Ukraine and the Daunting, Haunting Rites of Spring

The final weeks of this winter have witnessed an array of events indicative of the international system’s chronic instability. The tenor of world affairs is increasingly reminiscent of the prelude to the Great War in 1914.

There are many differences, of course. What in the early 20th century amounted to a whole decade of rising tension—the Moroccan crises, the Anglo-German naval race, the annexation crisis, two Balkan Wars, the assassination in Sarajevo, and its cataclysmic aftermathnow seems to be rolled into a couple of years. Another dissimilarity is that instead of a single hotspot (i.e. the Balkans, presciently named by Bismarck as the likely trigger a generation earlier) we now have at least three conflict zones: Ukraine, the Middle East, and Asia-Pacific.

Of the three, the war in Ukraine has the greatest potential for escalation. It is going badly for the government in Kiev and for the U.S.-led NATO. Many powerful people—notably in Washington, D.C. —do not accept that reality and seem ready to double down. They are undeterred by the fact that no improvement on the ground is likely, regardless of whether the Senate approves the stalled $60 billion Ukraine aid bill. Kiev’s shortage of artillery shells, guns, armor, drones and aircraft is chronic, but its manpower crisis due to massive losses is acute. Last week’s $300 million U.S. military aid package, the first since December 2023, is but a drop in the bucket.

“There is a risk of a collapse of the domestic front in Ukraine with unpredictable consequences,” Lucio Caracciolo, founder and director of the Italian geopolitical journal Limes, warned on March 15. “It’s becoming clearer and clearer every day that the Ukrainians are losing, the war is basically over,” Professor John Mearsheimer said on March 14. But as he told Judge Andrew Napolitano, “Ukraine’s dangerous last gasp” is yet to come.

A hint of what is in the cards came in President Biden’s State of the Union address on March 2. (It was a disgraceful, deceitful, gaffe-laden, hyper-partisan performance, but that is a different story.) At a key point, addressing the crisis in Eastern Europe, Biden said that “there are no American soldiers at war in Ukraine.” To a reasonable person this sounds like an implicit admission that there are American soldiers in Ukraine, but that they are not engaged in combat.

On Feb. 27, French President Emmanuel Macron surprised the world and especially his own countrymen by saying he could not rule out the possibility of Western troops being sent to Ukraine. Subsequently Macron has repeated his thoughts about this possibility, while Moscow has warned that NATO sending combat troops would inevitably lead to an open war between the Western alliance and Russia.

Macron’s comments opened a debate that has confirmed the presence of active-duty soldiers from NATO on the ground in Ukraine, albeit allegedly not on combat assignments. On March 8, Poland’s foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, reiterated that the presence of NATO forces in Ukraine was “not unthinkable” and that he appreciated the French president for not ruling out that idea. Sikorski also said that “NATO soldiers are already present in Ukraine” and that he was grateful to “those countries which have taken that risk.” “Contrary to other politicians, I will not list those countries,” Sikorski added.

This was the Pole’s clear dig at German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who disclosed last month that British and French active-duty military personnel were already present in Ukraine. At the time Scholz insisted that Germany would not send its Taurus long-range missiles to Ukraine because this would entail dispatching German military specialists for the programming of these weapons, as is already the case with the teams servicing British and French missile systems.

Scholz was under pressure to make a statement of this kind after the Russians published a 38-minute recording of four senior Bundeswehr officers discussing on Feb. 18 the delivery of Taurus missiles to Ukraine. The Luftwaffe chief, Lt. Gen. Ingo Gerhartz , and three high-ranking colleagues calmly considered the logistics of making German military specialists available to the Kiev government under a civilian guise. They also discussed, with remarkable calm, the list of targets inside Russia for those missiles to hit—including the vital Kerch bridge to Crimea.

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius promptly and resolutely warned that the leak was part of “a disinformation war that Putin is carrying out.” This was the line duly taken by the German media after two days’ silence, by which time the story had been carried by literally every outlet of note outside the Federal Republic. Pistorius is wrong, of course. The recording is genuine, and no German source has even tried to deny its authenticity. The Russians have provided the German public, and the world, with an explosive piece of raw information.

Biden’s, Macron’s, and Scholz’s handlers, assorted Polish and German government ministers, NATO officers, and their media accomplices, are smokers in the arsenal. It would be trite to say that they are equally stupid and evil. Dark evil dominates here, both banal and monstrous.

It is still possible, perhaps, to end the war with a serious negotiation package to be presented to Moscow—provided there are no more tricks a la Minsk I and II this time. The package would need to accept, formally and unequivocally, that the Crimea, the Donbas, and the land bridge connecting them are Russian. That is the starting point for the West to help Ukraine embark on a viable path to recovery and “Europe.” Not to NATO, of course.

As George Beebe and Anatol Lieven point out, a neutral Ukraine would need to have verifiable limits on the types and quantities of weapons it may hold:

If we refuse to agree to those terms, Russia will quite probably turn Ukraine into a dysfunctional wreck incapable of rebuilding itself, allying with the West, or constituting a military threat to Russia… There is very little realistic chance of the West being able to outlast Russia and force it to accept peace on Ukrainian terms.

The authors warn that for the Biden administration to pledge American support to Ukraine for “as long as it takes” to defeat Russia is unwise, dishonest even. Time is not on Ukraine’s side, militarily or economically, and Kiev’s position in any future negotiations may be far worse later than it is at present.

As the first day of spring approaches, Western politicians, soldiers, and media pundits still prefer to risk escalation and nuclear holocaust rather than accept reality. The shadow of 1914, and of its horrid sequel in 1939, is longer than ever. Prayer may help.

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