Welcome! This month’s edition of Casleton’s Monthly discusses the ongoing war in Ukraine. You can find the first article on Ukraine here. And you can find last month’s article on apartheid in Israel here.
In the news
I am glad to share my interview with Yale Law professor Samuel Moyn, published in Jacobin this past week. Our discussion centers on the role of the U.S. military in foreign affairs — so this is a great read if you want to geek out on big picture questions of international relations.
Second, an article criticizing the Biden administration’s decision to withhold aid from Afghanistan while millions of children are on the brink of starvation. If the US really cares about humanitarian disasters, Afghanistan should be one of our primary concerns.
Third, a report that micro-plastics have been found in human blood. We have known that micro-plastics are filling the ocean — and now we are seeing them seep into our own bodies.
Finally, a thorough and illuminating report on the controversial science behind anti-depressants. The story of anti-depressants treating a ‘chemical imbalance’ turns out to be too simple; and the side effects of anti-depressants are pervasive and not well understood.
Essay: Shifting Battle Lines and the Need for Diplomacy
The world’s attention remains fixed on the war in Ukraine, which has entered its second month. It is widely acknowledged that the war is not, from Putin’s perspective, going to plan. Six weeks into the conflict, Putin presumably would have preferred to have made more progress capturing major cities, when in fact the Russian military has been forced to regroup outside of Kyiv.
The Russian military is focusing on resupplying for offensive purposes, even as peace talks are ongoing. The primary focus is on reinforcing the Russian incursion into the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk – together referred to as the Donbas region. This is the region in which conflict has been ongoing for about 8 years between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists, so far claiming over 14,000 lives.
It is the Donbas region that came back into headlines on March 25, when the Chief of the Russian General Staff, Sergei Rudskoi, delivered a speech on Russia’s updated military goals. Rudskoi claimed that Russia had satisfied its first objective of attack – damaging Ukraine’s military across the country to limit its ability to support the Donbas – and so could turn to its second objective, taking and holding the Donbas region itself.
This is, to use the technical term, bullshit. It is widely agreed that Russia’s first military objective was not to merely damage Ukraine’s military capacities but to actually topple the government in Kyiv. Since it has failed so spectacularly at that, Russia is now doing an about-face, declaring more limited goals. Now, its objective seems to be to dominate the Donbas region, after which it will aim to fight a defensive war against Ukraine’s effort to retake it, which would be immensely costly for Ukraine given the difficulty of dislodging defensive military positions.
One question is how things could have gone so badly for Russia. Anatol Lieven suggests an answer:
“The Russian military appears to have based its assessment of the Ukrainian military on its miserable condition back in 2014 — despite the fact that one of the motives for this invasion was precisely because the United States had been doing so much to strengthen the Ukrainian armed forces. It would seem that once Putin and his immediate circle had decided for war, any intelligence casting doubt on this decision was simply excluded or ignored (as with the Bush administration in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003).”
A second question is what Russia’s change in military objectives means for the Western nations supporting Ukraine. This is difficult to discern, especially because, as the recent change in objectives shows, military plans are subject to revision at a moment’s notice.
One possibility is that Russia really does focus primarily on the Donbas region. On the one hand, this would reduce the sheer scale of the conflict, hopefully promising less room for escalation. In particular, there would be less reason for NATO countries to be tempted to do anything more than just supply arms and humanitarian aid. On the other hand, reducing the scale of the war does not entail a reduction in intensity. As Russia’s unrelenting assault on Mariupol shows, a siege that has killed around 5,000 people, more limited objectives in the Donbas can still exact a massive toll on human life.
These thoughts are, of course, speculative and depend on the undependable expectation that Russia’s military goals will really be more limited from here on out. Despite this uncertainty, the fact that Russia seems to be scaling back its objectives suggests that Western nations were wise to exercise restraint in not intervening with a heavier hand, say by instituting a no-fly zone.
But not intervening is not enough. The priority of the U.S. should be to continue pushing for a diplomatic resolution to the conflict, rather than hoping that a sufficient amount of military aid will allow Ukraine to turn the tide completely against Russia’s attack. Yanis Varoufakis, former Greek Minister of Finance, has argued that if the West is really concerned about the humanitarian costs of the war, then the West should be willing to entertain Ukrainian neutrality as a “tiny, tiny, nonexistent price to pay for ending the war[.]”
Varoufakis’s claim will sound like heresy to the Western foreign policy establishment, which insists on the right and wisdom of continued NATO expansion. But this is precisely the point that we should come to question. As Samuel Moyn recently put it, NATO is a Cold War institution that is not “necessary in a post-Cold War world.” Hopefully we can chart a path forward that does not revive the Cold War altogether, with its horrible costs for the nations caught between the warring superpowers.