Destabilizing speculation

The complexities of the Ukrainian dilemma

In September 1949, two Ukrainian agents working with the CIA landed near Lviv, in what was then the Soviet Union. They were the vanguard of an operation that would acquire the codename Redsox. Its aim was to connect with anti-Soviet insurgents fighting in the tens of thousands in Ukraine, as well as smaller numbers elsewhere around Russia. However, Soviet moles betrayed the program and at least three quarters of the Redsox agents disappeared. By the mid-1950s, Moscow had suppressed the Ukrainian rebellion while forcibly displacing or killing hundreds of thousands of people. The lightning-fast CIA intervention was “unfortunate and tragic”, an internal story concluded.

Illustration by João Fazenda

Ever since Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the United States has acted as if to redeem itself; the Biden administration conducted its NATO allies to airlift planes loaded with Javelin anti-tank weapons and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to Ukrainian forces, while promising billions more in military assistance and imposing punitive sanctions on the Russian economy and elite of Putin. More than three weeks after the start of the crisis, the atmosphere in Western capitals remains pugnacious and emotional. Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appeared by video in front of the Canadian parliament and the next day he addressed a joint session of Congress. In both venues, politicians stood to applaud and chanted an unlikely viral invocation of Ukrainian glory: “Slava Ukraine!

Again NATO refused to provide Ukraine with what Zelensky repeatedly demanded – a no-fly zone to ground Russian fighter jets or a transfer of fighter jets – for fear that such actions would drag states United and Russia in direct combat. “We will not wage a war against Russia in Ukraine,” Joe Biden recently repeated on Twitter. “A direct confrontation between NATO and Russia is World War III. And something we must strive to prevent. The president is, of course, right about that, and yet, with Russian planes and artillery pounding Ukrainian apartment buildings and hospitals daily, he can certainly understand why Zelensky insists on more.

Zelensky has been rightly celebrated for his personal courage and adaptations of Churchill rhetoric in the TikTok era. His presentation to Congress last week was a study in uncomfortable moral provocation. He invoked Pearl Harbor and 9/11 to describe Ukraine’s daily experience under Russian missiles and bombs, then showed a graphic video depicting the recent deaths of children and other innocent people. Later in the day, Biden called Putin a “war criminal” and announced a new package of military supplies, including anti-aircraft systems and drones. Aid can help, but it cannot relieve Zelensky of the terrible difficulties he will have to deal with in the weeks to come. Ukraine may be facing a long war that is claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of its citizens, a war that may not be won even with the most robust assistance NATO is likely to provide. In any case, NATOis to bolster his own defenses and deter Putin from attacking the alliance.

Zelensky’s alternative could be to reach a ceasefire agreement with Putin that could force Ukraine to give up in the future NATO membership, among other bitter concessions. In light of Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and his years-long armed support for pro-Russian enclaves in eastern Ukraine, such a deal would be unstable and unreliable. Still, Zelensky looks torn. Even as he asked Congress last week to “do more” for Ukraine’s war effort, he pleaded with Biden to lead the world to peace, and he recently signaled his willingness to negotiate with Putin on Ukraine’s relations with nato. The country’s past failure to be admitted to the alliance is “a truth” that “must be recognised”, he said.

It has become common to describe the Russian invasion as a turning point in history comparable to 9/11 or the fall of the Berlin Wall. “The war in Ukraine marks a turning point for our continent and our generation,” French President Emmanuel Macron said earlier this month. Perhaps, but some of this speculation about the fate of Europe and the future of great power competition may be premature. Certainly, the war has already produced a humanitarian catastrophe of shocking and destabilizing dimensions. Three million Ukrainians have fled their country. The 1.8 million of them who went to Poland constitute a population roughly the size of that of Warsaw. If the fighting drags on and Ukraine implodes, the country will export many more destitute people and, as happened in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, it could also attract opportunists, including mercenaries. and extremists.

Meanwhile, the Russian economy, according to the International Monetary Fund, could shrink by thirty-five percent this year under the weight of Western sanctions. The oligarchs and Putin enablers can bear the loss of superyachts and private jets, but a sudden economic contraction on this scale would crush ordinary Russians and inevitably cost lives. (“Our economy will need deep structural changes,” Putin acknowledged last week, adding, “They won’t be easy.”) last just as long: democracies often find it easier to impose sanctions than to remove them, even when the original cause of a conflict fades. (Ask Cuba.) “When the history of this era is written, Putin’s war on Ukraine will have weakened Russia and strengthened the rest of the world,” Biden said in his recent state of the world address. ‘Union.

However, some introspection may be in order. In his remarks, the president also said that “in the battle between democracy and autocracy, democracies stand up for the moment.” But Europe is troubled by illiberal populism, including in Poland. And Donald Trump – who just two days before Russia’s arrival in Ukraine called Putin’s preparatory measures “genius” – retains a firm grip on the Republican Party and appears set for a re-election campaign in 2024. As long as Trump’s return to the White House is a possibility, Biden’s statements will require some asterisks.

“Every night for three weeks now,” Zelensky told Congress, “various Ukrainian cities, Odessa and Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Sumy, Zhytomyr and Lviv, Mariupol and Dnipro,” have come under attack. “We demand an answer, an answer to this terror.” Ukraine is an unlucky country, and restoring its independence and security may be a long and costly project, but it is one the United States cannot afford to abandon again. ♦