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TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
4 March 2023: Blank checks, plus texts and tunes
This edition of the TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup is sponsored by Delta Airlines and Dane County Regional Airport, which is evidently my new home. Note to self: Make sure it’s not going to snow in Detroit before booking a direct flight between Madison, Wisconsin, and Washington, DC. Or something like that. Still, I promise that none—or almost none—of the snark and ire that follows is travel-induced.
What I’m thinking about
Regular readers of this newsletter will know how I feel about arguments that the West should push Ukraine to negotiate a settlement with Russia, particularly when those arguments fail to put forward any ideas for how those negotiations might actually provide Ukraine with even a modicum of security. I thought, though, that I had inured myself against such stuff. I was wrong.
This week’s dose came from Thomas Meaney, arguing in the New York Times on Thursday that America—and, by extension, the West as a whole—was “in over its head.” In fairness to Meaney, I’m not really sure that phrase, which is in the headline but not the piece itself, is one he would care to own. Also in fairness to Meaney, is argument is among the more nuanced attempts at arguing for a drawdown of Western support that I’ve seen, and it’s worth looking at in detail.
In a nutshell, Meaney argues that the West, and Ukraine itself, were irrationally emboldened by Ukraine’s early military successes and Russia’s early military failures; that this enthusiasm encouraged both Ukraine and the West to believe that a full restoration of Ukrainian territorial integrity was possible; that the current state of the war suggests that Ukraine is no more able to retake all of its territory than Russia is to take all of Ukraine; that the levels of Western financial and material support needed to sustain Ukraine’s current war effort are unsustainable; that the only path to full restoration of Ukrainian territorial integrity is direct US or NATO military engagement; that the US and/or NATO will not engage directly; and thus that the only viable option is to negotiate. Meaney also argues, I think reasonably, that Moscow might be inclined to negotiate for something far less than its initial war aims, given that it is struggling to move the front line at all.
Some of Meaney’s propositions are, I think, fair enough. I agree, broadly, that current levels of military supply to Ukraine are insufficient for Ukraine to win outright. I agree, as well, that Moscow might eventually be willing to negotiate at least a ceasefire (and Meaney does not claim that a real peace agreement is attainable), though at present Putin has insufficient incentive to do so. But the rest of the argument, in my view, is lacking in factual or analytical basis.
While it is true that publics in the West were emboldened by Ukraine’s successes in the war, the idea that Western policy—much less Ukrainian policy—have been predominantly shaped by some kind of irrational exuberance is far-fetched. Ukrainian public opinion was galvanized in favor of complete defense and an outright victory from the very first hours of the war, when even a short-lived defense of Kyiv seemed an iffy proposition. Western capitals, meanwhile, have been remarkably circumspect and, in fact, quite slow to give Ukraine the arms it needed to defend and then re-take territory, hardly evidence of emotionally driven rash decision-making. With the notable exception of Biden, most Western leaders have remained, until very recently, openly skeptical of the idea of an outright Ukrainian victory.
Moving on, Meaney is right that an extended war of attrition will be costly, and that we are already facing bottlenecks. It does not follow from that, however, that the only route to a Ukrainian victory is American boots on the ground or pilots in the sky. A significant and rapid uptick in Western support, plus a clear strategic commitment to seeing this through—along the lines of what Biden has already communicated—can dramatically alter both the battlefield and the planning calculations for Putin and his general staff. The reason Putin won’t negotiate now is because he believes we can be pushed to quit. Take away that possibility, and what is he left with?
But what irks me most of all about Meaney’s argument—and many others like it—is that despite its elegance and civility, it is substantively indistinguishable from the incessant “no blank check” rant of Marjorie Taylor Greene and her ilk. Both MTG and Meaney begin from the assumption that we are support Ukraine wholly and exclusively for Ukraine’s sake, and thus that the game fundamentally isn’t worth the taper. What Meaney is saying, frankly, is not that the West cannot sustain support for Ukraine, but that it should not—and it should not because Meaney (and MTG) conceives of both victory and loss entirely in terms that accrue wholly and exclusively to Ukraine.
I do not, in all honesty, find the rhetoric about “democracies vs autocracies” terribly helpful. But as I’ve written repeatedly, anything short of a true Ukrainian victory will, in my view, usher in a world in which we do not particularly want to live. And so in a very real sense, it is not the Ukrainians who are hiding behind us, but we who are hiding behind the Ukrainians. Whatever money we are spending pales in comparison to the losses being borne by Ukrainians every single day. It is, I would submit, Ukraine who has written the West a rather large blank check. We ought to earn it.
What I’m reading
If the waning days of February were taken up by thoughts of what Ukraine has endured in the past 12 months, attention in the early days of March seems to have shifted to Russia, with a number of essays attempting to put Russia’s year into some kind of perspective—with varying degrees of success.
Michael McFaul, as he often does, began the week on an optimistic note with an article in the Journal of Democracy, arguing that Putin’s long streak of good luck had finally come to an end. Putin, Mike writes,1 had over the course of decades, including his time in St. Petersburg, rode a number of waves to power and popularity, relatively few of which were of Putin’s own making: the eventual success of earlier generations of liberalizing reforms, the global oil price boom, and other smaller-bore phenomena combined with a genuine degree of political acumen to make the man, for a while, remarkably successful. But by 2022, the article suggests, Putin had begun to lose sight of the difference between luck and skill, and so he launched an ill-conceived and ultimately ill-fated war.
I don’t disagree with Mike’s retelling of the history, or with his interpretation of Putin’s intellectual trajectory. But I don’t really agree with the conclusion that Putin’s luck—at least in the terms defined by Putin himself—has run out, or that he is a stranger to failure. His entire term in office has been marked by disaster after disasters: the Kursk submarine sinking, the attacks on Dubrovka and Beslan, natural disasters of varying proportions. He has responded to all of these and others poorly and ineffectively, and yet they have had no impact on his political fortunes. And there is, as yet, little evidence that his failures in Ukraine will have much impact, either.
That, in fact, is the subject (in part) of the second essay on my list, published Friday in Meduza by Maxim Trudolyubov. While it may be true that Putin had hoped and even expected to win the war outright and quickly, he has adapted himself to an ongoing conflict with alarming alacrity, building that conflict into the fabric of his regime and thriving in the process. Maxim does find a snag for Putin: when the war ends, that fabric may unravel. A similar notion, however, has been expressed a great many times before, and yet here we are.
The third and fourth essays—by Konstantin Eggert for Deutsche Welle on Tuesday, and by Tom Nichols way back on 23 February in The Atlantic—are laments for lost worlds. For Kostya, it is the world of the Russian intelligentsia, surrendered (indeed, long before the war began) to Putin and his political project, and now utterly destroyed. He writes:
Some people are surprised: ‘Where are all those people who poured out into the streets in 2014 after that war began, or in 2015, when they killed Boris Nemtsov?’ Lithuanians, for example, often ask, ‘What happened to the 400,000 people who came out in January 1991 to protest in front of the Kremlin to support a free Lithuania?
The answer is simple: that country, and that society, no longer exist.
Nichols’ sentiment is similar, though, as an American, his vantage point is different. A year into the war, he writes, he is grieving not only for Ukraine, but for a world of ambitions and aspirations—held by Ukrainians and Russians and even Americans—that are now irrevocably shattered. I share that sense of grief, as, I imagine, do many of my colleagues.
Finally, two journalistic investigations caught my eye this week. The first, published by Dar’ia Talanova in Novaia gazeta on Monday, combines high-quality data journalism with human-interest reporting to uncover the inhumanity with which the Russian military is treating its own soldiers and, when they die or go missing, their families. The second, published by Proekt’s Mikhail Maglov, Roman Badanin and Sergei Titov on Tuesday, is a two-part exposé of the ways in which Putin earns, manages and spends his money, including new (to me, at least) facts on the money he makes from media assets and a vodka company (Putinka, of course). Both investigations are striking, informative and should be scandalous. But I cannot escape the notion that, while they contain much new information, most readers (myself included) aren’t really learning anything we didn’t already know about how Russia works. These investigations are scandalous. So why is nobody scandalized?
What I’m listening to
Because if I have to listen to it—for five hours on repeat—so should you!
As long-time readers may recall, on second reference I tend to refer to friends and personal acquaintances by their first name, while people I don’t know personally retain their surname throughout the text. Hence, McFaul becomes Mike, but Meaney remains Meaney. No offense or disrespect is meant to either party!