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TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
25 February 2023: As long as it takes, plus texts and laments
By the time you read this, in fact, no fewer than three hundred and sixty six days. That is at least eight thousand, seven hundred and eighty four consecutive hours, during which some forty four million Ukrainians could never be wholly confident of seeing the next. Thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — of civilian lives lost, plus tens of thousands more killed in the defense of the innocent. Millions of lives uprooted.
So many other things have happened in the past twelve months, and yet so little of it seems to matter.
Until there is peace, there can be only war.
What I’m thinking about
“You remind us that freedom is priceless. It’s worth fighting for for as long as it takes. And that’s how long we’re going to be with you, Mr. President: for as long as it takes.”
Those words, spoken by Joe Biden while standing alongside Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv — spoken by an American president in the middle of a war zone — were remarkable in both form and content.
In 1956, when Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary, Washington did nothing. In 1968, when Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia, Washington did nothing. In 1980, when Soviet tanks threatened to roll into Poland, Washington warned Warsaw that, as in 1956 and 1968, it would do nothing. And in 2008 and 2014, when post-Soviet Russian tanks rolled into Georgia and then Ukraine, Washington once again did nothing. I am not here to debate whether those were the right decisions. But in 2022, when Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine for the second time, Washington acted. And that, however you read it, is remarkable.
“As long as it takes” is now the common refrain, repeated by Biden and Macron and Scholtz and Sunak, and it’s not a bad one. Ukraine should know, as should Moscow, that Western resolve will not wane. But “as long as it takes” might also be read to mean that we’re not in a hurry — and that, I think, would be a mistake.
To be clear, I’m not a believer in arbitrary deadlines. Anniversaries have a way of encouraging people to think in discrete chunks of time, and so we’re seeing a lot of hand-wringing along the lines of, “this year must be the final year.” That kind of rhetoric is unhelpful, because if it begins to look like it will take another year after this one to secure a Ukrainian victory, and maybe even more after that, a series of missed “deadlines’ — all artificially constructed — may begin to sap resolve. “As long as it takes” can easily turn into “this is taking too long.”
Nor am I fully on board with the idea that time is on Putin’s side, as many, including evidently Putin himself, seem to believe. Yes, Putin doesn’t face consequential elections the way some Western leaders do, and he doesn’t have to worry about a fickle public, at least not at the moment. And yes, Ukraine feels to toll of battle more deeply than Russia does. But Ukraine’s fight is existential, and, whatever the polls may suggest, Western support runs deep. Indeed, there is an increasing understanding across party lines that this war is not just Ukraine’s: it’s one we need to win, as well. And while Western economies and political establishments are considerably more durable than Russia’s.
And yet that durability should not give way to complacency. On the battlefield itself, the longer this war lasts, the greater the cost in human lives. Ukraine has already lost so much and so many — a swifter victory will, quite simply, save lives. A shorter war is also one in which there are fewer opportunities for catastrophic escalation, whether accidental or intentional.
But it is not just on the battlefield that we find urgent reasons to want to end this war sooner, rather than later. The US and Europe are able, more or less, to weather the imbalances that the war has generated on global markets for energy, grain and other commodities, but the costs are being borne — as they so often are — by the countries who can least afford it. What’s more, those same imbalances, and Russian and allied attempts to circumvent Western sanctions, risk a permanent fracturing of global trading systems, yielding a less prosperous world for generations to come. And most Western countries themselves are badly in need of important reforms, to address structural inequalities and fiscal imbalances. The longer this war lasts, the greater all of those challenges will grow.
None of this is an argument for withdrawal. As I’ve written before, the medium- to long-term consequences for global security and prosperity of anything other than a full Ukrainian victory would be considerably more catastrophic than any of the problems I’ve outlined here. There is no compromise available here, no partial victory. But if the choice is between winning slowly and winning quickly, there are very good reasons to opt for the latter.
Back in June, when I first outlined what I take to be the core arguments for Western support for Ukraine, I outlined three key pillars of victory:
First, the price Russia pays for this war must be sufficient to deter any other power from trying anything similar. That will almost inevitably have to be a price much higher than the one currently being imposed, and will thus come at a much higher cost to the West, as well.
Second, the end of this war must eventually — and sooner, rather than later — give rise to a renewed commitment to multilateralism, empowering the UN to ensure that the US, too, is deterred from adventurism. (For what it’s worth, a system that can be trusted to bind Washington is also one that can be trusted to bind Moscow and Beijing.)
And third, the war must end quickly. If Ukrainians are allowed to suffer for years, or if their diminished sovereignty and territory persist for generations, the first two pillars of victory will crumble.
If Western leaders want to fight for a future that has less war, they will need to be clear about what victory really means. Yes, it must mean that Russia loses. But it must also mean that the world as a whole wins. And above all, it means making sure that Ukraine wins, and that Ukraine wins quickly and convincingly. Anything short of that will be no victory at all.
Looking back at that passage now, I will admit that in the ensuing months, as we all settled in for what looked to be a war of attrition, I lost sight of that third point. Looking ahead, then, I think Biden’t “as long as it takes” needs a minor addendum: “as long as it takes — but as quickly as we can.”
What I’m reading
Joe Biden wasn’t the only person to beat Putin to the anniversary-marking punch. One day before Putin’s big speech, jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny published a 15-point manifesto, the bulk of which, one way or another, dealt with the war, including calls for restoring Ukraine to its full 1991 borders (i.e., returning Crimea and everything else), investigating and prosecuting Russian war crimes, and providing Ukraine with fair reparations and compensation. While there’s a conversation to be had about why it took Navalny a year to make these points this clearly — and more than eight years to provide a clear rejection of the annexation of Crimea — this stands as the clearest repudiation of the war by any political organization in Russia. (For a little bit more on the subject, see my Twitter thread from Monday.)
A day later, Putin finally gave his delayed address to the Federal Assembly in which he said, well, not much at all:
And two days after that — on Thursday, 23 February, also known as ‘Defender of the Fatherland Day’ — Putin gave yet another speech, this one at a rally in Moscow, at which he spoke for a whole four minutes. The speech itself was wholly unremarkable as, in fact, was the rally. Meduza reported on the astroturfed crowd, including busloads of students from Tambov and other provincial cities, brought in to fill the stands but mostly hiding in the toilets to avoid the -11 celsius cold. (The report is highly reminiscent of what Meduza found at a similar rally back in September, albeit in somewhat better weather.)
As is usually the case, though, the politicians were the least interesting part of the week — and, indeed, the week was unusually rich with analysis. The piece that has my Russian social media feeds buzzing is an interview (again in Meduza) with Gregory Yudin, the sociologist who has been one of the keenest observers of the states of mind in the Russian public. It is not happy reading:
“If the primary emotion in Russia is resentment, then the primary affect on which everything rests is fear. It is an existential fear, a fear in the face of the wrath of a concrete individual or a fear of war, a more abstract fear of chaos. It is a fear multiplied by the certainty of the omnipotence of the tyrant, who will always get what he wants, because he has always gotten what he wants, and so that is the way it will continue to be. This fear, multiplied by hopelessness, needs an answer.”
My English-language social media feeds, meanwhile, were buzzing with the phenomenal report by Max Seddon, Christopher Miller and Felicia Schwartz in the FT on Thursday, looking back at how Putin made the decision to go to war, and how the Russian elite responded. Richly detailed, the story includes a description of a meeting to which a group of economic elites (I have sworn off calling them oligarchs anymore) were invited just after the full-scale invasion began”
“While they waited, one of the oligarchs spied Lavrov exiting another meeting and pressed him for an explanation about why Putin had decided to invade. Lavrov had no answer: the officials he was there to see in the Kremlin had known less about it than he did.
“Stunned, the oligarch asked Lavrov how Putin could have planned such an enormous invasion in such a tiny circle — so much so that most of the senior officials at the Kremlin, Russia’s economic cabinet and its business elite had not believed it was even possible.
“‘He has three advisers,’ Lavrov replied, according to the oligarch. ‘Ivan the Terrible. Peter the Great. And Catherine the Great.’”
Meanwhile, the Russian military analyst Yury Fedorov had an excellent analysis in iStories this week of the causes of dysfunction in the Russian military. Unlike many in the West, who have chalked Russia’s military failures down to issues of culture and corruption, Fedorov digs into the structure and design of Russian forces and argues that the Russian military was simply not set up to fight the kind of war in which Putin embroiled it. Why Putin himself didn’t seem to understand this is another question.
Rounding up the looks back this week — though technically not reading material — is an excellent podcast from the Brussels-based economic think tank Bruegel, examining the impact of sanctions on the Russian economy, as well as on the European, US and global economies. Featuring Elina Ribakova and Nicolas Véron, the podcast is easily the best informed, most sober and simply clearest elucidation of the subject I’ve come across in the public domain, and thus well worth your time.
What I’m listening to
I was not, at first, certain that there was any music appropriate for this week’s newsletter. In fact, part of me was certain that any music at all would be wholly inappropriate. To be sure, now is not the moment for whimsical distraction. And yet, because music can reach us in ways and places that words cannot, it occurred to me that there are three pieces of music in particular, without which this newsletter would be incomplete.
The first, of course, is Ukraine’s national anthem, performed here by the New York Philharmonic.
Ukraine’s anthem — “Ukraine is not yet lost” — is, of course, a lamentation, which put me in mind of the second piece, the lamentation of the prophet Jeremiah, set to music here by the 16th-century Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria and performed by Stile Antico. De lamentatione Jeremiæ Prophetæ is part of the Easter cycle, but its roots are in the Old Testament, where lamentations, like Ukraine’s anthem, speak of the necessity of hope in the midst of despair.
And the third piece is this, which needs no explanation, other than the fact that it was recorded in a market in Odesa in 2014. I have watched this a dozen times before, and I’ll probably watch it a few more times after I press ‘send’ on this newsletter. I hope it reaches you where it reaches me.