It’s harder to analyze events than to paste labels on them. Events come thick and fast, and pundits have to say something. It’s mostly pundits I’m talking about, but not entirely. History may not repeat, but it does rhyme, they say, and then they reach for one of these tropes. When the tropes are repeated again and again, they can influence policymakers. They flatten everyone’s thinking.
Here are five that I find particularly irritating.
Red Lines. Although they frequently appear in op-eds, nobody has identified these precious markers. Party A has a red line that Party B must not cross, or package of responses C will ensue. War doesn’t work this way. Most diplomacy doesn’t work this way. Each side has a number of options to choose from that depend on the situation in which a decision is made: timing, balance of interests, balance of power. The New York Times has an excellent explainer on red lines, although they couldn’t resist writing the headline as if the trope was worth considering.
It’s hard to see how Russia’s war on Ukraine ends. It could end today, with an edict from Vladimir Putin that the Russian military stand down and begin a withdrawal from all Ukrainian territories. Negotiation would be needed to assure safe passage back to Russia, but the shelling could end today.
It’s hard to see how the war ends because it has reversed so many of our expectations. That we had come to the end of imperial wars. That Russia was a competent military power. It would be good to make 2023 the year we recognize that much we believed no longer holds. That goes beyond the war.
Ruth Deyermond, a Senior Lecturer at the Department of War Studies in King’s College London, specializes in Russian foreign and security policy, US-Russia relations, and European security. She wrote an outstanding Twitter thread that I mostly agree with, so I’ll use it as the framework for a turn-of-the-year post on Russia’s war.
Vladimir Putin has made clear his ambition to reintegrate Ukraine into a Russian Empire. Russia expanded from the Ukraine-Moscow-Novgorod area across Asia over a period of centuries. By 1721, it was at its maximum extent, including colonies in North America. Like other empires, it indulged in various forms of genocide as it incorporated peoples of many languages and living conditions.
The Soviet Union grew out of the Russian Empire and continued its imperial characteristics, but its rhetoric denied those characteristics. It was the friend of oppressed people everywhere, and the members of the Union were happy to be part of it, so went the official line.
Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s National Security Advisor, has been in contact with Vladimir Putin’s advisors over the past several months. This is no surprise, because contact is particularly important in times of conflict. The US maintained contact with the USSR, and has maintained contact with Russia in regard to both countries’ activities in Syria. This is diplomacy.
The Biden administration is also urging Ukraine to signal willingness to talk to Russia. That would mean dropping or softening insistence that diplomacy can talke place only after Putin is no longer in power. This is diplomacy.
A New York Times reporter responded to the WSJ news by saying that The Letter – the one that Dan and Rob have written about – made a difference. I am sorry to see that a reporter from the Paper Of Record has such a naïve view of how things work. I’ve lost the tweet.
If the administration leaked this news, it is because diplomacy has been going on for weeks to months and has some stability. A too-early leak of such information can damage or end the connection. So all this diplomacy was in progress before The Letter.
Vladimir Putin has made a number of statements that can be taken as threats to use nuclear weapons. He reminds us that Russia has nuclear weapons. The statements are ambiguous, but, in the context of Russia’s war on Ukraine, can be taken as threats. Let’s look more closely at those statements.
At the beginning of the war, there was a cluster of statements: February 24 and 27, and March 5 and 16. Then a statement in the middle of April, and then a jump to June, and another jump to September and October. During the summer, the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant was under attack, which kept nuclear fears in the news.
No matter who tries to stand in our way or all the more so create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history. No matter how the events unfold, we are ready. All the necessary decisions in this regard have been taken.
This statement is stronger than the customary US statement “all options are on the table” and has the tone of Donald Trump’s statements to North Korea about possible nuclear use.
Vladimir Putin is throwing it all against the wall today. Today’s statement includes that Ukraine has become an instrument of US foreign policy, has practically lost its sovereignty, its territory has been turned into a testing ground for biological experiments, and now it is being pumped up with weapons. I think that included nuclear weapons. Moar:
Putin has used nuclear fear since the beginning of his war. He started with threats when he declared war on February 24.
No matter who tries to stand in our way or all the more so create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.
Update 10/25/2022:I’ve added an April 20 quote at the suggestion of François Heisbourg and September 30 from Gene Dannen. Thanks to both.
As we try to decipher Sergey Shoigu’s phonecalls to the Defense Ministers of the US, UK, and France, I decided to look at the threats Vladimir Putin has made since February 24. I combed through all his speeches on the President of Russia website, and this is what I found. Let me know if I’ve missed something. I have left out threats by others like Dmitri Medvedev and the Russian tv brigade.
I’ve included context with each quote, and you can link back to the speeches to find further context.
I would now like to say something very important for those who may be tempted to interfere in these developments from the outside. No matter who tries to stand in our way or all the more so create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history. No matter how the events unfold, we are ready. All the necessary decisions in this regard have been taken. I hope that my words will be heard.
Motivating a ceasefire is difficult. A warring party who feels they are doing well may want to continue their run, or they may want a ceasefire to consolidate their gains. A losing party may not want to allow those gains, or they may be losing so badly they have no choice.
Currently in Russia’s war against Ukraine, there are rumors that Russia wants a ceasefire. Ukraine is making gains on the ground and does not want a ceasefire. Russia may be running out of precision missiles and wants to restock or rethink.
Besides the military situation, Russia’s history of torture and killing of civilians in the occupied areas motivates Ukraine to take back as much of their territory as possible. A ceasefire would stop the battlefield killing and destruction of cities, the destruction we can see, but Russian atrocities in occupied zones would likely continue.
Then there are both sides’ conditions for a ceasefire. Russia’s seem to be that Ukraine submit to everything Russia wants before talks start. Ukraine has not put forth terms recently. It doesn’t look like there will be a ceasefire any time soon unless outside parties can intervene.