Games with the Sovereign Territories of Ukraine: When Is the Appetite of Imperialism Satiated?

No more weapons for Ukraine. No more of the idea that Kyiv must reclaim territories seized by Russia. These messages have begun to spread in the United States. Stefan Popov explains where these messages come from and where they might lead.

In the third month of the war in Ukraine, U.S. opinion critical of America’s role in the conflict has emerged. This is not a surprise; it is part of internal public debate. Yet two of these positions could seriously influence U.S. politics.

A surprise: The Liberal New York Times

The New York Times published an opinion editorial by the Editorial Board, an internal institution composed of its editors-in-chief. The newspaper has supported Ukraine from day one of the war with the unequivocal proclamation, “No matter how long it takes, Ukraine will be free.” But three months later the editorial brain trust stated, right in the title of a comprehensive opinion piece, that “The War in Ukraine Is Getting Complicated, and America Isn’t Ready.”

The editorial board began by repeating already raised issues to which President Joe Biden’s administration has yet to respond: What is Washington’s goal? The end of the war? A peace treaty? The irreversible collapse of Russia? Vladimir Putin in front of a criminal tribunal? An off ramp leading away from escalation? And others.

Next addressed in the editorial is the thesis that it is unrealistic for Ukraine to believe that it could win the war, push Russia out and reclaim its March 24 borders — or its 2014 borders. Because of this, the Ukrainian government must reassess its goals. The editorial does not say explicitly that Ukraine must agree to cede part of its territory to Russia, but that is the subtext: Ukraine must make difficult decisions. Volodymyr Zelenskyy needs to realize that U.S. support has an end date.

What is unique about the position of the editorial board is that it aligns with the point of view of the Monroe Doctrine: In general, since the beginning of the 19th century European disputes have not been within U.S. interests, roughly speaking; nor were the traumas of Vietnam and others, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The issue is not raised as a global, moral or even strategic issue. Rather, it questions what the United States is doing in Ukraine, since inflation is more important to the average American.

Does the editorial board offer a solution? Not at all. It insists on answers to questions regarding the purpose of the war, answers that do not yet exist.

Should Putin be handed over to a criminal tribunal? Of course, that is his fate. But should this be the purpose of the war?

Should there be a peace treaty? Hardly. Were not such attempts already made in talks in Turkey?

Should Putin be destabilized? If this is a path toward a return of the status quo circa 2013, then yes, why not? But how could such a goal be supported, since it looks ridiculous — even if the sanctions are helping?

Should a wider war be avoided? Of course, this is a straightforward goal. But this could be achieved in a manner contrary to the suggestions made in the editorial. Russia must learn that state borders exist and that they must be respected; otherwise, the world sinks into chaos.

Such questions do not have an answer in the editorial. As long as Ukraine is motivated to not give in, it must be helped in every way. This answer is obvious, but is the goal clear enough?

The U.S. has defined the limit of its support quite unambiguously: Support Ukraine and do not get dragged into a direct military confrontation with Russia. This is a strategic plan that will sooner or later shape the currently missing context of answers sought prematurely by the editorial board. Yet at this time the suggestions of territorial trades are extremely unacceptable, especially from the point of view of the U.S. from its experience with European wars. Playing games with sovereign territories is exactly what the U.S. stood against after 1945. This goal is greater than a specific conflict and is related to guarantees for the preservation of post-war stability.

How Could We Continue without Henry Kissinger?

A few days after the piece in The New York Times, Henry Kissinger expressed essentially the same position. He did so during an online speech on May 24 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. A day before turning 99 years of age, the former secretary of state displayed a typical Kissingerian perspective. He did not ask what the U.S. is doing in Ukraine, nor about Biden’s goals. He did not launch a narrower American position, but he did directly announce the solution to the problem. According to Kissinger, the situation objectively demonstrates that Ukraine will be destroyed unless it makes concessions.

After a bouquet of praise for Ukrainian bravery, Kissinger insisted on two points: First, Putin must not be humiliated. He must be given an off ramp from the war he himself started with despotic arbitrariness.

What he had said, at that point, was already far too much; logically, the discussion should have ended. Yet, the former secretary of state went on to say that Ukraine must make concessions. It would be best to set Ukraine’s borders where they were prior to the war. This would mean that Luhansk, Donetsk (it is unclear what part of this region) and Crimea would be ceded to Russia.

Kissinger is a practical realist, an heir to the great tradition of realism, a school of thought in international relations theory (In modern times, this includes Niccolò Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes, and from Carl Schmitt and Hans Morgenthau to Kenneth Waltz and many other academic figures.) But Kissinger does not associate himself with academic concepts. He sees himself as a practitioner who solves problems without theoretical help. He has been doing this his entire life.

In this case he is wrong, and it seems strange to ask if he has considered the wider implications of his position. Kissinger does not see Russia as a great power comparable to China, the U.S. and the U.K. Great powers decide the fate of the world. This is the tradition of the congress: the Congress of Vienna, the Berlin Conference.

No comparison can be made with the Ukrainian conflict. It is analogous to the iniquity of Third Reich — annexation, or the capture of territory — with a difference: In 1939 the Third Reich was a great power with allies. Today’s Russia is on the brink of bankruptcy and is the subject of an unprecedented economic blockade. The entire Western world is united against it. It has no serious allies. It is militarily archaic, just like its automotive industry, and it is enthralled by fantasies of greatness. Russia is also blackmailing the world with its nuclear warheads.

The Risk of Both Positions

The danger in the recommendations of both positions is that a late or indecisive U.S. intervention leads to — in terms of human casualties and finances — a much more expensive intervention later on. What guarantees could The New York Times and Kissinger give that, once richly rewarded with territory, Putin will not be hungry tomorrow? The Rabelaisian hunger of an imperialist body is malignantly persistent.

It is interesting that the position held by the traditionally perplexed European continent differs from that of the United States. Among European countries the dominant position, thus far, is that Ukraine makes the decisions and we help it. And we help because after Ukraine there is Moldova, Poland, the Baltics, the Balkans — could anyone say when the appetite of imperialism will be satisfied? Thus, the world order is at stake, not simply the relationship between the West and an imaginary great power.

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