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In a recent discussion enjoined by Ray McGovern in what I believe is his most recent blog on the question of whether Putin had any alternative options to achieve his objectives other than his Special Military Operation of 02.24.2022, McGovern invites the question: well, if he had options, what exactly were they?
I had addressed this topic too, commenting on the recent advertisement in the New York Times by several former national security advisors. I should perhaps have emphasized my relief upon seeing such strong and wise counsel from some of the country’s best brains and credentials, acknowledging Russia’s authentic national security interests and advocating for prompt negotiations.
Yet I continue think that the authors’ relentless adherence to the ritual condemnation of Putin’s SMO is disturbing on at least two major levels. First of all, it starts off the conversation with a misleading, unexamined presumption that Putin actually had other options, even if their statement did recognize that the SMO was in some measure provoked.
The thing is, there are nearly always “other options”. Putin could have decided, in deference to international law (whatever that really is - I am not sure, but see further below), to put his country at the tender mercies of western capitalistic and militaristic aggression and hope that the Incubus would tread gently as it smashed up the Russian Federation. Is this the direction that you and I would have favored?
It is not a matter so much of whether there are other options but about how and when to decide that any one of the options will or will not be “as good as” taking the action that one is currently inclined to take. This is a matter of calculation, yes, and judgment, yes, in fact an excruciatingly challenging mixture of the objective and the subjective, empirical and philosophical.
Russia’s collective leadership (because I do not subscribe to the silly view that Russia is a dictatorship) had to make that call, prioritizing, one hopes, their vision of what is best for their nation but with respectful regard, also, for their adversaries, and with concern for the best interests of the world.
One result of that calculation was a very limited operation (the SMO) whose modest size should have made it instantly clear to the west that this was NOT a wholesale invasion of a nation - which would have required a force of a million men or more - but done with a view to pressuring Ukraine into a smart compromise on some of Russia’s major concerns.
Far from being a failure, as western commentators so sententiously presume, this was actually something of a success not simply because it distracted the Ukrainian army away from their high state of readiness along the borders with the people’s republics of the Donbass, but because it did indeed bring about negotiations within a month, negotiations which would likely have been productive had it not been for the intervention and scuppering by Britain’s Boris, playing attack dog for Washington and NAT0.
Another concern I have about the New York Times’ “peace advertisement,” as I shall call it, is that its starting presumption extends beyond whether Putin had options, to unquestioning genuflection before the principles of what it regards as a system of international law that it deemed that Russia had violated (leading - in just five days! - to the ICC’s decision to investigate Russia, just Russia mind, for war crimes). Beneath this benign faith in law was an equally benign presumption that this law was sufficiently broad and robust as to offer the necessary confidence to all parties in conflicts of just this nature that their grievances would be meaningfully acknowledged and addressed.
I am not a lawyer. I know very little about international law. So I come at this from a pretty raw place. My untutored assessment is that if there existed a sufficiently robust system of international law, then Russia would not have proceeded in the manner that it did. Indeed, that it would never have had to get anywhere near such a point.
China’s identification a couple of months ago of criteria that might help inform a process of negotiations over the Ukraine conflict suggests that I am right. At the very least, it acknowledges that we seem to have one system of international law that is underwritten by the UN Charter, which commands the profound respect of probably most nations of the world, and another which is underwritten by something that the USA has conjured up out of nothing, their “rules-based order” which has no constitution, has never been internationally agreed upon and which looks suspiciously as though it is intended to mean whatever Washington needs it to mean. What Washington seems to need it to mean most of the time is very compatible with neoliberal precepts and pro-”democracy,” humanitarian, regime-change imperialism.
Within the BRICS it is becoming increasingly apparent that the UN Charter and the UN itself also need reconsideration and readjustment so as to better accommodate the trajectory from a unipolar to a multipolar world order. Russia’s leadership acted in the way that they did because their realistic assessment of the situation was of one in which Russia has no back-up protection in either of these alternative” systems” (cough) of international law, both because of the negligible likelihood that Russia’s legitimate security interests would ever be sufficiently respected, and, even if they were respected, that Russia would have any real recourse in the event that its interests were violated. There was no court which could say to the USA: “stop, enough is enough” and reasonably expect the USA to stop. No court which had not already been thoroughly impregnated by the disciples of the rules-based, neoliberal order.
Russia and the world well understand, after thirty years of US unipolar “leadership” (cough) that the last possible country that can be trusted to enter into a meaningful agreement, or partnership or understanding, is the USA. The USA lies and misleads, time and time again. My disappointment with the New York Times advertisement is that its authors choose only that line of argument which, in effect, concedes primacy to Washington’s rules-based order and hangs the chances for an acceptable outcome on Washington’s graceful mercy.
To which my response, and, much more importantly, the responses of Russia, China, the BRICS and must of the Global South is, in effect, No Way! We’re sick of this grovelling. Let’s dive to the roots of the problem!
Recent Ukrainian (for that is what it clearly is, not a Russian insurgent movement) attempts to “invade” Russia are unfortunate, and for some, fatal. These Ukrainian pinprick attacks throw away human lives in order to make Kiev momentarily look good in its own opinion, if not anyone else’s, for long enough for people to ignore or forget about Ukraine’s loss of Bakhmut. Yes, there is some fighting in some of the villages on the outskirts of the city, but the city itself has been undoubtedly taken by Russia.
“Taking” Bakhmut was never Russia’s main objective (it may have been Wagner’s, not Russia’s), and the main objective as clearly articulated by General Surovikin when he took command of forces in the Donbass almost a year ago even as, with incredible wisdom, he shouldered the painful decision to remove Russian forces in Kherson from west of the Dnieper, was to grind Ukraine down in a war of attrition.
He succeeded. The loss of life in Bakhmut to Ukraine, according to the none-too-reliable source, Prigozhin, was around 45,000, and the loss of life to Wagner was 15,000. Prigozhin also claims that of the 15,000 Wagner losses, 5,000 were regular soldiers, 10,000 were prison conscripts. He says that over the course of the struggle for Bakhmut, some 50,000 Wagner troops were deployed (i.e. allowing for rotations). The taking of Bakhmut is surely something of a liability to Russia (just as Kherson City was a liability, as it turned out, to Ukraine last year), but it does have some strategic advantages that Kherson did not have. It is on an important transportation road and rail hub which Russia will soon be able to deploy to meet its own battlefield requirements. It was possibly the most fortified Ukrainian position on the front line and its loss to Ukraine will ease Russia’s advances to Seversk, Slaviansk and Kramatorsk. And it gives Russian troops access to areas of higher ground that may afford it better artillery reach against Ukrainian positions.
Participants in the recent Ukrainian “invasions” (cough) of Belgorod, many of them now dead or captured, chose unnecessarily to use US vehicles, in defiance of Ukraine’s commitment not to use gifted US military aid on Russian soil.
That principle has clearly been thrown out of the window, and Washington certainly does not seem to care (why expect anything else from the Great Pipeline Slayer?). So we can take it as read that F16s will arrive in Ukraine, whether piloted by Ukrainian pilots after only four months training provided by Biden (will be nice to see him suitably attired for the occasion in flak jacket and goggles) or, more likely, by whatever seasoned NATO pilots can be found to moonlight). And we can take it for granted that these F16s will be used against targets in Crimea (principally) and deep inside internal Russia, pausing only to note that these fairly old planes may prove an unworthy match against Russia’s advanced air defense and fighter jets. That is why the US developed the F35, a plane that in turn comes with an ignominious history, both costwise and technological.
When the F16s arrive, will then perhaps Zelenskiy push forward with the GUCO! (Great Ukrainian Counter Offensive)? Perhaps there will be some other mircale weapons that he will want to wait upon before this possibly suicidal expedition.
This will provide more time for Russian production of missiles and ammunition, etc., more time for Russia to mobilize further troops if needed (though I have yet to see much evidence on the progress either of routine, annual Russian drafts or of additional war mobilization - and I think Russia badly needs this to populate defenses along its borders), and, above all, Russia will have more time and better weather to prepare its own offensive which, most likely, will follow promptly on Ukraine’s. More time too to further stabilize Russia’s economy - already predicted to grow by over 1% this year and with further growth sealed in by today’s meetings, first, between Mishustin and Xinping which will push the value of Russian-Chinese trade further above the astonishing level of $200 billion a year (China becoming Russia’s leading trading partner, and Russia becoming one of China’s major trading partners) and, secondly, by Medvedev (director, in effect, of Russia’s military industrial complex) in Vietnam.