The West's goals in the Ukraine war: Avoiding defeat or achieving victory?
Adapted in part from “Ukraine War, December 28, 2022 (III): Semantic confusion--Zelensky seeks "total victory" while Biden's muddled thinking bodes ill for Ukraine,” December 28, 2022.
After 10 months, news coverage of the Russian war against Ukraine begins to sound monotonous, more of the “same old, same old” story of one day in a long drawn-out war. Yet for those who are following the war closely, something significant seems to happen almost every day.
For example, in the last few days the most significant development has been the reshuffling of the Russian military’s command structure, reinserting the old guard of Putin’s trusted generals to the top positions.
These actions constitute a strong rebuff of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner mercenary group, who has been an outspoken critic of the army’s management of the war.After the rout of Russian forces in the Kharkiv region in August and September, Russian pro-war critics on the right including Prigozhin succeeded in persuading Vladimir Putin to name General Sergey Surovikin to command all the forces in Ukraine. He is popularly nown as “General Armageddon” after his command in Syria where he became famous for his extreme brutality and the destruction of Aleppo.
Surovikin has been replaced by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the head of the Russian army, while Gen. Sorovikin has been named as Gerossimov’s deputy. Gen. Alexander Lapin, the former commander of Russia’s Central Military District who was forced to resign by pressure from Prigozhin, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, and other hawks, was appointed on Monday by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu as the chief of staff of Russian Army ground forces
Thus, it appears that Putin’s trusted military “old guard” has, at least for the moment, regained the upper hand in their rivalry with Prigozhin and Surovikin, who are reputed to be close.
Surovikin was the author of the strategy after October 10 of massive bombardment of civil infrastructure, focused on the electrical grid and also on water supply facilities. Whether this strategy will now change is unknown.
The Larger Picture
David Ignatius in his column in the Washington Post has zeroed in on the differences between President Volodymy Zelenksy and President Joe Biden with respect to the goals in the Ukraine war.
Part of the difference is due to a semantic misunderstanding, which results in part from Biden’s inability to view the conflict through the lens of international law. For Zelensky, “total victory” means withdrawal of Russian troops from all of Ukraine, in accordance with international law. It also means payment of war reparations, in accordance with international law, and the trial of war criminals, in accordance with international law.
For Zelensky, “total victory” means the victory of Ukraine through the victory of international law and the United Nations Charter.
Biden appears to misunderstand “total victory” to mean “unconditional surrender” as in the case of Nazi Germany and Japan in World War II.
If Zelensky were to clearly articulate Ukraine’s goal as upholding the U.N. Charter and international law by insisting on strict Russian compliance with both, he would not only underline the stakes for the international community in the war but also make it much harder for Biden to disagree with Ukraine’s war aims.
Marc Thiessen, whose column I usually skipped in the past because it seemed so predictably one-sided and pro-Republican, shows signs of becoming a more balanced critic and commentator.
Democrats are loathe to criticize Joe Biden. But the Biden administration needs constructive criticism, from wherever it might come. On foreign policy, we should all strive to promote what’s best for the country, leaving partisan politics out of it.
That said, Thiessen has written a succinct and powerful critique of the flaws in Biden’s approach to the Ukraine war. He writes,
1. (Biden) slow-rolled military aid to Ukraine out of fear of provoking Vladimir Putin
He refused Ukraine’s requests for Stinger and Javelin missiles for months before Russia invaded. After Moscow attacked, he offered to help President Volodymyr Zelensky escape — to which the Ukrainian leader reportedly replied, “I need ammunition, not a ride.” Then Biden forced Ukraine to defend itself for months primarily with antiquated Soviet-era weaponry — and blocked Poland from transferring Soviet-designed MiG-29 jets to Kyiv, terrified that stronger U.S. support could cause “World War III.” (This prompted Zelensky to ask “What is NATO doing? Is it being run by Russia?”) Biden waited more than nine months to give Ukraine just one Patriot air-defense system, allowing Putin to destroy schools, homes, hospitals and critical infrastructure. When he finally did deliver the game-changing High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), they had been secretly modified so they couldn’t fire long-range rockets. And Biden still refuses to give Ukraine or longer-range Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) missiles because they could (theoretically) reach Russia or M1 Abrams tanks. As a Ukrainian reporter asked Biden at his news conference with Zelensky: “Can we make long story short and give Ukraine all capabilities it needs and liberate all territories rather sooner than later?” Zelensky added: “I agree.” Biden’s refusal to do so is dragging out the conflict, leading to thousands of civilian deaths and delaying Putin’s defeat.
At the level of the war on the ground, El Paīs has fielded an extraordinary team of its best foreign correspondents who are reporting on the war from within Ukraine.
María R. Sahuquillo, the brilliant correspondent of El País, has emerged as one of the most outstanding reporters covering the war in Ukraine. She combines an extraordinary ability to communicate what the Ukrainians are experiencing as they fight and survive this war, with perceptive analyses of what is going on at the local level, and an extraordinary grasp of what is going on at the strategic and international political levels. At least in the English, American, French, German, and Spanish papers I regularly read, she is sans pareille (without equal).
Recently she provided an insightful account of what is going on in the war in the South, and what it is like in places like BakhmutShe also has another story, on the removal of the statue of Catherine the Great from a main city square in Odesa, which provides real insight into the depth of anti-Russian feeling Putin has created with his war of aggression and barbarous war crimes. Statues are being removed, and even streets named after famous Russian cultural figures like Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Tchaikovsky are being renamed. The enmity Putin has sowed will take decades to soften even in the best of circumstances. What she describes is not only a rejection of Vladimir Putin and Russia since 2014, but also a total rejection of Russian culture, including even its most famous musicians, poets, and writers
The stakes in the conflict and the basic facts
“You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”
-—Michael Walzer,in Just and Unjusr Wars(1977) – Quote apparently misattributed to Leon Trotsky
There is a massive war underway in Europe. Russia has invaded Ukraine, and is continuing a war of aggression against the country and its people. The strategy of Russia has been to conduct widespread violations of the law of war (international humanitarian law) which given their scale and scope amount to crimes against humanity. Vladimir Putin and his accomplices have committed the crime of aggression, which at the time of the Nuremberg Trials in 1945-46 was known under the rubric of “crimes against peace”. The top Nazi war criminals were executed by hanging for the commission of that and other crimes.
The Russian crimes against Ukrainians appear to constitute acts of genocide as that international crime is defined in the 1948 U.N. Convention on Genocide. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is currently considering a complaint brought by Ukraine under the Genocide Convention. The ICJ or “World Court” has issued an interim order of protection (like an injunction) ordering Russia to cease its military operations in Ukraine.
The Russian military invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 continued and expended the Russian military invasions of Ukraine in 2014, by which Russia seized and later “annexed” the Crimea and used Russian paramilitary and regular forces to install puppet regimes in Luhansk and Donetsk provinces. This simmering military conflict cost some 14,000 lives between 2014 and 2022.
Russia’s invasion in 2022 and ongoing war of aggression against Ukraine is in blatant violation of Article 2 paragraph 4 of the United Nations Charter which prohibits “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”. Article 2 (4) is rightly considered by international lawyers and statesmen to be the cornerstone of the international legal order.
Under international law and the Charter, this prohibition is a peremptory norm of international law (jus cogens) from which their can be no exception, not even by agreement. Corollaries of Article 2(4) include the norm that territory acquired by the illegal use of military force can never be recognized, and that any treaty recognizing such an acquisition of territory is void as a matter of law.
Russia’s purported annexation of the Crimea in 2014 is therefore void and without legal effect under peremptory norms of international law. The same is true for Russia’s purported annexation of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson ptovinces in September 2022..
Consequently, the inclusion of any so-called “territorial concessions” by Ukraine to Russia, even if included in a ceasefire or peace settlement agreement between Russia and Uktaine, would be void and without legal effect under international law and the U.N. Charter.
The absolute nature of these peremptory norms of international law is not always understood by government leaders and diplomats, many of whom continue to speak of “territorial concessions” as if they might be reached by compromise among the parties.
Ukraine has a clear understanding of these peremptory norms of international law, and consistently states its war aims in terms which are in agreement with them.
The war itself does not appear to have any end in sight. Vladimir Putin’s war aims are totally incompatible with the mandatory norms of international law set forth above. Ukraine, for its part, cannot make the territorial concessions which Putin demands, both for domestic political reasons, and because no ceasefire or peace settlement containing such provisions would have any legal effect.
This is a fact which even the United States, which to date has not used international law or its international lawyers in any serious way, would inevitably be forced to accept in response to pressures from its NATO and other allies.
With respect to the actual conduct of the war, President Joe Biden has simultaneously pursued two potentially conflicting objectives.
The first has been to keep NATO from becoming directly involved in a military conflict with Russian forces. Underlying this goal has been Biden’s abject fear of provoking Putin so that he might use nuclear weapons. Biden calls this “World War III”, in effect incorporating Putin’s talking point into his own rhetoric.
The second objective or war aim has been to assist Ukraine in defending its sovereignty and territorial integrity against Russian aggression.
Until quite recently, the U.S. and its NATO allies appear to have been pursuing the goal of simply avoiding a Ukrainian defeat in the war. The restrictions on weapons transfer and their use suggest that until a few months ago the White House was seriously entertaining the possibility of a negotiated ceasefire or peace settlement.
Whenever these two goals have come into clear conflict, the White House has given precedence to the goal of keeping NATO out of the military conflict. This is quite paradoxical, because U.S. and NATO countries are providing Ukraine with real-time intelligence and targeting information, notwithstanding their efforts obfuscate this fact.
Putin has made masterly use of his nuclear threats. Whenever things are goingly badly for Russia on the battlefield, Putin amps up his nuclear threats, often using surrogates in the media or Russian officials to deliver the message.
Signs are now beginning to appear, however, that Putin’s nuclear threats are losing much of their credibility. In recent days his surrogates have been loudly raising the threat of nuclear war, following the disastrous attack on Russian barracks which killed 89 soldiers (Russian version) or over 400 Russian soldiers (Ukrainian version), and an apparently false claim by Prigozhin that the Wagner group had killed some 600 Ukrainians in the battle to take Bakhmut and Soledar, a nearby town. The Russian Defense Ministry disavowed Prigozhin’s claims, particularly that only Wagner Group soldiers had fought to take Soledar and that they were in complete control of the town.
The White House has been holding back on the supply of the ATACMS long-range rockets for the HIMARS artillery units, armored personnel carriers and tanks, and other weapons such as fighter aircraft. There is, however, some sign of movement. Within the last week France announced it was supplying an armored fighting vegicle, and the same day Germany and the U.S. jointly announced they would supply armored personnel carriers to Ukraine. Pressures are now mounting on Germany to supply Leopard battle tanks, of which it has a considerable number in storage. Britain also seems poised to transfer armored vehicles.
The problem is that we are talking about very small numbers of these vehicles. NATO countries have failed to ramp up their wartime production of these vehicles, and in general have failed to anticipate the ongoing needs of the Ukrainian military as the war drags on with no end in sight.
The failure to anticipate the need for ramped-up wartime production of weapons and other critical munitions has been one of the greatest failures of tbe allied war effort to date. Only now, 10 months into the war, do military planners seem to be beginning to address the issue. Concrete actions on the scale that is needed, such as the letting of contracts for the production of munitions, are not publicly visible. On the one hand, giving great publicity to the taking of such action should help convince the Russians that we are in this for the long haul. On the other, one can understand how a White House anxious not to provoke Putin might want to downplay such developments.
As the war moves into its 11th month, with rampant speculation that Russia will expand its mobilization of recruits as it plans new offensives in the spring, Biden and NATO and other allies face a harsh choice.
They must either set their goal as victory in the Ukrainian sense, as a victory for international law and the U.N. Charter, and incidentally for our civilization based on reason and law, instead of barbarism and military conquest.
Or they must, with eyes wide open, accept the reality that the war in Ukraine may go on indefinitely until Russian society and the Russian economy are so weakened that Russia is forced to withdraw from the war, as occurred in World War I in 1917.
They must understand, if they choose this second path, that the risk of an actual nuclear conflict—whether by design or by accident—is likely to grow over time.
If they choose the first objective, victory in the Ukrainian sense, they will need to start courting and applying pressure on the countries of the “Global South”. To the extent they seek to persuade these countries, their mastery of and use of international law arguments will be critical to their success.
They will also need to accept the reality that the war cannot be ended just by kicking the can down the road, and muddling through from one election to another.
The stakes in the Ukraine war are incredibly high, not only for Ukraine and Ukrainians but for each of us and for our children and grandchildren.
As Sylvie Kauffmann of Le Monde has observed, the challenge is not that our universal values are deficient but rather that of their implementation.
Great leadership is needed and required, just as it was in Britain in 1940.
1) Simone Carter, "Russia's 'General Armageddon' Demoted Amid Huge Battlefield Losses," Newsweek, <a href="https://www.newsweek.com/russian-general-armageddon-sergey-surovikin-demoted-battlefield-losses-1773093">January 11, 2023</a> (1:49 p.m. EST);
2)Nataliya Vasilyeva and Roland Oliphant, “Russia’s ‘General Armageddon’ demoted after just three months following battlefield failures; Sergei Surovikin has been replaced as Russia’s commander of the Ukraine invasion after a bombing campaign failed to turn the tide of the war,” The Telegraph, January 11, 2023 (10:13 pm).
1) Benoît Vitkine (Moscou, correspondant), “Valéri Guerassimov, chef d’état-major de l’armée russe, reprend les opérations en main en Ukraine;:Trois mois après une nomination en fanfare comme commandant unique des forces russes déployées sur le terrain, le général Sourovikine est démis de cette fonction et remplacé par Valéri Guerassimov,” Le Monde, le 12 janvier 2023 (11h08, mis à jour à 15h32);
2) Benoît Vitkine (Moscow, correspondent), “Moscow puts Gerasimov in charge in Ukraine in latest military shake-up; Three months after his much heralded appointment as commander of the Russian forces in the field, General Surovikin was removed and replaced by Valery Guerasimov.” Le Monde in English, January 12, 2023 (updated at 18h52);January 12, 2023 (updated at 18h52).
David Ignatius, ” ‘Victory’? Zelensky and Biden differ on the path forward for Ukraine. Washington Post, December 22, 2022 (3:54 p.m.).
See Marc A. Thiessen “The 10 worst things Joe Biden did in 2022,” Washington Post, December 28, 2022 (10:25 a.m. EST).
See also Marc A. Thiessen, “The 10 best things Joe Biden did in 2022,” Washington Post, December 27, 2022 (10:00 a.m. EST);
1)Marīa R. Sahuquillo, “Barro y trincheras en los bosques de Yampil: la contraofensiva ucrania pugna por una pieza clave en el frente de Donbás; La cruenta contienda por el bastión de Kremina, en la región de Lugansk, determinará la próxima fase de la guerra de Rusia en Ucrania,” E País, el 27 se diciembre 2022 (23:40 EST);
2)Marīa R. Sahuquillo, “‘Slow, nasty, grueling’: Ukrainian counter-offensive on Donbas front could hold key to course of winter war; Elite Kyiv units and a Russian force of professional soldiers, recruits, mercenaries and prisoners are locked in a bitter struggle for control of the Kreminna-Svatove axis that will determine the next phase of Russia’s invasion,” El País, December 28, 2022(09:03 EST).
1)Marīa R. Sahuquillo, “Ucrania retira el monumento de Catalina la Grande en Odesa; El traslado de la estatua de la fundadora de la ciudad del mar Negro forma parte del proceso de “desrusificación” de Ucrania agudizado por la guerra de Putin,” El País, el 28 de diciembre 2022 (06:13 EST);
2)Marīa R. Sahuquillo, “Ukraine removes the monument of Catherine the Great in Odessa; The transfer of the statue of the founder of the Black Sea city is part of the process of “derusification” of Ukraine exacerbated by the Putin war,” El País, December 28, 2022 (06:13 EST).
Sylvie Kauffmann, “Le problème de l’universalisme n’est pas l’échec des valeurs de liberté et de démocratie, il est celui de leur mise en œuvre. Il ne fallait pas baisser la garde, Le Monde, le 28 décembre 2022” (mis à jour à 18h47);
The problem of universalism is not the failure of the values of freedom and democracy, but rather that of their implementation. We should not lower our guard.
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See also “Why I care about the war in Ukraine,” Trenchant Observations, June 26, 2022.
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