STATESIDE: Blurred lines of a conflict where there's no easy exit

STATESIDE

By Charlie Harper

WE’VE returned in this space several times over the past four months to the question of the inevitability of US and Western involvement in a shooting war with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. Even as most major American media focus once again on ex-President Donald Trump, the January 6 committee hearings into his casual incitement of a shocking and fatal riot, and the chances of someone else taking control of the Republican Party before 2024, experts and scholars are quietly wondering aloud if America isn’t already at war with Russia and what it could mean for the short-term future of the world.

It’s hardly newsworthy anymore when the US congress, usually with huge pluralities of positive votes, authorises a giant new tranche of military and other related aid for Ukraine.

Polls show American support for embattled Ukraine, the victim of a cynical invasion by Russia but hardly innocent in terms of current corruption or historical treachery, remains largely popular. It’s easy for Americans to dislike, despise and even fear Russian President Vladimir Putin. He makes little effort to avoid consistent Western portrayals of him as, basically, the devil.

But at the same time, history and contemporary evidence from polling and other sources point to substantial domestic support in Russia for this devil, who is promising a national return to international relevance, or even greatness. Russians, especially older Russians, long for the bygone days of the Soviet duopoly in world affairs with the United States. Putin is singing from their hymnal. He seems to have the additional support of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has its own scores to settle with its Ukrainian “cousins” and in any case has often aligned itself politically with whomever is in charge in the Kremlin.

In the past several weeks, speculation has increased about the notion that the US, and likely the UK as well, are already at war with Russia. Furthermore, there are whispers that it is not only Russia that has no plausible or acceptable end game short of Ukrainian ceding of up to one-fifth of its pre-war territory. The Western Allies, so the narrative goes, don’t have any end game themselves, short of complete expulsion of Russian forces from pre-war Ukrainian territory – and, importantly, crippling the Russian war “machine” sufficiently that further extraterritorial invasions are foreclosed for the foreseeable future.

To many observers, this is a perfect scenario for a grinding, largely stalemated war of attrition that could extend for several more years or more, inflicting grievous damage on not only both combatants but also significant collateral damage on much of the world.

No one would have voted in favour of such an outcome before or even after the Russian invasion on February 24. So how will this universally unpopular and unacceptable situation be resolved?

Here’s one forecast that’s beginning to make the rounds in Washington and New York: As Russian forces advance haltingly, but perhaps inexorably, along the Ukrainian Black Sea coast toward Ukraine’s principal port city of Odessa, the pressure will grow ever more insistent, on the US in particular, to restrict Russian naval support for the Kremlin’s ground forces. The latest $50 billion US assistance package will beget further Ukrainian requests for more arms and ammunition. The idea of a no-fly zone over Ukraine to impede Russian air superiority will reappear, and the notion will gain acceptance that the US and the West should use their massive air superiority to enforce the no-fly zone and eliminate current Russian air superiority over the outmanned Ukrainian air force and air defences.

According to this line of thinking, voters in the US and the West would, simultaneously, grow more impatient with Western restraint. The idea of direct engagement with the weakened and demoralized Russian army might gain greater acceptance. Public and private fears of Russian desperate deployment of some of its nuclear arsenal might recede. The stage would thus be set.

Suppose that in this supercharged atmosphere there is, for example, an incident between the Russian navy and US naval forces ensuring safe passage to and from Odessa for merchant marine vessels carrying Ukrainian grain to the Middle East and Africa, where thousands would otherwise starve. One thing leads to another. Shooting starts. Neither Biden nor Putin, who have begun to match each other’s bellicosity in recent weeks, backs down.

The Black Sea is an enormous inland sea, whose surface area is more than 25 times the size of, for example, Lake Okeechobee. But the Black Sea area offshore from Odessa is much smaller, and establishment of a maritime safe passage corridor to the hungry outside world via Turkey’s Bosporus and Dardanelles would be naturally circumscribed. The chances of a serious incident in such close quarters would not be insignificantly small.

Who will or could intercede? Neither Biden nor Putin respects the moral authority of the UN. Newly solidified Western Europe is a protagonist in the conflict. China is contentedly sitting on the sidelines watching developments and calculating its chances of subjugating Taiwan while the US is distracted in Eastern Europe.

A recent article in Newsweek reported on Henry Kissinger’s solution to this dilemma. Former Secretary of State, National Security Adviser and author of timelessly seminal books on European diplomatic history, Kissinger has amazingly remained relevant at the ripe old age of 99. Addressing the Davos World Economic Forum in May, he urged Ukraine to consider a ceasefire that would include a return to the pre-war lines in which Russia controlled the Crimean Peninsula and approximately a third of territory in the Donbas region in Ukraine’s east. “Pursuing the war beyond that point would not be about the freedom of Ukraine, but a new war against Russia itself,” Kissinger said.

Kissinger is hardly the only one advocating this approach. But no one among Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, Putin, Biden or Boris Johnson seems to agree with him. In fact, Edgars Rinkevics, Latvia’s Foreign Minister, compared Kissinger after the Davos speech with Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister who will forever be remembered as the man who ceded the Sudetenland to Nazi Germany in 1938.

But back to the question of whether the US is actually already at war with Russia. The New York Times picked up an article by a relatively little-known analyst in a seldom-cited publication from Washington think tank Defense Policies. It is provocative and likely to gain wider acceptance in the weeks ahead.

The article asks: “Are we already at war in Ukraine? If we swapped places — if Russian apparatchiks admitted helping to kill American generals or sink a US Navy vessel — I doubt we’d find much ambiguity there. At the very least, what the United States is doing in Ukraine is not, not war. If we have so far avoided calling it war and can continue to do so, maybe that’s only because we’ve become so uncertain of the meaning of the word.”

Surveying the history of American Presidents and declarations not to go to war over the past century, analyst Bonnie Kristian leads off with Biden’s frequent pronouncements that despite his condemnations of Putin and Russian motives in invading Ukraine, the US will not be drawn into a direct conflict with Russia. The analyst dismisses Biden’s pronouncements with the comment that “American Presidents have a long history of insisting they have no intention of going to war, until they do.”

President Woodrow Wilson, for example, campaigned in 1918 for re-election on the slogan, “he kept us out of war,” and then led America into World War I a month into his second term. Wilson even spoke about the “inevitability” of US entry into World War I just a few weeks after that successful re-election campaign. World War I begat World War II which begat the Korean War. Then there was the matter of US President Lyndon B Johnson and Vietnam. Taking a page from Wilson’s successful 1918 playbook, Johnson pledged in his 1964 campaign for President to “keep American boys home” and resist the temptation to involve the US in a “distant overseas conflict.” We know how that worked out.

Furthermore, Kristian declarest “the line between what is war and what is not war has become perilously blurred. Are we sure Americans can reliably recognise when we’ve joined a war?” They certainly cannot if they’re not paying attention.