Seriously, it’s time to sit down and shut up.
NEIL A. ABRAMS
APR 24, 2023
Read the Detox
Are you a venerated scholar in the field of international relations? Do you feel compelled to publish an article about Russia’s war on Ukraine? To bring your decades of experience to bear to help end the suffering? A smart, contrarian piece, perhaps? One which cuts through the utopian misconceptions of the “whatever-it-takes” crowd? A necessary reality-check that both acknowledges the inevitability of a negotiated settlement and reminds the world of your wisdom and indispensability?
If that’s you, I have some advice: Close your laptop, go outside, and take a walk. Meditate. Adopt a dog. Volunteer at a food bank. In fact, almost anything that doesn’t involve typing words on a page about Ukraine would be preferable to typing words on a page about Ukraine.
Ever since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022, we’ve been subject to a merry-go-round of Esteemed Experts calling on the West to force the two sides to the negotiating table. While admired in their fields of study—usually international relations—few of them have any actual expertise on Ukraine or Russia.
That’s probably why none of these people—literally none—acknowledge the blindingly-obvious counterargument: That any settlement which leaves Russia in control of Ukrainian territory will give way not to “peace” but rather mass-killings, deportations, and other crimes against humanity.
We know this because (a) it’s what Russia has always done after acquiring foreign lands, and (b) it’s what Russia says it is going to do.
Still, nearly every week, another leading foreign policy expert blithely calls for Ukraine to hand over millions of its inhabitants to an avowedly genocidal state.
Take Harvard professor Stephen Walt. Walt is one of the most eminent figures in the study of international relations. Upon working himself into a frenzy over possible nuclear escalation in the pages of Foreign Policy, he essentially recommends that the West make Ukraine give Putin anything he wants.
Anatol Lieven, who, unlike the others profiled here, actually has deep knowledge of the region, offers his own version of this paranoid argument. Why, he wonders, is the West risking full-blown war with Russia over a quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing?
Then there’s Graham Allison, a renowned authority in international relations at Harvard. Pondering a “map of Europe in 2030,” he asks “how much would it matter whether the killing stopped 100 miles to the east or west of the current line of control?” Well, it matters to the Ukrainians who end up on the wrong side of that line, being they will continue getting killed, deported, raped, or otherwise repressed long after “peace” is attained.
For those fancying a more unhinged version of the same idea, Jeffrey Sachs is your guy. In fact, the famous Columbia economist gets very upset whenever Putin admits the war is about glorious colonial conquest instead of NATO expansion. Equally insane are the rantings of University of Chicago political scientist John J. Mearsheimer. Mearsheimer twists himself into a succession of evermore ridiculous knots in an attempt to argue that Putin never actually had imperialist ambitions in Ukraine.
By far the dumbest contribution from the “Let’s Give Up Already” school comes from David H. Rundell and Michael Gfoeller in Newsweek. The article reads like the product of a peyote-induced spell cast by Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president known for his drunken, demented rants on the war. Employing an analogy to the American Civil War (clever, right?), the two former diplomats prophesize that Putin is “about to unleash his own General Sherman and make Ukraine howl.” Naturally, this means the West should abandon Ukraine to Russia’s whims. After all, its forces are sure to be “at the gates of Kiev [sic]” by February.
As a reminder, it is now April.
If you wish to see such arguments demolished in more detail, I recommend Branislav Slantchev’s newsletter. Slantchev, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, is one of the sharpest observers of all things Ukraine- and Russia-related. He also offers devastating takedowns of all of the commentators noted above along with others of their ilk.
It’s worth pausing for a moment to consider how arrogant it is for Western scholars to mansplain to Ukrainians on the need to jettison their headstrong pluckiness and come to terms. Almost none, save Lieven, have any Ukraine expertise whatsoever or bothered to inquire with actual Ukrainians as to why they’re so resistant to a land-for-peace deal. And yet they have the temerity to imply they know better than Ukrainians about what’s in their best interests?
Get over yourselves, for Christ’s sake.
The latest contribution to this sorry collection of hot takes appeared in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs. In it, Richard N. Haass, a former diplomat who heads the Council on Foreign Relations, and Charles A. Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University, offer yet another iteration of the same tired thesis.
“After just over a year,” reads the opening sentence, “the war in Ukraine has turned out far better for Ukraine than most predicted.” By rights, the article should have ended here. Instead, after noting how most other experts failed to predict the course of the war, Haass and Kupchan proceed, inexplicably, to predict the course of the war. “The most likely outcome of the conflict,” they posit, “is not a complete Ukrainian victory but a bloody stalemate.”
Considering stalemate is “the most likely outcome,” they continue, “it is worth pressing for a durable truce, one that could prevent renewed conflict and, even better, set the stage for a lasting peace.”
It is at this point—the end of the very first paragraph, mind you—that our dignified scholars betray their ignorance of Russia’s recent history of military interventions. If the past is any guide, a land-for-peace deal does not bode well for the inhabitants of any Ukrainian territories acquired by Russia. What Haass and Kupchan call “lasting peace,” in fact, would entail savage repression and unrestrained violence against those forced to live under Moscow’s rule.
To see why, let’s take a look at Russia’s previous conduct in the wake of military conquest.
For simplicity’s sake, I’ll limit this discussion to the post-Soviet period, even though one could easily include the horrendous crimes the Soviet and Tsarist regimes committed as occupiers.
The first stop on our tour of Russian horrors is Chechnya, the former breakaway province that waged a war of secession against Russia in the 1990s. By mid-2000, Moscow had largely pacified the province.
Most relevant for our purposes is what happened next—after “peace” was attained. Since 2005, the European Court of Human Rights has decided 499 suits brought by Chechen civilians against Russia for the latter’s human rights abuses, practically all of which occurred after the end of major military operations in mid-2000.
A 2015 report by the International Crisis Group likewise details Russia’s brutal treatment of the Chechen population since the end of the war. It describes widespread “torture, enforced disappearance, summary execution, hostage-taking, illegal detention, falsification of criminal cases, arson, and a lack of fair trials.”
Chechnya is hardly the only instance in which post-Soviet Russia either committed or enabled crimes against humanity in the aftermath of war. In 2008, Moscow launched an offensive against the former Soviet republic of Georgia. In just 16 days it managed to establish a proxy state in the region of South Ossetia. Since that time, Russia has annexed the province in all but name.
But most relevant for Ukraine is what happened in South Ossetia after Russia’s military victory. Well, what happened was the violent ethnic cleansing of the local ethnic Georgian minority along with arbitrary detentions, torture, and other abuses.
Finally, there is Russia’s barbaric conduct in Crimea, the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula it invaded and annexed in 2014. Crimea would endure the usual pattern of repression, intimidation, arbitrary detentions, torture, etc. It would also see the forced deportations of ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars and their replacement by hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants.
Lest any doubt remain about the Kremlin’s plans for annexed Ukrainian territory, they should be dispelled by the genocidal rhetoric saturating its state media as well as the appalling crimes its
forces have already committed in Bucha, Irpin, Izium, Kupiansk-Vuzlovyi, Lyman, and elsewhere.
None of this stuff is news to Ukrainians, a fact which underscores the irony of these clueless experts purporting to save them from their irrational obstinacy. Unlike Haass and Kupchan, Ukrainians are well-aware of Russia’s barbaric post-war conduct in such places as Chechnya. And you’d better believe they recall its ghastly crimes against their own people. For centuries, Ukrainians suffered through annexations, displacements, deportations, cultural erasure, and, most infamously, the genocidal famine of the 1930s—all at the hands of their “big brother,” as Russians like to regard themselves.
In sum, any “peace deal” Ukraine signs is bound to result in further human rights abuses in whichever territories it ends up ceding to Russia. Ukrainians know this, which probably explains why they reject the idea by overwhelming margins. The fact that this basic reality is lost upon the beneficent scholars pushing for peace negotiations is a devastating indictment of their credibility.
Considering the stakes, there is only one course of action the West can take that is remotely defensible: Give Ukraine what it needs to win, and do it now.
This is not some theoretical exercise. Nor is it an opportunity to burnish your professional image with more think-pieces. Real people’s lives are at stake. Please govern yourselves accordingly.