Current Affairs

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How the War in Ukraine Can Be Ended

Journalist and international relations scholar Anatol Lieven on the facts about the war in Ukraine that are left out of mainstream American discourse.

Anatol Lieven is an international relations expert and journalist who serves as a senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His books include Ukraine and Russia, and, most recently, Climate Change and the Nation State. He’s also a contributor to The Guardian (here is his most recent column) and The Nation, where he has written analyses of the war in Ukraine. He recently came on the Current Affairs podcast to talk with editor-in-chief Nathan J. Robinson about the current state of the war in Ukraine and what is left out of mainstream discourse about the war. This interview has been edited and condensed for grammar and clarity.

Robinson

Could you start by telling us what you think are some of the most important facts, for Americans specifically, that are left out of the mainstream discourse on the war in Ukraine? What should people know that they generally don’t?

Lieven

Firstly—[and this in no way justifies] the invasion of Ukraine, which obviously was totally illegal, totally wrong, and disastrous: Hans Morgenthau, the great international relations expert, said that one of the fundamental duties of a statesman was to cultivate the ability through study to put yourself in the shoes of your opponents. He called it strategic empathy. This was not necessarily to agree or sympathize with them, but to understand what they saw as their country’s vital interests.

This is in order to be able to do two things. One is to predict how they would behave in certain circumstances. And secondly, to work things out: if those are their vital interests, what are our vital interests, and where can we compromise?

So I think what was never fully appreciated in America, despite the fact that four former U.S. ambassadors to Moscow told Americans about this: George Kennan, Thomas Pickering, Jack Matlock, and the present head of the CIA, William Burns. They all said that the Russians—the entire Russian establishment under Yeltsin, it’s not about Putin—regarded taking Ukraine into a hostile Western alliance as a red line to which they would react very severely. And I heard this myself as a British correspondent in Russia in the 1990s. From the beginning, people were warning that [expanding NATO to Ukraine] would lead to war.

Now, there are many deep historical and cultural reasons for this, and economic reasons for this. These sorts of Russian national cultural things have added an element of irrationality, I think, to Russian behavior. But it must also be recognized that when Russia says that it is reacting exactly as America would react if China tried to take Mexico or Canada into a Chinese military alliance, the Russians have a point. That’s the Monroe Doctrine. The Russian establishment has felt itself to be very much on the defensive. We see them as being on the offensive—and, of course, in Ukraine, they are—but from their point of view, for 30 years now, they’ve been on the strategic defensive to the point where ultimately NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia implied driving Russia out of its historic naval base at Sevastopol and driving Russia out of those disputed territories in the former Soviet Union that Russia was protecting. That is the kind of issue for which countries go to war.

So that’s the first thing [left out of the discourse]. The second thing I would really say is: The initial Russian plan in Ukraine, which was clearly to overthrow the Ukrainian government and try to subjugate the entire country, has been defeated. It has failed utterly. Russia has scaled back its ambitions to either get more territory in eastern Ukraine or get the Ukrainians and the West to recognize Russia’s hold on the territories that it has had since 2014. In other words, the Ukrainians with our backing have already won. And that, I think, does create the possibility for a compromise of peace. Obviously, Russia has to want a peace compromise. But I think given the enormous losses Russia has suffered, that is now actually quite likely. But we and the Ukrainians also have to want it. My own feeling is that we could get that without sacrificing anything more than what Ukraine already lost in 2014.

Robinson

So your first point is that we need to understand things from the Russian point of view, not in order to sympathize with or justify the Russian point of view, but to grasp what they’re likely to do and how they’re likely to respond to things that we do.

And second, that this talk of needing to help Ukraine “win the war,” or the importance of “not giving Putin a victory,” is a little misleading, because no matter what happens, Putin really will have had a defeat at this point.

Let’s elaborate on each point. The first point is about understanding things from the Russian perspective. What I hear a lot is some variation on: “But NATO is a defensive alliance. Countries freely chose to join it to defend themselves against perceived Russian aggression—which is clearly an actual threat, as has been proven by this invasion. To anyone who says that NATO posed a threat to Russian security interests, there is no possible threat that NATO could have posed.” Could you elaborate on what the “threat” posed by NATO expansion actually is, as Putin conceives of it?

Lieven

Well, look, let’s go back to the Monroe Doctrine. There has never been any possibility that, as President Lincoln famously said, any international force could invade the United States via Central America—unless you believe in the sort of paranoid crazy stuff about Soviet troops packed in Nicaraguan banana boxes. And yet the U.S. has shown itself to be absolutely willing to react with extreme ruthlessness to any possibility of that emerging. So you have to ask, why should Russia be less paranoid than the United States?

Secondly, Russia did not like NATO expansion to Eastern Europe, but it accepted it peacefully. There was no attempt to destabilize Eastern Europe in response, much less to invade Eastern Europe. But the point is that when empires collapse, they leave disputes behind. Think of the number of disputes and wars left behind by the fall of the Spanish Empire in Latin America. The British managed to ignore this because, of course, they went home across the sea. But they left behind Kashmir, Bangladesh, the Biafran War. And France, of course, was even worse because you had French settlers in Algeria. The Dutch, the Belgians, but most of all, of course, those land empires, like Turkey and Russia, where the resulting problems are on their borders.

The point is that once you extend NATO into the former Soviet Union, NATO provides a cover for the disenfranchisement of Russians in the Baltic states. And the Baltic governments completely broke their promises which they made before independence—I was there as a journalist—to respect the linguistic, cultural, political rights of Russians in Latvia and Estonia. In the case of Ukraine and Georgia, as I said, NATO membership for Ukraine implied that the Ukrainians, with NATO backing, would at some stage demand that Russia abandon Sevastopol, its main naval base on the Black Sea. (And, therefore, basically, Russian influence in the Mediterranean.) NATO membership for Georgia implied that NATO would support Georgia in recovering, by force, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which had rebelled against Georgia in the 1990s—once again, long before Putin. These are obvious challenges. And then if you have NATO in the Caucasus, then you have an expansion of American influence in Central Asia, which obviously threatens Russian influence there. Also, Russia has to worry tremendously about two things. One is Islamist radicalism. But the other is Kazakh ethnic nationalism directed to the Russian minority in Kazakhstan, which so far has been completely quiet. If you get Kazakhstan being drawn into an anti-Russian alignment, then that becomes a very active issue. And these are all things that states have to worry about.

Robinson

So there are probably more legitimate reasons for the Russian government to worry about the hostility of NATO than there were for the United States government to worry about the threat posed by the Saddam Hussein regime or by Nicaragua—both of which have at various times been seen and treated as threats to U.S. national security.

It’s very clarifying to try to see things through the eyes of others. When you actually read Putin’s speeches in full, he talks a lot about NATO. There is this narrative that he’s stressing the reunification of the historical Russian Empire, based on the speech he gave about the historical unity of Ukrainians and Russians. I read an article in the Daily Beast that says, Well, it can’t be that NATO contributed in any way to Putin’s decision because he doesn’t talk about NATO very much. And then you read the speeches, and he talks about NATO constantly.

Lieven

That is, at best, self-deceit. It’s journalistically shameful. People simply have not read the speeches. But I would strongly recommend also reading the memoir of the present head of the CIA, William Burns, in which he actually quotes from—somewhat to my surprise, the State Department declassified these things—his own memos to the State Department, both when he was at policy planning in the ‘90s and when he was ambassador to Russia, under Bush and Obama, during which time he wrote, again and again, that NATO membership for Ukraine was an absolute red line for the entire Russian establishment. He writes that he never met one Russian who was prepared to accept this willingly and that did not react against it very strongly.

Burns also explains why this is so. The idea that NATO expansion was somehow irrelevant to this is so far from the truth that it really represents willful self-deceit at best. Also, it’s backed up by all these advocates of NATO expansion. The problem in America is that this was a bipartisan policy. So you have the whole of the Blob united in saying, Oh, this wasn’t our fault. Oh, we couldn’t have predicted this. Of course they could have predicted it.

Robinson

What about the argument that the U.S. was never actually going to let Ukraine into NATO, and Putin must have known that?

Lieven

Well, that in a way makes it even worse. If you were never going to let Ukraine into NATO, then why say so?

Robinson

But they wouldn’t abandon the promise. They publicly promised that it was going to happen. They just knew that it wasn’t going to happen.

Lieven

Russia wanted to actually nail them to that, through a treaty of neutrality, which they rejected. I’m not quite sure where Zelensky stands now, but he said publicly, look, I went to Washington and Paris and Berlin and Brussels in the months before the war. And I said, Are you prepared to guarantee that Ukraine will be in NATO within five years? And they all said, No. So then he said, Okay, in return for appropriate guarantees, I am ready to sign an international treaty of neutrality.

But one can’t have it both ways. The Russians were also becoming very worried before the war that the level of U.S. arms supplies to Ukraine were strengthening the Ukrainians sufficiently to—well, it’s true that they would be able to successfully resist a Russian invasion. But also, the Russians were worried that Ukraine would be able to attack the Donbas—which at that stage did not have the actual Russian army in it—and recover the Donbas by force and then force Russia to fight a war on disadvantageous terms.

Now, before the war, I myself would have said that this idea was paranoid, and that the Ukrainians couldn’t or wouldn’t do it. But actually, as we see—from the beginning, not just the arm supplies that have come since the Russians invaded—U.S. and British arms supplies to Ukraine really did make a huge difference to the Ukrainian armed forces.

Just to repeat, none of this justifies Putin’s invasion, which has been a criminal disaster from every point of view. For example, I strongly opposed the Iraq war. That was a criminal disaster, too. But saying that does not let one off the hook for trying to explain and understand why the Bush administration did what it did.

Robinson

Back to that second point you made about how this has already been a defeat for Russia. The U.S. posture in the last month or so has changed or the rhetoric has kind of escalated. This has been covered in the press. The Biden administration has started to say things like, We’re trying to weaken Russia so that they can never do this again, which would imply more than just expelling them from Ukraine. If you take that seriously, the idea that Russia can never invade a country again implies permanently destroying them as a serious military power. From what I’ve read of your work, you take this to be an extremely dangerous position. It’s justified by saying, Well, we have to inflict a great cost on Russia in order to disincentivize future aggression. But the point you were making earlier is that this reasoning is a little disingenuous. Already, through this defeat, you have managed to impose that heavy, heavy cost on ever doing this again. So pushing further is almost gratuitous and dangerous.

Lieven

That’s exactly right. If anyone had predicted three months ago, if any military analyst had said Russia will be driven back, brought to a standstill, will not even manage to capture the whole of the Donbas—Russia has not even managed to capture the whole of the Donbas in three months—people would have said, “You’re being ridiculous; this is crazy; you’re wildly, wildly optimistic to think that the Ukrainians could manage that, however much we give them.”

Look at what has happened to the reputation of the Russian army in the past two months. It has been shredded. And not just because of the incompetence at every level.

The other point to make is about these atrocities. And I know a bit about this because I saw this; I witnessed it in the First Chechen War. When it comes to these atrocities that have been committed by Russian troops—and these are being attributed to the Putin regime, and it’s true that they bear ultimate responsibility for it—most of these have all the hallmarks of a very demoralized, very undisciplined force. Now, soldiers can commit mass atrocities on orders from above. But don’t tell me that the Putin regime is ordering people to steal fridges and loot. And if they’re looting food, it appears to be because their supply situation is so bad.

In other words, the Russian army under the stress of combat has not just been defeated, but it has disintegrated. That is a defeat. It is a really bad blow. And they have had enormous losses—we’re not sure of the exact casualty figures. But we are sure of the number of generals who have been killed with American intelligence help, and we can see the pictures of colossal damage to Russian armored forces. In many ways, the damage has already been done.

Where is Russia precisely supposed to invade [next], anyway? I mean, Finland? That’s ridiculous. Russia has never threatened to invade Finland. Russia has no reason to invade Finland. Why should Russia invade Finland? There’s this ridiculous idea that Russia has this kind of genetic drive to invade everywhere. No. There are very specific reasons about Ukraine. Leaving aside what happened in 1939 to 1940, during the Cold War Moscow stuck strictly to its treaty with Finland. Finland was neutral. The Soviet Union did not invade, threaten, or destabilize it. The Soviet Union even gave up a military base it had in Finland, which it could have held till the ‘90s. Russia will hold what it has in Georgia and in Moldova. But why precisely should Russia invade anywhere else? If there’s a threat to Poland now, it comes out of the war in Ukraine and Western supply lines to Ukraine running across Poland. But there was no threat to Poland before the war.

Robinson

What is the reason that Sweden and Finland are suddenly eager to join NATO? Is it an honestly felt belief that the Russian army which has collapsed a few miles from its own border poses a threat to the rest of Europe? Do people mean this when they say this? And if European leaders don’t actually perceive a threat of Russian invasion, what is this sudden need to put more U.S. troops in Europe and get more countries into NATO all about?

Lieven

There are two things. One, there is a concern for the future of the Baltic states, which are, in principle, an area that Russia might attack, and they are in NATO. Obviously, their strategic position would be strengthened by having Sweden and Finland in NATO. But, once again, Russia has not threatened to invade the Baltic states. And it seems to me almost incredible now, given the losses Russia has suffered in Ukraine, that they would want to open a new front like that.

The second point is that the Swedes and Finns, like the Europeans in general, have become convinced that we live in a world of international norms which exclude invasions and the seizure of territory within Europe at least. One can have great sympathy with this view. The problem is that they’re thinking about countries within the European Union and NATO. But Russia is not in the European Union and NATO and Russia points to the rest of the world and says, Look, hang on a second, you can’t have it both ways. You won’t take us into a European security order. But you insist that we behave like Sweden or Finland, or Germany or Denmark, and not like the United States, for example.

Robinson

We set some pretty bad precedents and then expect people to conform to standards that we ourselves completely reject.

Lieven

That’s it. From a Russian point of view, America has shredded international legal norms—I mean, so has Russia, of course—since the end of the Cold War and has simply no right to preach. It hasn’t helped, of course, that America’s interventions have turned out so very badly. Russia sympathized with Afghanistan, but Russia warned about what would happen in Iraq and Libya, and turned out to be completely right. So there has been, for many years now, absolutely no rush and willingness to listen to lectures from America on law.

Robinson

Well, they should have heeded their own warnings on invasions and occupations.

Lieven

Once again, let me say this very clearly: Explaining where the Russians are coming from does not mean sympathy with this Russian invasion. Claiming that the Ukrainians are a brotherly people, and then slaughtering them. Claiming to be defending the rights of Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine, and then slaughtering them and destroying their cities. Acknowledging, as they seem to have done at the very start, that support or sympathy or at least acquiescence from the local population was critical, and then allowing your troops to behave like bandit murderers and thieves.

From a purely practical point of view, the Russian intelligence failure in Ukraine makes the intelligence that the Bush administration was receiving—or manufacturing—look like a masterpiece. And this in a country next to Russia, where there was absolutely no excuse for this failure, and on the part of the Russian regime, which is founded on the intelligence services. It’s like a green government somehow suddenly declaring that coal is not dangerous for climate change. It’s a failure on that scale.

Robinson

I live in New Orleans, and I was walking through the French Quarter, which is now full of Ukrainian flags hanging from the balconies. Shows you the extent to which this has backfired. This is the last thing that Putin wanted—this explosion of international sympathy for Ukraine.

Lieven

I think the most important thing is not so much the international sympathy for Ukraine. Putin’s campaign was explicitly predicated on the belief that Ukraine is not really a nation.

Robinson

So much for that.

Lieven

Indeed, Ukraine was deeply divided between the much more Ukrainian ethnic nationalist Western center and the Russian-speaking south and east, which always had historically much closer ties to Russia. Many completely objective analysts did think that large parts of Ukraine would not be willing to fight and that if they didn’t welcome the Russians, at least they would sit back and not do anything about it.

The greatest Russian defeat of all, and the greatest achievement, if you want to call it that, of Putin through this invasion, is that he has proven that the Ukrainians are a nation. And, in a way, NATO membership for Ukraine is now irrelevant. Somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of Ukraine will now move toward the West and away from Russia. That’s settled; there is no more possibility of debate or argument about that. From a Russian historical perspective, and given what Putin hoped to achieve at the beginning, that is a crushing defeat that he has brought totally on himself and on Russia.

Robinson

Perhaps we need some concept like the inverse of a self-fulfilling prophecy, something where you try to stop it from being true and in trying to stop it, you then make it true.

Lieven

Absolutely.

Robinson

I do want to discuss the way in which the present U.S. policy may make the situation more dangerous or make a diplomatic settlement less likely. It seems to me from what I’ve seen of the U.S. stance, or the shifting of it, well, the phrase “pushing your luck” comes to mind…

Lieven

There was a piece by Ross Douthat, in the New York Times, and one by Thomas Friedman, warning precisely this. Don’t push your luck because that means basically this war goes on—if not forever, then for a very long time. If it was a question of Ukraine going onto the offensive in an effort to drive Russia out of the area Russia has held since 2014, that’s a very different matter from standing on the defensive. Then the Ukrainians are going to suffer massive casualties if Russia digs in and defends its existing positions.

Secondly, there’s the effect on the world economy. Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs— not my favorite character, but one assumes he knows something about world economics—has warned of the threat of a U.S. and global recession, with rising energy prices and global food prices. If you look at what’s happening in the Middle East, in Africa, even in India with the tremendous heat wave they’re suffering, the war and Western sanctions risk extremely negative and unpredictable effects. As we know from the Middle East before the Arab Spring, this also implies the possibility of tremendous political instability, including places like Egypt, which is a key U.S. ally.

But, look, two things first. If Ukraine sets out to reconquer Crimea, this war really does go on forever, because Crimea is a peninsula surrounded by water. Unless NATO was actually prepared to go to war itself by sending in planes, the Russian navy will remain predominant in the Black Sea—suffering losses, no doubt—which makes it physically very, very difficult for Ukraine to conquer Crimea.

The other thing is that I was asking a Russian friend—who at least used to be well informed, though the Putin regime has narrowed to such an extent that people who used to be the semi-insiders are now completely excluded—what he said was this: Look, don’t forget that since 2014, according to the Russian governments, and according to the vast majority of Russians, in opinion polls, and according to the majority of Crimeans, Crimea is now part of Russian national territory. He said, What do we have nuclear weapons for? To defend the territory of the Russian Federation. That’s what they’re there for. And he said, I don’t take most of these threats of nuclear escalation seriously, at least there would be several stages before they were used. But, he said, if NATO shows itself as actually determined to push Russia out of Crimea and Sevastopol, then the use of nuclear weapons [could happen]—at least initially, no doubt there would be perhaps warning shots with empty missiles.

During the Cold War, people—including every U.S. president from Truman through to George H.W. Bush—were very seriously frightened of nuclear war. They were aware of the possibility of accidents, of unintentional escalation to war. And so they took damn good care not to do things that could bring that about. There does seem to me a terrifying level of complacency now.

Robinson

Well, Ronald Reagan at least had the wisdom to say that a nuclear war could never be won and so must never be fought. And yet in the Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks ago, there was an op-ed called “The U.S. Should Show it Can Win a Nuclear War.”

Lieven

I say this to friends on the left who say to me, “Do you want to look like a Vladimir Putin sympathizer?” And I say, “No, I really don’t. But let me ask you: Do you want to look like a sympathizer with Curtis LeMay?”—if you remember who he was. Or, if you want to look at a fictional character, I was watching Dr. Strangelove…

Robinson

Oh, the guy. What’s his name?

Lieven

General Buck Turgidson. “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops.”

Robinson

You wrote this article before the invasion in The Nation, a long feature called “Ukraine, the Most Dangerous Problem in the World.” And the reason it was the most dangerous problem in the world is not just because of the threat of a conflict between Ukraine and Russia, but because of the paths that could cause such a conflict to spiral out of control. You mentioned that there’s the possibility of an attempt to push further to Crimea, but perhaps you could elaborate on what you think are the main ways in which this conflict could really, really widen. You also invoked World War One, which I thought was interesting—the ways in which the statesmen who are convinced that they know what they’re doing can cause a colossal global catastrophe that none of them intend to bring about.

Lieven

Putin has become much more isolated. He does have many of the characteristics of an aging dictator: cut off, isolated, impervious to advice, dependent on a small circle of people. There’s no doubt that when Putin invaded Ukraine, he and his immediate establishment thought that they were behaving in a realist way, with a capital R. It turned out, as we know from 1914, that hardline realists can be some of the most unrealistic people around when it comes to judging reality and the real interests of their country. You were kind enough to mention my book on Ukraine and Russia. My most recent book was actually on climate change. I’ve said again and again: try to think back 110 years. Does any sensible person think that the leaders of Europe got their strategic priorities right by going to war in 1914? Think ahead 100 years. If the predictions about climate change are correct, how many people do you really think in 100 years are likely to think that sovereignty over the Donbas was the most important threat facing America and the West—or Russia—in the second quarter of the 21st century? We’ve just got our priorities totally wrong.

As John Mearsheimer and others have pointed out, if you look at American interests, control over parts of eastern Ukraine are so low on that scale. But that is one reason why the advocates of an aggressive American policy of imposing total defeat on Russia are trying to have their cake and eat it, too. Firstly, they tried to turn it into an epochal struggle for democracy.

Robinson

It’s always a struggle for democracy.

Lieven

It’s always about a struggle for democracy, but even more so for the rules-based order and all these headlines about how the future of the world hangs on the war in Ukraine. If Putin had actually succeeded in conquering and subjugating the whole of Ukraine, that would have been a real turn up for the books. They themselves are now saying, We must basically counter-attack. So now it isn’t about democracy and defending democracy or the world order anymore, is it? You’re talking about fighting for limited areas of territory in eastern Ukraine, which, frankly, is not worth a credible threat of nuclear war. It just isn’t.

I was watching the film The Day After recently. My mood has become a bit gloomy recently. I always remember the ending, or part of the ending, whereby the U.S. president comes on the radio and announces a cease-fire between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The audience responds with complete indifference, most of them because they’re dead, and the others because it doesn’t really matter anymore. They’re living among ruins, most of their family are dead. Most of the ones who were still alive are going to die soon of radiation poisoning. So, having a territorial compromise over the Donbas after a nuclear war, will not, I think, seem terribly important to the survivors.

Robinson

There’s another great Cold War era film that I wrote about recently called The Bedford Incident. Have you seen this?

Lieven

No, I haven’t.

Robinson

Oh, it’s great. You’ve got to watch it. It’s a retelling of Moby-Dick but with an American sea captain pursuing a Russian nuclear submarine who becomes increasingly obsessive. And the point is that he can’t back down and his inability to back down from confronting this Russian nuclear sub ends up leading to the same catastrophe that it leads to in the novel Moby-Dick. These are the most dangerous situations—even in interpersonal relations, situations where you have two parties who cannot back down because they must avoid humiliation or defeat, and so, therefore, cannot make any concessions—these just lead to the kinds of conflicts that spiral out of control.

Lieven

But the difference is that there is no humiliation for America in helping Ukraine to reach a compromise with Russia. America, as I say, has already won a tremendous victory. There is tremendous humiliation for Putin, of course, implied in all this.

To talk about a real life incident during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which very fortunately turned out the other way: you know the story of Vasily Arkhipov [Soviet Navy officer who prevented a nuclear launch], who was the Liam Neeson character in the film K-19: The Widowmaker? (By the way, the film was totally inaccurate. He was promoted—he wasn’t demoted or investigated for this—because they recognized that Arkhipov and his captain had prevented a nuclear disaster.) It was the purest chance that he was on board a Soviet nuclear submarine when an American destroyer started dropping practice grenades basically. The two other officers would have fired a nuclear torpedo. Arkhipov persuaded them not to do so. If he hadn’t been on board, none of us might be here.

Robinson

Well, I want to finish by asking about the best-case scenario for the conclusion of this conflict. What would a sensible U.S. policy look like?

Lieven

Russia clearly has to withdraw from all the new territories it has occupied since the beginning of the war. And then we have to settle these issues. If they can’t go back to Ukraine without endless conflict and the risk of nuclear war, let us have a referendum under international supervision in Crimea, and the Donbas, and ask the people where they want to go. That would probably give Russia just enough of a success for them to make peace. And since we’re not going to offer Ukraine NATO membership, we need a treaty of neutrality with built-in sanctions and military supplies that would automatically begin to flow if Russia violated the treaty. I’m not saying this should be official U.S. policy. I’m just saying this is my hope. I would hope that the Russian establishment, the Russian elites, and indeed the Russian people would sit down and actually recognize just what a disaster Putin has led them into. Speaking for myself, I hope that there will be a tremendous movement and a successful movement in Russia to get rid of Putin. But it has to be done by the Russians. Even if an American campaign succeeded—by the way, Yeltsin was widely seen as someone who came to power, apparently, with American help—it would lack all legitimacy, all stability, and would fall, possibly in awful circumstances. So that’s my hope.

Robinson

It’s so counterproductive for the Biden administration to suggest that it would like to topple Putin.

Lieven

By the way, where precisely has this worked? Did it work in Cuba? No. Iran? No. North Korea? Obviously not. Venezuela? No. A consistent row of regime change failures. The only one that worked was Iraq, which of course, you had to invade, or Libya, which you had to bomb. It doesn’t look like a great precedent, does it? Look at the evidence.

Robinson

Just one final question. What is the current Ukrainian stance? It probably varies, and it’s difficult to get a sense of Ukrainian public opinion in the middle of a conflict. But one of the things I hear in response to America facilitating some kind of diplomatic settlement here is that we need to follow the lead of Ukraine. And if the Ukrainian government says what we would like is to have as many weapons as possible, then our job is to supply weapons. Where do things stand? You don’t really often hear whether Zelensky is asking for more than just weaponry or whether he’s disappointed in the American posture or what.

Lieven

There are two very important things there. First, Ukraine did come up with a set of—well, they would have been negotiated—principles. Ukraine’s peace proposals were issued and they’re still there, by the way, the last time I checked, on the Ukrainian presidential website. Very sensible proposals for a peace settlement. They received no public support from America whatsoever. If America’s policy is now proxy warfare against Russia, then that is directly contrary to any hopes of peace.

The second thing to recognize is that there are different forces in Ukraine. Twice now, Zelensky has been ferociously attacked by Ukrainian extreme nationalists, including, of course in the armed forces, precisely for suggesting the possibility of a compromise peace with Russia. Before the war, from what I gather, Zelensky went up to all the Western major governments and said, Can you guarantee that we’ll be in NATO within a reasonable space of time? They all said, No. He said—at least, from what I’ve been told by some of the French—Can you then propose a treaty of neutrality for us and then I will accept this as a basis for negotiation? And the French and the Germans said, No, we can’t propose that. And, of course, it’s also because they were afraid of a clash with Washington. They said, We can’t propose that. But if you propose it, then we might be able to support it. And Zelensky said, I can’t do that, because that would cause ferocious opposition and anger among my ultranationalists at home. So you had a ridiculous situation in which one side was saying, Look, if you propose it, I’ll support it. The other was saying the same thing. In my view, this would have avoided war and both sides wanted it but it was not possible.

The point is, because of internal political divisions within Ukraine and because the Europeans, frankly, are just a broken bunch of servants by now, America has to take the lead. But also, America is giving huge amounts of aid. The aid package for Ukraine this year is ten times the entire proposed aid package to Central America for the next three years. This is huge even by Pentagon standards. And America is risking global economic recession and public uprisings over food prices in key American client states and allies elsewhere in the world. If America is doing all this, of course, it has the right to a say in how to end this war. That, I’m afraid, is pure hypocrisy. It’s covering up an unwillingness to try to make peace.

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