Picture credit: Ozge Elif Kizil/Anadolu via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Has the US acted in good faith over Ukraine?

Weakening Russia seems to have been more important than strengthening Ukraine

It is not in doubt that the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine was an act of aggression, and that morally and legally, Ukraine has the right to self-defence. But is that what Washington is arming Ukraine for?  Numerous statements from government officials and from the supportive part of the commentariat indicate that the goal is something else: to harm Russia. Doing so may well be prolonging an awful war — at the two populations’ expense, far more than Putin’s — while it is clearly escalating other global dangers.

New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, who as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was until recently the most authoritative foreign-policymaker in Congress, praises the Administration for having “done a superb job” of “devastating the Russian economy,” even if this means that “the Russian people suffer as a result.” South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, on the other hand, declaimed in Kyiv in May 2023 that “Congress, in a bipartisan fashion, is fully committed to making sure Russia loses.”  “[T]he Russians have been bloodied and weakened” he announced with evident satisfaction upon his return home, having just remarked happily to his hosts in Kyiv on how “The Russians are dying.” In the executive branch, State Department official Victoria Nuland, a major shaper of Russia policy, when asked about an “off ramp” and “ways for this conflict to end,” replied,

The way this conflict will end is when Putin realizes that this adventure has put his own leadership standing at risk with his own military, with his own people, … and he will have to change course or the Russian people take matters into their own hands.

From the U.S. perspective, the end game is the strategic defeat of President Putin in this adventure.

In the press, leading voices have been outright lusting for Russian blood.  Writing shortly before the invasion, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman offered up that “If I were a cynic, I’d just tell [Putin] to go ahead and take Kyiv because it would become his Kabul, his Afghanistan” — though Friedman ultimately professed himself too much of a bleeding heart to give in to that dark urge.  Fellow Times columnist Paul Krugman expresses his satisfaction that Russia “has now been humbled” as “Western weapons have proved their effectiveness.”  “Those are big payoffs for” our “outlays,” which he stresses are relatively “small”; “and let’s not forget that Ukrainians are doing the fighting and dying.”  Across the columnist aisle to the right, Bret Stephens, not to be surpassed, pronounced, “We are inflicting a strategic humiliation on Russia by arming Ukraine without putting American forces at risk.” Truly, it is gratifying to witness the deaths of hundreds of thousands of other human beings as we watch from a distance without suffering so much as a chipped fingernail.

Further evidence that Washington is not really doing this for the principle of self-defence comes in the way that the threats attendant on the Ukraine war have been addressed.  The danger of nuclear war is not a secret.  In October 2022, we got the news from Biden himself that we are approaching “the prospect of Armageddon” if “things continue down the path they’ve been going.”  He suggested that in order for Putin to find an “off-ramp,” the Russian ruler needs to “not only [not] lose face, but [not] lose significant power within Russia.”  That is sensible; it is also exactly the opposite of what Biden’s State Department has announced is our intention.

A second rising danger, also of species-level concern, is Washington’s escalation of the risk of climate disaster following the Russian invasion.  The Ukraine war has disrupted global energy networks.  As is well known, avoiding catastrophic climate change requires not just a temporary disruption to the global energy system but its total replacement.  The unwelcome demonstration in February 2022 of Russia’s ability to disrupt our fossil fuel-reliant economy could have — and should have — galvanised us to start rebooting our energy system now.  Instead, Washington, including the Democratic Party, has reacted to it by deciding to ignore the problem pending triumph in Ukraine — patent madness, but madness that has gone mostly unremarked.

For a war to be just, both the ends and the means must be just.  Setting aside here questions about means, Washington hasn’t been demonstrating good faith about the ends it is pursuing in and through Ukraine.  A country — territory and people — can be defended by a successful diplomatic settlement, too.  Since February 2022, if not before, there has been a possible settlement worth exploring: in exchange for full Russian withdrawal, Ukraine will not be in NATO, just as Mexico and Canada are not in a military alliance with China or Russia.  If that possible settlement has been ignored these past two years, Washington’s words give some reason to believe it’s because the operative goal is not saving Ukraine, but harming Russia.

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