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Partition for Peace

Either we are stuck in both Ukraine and NATO, or we are stuck in neither.

War continues in Ukraine's Donetsk Oblast
(Photo by Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Three out of four major candidates for the White House in 2024, according to current polls, oppose the current nature of U.S. involvement in Ukraine. But with a wave of his hand in his May 17 Substack piece, “RFK Jr.’s Big Lie on Ukraine,” Joseph Cirincione dismisses substantial American antiwar sentiment.

“Central to his campaign is a pro-Putin narrative of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” Cirincione says of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Yet the candidate has never endorsed the Russian strongman or sanctioned his invasion. He simply says Russia was provoked, which is true. The Putin regime is a brute, but brutes can be incited to violence. In Russia’s case, it’s called “poking the bear.”


With no defined endgame, resigning ourselves to Russian control over vast swathes of ruined Ukrainian territory feels more inevitable by the day. An armed pro-Western Ukrainian rump state—itself a defeat for the Putin regime—might retain Russophone Odessa, even if Black Sea ports under permanent blockade appear useless. We may never give Vladimir Putin a friendship ring, but we will still have to accept an ugly postwar peace in Ukraine. And if we really want to end the slaughter, we must separate propaganda from reality.

Included in Cirincione’s piece is NPR's summary of recent Ukrainian history: “Ahead of a scheduled impeachment vote on Feb. 22, Yanukovych flees, eventually arriving in Russia. Ukraine’s parliament votes unanimously to remove Yanukovych and install an interim government…”

This is untrue. On February 21, 2014, at the height of deadly protests in his capital, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych signed a deal with the pro-Western parliamentary opposition, giving it control of the government and committing to early presidential elections. But out in the street, the “Maidanists” were having none of it. Either Yanukovych resigned immediately, or they would drag him out and string him up. Washington and its allies made no effort to ensure this didn’t happen.

Yanukovych’s ouster did not secure sufficient votes in parliament on February 22 to legalize it under the constitution, whatever NPR says. Whether this constituted a “coup” is immaterial. The moment Ukrainian ultra-nationalists chased the elected head of state from power, a new state was born. Cajoled by Western sponsors, the putschists probably dreamed about governing all of Ukraine within its Soviet-era borders. Reality soon mugged their new state.

A Kievan friend I’ve known for over thirty years first became politically active in the run-up to the so-called “Orange Revolution” in 2004, when his metamorphosis into a Ukrainian nationalist was well under way. Not a pretty sight, but he was at least consistent in bashing Russia, Ukraine’s main obstacle to reaching Nirvana (membership in NATO and the E.U). From February 2014 onward, he kept me abreast of the “hybrid war” from afar, and during Russia’s near-bloodless annexation of Crimea, he gave me my first hint that pro-Western Ukrainians covertly accepted the partition of their country as inevitable. “I can accept that our guys surrendered without a fight,” he wrote furiously over a chat app. “What I can’t accept is them bringing tea and sandwiches to the Russian troops!”


As much as any other historic phenomenon, partition defines Ukraine as a state. Never internationally recognized before the USSR’s break-up (as Putin frequently reminds us), its most conspicuous era of “independence” was a four-year interlude in the mid-17th century, when a garrison state called the Cossack Hetmanate (i.e., not “Ukraine”) threw off the Polish Crown and cut a deal with the Tsar of Muscovy. The pact codified Moscow’s guarantees that the powers and privileges of the “Zaporozhian Host” (as the Hetmanate was also known) would be respected. They weren’t, of course, and the Hetmanate (whose borders never reached the Black Sea) soon plunged into “The Ruin,” decades of war ending with partition between Russia and Poland along the Dnieper River, which cuts Ukraine in half. The Hetmanate’s brutal chieftain, Bohdan Khmelnytsky, is hailed in Ukraine today as both a talented military leader (he was), and a great Ukrainian statesman.

From its independence in late 1991 until February 2014, when Putin ordered Crimea’s annexation and occupation of resource-rich parts of Donbas, Ukraine had no proper army. In 2014, my Kievan chum reckoned the number of combat-ready troops at 6,000 for a nation of over 40 million, and these only existed because Ukraine (under Russia-friendly Prime Minister Yanukovych) had supplied a force to the U.S. for its war in Iraq.

The training, equipping, and build-up of the Ukrainian army began in 2014 under Petro Poroshenko, the president who five years later suffered the biggest election loss in post-Soviet Ukrainian history. The economic hardship and sacrifice attendant to militarization proved too daunting for the incumbent amid enduring, customary corruption and war in the east. Poroshenko seized a few photo ops on Ukraine’s sole ocean-ready battleship, but Ukraine still lacked a real navy or air force.

The issue pro-war Western commentators continue to ignore is whether feeding the war in Ukraine is vital to U.S. national security. The same question goes for the Cold War-era NATO alliance, the most visible supranational political manifestation of the “military-industrial complex” and the reason we are in Ukraine.

Among NATO’s biggest members, the U.K. is by far the most enthusiastic prosecutor of the proxy war. Britain’s ex-premier, Boris Johnson, recently flew to Texas at U.S. lobbyists’ expense to pump up Republicans dispirited over the conflict. In Dallas, he made time to see former President George W. Bush, poster boy for the wasteful U.S. occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. Having hosted more than one poisoning attributable to the Kremlin, Britain rightly harbors more resentment of Putin than its continental allies do. But NATO’s eastern flank influences U.K. military posturing as well, just as Hitler’s invasion of Poland induced a British declaration of war.

The governments of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, all bordering Russia, were already among the handful of members paying their agreed share by 2018. All were jittery prior to February 24, 2022. On a visit to each of these countries in August, I witnessed astonishing volunteer efforts to absorb Ukrainian refugees. It struck me that NATO’s most vulnerable member-states really did view Russia as a security threat and had sincerely sought the big Western alliance’s protection after leaving the Warsaw Pact. But the question persists: Was NATO’s expansion vital to U.S. national security?

When Putin’s failure to quickly overrun Ukraine gave time to NATO’s bureaucratic cogs to creak toward accession for historically neutral Finland and Sweden, proponents of perpetual U.S. military entanglement cheered. But behind Washingtonian-neocon fist-bumps lurked a painful truth: NATO’s celebrated enlargement—a setback for Putin’s geopolitical vision—didn’t make reality of proclamations that Ukraine’s pre-2014 territory would be restored. Few who know Ukraine believe it will emerge from this war as a law-governed, sovereign nation-state within its Soviet-hewn borders. Was Western strategy in Ukraine really aimed at NATO’s induction of the Finns and Swedes?

Maybe Putin waited eight years to launch a full-scale invasion as a large-scale military buildup went on under his nose to maximize WWII-like casualties, for glory’s sake. But as Western media sanitize the war from afar, battle-scarred areas of Ukraine—up close and drenched in blood—emblemize the “Russian civilization” of which they are a part. My Kievan friend converses in Russian to this day, as does a heroic Kievan medic who showed me, on my visit in September, unspeakable images of wounded and dismembered Ukrainian soldiers she had treated in field hospitals.

What seems undeniable is that morale among Ukrainian troops is still high, especially compared to their Russian conscript-counterparts. Touring areas outside Russian control, I watched Ukrainians going about day-to-day life amid rubble and air raid sirens, defiantly walking past blown-out windows and collapsed roofs as if shrugging off the savagery of a cousin they knew too well. Passing through endless checkpoints by road and walking past groups of soldiers on city streets—laughing, smoking, drinking coffee—I witnessed rank-and-file servicemen just as ebullient as six years earlier, when I visited the bleak “Anti-Terrorist Operation” (ATO) zone in the east.

This time, almost all those I encountered weren’t even born before the USSR’s disintegration. Ukraine was the only country they had ever known. Combine their cheerfully warlike bearing with the unanimity of Congress in supporting them, and even absent any clear strategic objective—for “as long as it takes”—perpetuation of this costly war looks as inevitable for America as NATO itself. In other words, either we are stuck in both Ukraine and NATO, or we are stuck in neither.

The much-delayed “spring counteroffensive,” if it ever happens, will be a bloodbath. RFK Jr. calls the war an “abattoir,” but public outrage over the churning meatgrinder is generally inaudible. Something has dehumanized us, and we no longer even celebrate battlefield heroism (being male-dominated, it takes insufficient account of gender pronouns). Having baited a bully, we now clench our fists in the hope of Russian regime change as Ukrainian cities lie in ruins, and so-called “national security experts” like Joe Cirincione publish attacks on fellow Americans expressing basic human compassion for the “flower of Ukrainian youth.”