Distrust and Verify
The allies don’t trust Moscow. Russia has no reason to trust them, either.
The Russo-Ukraine war continues, with Moscow continuing to wreck Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. It is a terrible tactic but is intended to degrade Ukrainian war-fighting capacity. With abundant rumors of an imminent Russian offensive, the winter could be as bloody as the fall.
Ukrainian advocates dismiss the possibility of a ceasefire and negotiation. Kiev, they say, is winning. Ukrainians must retake all territory seized by Russia. Moscow must be defeated. More victories are needed to force a de facto Russian surrender. A Ukrainian triumph will be a devastating defeat of autocracy by democracy and will benefit all humankind. And more.
Such views greatly inflate the status of the conflict, terrible though it is. Moscow’s aggression is horrible, but it is only one of many interstate wars in history. This fight is not equivalent to the Allied campaign against Nazi Germany, which posed a unique threat to a larger liberal global order.
One would be a fool to insist that Kiev cannot frustrate further Russian advances. But reconquering lost territory will be more difficult, especially Crimea, which is widely seen as Russian, including likely by a majority of its own inhabitants. While Washington hawks dismiss the likelihood of Moscow escalating to nuclear weapons, a threat to core Russian interests could be just such a trigger. American policymakers are all playacting, since for them the conflict is but an abstract, theoretical concern. For Vladimir Putin and his government, the interests involved are existential, which is why he surprised so many by launching an attack and doubling down after much of the initial invasion failed.
Moreover, noted Vladislav Zubok of the London School of Economics, “a grinding war of attrition has already been hugely damaging for Ukraine and the West, as well as for Russia.” The Ukrainian people are the primary victims. Their economy has crashed, their cities are being bombed, their territory has been overrun, their people are being killed, maimed, and injured by the thousands and displaced by the millions. Although Russian military casualties have been high, by all accounts so have Ukrainian losses. And it is Ukrainian civilians that are suffering most heavily. It is one thing to incur such costs if the prospect for victory is good. However, if a stalemate is likely, such losses are wasteful and unnecessary. Hence the argument to search for peace now.
Nevertheless, negotiations remain unlikely. To be successful, both sides must have decided that military victory is either unlikely or too costly. And that evidently is not yet the case. So the war will continue until both sides come to that unpleasant realization.
However, there are other barriers to a negotiated peace. Kiev and its allied backers are talking about many terms beyond those territorial in nature; Putin’s removal, war crimes trials, and reparations are common demands. Nationalist backers of Putin might have their own preferred conditions, as well as the clout to press them. Such issues can delay the end of wars that all parties desperately seek to conclude. For instance, Korean War negotiations stalled for months over repatriation of POWs.
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In such cases, the perfect is the enemy of the good. The end of many wars feel unsatisfactory to all. For instance, the Iran-Iraq War killed a million people, yet no one was punished or compensated. The Korean War stopped essentially where it started, only with a ravaged land and millions of people dead and displaced. The brief 1979 China-Vietnam border conflict neither changed nor solved anything. In World War I, even the victors were bankrupt and afraid, and sometimes overthrown.
Another barrier will be the lack of trust all around. No Ukrainian wants to trust Putin, though in 2007 he did warn the West of his unhappiness with its treatment of Russia. It just took a few years for him to strike back, first doing so in 2014. Nevertheless, the suspicion of Moscow is warranted. Dictators tend to feel less accountable for keeping their promises.
But Putin also has reason to doubt the word of Ukraine and especially its allied backers. Although Western governments refuse to accept responsibility for their policies—in this way behaving rather like they accuse Moscow of acting—they either lied or misled, your choice, the Soviet and Russian governments with multiple assurances about not expanding NATO eastward.
Add to these manifold fibs shameless hypocrisy and sanctimony. Washington has spent 200 years proclaiming the sanctity of the Monroe Doctrine, which everyone else would call a sphere of influence; when Putin claims one, the allies express shock and horror. They would have more credibility if they lived by the principles they claim to hold so dear.
Perhaps worse, it is evident that, like the Bourbons, the allies learned nothing and forgot nothing. NATO’s members recently declared: “We firmly stand behind our commitment to the Alliance’s Open Door policy. We reaffirm the decisions we took at the 2008 Bucharest Summit and all subsequent decisions with respect to Georgia and Ukraine.” Washington’s policy remains: a sphere of influence for me but not for thee.
And now Moscow has another grievance. Last month former Chancellor Angela Merkel gave her first press interview a year after leaving Germany’s chancellorship. She admitted that the Minsk Accords, negotiated in 2014 in an attempt to settle the Donbas conflict, were a fraud. Unsurprisingly, Putin noted her comments, saying that while he had believed Ukraine intended to violate the pact, “I thought the other participants in that process were honest. Turns out they too were deceiving us.” This behavior, he contended, further justified Russia’s invasion.
Dismiss his argument if you like, but Merkel did admit to lying to, or misleading, if one is generous, Russia. She gave an interview to Die Zeit, in which she declared (this via Google translate): “The 2014 Minsk Agreement was an attempt to give Ukraine time. The aim was to gain time with an armistice in order to later come to a peace between Russia and Ukraine. She also used this time to become stronger, as can be seen today. The Ukraine of 2014/15 is not the Ukraine of today.… Putin could have easily overrun it back then. And I very much doubt that the NATO countries could have done as much then as they do now to help Ukraine. It was clear to all of us that this was a frozen conflict, that the problem was not solved, but that gave Ukraine valuable time.”
Of course, this could be Merkel’s attempt to justify a policy that critics judged a failure. However, she admitted other mistakes and her comments match Ukraine’s behavior, that is, never moving forward to implement the accord. It seems reasonable to take her at her word.
In realpolitik terms, it is hard to criticize Merkel for her apparent deception, since the tactic worked. But any future promises made, especially by the same allies, will have little credibility with Moscow. Ronald Reagan was fond of using the phrase “trust but verify” when discussing agreements with the Soviet Union. Today Putin is entitled to toss the line back at his critics. Indeed, he essentially did so, commenting: “After such statements, the question becomes: how can we agree? And is there anyone to agree with? What are the guarantees?”
None of this suggests sympathy for Moscow’s invasion or expansive war aims. However, a stable peace must satisfy minimal security concerns on both sides. The allies’ consistent failure to respect Moscow’s red lines will prolong the worst European conflict since 1945. Any attempts to defeat, humiliate, and perhaps even dismember Russia risk triggering Armageddon. The longer the fight goes on, the more deeply the Putin regime will mine its reserves and arsenals to apply increased pressure—meaning cause greater casualties and destruction—on Ukraine.
Despite all their talk about the importance of Kiev's winning the war, presumably the Biden administration and European governments want the conflict to end, sometime. If so, they must consider for how long they are willing to fund and arm Ukraine, and for what war aims. Blather about Kiev getting to choose them is irrelevant so long as someone else is underwriting the fighting. Washington understandably wants to preserve Ukrainian independence. It should not sustain endless war at Europe’s edge.
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Moreover, the Merkel revelations require the allies to consider how to improve their credibility should they be involved in a peace process, whatever that might look like. They don’t trust Moscow. But Russia has no reason to trust them, either. The time to begin thinking about this issue is now. It would be tragic to lose a chance for peace because past dishonest behavior makes present agreement impossible.
The bloody conflict between Ukraine and Russia continues. Vladimir Putin is directly responsible for this war. But the allies contributed to its onset. Their hands, too, are covered in blood, even though their crime was more stupidity and dishonesty than malevolence and calculation.
Unfortunately, Angela Merkel’s addition to allied misbehavior can only reinforce Moscow’s sense of victimhood. Ending the ongoing fight has become even more difficult. If there ever was a time to seek peace on earth, starting in Europe, it is now.