations, and capable of exporting its good and resources to international markets. US interests are further served by re-establishing the norm that aggressive wars of territorial conquest will be punished in military, economic, and diplomatic dimensions. All of these are to my mind these least controversial, most basic elements of what we now term the Liberal International Order, but which we might also refer to Decent International Society. The pain that Russia has inflicted on not just Ukraine but the world (and don’t let anyone say that “the Russia-Ukraine War will lead to starvation in Africa;” Ukraine would be happy to deliver grain shipments starting tomorrow were it not for the Russian blockade) should reaffirm the interconnectedness of the modern international system. An aggressive war of conquest in one place has ripple effects around the globe, which is why it’s good to have mechanisms to respond to and deter such aggression.

This is a point on which reasonable people can disagree. I suspect from our conversation on Monday and Cheryl and Dan have somewhat different perspectives.

Anyway, some links:

I also have thoughts on the extent to which the Russian defense industry is going to be capable of restoring Russian losses from the war:

Thus, Russia will need to invest heavily in reconstituting its armed forces. Unfortunately for Russia, even its relatively autarkic defense economy depends on high technology supply chains. Modern tanks, like modern cars, are simply computers on treads. Russia does not at the moment produce sufficient numbers of advanced chips to supply its defense industrial base with a good number of processors to put new equipment into service.

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