My Response to Noah Carl on Ukraine
This is part 2 in a 6-part exchange between Noah Carl and myself. I will be writing parts 2, 4 and 6 in response to Noah’s articles. The subject of our exchange is whether the West is following the right strategy in Ukraine. Noah and I have previously discussed the issue on his podcast, as well as on Twitter. We are now doing so via this Substack exchange. You can read part 1 here.
Thank you for kicking off our conversation about the West’s strategy in Ukraine. I am pleased to say there are more areas of agreement than I expected.
You make 6 core arguments which I would like to address.
Europe, Russia and Ukraine would have been better off without this war
I agree with you. The loss of life, displacement of millions, economic instability and the potential for escalation are all serious and deeply regrettable. Unfortunately, however, this is rather academic at this point since the war is raging and there is nothing we can do to turn back time. Further, I believe that by February 24, this war was also inevitable, unless we were prepared to let Putin annex half of Ukraine, if not the entire country. I’ll address your comments about how we made this inevitable below.
We must avoid nuclear escalation
The prospect of nuclear war is rightly terrifying. As I said at the outset of this conflict, countries with large nuclear arsenals cannot lose wars in the conventional sense and the rhetoric from some Western and Ukrainian commentators suggesting that Russia must be comprehensively defeated is therefore extremely unwise. I believe Jordan Peterson is right when he says that attempting to make Russia lose is dangerous.
However, this is not the only risk we face. We must also contend with another significant threat. Yes, a country with nuclear weapons cannot lose but can having nuclear weapons be allowed to mean that you get away with murder, figuratively and literally speaking? Consider the long term consequences of such a strategy in a world where Putin and Xi exist.
One of the reasons I was such a vocal opponent of the invasion of Iraq, for example, is that it was clear to me at the time that it would set a dangerous precedent for other major powers to act in a similar manner. Allowing Russia to have its way with Ukraine on the basis that we fear nuclear escalation would be a gigantic strategic mistake.
Europe is suffering and will continue to suffer as a result of the war
I agree with you that Europe will suffer from an energy crisis and that this will have negative consequences for our societies.
Let’s be very clear though: Europe’s energy crisis is a product of the policies of Western governments. Whether it is the Schröderisation of all major European countries, the self-sabotage of continuing to shut down our nuclear power plants even as the war rages on or the suicidal pursuit of Net Zero, Europe’s energy shortage is self-inflicted. The fault for the shutting down of European factories lies squarely with greedy, corrupt, ideologically-possessed Western elites who continued to entangle us with our enemies in the name of globalisation and greed.
To lay the blame for the energy crisis on the war in Ukraine is akin to a smoker blaming his lung cancer on the chemotherapy he is forced to endure as a result. As globalisation unravels, Europe must take its medicine. It’s bitter to be sure, but it’s what the patient needs.
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Putin was provoked into the invasion by the Revolution of Dignity in 2014
I am grateful that you do not make this argument on the basis that it was a “Western coup” as I’m tired of debunking this lie, peddled by people including John Mearsheimer whom you quote elsewhere. For readers who are unfamiliar, President Yanukovich brutalised peaceful protesters on the advice of his Kremlin handlers, turning a small student protest into a popular revolution. How so many, especially in America, fail to understand a populace rising up against their tyrannical puppet Government is beyond me. The fact that France sided with the colonists does not make the American Revolution a “French plot”.
But you are right on several counts here:
Western meddling gave Putin the excuse he needed, he, and others, had wanted to recapture portions of Ukraine, especially Crimea, since the day the Soviet Union collapsed and the question of why he “waited two decades before acting1” is critical to understanding this entire situation.
The answer to why he invaded in 2014 is clear and obvious. Putin and other Russian leaders are, as you acknowledge, irredentist, which is a fancy way of saying they want to rebuild the Soviet Union or, more accurately, the Russian Empire. As you know, Putin described the collapse of the USSR as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”, greater, therefore, than World War II in which 50 million Soviet citizens perished.
The collapse of the Soviet Union is widely regarded in Russia to have been a humiliation that must be remedied, if not avenged. The Sevastopol naval base in Crimea is a necessity for Russia to project its power from the Black Sea. This was always the aim.
So, to your question, why did Putin invade in 2014? Because, AT LAST, he could. Why? Because political chaos in Ukraine that rendered it defenseless combined with a US President who was going to let him invade was irresistible. As an aside, Obama’s policy in relation to China’s expansion into the South China Sea was a similar mistake for which we will continue to pay for decades.
So yes, it’s true. Putin was provoked into invading in 2014. By the West’s weakness.
George Kennan, one of the architects of the policy of containment of the USSR said it best:
“[Russia] is impervious to the logic of reason and highly sensitive to the logic of force. For this reason it can easily withdraw – and usually does when strong resistance is encountered at any point. Thus if the adversary has sufficient force and makes clear his readiness to use it, he rarely has to do so. If situations are properly handled there need be no prestige-engaging showdowns.”
His Long Telegram is worth reading in full.
Ukraine should have been a “neutral state”
This is a very appealing argument for people who refuse to acknowledge the meanings of words. There is a reason Ukraine means “Borderland” and its national anthem begins with the words “Ukraine is not dead yet”. It sits in the no-man’s-land between two great civilisations. There has never been and, in my view, will never be such thing as a neutral Ukraine. What Mearsheimer and others mean by a “neutral” Ukraine is what it was prior to 2014, a country which was free to elect any President and take any action as long as Russia approved of it.
I know this is a deal many in the West would happily accept in order to make this problem go away. But allowing the rebuilding of the Russian Empire will only encourage further efforts to rebuild it.
We need a long term diplomatic solution
Of all your points, I agree with this one the most as I explained right at the beginning of the conflict when appearing on Question Time. The reason we are where we are is that Europe and the US turned a blind eye in 2014, and while we are unable to do so this time, it is possible that our leaders will fail to rise to this challenge as well.
In my view, there will be no long term solution unless Russia is permanently deterred from further aggression. As I’ve said from the outset, Ukraine will have to give away things it does not care about or is not going to get back like the Donbass and Crimea. In exchange, it either needs NATO membership or a UN peacekeeping force on the border which are close to an impossible sell as long as Russia is “winning”. But that is the only long term solution, which is why striking the balance between raising the cost for Russia without provoking nuclear escalation is the key.
I’ll use a footnote to avoid coming across as picky but he only came to power in 1999, so waited considerably less than two decades.