Art Goldhammer on Ukraine – Revue de Presse, 27 February 2023

27 February 2023

Dear Reader, 

With an eye on the recent one year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Tocqueville 21 begins its coverage with a special press review penned by Arthur Goldhammer. Stay tuned for our other upcoming pieces!

Shane McLorrain, Managing Editor

A year has passed since Russia invaded Ukraine, and the media have devoted a good deal of space to marking the anniversary. Continued American support for the embattled nation was demonstrated in spectacular fashion by President Joe Biden’s surprise visit to Kiev, which was quickly followed by a second state visit by Italian premier Giorgia Meloni.


Yet these shows of solidarity, as impressive as they were, masked undercurrents of dissension. Le Monde published an article that attempted to measure how well support for Ukraine is holding up abroad. While polling should always be taken with a grain of salt, and even more so when it concerns support for foreign wars, the comparative figures are worth pondering: In the UK, opposition to supplying arms to Ukraine is only 12%; in Germany it jumped from 26 to 35% after the recent decision to deliver Leopard tanks; in the US it’s up to 40% (from 32 last September), with almost all the increase among voters who lean Republican. Biden’s spectacular declaration of unwavering support for Ukraine may prompt the Republicans to seize on this as a major cleavage issue, building on their existing narrative of a corrupt collusion between the Bidens, Joe and Hunter, and pro-EU Ukrainians.


There is no comparable polling data for Italy, another key supplier of arms to Ukraine, but Le Monde notes that pacifist sentiment seems to outweigh support for Ukrainian victory (whatever “victory” means). Few Italian city halls are flying Ukrainian flags, for example, but many have signs calling for “peace” to be restored. Despite Meloni’s visit, her coalition has been strained by Berlusconi’s renewed declaration of support for Putin and attack on Ukraine’s President Zelensky. He is supported, sotto voce, by Matteo Salvini, the third partner in the coalition.


Curiously, the Le Monde article says nothing about French support for Ukraine, but the paper published another piece noting that French political parties have preferred ambiguity to forthrightness, leaving it to President Macron to define France’s position. And Macron himself has not always avoided ambiguity, having declared early in the war that the West must be careful not to “humiliate” Russia. More recently, however, on his flight back from a conference of Ukraine’s allies in Munich, he stated that he “wants Russia to be defeated in Ukraine” while ruling out the idea of “defeating Russia totally, attacking it on its own soil.”


Of course, public opinion outside Ukraine is not the only factor that will determine the direction of the war. The following points will be crucial:


  1. What China decides about supplying weapons, ammunition, and other necessities to Russia, and how much it is willing to pay for Russian oil and gas to prop up the Russian economy..
  2. The outcome of the 2024 US presidential election, which may turn out to be the most important factor if the war is still going on by then.
  3. The attitude of the Russian population
  4. How much punishment Ukrainians are willing to endure


In regard to China, the recent stern warnings to Xi from US Secretary of State Tony Blinken, Vice-President Kamala Harris, and President Biden himself are reminiscent of the warnings issued to Putin before the invasion. The US appears to have intelligence that China is seriously considering increased aid to Russia and wants to head this off. Xi is cautious and may be deterred, but he may also see such a move as a way to improve his bargaining position vis-à-vis the US with respect to technology transfer embargos and aggressive US military moves in the Pacific and on Taiwan.


Without Chinese aid, Putin will become even more dependent on cannon fodder, which may lead to greater disaffection with the regime and its “special military operation” than is apparent today. As for developments internal to Russia, the New York Times reports tensions between Prigozhin, the instigator of the Wagner Force, and the military, including perhaps even Putin himself. Keith Gessen’s article in the latest New Yorker suggests that that despite an apparently quiescent Russian public, support for the regime may mask a quiet dissidence.


In the US, in addition to growing Republican willingness to instrumentalize the war as a means of attacking Biden, there is also a restiveness in some quarters of the left, where some commentators want to see the war in Ukraine as a continuation of other American interventions. Thus Andrew Bacevich in The Nation asks “this particular conflict puts civilization itself at risk? Why should rescuing Ukraine take priority over rescuing Haiti or Sudan?” For him, the conclusion is inescapable–the US is irredeemably racist: “What makes Russian aggression so heinous, therefore, is that it victimizes Europeans, whose lives are deemed to possess greater value than the lives of those who reside in implicitly less important regions of the world. That there is a racialist dimension to such a valuation goes without saying, however much US officials may deny that fact. Bluntly, the lives of white Ukrainians matter more than the lives of the non-whites who populate Africa, Asia, or Latin America.”


Somewhat less crudely, Samuel Moyn, writing in The New Republic, uses a biography of Robert Kagan, a vocal proponent of what has been called “liberal interventionism,” to argue that Ukraine is but the latest in a series of ill-conceived adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere: “From Iraq to Ukraine, Kagan may well be one of the most damagingly influential foreign policy intellectuals the United States has produced in our time, helping American exceptionalism survive long past its sell-by date. His recent comeback may be his most chilling—and spectacular—success. There is a moral imperative for Ukraine to defend itself, but there is no last battle for democracy there, nor are illiberal powers more threatening to freedom than decades of U.S. crusades abroad.”


Meanwhile, another influential intellectual, Jürgen Habermas, adds his voice to the chorus of those who insist that the time has come for negotiations, even if the adversary gives no sign of a willingness to negotiate:


The war is dragging on, the scale of the destruction is increasing and the casualties are mounting. Should the momentum of the military assistance we have provided for good reasons now shed its defensive character because victory over Putin is the only possible goal?

Sleepwalking on the edge of the abyss is becoming a real danger especially because the Western alliance is not only strengthening Ukraine’s hand, but is tirelessly reiterating that it will support the Ukrainian government for “as long as necessary” and that the Ukrainian government alone can decide the timing and goal of possible negotiations. This protestation is meant to discourage opponents, but it is inconsistent and obscures differences that are obvious. Above all, it can lead us to deceive ourselves about the need to take our own initiatives for negotiations


Finally, The New Yorker has published a piece by Jon Lee Anderson, who examines the effects of the war on Ukrainian attitudes toward Russians. War inevitably brews hatred, and hatred has regrettable consequences, including the removal of a statue of Pushkin from a public square in one Ukrainian city. But for Ukrainian-born scholar Peter Pomerantsev, “That doesn’t mean one can’t read Pushkin again, but without decoding the imperialist influence, and seeing how it permeates all of Russian culture, we won’t get to the root of this war.”


This bears on the other key factor mentioned earlier, namely, the willingness of Ukrainians to endure the horrors of the war that has been so brutally inflicted on them.  This remains the key imponderable. Ukraine’s military manpower losses seem to be significantly lower than Russian losses, but they are still severe and include many members of the prewar elite. The economy has been devastated, and the country depends on foreign support. Russian attacks on infrastructure have taken a heavy toll and made life in many cities extremely difficult. Yet–to the extent that one can judge from afar–the spirit of resistance remains unbroken. In this respect, Russian ruthlessness may be counterproductive, in that it convinces Ukrainians that defeat will be even more costly than holding out. But if outside support flags, that calculation could change.

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1 Comment

  • Gregory Brown says:

    Is Moyn seriously not able to distinguish between US direct military intervention and a broad international coalition of support for the Ukrainian army that involves NO US (or anyone’s) military intervention.

    His logic is both incomprehensible and appears to be on bad faith in its faux isolationism. I’ve never been a fan if his over simplification but this kne is really unworthy. He’s one step away from Mearsheimer territory, which is the land of speaking to retain your standing as a public commentator.

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