‘Yes, when crabs learn to whistle’

Anatol Lieven

Zealous advocates of Western support for the total defeat of Russia in Ukraine — including, if necessary, direct Western intervention and NATO-Russia war — base their case is set on a disparate set of arguments, almost every one of which turns out on examination to be either exaggerated or wholly mistaken.
The most extreme is that the defense of “civilization” demands the complete defeat of Russia, ideally leading in turn to Nuremberg-style trials of the top officials of the Russian government and (for some commentators) the break-up of the Russian Federation itself. This call is linked to the allegation that the Russian invasion has been not merely brutal, but has amounted to “genocide.”
This charge forms — at least subliminally — a serious intellectual and moral barrier to any eventual peace settlement. For the implied association of the Russian regime with Nazism suggests not just that no compromise with this regime is morally possible, but that morality and peace demand that the regime — and the state system over which it presides — be totally destroyed.
If one were to accept and follow through on this analogy, it would also lead to the conclusion that to defeat such evil, almost any means and any alliances are legitimate. For after all, the Nazis were not defeated by limited and humane war. They were defeated in total war by the Red Army, which (together with Polish and Czech militias) killed hundreds of thousands of eastern German civilians, and ethnically cleansed more than a million more — and with the help of a British and American bombing campaign that deliberately killed hundreds of thousands of German civilians and destroyed their cities.
We should recall the words of C. Vann Woodward in opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam:
“The irony of the moralistic approach, when exploited by [American] nationalism, is that the high motive to end justice and immorality actually results in making war more amoral and horrible than ever and in shattering the foundations of the political and moral order upon which peace has to be built.”
Above all, any reputable historian should be able to recognize that even an extremely brutal military campaign in which numerous civilians are killed is not the same as the Nazi Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide. If it were, then every Western state that has waged a major war over the past century would have been guilty of this — a judgment which would make the term “genocide” meaningless and incidentally insult the victims of the true genocides.
The Putin regime has sought hegemony over Ukraine and has suggested that Russians and Ukrainians are to some extent “one people” (of course, with the Russians as “elder brothers”), but while quite illegitimate, that is almost the direct opposite of the exterminatory ideology of the Nazis or the Hutu genocidaires, who most certainly did not portray Germans and Jews, or Hutus and Tutsis, as “one people.”
Advocates of the total defeat of Russia who think of themselves as “internationalists” should also ask themselves why attitudes to these questions are so very different elsewhere in the world — even among progressive intellectuals and journalists in democracies like India and South Africa. The answer of course is that while they condemn the Russian invasion, people in these countries see far less difference between Russian behavior, and Russian imperialism, and that of some Western countries, including in the recent past.
A further argument is that the total defeat of Russia is necessary because, if not, Russia will either attack Ukraine again in the future, or be emboldened to invade NATO, or both. The first suggestion is illogical; the second — for the foreseeable future at least — verges on the fantastical. By far the most likely cause of a permanent Russian desire for a war of revenge would be the same disastrous obsession that centered French diplomatic and military strategy from 1871 to 1918 on the goal of recovering Alsace-Lorraine.
In the case of Russia, for deeply-rooted and permanent historical, cultural, and ethnic reasons, this applies above all to Crimea, which the great majority of Russians (and, by all accounts, Crimeans) regard as part of Russia and which was in fact part of Russia until it was transferred to Ukraine by Soviet decree in 1954.
To prevent Russia from ever trying to recover Crimea would mean the permanent crippling or outright destruction of the Russian state. The first — analogous to the treatment of Germany after 1918 — would, to have a chance of success, require the united economic, military and political resources of the West to be permanently directed to this end, with all other issues and threats in the world downgraded accordingly, and non-Western countries pressured to join in. This point flatly contradicts another argument of the pro-war camp, which is that the total defeat of Russia is necessary to deter China. Nothing could better serve Chinese interests and goals.
As to the supposed threat to invade NATO: If the Russian army cannot take Kharkhiv, 20 miles from the Russian border, when only the Ukrainian army is defending it, can the Kremlin really realistically dream of capturing Warsaw or Riga, and fighting a full-scale war with NATO? Elsewhere in the world, we need to recognize that, while Russia’s presence is sometimes hostile to U.S. interests, in other cases we are still objectively speaking on the same side, such as when it comes to fighting against Islamist extremism, containing the Taliban’s influence in Central Asia, and defending Armenia against what would otherwise very likely be its destruction.
A more cogent and legitimate argument is that the defeat of Russia is necessary to preserve the international legal order and punish the crime of aggression. However, the United States has always in practice adopted a flexible approach to international law when it comes to ending wars. Moreover, when it comes to the need to punish Russia, in terms not just of its initial objectives in this war but of Russian hegemony over Ukraine for more than 300 years, Russia has already suffered a crushing defeat and Ukraine, with Western help, has won a great victory. Tens of thousands of the best Russian soldiers are dead, Russia’s military reputation has been shredded, and its international prestige severely damaged.
This conflict is no longer a “war to the death” for Ukraine. Whatever happens, by far the greater part of Ukraine will be independent and aligned with the West against Russia. It is about limited amounts of territory in the east and south of the country. And when it comes to territorial compromises, Washington has been willing to accept them in other places — de facto, if not de jure — without bringing the international legal order down in ruins. The Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus is one example; Kashmir is another. Neither situation corresponds to international law. On pragmatic grounds and to avoid the prolongation of disastrous conflict, both have in practice become generally accepted.
Both of these cases, like others, including Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, and numerous civil conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, resemble Ukraine in that they stem from the nature and collapse of colonial rule. In this too, the war in Ukraine is far less of an outlier than the supporters of total Russian defeat believe.
Finally, there is the argument that the total defeat of Russia is necessary in order to bring democracy to Russia itself. This is pure speculation, which ignores among other things both the underlying power of Russian nationalism and the example of increased repression and intense ethnic nationalism in Ukraine as a result of the war. It is also very curious that the commentators who make this argument should also refer to Nazism. For is it not generally agreed that one key factor in the rise of Nazism was the Allied treatment of Germany after World War I?
Or do advocates of total defeat of Russia somehow believe that they can imitate the Soviet and U.S. victory in 1945, invade and occupy Russia and install their own governments — all this without ending the world in the process? As a Russian saying has it, “Yes, when crabs learn to whistle.”