US Foreign Policy Restraint Does Not Mean Abandoning Ukraine, per Kissinger (nor Taiwan); Proxy Wars are Not Direct Wars

M1A2 Live-FirePursuing a restrained US foreign policy is compatible with helping Ukraine, because restraint still takes threats seriously and Putin is pretty obviously one.

This is a re-post of an essay I just wrote for 1945.com.

I am pretty shocked at how quickly Western opinion gravitated toward abandoning Ukraine just because gas prices and inflation went up.Good grief, people. Ukraine is getting taken apart piece by piece by a quasi-fascist aggressor deploying something like death squads behind the lines, and we can’t tolerate some minor lifestyle pain? Are we seriously that decadent?

More broadly, everybody knows the US needs to follow a more restrained foreign policy. I supported the Afghan withdrawal, even as people we losing their mind that is meant the end of the Western alliance. Helping Ukraine as a proxy does not violate that.

And Kissinger’s schtick that we should arm-twist the victim of the war into giving up tells you more about how Kissinger’s creepy fascination with power and might than it does about US or Western interests. (It’s the same reason he’s been sucking up to China under Xi.)

The war is breaking Russia’s claim to be a great power; we don’t need to treat Putin like he has some realist ‘right’ to stomp on his neighbors. And its pretty clear that Putin is a threat. He’s built a quasi-fascist regime at home and his meddled in his neighbors’ sovereignty for decades. Aren’t we supposed to balance power and threat, not fetishize it?

So yes, the US itself should not march into more quagmires. And yes, the US should not be directly militarily involved in Ukraine. But it is a proxy war pretty obviously in Western national interest, because Putin is pretty obviously a threat. And don’t wave Putin’s nukes around in bad faith. He’s not going to go nuclear against the West, nor does he anticipate a war with the West. If he did, he wouldn’t be allowing his army to be ground up just to take the Donbas. This nuclear scare-mongering is just deflection by pro-Russian MAGA pundits like Rod Dreher, Michael Tracey, or Tucker Carlson to undercut Ukraine, whom they want to lose.

Here is that 1945.com essay:

As the war on terror went off the rails in the last two decades, calls for the US to show greater restraint in its foreign policy grew. One hears such language regularly now from both US political parties. Crucially however, greater caution in US foreign policy need not translate into abandoning Ukraine to be slowly taken apart by Russia. Greater ‘realism’ in US – and Western – foreign policy is not the same thing as cynicism. There is a clear prudential case for helping Ukraine.

Greater Restraint

By now the case for greater restraint in US foreign policy is well understood. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States emerged as the sole superpower, far ahead of any potential rivals. While the administration of President Bill Clinton did not fully grasp just how distinct the US had become, the next administration of President George W. Bush did. And in the wake of the 9/11 terror strike, it launched a massive effort to re-make the Middle East, something only a state with the extraordinary leverage the US had would even contemplate. This led to exorbitant claims fifteen years ago that the US was an ‘empire.’

Read the rest here.

Putin is Turning Russia into North Korea– Isolated, Fascist, Loathed, Recklessly Waving Nukes Around, Domestically Repressive, Dependent on China, Led by a Corrupt Paranoiac

RussiaYeah, it’s a click-bait-y title, but it’s kinda true! Putin’s foolish war is turning Russia into a hated, isolated country with a lot of the same problems as North Korea, just on a larger scale.

This is a repost of an essay I wrote for 1945.com.

Here is my punch-line comparing the two:

There is another country much like Russia emerging from the Ukraine war: led by a paranoid, brutal, nationalistic leader toadied to by servile cronies; with a corrupt, dysfunctional economy; loathed, feared, and isolated by much of the world; served by a corrupted, bloated military; leaning into nuclear weapons for international prestige; making outlandish threats and waving its nukes around recklessly; repressive of its own people, where anyone who can leave does; with an extreme nationalist ideology; dependent on China.

Scale is the difference of course. Russia is a great power (although only sort of now), with a UNSC veto seat and a much bigger population and economy. And yes, it’s not nearly as misgoverned as NK. But if Putin doesn’t end the war soon, Russia will be isolated as a danger to the world, as NK is. US SecDef just admitted that we want to see Russia weakened. And Putin is more reckless and and expansionist than Kim Jong Un is, ironically.

So yeah, the comparison is a stretch, but the more the war drags on, the more it works.

Here’s that 1945 essay:

Russian President Vladimir Putin is destroying Russian power, and his misbegotten Ukraine war is accelerating Russian decline. Putin himself does not seem to realize this. Western officials increasingly suspect that Putin is being lied to about the war by his closest advisors. And Putin has never seemed much interested in economic affairs. He does not appear to grasp just how much the Russian economy will shrink if the sanctions on Russia are left in place for a lengthy war.

In a few years, we may look back on this war as the breaking of Russian power, as the reduction of Russia to a middle power for at least a generation.

Putin is now a Fascist War Criminal

The regime Putin has built over the last decade and a half is increasingly authoritarian, closed, hyper-nationalistic, and repressive. Putin began his presidency seeking to restore Russian stability after the chaotic 1990s. A strong hand was arguably necessary to rein in the gangsterism of post-Soviet ‘wild west’ capitalism. But Putin slid increasingly toward open authoritarianism, rigging the constitution to stay in power almost indefinitely.

Please read the rest here.

S Korea’s Confused Response on the Ukraine War wasn’t just Reflexive Mercantilism, but also the Leverage Autocracies Gain Over Democracies who Trade with Them Too Much

South Korean voters were less than pleased with their government's standoffish stance on the Ukraine invasion, which arguably helped hawkish candidate Yoon Suk-yeol win the presidential election. | POOL / VIA REUTERS
South Korea got a lot of (deserved) criticism for its erratic, corporate-profits-uber-alles approach to the Ukraine War. It has since come around, but only after the US twisted its arm with export control threats. And its MPs mostly skipped Zelensky’s speech to the SK parliament. All in all it was a pretty poor showing.

This is a re-post of a column I wrote a few days ago for the Japan Times. For other commentary in the same vein, try here, here, and here.

Some of this was straight-up mercantilism. The government complained about corporate investments in Russian being put at risk, plus the wider trade relationship. That came off so callous and tone-deaf that South Korean citizens pushed back. But it illustrates a long-established problem in South Korean foreign policy: the country’s largest corporations are far too influential, creating a what’s-good-for-Samsung-is-good-for-Korea mentality which is wrong, plutocratic, and undemocratic.

But the larger issue applies to all democracies trading a lot with autocracies: trade creates leverage, and autocracies are happy to weaponize it. China already did this in the THAAD fight with S Korea a few years back; New Zealand has gotten criticism as a weak link; American businesses like Disney and the NBA have been craven before China. All of us democracies are going to have to start unwinding our economies from nasty dictatorships to avoid betraying our values for corporate profits, and since China is South Korea’s biggest export market, the new Yoon government should start that now.

Here is that Japan Times essay:

The Ukraine war has a been a unique challenge to Asia’s democracies. The war is far away. It involves peoples cultural distinct from this region, and its impacts will be most directly felt in Eastern Europe. Russia’s complaints and motivations mostly concern the West, particularly the post-Cold War European settlement which much reduced Russian power there. Inevitably then, the West’s response has been the most active. It is in the firing line.

But there are Asian ramifications too, which Japan, to its credit, seems to have grasped. Despite long hesitation on the use of sanctions – despite the regular use of sanctions by its American ally – Tokyo appears to have decided that this Russian aggression needs to be punished. The Russian invasion is blatant imperialism. Were Russia to get away with absorbing a smaller neighbor as the world watched, it would send a powerful signal to China that it could do the same to Taiwan. That would be a direct security threat to Japan. And Russian tactics – the purposeful shelling of civilian areas, and the operation of death squads to murder civilians en masse – have been a moral shock. Japan’s decision to support the sanctioning of Russia looks increasingly like the right call.

By contrast, South Korea’s response has a been mixed bag. When the war started, Seoul’s response was hesitant and ambiguous, provoking a wave of international criticism which the government neither seemed to understand, nor know how to respond to. The first response of South Korean President Moon Jae-In’s administration was fear for South Korean exports to Russia. Lee Jae-Myung, the leftist candidate in the recent presidential election at the time, blamed Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky for provoking the invasion, which brought another wave of social media backlash. For days, it was not clear if Seoul would support the sanctions regime. South Korea only came around when the US threatened a trade exemption its exporters need.

Read the rest here.

After the Donbas Offensive: the Oldie-but-Goodie Putin Playbook of Bogus, Russia-Dependent, Breakaway Statelets

Ukraine ChernihivPutin can’t conquer Ukraine, but taking Donbas, creating another ‘frozen conflict,’ and ending the war before it all gets so much worse for Russia is a pretty good option.

This is a re-post of an essay I wrote for 1945.com.

There was some chatter that Putin would try to end the war by V-E Day (May 9). That would be smart. The war is a disaster for Putin. His military has been revealed as much weaker than expected. China will never see Russia as a equal now. The sanctions are going to reduce Russia’s economy by 10% this year. Oligarchs are losing their assets, and the Russian people will sour on this if it turns into a long grind like Afghanistan in the 80s.

So why not go back Putin’s long-established playbook of ginning up frozen conflicts? Putin got quite good at stirring up local conflicts on Russia’s periphery, getting Russia invited in as peacekeepers, getting local stooges to depend autonomy, and then having the whole mess freeze in place so that Russia could project power into an area and inhibit consolidation of western-leaning states on his border.

It seemed like that was originally the plan with recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk, but then Putin – probably drinking his own kool-aid about Ukraine being a ‘fake country’ – decided to show what a tough guy he was with an invasion he clearly didn’t really prepare for. Now, if the Donbas offensive doesn’t generate a real breakthrough, Putin is stuck either with a war of attrition or establishing a ‘frozen conflict’ in Donbas in order to get out of the war before the costs in material, sanctions, and prestige get any worse. That’s the best way out for him now.

Here is that essay from 1945:

Putin’s Likely Ukraine Goal Now is Breakaway and Pseudo-Republics in Eastern Ukraine – The Battle of Kyiv is over, and Russia has suffered a surprising and significant defeat. A middle power has inflicted a stinging loss on an ostensible great power. Russia’s status as a world power is obviously in question now. Despite its size and weight, it cannot reduce a significantly smaller neighbor.

Russian President Vladimir Putin must now – if only to impress his Chinese backers and justify the war to his own people – win some kind of battlefield victory elsewhere in Ukraine.

It increasingly looks like the Russian effort will be a tank surge in the Donbas. Rumor suggests that Putin is looking to end the war quickly, ideally by May 9, which is VE (Victory in Europe) Day, the day the Nazis finally surrender to the Soviet Union.

This would be a wise choice. Putin pretty clearly cannot take over all of Ukraine at this point. And the sanctions will soon bite deeply into the Russian economy. This war is breaking Russian power and pushing its economy into a major contraction. Putin himself will become persona non grata, unable to travel or access his overseas assets.

Read the rest here.

Putin is now a Fascist, Imperialist War Criminal. He Himself – his Continuance in Office – is now the Biggest Issue in Any Ukraine Peace Negotiations

Tanks Belarus PutinThe death squad war crimes in Ukraine now mean that Putin himself is the biggest obstacle to a peace deal. He won’t agree to leave power, but with him still office, neither Ukraine nor the West is likely to accept the full re-normalization of Russia, by which I mean the rollback of the war sanctions and the re-entry of Russia into normal diplomatic intercourse with West.

This post is based on an op-ed I wrote at 1945.com.

Just as the Kaiser had to abdicate in Germany after WWI, and the Japanese military junta had to step aside after WWII, so will there be enormous pressure to insist on regime change as part of a sanctions relief deal. Biden already blurted this out last week, and now, after the revelation of the war crimes, it is almost impossible to imagine the West interacting with Russia normally again while Putin is still in charge.

Putin is a fascist, imperialist war criminal. He has built an near-fascist regime at home. He has openly invaded another country in an enormous land war not seen in Europe in decades. He has tolerated death squads systematically killing hundreds of civilians to terrorize his opponents.

Because of this, no Western leader will likely ever meet Putin again, and the sanctions will stay on Russia even if it ends the war. Russia under Putin is just too dangerous.

Here is that essay for 1945:

Russian Re-Normalization with Putin in Charge is Likely Impossible after His War Crimes – At some point, the Ukraine war will end. Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said the war will last years. Even if true, the war will conclude eventually. A part of the settlement will be the ‘re-normalization’ of Russia. This means rolling back the sanctions and permitting Russia to resume normal economic and diplomatic interaction with the sanctioning states.

After World War I, France famously inhibited Germany’s resumption of normal intercourse with the world via the Versailles Treaty. This is now widely seen as an enormous error. Versailles crippled the Weimar Republic and opened space for both rightist revanchist and Marxist revolutionary movements. In time, fascism destroyed a weak interwar German democracy.

A core challenge of any final settlement with Russia be the terms of its re-normalization. Russia is a large, nuclear-armed, consequential power with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Even if the war reduces it to middle power status, it will retain enormous potential to cause trouble. We are already seeing the difficulties of fully de-linking from the Russian economy. It owes debt payments to western institutions who do not wish to lose those monies; it supplies natural gas to Europe which has struggled to find alternatives; it, and Ukraine, are food exporters, and those prices look set to rise.

Please read the rest here.

The Post-War Re-Normalization of Russia Increasingly Turns on Whether Putin Stays in Power, especially after the War Crimes

Putin RussiaAt some point the war in Ukraine will end, and Russia will seek to re-enter diplomacy and the world economy, and shed the heavy sanctions and isolation on it. This will be a major part of whatever the final peace deal emerges. (This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote at 1945.com.)

The model of what not to do is, of course, Weimar Germany. France particularly fought the re-normalization of post-WWI Germany. This fired a revanchist far right which eventually destroyed the Weimar Republic. Any final status deal on Ukraine shouldn’t punish Russia so harshly that we drive its domestic politics toward even more radical right voices than Putin’s.

Conversely, this was pretty clearly a war of choice. Russia has to be punished in someway. Also, Russia is now pretty clearly a threat to its neighbors. There is a case against re-normalization – to leave sanctions and diplomatic isolation on belligerent Russia after the war to keep it weak.

This will be a tough balance to find, especially since Putin will likely stay in power which will insure a continuing informal isolation: western leaders will probably never meet Putin personally again; western companies will likely never return with Putin in power.

My own thoughts on the terms a peace deal are here. In short, I think Ukraine should get an indemnity, EU membership, a military, and territorial integrity, while Russia gets Ukraine out of NATO, sanctions rollback, diplomatic re-normalization, Crimea, and Putin in power.

Here is that essay at 1945:

It is now apparent that Russia will not conquer Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin has significantly over-reached. His defense ministry recently scaled back its war aims. The army now claims to only seek to gain the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine. If Putin follows through on this change, it should take pressure off the Ukrainian capital and the Black Sea coastline.

The War is Stalemated, Perhaps even Turning against Russia

There is obviously much cause for skepticism. Putin has limited his goals because Russia is stalemated in the war, perhaps even on the cusp of losing. It is highly unlikely that Putin has changed his beliefs that Ukraine is a fake country that should be controlled by Russia.

Nevertheless, this partial de-escalation is the first step toward resolving the conflict. Now that Putin’s offensive has culminated, he is unlikely to make any major new gains.

Please read the rest here.

The Lesson of the Ukraine War for China against Taiwan is No Longer a ‘Fait Accompli Land-Grab before the World can Respond.’ Now it’s ‘Bombard Them into Submission First’

UkraineThe lesson of the Ukraine war for China in a Taiwan scenario seemed, at first, to be: go for a quick, fait accompli land-grab before the democracies can respond. Instead, the lesson now is: bombard Taiwan into submission first before trying a huge risky landing.

This is re-post of an article I wrote for 1945.com earlier this month. There’s been lots of writing about what lessons China might draw from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, because of the parallels. As I write,

Both are treated as dissident territories by a large, belligerent, autocratic neighbor. Both look to the US and other democracies for help but lack formal alliances with them. Further, the position of the democratic world toward them both is ‘strategic ambiguity.’ Neither can be sure the democracies will help them.

Had the Russian war gone well – specifically, had it been the intended quick fait accompli which won before the West could get its act together – this war might have served as a genuine model: grab Taiwan before the US and Japan can come to rescue and then present the new status quo as the end of hostilities and force the US to be the one who looks like it is escalating.

Instead, Russia is losing, and the lessons turned out to be far different:

1. Mobilized, nationalistic populations will fight tenaciously

2. Autocratic militaries suffer from corruption and morale problems

3. Western sanctions will be far more punishing than expected

The asymmetries between China and Taiwan are even greater than between Russia and Ukraine, so China might be able to win by sheer weight. But that’s what Russia expected too, and the geography is much worse for China. A Taiwan invasion would have to cross 100 miles of water. That is a huge logistical hurdle, on par with D-Day 1944.

So if you’re China, the strategic take-away is to pound Taiwan for weeks before invading. That would activate massive global resistance of course, but that is better than marching in and losing as Russia is doing.

Here is that 1945 essay:

The Lesson of Ukraine for China: Grabbing Taiwan would be Harder than it Thinks – There has been much discussion that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an encouragement for China to consider its own land-grab – of Taiwan. Taiwan and Ukraine are indeed in similar geopolitical positions. Both are treated as dissident territories by a large, belligerent, autocratic neighbor. Both look to the US and other democracies for help but lack formal alliances with them.

Further, the position of the democratic world toward them both is ‘strategic ambiguity.’ Neither can be sure the democracies will help them. The logic is that this vagueness will discourage direct intervention by China and Russia. Simultaneously though, the democracies have sought to develop robust state capacity and military capability in Ukraine and Taiwan, to improve their ability to defend themselves and, ideally, deter Russia and/or Chinese attack.

Read the rest here.

The Ukraine War is a Stalemate. What if Putin Escalates to Try to Win?

Russia Su-34Russia is not going to win unless it escalates. So what do we do if it uses a really horrific weapon?

This is a re-post of a column I wrote recently for 1945.com. When I wrote it, it still looked like Russia would win by sheer weight. As we come up on April, a Russian victory is increasingly unlikely. The Russian military, as structured, is too heavy, too poorly supplied, too corrupt, and too reliant of sheer firepower to win.

By winning, I mean something like Russia’s original war aims – replacing the Ukrainian leadership, annihilating its military, or taking territory (Donbas, the Black Sea coast). If you define down ‘winning’ to mean just blowing the place to hell, I guess Russia is ‘winning.’

But Putin has tied his legacy to this war; he’s macho, self-possessed, and desperate for Russia to be ranked as a great, consequential power in world politics. He is likely to escalate to try to win rather than withdraw, even as this war reduces Russia’s claim to great power status even more.

So what do we do if Russia uses a chemical or even tactical nuclear weapon to break the battlefield stalemate? The pressure from the Western public to do something in response would be overwhelming. At minimum, I think much of the objection to a no-fly zone would dissipate. That, in turn, would become a low-intensity NATO-Russian shooting war with the ever-present possibility of it spiraling out of control.

We need to start thinking, now, what we would do if Russia uses non-conventional weapons in a desperate bid to win. Naturally, all our options are bad. Here’s that 1945 essay:

The war in Ukraine is devolving into a grind of limited, costly Russian advances and ferocious Ukrainian counterattacks. It still looks as if Russia will win – if only because it will relentlessly pound Ukrainian cities with artillery – but there is now a reasonable chance Ukraine will fight Russia to a stalemate.

It is now painfully clear that Russia expected a blitzkrieg victory, a quick, in-and-out invasion similar to its ten-day war in Georgia in 2008. A modernized, high-tech Russian military was to roll over a poorly-armed and -trained Ukrainian army fighting for a weak state with low public legitimacy. The plan was, apparently, to impose a Russian stooge in the place of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and then go home before the West could organize a response.

Read the rest here.

Mearsheimer, NATO Expansion, and the Ukraine War – M Predicts Russia’s Desire to Dominate Ukraine, but also NATO Expanding to Fill a Vacuum

UkraineEveryone seems to have a take on Mearsheimer and Ukraine, so here’s mine: Mearsheimer’s offensive realism predicts Russian’s desire to dominate its borderlands, but ALSO a NATO effort thwart that via expansion. So its awkward that he blames NATO, because playing international politics toughly is what his offensive realist theory would predict NATO to do.

This is a re-post of an article I wrote a few days ago at 1945.com. I should say to start that I find damning Mearsheimer as some kind of Russian operative or stooge is wrong. He’s been predicting this for years, and he’s an academic with a reputation for integrity. He’s a far cry from embarrassing, pro-Putin hacks like Tulsi Gabbard or Glenn Greenwald.

Still, I think Mearsheimer gets Ukraine wrong, because he only looks at it from Russia’s perspective. His theoretical priors – offensive realism – do predict that Russia will try to control its borderlands. But offensive realism ALSO predicts that

1. those borderlands will try to escape Russian domination (which Ukraine is doing now and Eastern Europe did by joining NATO)

2. Russian competitors will try to help those borderlands escape (which NATO did by accepting Eastern European states)

3. Germany/EU/NATO, for which Eastern Europe is also a borderland, will also try to dominate it (which has indeed been the case historically – Germany and Russia have contested to dominate EE)

4. states with a window of opportunity for gain against an opponent (Russia’s post-Cold War weakness) will take it (which NATO and Eastern Europe did by consolidating expansion when Russian was weak)

In other words, Mearsheimer’s own theory does not predict Russian domination of Eastern Europe as a stable equilibrium but instead predicts a dynamic contest between Russia, the states it seeks to dominate (Ukraine included), and Germany/EU/NATO for whom Eastern Europe is also a borderland.

Here’s that essay on 1945.com:

The debate over the causes of the Ukraine War is intense. In the West, there has been much contention over whether the expansion of NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union provoked the invasion. The most famous proponent of that claim has been John Mearsheimer, University of Chicago professor of international relations. Mearsheimer’s core argument is made here and here, and he has recently re-stated it here and here. Others have made this argument as well (here, here, here). The Russian government has even deployed Mearsheimer’s talks to defend its war.

Please read the rest here.

Should We Support a Ukrainian Insurgency if Russia Wins the War?

UkraineThis is a re-post of a column I wrote a few days ago for 1945.com. I think almost everybody’s working assumption is that, yes, we should support an insurgency – assuming the Ukrainians lose the battlefield conflict which still seems likely

The reasons seem pretty obvious: Russia is clearly the aggressor. The Ukrainians are putting up a tough fight. It’s hard not to sympathize with their plight and want to help them as much as possible. A non-fly zone would be super risky, so support for their war effort, including after a battlefield defeat is a good choice.

All that is persuasive to me too, but I would add a few points:

1. The Ukrainians need to make the choice to launch an insurgency themselves. It will be brutal and likely long. We should not egg them on. They need to decide on their own.

2. The Ukrainians can’t use across-the-border safe-havens in NATO territory. A common tactic in insurgencies is to slip into a neighboring country to re-group and avoid the counter-insurgent. The VC/NVA did this in Vietnam, as did the mujahedeen in Afghanistan. But in Ukraine, we can’t have Russian forces chasing Ukrainian rebels on NATO territory. The escalation threat is too great.

3. What if the Russian COIN is extremely vicious and the Ukrainians can’t win? There is a humanitarian argument for surrender if a) you can’t win, and b) the other side is massacring your people in response. I don’t know just how harsh the Russians will be as counter-insurgents, but their tactics in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Syria, and now in Ukraine suggest a future COIN in Ukraine would be harsh.

Here’s that 1945 essay:

Ukrainian resistance is inspiring. Almost overnight, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has become a global celebrity. Stories of Ukrainian grandmothers standing up to the Russians are all over social media (however exaggerated). Ukraine’s chances of winning the war – or more accurately, fighting the Russians to a standstill – are improving with every day it is not defeated. Time is on Ukraine’s side, particularly given Russia’s growing logistical problems.

Can Ukraine Hang On Another Month?

If Ukraine can hang on for another month, Russia is in serious trouble. By then, the NATO operation to send weapons, ammunition, and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine will be running at full speed. Also at that point, the sanctions on Russia will be sinking deep into the crevices of its economy. Most industries and firms will have spare parts and reserves for a few weeks. So for the rest of March, Russians might still be able to have their foreign car repaired, or find a replacement battery for their foreign cell phone. By April that will be unlikely, and small failures throughout Russia’s economy will be cascading into a major crisis.

Read the rest here.