Is Russian War An Existential Threat For Ukraine?

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by William Milam  February 5, 2023

Last Monday, on January 30, at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a think tank based in Washington DC, I attended a moving event in a long time. It was an hour long meeting with the mayor and deputy mayor of Bucha, Ukraine.

Readers will recall that Bucha has become almost a household word, symbolising brutality of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. An exurb of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, with a pre-war population of about 50,000, which the Russian army took only a few days after the invasion without a fight, Bucha was clearly the test ground for Russia’s extermination plan for Ukrainians. The mass graves uncovered after the Russian retreat about six weeks later show that literally hundreds of Ukrainians were arbitrarily executed simply because, as far as we can tell, they were Ukrainians. A target himself, who the Russians hunted with rocket propelled grenade launchers, the mayor broke into tears when describing the atrocities in Bucha in six weeks of Russian occupation.

During this firsthand description of what transpired at Bucha, I realised that the many citizens of countries which remain unperturbed by this war and their leaders, would have developed a deeper insight into a war that otherwise seems inexplicable but clearly impacts their everyday lives through its effect on the global price of necessities like food and energy and on regional economies in general. It seems that many people view the war as one over territory, as do many analysts of international relations and public intellectuals. To realize it is a war of extermination of a country and people, as the experience of Bucha, and those in many other parts of Ukraine that have spent weeks or months under the Russian thumb in similar circumstances of organised campaigns of arbitrary killing, puts a new light on the war.

It is also an existential war, for Ukraine most of all, because Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, has said publicly that Russia’s war aim is to erase Ukraine as a country and annex the territory now called Ukraine into his version of the restored Russian Empire.

The truth to assertion of war being an existential threat to Ukraine is palpable from the kind of war Russia is fighting. It is a brutal, inhumane Russian battle plan that concentrates on killing civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure. In the winter fighting now underway, Russian artillery and rockets concentrate on the electricity grid, hoping to render it inoperative, so that Ukrainians will be very cold in Ukraine’s very wintry climate. As most readers will know, however, Ukraine’s morale has remained strong, and there has been no sign of it wavering in its determination to resist.

But it is also an existential war for the rest of us. Because, the other Russian aim, only implicitly stated most of the time, is the destruction of rules-based international system, and restoration of an imperial system akin to period between 1875 and 1945, when conflict between states was primarily between empires over territory. (Of course, this conflict between empires continued after WW2, but by then only in the third world as the European empires made their last stand but slowly disintegrated and became independent states.) In an outright Russian victory over Ukraine, the rules-based system would disappear, and empires and strong states would do as they please – enlarging their countries and/or changing borders

This threat, the return to Robber Baron days of 19th and early 20th centuries, is one reason that has united many countries which support Ukraine in its fight to retain its independence and existence as a sovereign state. In particular, many countries supporting Ukraine understand that Ukraine’s military is much smaller that Russia’s, and it will need major help. The NATO alliance has taken lead in providing material support to Ukraine to achieve military success against a much larger and better equipped army.

 

The US is the major provider of military equipment across the spectrum of war fighting material, from artillery, to rockets, tanks, small arms, armour, clothing, and all that it takes to fight a modern war. The US State Department has put the total of military assistance at over $30 billion, and lists over 60 kinds of military equipment that has been transferred to Ukraine. The other NATO countries have provided over $13 billion in military assistance to Ukraine as well. So far, the Ukraine military has, as is said in the boxing ring, “fought well above its weight”, and has used the large amount of weaponry it has received from its supporters well, and has defended Ukraine from Russian aggression successfully.

It looks certain, that after rebuilding its army which has fought terribly in the first year of the war, Russia is planning a massive counterattack. Another US weapons transfer of about $2 billion was announced a day or two ago. Along with the counterattack and the Ukrainian defense moves, I expect we will see another counterattack of negative views about the American policy from what is called the “realist” school of foreign policy experts. This is an amorphous group of academics and public intellectuals who disapprove the US and western policy of support for Ukraine as not being in their “real” interest. Many of these would argue that the US is not directly threatened and, thus, our real interests are not threatened. The realist argument is a little difficult to understand. Some of the so-called realists argued in support of the US invasion of Iraq, an invasion that is now generally recognised as not only a significant geopolitical mistake but one that did not respond to a real threat to the US interests.

There is also a strong element of Trumpist Isolationism in the realist school’s ranks. We will hear from some of the Republican members of their new House of Representatives majority about what they term the “blank check” Biden is providing for Ukraine. Trump has been speaking out on this as he mounts his campaign for next year’s presidential election. However, while some may mistake this for a weakening of will on part of the US, it is really blathering of an unhinged part of the Republican party (the same group that is threatening to force the US to default on its debt if the administration does not agree to cut some of its spending programmes), and is not even the view of a majority of Republicans let along the majority of Americans, who remain steadfast in favour of the Biden administration’s strong support of Ukraine.

Moreover, rationality has come to the serious part of the “realist” school. Henry Kissinger, always known as a foreign policy realist, has recently confided that he supports the present US policy of all out support for Ukraine. A year ago, he had voiced doubts that have evidently disappeared.

More importantly, one of the really serious public intellectual foreign policy realists, Robert Kagan, has broken through their foggy realist ideology to modify it into a useful way to judge the foreign policy. By a simple device of looking carefully at history, Kagan drew on the history of late 1930s to note that the US leaders then, despite calls to isolationism and lack of public support for any assistance to the beleaguered British, left to fight Nazi Germany’s overpowering war machine alone, found ways to help the UK and waited in the knowledge the US would have to fight the Germans sooner or later. Those leaders understood the malevolent nature of fascism and that fascist dictators would never be able to stop their advance until all possible enemies were defeated. Hitler knew that ultimately he would need to go to war with the US. But he did not count on doing it so soon, and was displeased when Japan started the war for him.

Kagan’s point is that when leaders are smart enough to look ahead and at the existing world political situation and identify countries or groups of countries that are certain to be existential enemies fighting a war (or in this case helping the country which is fighting that war) may well be in the best US interest. There are other ways to handle the problem. But winning that war is a necessary condition.

Ergo, when the US leaders looked at Putin’s Russia two or three years ago, they recognised a situation that looked similar to 1938. Russia, under Putin, was likely to try to push through the haze of disinformation it was putting out to try to change the foundations of the international system that served the US interests, and those of the entire world so well, by trying to recreate a new imperialism-based system. When the Russians were building toward their invasion of Ukraine, the US actually published its intelligence predicting the invasion and using that knowledge to try to dissuade Putin from going for it. Even the Ukrainians didn’t believe it. But it gave us a leg up, which we still maintain.

I wish that leaders in the developing world that still hold on naively to their shopworn theories of non-alignment between the Russians and the West would look at history, and especially modern history, more carefully.