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The Rising Tide
The Ukraine-war discourse has been deeply irrational.
Humanity has to overcome many grave threats, but we can only do so if discourse dramatically improves. And this requirement makes today’s discourse disturbing to witness.
The ghastly experiment is operative U.S. policy, and is supported by a wide range of opinion, always with noble rhetoric about how we must stand up for principle and not permit crime to go unpunished. When we hear this from strong supporters of U.S. crimes, as we commonly do, we can dismiss it as sheer cynicism, the Western counterpart to the most vulgar apparatchiks of the Soviet years, eager to eloquently denounce Western crimes, fully supportive of their own. We also hear it from opponents of U.S. crimes, from people who surely do not want to carry out the ghastly experiment that they are advocating. Here other issues arise: the rising tide of irrationality that is undermining any hope for serious discourse—a necessity if Ukraine is to be spared indescribable tragedy, and even if the human experiment is to persist much longer.
It’s frightening to consider (1) “the rising tide of irrationality that is undermining any hope for serious discourse”, (2) the reality that we need serious discourse “if Ukraine is to be spared indescribable tragedy”, and (3) the reality that we need serious discourse “if the human experiment is to persist much longer”.
It’s bleak to look at our current situation—it’s also hopeful to imagine a world where discourse isn’t like this and we can approach problems sensibly. I’ll use this piece to talk about: the basic issues regarding the war in Ukraine; how irrational the Ukraine-war discourse is; media bias; pro-diplomacy voices; and two things we know.
The Basic Issues
The basic issues are (A) the need to pursue diplomacy and (B) Washington’s opposition to diplomacy.
Regarding the need to pursue diplomacy, it’s true that the Kremlin could capitulate at any moment—one never knows if more fighting will yield a surrender. Opposing diplomacy means the risk of extending the war, though. And extending the war poses a whole range of threats.
First, the threat of further bloodshed—I found it harrowing to read the 18 June 2022 NYT report “Death in Ukraine”, whose introduction refers to “the crack of gunfire on the streets and the wails of loss out of shattered windows”. The report says that three victims “died as thousands of others have died in Ukraine, from the spray of metallic shards that burst from an artillery shell”; a woman, her two children, and a church volunteer were “only a dozen or so yards away” when an artillery shell hit; they “didn’t stand a chance”; all “four slumped to the pavement, dead or unconscious and dying”; the “family dog, also hit and wounded, yelped in terror”; blood “splattered on the face of the church volunteer”; and “the scene of the bodies, lying motionless by a bridge they had crossed seeking safety, was eerily calm”. The report also says: on “average, nearly three children have been killed in Ukraine every day since the war began”; the “Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office reported on Friday that some 322 children had died during the war”; they “include a 6-year old Ukrainian boy who was sitting on a swing on a playground in Lysychansk on Monday afternoon when shrapnel tore through his body”; and through “tears, a neighbor in that eastern town described to local news outlets how he had run to the child after hearing an explosion”.
Second, the threat to millions of innocent lives abroad—a 15 September 2022 piece refers to “70 million pushed closer to starvation by the war in Ukraine”. A 13 December 2022 piece is titled “Children dying in Somalia as food catastrophe worsens”—the piece says that a “two-year drought has decimated crops and livestock across Horn of Africa nations, while the price of food imports has soared because of the war in Ukraine”. And a 1 December 2022 Voice of America piece says: “United Nations and partners on Thursday appealed for a record $51.5 billion in aid money for 2023, with tens of millions of additional people expected to need assistance, testing the humanitarian response system ‘to its limits’”; “the U.N. Global Humanitarian Overview estimates that an extra 65 million people will need help next year, bringing the total to 339 million in 68 countries”; according to the report, nine “months of war between Russia and Ukraine have disrupted food exports and about 45 million people in 37 countries are currently facing starvation”; and more “than 100 million people have been driven from their homes as conflict and climate change fuel a displacement crisis”. The piece quotes the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator, who refers to “‘shockingly high’” humanitarian needs and cites “the war in Ukraine and drought in the Horn of Africa”.
A 2 January 2023 NYT piece says: an “enduring global food crisis has become one of the farthest-reaching consequences of Russia’s war, contributing to widespread starvation, poverty and premature deaths”; “as deep winter sets in and Russia presses assaults on Ukraine’s infrastructure, the crisis is worsening”; food “shortages are already being exacerbated by a drought in the Horn of Africa and unusually harsh weather in other parts of the world”; the “United Nations World Food Program estimates that more than 345 million people are suffering from or at risk of acute food insecurity, more than double the number from 2019”; the “food shortages and high prices are causing intense pain across Africa, Asia and the Americas”; “U.S. officials are especially worried about Afghanistan and Yemen, which have been ravaged by war”; “Egypt, Lebanon and other big food-importing nations are finding it difficult to pay their debts and other expenses because costs have surged”; even “in wealthy countries like the United States and Britain, soaring inflation driven in part by the war’s disruptions has left poorer people without enough to eat”; and “no region has been immune” to food-price increases.
Third, threats to Ukraine’s infrastructure and economy. You can read in the World Bank’s Fall 2022 economic update for Europe and Central Asia: Ukraine’s “GDP is projected to contract by 35 percent in 2022”; Ukraine’s “recovery and reconstruction needs across social, productive, and infrastructure sectors total at least $349 billion” according to the World Bank’s recent estimates, which is an amount “more than 1.5 times the 2021 GDP of Ukraine”; the war’s repercussions “are expected to reverberate beyond the short term” due to “destruction of productive capacity, damage to arable land, and reduced labor supply”; the economic harm will be especially bad “if refugees do not return, which becomes increasingly likely as the war becomes protracted and they establish their lives in host countries”; wars “inflict particularly severe damage to productivity for several years, through reducing and disrupting the labor force, weakening capital deepening, disrupting value chains, hindering innovation, and inducing poverty”; and poverty “in Ukraine is projected to increase from 5.5 percent in 2021 to 25 percent in 2022, with high downside risks if the war and energy security situations worsen”. And you can read an August 2022 report—from the World Bank, the Government of Ukraine, and the European Commission—that aims “to assess the impact of the war on the population, human development, service delivery, physical assets, infrastructure, productive sectors and the economy”. The report says that “the impact of the invasion will be felt for generations, with families displaced and separated, disruptions to human development, destruction of intrinsic cultural heritage and reversal of a positive economic and poverty trajectory”—the report puts total damage at $97 billion as of 1 June 2022, total losses at $252 billion as of 1 June 2022, and total needs at $349 billion as of 1 June 2022.
A 16 December 2022 CBC piece says that “Russia has rained missiles on Ukrainian energy infrastructure almost weekly since early October after a series of battlefield defeats”—analysts “have said Russian strikes targeting energy infrastructure are part of an attempt to freeze Ukrainians into submission after battlefield losses by Russian forces”. And a 13 December 2022 Voice of America piece says that the “United Nations reports Russia has destroyed 50% of Ukraine's energy infrastructure, putting millions of people at risk of sickness and death as temperatures continue to plunge”—the “World Health Organization reports at least 715 hospitals and health care facilities have come under attack and been destroyed or damaged”.
A 15 December 2022 WaPo piece says: two “months of relentless missile and drone attacks by Russia have decimated Ukraine’s critical infrastructure and blown a hole in projections for the country’s war-ravaged economy”; at “a closed-door meeting last week at the National Bank of Ukraine, which now has a military checkpoint just outside its headquarters, central bank officials pondered what might happen if Russia’s attacks intensify”; people “could flee Ukraine in droves, taking their money with them, potentially crashing the national currency as they seek to exchange their Ukrainian hryvnia for euros or dollars”; the “Ukrainian government could be left without international reserves to pay for critical imports and unable to meet its foreign debt obligations”; “Russia’s invasion has destroyed hospitals, ports, fields, bridges and other parts of the country’s critical infrastructure”; agricultural “exports have been decimated”; “with energy systems decimated, Kyiv and its partners face a head-splitting challenge”; and key “pillars of the economy—coal mining, industrial manufacturing, information technology—cannot function without electricity or internet service”. The piece says:
“How does an economy function at all—while supporting the war effort—with this level of damage to civilian infrastructure? I don’t think we’ve ever seen this,” said Simon Johnson, an economist at MIT who is in communication with Ukrainian officials. “I can’t think of any economy that’s ever tried to do this.”
I claim no military expertise. I do follow military analysts, and find most of them supremely confident, with opposing conclusions—not for the first time. My suspicion is that General Milley, former chair of the joint chiefs, is probably right in concluding that neither side can win a decisive military victory and that the cost of continuing warfare is enormous for both sides, with many repercussions beyond.
If the war goes on, Ukraine will be the primary victim. Advanced U.S. weapons may sustain a battlefield stalemate as Russia pours in more troops and equipment, but how much can Ukrainian society tolerate now that Russia, after many months, has turned to the U.S.-U.K. style of war, directly attacking infrastructure, energy, communications, anything that allows the society to function? Ukraine is already facing a major economic and humanitarian crisis. As the war persists, Ukrainian central bank officials fear that “People could flee Ukraine in droves, taking their money with them, potentially crashing the national currency as they seek to exchange their Ukrainian hryvnia for euros or dollars.”
Chomsky says: “If the war goes on, Ukraine will be the primary victim.” And I think that it’s indeed upsetting to imagine what will happen if Russia continues to go after infrastructure.
Fourth, threats to Ukraine’s fragile environment—it’s important to consider how permanent today’s environmental damage can be. A 29 August 2022 piece says that “scientists are increasingly concerned about the environmental consequences of the destruction” as “the war in Ukraine drags on”—the piece refers to: rivers “being polluted by wrecked industrial facilities, sewage works, and overflowing coal mines”. And the 15 December WaPo piece says that as “much as one-third of the country’s forests have been destroyed”.
Fifth, an existential threat to you and me and everyone else—a longer war means more gambling on the nuclear-weapons front. This threat is maybe more distant in people’s minds, but it shouldn’t be. Everything that a human being could value is at stake when we gamble on this front—the most selfish person alive will therefore want to pursue diplomacy.
I’ve barely even mentioned the damage to Ukraine’s culture—a 19 December 2022 NYT piece investigates how the invasion has “systematically destroyed Ukrainian cultural sites” and has “dealt a grievous blow to Ukrainian culture”.
And I haven’t even mentioned how the war has channeled desperately needed resources toward weaponry—an 18 December 2022 NYT piece says that the “prospect of growing military threats from both China and Russia is driving bipartisan support for a surge in Pentagon spending, setting up another potential boom for weapons makers that is likely to extend beyond the war in Ukraine”. This “surge” recalls Dwight Eisenhower’s following words from his 16 April 1953 speech:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.
This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron. These plain and cruel truths define the peril and point the hope that come with this spring of 1953.
The climate crisis is harming us right now in dramatic ways—we must use our resources for decarbonization, but we’re still pouring vast resources into weapons, so humanity is “hanging from a cross of iron” more than ever before.
It should be clear that opposing diplomacy is—given all of these threats—a remarkable position to take.
As for Washington’s opposition to diplomacy, Chomsky says in the June piece: “If we can escape cynicism and irrationality, the humane choice for the U.S. and the West is straightforward: seek to facilitate a diplomatic settlement, or at least don’t undermine the option.”
US policy is indeed in opposition to “the humane choice”. A 26 April 2022 CNN piece makes it clear that the goal is not to pursue a negotiated settlement—the piece says:
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has transformed into a grinding war of attrition with no meaningful peace deal in sight, the US and its allies have begun to convey a new, longer-term goal for the war: to defeat Russia so decisively on the battlefield that it will be deterred from launching such an attack ever again.
That message was delivered most clearly on Monday, when Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters after a trip to Ukraine’s capital city of Kyiv that “we want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”
A National Security Council spokesperson said that Austin’s comments were consistent with what the US’ goals have been for months—namely, “to make this invasion a strategic failure for Russia.”
“We want Ukraine to win,” the spokesperson added. “One of our goals has been to limit Russia’s ability to do something like this again, as Secretary Austin said. That’s why we are arming the Ukrainians with weapons and equipment to defend themselves from Russian attacks, and it’s why we are using sanctions and export controls that are directly targeted at Russia’s defense industry to undercut Russia’s economic and military power to threaten and attack its neighbors.”
US officials traveling with Austin said that the message is one that he planned to reiterate, according to a senior administration official. Russia coming out of the conflict weaker than before is an idea that other Biden administration officials have referenced. US officials, however, had previously been reluctant to state as plainly that the US’ goal is to see Russia fail, and be militarily neutered in the long term, remaining cautiously optimistic that some kind of negotiated settlement could be reached.
The piece is clear—US officials “had previously been reluctant to state as plainly that the US’ goal is to see Russia fail, and be militarily neutered in the long term, remaining cautiously optimistic that some kind of negotiated settlement could be reached”.
Linda McQuaig says in a 29 June 2022 piece: “Germany, France and Italy have correctly pushed for negotiations towards a diplomatic solution in Ukraine”; “the U.S. is digging in, moving beyond the original goal of helping defend Ukraine to adopting the more ambitious and perilous goal of weakening Russia”; and “in late April, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Russia should be ‘weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine’”.
McQuaig cites a 25 April 2022 Guardian piece, which says: the “US defense secretary’s declaration that Washington wanted to see Russia weakened militarily and unable to recover quickly, marks a shift in Washington’s declared aims underlying its military support for Ukraine”; the “remarks suggested that even if Russian forces withdrew or were expelled from the Ukrainian territory they have occupied since 24 February, the US and its allies would seek to maintain sanctions with the aim of stopping Russia reconstituting its forces”; it “also indicated Washington is taking a position in an internal debate within Nato on whether to use the opportunity of Vladimir Putin’s strategic blunder in Ukraine to try to hobble his ability to threaten other countries in the future”; if “the remarks do indeed represent the Biden administration’s aims, there is a separate question of whether it was sensible to declare them so bluntly”; and it “arguably weakens Russia’s incentive to withdraw, reinforces Moscow’s narrative that Nato is waging a proxy war in Ukraine aimed at weakening Russia and even regime change, deepening Putin’s paranoia”.
Prior to Putin’s invasion there were options based generally on the Minsk agreements that might well have averted the crime. There is unresolved debate about whether Ukraine accepted these agreements. At least verbally, Russia appears to have done so up until not long before the invasion. The U.S. dismissed them in favor of integrating Ukraine into the NATO (that is, U.S.) military command, also refusing to take any Russian security concerns into consideration, as conceded. These moves were accelerated under Biden. Could diplomacy have succeeded in averting the tragedy? There was only one way to find out: Try. The option was ignored.
Putin rejected French president Macron’s efforts, to almost the last minute, to offer a viable alternative to aggression. Rejected them at the end with contempt—also shooting himself and Russia in the foot by driving Europe deep into Washington’s pocket, its fondest dream. The crime of aggression was compounded with the crime of foolishness, from his own point of view.
Ukraine-Russia negotiations took place under Turkish auspices as recently as March-April. They failed. The U.S. and U.K. opposed them. Due to lack of inquiry, part of the general disparagement of diplomacy in mainstream circles, we don’t know to what extent that was a factor in their collapse.
Washington initially expected Russia to conquer Ukraine in a few days and was preparing a government-in-exile. Military analysts were surprised by Russian military incompetence, remarkable Ukrainian resistance, and the fact that Russia didn’t follow the expected U.S.-U.K. model (also the model followed by Israel in defenseless Gaza) of war: go at once for the jugular, using conventional weapons to destroy communications, transportation, energy, whatever keeps the society functioning.
The U.S. then made a fateful decision: Continue the war to severely weaken Russia, hence avoiding negotiations and making a ghastly gamble: that Putin will pack up his bags and slink away in defeat to oblivion if not worse, and will not use the conventional weapons which, it was agreed, he had, to destroy Ukraine.
If Ukrainians want to risk the gamble, that’s their business. The U.S. role is our business.
Chomsky says that the decision was made to continue “the war to severely weaken Russia, hence avoiding negotiations and making a ghastly gamble”.
A 20 May 2022 piece says: the “US and UK are eyeing the complete defeat of Russia in Ukraine”; breaking “with other NATO members that prefer a negotiated settlement, an American official stated the war ends with the ‘defeat’ of Russia and a high-level British official said Russian President Vladimir Putin ‘must lose’”; speaking “to an Italian outlet, UK Foreign Minister Liz Truss said Russia must be defeated in Ukraine, and there were no exit ramps for Putin”; the “comments by Truss were in response to French President” Emmanuel “Macron suggesting the West could end the war by making compromises with Moscow”; along “with Paris, Germany and Italy are pushing for a diplomatic over a military resolution”; however, “the White House appears in line with Downing Street”; on “Friday”, US Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith “called for the defeat of Russia”; and “Washington has been committed to the militaristic path in Ukraine” since the start of the invasion.
The war must be fought in order to so severely weaken Russia that no further aggression is possible—that’s the official policy. And it immediately follows that there can’t be negotiations.
Let’s think about it. How do we ensure that Russia can never again invade another country? We put aside here the unthinkable question of whether reshaping U.S. policy might contribute to this end, for example, examining Washington’s openly declared refusal to consider any Russian security concerns and many other actions that we have discussed.
To achieve the announced goal, it seems that we must at least reenact something like the Versailles Treaty, which sought to ensure that Germany would not be able to go to war again.
But Versailles did not go far enough, as was soon made clear. It follows that the new version being planned must “strangle the demon” in ways that go beyond the Versailles effort to control the Huns. Perhaps something like the Morgenthau Plan.
That is the logic of the pronouncements. Even if we don’t take the words seriously and give them a limited interpretation, the policy entails prolonging the war, whatever the consequences are for Ukrainians and the “collateral damage” beyond: mass starvation, possible terminal war, continued destruction of the environment that sustains life.
The “limited interpretation” already entails “prolonging the war”. And then the “logic of the pronouncement” goes even further.
Chomsky says in the June piece: “to oppose or even act to delay a diplomatic settlement is to call for prolonging the war with its grim consequences for Ukraine and beyond”; this “stand constitutes a ghastly experiment”; and the “ghastly experiment is operative U.S. policy”. He refers—in an 11 May 2022 Truthout piece—to the “grotesque experiment with the lives of Ukrainians”, which is a policy that means that we will “ensure that millions starve from the food crisis”, “toy with the possibility of nuclear war”, and “race on enthusiastically to destroying the environment that sustains life”. And he refers—again in the May piece—to “the hideous experiment to which we are enthusiastically committed today”.
Chomsky conveys—when he says that our risky policy is “a ghastly experiment”, a “grotesque experiment”, and a “hideous experiment”—that our position is utterly shocking. And that our position isn’t merely wrong but is instead completely indefensible.
These are the basic issues—(A) the need to pursue diplomacy and (B) Washington’s opposition to diplomacy—that I wish that the media and the political culture would spotlight.
We have a broken Ukraine-war discourse that distracts from the basic issues—what should be spotlighted is instead ignored. Chomsky says in a 15 March 2022 Truthout piece, which came out not long after Russia’s 24 February 2022 invasion:
Before responding, I would like to stress the crucial issue that must be in the forefront of all discussions of this terrible tragedy: We must find a way to bring this war to an end before it escalates, possibly to utter devastation of Ukraine and unimaginable catastrophe beyond. The only way is a negotiated settlement. Like it or not, this must provide some kind of escape hatch for Putin, or the worst will happen. Not victory, but an escape hatch. These concerns must be uppermost in our minds.
Our broken discourse doesn’t elevate what “must be in the forefront of all discussions of this terrible tragedy”—or what “must be uppermost in our minds”—but instead marginalizes the most morally and humanly important issues.
I’ll talk about some absurdities that I’ve come across.
First, someone will bring up the decades of provocation that preceded Putin’s criminal invasion—a 4 March 2022 FAIR piece talks about this history—and get called a pro-Putin apologist. It’s shocking that anyone could fail to understand the difference between saying that an invasion was provoked and saying that an invasion was justified—the concepts are completely different.
Second, it’s not true that normal diplomacy is “surrender” or “appeasement”—normal diplomacy means that both sides get things that they want.
Third, it’s completely irrelevant what the odds are that diplomacy will succeed—you’ll nevertheless hear the odds invoked. A 11 May 2022 CNN piece includes an example of this non sequitur: “While the US can be criticized for failing to give Putin the kind of way out that Biden was speculating about, such an initiative would be hard—and might not work anyway.” There are many things in life that “would be hard” and “might not work anyway”. The point is to try diplomacy—think about the human consequences.
This is a very elementary point, but should we try our best to achieve peace even if doing our best might fail? There’s a lot of focus on the Kremlin and how hopeless it is to negotiate with the Kremlin, but we don’t control the Kremlin, whereas we do control our own actions—we can choose to do our best.
That’s just it.
I get very tired of this endless line that basically puts thoughts into Putin’s head. So people say: “It wouldn’t have done any good to offer a treaty of neutrality before the war, since Putin wanted to invade Ukraine anyway.” And I say: “How do you know, since we didn’t offer it? You’re speculating.”
The point is that—in diplomacy—you can only go based on a country’s official demands and public statements. You negotiate on the basis of those things.
You can do all sorts of behind-the-scenes deals and so on, but your starting point is the official demands—maybe Putin would’ve invaded anyway even if we’d offered a treaty of neutrality, but we never offered it, so we don’t know what would’ve happened.
Lieven agrees that a focus on the Kremlin moves attention away from what we ourselves can actually control—my question says that “we don’t control the Kremlin” and that “we do control our own actions”.
And regarding this third absurdity, there’s a whole industry dedicated to trying to figure out what’s in Putin’s mind—a 16 December 2022 Slate piece says that Putin “dreams of restoring the Great Russian Empire of Peter the Great”. We should try diplomacy because it’s indefensible—given the human consequences—not to. So it’s irrelevant what’s in Putin’s mind.
Furthermore, the industry doesn’t approach this project in a proper way—we all recognize that US politicians’ comments have to be interpreted with care, so that same rationality should be applied when Putin says something about Peter the Great. Chomsky refers—in the 22 December piece—to “the industry of tea leaf-reading that seeks to penetrate Putin’s twisted mind, discerning all sorts of perversities and grand ambitions”. The “industry reverses George W. Bush’s discoveries when he looked into Putin’s eyes, saw his soul and recognized it to be good”—“it is about as well-grounded as Bush’s insights”.
Fourth, there’s a prominent instance of doublethink in the Ukraine-war discourse. Chomsky refers—in the 22 December piece—to “the tales concocted in Western propaganda about Putin’s plans to conquer Europe, if not beyond, eliciting fears that coexist easily with gloating over the demonstration of Russia’s military incompetence and inability even to conquer towns a few miles from its borders”.
I’ve seen these—and other—absurdities. They’re sometimes presented with harsh derision, unhealthy confidence, and lack of curiosity.
Couldn’t Russia use a ceasefire to prepare to conquer Ukraine? This concern recalls the issue of whether something like the Morgenthau Plan would be needed to eliminate the Russian threat—how far do you have to go to allay this fear? And Lieven writes in his 8 November 2022 Time piece: “NATO and the European Union between them now include all the significant countries on the continent of Europe except for Russia and Ukraine”; “Ukraine is by now also to all intents and purposes a U.S. ally”; “U.S. and allied forces in Europe are entirely capable of defending NATO against Russia”; a “Russian nuclear threat does exist as a result of the war in Ukraine”, but “the Russian army has demonstrated conclusively that it is simply not capable of attacking NATO with any prospect of success”; Russian troops “failed to capture Ukrainian cities 20 miles from the Russian border”; and it’s “sometimes argued that if a ceasefire is reached in Ukraine, the Russian government could successfully rebuild its forces to conquer the whole of Ukraine, or even threaten NATO”. Lieven asks what the West “would be doing while Russia is rebuilding its forces”—wouldn’t we be “building up the Ukrainian forces” and “strengthening our own”? Given this Western activity, “why would a Russian government think that a second war would stand any better chances than the first”? And on “what basis is Russia supposed to create such formidable forces”? Russia “has a GDP barely one twentieth that of the U.S., E.U. and U.K. combined”—its “young men are flooding across Russia’s borders to escape military service”. Historically, “economically much smaller nations have defeated powerful ones” on “the social and cultural basis of ferociously motivated armed forces drawn from martial societies”—is “that the picture presented by Russia and the Russian army today”?
Shouldn’t negotiations just be between Ukraine and Russia? A 7 November 2022 CNN piece says that the State Department spokesperson “said that any diplomatic solution needs to be worked out by Ukraine and Russia”. Not every pro-diplomacy person calls for the US to get involved in negotiations—Chomsky says that if “Ukrainians want to risk the gamble, that’s their business”. But Lieven does call for US involvement and writes in his 22 September 2022 piece:
Any peace initiative will have to come from the United States. France and Germany are too weak to act independently from Washington. The Ukrainian government’s ability to negotiate is crippled by (understandable) fury at the Russian invasion and Russian atrocities; by pressure from Ukrainian hardliners, especially in the military; and, increasingly, by the government’s own rhetoric, which is committing Ukraine to goals (like the recovery of Crimea) that could only be achieved by total military victory over Russia.
To date, the Biden administration’s position has been that peace negotiations are purely a matter for Ukraine. Together with Russian actions, this stance contributes to making a peace process virtually impossible. It is also both politically and morally wrong. The United States has given military assistance (including intelligence assistance in the killing of Russian commanders) that have made America very nearly a co-belligerent in this war.
This and U.S.-led sanctions against Russia have caused Americans serious economic loss and involved the United States and its citizens in grave risks. The impact on Washington’s allies in Europe and on the world economy has been even worse, threatening key Western partners with food shortages and internal revolt. In the very worst case, America could face the possibility of annihilation in nuclear war.
In these circumstances, to say that the United States has no right to engage in negotiations and put forward its own proposals for peace is an abdication of the Biden administration’s moral and constitutional responsibility to the American people. Moreover, the involvement of third parties in brokering peace settlements and proposing their terms is entirely legitimate in terms of international tradition and America’s own past policies elsewhere.
A peace process cannot be initiated unless both sides abandon preconditions for talks that are completely unacceptable to the other side. A good starting point for talks could be the proposals made by the Ukrainian government itself back in March, which met Russian demands on certain key issues including neutrality. The fact that Putin explicitly and favorably cited Ukraine’s peace proposal in his speech announcing Russia’s partial mobilization may offer a glimmer of hope for diplomacy.
If the Biden administration does not explore this potential chance of peace, the consequences of a continued escalatory spiral could be disastrous for all concerned. Russia has shown that it retains considerable potential for escalation, both in terms of mobilization and the massive targeting of Ukrainian infrastructure and the Ukrainian government—something that is also very likely to lead to casualties among U.S. advisers in Ukraine.…
War is a highly unpredictable business, and the course of the Ukraine war has defied the expectations of most analysts, myself included. So far, it has done so to the advantage of the Ukrainians. That will not necessarily always be the case. To seek peace and break the present escalatory spiral is in the interests of Ukraine itself, as well as those of America and the world.
Lieven says that Washington should be involved in negotiations—the position that Washington shouldn’t be involved is “morally and politically wrong” and “contributes to making a peace process virtually impossible”.
Is Lieven’s piece calling for anything that constitutes “forcing”—or “imposing”—anything on the Ukrainians? One can debate whether Lieven is simply calling for “pursuing” diplomacy.
And remember that Chomsky is only calling for Washington to open the door to diplomacy—not for Washington to get involved in negotiations—so it’s not like Lieven’s piece expresses the only possible pro-diplomacy position.
Regarding the Ukraine-war discourse, it’s true that you should not—given the historical record—expect rationality and nuance during wartime. But the current situation is arguably worse than what we’ve seen in the past. I saw a comment—which I think captures just how bad things are—that “the culture has declined to the point that in large circles (including the ‘internet left’), a phrase questioning in any way the rigid Party Line elicits a torrent of abuse, demonization, lies, utter irrationality”.
The media certainly hasn’t helped the discourse around this horrifying war—it’s straightforward to examine the media’s output, though difficult to assess the harm that that output actually does. I have the sense that many people simply tune out the silly and propagandistic coverage—these people don’t imbibe propaganda but also would be much better informed if coverage were good. Graham E. Fuller says in my 6 August 2022 piece:
I don’t think that I’ve ever seen—in my entire life—such a dominant American media blitz as what we’re seeing regarding Ukraine today. The US isn’t only pressing its interpretation of events—the US is also engaging in full-scale demonization of Russia as a state, as a society, and as a culture. The bias is extraordinary—I never saw anything like this when I was involved in Russian affairs during the Cold War.
That’s a remarkable comment from Fuller—the “extraordinary” bias goes beyond anything that he saw when he “was involved in Russian affairs during the Cold War”.
A 2 December 2022 FAIR piece says: a “crucial function of a free press is to present perspectives that critically examine government actions”; “such perspectives have been hard to come by”—regarding the NYT and WSJ coverage of this war—even “as the stakes have reached as high as nuclear war”; and elite “newspapers continue to offer a very narrow range of expert opinion on a US strategy that favors endless war”.
I saw this comment: “When the state beats war drums, the media patriotically leap to their task and funnel uncritically whatever they’re being fed. Happens routinely.” You can see a good example of the routine if you look at the Gulf War—Chomsky writes in a May 1991 piece:
This record is, again, highly informative. The possibility of a negotiated settlement was excluded from the political and ideological systems with remarkable efficiency. When Republican National Committee Chairman Clayton Yeutter states that if a Democrat had been President, Kuwait would not be liberated today, few if any Democrats can respond by saying: If I had been President, Kuwait might well have been liberated long before, perhaps by August, without the disastrous consequences of your relentless drive for war. In the media, one will search far for a hint that diplomatic options might have been pursued, or even existed. The mainstream journals of opinion were no different. Those few who felt a need to justify their support for the slaughter carefully evaded these crucial issues, in Europe as well.
To evaluate the importance of this service to power, consider again the situation just before the air war began. On January 9, a national poll revealed that 2/3 of the US population favored a conference on the Arab-Israeli conflict if that would lead to Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. The question was framed to minimize a positive response, stressing that the Bush administration opposed the idea. It is a fair guess that each person who nevertheless advocated such a settlement assumed that he or she was isolated in this opinion. Few if any had heard any public advocacy of their position; the media had been virtually uniform in following the Washington Party Line, dismissing “linkage” (i.e., diplomacy) as an unspeakable crime, in this unique case. It is hardly likely that respondents were aware that an Iraqi proposal calling for a settlement in these terms had been released a week earlier by US officials, who found it reasonable; or that the Iraqi democratic forces, and most of the world, took the same stand.
Suppose that the crucial facts had been known and the issues honestly addressed. Then the 2/3 figure would doubtless have been far higher, and it might have been possible to avoid the huge slaughter preferred by the administration, with its useful consequences: the world learns that it is to be ruled by force, the dominant role of the US in the Gulf and its control over Middle East oil are secured, and the population is diverted from the growing disaster around us. In brief, the educated classes and the media did their duty.
It’s the same routine today—a great deal is being “excluded from the political and ideological systems with remarkable efficiency”.
The media’s coverage of the 2022 Nord Stream pipeline sabotage gives a striking illustration of media bias. Chomsky says in the November piece: the “strong U.S. efforts to block Nord Stream long preceded the Ukraine crisis and the current fevered constructions about Putin’s long-term imperial designs”; the US efforts “go back to the days when Bush II was looking into Putin’s eyes and perceiving that his soul was good”; “President Biden informed Germany that “‘there will be longer a Nord Stream 2’”—and the US “‘will bring an end to it’”—if “Russia were to invade Ukraine”; one “of the most important events of recent months, the sabotage was quickly dispatched to obscurity”; “Germany, Denmark and Sweden have conducted investigations of the sabotage in their nearby waters but are keeping silent about the results”; and there “is one country that certainly had the capability and motive to destroy the pipelines” but this “is unmentionable in polite society”.
The media should’ve pursued—from the start—the obvious question of whether Washington carried out the sabotage. And should be asking why Germany and Sweden haven’t released their investigations’ conclusions—the obvious idea is that these two countries don’t want to confront the US and therefore aren’t revealing what they’ve found. Just look at Biden’s 7 February 2022 comments:
It’s not that we know that Washington carried out the sabotage—the issue is that the media should be looking into whether Washington did this.
A 7 October 2022 FAIR piece says: official “US opposition to the pipeline has been well-established over the years, giving Washington ample motive to destroy the pipelines, but most newsrooms uniformly suppressed this history, and attacked those who raised it”; we “still don’t know for certain who was behind the pipeline bombing, but there is a solid prima facie case for US culpability”; the “explosion is a watershed moment in the escalation toward a direct confrontation between nuclear powers”; and media “malfeasance on this topic doesn’t just threaten the credibility of the press, but literally imperils the whole of human civilization”.
A 26 December 2022 NYT piece meanders around and around instead of asking the obvious question. The piece does refer to “the question of why, if Russia bombed its own pipelines, it would begin the expensive work of repairing them”—there’s another question to ask as well.
The letter says: the members believe that “it is in the interests of Ukraine, the United States, and the world to avoid a prolonged conflict”; the members urge President Biden “to pair the military and economic support the United States has provided to Ukraine with a proactive diplomatic push, redoubling efforts to seek a realistic framework for a ceasefire”; “if there is a way to end the war while preserving a free and independent Ukraine, it is America’s responsibility to pursue every diplomatic avenue to support such a solution that is acceptable to the people of Ukraine”; the “alternative to diplomacy is protracted war, with both its attendant certainties and catastrophic and unknowable risks”; “Russia’s invasion has caused incalculable harm for the people of Ukraine, leading to the deaths of countless thousands of civilians, Ukrainian soldiers, and displacement of 13 million people, while Russia’s recent seizure of cities in Ukraine’s east have led to the most pivotal moment in the conflict and the consolidation of Russian control over roughly 20 percent of Ukraine’s territory”; the “conflict threatens an additional tens of millions more worldwide, as skyrocketing prices in wheat, fertilizer and fuel spark acute crises in global hunger and poverty”; and a “war that is allowed to grind on for years—potentially escalating in intensity and geographic scope—threatens to displace, kill, and immiserate far more Ukrainians while causing hunger, poverty, and death around the world”.
There was a fierce backlash against the letter. Pramila Jayapal chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus—a 25 October 2022 Guardian piece says that the “blowback from Democrats was so intense” that she “was forced to issue a ‘clarification’” within “hours of the letter being dispatched”.
Charles A. Kupchan writes in a 2 November 2022 NYT piece: it “is time for the United States and its allies to get directly involved in shaping Ukraine’s strategic objectives, managing the conflict, and seeking a diplomatic endgame”; “prudent avoidance of war between NATO and Russia necessitates” direct “U.S. involvement in Ukraine’s operational planning”; “Mr. Putin’s effort to subjugate Ukraine has already failed, and pushing for Russia’s total defeat is an unnecessary gamble”; the “United States and its allies also need to be concerned about the rising economic and political threat that a long war poses to Western democracy and solidarity”; sooner “rather than later, the West needs to move Ukraine and Russia from the battlefield to the negotiating table, brokering a diplomatic effort to shut the war down and arrive at a territorial settlement”; “transitioning from war to diplomacy provides hope of ending the killing and destruction, containing the mounting risk of a wider war between Russia and NATO, and reducing harm to the global economy and democratic resilience on both sides of the Atlantic”; and the “mounting risks that the West faces in Ukraine necessitate that the United States and its NATO partners get more involved in managing the war and in setting the table for an endgame”.
Samuel Charap and Miranda Priebe write in a 28 October 2022 Foreign Affairs piece that a protracted war: “could benefit Washington to the extent that it weakens Moscow and forces it to pare back its ambitions elsewhere”; would likely “sustain the deep freeze in U.S.-Russian relations, potentially jeopardizing cooperation between Washington and Moscow on issues of global importance, such as arms control”; and would mean global economic disruption in which the “United States’ most important trading partners and allies in Europe would be the hardest hit, mainly because of higher energy prices”. The “country that would suffer the most—in terms of lives lost, infrastructure destroyed, and economic devastation—is Ukraine”. And even “a conflict that continues at a lower level of intensity would disrupt the economy and scare off investment, complicating the country’s economic recovery”.
The “United States could be doing more to enable diplomacy”; “Washington has coalesced around the view that it should let the war play out because escalation risks can be managed, Ukraine will keep winning, and Russia will eventually be forced to accept defeat”; “Russia can either accept the terms laid out by the G-7 now or it can accept them once it has been defeated on the battlefield”; it’s “possible that this optimistic scenario will come to pass”, but “the assumptions underlying it are questionable”; the result will—if these assumptions prove wrong—“be at best a protracted conflict and at worst a catastrophic escalation”; and laying “the groundwork for eventual negotiations could reduce the risk of these dangerous outcomes”.
The “United States can do more to create the conditions for eventual negotiations to succeed”; “Washington could begin discussions with its allies and Ukraine about the need for all parties to demonstrate openness to the prospect of eventual talks, and to moderate public expectations of a decisive victory”; the “Biden administration could work with these partners to develop shared language to that effect and feature it more prominently in official statements”; making “‘this war will only definitively end through diplomacy’ as much of a mantra as ‘supporting the Ukrainians for as long as it takes’—and emphasizing that one does not contradict the other—could help begin to change the narrative”; the “United States can also make clear that a negotiated settlement would not be an act of capitulation”; the “G-7 statement anticipates an outcome—effectively, total Russian surrender—that seems highly implausible”; diplomacy will—by definition—“entail some give-and-take, so it is important to be vague about the terms of a possible settlement at this stage”; “the Biden administration should consider keeping all lines of communication with Moscow open, from the president on down, both to signal openness to an eventual negotiated end to the war and to have channels in place to facilitate peace talks when the time is right”; and these steps “could mitigate the risks of dramatic escalation and indefinite war”.
And Barry R. Posen writes in a 4 January 2023 Foreign Affairs piece: the “most promising course would be for the United States to nudge the two sides to the negotiating table, since only Washington has the power to do so”; Washington “has decided not to do so”; “so the war goes on, at a tragic human cost”; if “it wanted to, the United States could develop a diplomatic strategy to reduce maximalist thinking in both Ukraine and Russia”; “to date, it has shown little interest in using its leverage to even try to coax the two sides to the negotiating table”; those “of us in the West who recommend such a diplomatic effort are regularly shouted down”; and if “this bloody, costly, and risky stalemate continues for another year, perhaps that will change”.
Regarding the opposition to diplomacy, one hopes that things are changing in high places. Chomsky writes—in the 22 December Truthout piece—that the US and the UK “are still insisting that the war must be fought to severely weaken Russia, hence no negotiations, but even in their inner circles there is some softening in this regard”. And Medea Benjamin and Nicolas J.S. Davies write in a 3 January 2023 Common Dreams piece: Boris Johnson and Joe Biden “have made a shambles of Western policy on Ukraine, politically gluing themselves to a policy of unconditional, endless war”; “NATO military advisers reject” this anti-diplomacy policy “for the soundest of reasons”, namely “to avoid the world-ending World War III that Biden himself promised to avoid”; “U.S. and NATO leaders are finally taking baby steps toward negotiations”; and “the critical question facing the world in 2023 is whether the warring parties will get to the negotiating table before the spiral of escalation spins catastrophically out of control”.
Two Things We Know
Diplomatic progress seems distant. Ted Snider writes in a 5 December 2022 piece: the “Minsk agreements of 2014 and 2015 provided the best diplomatic solution to the crisis”; whoever “killed the Minsk agreement, Putin agrees with Zelensky that it is dead”; ten “days after Zelensky said it could not be revived, Putin said that agreeing to the Minsk agreement had been a mistake he would not repeat, suggesting there would be no Minsk III”; “Zelensky does not trust that Putin won’t take advantage of the lull provided by a Minsk III agreement to build up his forces before violating it and terrorizing Ukraine with renewed force”; “Putin doesn’t trust that Zelensky will negotiate a settlement on the eastern territories that will calm the complicated strife”; they “both, nearly simultaneously, announced that the most promising hope for a diplomatic solution to the crisis is dead”; and “the only thing the two leaders agree on”—in the end—is that “it is not at all clear what the road to a negotiated settlement would look like”. And Gideon Rachman writes in a 12 December 2022 FT piece: “neither Russia nor Ukraine is in a position to achieve total victory”; “the political positions of the two countries are too far apart to make a peace agreement possible”; and “both countries are suffering severe losses that could make a ceasefire attractive”.
But we know two things. First, armchair speculations won’t tell you what’s possible—you can only find that out through trying. And second, it’s hard to imagine diplomatic progress if the US doesn’t abandon its current goal of weakening Russia.