The War Is Right And Just. But Is It Prudent?
A year later, the end-game of the war in Ukraine is dangerously murky.
There are so many ways in which the West’s defensive war against Russia is a righteous cause.
It is right and just to defend a sovereign country from attack by a much larger neighbor; to fight back against an occupying force committing war crimes on a massive scale; to oppose the logic of dictatorships and defend the foundations of democracy; to uphold a post-Cold War international order which forbids the redrawing of borders by force; to unite democratic countries in Europe against a resurgence of imperial Russia; to defang and defeat a poisonous chauvinism that despises modern freedoms for women and gay people.
It is indeed right and just. But is it prudent?
That’s the question I’m still grappling with, in a week which saw the conflict deepen and the two sides entrench their positions further. President Biden’s trip to Kyiv and his speech in Poland have heightened the stakes, turning this into a more obvious proxy war between the United States and Russia … edging gingerly but relentlessly toward something more direct.
He’s all in now: declaring that Ukraine “must triumph” and that Russia cannot win a war that the Russian leader deems existential. NATO armaments are pouring into Ukraine at an accelerating rate. The training of Ukrainian troops is happening across the Continent. Germany is sending tanks. Pressure is building on Britain to send fighter jets.
The US is ratcheting up arms production as fast as it can, while seriously depleting our own Stinger surface-to-air missiles, 155mm howitzers and ammunition, and Javelin anti-tank missile systems. These are good times for arms producers:
The Army is planning a 500% increase in artillery shell production, from 15,000 a month to 70,000, according to Army acquisition chief Doug Bush … and intends to double the production of Javelin anti-tank missiles, make roughly 33% more Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems surface-to-surface medium-range missiles a year, and produce each month a minimum of 60 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles — which were “almost not in production at all,” according to Bush.
When Ukraine’s effective military is made up almost entirely of NATO equipment, and trained by NATO forces, there surely comes a point at which claiming NATO is not actually at war with Russia gets fuzzy.
It’s worth remembering how Biden put it less than a year ago: “the idea that we’re going to send in offensive equipment and have planes and tanks and trains going in with American pilots and American crews, just understand — and don’t kid yourself, no matter what you all say — that’s called ‘World War Three.’ Okay?” Well, technically, he’s still right. We don’t have American pilots and troops in the air and on the ground in Ukraine. But we do have them just over the horizon, along with tanks and planes and highly effective drones on the front lines in Ukraine itself. The munitions are being made in the USA — many in Biden’s beloved Scranton! And Ukraine cannot win without them.
And this is not exactly a proxy war like Vietnam — because the country involved is right on the nuclear super-power’s border and was long part of that power’s empire; and any attempt to reclaim all of Ukraine will obviously spill over into Russia proper at some point. And the logic of escalation in wartime has its own momentum, if we don’t want to seem as if we’re losing ground.
Sure enough, every time the Biden administration has said it would restrict the provision of arms to Ukraine, it has backtracked quickly, as Putin digs in. Upwards of 140 tanks are being sent from NATO, and hundreds more may follow. Long-range missiles capable of hitting Russia have also been sent — on the condition they not be used in Russia. The 2022 dynamic was summed up by the Ukrainian defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov:
When I was in DC in November , before the invasion, and asked for Stingers, they told me it was impossible. Now it’s possible. When I asked for 155-millimeter guns, the answer was no. HIMARS, no. HARM [missiles], no. Now all of that is a yes. Therefore, I’m certain that tomorrow there will be…F-16s.
The Russians are escalating as well: they now have 300,000 troops in Ukrainian territory (way more than they had for the original invasion), are ramping their economy into wartime gear, and are still on the offensive (if ineffectively so). Their economy has held up far better than anyone expected. Last March, Biden assured us that “the totality of our economic sanctions and export controls are crushing — crushing the Russian economy.” The actual contraction was 2.1 percent in 2022, according to the IMF. A crinkle, not a crush.
In fact, Russia has merely diversified its customer base: “for all of 2022, Russia managed to increase its oil output 2 percent and boost oil export earnings 20 percent, to $218 billion ... Russia also raked in $138 billion from natural gas, a nearly 80 percent rise over 2021 as record prices offset cuts in flows to Europe.” This year, the IMF predicts that Russia will have a higher growth rate than either Germany or Britain, and in 2024, it will best the US as well. Yes, sanctions will, in the long run, hurt investment and future growth in Russia and cripple technological essentials for war. And tougher sanctions on oil are underway, and could have an impact. But Russia is far more resilient economically than almost anyone foresaw a year ago.
Russia’s isolation? Not so splendid anymore. The West is indeed united, for which Biden deserves real credit; the rest, much less so. India has increased Russian imports by 400 percent. But the real game-changer is China. Its initial neutrality is clearly shifting. Yesterday, Der Spiegel reported that “the Russian military is engaged in negotiations with Chinese drone manufacturer Xi’an Bingo Intelligent Aviation Technology over the mass production of kamikaze drones for Russia.”
Previously dependent on Iran for these weapons, a serious and reliable supply from China will come in handy. More significantly, as Noah Smith notes, in a long war of attrition, as this is becoming, mass production of weapons matters. And China has a much bigger manufacturing base than the West. Will they use it? It must be tempting to pin the West down in Europe. We’ll learn more when Xi visits Putin this spring.
Politically, moreover, Russia appears stable, if brutally controlled. Muscovites remain relatively protected and are carrying on as if the war didn’t exist. The public sphere has become ever more subsumed in militarism, dissent has been largely crushed, and the invocation of the fight against the actual Nazis seems to have helped galvanize public support. Popular backing for the war, even among non-Russian polls, remains high.
The most intense opposition has come from the far right, military bloggers and crazed TV jingoists, wanting to ramp up the action. In the US, in contrast, the opposition is in favor of less, rather than more. The two likeliest Republican candidates in 2024, Trump and DeSantis, favor talks and a peace settlement, along America First lines. As Biden was in Poland, Trump was in Pennsylvania; and DeSantis was urging restraint. The chances of an American pivot on Ukraine seem at this point higher than a Russian one, do they not?
That’s why, I suppose, the chorus of support this past week in Washington — by almost the entire foreign policy Blob — had a slight air of desperation about it. Two Atlantic headlines blared the neocon message: a surreal piece arguing that “Biden Just Destroyed Putin’s Last Hope,” and “Biden Went to Kyiv Because There’s No Going Back.” Anne Applebaum says Biden’s trip is “putting everyone on notice, including the defense ministries and the defense industries, that the paradigm has shifted and the story has changed.” Europe is at war and there is no going back until Russia is defeated and has withdrawn from all of Ukraine. The off-ramps are being removed.
Which is a little bit concerning when the enemy has nukes. That’s why the US stood by when Soviet tanks went into Hungary and Czechoslovakia during the Cold War — a far greater incursion than a fifth of Ukraine. We held back not because it was right, but because the alternative could have been catastrophic. We can pray that nothing happens this time — but prayer is not that effective against a potentially desperate regime fighting for what it believes is its existential survival and for a leader who knows a loss would mean his possibly literal demise. In short: we’re objectively taking more of a risk now than we did for almost all of the Cold War, excepting October 1962, with far lower stakes. Has the nuclear equation changed that much since then?
Wars are dynamic and unpredictable. Will Putin invade Moldova? Will Belarus go all-in against Ukraine? Will this war cement a Russia-China alliance and deepen Russia-India ties? Or will battlefield success for Ukraine lead to some kind of breakthrough, as the current strategy seems to be aiming at? I don’t know, and none of us know. What I do know is that Russia is going nowhere; that getting it out of the Donbas may require a long WWI-style slog; that at some point, a territorial compromise is inevitable; and that the longer this war goes on, the worse the human and economic toll on Ukraine.
And as Ron DeSantis pointed out this week, the strongest argument for war — that anything less would put all of Europe at risk of Russian invasion — is a lot weaker now that the shambles of the Russian military has been exposed. A military that cannot occupy more than a fifth of a non-NATO country on its border is not likely to be entering Warsaw anytime soon. And the conflict has strengthened NATO immeasurably and accelerated Europe’s transition from carbon energy, both indisputably good things.
My worry is that the West is committing itself to an end-goal — the full liberation of all of Ukraine — that no Russian government could accept, without regime change in Moscow itself. Which means, as Biden’s gaffes sometimes reveal, that this is ineluctably a war for regime change in a nuclear-armed country — which is an extremely hazardous enterprise. It’s righteous but dangerous. Putin is very much in the wrong, just as Saddam was. Evil men, vile regimes. But the one thing I learned from all that, is that focusing on morality rather than prudence, and letting the former eclipse the latter entirely, can be a righteous and well-intentioned road to hell.
(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: my long convo with Aurelian Craiutu on the dire need for moderation; reader dissents on trans coverage, feminism, abortion and more; eight notable quotes from the week in news; an Yglesias Award from a black female doctor sick of wokeness; 21 pieces from other Substackers we enjoyed this week on a variety of topics; a beautiful android dance for a Mental Health Break; a lovely window from pastoral Italy; and, of course, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)
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New On The Dishcast: Aurelian Craiutu
Aurelian is a political scientist and professor at Indiana University in Bloomington. His two most recent books are A Virtue for Courageous Minds: Moderation in French Political Thought and Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes. His forthcoming book is Why Not Moderation?: Letters to Young Radicals. If you think you know what moderation is, Aurelian will surprise you. Not mushy; not vague; not the median: it’s a political temperament and philosophy with its own distinctive heritage. We talk of Raymond Aron and George Orwell, Albert Camus and Michael Oakeshott, Isaiah Berlin and Adam Michnik. And why we need these kinds of thinkers today.
Listen to the episode here. There you can find two clips of our convo — on whether the right or left is more of a threat to moderates, and why moderates oppose the notion of salvation. That link also takes you to commentary on our episode with Jill Filipovic on feminism and abortion, along with lingering takes on the convos with Nicholas Wade on lab leak theory and Rod Dreher on transgenderism. I end the pod page with a reflection on the awful overreach of the left in the wake of marriage equality.
We also have a new transcript of the great Glenn Loury. Here’s an audio snippet:
A listener on another episode:
I hope you can entertain one more (tardy) comment on your interview with Nicholas Wade. My position on the lab leak controversy is that it is completely irrelevant, or rather that it should be irrelevant from the position of the layman. After all, the evidence mustered for each side of the debate is highly technical and likely beyond the grasp of the lay public.
But there are aspects of the discussion where common sense is sufficient to form an opinion. What to make of the Chinese government’s stonewalling of an open investigation? It is impossible to state definitively that the virus had either a man-made or zoonotic origin. The least the US government could do for the 1.2 million dead Americans and their loved ones, plus countless future victims, is apply diplomatic and political pressure on the Chinese to allow the WHO to send in a team of researchers. The failure of the Biden administration to do anything on this front is a betrayal of the memory of the numerous innocents who lost their lives.
Another listener runs through a few more episodes:
I recently caught up on the Dishcast and have some thoughts.
Matt Taibbi: Even though we establishment liberals may (arguably) deserve criticism for overreacting to Trump, one thing we absolutely got right is our concern that Trump wanted to seriously damage, if not destroy, the rule of law in our country. You were onboard against Trump too. As you’ve explored in depth, the danger of populist demagogues is real and has been understood for millennia. Recognizing this danger is not an overreaction; it is astute, as Masha Gessen has written. (Maybe a good guest recommendation.)
Rod Dreher: Sigh. I’ve known of Rod for years, since he converted to the Orthodox Church while I was still a member. He may be sincere in his way, but he’s basically just made a career out of working out his internal struggles in public. The solutions he’s arrived at for himself, he makes into rules for everyone else to follow. So, as a social conservative, his subjective experience of spirituality becomes for him objective truth that all should be constrained by. Ironic that he doesn’t recognize the subjective experience of us LGBT folks as being of value at all.
Ben Appel: He’s very likable. Like you said, he’s a regular guy, and it was enjoyable to listen to him talk about his escaping both a Christian cult and then a woke cult.
Anyway, I was catching up on the Dishcast because I was out of town with my daughter in Europe. I finished my book during the trip and picked up a copy of “The Best of” P.G. Wodehouse, remembering that you’d said great things about him. I’m thoroughly enjoying it. It’s hilarious, and his prose is superb.
Browse the entire Dishcast archive for an episode you might enjoy.
Dissent Of The Week
From a trans reader who frequently writes in:
I’m not going to try to argue the case of the absolutist fringe who suggest eradicating all reporting on topics they deem harmful to certain minority groups. But something that keeps coming up in anti-woke pieces like yours is a similar attempt to catastrophize the situation by implying a terrifying depth of covered-up abuse and neglect without the numbers to actually match it.
Any classical liberal should understand that the perfect is the enemy of good.
In The ‘Stacks
This is a feature in the paid version of the Dish spotlighting about 20 of our favorite pieces from other Substackers every week. This week’s selection covers subjects such as DeSantis on Ukraine, the political upheaval in Scotland, and ketamine. Below is one example, followed by a substack we just started following:
Ted Gioia sings the praises of silence — and its evolutionary benefits.
Check out Jon Ward’s substack, where he recently wrote about the Charismatic Christian leaders who helped storm the Capitol. Jon will be joining the Dishcast this spring.
If you have any recommendations for “In the ‘Stacks,” especially ones from emerging writers, please let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The View From Your Window Contest
Ha ha. Dusty is covering up some giveaway details. But where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to email@example.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a free month subscription if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!
The results for this week’s window are coming in a separate email to paid subscribers later today. Below is a preview — from our weekly columnist who covers the fauna of each location:
Now, what kind of critters are living up on these mountains? Chamois came to mind:
Classified as a goat antelope, the alpine chamois has the convenient scientific name Rupicapra rupicapra rupicapra. I don’t know if I am more amazed by how fast the chamois charges down this hill, or by the fact that the skiers are climbing up this hill. The chamois most of us are familiar with, in the US, is just a leather made of split lamb or sheep skin and tanned with oils. But the classical chamois was from the chamois animal and tanned in cod oil from Biarritz.
The chamois have been getting smaller in recent years. Nobody seems to know exactly why, but decreased size has been correlated with increased temperature in a wide variety of animals. This is based on Bergmann’s rule (the opposite of Allen’s rule mentioned a few contests ago): the smaller an animal, the larger its surface-to-volume ratio and the more easily it can cool off.
The other goat antelope in this area is the larger Alpine Ibex, which is known for its terrifying climbing feats:
Check out all the rest of the VFYW’s fun facts by becoming a paid subscriber. See you next Friday.