Allies and the United States must resist Ukraine’s efforts to make unpleasant facts seem like pleasant fantasies.
What’s the situation in the almost six-month-old Russo–Ukrainian conflict? It is difficult to know. Moscow was expecting a cakewalk, but it failed to execute its first attack. After rebuffing Russia’s assault, the Zelensky government expanded its objectives, expressing its desire to reconquer portions of the Donbas seized by separatists with Russian support in 2014, as well as Crimea, which had been formally annexed by Moscow.
In recent months Russian forces made slow progress within the Donbas, and currently occupy at least a fifth of Ukrainian territory. However, Ukraine and its supporters have threatened counteroffensives to Moscow’s overstretched forces. There have been conflicting statements about the casualty rates, impact of the high-tech weapons that were sent to Ukraine and the prospects for both sides in this war.
Both Russia, Ukraine and others have lied in pursuit of their future advantages. It is normal to lie to one’s enemy. Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister and noted that truth in wartime is precious enough for her to be accompanied by a guard of lies
Some governments lie to themselves, such as Washington. Virtually everything the George W. Bush administration claimed to justify its disastrous invasion of Iraq was false. Prior administrations and their allies shared fake atrocities to back earlier military interventions against Yugoslavia and Iraq. The Reagan administration made a series of unfounded statements after the U.S. shoot-down of the Iranian airliner in the Persian Gulf in 1988. And the Johnson administration used spurious claims of a North Vietnamese attack on U.S. forces to win passage of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which authorized deployments that metastasized into the Vietnam War, in which 58,000 Americans died.
Ukraine treats information as an autonomous battleground. It is difficult to trust anything it publicly says. One of Kiev’s key strategies was to fabricate stories about heroism or unconfirmed Russian casualty numbers. It is not surprising that this is the case, however, it is crucial that U.S. officials base their decisions on reality and not just what Kiev has to say.
The agreement between Washington and European capitals appears to be that Kiev will determine how long and for which objective to fight, that there will not be any decision about Ukraine with Ukraine out of the room and that the U.S. will provide whatever Kiev considers necessary.
But Washington has the responsibility to formulate policy that is in the best interests of American citizens. Washington shouldn’t hand over these decisions to any other government. Unfortunately, Washington does this all too often. In the late 1980s, for example, ethnic Albanians successfully lobbied to drag the U.S. into the guerrilla war raging in Kosovo, then part of Serbia. During the 1990s, Americans of Eastern European descent spurred the disastrous policy of expanding NATO up to Russia’s borders, violating numerous assurances made to Moscow. Recent trips to the Middle East by President Joe Biden have shown that both Democrats and Republicans will allow Saudi Arabian control over U.S. foreign policy.
Washington can’t afford to repeat the Russo–Ukrainian war crimes. Support Kiev as the victim of unjustified aggression. U.S. assistance must be compatible with American interests. This means that U.S. policymakers have to decide if it’s in their national interest to support Ukraine’s goals and strategies.
Zelensky, for instance, urged the U.S. early on in the war to create a “no fly” zone above Ukraine. This would be equivalent to declaring war on Russia: shooting down Russian aircraft and dismantling Russian air defenses in Ukraine and Russia. (Moscow’s military launches attacks on and defends aircraft from both Russian and Ukrainian territories.
Unsurprisingly, Kiev has accepted almost every American proposal for involvement. This includes admitting Ukraine into NATO. U.S. officials acknowledged that Ukraine’s current status isn’t important for America’s future and did not consider it a vital concern enough to warrant war against a nuclear-armed country. The George W. Bush administration promised Ukraine membership in the NATO alliance, which was contrary to the will of nearly all NATO members. This demonstrated that their recklessness didn’t end with the invasion. The subsequent administrations adopted a more responsible stance.
Zelensky urged the U.S. recently to label Russia a terrorist country, even though Moscow has never committed terrorism. Although it is a violent aggressor, Saudi Arabia is also a terrorist state. It has used U.S.-supplied arms to starve and imprison hundreds of thousands of Yemenis. This has caused a greater death toll than in Ukraine. European leaders should ban Russian tourists from Europe. This would not only help Kiev, but also isolate the Russian population and strengthen the Putin government.
Washington has to decide how much support it will provide and what its goals are. While Kiev can set any goal that it wants, America and Europe cannot support it. For instance, Zelensky recently announced that if Moscow holds referendums over the annexation of conquered territory, he, and the West, will not engage in peace talks: “If the occupiers proceed along the path of pseudo-referendums they will close for themselves any chance of talks with Ukraine and the free world, which the Russian side will clearly need at some point.” However, it is not in the West’s interest to fight an endless proxy war to preserve every inch of Ukrainian territory.
Indeed grant this request and Zelensky’s next demand will probably be greater. Imagine if Zelensky announced his plans tomorrow to invade Russia and annexe St. Petersburg to seize Moscow in order to force Putin into peace. Washington and NATO would provide weapons and money to finance the execution of this plan?
America’s primary interest in Ukraine is to protect its sovereignty and independence. In contrast, the allies have no great interest in preventing territorial loss by Kiev, let alone recovering land lost by Ukraine in 2014. While such strategies might not be ideal for Kiev, they pose a danger to America. There is the potential of an escalation or expansion that crosses NATO borders, and could ensnare the U.S .
Washington officials require the most accurate information to set policy. While sympathy for Ukraine is valid, it should not blind Washington officials to the realities of the conflict. News sources that favor Moscow were shut down across the West, for example. Twitter banned Russo-friendly posts and treated them as regime propagandists. It would not be wise to trust such sources but it is absurd to steer the information ecosystem towards Kiev.
Yet, the U.S. commitment to truth and allies remains insufficient. CBS produced a special report that found several barriers–most notably bureaucracy and corruption–prevented a large majority of allied military aid to Ukraine from reaching its intended recipients. CBS came under immediate fire and pulled the documentary to “update” it; the original video simply disappeared online, without explanation. The Ukrainian government was apoplectic, demanding “an internal investigation into who enabled this and why,” as if American journalists answered to Kiev.
Similarly received was the Amnesty International report detailing how the Ukrainian military essentially used human-shield tactics: “Ukrainian forces have put civilians in harm’s way by establishing bases and operating weapons systems in populated residential areas, including in schools and hospitals, as they repelled the Russian invasion that began in February.” The consequences were predictable: “Such tactics violate international humanitarian law and endanger civilians, as they turn civilian objects into military targets. The Russian attacks that followed in populated areas killed civilians and damaged civilian infrastructure.
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Once again, Kiev and its allies took the offensive. Even Zelensky denounced the report. Amnesty supported its investigators. Agnes Callamard, the group’s secretary general, said: “Ukrainian and Russian social media mobs and trolls: they are all at it today attacking Amnesty investigations. This is known as war propaganda, disinformation and misinformation. It won’t affect our impartiality or change the facts .”
There are other reports of Ukrainian misbehavior and violations of international law, such as dropping anti-personnel mines in Russian- occupied territory in the Donbas. Such claims are unverified and have been attacked as being part of “a large volume of content coming from actors who can reach huge audiences very quickly and spread pro-Kremlin disinformation without the state actually having to be directly involved.” In Kiev’s view, however, anyone who criticizes Ukraine or allied behavior is a Russian stooge and should be denounced as such. (I briefly ended up on one such list, but mysteriously was removed the next day. Now, the entire report has vanished. )
It is hard to evaluate the accusations and counterclaims that were made during any conflict. It is not surprising that Ukraine’s propaganda effort, which seeks to eliminate any doubts about Kiev’s conduct, has the energy it needs. The U.S., along with allies, must resist Ukraine’s attempts to make unpleasant facts seem like pleasant fantasies. Washington requires the most accurate information to defend the American people. These should be Biden’s first priority, and not the Zelensky administration.