Supporting Ukraine—Without Writing a Blank Check

Navigating between solidarity and recklessness. By Gilbert Achcar


Source > The Nation

The delivery of heavy tanks to Ukraine has been pondered at length in Germany as well as in the United States—for good reason. Both governments had until now been keen on not appearing as if they were espousing the Ukrainian leadership’s proclaimed war goals beyond the country’s legitimate right to self-defense against the unprovoked and openly premeditated Russian aggression. They have had limited qualms about delivering essentially defensive armament, such as anti-tank, antiaircraft and antimissile weapons, as well as short to medium-range artillery. And although heavy tanks too could be restricted to defensive goals, Washington and Berlin have probably hesitated to deliver them because they are loaded with sophisticated equipment requiring long training. And the risk of seeing them fall into Russian hands on the battlefield cannot be taken lightly.

Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian invasion has been often portrayed as a proxy war waged by NATO against Russia. This is too simplistic. There is no doubt, to be sure, that NATO has espoused the goal of repelling the Russian aggression launched on February 24, 2022, and pushing Russian troops back to where they were before that day. That the alliance would support this goal was not difficult to predict. Underestimating Ukraine’s resistance potential and NATO’s willingness to back it is indeed Vladimir Putin’s massive failure. Thus, a war launched under the proclaimed goal of barring Ukraine’s accession to the alliance has led to the country’s much intensified and precipitated integration into its military system.

As a result, short of benefiting from NATO’s Article 5, Ukraine has become a NATO member in all other respects and for all intents and purposes. This means that, even though Ukraine will not officially be regarded as part of NATO’s territory, so that an aggression against it will not be regarded as an aggression against all members, the interoperability of Ukraine’s military with the Alliance’s has tremendously increased. NATO will certainly further build up Ukraine’s military capabilities after the ongoing war, so that Ukraine’s future deterrence of potential Russian aggression will be considerably enhanced. The country will hence become a precious de facto auxiliary to NATO in confronting Russia.

However, contrary to claims usually aimed at justifying opposition to arms deliveries to Ukraine, NATO is not waging an all-out proxy war against Russia proper. It has not even agreed to help Ukraine recover all the territory that it lost since 2014, which includes parts of Donetsk and Luhansk as well as the whole of Crimea. There is no serious indication until now that this has been or has become Washington’s goal, while there are plenty of indications to the contrary, including Washington’s refusal to green-light Ukraine’s bombing of Russia’s territory or even Crimea, and to provide Kyiv with adequate means for that purpose. Joe Biden’s refusal to deliver the F-16 fighter jets that the Ukrainian government is requesting is a case in point.

There has been, of course, some speculation about a possible shift in Washington’s stance in the future, with regard to both targeting Crimea and the provision of F-16s. And there have been those—like Philip Breedlove, a retired four-star Air Force general who was NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe when Russia invaded Crimea in 2014—who have advocated unlimited support to Ukraine from the start, including a NATO-enforced no-fly zone over the country in a way that irresistibly brings to mind Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. No one will be surprised, likewise, to learn that Boris Johnson—who, as British prime minister and following a scenario matching that of Wag the Dog, embraced Ukraine’s cause with much ardor in the midst of the “Partygate” scandal in which he got caught while Russia launched its invasion last year—is now urging his successor to deliver fighter jets to Ukraine and advocating the country’s official integration into NATO.

Nor is it surprising to anyone that Lockheed Martin is in favor of providing F-16s to Ukraine. The military industries are indeed rubbing their hands in all NATO countries, lobbying for massive increases in military spending with remarkable results already achieved in that respect, although Russia has been much weakened by the ongoing war and the “credibility” of its force much depreciated. A recent illustration is the massive increase announced by French President Emmanuel Macron at the very moment when his government is engaged in a tug-of-war with the labor movement and a majority of public opinion to impose two more years of work before retirement. It seems indeed that, for the French president, it is the “end of abundance” for all but the military.

Except for the UK’s government, which has been engaged in braggadocio over Ukraine ever since Johnson started it, and for Poland’s right-wing government, which is exploiting the legitimate worries of the country’s population, worries that are shared by the Baltic states, most NATO governments are circumspect about, if not hostile to, escalating the alliance’s indirect military confrontation with Russia. That is not because they fear that Russia would declare war on NATO: Whatever recklessness Putin has demonstrated in invading Ukraine, this experience has shown him, if anything, that his armed forces are far weaker than being able to fight against NATO. And it is not only because they fear that Putin might resort to nuclear weapons as he pledged to do in defense of Russia’s sacrosanct territory, which includes Crimea in his view and apparently that of most Russians.

It is also because Putin is reacting to every additional support from NATO to Ukraine by escalating his murderous assaults on the latter’s territory, as he did again in the wake of the US and German decision to deliver heavy tanks to Kyiv. This is a very worrying perspective for Western governments, not least because of the potentially huge increase in the Ukrainian exodus to Europe that it entails. An escalation into Crimea and Russian territory would moreover allow Putin to whip up the nationalist feelings of a Russian population that has been until now rather lukewarm toward his “special operation.” He would thus be able to mobilize on a much larger scale. The issue is therefore not simply a matter of providing Ukraine with the means to defeat its aggressor, as some pretend. Putin likes to tell how he was impressed in his youth by the aggressiveness of a rat that he had cornered. And he has certainly not exhausted the means of substantially increasing his destruction of Ukraine. This is why an escalation by NATO beyond the above-mentioned limits would be reckless and should be opposed.

Russia’s official annexation of four Ukrainian oblasts last September as well as its annexation of Crimea in 2014 are rightly considered as null and void. But the recovery of those parts of Eastern Ukraine identified by the 2015 Minsk II agreement or of the Crimean Peninsula cannot for that matter be regarded as Ukrainian war goals that should be supported. Nobody, NATO included, would have backed a Ukrainian decision to launch a war against Russia to recover these territories had Kyiv done so before Russia’s invasion. The truth is that there are legitimate reasons to question the status of these territories in the light of their population’s wishes, and the only acceptable solution of such quarrels is by letting the original populations of the disputed territories vote freely and democratically for their self-determination.

There can be no peaceful settlement ending the war without such an agreement, which in itself would still constitute an obvious setback for Putin, who would not agree to it unless he is compelled by the military situation on the ground and/or by Russia’s economic condition. But short of a collapse of Putin’s regime that would radically change the situation, the only way to get Moscow to abide for good by the conditions of a political settlement is to get it processed through the UN where it would require Russia’s approval as well as China’s. Genuine self-determination referendums need to be organized by a UN-mandated body, along with the deployment of UN troops in the disputed territories. Any other way of ceasing the ongoing war would be no more than a temporary lull in a protracted clash of nationalist ambitions.

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Gilbert Achcar’s newest book is The New Cold War: The United States, Russia and Ukraine, from Kosovo to Ukraine (2023).