NYT publishes another call for Ukraine to surrender

February 7, 2023

This morning I woke up to an email from Hein Goemans and a link to an op-ed in The New York Times by Christopher Caldwell. It is yet another call for the US to abandon Ukraine in order to force its surrender to Russia, dressed up as a call for negotiations. I had decided not to write about these sorts of publications, but this one seems like a good foil to explain what it is that’s holding up a negotiated solution, and it’s not what Caldwell describes.

Let me briefly unpack Caldwell’s argument. He leads with a bold premise: “The United States’ recent promise to ship advanced M1 Abrams battle tanks to Ukraine was a swift response to a serious problem. The problem is that Ukraine is losing the war.”

This is indeed bold because it is not supported by any facts on the ground, and all Caldwell has is a bad historical analogy to offer. Why does Caldwell think Ukraine is losing? It’s “because “because the war has settled into a World War I-style battle of attrition, complete with carefully dug trenches and relatively stable fronts. Such wars tend to be won — as indeed World War I was — by the side with the demographic and industrial resources to hold out longest. Russia has more than three times Ukraine’s population, an intact economy and superior military technology.”

There are at least two problems with this. The first is that the war hasn’t “settled” into anything. We saw large swaths of territory change hands, and it was just a couple of months ago that Ukraine forced Russia to abandon Kherson and the right bank of the Dnipro River. The tempo of offensive operations did slow down because of the winter, as everyone who knows anything about war fighting expected to happen, and now the Russians are trying to regain the initiative by opening up a major offensive along almost the entire front line. The Ukrainians are fighting back ferociously, and the Russian limited gains have been exceedingly costly. This is not a stalemate anymore than an analogous operation they conducted last summer in Severodonetsk/Lysychansk was. Recall that there, too, there was relentless Russian pressure on these towns and that the stubborn Ukrainian defense made the Russians pay dearly for their capture. More to the point, it gave Ukraine time to amass the resources to launch the operation that liberated Kharkiv Oblast and started the process of pushing Russia from Kherson. If it were up to Caldwell, last summer would have been declared a “stalemate,” which it obviously was not. By all accounts, the Ukrainians are massing resources for another offensive now too — General Zaluzhnyi openly said so when said he was sorry that they could not do more for the defenders of Bakhmut, who need to buy time for that. Caldwell’s take on the war ignores every military analyst who has explained what is happening in Ukraine in favor of creating a false narrative of a stalled war.

The second problem is in the tendentious way the resource comparison is being made. Russia may have three times the population of Ukraine, but it does not have an “intact economy.” And, given Western help, neither does it have “superior military technology” or even slightly dominant resources. Ukraine is supported by the West, which accounts for about three quarters of the world economy. Russia accounts for 2%, and that was before the sanctions hit it. And the sanctions are biting — yes, the Kremlin can turn plowshares into swords, but these swords are not good and while the process increases GDP, it does not feed the Russian population. Putin is tightening the screws on the Russians because the country is already groaning under the impact of Western sanctions, especially now that the oil/gas ones have started to be implemented, and the strain of war. Russia is also losing people at what should be an alarming rate in Ukraine, and the fact that it has a large population (a whole lot of which is too old to be drafted) does not make these losses easier to bear. Need I remind readers about the impact of Western Javelins, or HIMARS systems on the front? Or the fact that the Russians could do nothing to counter them? Need I point out that most of the advanced Russian weapons were produced in very limited quantities, and many have been used up already? One does not roll artillery of WW2 vintage to the front (as the Russians have done) if they have advanced systems. Meanwhile, Ukraine is getting our “old” equipment that is already better than anything the Russians have. The myth of Russian superiority in military technology was punctured last year, but Caldwell does not seem to want to update his beliefs about that.

Caldwell then tells us that Western weapons have only managed to slow Russia’s “westward progress.” This, again, makes it sound like Russian victory is inevitable and just a matter of time. And again, Caldwell has nothing to offer to support this except another mischaracterization: he seems to think that offering Ukraine Western tanks would “fast-forward history, from World War I’s battles of position to World War II’s battles of movement.” Caldwell simply does not understand what tanks are intended to do — it is manifestly not to mimic the great tank battles of WW2 like Kursk. There have been no tank battles in this war, and there are not going to be any. This is because tank-on-tank confrontations are just plain impossible given anti-tank weapons, drones, and precision artillery. I have already explained why tanks are important, and won’t belabor it here. To oversimplify, they are necessary as part of a combined arms warfare strategy that Ukraine can use to dislodge Russians even from fortified positions. Caldwell shows zero understanding of modern warfare, which is why all the argument is being carried with nebulous analogies. Western tanks, IFVs, artillery, and planes will enable Ukraine to do what Caldwell blithely assumes they cannot do. Our military leadership certainly thinks so, and they know a thing or two about planning military operations. The Ukrainians have shown themselves — repeatedly — more than capable fast learners and fierce fighters. I simply do not understand why Caldwell is dismissing all of this.

Then we get to the crux of the matter, and it is another highly misleading claim, which I will cite fully:

“But the Biden strategy has a bad name: escalation. Beyond a certain point, the United States is no longer “helping” or “advising” or “supplying” the Ukrainians, the way it did, say, the Afghan mujahedeen during the Cold War. It is replacing Ukraine as Russia’s main battlefield adversary. It is hard to say when that point will be reached or whether it has been already. With whom is Russia at war — Ukraine or the United States? Russia started the war between Russia and Ukraine. Who started the war between Russia and the United States?”

Let me defer the issue of “escalation” for a bit, and just note that this here is, quite literally, a Kremlin talking point. Sending weapons and aid to an active belligerent does not make one a “main battlefield adversary” anymore than Caldwell paying taxes that support the police make him complicit in the murder of George Floyd. It is a grotesque distortion of accepted international practice to claim otherwise. Was the Soviet Union a “main battlefield adversary” of the United States during the Korean War when the entire “Chinese” air force was supplied by the Soviets and flown by Soviet pilots dressed up as Chinese military? Or during the Vietnam War where the backward Vietnamese economy apparently produced modern SAM-2 installations? No, of course not, and the Russians know it. All rhetoric aside, Russia is fighting Ukraine — and losing. And if it did fight the US, they would lose even faster. There is no war between Russia and the United States.

Caldwell then describes the “escalation” of sending tanks: “This sudden policy lurch has the look of an accident.” It may have been an accident to Caldwell — who obviously neither follows battlefield developments nor understands military operations and strategy — but it was a logical development that has been months in the making. Many of us had argued for a long time that these deliveries need to be sped up because they are inevitable — as are both planes and long-range missiles — but we also understand that the delays were partially political and partially because people were not yet convinced that Putin intends to destroy Ukraine. It took time for accumulated evidence to convince people of that, and so resistance to these supplies has gradually fallen. It’s not the Biden administration doing “a hard sell” to Germany, it’s that the German government had to part with long-standing policy, and for that, key politicians had to change their minds, which they eventually did because they realized that what Caldwell is about to propose as a solution is nothing of the sort.

Caldwell is not above impugning Scholz, however, by saying that “he probably didn’t picture himself in the role of the first chancellor since Hitler to send German tanks into battle on the Russian front.” This is another Kremlin talking point, of course. But today, it is German tanks that will fight fascism, and it is not on the “Russian front,” but on the Ukrainian front, where the Russians have no business being. Caldwell then offers some fact-free interpretation of Scholz’s reasoning (“fears of being rolled”), when it was very clearly domestic politics and his own proclivities that were the driving force behind the timing and the form the decision took.

One would not be surprised to find Caldwell singling out Schroeder and Merkel for praise for their wise foreign policies (opposing the US 2003 Iraq invasion and the 2011 Lybia operations). One could simply also point out that these two were the primary architects of Germany’s failed foreign policy with respect to Russia, not to mention the Minsk agreements, which Russia violated with impunity for eight years. It’s not because of their wisdom in foreign policy that Merkel is lying that her intentions were to give Ukraine time to prepare to stand up to Russia with the Minsk Agreements — a bald-faced lie that the Kremlin has picked up and gleefully amplified.

Caldwell next claims that the reason the US is “fighting” has to do with the fact that the value of Western weapons is that they are “being bound into an American information network.” Again, Caldwell does not seem to understand how Ukraine is fighting this war. The US shares intelligence but we do no operational planning for Ukraine. We might provide opinions — when asked — as we did about the Kharkiv Offensive, but it is the Ukrainian General Staff than plans and executes everything. In fact, the Pentagon has complained that the Ukrainians are not sharing enough of their plans to make advice more useful. The Ukrainians have developed their own software, and have used off-the-shelf technology provided by private companies, some of them American. Again, none of this makes the US an active belligerent in the war.

In order to further discredit American help, Caldwell — who is again seemingly unaware of any of this — resorts to rhetorical tricks to mask the lack of evidence. This time, it is in the way he characterizes the famous Ukrainian attack on Makyivka:

“This past New Year’s Eve, a dormitory full of fresh Russian army recruits in the city of Makiivka was hit by missiles at the crack of midnight, presumably just as the young men were calling their friends and loved ones to wish them the joys of the coming year.”

A more appropriate way to characterize this would be: the Ukrainian armed forces destroyed a dorm full of soldiers of the occupying army, who had come to murder Ukrainian men, women, and children. It is immaterial whether these Russians have loved ones or not. Since Caldwell seems so fond of comparing things to Nazi practices, let me put it in a way he would understand: the executioners in the German concentration camps also had families.

Finally, we get to the “escalation” part. Caldwell is, again, long on innuendo but short on knowledge of basic facts. For instance, “Abrams tanks require experienced technicians for training and repair. Will these technicians be brought onto the battlefield from the United States? Then we will have a situation analogous to the introduction of “advisers” into Vietnam in the early 1960s.”

A few hours spent with specialists on this would have told him the following. No, there will be no American technicians going into Ukraine to support the tanks. The US has already built a support structure for Abrams in Poland because we are selling hundreds of these tanks to them. Major repairs will not require a trip back to the US but can be done there. And even these sort of repairs will be rare — modern Abrams tanks are designed to be repairable in the field, and so it’s a matter of organizing the logistics of parts and the equipment necessary to do that. It will be Ukrainians who will operate all of this, and if Caldwell somehow thinks they are too stupid to learn, then this is on Caldwell. The Ukrainians have repeatedly demonstrated not just ability to learn Western tech very quickly, but to improvise and improve upon solutions. So no, it will not at all be like sending advisers to Vietnam. And yes, we all know why Caldwell brought up this analogy.

Caldwell then continues with his fact-free fear-mongering:

“President Biden’s own advisers are divided on how aggressively to pursue the war. Some even propose to chase Russia out of Crimea. That would promise a new kind of mission for NATO: the conquest, annexation and garrisoning of a population that doesn’t want it.”

First of all, it is the Ukrainians who wish to take Crimea back — the US administration has been very reluctant to endorse this as a war aim, but then again, it’s precisely because it is the Ukrainians who are doing the fighting, not us, that they get to define their war aims. Caldwell denies any agency to the Ukrainians, a common, but no less offensive, mistake that many Western opinion-writers make.

Second, there are military and political reasons for taking Crimea. It might be easier to liberate Crimea than Donbas because the Russian forces on the peninsula could be cut off from supplies by slicing through the South toward Melitopol, and then destroying the Crimean Bridge. In contrast, Donbas would require assaulting fortified positions with short supply lines for the Russians. The hope is that losing Crimea might also precipitate political changes in Russia that would be conducive to ending the war.

Third, taking Crimea may also be a necessity for a stable negotiated peace. Crimea is the soft underbelly of Ukraine, and it can always be used by Russia to launch further attempts to destabilize or conquer the country. The particular offender there is the Russian military naval base, which will have to go. If Russia is forced to agree to peace, it will be a revanchist power until its government changes and switches policies. It will have to be deterred by Ukraine — this means that Crimea would have to be at the very least demilitarized or, for more security, returned to Ukraine.

Fourth, how does Caldwell know what the Crimean population wants or does not want? Is he seriously going to trot out an illegal “referendum” in 2014 as evidence of anything other than such referenda cannot be conducted while the area is under active assault by a foreign power? Does Caldwell also believe the results of the 2022 “referenda” in the occupied territories in Ukraine?

Caldwell then proceeds to explain Putin’s attempt to destroy Ukraine as part of a century-long Russian policy: “it is also the latest chapter of an ongoing geostrategic story in which the plot has changed little over the centuries: The largest country by area on the planet has no reliable exit into the world. The most reliable route runs through the Black Sea, where it crosses the trade routes that link the civilizations of Asia to the civilizations of Europe. […] Russians say the war is about preventing the installation of an enemy military stronghold on the Black Sea, strong enough to close off what has for centuries been Russia’s main access to the outside world.”

On the list of reasons for this war, preventing “an enemy military stronghold on the Black Sea” ranks right up there with Lavrov’s “preventing Anglo-Saxon bases on the Sea of Azov” — that is, it’s an ex post justification. Yes, the Russians have struggled to keep a warm water port for a long time, and they did fight the Ottoman Empire a lot over that (but not just that, as their proclivity to detach non-Black Sea territories shows). But Putin somehow forgot to mention this when he explained why Ukraine was a fake state that had no right to exist.

The Russians had a long-term lease on Sevastopol, so they had their port after 1991. Then they annexed Crimea, so they got their port without the lease in 2014. And they still invaded in 2022 because…? Does Caldwell propose to satisfy Russia’s perceived need to gain access to “the world” by giving it the Turkish Straits as well? Maybe also the Suez Canal or Gibraltar? Where does this logic end? Many states have to negotiate access routes through other states — being unwilling to do the paperwork for transit is not a good reason to start conquering them.

Caldwell is, at least, admirably clear that he wants to sacrifice Ukraine to appease the Russians. As he put it, “Without Ukraine, Russia can be turned into a vassal state. That NATO intends to bring about the subjugation, breakup or even extinction of Russia may be true or false — but it will not sound implausible to a Russian.”

Russia is turning into a vassal state through the actions of its government, and its suzerain is China. Without Ukraine, Russia would just be… Russia. The idea is that Russia just cannot possibly exist without controlling Ukraine is ludicrous on its face — the only reason Russia may have trouble connecting to the outside world is Russia’s aggressive foreign policy, and even then it took a full-blown invasion, complete with barbaric brutality, to get the West to begin trying to isolate it. A non-aggressive Russia would integrate very easily, and I am not sure whose “vassal” it would then be. Russia has all the resources and population that can easily sustain it as a regional power. But for the imperial delusions of its leader, it could have continued to do so even with the kleptocracy that Putin built there. If this is a war for Russia’s survival, as the Kremlin insists and Caldwell uncritically accepts, it is for the survival of Putin and his coterie, not the country or the nation.

Lest someone is still wondering where Caldwell stands, the final paragraph should put that to rest:

“[This war] is a classic interstate war over territory and power, occurring at a border between empires. In this confrontation Mr. Putin and his Russia have fewer good options for backing down than American policymakers seem to realize, and more incentives to follow the United States all the way up the ladder of escalation.”

While this war is a “classic” territorial war — in the sense that Russia is attempting to conquer Ukrainian territory — it does not occur “at a border between empires” for the simple reason that neither Russia nor — I assume this is what Caldwell insinuates — is the United States are empires. For thirty years, the US bent over backwards to satisfy the residents of the Kremlin, and their faded dreams of empire, while — until very recently — declining to engage with Ukraine. Describing America as an empire is yet another rhetorical sleight-of-hand. To see this, merely ask yourself, what is this description supposed to accomplish in this argument? Remove Ukraine as an actor, at the very least. Equate American and Russian motives for their behaviors in this war, is another goal. Diminish the importance of supporting Ukraine — a democratic nation that is fighting for its existence and liberty — by portraying it as a territorial squabble between two empires. All of the above.

Caldwell asserts — as usual, with no evidence — that Putin has no options of backing down. This is another Kremlin talking point. Of course, Putin has options, and quite a few of them. He just does not want to use them because he hopes that people like Caldwell can tip the scales in the West and support for Ukraine would drain, which will allow him to complete his conquest. Russia’s existence is not threatened by losing in Ukraine. Russia’s existence is not contingent on owning Crimea. Putin’s leadership is not contingent on not losing the war. And it is not up to the US to “back down” in face of Putin’s demands, but to the people who are actually — for real, not in Russian propaganda or Caldwell’s English-language rendering of it — doing the fighting, the Ukrainians.

Let’s now set aside Caldwell’s article, and consider the issues of negotiations and escalation.

While it is true that many wars end in negotiated solutions, one must not neglected to think about the conditions that could make such negotiations effective in terminating wars. Peace is a mutual act — it requires both sides to agree to the terms to stop the fighting. It need not be a formal peace, or even a formal ceasefire, but it has to be mutual. This means that both sides must expect to get from the peace/ceasefire at least as much as each expects to get from continued fighting — if that were not the case, the side that expects to gain more from war would just continue to fight. Both sides are continuously evaluating their prospects in war in order to decide what “acceptable” terms of peace might look like. They are also evaluating how the peaceful interaction might unfold — especially as a consequence of accepting specific terms — in order to decide whether any specific terms are “acceptable.”

Factors that affect one’s estimated net benefits from fighting include ability to mobilize, train, and equip more troops, ability to produce necessary equipment in desired quantities, ability to organize the logistics to support the war effort, ability to maintain sufficient domestic support for the war, ability to maintain troop morale, ability to attract new allies and maintain help one receives, and — of course — ability to achieve one’s own military goals or deny the goals of the opponent.

For the Ukrainians, the war has produced a more or less unambiguous increase in their optimism: they mobilized early and a lot, they have been able to train and equip their soldiers very well, they have been able to secure a steady supply of arms and ammunition since the spring of 2022, the quality of the weapons they are getting is increasing, as is the quantity, they have been able to organize logistics using both rail and trucks, the domestic support remains sky high (and, if anything, has increased buoyed by the summer and fall victories), troop morale is very high as well, and their allies seems to get better at coordinating and more willing to send even more supplies. The factors that dampen that optimism are the casualties, which are quite high (but that could be replaced), and the frustration with the allies who seem to act in reactive rather than pro-active fashion (more on that later).

All of this has clearly told the Ukrainians that they have reasonable chances of success in liberating their territories, let alone throwing off the Russian yoke for good, joining the European Union, and perhaps even NATO. They see no reason to cede territories to appease Russia, especially since such concessions would leave millions of Ukrainians under Russian rule, make the peace unstable, and threaten to turn Ukraine into a vassal state of the Kremlin.

For the Russians, the war has produced a much more mixed picture. The best troops, supported by essentially every piece of equipment on active duty that the Russians could get, enjoying the element of surprise (despite the numerous warnings) failed to achieve Putin’s objectives despite local successes. The September mobilization revealed the grievous losses they had suffered through the need to get at least 300,000 (but more likely around 500,000) more people to continue the “special operation.” The Russians have been unable to train their mobiki effectively, which has lead to an increase in their casualties. Nor are they likely to be able to do so anytime soon given the massive losses among the officers. The Russians have had numerous problems with logistics and have proven largely unable to move far beyond railway junctions (they do not have enough trucks). Domestic support for the SMO is declining, and will drop even more as the economy transitions to a wartime footing and squeezes out consumption even more. Putin’s reliance on repression will increase, and while he is almost certain to retain power, the costs of doing so will go up on an already strained budget. Troop morale is very low, in some parts catastrophically so, and Russians have had to resort of both convicts and shooting of deserters to maintain discipline. For all the inventiveness of Russian entrepreneurs and the resilience of the Russian economy, the Western sanctions are strangling the regime. Gone are the major buyers of oil and gas, gone without adequate replacements. Gone are days of easy access to technology. Gone are the lucrative markets in Europe. Gone are the high prices of energy that temporarily plugged the holes in the budget later in the year. And this was all before the major sanctions even came into effect. Mobilization is unpopular, evidence of hundreds of thousands of Russians leaving the country.

All of this has clearly told Putin that Russia has a limited time to achieve his objectives in Ukraine. How limited really depends on Western unity. Putin can maintain himself in power indefinitely, and the Russian economy could churn out weapons — not the best ones, even by their standards, but still lethal — practically forever. What he cannot do, however, is avoid military defeat in Ukraine if the Ukrainians get the weapons they need from the West. The time horizon is limited by the amount and speed of Western deliveries, as well as by the Ukrainian’s ability to integrate the weapons into a coherent war-fighting doctrine. Since the Ukrainian ability does not seem to be in question for me, it all boils down to Western resolve, and it is this that Putin’s propaganda machine is attempting to crack with talk about escalation and inevitability and peace.

From this perspective, neither side has an incentive to negotiate, so all these calls for peace talks can only amount to one thing: a call for Ukraine to surrender. Since Ukraine will not do that, the alternative that Caldwell peddles is for the West to abandon Ukraine, and thus force it to surrender. Setting aside the monstrous immorality of this, what evidence does Caldwell have that Ukraine would surrender instead of continuing to fight with whatever support it retains or even without it? Abandonment of Ukraine is not a recipe for peace, but for an even bloodier war that could become guerilla warfare that lasts for decades. Just imagine what the Russians would do to civilians then given what they have already done in Ukraine.

The other factors that affect the usefulness of negotiations are the peace expectations under the terms that end the fighting. One cannot help but notice that when people like Caldwell propose “peace negotiations,” they never, ever offer any solutions to the multiple commitment problems that need to be solved. Since peace is a mutual act, it has to be self-sustaining. That is, the incentives of the two sides must be such that neither wants to violate the terms. That does not mean that they like the terms, “only” that violating them would lead to even worse outcomes.

If neither side has achieved its goals at the time of the ceasefire — as would be the case unless Ukraine surrenders — then the terms must necessarily include deterrence of revisionism by either side. Ukraine is unlikely to ever be strong enough to take on Russia by itself to liberate any lost territories, and it is extraordinarily unlikely that there would be Western support for initiating a military campaign to do so (yes, contrary to Caldwell and Putinists of various stripes, the West is never going to start a war to invade Russia). This means that Ukraine could be deterred from attempting to revise the terms by force by Russia with relative ease.

Deterring Russia from forceful revisionism is another matter entirely, for Ukraine clearly cannot do it alone. This means that Ukraine would have to have serious international guarantees, and in the light of the nonsense with the Budapest Memorandum, these guarantees would have to come in the form of military alliances, either bilateral, or within a new security structure for Europe, or through NATO. In all cases, this means that Ukraine cannot be “neutral,” as the Russians insist (neutral in this context does not mean “like Switzerland,” it means “like Belarus”). Moreover, since Ukraine cannot simply wait for others to come to its rescue, a very large part of the deterrent would have to be provided by Ukraine itself. This means a very large peacetime army, a significant defense industry, and a deep reserve for mobilization. In other words, it means that Ukraine cannot be “demilitarized” the way the Russians want it to be (demilitarized in this context does not mean “like Costa Rica,” it means “like Abkhasia”).

In other words, the requirements of peace are such that the Russian demands cannot be fulfilled, as a result, the commitment problem cannot be overcome while Russia is in control of Ukrainian territory. No amount of negotiations can paper over the simple fact that Russia is not yet in a position to concede that some of its demands cannot be achieved, and while it insists on these demands, no peace can be arranged because Ukraine would not be able to deter the Russians from violating it. This means that the Ukrainians cannot be induced to stop fighting either. What needs to change is the Russian calculation about the possibility of attaining their goals through military means in Ukraine — while it remains high enough, peace is impossible no matter how much one talks about it.

In this context, the fastest way of ending the war is not by fighting a war of attrition with Russia or abandoning Ukraine, but by giving Ukraine everything it needs to crush the Russians in Ukraine, and liberate its territory. Talking about negotiations now is just offering Putin’s delusions a new lease on life — as long as there are people like Caldwell, he can continue to believe that Western commitment could wobble, and so he can just outstay the West in this war. For all the talk about a grand offensive, the Russians have demonstrated that they just cannot do it — they took over half a year to capture a small town, and they have yet to take Bakhmut. Their advances are costing them thousands of casualties and all they are getting are dozens of meters.

The problem is not with the West “escalating” the war though new deliveries, it is with prolonging the war by not delivering the necessary weapons in sufficient quantities. The Western reaction has been reciprocal rather than escalatory: the West sends systems of a type that the Russians are already using, and often in response to a particular need Ukraine has to defend itself from some specific Russian strategy (e.g., Javelins to counter tanks, Patriots to counter ballistic missiles, etc.) Describing such a reactive policy as “escalatory” is just inflammatory — it is designed to obfuscate the reality of a very conservative approach. If Russians had truly been fighting NATO, the West, or the US, they would have lost in Ukraine a very long time ago indeed.

At least Caldwell did not bring up the nuclear bogey. Maybe he just ran out of space.

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