Realism without reality: Kupchan in the NYT

November 3, 2022

Another day, and another shoddy analysis of the Russo-Ukrainian War, with appropriately counter-productive policy prescriptions: this time by Charles Kupchan in the New York Times. As usual, I will note problems with logic and evidence in specific parts of the argument.

“The war in Ukraine is dangerously escalating.” This is the opening sentence of the essay, and it’s already wrong. Although “escalation” can be a wonderfully protean word, one wants to know what it means specifically in this case. What Kupchan provides as evidence of escalation — Ukraine is advancing, Russia is reinforcing, US is sending more weapons — is just the push and pull of war, any war. If anything, we have not seen the escalation that could have happened given Russia’s capabilities.

“Ukrainian actions that substantially raise the risk of escalation may be strategically unwise.” That’s true. Trivially so. And the Ukrainians are quite aware of it. What have they done to trigger Kupchan’s concerns? He claims that “Ukraine has already undertaken operations that have provoked President Vladimir Putin into even more reckless behavior.” He cites the assassination of Dugina, the bombing of the Crimean Bridge, and the attack on the military ships in Sevastopol as examples. Kupchan complains that the US was not warned about the Dugina assassination or the bridge bombing.

I have written about the Dugina assassination before, and the fact is: we do not know that the Ukrainians did it. Yeah, a lot of Americans think that for reasons that escape me. She, and even her dad, are of no consequence as far as the war goes, and there is absolutely no reason for the Ukrainian government to go after them. Nobody has ever explained what the point could have been. Moreover, there has been no consequence whatsoever from the Kremlin — escalatory or otherwise — aside from a joke Putin cracked during a speech about the enemy going after Russian philosophers these days. (This, by itself, makes it pretty clear just how unimportant the Dugins are to the regime.) So let’s put this one to rest.

We do not even know who was behind the Crimean Bridge bombing. Kupchan takes it as a fact that it was the Ukrainians — and, honestly, I sort of want to believe that it was them — but, again, we do not know. The story the Russian put out was so bizarre and its details denied by all governments through whose countries the explosives were supposed to have traveled that one should at least entertain some doubts. But let’s grant it that it was the Ukrainians.


Kupchan says, Putin “has responded with a punishing air campaign against Ukraine’s urban centers and energy and water systems.” This is just plain false. Putin did not “respond” to anything. The missile attacks on the Ukrainian infrastructure had been planned at least a week before the bombing of the bridge. We know this because Bellingcat, the Insider, and Der Spiegel managed to track down the unit that’s responsible for the targeting, and they matched their phone records to operations in Ukraine. Maybe Kupchan is unaware of this — not a good sign for someone who is publishing in the NYT about proper policies for the war — but even then he should not have asserted this nonsense. For instance, I wrote before we had the revelations that it’s extremely unlikely that the missile campaign has anything to do with the bombing because operations like that take a lot of time to plan, and cannot be done in a day. In fact, this had led me to speculate that the bombing could have been a false flag operation to provide a pretext for the attacks on the energy infrastructure. If it were, unfortunately it looks like people like Kupchan bought the story hook, line, and sinker.

So no, the bombing of the bridge, which even Kupchan admits “is a legitimate military target,” has not caused any escalation in the war.

Kupchan then points to another “escalation”, this one as a result of the attacks on the military ships in Sevastopol — another legitimate target, especially since these ships are regularly used to lay mines, launch missiles, and participate in amphibious operations against Ukraine. The escalation in question is Putin pulling out of the grain deal. That’s true, the Kremlin threw a fit because the Ukrainians dared attack military vessels actively used in the war against them. But, for some odd reason, Kupchan does not tell you what happened next: the Russians quickly came back to the deal. Putin provided some fig leaf excuse that the Ukrainians had given “written guarantees” that they would not attack the ships through the grain corridor. The Ukrainians disavowed that by just noting that they never went through the grain corridor. Everyone happy.

Maybe Kupchan did not know how this would turn out when he wrote the piece, but then this is no excuse. Again, the behavior of the Russians was entirely predictable — because I predicted it the moment they pulled out of the grain deal. Anyone who has studied crisis interactions of this sort would have told you that Putin had a very weak hand to play in this because of how the deal was structured. All Ukraine and Turkey had to do was to keep the vessels going and dare the Russians stop them. This is what they did, and the Russians backed down. Everyone would have been against them had they tried it, and if they had, the next step would have been to send escorts, which would have made subsequent escalation even more likely. The Russians saw this clearly enough, and so deescalated. That is, they did the opposite of what Kupchan is worried about.

Kupchan’s logic then gets very confusing. On the one hand, he says that Ukraine has not been transparent about its operations with the US. This is partially true — we know they only decided to share their plans for the fall offensive with us when an internal disagreement arose, and they changed them after our military gamed out several scenarios and gave them their opinion. And so we already are doing some of what Kupchan wants us to do. On the other hand, Kupchan worries that Kyiv is out of control, planning operations that might drag us into a wider conflict. This is a legitimate concern. Our goals in this war overlap with Ukraine’s but do not coincide, and so we will have some disagreements about how the war is fought and to what end. But then Kupchan himself notes that we have “avoided providing weapons systems that Kyiv could use to hit deep inside Russia.” Which is precisely how we attempt to calibrate the Ukrainian’s strategy with ours. We can, at best, exercise indirect control of this type — or obtain guarantees that they would not hit certain kinds of targets with weapons we give them. Kupchan should be well aware of how sensitive Kyiv would be to the strategic wishes of the United States seeing that we are their largest (to the point of being the only one that really matters) supporter.

The United States is not interested in a war with Russia, and it’s prudent to stay out of direct involvement as much as possible. Kupchan advocates a drastic escalation: “direct U.S. involvement in Ukraine’s operational planning.” This is an absurd suggestion coming from a person who is worried about escalation. The step from this to “military advisors” is very short, and the step from this to “operating military equipment because the Ukrainians can’t do it” is also short, and before you know it, we got 500,000 troops in Vietnam, oops, pardon me, Ukraine. The Biden administration has struck an appropriate balance between giving Russia any actual worry that we are fighting against them while enabling Ukraine to do the fighting quite well by itself.

Kupchan notes that the Ukrainians have expansive war aims — the liberation of all territory as it existed in 1991, which includes Crimea and the areas of Donbas under Russian control since 2014. He notes that Zelenskyy has said that Ukraine would not negotiate while Putin is in power. What Kupchan does not tell his readers are two things that are very relevant to this. First, in the spring Kyiv was ready to accept compromises that included Crimea and Donbas — it was the Russians who rejected them. This means that the Ukrainian government has a far more realistic assessment of what it might have to concede to end the war. The fact that they are now demanding more has to do with the second point: Zelenskyy’s refusal to negotiate with Putin came only after Russia illegally annexed four more regions of Ukraine.

Contrary to what Kupchan says, the obstacle here is not that Ukraine has expansive war aims, it’s that Putin has expansive war aims. Interfering with Ukrainian operational planning is not going to alter that fact. And if Kupchan has in mind that we should force Kyiv to concede these territories, then… well, let’s see. He says that Putin “is raising the stakes and backing himself into a corner. Accordingly, the Kremlin’s resort to a nuclear weapon becomes a realistic option should Russian forces face full expulsion from eastern Ukraine and Crimea.” I have written quite recently about this, so I won’t rehash the argument why this is pure gobbledygook based on untested assumptions, shaky logic, and no evidence. Let me just note that Kupchan is proposing here that we satisfy Putin’s appetites because, you see, he has “cornered” himself. And what about the US (and NATO/West) defeat if he achieves his aims? Especially when his military performance has been subpar? What then?

Kupchan wants us “to be concerned about the rising economic and political threat that a long war poses to Western democracy and solidarity.” Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but this war is going to be long. Appeasing Putin would just make it longer because it will expand it to other fronts. Now is the time for Western democracies to stand up and be counted. This is a global challenge, not a trivial territorial skirmish that Kupchan wants it to be. Are we ready for it? Kupchan does not think so — and he cites a lot of worrisome trends in the West — but he vastly overstates the unity of the West on the eve of WWII, as well as the supposed domestic harmony that existed back then (it did not). Kupchan can cite the hack Vance as much as he wants to but I can easily cite a bunch of isolationists that had said Hitler wasn’t our problem in the 1930s as well (and many who openly admired him).

The same holds for the Europeans. They know where their security lies, and the governments will not be easily cowed by Russia or daunted by the prospect of a long war. I do not even know what “cracks” in the German government Kupchan is referring to: if anything, Germany has been moving very steadily toward a firm position in the American camp (note the recent speech by Steinmeier after his return from Ukraine). Kupchan should have more faith in the Western economies and peoples.

“The West needs to move Ukraine and Russia from the battlefield to the negotiating table.” I do not know whether to laugh or cry about this statement. Did I fall asleep and miss the part where “the West” could just “move” other nations to do things? When one of these nations is Russia? This statement is so typical of realist approaches that it needs to be singled out for its utter lack of realism. Where is the agency of the Ukrainians? What about the Russians? What about the countries that make up “the West”? It’s so offensive in its utterly naïve simplicity that I am not sure what to say about it except: if “the West” had this power, why not just put an end to the war right now and impose a settlement it wants?

Kupchan’s proposals for a “deal” are a total non-starter.

“Russia has legitimate security concerns about NATO setting up shop on the other side of its 1,000-mile-plus border with Ukraine.” No. That ship has sailed. Russia created, single-handedly, another 1,000 miles of NATO borders with Finland. (Or maybe Kupchan wants Finland not to join the alliance?) A border with NATO is probably the safest thing Russia can have — remind me when NATO attacked Russia again? Ah, yes, Russia does not like NATO on its borders, of course not! That’s because it would severely limit its ability to meddle in the internal affairs of its neighbors, invading them willy-nilly almost every year, and generally be an obnoxious regional power with delusions of grandeur. This has nothing to do with security and everything to do with influence in the near abroad.

Moscow lost any claim to a non-NATO Ukraine when it invaded the country. “Neutrality” is complete nonsense, as Finland and Sweden have come to understand. It can only be guaranteed if Russia is not interested in meddling in your affairs. Otherwise, you will have to somehow defend yourself. Ukraine has shown that this is not really possible without massive aid from the West. How much better it would have been if Ukraine had been a NATO member already, and this deterred Moscow. The idea that somehow a “neutral” Ukraine can exist next door to a Russia driven by irredentist visions of its own importance and “place in the sun” is absurd. Zelenskyy did propose neutrality earlier in the war, and the Russian rejection of this (they want demilitarization as well) just shows how this is totally not what Moscow wants. Putin wants to dismember and subjugate Ukraine, simple as that. Neutrality will only be acceptable if he can control the Kyiv regime… which of course means there will be no neutrality.

As for the territorial settlement, I tend to agree with Kupchan that some deal over Crimea and potentially the pre-invasion parts of Donbas might have to be worked out. But Kupchan must understand that no negotiations can begin before the Russians are pushed to the pre-invasion line of contact. The cold hard truth is that Putin wants the territories his armies have occupied, and more. There is a lot more fighting to be done before he decides that he can give them up. He may never do so, which is why I think no peace is possible while he is in power, and it does not matter whether Zelenskyy says the same thing or not.

In the end, my worry is the exact opposite of Kupchan’s: that by getting cold feet and deciding that “Ukraine is not worth it,” we might well invite World War III. Let’s not do what Churchill warned us about, “You were given the choice between war and dishonour.  You chose dishonour and you will have war.”

3 thoughts on “Realism without reality: Kupchan in the NYT

  1. Great analysis! Just as with Britain in WW2, Ukraine has agency and will continue to fight when faced with an enemy with maximalist war aims. History may not repeat, but it rhymes, and in Kupchan, the US has found another Jittery Joe Kennedy.


  2. Strongly! Respect for the post. Thanks. Briefly: Putin kaput otherwise fucked up for Ukraine will never end.
    The question is how to take out the richest dude in the world with an atomic bomb in a country full of zombie people and who has a couple of the same (or worse) countries as friends (wait until he dies or sanctions or conspiracy theories – do not offer).


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