Seth Moulton, a Democratic congressman on the House Armed Services Committee, made a rather shocking assertion on Fox News recently. “We’re not just at war to support the Ukrainians,” Moulton said. “We’re fundamentally at war, although somewhat through a proxy, with Russia, and it’s important that we win.” Former defense secretary Leon Panetta has said something similar, commenting that “we are engaged in … a proxy war with Russia, whether we say so or not.”
The Biden administration, for its part, has vigorously denied that it is engaged in a “proxy war,” calling this a “Kremlin talking point.” The label “proxy war” is a little vague anyway, although the Washington Post says that one reason the label shouldn’t be applied is that “the core U.S. objective is helping Ukraine achieve a goal it set for itself: to fend off the expanded Russian invasion.” In other words, if we have Ukraine’s interests at heart, we’re not waging a proxy war, while if we are using Ukraine to further our own ends, the label is more apt. But as the Post acknowledges, over time there has been a shift in the way the Biden administration has talked about its goals. High-ranking U.S. officials have suggested that our country’s government does not just want to see Russia withdraw from Ukraine, but wants to “weaken” Russia to the point where it does not possess sufficient military power to invade a country ever again (which would require decimating Russia militarily and economically) and also wants Putin to be removed from power and put in the Hague. The Post acknowledges that the Biden administration’s statements have “suggested U.S. interests had escalated from simply helping Ukraine achieve its own battlefield aims to getting something seen as geopolitically desirable in Washington” and that this certainly “edges” the conflict “in the direction of being a proxy war.”
An important question here is whether the United States, despite its rhetoric, is actually trying to set its own policies on the basis of what Ukraine wants and needs, or on the basis of the outcome the U.S. wants and needs. As Noam Chomsky pointed out in a recent interview with Current Affairs, in the 1980s the United States funded Islamist mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan in part to bleed and weaken the Soviet Union. While there may have been noble rhetoric about aiding the people of Afghanistan, in reality the U.S. cared about its rivalry with the Soviets, not the millions of civilians who died in the Afghan conflict. “We now have the opportunity of giving the USSR its Vietnam War,” Zbigniew Brzeziński says he told Jimmy Carter. Fueling a violent conflict in a small country in order to weaken a larger adversary is, of course, morally unconscionable.
There is a way, then, that the U.S. could be providing massive amounts of support to Ukraine without actually being interested in helping Ukraine, and in fact having a somewhat sociopathic and Machiavellian attitude toward Ukraine.1 Veteran diplomat Chas Freeman has said that this is precisely the attitude the U.S. appears to have toward Ukraine: instead of trying to facilitate a diplomatic settlement, the U.S. is “fighting Russia to the last Ukrainian,” meaning that we are content to see the fighting continue so long as Ukrainians, rather than Americans, die. Freeman says that there are clearly those in the United States who think a long war would be preferable to a short one, because the longer the war goes on, the more it will weaken Russia (of course, it will also destroy Ukraine, but that is only one factor in the U.S. geopolitical calculus).
Indeed, there is evidence that the U.S. might actively prefer the continuation, or even the escalation, of the war to a diplomatic settlement. The Washington Post recently reported on the “awkward reality” that “for some in NATO, it’s better for the Ukrainians to keep fighting, and dying, than to achieve a peace that comes too early or at too high a cost to Kyiv and the rest of Europe.” Surely no moral person could speak of an end to the killing coming “too early,” but the Post indicates that for some NATO countries, the objective goes beyond trying to get the Ukrainians a deal with Russia that both sides are prepared to accept. Indeed, the Post says that if the Ukrainians did try to strike a deal with Russia, it would have to be “within limits” set by NATO in order for NATO countries to support it, since if the deal was perceived to concede too much to Russia, NATO countries would be jittery about it. Indeed, international relations scholar John Mearsheimer predicts that “If the Ukrainians decide to cut a deal and allow Russia to win in some meaningful sense, the Americans are going to say that’s unacceptable.” If that’s the case, then it is not really true that the United States simply defers to Ukraine’s desires. We have our own interests.
Indeed, for confirmation of Moulton’s observation that “we are not just at war to support the Ukrainians,” we can look at articles in leading opinion journals. Foreign Policy recently ran a piece called “Yes, the United States Should Weaken Russia,” in which the pretense of caring about Ukrainians was all but abandoned, and the author (a professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute and fellow at the Atlantic Council) said our approach should be to undermine Russia in order to help “U.S. interests”:
To reduce Russia’s ability to threaten vital U.S. interests on a whim, Washington should aim to erode Russian power by competing directly with Moscow and engaging in its zero-sum game. … This change in approach will necessarily mean more U.S. and allied troops with more advanced capabilities permanently stationed in Eastern Europe, especially in Poland, the Baltics, and Romania. … The West clearly needs a new strategy toward Russia, and Austin’s comment [that the U.S. should weaken Russia] should serve as a blueprint. The United States should seek to go beyond competing with or deterring Russia as suggested in recent strategies and instead seek to erode its power over time in the military, diplomatic, and economic spheres. It’s the only strategy that will roll back Russia’s ability to threaten vital U.S. interests.
And the interests of Ukraine? Shouldn’t the U.S. be crafting policy right now on the basis of what helps Ukrainians, rather than what helps (vaguely defined) “U.S. interests”? You might assume that what’s good for us and what’s good for Ukraine coincide, but that’s not necessarily the case. As Chomsky pointed out, all the talk of regime change in Russia disincentivizes Putin to end the war, because it indicates that the U.S. posture toward him will be the same regardless of what he does in Ukraine. The Guardian notes that the present U.S. posture “suggest[s] that even if Russian forces withdrew or were expelled from the Ukrainian territory they have occupied since 24 February, the US and its allies would seek to maintain sanctions with the aim of stopping Russia reconstituting its forces.” James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has argued that by not making it clear how Putin can get sanctions lifted, we create an ambiguity that is “dangerous because it risks obscuring the existence of an off-ramp for Putin.” If the West’s position is that it will try to topple Putin’s government, and that nothing Putin can do will change this, it places him in a struggle for survival. Boris Johnson’s spokesperson has said directly that the sanctions “we are introducing, that large parts of the world are introducing, are to bring down the Putin regime.” (Downing Street later walked back the statement.) If Putin will be sanctioned if he ends the war and sanctioned if he doesn’t, then sanctions are not being used as pressure to end the war.
It would not just be morally wrong for the United States to decline to facilitate a diplomatic settlement, thereby prolonging Ukrainian suffering, in order to weaken Russia. It is also unbelievably dangerous. There have been revelations in recent weeks that the United States is more deeply involved in the war than the Biden administration has been telling the public—it has secretly been helping Ukraine kill Russian generals and helped them sink the flagship vessel of the Russian naval fleet. The new aid the Biden administration has requested for Ukraine, much of which will be in the form of weapons, “is about half the size of the entire Russian defense budget—and also more than half of the U.S. State Department’s annual budget.” Even Thomas Friedman of the New York Times (no peacenik) has warned that the revelations about U.S. involvement suggest “we are no longer in an indirect war with Russia but rather are edging toward a direct war—and no one has prepared the American people or Congress for that.” Friedman notes that “when American officials start to brag in public about playing a role in killing Russian generals and sinking the Russian flagship, killing many sailors, we could be creating an opening for Putin to respond in ways that could dangerously widen this conflict—and drag the U.S. in deeper than it wants to be.” If Putin retaliates against the United States, will we enter a hot war with Russia? The danger is also discussed in an excellent MSNBC article on the “slippery nuclear slope” that comes from deliberate U.S. escalation beyond defending Ukraine:
[O]riginally, it was understood that America’s military support would come to an end once Ukraine no longer needs defending. By flipping the priorities and centering the objective around bleeding Russia, the conflict could conceivably continue even after Ukraine’s defensive needs have been met and Russia’s invasion has been defeated. Because when has Russia been weakened enough? Once it no longer can invade its neighbors? While preventing countries from invading their neighbors is a laudable goal, doing so by defanging a country with 140 million people and 6,000 nuclear weapons will not be achieved easily, quickly, or through economic sanctions and Ukrainian military prowess alone. At some point, it appears inevitable that achieving such a goal will require more direct American military involvement—which in turn, may risk nuclear war. This shift also gives the impression that Ukraine is little more than a pawn in a geo-strategic contest between the United States and Russia, an impression many observers worldwide no doubt already hold, right or wrong.
There is nothing about a nuclear war between the United States and Russia that would serve the interests of Ukraine, and Friedman notes that we are playing a dangerous game that could spiral into a calamity. The New Yorker’s Robin Wright concludes that “Washington is no longer hesitant to poke the bear.” “Poking the bear” seems a concerning policy when the bear in question has more nuclear weapons than any other country on Earth. Anatol Lieven of Responsible Statecraft comments that the U.S. gamble on actions that could easily provoke Russia, at a time when Russia is desperate for a military victory and its conventional forces are clearly not up to the job, “means a risk of nuclear war that is now greater than it has ever been, even perhaps during the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
There are some who do not even wish for Americans to discuss the depth of their country’s involvement in the Ukraine War. Daniel Drezner of the Washington Post reacted to the revelation about the U.S. helping to kill generals by saying “My advice to U.S. officials is that they should shut the fuck up about this.” “Silence, please,” said war crimes expert David Frum. But we shouldn’t want U.S. officials to be waging a secret proxy war that could lead to catastrophe with no public debate whatsoever. Seth Moulton’s declaration that we are “at war” with Russia is horrifying. When did the public agree to go to war with Russia?
The frustrating aspect of this is that the war may well have been avoidable, and the framework for a diplomatic settlement already exists. Although Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy advisor, Matt Duss, has said he has “yet to hear anyone explain the settlement the Biden administration allegedly refuses to push for” other than “Ukraine surrenders,” the basics of an agreement existed before the war and have been explained repeatedly by Chomsky and others. As a useful explainer in Fair Observer notes:
In Ukraine, the basic outlines of a peace agreement already exist. They are fourfold. First, Russian forces withdraw from Ukraine. Second, Ukraine promises neutrality and becomes an independent buffer state between NATO and Russia. Third, all Ukrainians get the right of self-determination, including those in Crimea and Donbas. Finally, all parties conclude a regional security agreement that protects everyone and prevents new wars.
Fair Observer points out that it is critical that the U.S. support the diplomatic process to hash out such an agreement and also comments that “One of the most critical steps that US and NATO leaders can take to provide an incentive for Russia to agree to a negotiated peace is to commit to lifting their sanctions if and when Russia complies with a withdrawal agreement.” This is because “without such a commitment, the sanctions have no moral or practical value as leverage over Russia and are only an arbitrary form of collective punishment against its people.” The sanctions need to be a means to end the war.
It is deeply alarming to see the Biden administration shift from its earlier, more restrained stance. Providing military aid to Ukraine is justifiable, but the purposes of that aid should be to facilitate a settlement to the conflict, not to drag out a war so that Russia will be a less powerful competitor on the global stage. There are concerning indications that, as a defense analyst quoted in the New York Times says, “the U.S. is dragging everyone into a different war,” and is making European allies jittery by helping Putin frame the conflict as being between Russia and NATO. Having officials like Moulton openly say that we are “at war with Russia” would certainly seem to help Putin support his argument that we are at war with Russia.
There is, in the United States, a seeming aversion to discussing ways to actually solve the conflict, in part because Vladimir Putin is treated as a Hitlerian figure with dreams of world conquest. European countries are planning to re-arm to fend off a supposed future threat from Russia—a threat that should be laughable considering that Russia has proven it can’t even conquer territory thirty miles from its border in a poor country. There is also a reluctance to engage in self-scrutiny and examine our own role in producing the conflict—for instance, Nicholas Grossman of the Daily Beast says that it’s unlikely the invasion could have been stopped through better diplomacy and restraint by NATO countries, “considering Russia’s maximalist demands, and how little Putin and his spokespeople mention NATO in public justifications.” In fact, anyone who has read those justifications knows Putin’s complaints about NATO are very, very prominent in his justifications—one of the chief grievances in his recent Victory Day speech was that “the NATO bloc launched an active military build-up on the territories adjacent to us.”
To question U.S. policy toward Ukraine is not to justify Russian aggression, or to say that Ukraine’s interests do not matter. In fact, the correct argument is that Ukraine’s interests should be at the heart of our policy, not a broader desire to undermine Russia. We need to adopt the policy that will end the killing, and try to keep the war from spiraling out of control. At a time when Russian television is airing threats to destroy Britain with nuclear weapons, it is insane for the Biden administration to be taking actions that “poke the bear.” (Although there are those in the media who seem almost excited by the idea of a nuclear war.) Furthermore, there is something disturbing reading about drone companies “keen to showcase their technology” in a war, and seeing the words of a “geostrategic consulting firm” head quoted by Friedman, who says the “the war in Ukraine gave the administration an opportunity to demonstrate the U.S.’s unique assets in the world today” and we can use the situation to “vastly improve our long-term power and standing in the world and send a very powerful deterrent message to both Russia and China.” It should not be controversial to note that the U.S. is not aiding Ukraine out of a principled support for victims of aggression (since we don’t care about aggression by our allies), but because this case of aggression is being conducted by a country considered a rival. (Likewise, the U.S. believes in the ICC if it prosecutes Russians but not if it wants to prosecute Israelis or Americans.) We must confront the discomforting possibility that there are people in positions of power who might prefer a devastated Ukraine and a weakened Russia to a “peace that comes too soon” that leaves Putin’s existing power mostly intact. For a humanist, the goal must always be to push policy in the direction of minimizing human suffering rather than maximizing American global power. The idea of using Ukraine’s suffering to, in the Post’s words, “get something seen as geopolitically desirable” should revolt the conscience.
Image: Joe Biden signs the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act of 2022 (Associated Press)
Let me tell a rather silly story just to remind us that one can help someone without having their best interests at heart: let us say you are in a bar, and a fight breaks out. A big thug, let us call him Bad Bad Leroy Brown, has started pummeling some innocent little pipsqueak, which Leroy tends to do when he drinks. (You’ve done the same yourself from time to time.) You, who have grown tired of Leroy’s influence in the bar, know you could try to pull the fighting pair apart. Leroy’s influence would be undiminished, but the pipsqueak would emerge relatively unscathed. On the other hand, instead of stopping the fight, you could hand the pipsqueak a set of brass knuckles and a knife, in the hopes of giving him a fair chance. Heck, he might even kill Leroy, which would solve your problem. Of course, he might also be killed himself, which is in fact quite probable. Let us ask a question: if, instead of trying to end the fight, you hand weapons to the pipsqueak and cheer him on, in the hopes he’ll humiliate your rival, would it be fair to characterize you as having altruistic motives toward the poor pipsqueak? I would argue that, in fact, you have simply used this person without having any regard for their life. ↩