John Keane | A Terrible War of Attrition: Perils of the Ukraine-Russia Conflict
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A Terrible War of Attrition: Perils of the Ukraine-Russia Conflict

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By John Keane, originally published on Substack

The following comments on the Ukraine-Russia war are my replies to questions submitted in advance by Money FM 89.3, Singapore’s flagship 24-hour radio station, for an interview with Breakfast presenter Lynlee Foo, 24th February 2023.

A year on – the Ukraine-Russia war has been widely pictured as a war for ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ against the brutal ‘barbarism’ and ‘fascism’ of Putin’s Russia. How accurate or convincing is this?

This is the American-led narrative. ‘Kyiv stands. And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands’, Biden told a news conference earlier this week. EU President Ursula von der Leyen backs him up. Everywhere Volodymyr Zelensky sets foot, the former actor and comedian is greeted with standing applause as a champion of ‘democracy’. But remember that in war government propaganda is total: truth is not all democracies have signed on to this narrative (India and the democracies of Latin America are the great exceptions). And speaking as an historian of democracy I can say it’s far from certain that a democratic Ukraine is going to emerge from under the rubble of this war. War has usually been democracy’s enemy. Ukraine is no exception to this rule.

Why? There are several reasons.

As each day of this war passes, parts of Ukraine are beginning to resemble Syria – poisoned and ruined by war. Ukraine’s citizens are being forced to get used to emergency rule. The creation of an independent judiciary, a toothy parliament, a robust media ecosystem willing to speak truth to power: these and other functional preconditions of democracy aren’t happening, and until there’s peace they won’t happen. When two wrestlers are locked in conflict, their twisted faces begin to look the same, their grunts sound similar. Unless there’s a halt to this war, Ukraine will come to resemble a closed society – much more like its enemy Russia than the Zelensky government is willing to admit.

In this war of attrition, people young and old are killed, maimed, traumatised, bereaved and children orphaned. Ecosystems are ruined. Parts of Ukraine are beginning to look like Syria. This is what war is and it’s anathema to democracy. So are the toxins of war: fears, jealousies, hatreds, lawlessness, revenge, sadistic pleasures in waging and witnessing violence.

Then there’s the not much talked about problem of oligarchy. Until the outbreak of war a year ago, the West was concerned about the grip of corrupt oligarchs on Ukraine. In September 2021 EU auditors warned that after 20 years of EU support for clean-ups, illicit financial flows, money laundering and ‘grand corruption and state capture’ remained widespread in Ukraine. It’s true many Ukraine poligarchs have been weakened by the war. Some (Dimitry Firtash) are in exile. The group of oligarchs spearheaded publicly by Zelensky is the exception: a rich and powerful group who confirm George Orwell’s remark that it’s the moneyed classes – including arms manufacturers – that profit from war.

Dressed in his jungle green, battle dress fatigues, you wouldn’t guess that he’s anything else but the Man of the People. But let’s not kid ourselves. He has close connections with oligarchs like Igor Kolomoisky (a billionaire whose TV channel screened Zelensky’s shows). This doesn’t get news coverage. Only occasionally do we get hints, as when we learn from the Pandora papers (leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists ICIJ) that Zelensky had – or still has – a sizeable stake in a sprawling network of offshore companies such as Maltex Multicapital Corp based in Cyprus, Belize and the British Virgin Islands; or when we read that his wife Olena Zelenska spent 40,000 euros during a visit in December to a Paris store on Avenue Montaigne while visiting France to plead for more financial support for Ukraine. These are not good looks for the democracy heroes versus autocracy villains narrative.

Washington has declared Russia’s actions in Ukraine “crimes against humanity” – its strongest accusation since the start of the war. What actions can the US possibly take to punish Moscow?

Sanctions, travel bans, and asset freezes aren’t working. Russia is often seen as a flimsy house of cards to be demolished with the flick of a wrist. This underestimates the resilience of Putin’s Russia. It’s a smart, heavily armed despotism – not a dumb autocracy, not a stupid tyranny, not a totalitarian regime. The Russian economy (about the size of Australia’s, less than Italy’s and Canada’s) hasn’t shrunk; imports and exports are buoyant. The state is in the hands of a group rather skilled at crushing political alternatives. It’s a state held together by patronage (over 50% of the population is directly dependent in their everyday lives on state spending and connections blat). And (says the prominent Russian radio host Alexei Venediktov) two-thirds of the Russian population is probably resigned to supporting this war as people who are ‘indifferently loyal’. Many Russians buy the line – understandably – that the United States is trying to settle old scores, and that NATO is indeed a threat to Russian security.

Will we ever see any form of accountability from those accused of carrying out the alleged crimes? Can Russian President Vladimir Putin himself be forced to bear any responsibility

A sceptic or cynic would say that Tony Blair and George W. Bush never faced accountability for their crimes in Iraq. They were instead forced to suffer shame by public opinion. They had shoes thrown at them. So it will probably be with Putin.

There are of course champions of Ukraine who say that since Russia is a steel-tough autocracy that speaks only one language – weapons and war – it will have to be military defeated. On this view, if you think about it, the defeat of Russia will logically require taking Moscow. That’s the only way to regain every centimetre of territory; to extract reparations; and to convene war crimes tribunals. But let’s pause: taking the war all the way to Moscow would almost certainly arouse deeply patriotic memories of the Nazis’ invasion of Russia and a large-scale fightback supported by millions of Russians already in the grip of post-imperial ressentiment.

Avoiding a compromise peace solution and pushing hard against Russia would certainly have other consequences. A much more brutal leadership – ‘cannibals’ they’re called in Moscow – could come to power (imagine the boss of the Wagner Group ex-prisoner Yevgeny Prigozhin in charge). The military ‘defeat’ of Russia would also produce terrible fallout. How many millions of refugees from a base population of 144 million people? How many nuclear weapons smuggled out of the country? Might there be a revenge poisoning of Kyiv’s water supply with chemical and bioweapons by rogue militia?

Talk of defeating Russia also leaves unresolved the problem of how Ukraine and the EU will co-exist. There will have to be more than a Russian troop withdrawal from Ukraine – the proposal of Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. Though they don’t yet say it, the military champions of Ukraine are implying the need for an armistice and a DMZ. But those who are beginning to talk about Ukraine as South Korea or as West Germany are for the moment pipe-dreaming. By keeping the war going they’re undermining their own vision and making things much worse.

But isn’t the defeat of Russia the only way to regain territory, extract reparations, and to convene a war crimes tribunal?

I’ve said already that pushing for the downfall of the Russian regimes is crazy. ‘We will win!’ says the First Lady of Ukraine. ‘We want the whole of Ukraine back, including Crimea’, says her husband Zelensky. But victory implies doing what Napoleon tried to do in 1812: take the war into Russia’s heartlands. Remember: this is a war against a heavily armed regime. Each day Russia fires as much ammunition as Europe produces in a month. Remember, too, Russia (as the historian Dominic Lieven has pointed out) has a long tradition of mobilising resources to keep its empire together. Fuelled by imperial nostalgia, Russia’s now fighting a war of attrition – the great military historian Carl von Clausewitz called it war by exhausting the adversary. Unless there’s an armistice or compromise settlement, this war is going to drag on, and on. It’s a war that each day more and more resembles World War I, when military commanders on both sides relied on attrition warfare that resulted in terrible casualties with no clear winner.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen a number of Western allies rally behind Ukraine – with promises of sending military aid and scaling up arms production. But is that a means to an end, and would you see that as an indication that this is becoming a global war?

Zelensky and the supporters of Ukraine are doing everything they can to globalise this war. This is more than dangerous. It’s madness. Backed by journalists who rattle sabres – think of Timothy Garton-Ash and his condemnations of the ‘scholzing’ of the German government – pressures are intensifying to draw the whole of the EU into this war. ‘We Ukrainians are on the battlefield together with you’, said Zelensky recently to the European parliament. The United States, bent on settling old scores with an old enemy, is now fighting a proxy war against Russia. After spending $120 billion so far on weapons, humanitarian and financial assistance, it wants to build a 360 degree Global NATO, the immediate consequence of which is to draw not only the EU but China into a global confrontation. What it seems to want is an Alliance of Good Democrats versus the Axis of Evil Autocrats. As a democrat, I shudder at the prospect.

Some say compromise will be the only way of ending this war. But what would compromise look like, and who would broker it? China?

Durable compromise is indeed the only alternative to this war. It’s the only way Ukraine is going to get itself out from under the rubble of this war. The quickest, surest, safest way of ending this war is to build a ‘golden bridge’ (Sun Tzu) and to begin negotiations to secure a compromise which, as the German proverb says, is the art of cutting a cake to ensure that each party is convinced they are getting the biggest slice.

But who will broker an armistice or peaceful compromise? Clearly not the United States or the EU. And certainly not the existing Ukraine leadership. It’s dead opposed to such moves. Compromise with Putin? asked Zelensky during a recent BBC interview. ‘No. Because there’s no trust. Dialogue with him? No. Because there’s no trust.’

That leaves China. In Munich, Wang Yi reportedly said (echoing the new Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang) that China will soon table a proposal based on the Three No’s: no alliance with Russia, no confrontation, no targeting of any third party. There’s no doubt China wants to kickstart negotiations. It’s certainly interested in winning contracts for the massive rebuilding of Ukraine and continuing trade with Russia. Bilateral trade with Russia grew about 30% in 2022 to $190.3 billion, setting a second straight record. China has lately been buying more cheap Russian oil and exporting semiconductors. China also wants to be seen as tough. It’s currently conducting a 10-day military exercise with Russia and South Africa. It wants to be seen as strong in the world. But it also wants to play the role of peace maker. It’s trying to avoid being seen as completely aligned with Moscow, which is why it has so far kept silent about Russia’s invitations for Xi Jinping to visit Moscow. My prediction is that China will soon table a position paper proposing a resolution to the Ukraine conflict that will put some distance between it and Russia. It will call for peace talks and stress Beijing’s opposition to the use of nuclear weapons and possible attacks on nuclear power facilities. Washington will do all it can to throw mud at this proposal.

Is peace possible? Can peace be given a chance? Can Ukraine and Russia jump over their own shadows? Is it possible to escape the hell of this war?

I simply don’t know, but I want to repeat the point that in war governments try to ensure their propaganda is total. The brutal truth is war is ghastly; and ghastly, too, is the fact that journalists, politicians, generals and others never get near the front-line trenches. They peddle the half-truths, lies and hostility of rah-rah war propaganda but they’re not the ones actually fighting, and suffering. That’s why we need independent, honest evaluations of this war, and how it is to be stopped. Truth is the first casualty of war. Nuance is its second victim. Illusions and delusions are their offspring. Black versus white moralising, fancies and falsehoods flourish. That’s why, on this first anniversary of the beginning of this wretched war, honest, blunt assessments, however unpopular they may be, are imperative. I thank you for offering me a chance to do just this.