Ukrainian War One Year Hence

It’s been about a year since the Russian invasion of Ukraine commenced. I wrote an article about the mounting tensions literally the day before Russian forces crossed the border (or, at least, the border as it was at the beginning of 2022). I made some predictions in that post, and a lot of digital ink has been spilled as people balkanized into pro-war and anti-war positions in the world outside Ukraine. Here is a bit of a retrospective on this unfortunate conflict.

At the outset I have to say that the Ukrainians have fought much better than I anticipated. In my post from a year ago I said that one of four things were likely to happen if Russia invaded Ukraine (keep in mind, though, that I wrote this before Russian troops were marching across the border):

I’d say that it is the upper right quadrant that has occurred (Russia invaded and the U.S. has not become militarily involved), though my prediction (namely that Ukraine is turned into a puppet) was predicated on my mistaken assumption that Russia would defeat Ukraine with relative ease. At least on paper that wasn’t an unreasonable assumption – Russia is considered a great power, if not a superpower, while Ukraine is small and (at least prior to the Russian invasion) riven with internal factionalism and corruption. Which is why I have to admit that Ukraine has surprised me with how well it has defended itself. For that they deserve, at the very least, our respect and admiration.

I think, also, that I fell into the Western-centric assumption that this was a proxy war between the U.S. and Russia first and foremost. But it’s important to keep in mind that Ukraine is its own country populated by a people as richly complex as any other people. I thankfully didn’t charicaturize them as being a Nazi country, or as being historically Russian (i.e., not a “real” country as Putin alleges), as some in the west have been wont to do. But I still made the mistake of viewing things almost purely through the lens of great power politics.

Now, to be fair to myself (someone ought to), it is the case that the U.S. government is using Ukraine is a proxy. Whether we can justify U.S. arms sales to Ukraine, or any future military involvement, in the idealistic sense of Ukrainian sovereignty is all post hoc. The idea that the U.S. (and Europe) is doing what it’s doing for high-minded reasons is naive, even if you think it’s a good thing for the U.S. to get involved. While your typical average American or Western European may have sympathy for the Ukrainian people and their cause of national identity and sovereignty, their governments almost certainly do not care nearly as much for such idealism.

I still find myself skeptical of U.S. involvement. While supplying weapons to the Ukrainians is something I can stomach, I am still wholeheartedly against U.S. military involvement. The threat of nuclear war, contrary to what some seem to believe, is still very real. Where I have probably changed my mind, given my new perspectives discussed above, is in thinking that the war ought to be ended as soon as possible, even if it means giving up a lot to the Russians. This, as I said, stemmed from my assumption of this being a proxy war, neglecting the Ukrainian perspective. The end of the war, and whatever Ukraine is or is not willing to concede, ought to be on the Ukrainian people’s terms.

However, I find it interesting that those in favor of U.S. involvement have constructed the strawman that being against U.S. involvement can only mean that someone is a stooge (or even agent) of the Kremlin (though I will also mention, in the name of fairness, one of the ridiculous strawmen constructed by the anti-support for Ukraine side against the pro-support side, which is that the pro-support side are akin to Nazi sympathizers since Nazism is alleged by the anti-support crowd to be rampant within Ukraine). The accusation I see tossed around quite a bit goes something like: “so-and-so might as well be using Kremlin talking points.” There seems to be an inability to conceive that maybe the Kremlin talking points are the Kremlin talking points because they are at least in part what the Kremlin imagines (justifiably or not) as its casus belli. And even if it really is the case that the Russian invasion is primarily motivated by some kind of power play by Putin (domestic or international in nature), or by some narcissistic concern for Putin’s legacy, I have still yet to encounter a good response to the hypothetical: what would the U.S. do if Mexico joined a Russian military alliance? Would the U.S. simply say “well, Mexico is a sovereign nation and can make alliances with whomever it pleases.” The U.S. would likely set aside such high-minded ideals for the realpolitik that it is a national security concern to have an adversarial military alliance expand right up to its border.

That being said, it can also be simultaneously true that Putin is a bad guy and Russia is in the wrong while also having reasons for their actions that aren’t mere phantasms. A street gangster can have a reason for killing a rival gang member while still being a murderer that deserves to be convicted for their crime. The plugging of one’s ears to Russian motivations, of continually uttering the refrain that “Russia’s invasion is unjustified” and so invites no deeper scrutiny, will at best have no affect on the ultimate outcome of the conflict, and at worst could cause unnecessary escalation through misunderstandings and underestimations of what Russia is willing to do in the prosecution of their war.

The Munich agreement with Hitler that conceded to Sudetenland to the Nazis is a common comparison whenever someone does any saber rattling. But people might be missing the real lesson we should learn from that regrettable chapter: the motivations of the person holding that saber matters. Chamberlain et al thought Hitler would be appeased with this one last concession. But if they had really considered his motivations, they might have realized that it was nothing but a ruse, that Hitler’s rhetoric and behavior since at least his Beer Hall Putsch had always been eminently expansionist and militaristic, that he’d laid out the framework of his expansionism in Mein Kampf, that the Italian Fascists on which the Nazi modus operandi was modeled was expansionist and militaristic, that the Nazi involvement in the Spanish Civil War and the remilitarization of the Rhineland attested to their militarism. Likewise, understanding why Putin and the Russians invaded Ukraine can only be helpful in understanding what ought to be done (and, perhaps more importantly, what ought not be done) in assisting the Ukrainians, as well as what negotiating points can be used and what kind of post-war policies ought to be adopted.