A Quick Thought on Russia and Ukraine

I’ve most­ly avoid­ed com­ment­ing in a long, writ­ten form about the Russ­ian inva­sion of Ukraine for a vari­ety of per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al rea­sons (includ­ing a desire to avoid the troll army that gets mobi­lized when­ev­er the top­ic is brought up). But there is an aspect of the domes­tic U.S. con­ver­sa­tion about that war that I find real­ly fas­ci­nat­ing, because it gets at a big­ger issue in play: how dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal actors pay atten­tion to dif­fer­ent aspects of the con­flict, cre­at­ing a domes­tic alter­nate real­i­ty that results in only fatal­ly mis­un­der­stand­ing the larg­er issue at play. It’s a dynam­ic that I think might help us under­stand how and why the Krem­lin also expends hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars per year cre­at­ing its own self-serv­ing alter­nate real­i­ty as well.

So to it: I find it fas­ci­nat­ing to see the shift in con­flict pol­i­tics on the Right. Dur­ing the Bush years, when the Iraqi insur­gency would advance into a new areas or dra­mat­i­cal­ly ramp up its vio­lence against civil­ians, it was writ­ten off as the last spasm of a dying regime, or dead-enders, or some­thing like that. The per­verse log­ic was that the war was work­ing and the insur­gents were becom­ing des­per­ate.

Now, how­ev­er, as sanc­tions crip­ple Rus­si­a’s econ­o­my and Rus­sia advances in its slow-motion inva­sion of Ukraine, the log­ic has reversed itself: this time, Rus­si­a’s increase of vio­lence in response to an increase of sanc­tions is depict­ed on the Right as pri­ma facie evi­dence that Oba­ma’s pol­i­cy is *not* work­ing. That increased vio­lence means fail­ure.

Here’s the thing, though: the Right’s pre­ferred pol­i­cy option, put for­ward by Sen­ate For­eign Rela­tions chair John McCain, is to arm Ukraine, give them heav­ier weapons, and even air sup­port. That is almost cer­tain to ratch­et up vio­lence even fur­ther than where it is now. At the same time, very knowl­edge­able Rus­sia watch­ers are not­ing that ratch­et­ing up sanc­tions will *also* result in more blood­shed, as Rus­sia push­es fur­ther into DGAF ter­ri­to­ry and seizes more cities inside Ukraine prop­er.

The thing that is so borked about this is, unlike in Iraq where the fate of Iraq was the ques­tion, in Ukraine the fate of Rus­sia is the real ques­tion. The right wing cri­tique of Oba­ma, that his poli­cies have failed because the vio­lence in Ukraine is bad, is argu­ing the wrong met­ric.

And at least so far, the Oba­ma pol­i­cy has had the effect of dev­as­tat­ing Rus­si­a’s econ­o­my in a way mere weapons pro­vi­sion to Ukraine would­n’t (and could­n’t) have done. More­over, it has result­ed in Rus­sia being the most polit­i­cal­ly iso­lat­ed in the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty since its war in Afghanistan. If Rus­sia is your prize, then the pol­i­cy is work­ing quite well.

But Ukraine is not thriv­ing. In fact, Ukraine seems doomed to destruc­tion because U.S. pol­i­cy sim­ply can­not save it. Rus­sia has made the choice to destroy Ukraine, and it is going to do so no mat­ter what the U.S. does. The tragedy is going to be how much Rus­sia makes Ukraine bleeds before it even­tu­al­ly relents. And since the rhetoric out of the Krem­lin and its offi­cial mouth­pieces has become so ter­ri­bly radioac­tive, I fear that they are going to make Ukraine bleed quite a lot. As they always seem to, through­out his­to­ry.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.