Ukraine, NATO and the politics of war

Ted Galen Carpenter. Photo: Cato Institute

As the war in Donbass continues and Ukrainian casualties continue to mount, Russia seems to have the upper hand. According to some estimates, Russia now controls 25% of Ukrainian territory – territory that is responsible for around 75% of Ukraine’s gross domestic product.

Yet nearly four months into the war, there seems to be little appetite in Washington to push Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to seek peace.

To discuss the war in Ukraine and more, I spoke with Ted Galen Carpenter, senior fellow for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and one of America’s biggest critics of the expansion of the NATO.

He is the author of more than 950 articles and political studies and 12 books, including NATO: the dangerous dinosaur (2019), Gullible Superpower: US Support for Fake Foreign Democratic Movements (2019), and The Blind Ties: How the US-Saudi Alliance Undermines Freedom and Security (2018).

Below is a slightly edited version of our discussion.

James Cardon: Ted, I want to start by discussing something you wrote recently: “As long as Russian forces continue their advance, however difficult it may be, there is little chance that Moscow will escalate things. However, if it looked like Ukraine could actually win the war, all bets are off. What do you mean by “all bets are off”?

Carpenter Ted Galen: I believe that [President Vladimir] Putin and the rest of the Russian leadership see Ukraine as a vital Russian security interest; therefore, defeat is not an option in their eyes.

Now, would they prefer to get a diplomatic settlement? Would they prefer this to be solved only with conventional weapons? Absolutely. I don’t think they want to go nuclear.

But if it’s a matter of choosing between defeat, national humiliation and, for Putin, personal humiliation, and rolling the dice and taking a chance using tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, I think it’s likely to take that risk. Nothing certain, but the risk is very serious as far as I am concerned.

JC: It seems that the people advising the US President, and possibly the President himself, are not entirely aware of the danger you have just described. Do you have any idea who could advise Joe Biden on these issues?

CGT: Well, I think the usual charge holders. Jake Sullivan, I guess, has a lot of influence. I guess Lloyd Austin and his people have a big influence on politics. And you get comments from outsiders like Michael McFaul, the former ambassador to Russia, who has a very hawkish view.

And their attitude, which is reflected in some neoconservatives in the press like Max Boot, is that for all the talk Putin might make about the use of nuclear weapons, it’s a bluff. We really don’t have to worry about that. And we shouldn’t use that as an excuse not to stand up to him and Russian aggression.

This is their reason for being. I would like to ask them, what if their assumption is wrong? They don’t even seem to consider that possibility. And yet, if they are wrong, the consequences are truly disastrous.

JC: We have read a lot of concerns about the division of the world between democracies and autocracies. This seems to me to be the new dividing line for these people. Putin is, obviously, enemy number 1 in their minds, but right behind him is Viktor Orbán in Hungary. This division of the world has been widely accepted within the US Democratic Party, especially among parts of what was once the anti-war left. What do you think ?

CGT: This is a very interesting development, I noticed it too. Again, it seems much more intense in terms of opposing right-wing autocracies like Orbán, like Putin. It’s a bit more awkward when it comes to, for example, Xi Jinping and China.

In fact, it’s almost schizophrenic behavior on the part of many leftists. They will denounce this regime, but they are not ready to adhere to real American bellicose policies to resist it.

This attitude, however, is weakening. In other words, we see more and more support for Taiwan, for example, on the left, even if that would require a fairly tough military policy, a very risky policy.

But the intensity of the hatred of autocratic regimes, that of what was once the anti-war left, seems much more directed against Putin and this right-wing nationalist regime. They seem to be the epitome of evil in the minds of, I would call them, the crusader democrats of this country.

JC: It seems that this mindset is now even across the Atlantic and has infected the worldview of nations that were once proudly neutral, and right now we are witnessing a real push by and for the Finland and Sweden to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. What about Finland and Sweden joining the alliance?

CGT: I would say that Finland’s and Sweden’s willingness to join NATO is an overreaction to what Russia has done in Ukraine. I can understand why that would make European countries, in particular, very nervous.

On the other hand, if they looked at it soberly, given all the problems Russia has had just trying to subjugate Ukraine, I think they would see the Russian threat to the rest of Europe with more back. Let’s not assume that this army is 10 feet tall and can sweep across the Atlantic, that’s not going to happen any time soon.

I’m also afraid Sweden and Finland made the same mistake the Republic of Texas did when they joined the Union in 1845. Texas got there just in time to get caught up in all the sectoral divisions and animosity, and, of course, ended up participating in the American Civil War.

I suspect there were quite a few Texans when this happened who wished the Republic had remained independent. They did not derive any benefit from joining the Union at that time and there were many disadvantages.

But again, I think the ideological factor is important here, that you have centrist and left-centrist factions in Sweden and Finland that view Russia as this existential evil, not necessarily as an existential threat. There is a difference.

I saw something similar right after the Russian invasion in Ukraine when Switzerland signed sanctions. When has this happened before? I don’t remember a single case. And yet, it was done without virtually any debate. They were on board in the first two days, along with European Union countries and others.

There’s more here than just security issues. I think a cold calculation of security concerns would lead Sweden and Finland to say, “Listen, we risk provoking a crisis with Russia, with us in the front line rather than gaining security by doing this. But ideological animosity towards Moscow, I suspect, outweighs these considerations.

JC: You say that there is more at stake here than a cold calculation of interest. The same could be said for what is happening here in the United States. I wonder if you see a role for foreign lobbies in all of this.

The Ukrainian lobby played a very active role in the 2016 US presidential campaign and then in the first impeachment of Donald Trump. There were very credible reports by mainstream US outlets like Politico that portrayed the role of people from the Ukrainian diaspora working with the Ukrainian Embassy to leak damaging information about the Trump campaign.

And that’s a problem we’ve had in this country for a long time. Foreign lobbies and the havoc they can cause was something the Founders were very aware of the possibility of happening. And now it seems to be happening. Do you have any thoughts on that before we wrap up?

CGT: Absolutely. I mean, the Ukrainian lobby has been extremely active in trying to influence American policy, and with some success. Additionally, you have the more traditional NATO forever lobby and the pro-NATO expansion lobby. Think of the Atlantic Council and other affiliates almost entirely of this lobby.

And, of course, you have the usual military-industrial complex that wants more and more money, and they see this arena as a tremendous opportunity to sell weapons in unprecedented numbers and dollars. So it’s a pretty powerful alliance.

You have the usual sycophants in the news media pushing this agenda. I don’t think it’s surprising that at least in the beginning there was a massive propaganda campaign, a very successful one. They made otherwise sane Americans say, “Yes, we have to support Ukraine, we have to defend Ukraine.

It starts to fade as people have doubts. Well, wait a minute, what level of risk are we running here? And wait, how good is this Ukrainian government? And the more you watch you go OK, it’s a corrupt semi-autocracy. So we are supposed to risk the lives of all Americans to defend this regime.

There is a reflection in progress. And you even find a better balance between media and treatments. That’s not saying much, it’s a very low bar to cross considering what was going on at the start. Enthusiasm for Ukraine’s cause seems to have waned somewhat.

JC: So back to the war and what is really happening on the ground. Even Zelensky has now admitted that things are not going as well as before. The euphoria, as you suggest, seems to be dissipating in Washington.

They admitted that they have huge disadvantages in artillery ammunition, they lose 700 men a day. Doesn’t look great. It therefore seems that the Russians will succeed in taking the Donbass. If phase 1 of the war saw the Russians pushed back from kyiv, and if phase 2 is the Donbass campaign, how do you see phase 3 unfolding? Is it possible that Zelensky is asking for peace?

CGT: I’m not sure he will ask for peace. The Russians will probably give him an opportunity if they complete their conquest of Donbass. At that point, I think they would extend an olive branch to Zelensky.

What worries me is the position of the United States and certain NATO countries. Are we urging Zelensky not to give in? Keep fighting? The West might say, “We can keep supplying you. You can wage vigorous guerrilla warfare for months or even years. You can do what the Afghan mujahideen did, and we were happy to provide that too.

Now, of course, that means the Ukrainians will be hemorrhaging for an indefinite period of time, but I’m afraid some policymakers in Washington might not necessarily be opposed to that.

This article was previously published by the American Committee for American-Russian Accord (ACURA) and is used with the permission of the author. Read the original here.

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