NO FREE LUNCH (Russia/Ukraine)

Since I specialize in the Philosophy of War, I suppose I’m expected to say something, however banal, about recent events in Eastern Europe. So here is that banal something. 

Ethnic and political borders seldom coincide. So there’s a longstanding tradition of coming to the defence, or at least pretending to come to the defence, of one’s ethnic minority trapped behind a border one is therefore morally hard pressed to respect. It’s how the Germans justified the annexations of the Saarland and the Sudetenland, the Anschluss, and then, finally, the ‘liberation’ of Danzig. So it should come as no surprise that Putin is selling himself as the liberator of the Russian-speaking minority in eastern Ukraine. 

Since the fall of the Soviet Empire in 1991, Ukraine has served as a buffer between Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, and any ambitions Moscow might have had to rebuild that empire. Now, or at least shortly, that buffer will be gone, and all that will stand in Moscow’s way is NATO’s oft-cited Article Five. Assuming, that is, it can be counted on to honour its Article Five.

Notwithstanding it was under no treatied reason to do so, NATO had every strategic reason to come to the defence of Ukraine. It failed to do so, understandably enough, because it didn’t want a war that had the potential to turn nuclear. But then why couldn’t Putin rightly suppose NATO would exercise the same discretion if, for example, he attacked one of the Baltic states? An attack on which he could sell his own people with precisely the pitch he’s sold them on Ukraine. 

The echos of the Sudetenland, say some analysts, are deafening! And so, they argue, the time to call Putin’s bluff is now. Assuming, that is, that it is a bluff. Which, alas, they cannot assume.

Most Western jurisdictions have already closed their air space to Russian aviation. But my own view, for what little it’s worth, is that the West should close all land borders as well. Nothing gets out, and nothing gets in.

Who will suffer the most? Ordinary Russians from not being able to sell their energy or ordinary Germans and Italians from not being able to buy it? Did we ask ourselves that question, mutatis mutandis, in 1939? Right now the faculty at my university is on strike. Who suffers the most? The students. What of it?!

The American airlift broke the Soviet stranglehold on Berlin in the late 40’s. With the help of its allies in the Middle East, it can break the Russian attempt to cut Berlin’s energy supplies today. Doing so will be expensive. As is this strike. What of it?!

The problem for the West is not that Russia has nuclear weapons. The problem for the West is that there’s a problem for Russia. Having gone into Ukraine, it has no way to extricate itself without imploding from the inside. Not unlike Kim Jong-Un, Putin would have to threaten nuclear war to keep himself in power. So the challenge is to provide him a face-saving way out of the trouble he’s wrought for himself.

The current NATO policy of half measures amounts to Neville Chamberlain’s “Peace for our time” in 1938. Power abhors a vacuum. If the West doesn’t fill it Russia will. Or at the risk of mixing my metaphors, it’s pay me now or pay me later. Or to mix yet another one, there’s no free lunch.         

Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask

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5 replies

  1. Thanks! Short and to the point.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Do you see as a possible diplomatic compromise that Ukraine might accept Russian absorption of those eastern separatist regions (which Ukraine might like to be shut of and have them be someone else’s problem) in exchange for the Russians getting the hell out of the rest of Ukraine? Both sides would feel betrayed and dissatisfied, which is the mark of any good compromise. What would happen to the Ukrainians living there? Better than what’s happening to them now?

    I suppose a lot depends on whether Putin turns vicious and lays waste to Kharkiv and Kyiv with stand-off weapons that don’t require his conscripts to face a well-armed desperate urban insurgency. But then, as they say, the infantry has to go in to make sure the enemy is really dead. If that happens no one will be in the mood to talk. And on the other hand, if Ukraine can keep the Russians out of Kyiv at least, they won’t need to talk. “Russian country, go fuck yourself!”

    I don’t attach much credence to the idea of encircling Kyiv and trying to starve it. Sieges are almost as hard on the besiegers as on the besieged and they cost time, money, fuel, and food, as well as air superiority to protect supply lines which Putin doesn’t seem to have, strangely. Soldiers, especially conscripts, become disaffected and start to desert or succumb to gonorrhea (seriously, and it’s mostly resistant to antibiotics now.) Surely the Russians know how hard it is to reduce a city that doesn’t want to submit. Inalienable rights in Stalingrad and Leningrad there weren’t.

    I do have to be annoying and point out that the Berlin Airlift was in 1948-9. I correct you only because in 1948, unlike the 1960s, the United States had a nuclear monopoly and the Russians had to worry that the United States would bomb them if they molested the cargo flights into West Berlin. (In fact the United States had no assembled Bombs with which to retaliate but the Russians didn’t know that….proof if ever was needed that Robert Oppenheimer was not a spy.) The post-war Allies had a certain freedom to intimidate that they would never have again after 1949 when the Soviets much to our consternation exploded their first atomic bomb. But true, bringing energy from the Middle East to Europe wouldn’t necessarily risk military confrontation with Russia, the way the Airlift did, so your point is well-taken.

    So glad you shared your thoughts on this crisis. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the correction on the dates of the Berlin airlift, Leslie. As to your first question, if Putin would have been satisfied with carving off the two eastern provinces, he’d already done that prior to last Thursday’s invasion. So presumably he wants more. He wants regime change in Kyiv. He’s got the military wherewithal to achieve that, but quisling regimes don’t fare all that well, as the Soviets discovered in Afghanistan. So I’m guessing that having discovered his miscalculation, he WILL withdraw and settle for those two provinces, leaving Zelenskyy as the world’s new Nelson Mandela. He certainly doesn’t want to make a martyr out of him. Mind you, we’re only getting the western press on what’s happening. So maybe Putin knows something we don’t. Still, shelling is probably not the way to win hearts and minds.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Paul, I was remiss in not crediting you with the “inalienable rights” reference, which you had mentioned in a post some months ago to the effect that anyone who believes that citizens have such things has never been in a war, or a pandemic. My apologies. It seems that the only truly inalienable right is that of the state to preserve itself, which it must do to preserve all the other rights of its citizens, even their lives.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. John Simpson, World Affairs editor, “Ukraine: Putin will search for a way to save face,” BBC News, Europe, 12 hours ago, 16 March 2022,

    Liked by 1 person

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