The chattering classes seem to have limited to two the scope of socially acceptable options for discussion on the Ukraine/Russia war: 1) to continue the war of attrition, or 2) to escalate the conflict by attacking Russia in a strategic manner, preferably with NATO engaging directly with Russian forces. So, war or more war.
Those of us who see a third way, however, are routinely shouted down as “Putin’s puppets” or modern-day Neville Chamberlains, appeasers of an expansionist aggressor who is the equal of—if not worse than—Hitler himself!
There seems to be little consideration of the cost—in blood and treasure—of the two “socially acceptable” alternatives that are permitted to be freely discussed. Worse, there has been near zero consideration of the second-order consequences of either of the two options.
Let’s stipulate a few things here first:
- Russian President Vladimir Putin is the aggressor.
- Russia has nuclear weapons and sees them not just as a deterrent but also as tactical and strategic tools.
- Ukraine has no formal alliances and must rely on the support of other nations that have no compelling national interest in Ukraine’s security (although the same folks who limit the scope of discussion will say that the U.S. interest is to protect the “liberal, rules-based order”).
- Neither the United States nor any member of NATO wants to engage in kinetic (active) warfare with Russia for fear that it will escalate into a nuclear conflict.
Given those stipulations, one must ask: How does this war end? And, what will be the ultimate cost?
But the most readily discernible monetary cost also has been substantial. The United States, for example, has already committed more than $54 billion to the effort. And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has asked for another $750 billion to rebuild Ukraine from the ruins of war. That’s on top of his request for additional, and more costly, sophisticated American weaponry.
On top of all this, Ukraine says it needs $9 billion a month in foreign aid to make up for budget shortfalls, among other emergency measures.
But there are also opportunity, secondary, and tertiary costs to consider.
For example, the Financial Times reports the opportunity cost—the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen—of the U.S. stockpile of artillery ordnance running low, such that ordnance given to Ukraine will not be available to address a military crisis elsewhere—perhaps Taiwan? Our hyper-focus on Ukraine seemingly ignores aggressive breaches of Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) by China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force, and other acts of belligerence from Beijing.
The United States has deployed 100,000 troops to Europe (up from 80,000) and deployed them across the NATO members of Eastern Europe. Imagine the costs of that, as well as the secondary costs of preparing shipments, air- and sealift logistics, intelligence gathering and analysis, and resupply.
For the tertiary costs, we could fill volumes. These are just a few examples:
- Weapons sent to Ukraine may be being diverted into the black market of Eastern Europe—which potentially is lost materiel, and could end up aggravating regional conflicts and possibly arming terrorists around the globe.
- Sanctions against Russian natural gas will likely put much of Europe into recession.
- Ukraine and Russian wheat account for about 12 percent of global caloric intake. Some 40 percent of Ukrainian farmers have reported that they will stop or reduce their farm production.
- The Russian blockade of Ukrainian Black Sea ports, including Odesa, will limit or prohibit the export of Ukrainian wheat to the Middle East and Africa. Disrupting food supplies can be devastating. For example, witness the collapse of Sri Lanka’s economy, whereby a hungry population can cause political instability that could, possibly, metastasize into larger regional conflicts.
As this chart of the Harmonized Index of Consumer Prices illustrates, food and other costs in the eurozone—that is, those nations that use the euro as currency—have skyrocketed since the Russian buildup of forces around Ukraine prior to the February 2022 invasion.
How Does the War End?
Neither the White House nor NATO appears to have any comprehensive strategy for ending the Ukraine war. President Joe Biden has not even gone before Congress to make a case for U.S. involvement. Americans are told “we must” send arms and money, but not told why. An obsequious Congress (on this issue) seemingly agrees by voting to send more than $54 billion in aid.
This is a change in historical U.S. policy. In Vietnam, for example, we had the Tonkin Gulf Resolution (1964), which President Johnson authorized to repel armed aggression after it was alleged that a U.S. destroyer was fired on by a North Vietnamese torpedo boat. For the Gulf War (1990–91), a Senate resolution authorized the use of force after Iraq invaded Kuwait. For the Iraq War (2003–11), George W. Bush identified a specific threat of weapons of mass destruction with his infamous “sixteen words” about yellowcake uranium in the 2003 State of the Union address just weeks before the United States invaded.
Ukraine itself never had a strategy to win the war beyond the heroic, albeit destructive, decision to stand and fight.
An article in Foreign Affairs on July 8, titled “Ukraine’s Implausible Theories of Victory,” by Barry R. Posen of MIT, makes the case for a diplomatic solution instead of a protracted war:
“The Ukrainian and Western theories of victory have been built on weak reasoning. At best, they are a costly avenue to a painful stalemate that leaves much Ukrainian territory in Russian hands. If this is the best that can be hoped for after additional months or years of fighting, then there is only one responsible thing to do: Seek a diplomatic end to the war—now.”
So, the short answer to the question of “How does the war end?” is: “We haven’t got a clue.”
For now, it is a war of attrition. But in “Julius Caesar,” Shakespeare was right: “Cry havoc! And let loose the dogs of war!”—war that could escalate into a direct conflict between NATO and Russia; it also could go nuclear, given that “Moscow reserves the right to conduct pre-emptive nuclear strikes to safeguard the country against aggression on both a large and a local scale,” according to an Associated Press report about an interview with a top Russian security official by the Russian daily Izvestia.
Diplomacy Is—and Was—the Right Answer to the Conflict From the Beginning
Ukraine has no formal military alliances. No other country seems to have sufficient security, economic, or political interests in the country to come to its defense by directly deploying its own troops to fight alongside Ukraine in the war. Ukraine is limited only to the good auspices of America and NATO for arms, humanitarian support, and intelligence. The only interest of the biggest contributor to Ukraine’s defense, the United States, is a nebulous defense of what Ukraine war hawks describe as the “postwar, liberal, rules-based order.”
But Ukraine itself cannot carry out significant offensive or strategic operations against Russia outside Ukraine’s own borders. Ukraine cannot, for example, carry out a strike against Moscow or even develop and maintain a salient that is even 50 miles in the direction of Moscow. The best Ukraine can hope for is a war of attrition, an overthrow of the Putin government by his own people, or Putin’s defeat in the 2024 Russian presidential election. Meanwhile, the likelihood that Putin will withdraw on any terms other than his own is virtually nil.
A Lesson From the Napoleonic Wars
In the early years of the 19th century, Klemens von Metternich, the legendary statesman of the Austrian Empire, faced circumstances much like those faced by President Zelenskyy today.
Austria then was a polyglot empire: a loose amalgamation of ethnic territories with a small multitude of languages, dialects, religions, and cultures. But it was a mostly stable empire, governed largely as a federation. It was far more diverse than Zelenskyy’s Ukraine, with its Ukrainian West and Russophile East. But the empire was under threat from an expansionist France under Napoleon Bonaparte.
After Austria was defeated by Napoleon in 1805 at Austerlitz, the empire surrendered some of its territories to Napoleon. The war resumed after an armistice, and France defeated Austria again, in 1809, at the Battle of Wagram. Austria requested another armistice with France, and effectively surrendered by treaty.
Austria suffered two defeats in four years and had little chance against Napoleon’s forces in continuing to resist him. But Metternich sensed that Napoleon’s grandiose expansionism would, at some point, lead to his downfall. So Metternich chose to maintain his nation by adopting a policy of cooperation—or, less generously, “collaboration”—with Bonaparte, effectively surrendering to him and becoming a vassal diplomat at Napoleon’s court.
In his memoirs, Metternich wrote:
“I represented at [Napoleon’s] court a great monarch [Austria’s Francis I], whose kingdom had yielded under the force of circumstances, but which was ready to rise on the first opportunity. I was penetrated with the feeling of danger to my country, if it entered on a new war with France without having more probable chances of success …”
But Metternich’s fealty to Napoleon was a ruse, guile to pacify his ruthless French parvenu in order to protect Austria while biding his time until Napoleon’s ambitions would overreach, and would weaken and defeat him.
That happened only a few years later, in 1813, when Napoleon, bloodied and bowed, withdrew from Russia and acceded to Metternich’s offer to mediate peace after agreeing to the Armistice of Pläswitz. Metternich, as an ostensible “mediator,” offered terms that he knew Napoleon could not accept, giving Metternich the pretense to ally with Napoleon’s other enemies. The coalition of Austria, Russia, Prussia, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Sweden, Spain, and a number of German states proceeded to defeat a reconstituted Napoleonic army at the Battle of Leipzig and elsewhere, forcing Napoleon to abdicate and to be exiled to the isle of Elba.
Ukraine was largely under Putin’s influence under its former president, Viktor Yanukovych. Indeed, it was Yanukovych’s decision to enter into a trading agreement with Russia, instead of the European Union, that triggered the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution that resulted in Yanukovych’s ouster and exile in Russia. Yanukovych won the run-off with 49 percent of the vote to Yulia Tymoshenko’s 45 percent. The election was monitored by neutral observers who determined it was free and fair.
Vladimir Putin will be 70 years old in October. He will stand for another term as Russia’s president in March 2024. It may be that he loses the election, though it seems unlikely. There are a variety of other “implausible theories of victory,” as laid out in Professor Posen’s article. But given the savage cost of the Ukraine war to Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, in terms of lost grain, energy supplies, and other necessities, and the still unforeseen geopolitical and national security consequences of the war’s escalation for the West, the war must be settled—and promptly.
While Posen and others have suggested peace negotiations, and even suggested roadmaps to do so, it may be that Putin won’t negotiate. It also may be that Zelenskyy won’t surrender the Russophile Donbass territories to Russia, which would likely be a precondition for Russia to accept any settlement. But if settlement does not occur, and if Ukraine were to surrender and accept Russian domination, and thus resume the pre-2014 status it had under Yanukovych, Ukraine as a nation can survive—provided it has the moral fiber of a nation as Austria had under Napoleon’s thumb. That may or may not be the case, particularly in the eastern portion and southeastern portion of the country. (It’s notable that in the 2010 election, the Russophile Eastern Ukraine supported Yanukovych in his election, while the western portion of the country voted for Tymoshenko. Eastern Ukraine has been in civil war since the election. Much of the easternmost portion of that area of the country is currently controlled by Russian forces, supporting the notion that this is a civil war, with Russia supporting the separatists.)
Of course, any calls for conciliation—and particularly collaboration—with Putin will immediately draw cries of “Appeasement!” from the Ukraine war hawks, as though appeasement is heresy or some other venal sin of foreign policy. (Those of us who have called for an end to the conflict get called out with cries of “Da, comrade!” and other ad hominem attacks on our character or loyalty. As I said at the top, there are only two socially acceptable positions in discussion about the Ukraine war these days: war or more war.)
But history did not begin or end with Hitler, Munich, and Neville Chamberlain. Appeasement is a tool of foreign policy to ameliorate the ambitions of hostile nations, the same as sanctions, alliances, blockades, and deterrence. Professor Stephen R. Rock of Vassar has made a study of the last 100 years of appeasement and the circumstances under which appeasement can—and cannot—be successfully deployed to deter or end kinetic wars. Properly managed, appeasement can permit containment—and even the defeat—of an expansionist power.
The Ukraine/Russia War will kill hundreds and thousands more in the coming months and, possibly, years. But those war casualties will be dwarfed by the tens of thousands—perhaps millions—more in the Middle East and Africa who will die if Ukrainian foodstuffs cannot be exported. Somalia, for example, has suffered drought since 2015 and is in urgent need of food assistance. That food assistance will be reduced because of the Ukraine war. And famine destabilizes governments and reorders geopolitics.
As the war continues, there might be an incursion by Russia into the territory of a NATO member—or vice versa—that could trigger a conventional war that devastates Europe. Or, as the United States continues to be Ukraine’s arsenal, our differences could metastasize into a nuclear conflict with Russia that could kill tens—hundreds—of millions. Nobody can predict where a war will go. We already are seeing the enormous economic costs of the war on Europe’s economy and the cost of, for example, fertilizer and diesel fuel.
When a young Henry Kissinger was writing his doctoral thesis in 1954 about Metternich and Castlereagh’s diplomacy after Napoleon, later published as “A World Restored,” he described Metternich’s diplomatic sophistry—Austria’s collaboration with Napoleon—as “… a game whose daring resided in the loneliness in which it had to be played, in the face of non-comprehension and abuse by both friend and foe … [that] thereby had assured a peace. It was not heroic, but it saved an empire.”
Ukraine, America, Russia—the world—needs leaders who, like Metternich, won’t be “heroes.” It needs people who will end this war—not on the battlefield, but at the negotiating table—not in khaki and camouflage, but in pinstripes and morning coats.
It needs diplomats. It needs peace.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.