(Who Dies for) Peace in Ukraine?
As a brokered peace looks more inevitable, the question is why it took so long.
The writing is on the wall. An op-ed in the New York Times entitled “I’m a Ukrainian, and I Refuse to Compete for Your Attention” summed things up nicely: A media junket the author’s friend had been organizing to Ukraine was canceled. The T.V. crew instead left for the Middle East.
The United States controls how the war in the Ukraine proceeds and always has. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said that it was the Americans who scuttled any chance of peace in Ukraine as early as March 2022, soon after the war began. “The only people who could resolve the war over Ukraine are the Americans. During the peace talks in March 2022 in Istanbul, Ukrainians did not agree to peace because they were not allowed to. They had to coordinate everything they talked about with the Americans first. However, nothing eventually happened. My impression is that nothing could happen because everything was decided in Washington.”
Fast-forward to 2023, and the story is different. Earlier this month NBC News quietly released a report that said U.S. and European officials broached the topic of peace negotiations with Ukraine, including “very broad outlines of what Ukraine might need to give up to reach a deal with Russia.” NBC said “the discussions are an acknowledgment of the dynamics militarily on the ground in Ukraine and politically in the U.S. and Europe.” They began amid concerns that the war has reached a stalemate and about the ability to continue providing open-ended aid to Ukraine.
Biden administration officials are also worried that Ukraine is running out of men in this war of attrition, while Russia has a seemingly endless supply. Ukraine is struggling with recruiting and recently saw public protests (of course not shown on American T.V.) about President Volodymyr Zelensky’s open-ended conscription requirements. Kiev is resorting to sending 40- and 50-year-olds to the front.
This comes as Time is reporting Zelensky’s top advisers admitted the war is currently unwinnable for Ukraine. Things look a bit better from the point of view of Ukraine commander-in-chief General Valery Zaluzhny, who believes the war is only at a stalemate. “It's now a battle of inches,” say American sources quietly.
Americans will be forgiven if they never hear this bad news, never mind be surprised by it if they did. The narrative which drove sports teams to wear blue and yellow patches and E Street Band member Steve Van Zandt to paint his guitar the Ukrainian colors was simple. Amidst a flood of propaganda, the story was always the same: Ukraine was pushing back the Russians with weapons provided by a broad range of agreeable NATO benefactors. Between Ukrainian jet fighter aces with improbable kill ratios to patriotic female sniper teams with improbable hair and makeup, Russia was losing. It would be a difficult but noble slog for “as long as it takes” to drive the Russians out.
Any talk about peace was insulting to Kiev, fighting for its survival and all. Meanwhile, Zelensky at first flew around the world like the antichrist Bono, procuring weapons while showing off his man-to-man relationships with celebrities. (Now desperate, Zelensky is claiming Russia, Iran, and North Korea sponsored Hamas’s attack on Israel as he tries to rustle up support.)
It’s as compelling as it is untrue. Any thoughtful analysis of the war showed it to be, from early days, a war of attrition at best for the Ukrainian side. While the U.S. could supply nearly bottomless cargo planes full of weapons and munitions, right up to the promised F-16 fighter-bombers and M1A tanks, it could not fill the manpower gap. Any appetite for American troop involvement was hushed up early in the fight. Russia could do what she had always done at war: hunker down in the field and reach deep into its vast territory to find ever more conscripts to wait out the enemy. It didn’t hurt that Russia’s capability versus NATO equipment was surprisingly good, or perhaps the Ukrainians’ handling of sophisticated Western arms was surprisingly bad.
But the most predictable factor leading to quiet U.S. moves toward some sort of “peace solution” in Ukraine is as predictable as the battlefield results. There is unease in the U.S. government over how much less public attention (despite the propaganda) the war in Ukraine has garnered since the Israeli–Hamas conflict began more than a month ago. Combined with a new Speaker of the House seeking to decouple aid to Israel from aid to Ukraine, officials fear that shift could make securing additional funds for Kiev difficult.
Americans, both the people and their government, distracted by the greatest propaganda tools ever imagined (the media), seem capable of focusing on only one bright shiny object at a time. In the case of wars, a new bright shiny object must include two clear sides, one good and one pure evil, with one preferably an underdog, daily combat footage which can be obtained without too much danger, and a football game-like progression across a map that is easy to follow. It should not be boring. Ukraine was such a conflict and enjoyed almost a full two-year run.
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Nevertheless, the fickle attention of America shifted to the Middle East just as things started to look more and more like static WWI trench warfare in Ukraine. It was a hard act to follow, but something always follows nonetheless (the same calculus works for natural disasters and mass shootings, which are only as mediagenic-good as the next one coming.) Over 41 percent of Americans now say the U.S. is doing too much to help Kiev. That’s a significant change from just three months ago when only 24 percent of Americans said they felt that way.
Ukraine, like Israel, owes most of its continued existence to American weaponry. However, despite the blue and yellow splattered on social media at present, Ukraine does not have anywhere near the base of support Israel does among the American public and especially within the American Congress. The terms for resolving the war will be dictated to Kiev as much by Washington as they will be by Moscow, as with Crimea a few years ago. The end will be quite sad; Russia will very likely solidify its hold on Donbas and the Crimea, and achieve new territory to the west approaching Kiev, roughly 20 percent of Ukraine. Ukraine will be forced to set aside its goal of joining NATO even as the U.S. takes a new stand on its western border with Poland.
It is all something of a set piece. America has an old habit of wandering into a conflict and then losing interest. “We have your back” and “we will not abandon you” join “the check’s in the mail” and “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” among joking faux reassurances. Our proxies seem to end up abandoned and hung out to die. As in Iraq and Afghanistan, never mind Vietnam before that, what was realized at the end could have most likely been achievable at pretty much anytime after the initial hurrahs passed away. It is sad that so many had to die to likely see it happen in 2023.