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
Joshua Foust is a writer and analyst who studies foreign policy.