Dreams of Peace to Come
A Look at Ukraine's Possible Futures
As the Russo-Ukraine conflict enters its second month, neither the shooting nor the angry editorializing has slowed down. Blue and yellow banners hang in windows, and social media profiles proclaim this account Stands With Ukraine. But amidst all the sound and fury (real and virtual), there has been little discussion of what might be the best possible outcome for the Ukrainian people.
The Russian Army continues its inexorable march across the Pontic-Caspian steppe. The West introduces ever more stringent sanctions on Putin & Pals as soldiers amass on the borders. Every day more possibilities vanish, and every day the inevitabilities grow grimmer.
But while our individual opinions might not amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, our collective hopes and dreams shape our tomorrows more than we might think. And we’ll never reach our destination if we don’t have at least some idea of where we’re going. So with all that in mind, here are my rambling thoughts on what Ukraine is and what it might be.
Francis Fukayama opines that “Russia is heading for an outright defeat in Ukraine,” stating:
A Russian defeat will make possible a “new birth of freedom,” and get us out of our funk about the declining state of global democracy. The spirit of 1989 will live on, thanks to a bunch of brave Ukrainians.
Meanwhile, televangelist Pat Robertson came out of retirement to announce that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine might just be a sign the End Times are coming.
So you can look at your map. You can read your newspapers. You can listen to your news. But know of a fact that God is bringing to pass what he prophesied years ago through his servant Ezekiel. And you read it in the 38th passage of Ezekiel, one through six, it's all there. And God is getting ready to do something amazing and that will be fulfilled."
Both Robertson and Fukayama are certain as to how the story ends. While they differ in the details, both believe that irresistible forces are reshaping the world for the better and that any issues encountered along the way are just temporary setbacks. But while Robertson is far more likely to be labeled a Dominionist fascist, Bloomberg writer Niall Ferguson has noted the reality behind Fukuyama’s sunny optimism.
There is a belief that “the U.K.’s No. 1 option is for the conflict to be extended and thereby bleed Putin.” Again and again, I hear such language. It helps explain, among other things, the lack of any diplomatic effort by the U.S. to secure a cease-fire. It also explains the readiness of President Joe Biden to call Putin a war criminal…
The fascinating thing about this strategy is the way it combines cynicism and optimism. It is, when you come to think of it, archetypal Realpolitik to allow the carnage in Ukraine to continue; to sit back and watch the heroic Ukrainians “bleed Russia dry”; to think of the conflict as a mere sub-plot in Cold War II, a struggle in which China is our real opponent.
If this were chess, we might call this Western strategy the “Afghanistan gambit.” The Afghanistan quagmire was one of the final nails in the Soviet Union’s coffin. Much of that anti-Soviet resistance was funded and armed by the United States. This gambit can work very well, but as the name suggests, it has risks. One of the heroes of that resistance, a wealthy American-educated Saud named Osama bin Laden, would later put his experience and training to use in other conflicts.
This gambit has been accompanied by an “Iraqi squeeze.” Through an ongoing series of heavy sanctions, the West seeks to destroy Russia’s economy and thereby encourage regime change. These sanctions can take a terrible human toll on their targets. The late Madeleine Albright became infamous for her comment that the deaths of over 500,000 Iraqi children caused by Western sanctions were “worth it.” But they can take a very long time to work, if they work at all. Ultimately overthrowing Sadaam Hussein required a second Iraq War.
A protracted Russo-Ukraine conflict would be good for politicians who prefer their voters distracted by spectacles and energized by slogans. It would be good for keyboard warriors living vicariously through the heroism of others. It would be very good for the contractors who arm the Ukrainian resistance. But it would not be good at all for the Ukrainian or the Russian people. And if history is any indication, it will only delay the inevitable showdown between the powers. We thought we could discourage Japanese expansionism by cutting off their oil supply. That worked until December 7, 1941.
Thou wouldst go into the world, and art going with empty hands, with some promise of freedom which men in their simplicity and their natural unruliness cannot even understand, which they fear and dread- for nothing has ever been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom.
The Grand Inquisitor to Jesus
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
The victorious Athenians told the defeated citizens of Melos, “The strong take what they can, the weak endure what they must.” Today Neoliberals fancy themselves above such petty politics. Every squalid little American conflict comes wrapped in a flag and perfumed with sweet-smelling words like “democracy” and “freedom.”
So whose side am I on in this fight?
Because I have Ukrainian ancestry, I feel a duty to the Ukrainian people. I support the government that best keeps those Ukrainian people safe and fed. I would not see them used as pawns in somebody else’s game, no matter what flag the chessmasters fly.
I am not entirely sure how a Ukraine ruled by Putin’s oligarchs would be materially different than a Ukraine ruled by Zelenskyy’s oligarchs. I expect there will be more tension between ethnic Russians and Ukrainians after this conflict, but I also expect them to return to a simmer before too long. Russians and Ukrainians have fought before and will likely fight again. But most ethnic Russians living in Ukraine have Ukrainian friends and relatives and vice versa.
I would, however, note that the longer this conflict continues the more likely we are to see increased Russian-Ukrainian ethnic tensions. These tensions could easily spill out beyond Ukraine’s borders. Hungarians and Romanians have fought over territory before, and there is a sizable ethnic Hungarian population living in Romanian borders. And if we plan on funding a Ukrainian resistance, we can expect Russia to provide money, training, and weapons to Catalan and Basque separatist movements in Spain and North African gangs in France.
The Pontic-Caspian steppe has changed hands many times. The people building its industry and tilling its black earth have toiled under warlords and despots. Those despots have fallen. The people have endured. Putin may take Ukraine, and will almost certainly wind up in control of Crimea and the Donbass at the very least. He will not destroy the Ukrainian spirit.
Unlike Fukayama and Robertson, I do not claim to know what the future holds. But I know something of Ukraine’s past. They have endured what they must, and they will endure again. I would rather see them endure an unjust peace under oligarchs than die in a bloody war waged for the benefit of oligarchs.