Wednesday, 2022-11-30

The moral bankrupcy of the IR “realists”

Only a so-called “international relations realist” can present these demands for an end of the war in Ukraine as “extremist”:

What I find especially striking is how liberal interventionists, unrepentant neoconservatives, and a handful of progressives who are all-in for Ukraine seem to have no doubts whatsoever about the origins of the conflict or the proper course of action to follow today. For them, Russian President Vladimir Putin is solely and totally responsible for the war, and the only mistakes others may have made in the past was to be too nice to Russia and too willing to buy its oil and gas. The only outcome they are willing to entertain is a complete Ukrainian victory, ideally accompanied by regime change in Moscow, the imposition of reparations to finance Ukrainian reconstruction, and war crimes trials for Putin and his associates. Convinced that anything less than this happy result will reward aggression, undermine deterrence, and place the current world order in jeopardy, their mantra is: “Whatever it takes for as long as it takes.”

I mean… yes? Putin is solely responsible for this war. The ideal end is for Russia to leave Ukrainian territory. Russia should pay reparations for the destruction it has wrought.

This same group has also been extraordinarily critical of those who believe responsibility for the war is not confined to Russia’s president and who think these war aims might be desirable in the abstract but are unlikely to be achieved at an acceptable cost and risk. If you have the temerity to suggest that NATO enlargement (and the policies related to it) helped pave the road to war, if you believe the most likely outcome is a negotiated settlement and that getting there sooner rather than later would be desirable, and if you favor supporting Ukraine but think this goal should be weighed against other interests, you’re almost certain to be denounced as a pro-Putin stooge, an appeaser, an isolationist, or worse.

Note to conflation of two separate things here: the supposition that NATO expansion caused Putin to start the war and that the likely end of the war will be a negotiated settlement or a frozen conflict. I personally am a pessimist. I do believe that a negotiated settlement is likely. But having the ideal of a full Ukrainian victory in mind is the morally correct one, not to try to aim for a settlement a priori.

But it is not clear to me that NATO expansion left Putin with only one option. Note that he himself did not refer to NATO in the beginning of the war, when he was sure he was going to force a regime change in Ukraine within days. Now that Russia is losing badly it’s “because of NATO”, but that’s because he, like the author of this piece, cannot see Ukrainians as a worthy foe.

By starting the war, Putin ensured that Finland and Sweden applied to join NATO, suddenly increasing Russia’s border with NATO by thousands of kilometers. So Russia has now a worse position vis-a-vis NATO than before the war, even discounting the sanctions and the billions of treasure lost to Ukrainian forces armed by NATO countries.

It’s possible that the hawks are right and that giving Ukraine whatever it thinks it needs to achieve victory is the best course of action. But this approach is hardly guaranteed to succeed; it might just prolong the war to no good purpose, increase Ukrainian suffering, and eventually lead Russia to escalate or even use a nuclear weapon.

Russia is not holding the line and calling for negotiations. It is using its cruise missiles and drones to deliberately target Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, in contravention of the laws of war. In every territory liberated by the Ukrainians, evidence of torture and mass murder by Russia has been uncovered. Every day Russia occupies Ukrainian territory increases Ukrainian suffering.

As to the nuclear threat, it’s real, but it’s not a war winning strategy. Either Russia employs a “tactical” nuke to strike Ukrainian military positions. Will this knock Ukraine out? Probably not, but it will condemn Russia to a pariah state. Likewise, literally flattening Kyiv with a strike to decapitate the leadership might end the war, but then Putin will have nuked the “cradle of Slav civilization” he was so bent on saving for “Greater Russia”.

In no way will employing a nuclear weapon “prove” that Russia is strong and capable of winning a war against one of Europe’s poorest countries. On the contrary, it will be very hard for Poland for example not to get nukes themselves, to defend themselves against an enemy that has shown it is fully prepared to use nuclear weapons in wars of aggression.