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March 15, 2023

“Things may be the same again; and we must fight
Not in the hope of winning but rather of keeping
Something alive; so that when we meet our end,
It may be said that we tackled whatever we could,
That battle-fit we lived, and though defeated,
Not without glory fought.”

-Henry Reed, Lessons of the War, “Unarmed Combat”


The ever-important question of human balance is at stake in Ukraine. Two recent articles address this theme. Mr. Zelmanovitz reminds us of hubris’s danger in world affairs, arguing that NATO’s hubris threatens humanitarian calamity. Mr. Schwennesen, who has more direct experience, is less cynical but evinces a war-weariness, seeking an end before things get worse.

The truth runs deeper than either author plumbs. Understanding the Ukrainian conflict in profounder terms will accomplish both writers’ goal: how to make peace. Peace is inevitable if for nothing else than because all wars must end. The only real question concerns how and to whose advantage. Determining the first and gaining the second is strategy.

For Mr. Zelmanovitz and his fellows, the Ukrainian war is a Thucydidean conflict resulting from fear, honor and interest; hubristic traits primarily borne by NATO. NATO unreasonable extends the war with its supplies through a desire to weaken Russia, a limited interest, while Russia continues its fight to gain border security, an unlimited one.

Thus, according to Mr. Zelmanovitz, NATO fights a proxy campaign using and sacrificing Ukraine to injure Russia, which fights an unlimited war against NATO’s encroachment on its sphere of interest. Since limited wars (being fought over interest) and unlimited wars (being fought for existence) are asymmetric in ends, their discrepancy usually results in loss for the side fighting a limited campaign since its forces lack the existential incentive that “death ground” creates for the unlimited party. Because Russia has an existential interest in the war and NATO doesn’t, Russia will inevitably win. NATO should therefore surrender before risking ever greater losses (and humanitarian catastrophe).

This understanding of the Ukrainian war while neat is almost purposefully naïve. Its naïveté derives from drinking too much from Russia’s propaganda fountain. Far from a total, existential war, Russia is itself fighting a limited war for territorial acquisition. Not only do we know this from the scope of the Ukrainian threat, which cannot destroy Russia, and the restrictions NATO has placed on Ukrainian operations, limiting them to Ukrainian territory, Russia itself doesn’t act as if this were a war of survival rather than interest. Its territorial interests aren’t even limited to Ukraine, as we shall see.

Moreover, when Russia is honest with itself, it uses the language of greed rather than survival. As one Russian celebrity, with a wolfish gleam in his eye, put it hosting a New Year’s Eve celebration, “like it or not, Russia is enlarging.” His audience of Russian military and civil elites laughed their applause. Such fiendish, martial delight is hardly the language of survival. It’s the rhetoric of a nationalistic hubris that fits the shoe on the other foot of Mr. Zelmanovitz’s argument.

This war isn’t even a proxy contest. A proxy contest occurs when one party uses another to weaken a third. The conflict between the US and the USSR in Afghanistan was a proxy war fought by the US. Instead of attacking the Soviets directly, America supplied aid to the Mujahideen. Their success or failure didn’t matter, as it almost never does in proxy conflicts. All that counted was weakening and tying down the Soviets.

The Ukrainian war isn’t about weakening Russia, nor is it about NATO’s obtaining an advantage. NATO instead supports the Ukrainians to protect a principle directly applicable to all parties concerned. It’s the grounding principle of our international order. Principles are easily lost amidst the fog of war, however. We occasionally need reminders about what’s important.

Since the end of World War II, the international order rests on one major principle above all: conflict cannot change national borders. NATO’s concern is to defend this principle of territorial integrity against Russian violation. Thus, in supporting Ukraine, NATO supports the preservation not merely of NATO’s borders countries, as Mr. Zelmanovitz incorrectly asserts, but all borders, everywhere (including, ironically, Russia’s).

Territory has been the main driving factor in human warfare. By removing this incentive, the world order successfully reduced wars. It’s this rule more than any other that’s been responsible for the absence of war over the past eighty years. The exceptions to the rule, e.g. the Iran and Iraq War, demonstrate its validity as these states rarely if ever realized expansionist goals, becoming instead pariahs.

Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine (and its previous efforts in Georgia) pose a direct threat to international peace. This principle, not honor, interest or fear, is why NATO supports and must support Ukraine. NATO must support it because Russia in Ukraine is literally an enemy to world peace. When one realizes this point, several things that call into question Mr. Zelmanovitz’s assumptions become clear.

First, the war in Ukraine is worth fighting no matter the outcome. Even if Russia maintains its gains when their war machine rests, if its conquest is sufficiently painful, its victory becomes Pyrrhic and that will be a strategic success for the international order. Victory can be achieved even in the face of ostensible defeat.

This point undermines one of Mr. Zerlmanovitz’s key points: this war cannot become Pyrrhic for Ukraine and NATO. It cannot be Pyrrhic for NATO because NATO doesn’t stand to lose anything other than materiel. It cannot be Pyrrhic for Ukraine because it, unlike Russia, fights an unlimited war. If Russia maintains control over large swaths of Ukraine, it will cease to exist as an independent country. Consequently, Ukraine, not Russia, is on Death Ground.

Russia has a different story. Russia fights a limited war to enlarge its territory for material and moral profit. If the price of Russia’s conquest is made to outweigh any real gains it makes, its victory can become Pyrrhic. Russia, therefore, and not NATO or Ukraine, has stakes to lose. If Russia loses them, it will think twice before throwing war’s dice again.

The proof of this pudding lies in Moldova, a planet long trapped by the Russian sun. Moldova’s military is almost non-existent. Russia essentially runs a major region: Transnistria. Far from wanting to join NATO, Moldova’s constitution forbids it. Moldova had been administered by pro-Russian governments until 2021.

Despite its pro-Russian status, Russia has waged hybrid war against Moldova for decades, using similar tactics as against Ukraine. Recently, the Moldovan government disclosed evidence of a Russian plot to undermine the country and occupy it, using Transnistria as it used Crimea.

In fact, Russian actions in Ukraine have pushed Moldova not towards Russia, but away from it. Moldova is now considering joining NATO, the EU or even merging with Romania. Sadly, but predictably, Russian actions against Moldova have only increased, proving that if Russia succeeds, Ukraine is but fuel to further expansion.

Mr. Schwennsesen develops an important point that Mr. Zelmanovitz raises but discusses in less detail: the nuclear option. The danger of nuclear escalation in Ukraine is a common concern but doesn’t stand close scrutiny.

The first obvious objection rests in the logic of limited war. If limited war is profit-making, then nuclear weapons as weapons of unlimited warfare (given that they render unusable the territory upon which war is made), are ipso facto excluded as potential response. The devastation of Chernobyl, in Ukraine, demonstrates the consequences of nuclear holocaust. One doesn’t conquer territory merely to transform it into nuclear wasteland.

Moreover, the Russian strategy is helped in that strikes against Russia itself are heavily restricted due to NATO limitations, further circumscribing Russia’s limited strategy, and actually helping it by preventing Russia’s civilian population from feeling the brunt of combat. Russian nuclear escalation would moot this advantage, making strikes against Russian territory inevitable.

The second objection is subtler but graver. Russia isn’t the only nuclear-armed, revanchist power. If nuclear weapons serve as shield, preventing intervention where it’s wise and necessary, then nothing stands to prevent any nuclear-armed power from invading a country where it has territorial claims and the invaded doesn’t possess nuclear weapons. North Korea would only be prevented from invading South Korea because of its relative military weakness. American allies should also stand aside and let China conquer Taiwan. In truth, given that China is the only power in the Pacific with nuclear weapons, its territorial ambitions under this theory would be unrestricted. Only India could stand in its way.

Not only would such a theory provoke territorial conflict, it increases nuclear war’s risk. In a world where nuclear weapons serve as a shield enabling territorial acquisitions, countries would have every incentive to develop nuclear arms since only they ensure territorial integrity (and present cover for invasion). Such a nuclear guarantee would make wide-spread proliferation inevitable, especially as technology makes developing weapons easier. While the threat of nuclear retaliation is serious, deserving consideration, the simple threat of nuclear escalation cannot argue against intervention.

The nuclear street goes two ways. One can easily imagine Putin and his advisors having this very conversation before invading: Surely invasion risks NATO’s nuclear retaliation, which, as every good Russian and pro-Russian apologist knows, is bent single-mindedly on Russian destruction? No, Putin must’ve said, the West would never strike. We would retaliate and destroy the world. Surely, they wouldn’t risk nuclear annihilation over Ukraine!

He was right. Nuclear weapons, it seems, shields both powers from their own use. Welcome to a world where the MAD are sane.

The above raises an obvious question: what to do? The implicit answers from the Zelmanovitzs and the Biden administration have a surprising commonality: extremes. The former regards only the war’s difficulties, saying it’s not worth the candle, that Ukraine is a pit of money and human misery. Biden’s position is opposite: unlimited, ever-enduring commitment to expelling Russia from all Ukrainian territories. Both positions are ultimately unreasonable and unstrategic.

Unreasonable because they’re based on flawed assumptions. Unstrategic because they’re reflexive rather than considered, based on broad, undefined feelings about war and sacrifice. If we take a strategic approach, one that balances the desired ends with the means, we begin to liquidate the goals when NATO should urge peace.

We must note that where NATO demands peace will likely not coincide with Ukraine’s desires. Ukraine wishes, for existential and moral reasons, to punish and expel Russia. Unfortunately that is unrealistic, something NATO need not support to achieve its aims and something even be unwise for Ukraine to pursue.

We must instead return to NATO’s interests in this war and motivation for involvement: to protect and support the current international order and the realization that if Russia is to be deterred form future action, any gains in the Ukraine must be Pyrrhic. The only point at which it makes sense to support peace talks is therefore when Russian loses outweigh gains.

When will this balance tip? To discover this, we must look to Russian goals. They are three-fold. To cement Russian territory in Ukraine and expand beyond positions held after its 2014 invasion. To overthrow the current government, installing a Russian-puppet government in its place. To turn whatever survives of Ukraine into a buffer protecting Russia against any counter-response from NATO either to its invasion of Ukraine itself or to future operations like it (such as an invasion of Georgia or Moldova).

NATO must ensure Russia wins as few of these goals as possible.

It should therefore negotiate terms when Russia will fail to profit from the war. Russian territory must be pushed back at least to the 2014 occupation if not further. This will nullify gains from this invasion. Russia must give concrete guarantees of non-interference into Ukrainian affairs, potentially to the extent of declaring its occupied territories as demilitarized zones with no equivalent commitment by Ukraine. If the issue of Ukraine joining NATO is left undiscussed (and no guarantee of non-NATO membership should be allowed), any peace agreement should make clear Ukraine’s ability to join the EU. Finally, no restrictions can be placed on Ukraine’s ability to arm itself or conduct operations.

Ultimately, Russia will gain only what it had, unlawful and illicit though that be, from 2014. It will have formal, international recognition of those claims and therefore be better off than it was in January 2022, but that will be it. Its losses will far outweigh that scrap.

Such punishment may sound extreme and unreasonable to Mr. Zelmanovitz and fellow appeasers, but it’s essential for the continuation of world peace and the avoidance of future war in Europe if not elsewhere. Putin is an iron-and-blood leader who understands only iron-and-blood logic. If NATO fails to speak that language not only will its overtures be misunderstood, but Putin will use such miscomprehension to his advantage. Xi might also learn to speak it, turning China’s own tricks.

Unfortunately, sometimes the only way to peace is through war. Russia certainly believes that and is trying to achieve a peace beneficial to itself. Peace, after all, is the ultimate goal of all war. The main question of any war isn’t who wins the battles, but who dictates the terms of any particular peace. May we ensure that it’s NATO and not Russia who does so, for one dreams of the peace of liberty and life while the other yearns for the peace of iron and blood.

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