Ideological blinkers prevent a correct U.S. assessment of the Russian successes in the Ukraine war, of the likely outcomes and of what to do now
Yesterday’s edition of the premier Sunday news wrap-up on Russian state television, Vesti nedeli, hosted by Dmitry Kiselyov, marked a turning point in what the Russians are saying officially about their achievements on the ground in Ukraine. It set me to thinking over why Washington is getting it all wrong and how America’s ideological blinkers may lead to very unfortunate consequences on a global level.
Up until now, Russian news has been very quiet about the country’s military achievements in Ukraine. The daily briefings of Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov have only given summary figures on the planes, tanks and other armored vehicles, command centers in Ukraine that were destroyed by high precision Russian missiles plus the names of towns that were taken, without elaborating on their strategic or other value. Otherwise, Russian television programming has been showing only the damage inflicted daily by Ukrainian forces on the city of Donetsk and its suburbs from artillery and Tochka U missile strikes. There is a steady toll of destroyed homes, hospitals, schools and loss of civilian lives. The sense of this programming is clear: explaining again and again to the Russian audience why we are there.
Yesterday’s News of the Week devoted more than 45 minutes to Russian military operations on the ground. The message has changed to what we are doing there. Television viewers were led by the Rossiya team of war zone reporters through the wrecked forests and fields of the Kharkov oblast in northeastern Ukraine as well as in newly liberated parts of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Filming from an armored all-terrain vehicle, they showed us kilometers long stretches of burned out Ukrainian tanks and other heavy military gear as well as dozens and dozens of corpses of Ukrainian soldiers “killed in action” and left behind to rot by their fast retreating comrades and deserters. Then came interviews with Ukrainian prisoners of war, whose faces and words tell a very different story from the heroic encomiums raining down from Zelensky and his entourage. Finally, there were interviews with some of the civilians who were let out of the Azovstal underground complex these past couple of days and made their way to freedom via the humanitarian corridor which the Russians set up each afternoon.
I will deal briefly with each of these segments from last night’s News of the Week. But first, allow me to offer two overall generalizations.
First, the Russian ‘special military operation’ is a millstone that grinds slowly but grinds fine. It is working. The Russians are crushing the Ukrainian forces. It is improbable that any amount of deliveries of foreign equipment to Kiev can make a difference on the outcome of this conflict. Indeed, while critics of the US-led intervention in the conflict claim, correctly, that the deliveries are drawing out the war by encouraging Kiev to fight on, it is also true that the Russians have no problem with that: the longer it goes on, the more territory they can seize, with a view to controlling and ultimately annexing the entire Black Sea littoral. They would thereby ensure that what survives of the Ukrainian state can never again pose a military threat to Russia, with or without NATO help.
Second, the Ukrainian army indeed has NATO trained officers and skilled professionals who may be admirable fighters, as the Western media insist. But it also has a lot of cannon fodder. By cannon fodder I mean overaged recruits dragooned into the forces and also volunteers who are useless to any modern military and are no longer trainable. Most of the prisoners of war shown on Russian television were in their late 50s and even late 60s; they had no prior military experience. One of the latter, with haggard face and scraggly beard down to his chest was asked why he enlisted to fight. The answer came back: “There was no work. So I signed up just to make some money.” After seeing their mates shot dead, is it any wonder that such soldiers raise their arms to surrender at the first opportunity?
The question not being asked is where are all the young and able Ukrainian males? How have they evaded the draft? Given the widely acknowledged corruption in Ukrainian government and society, would it not be strange if some just buy their way out of the war? Are they among the 5 million Ukrainians who have gone abroad since the start of the hostilities? Are they the ones now driving their high priced Mercedes with Ukrainian license plates around the streets of Hamburg? Who in the West records this or really cares about it?
The testimony of the prisoners of war shows that they were misled by their officers. They were told that the Russians would simply slaughter them if they showed the white flag. The testimony of the several women who walked to freedom from the Azovstal catacombs supports the official Russian version of the situation there: they were intimidated by the nationalist warriors who used them as human shields. They were barely fed and were warned that the way out was mined so that they would die in any attempt at escape.
The advance of the Russians on the ground as they finish preparations of the cauldron or total encirclement of the major part of Ukrainian forces in the Donbas is slow, only a couple of kilometers per day. The reason was clear from the reporting last night: apart from the open fields and forests mentioned above, the Ukrainians are in well-fortified bunkers that they constructed over the past eight years and they are situated in the midst of small towns where they have to be flushed out street by street, house by house. Carpet bombing or unlimited shelling would result in heavy loss of life among the civilian population, many of whom are Russian speakers, precisely the people whom the Russians are seeking to liberate.
The reasoning underlying the Russian Way of War in Ukraine has been wholly overlooked or dismissed out of hand by official Washington. American media and senior politicians speak only of Russia’s supposed logistical problems and poor implementation of its war plans. This is so is not because Biden’s advisers are lame-brained. It is so because of the ideological blinkers that the whole foreign policy establishment in the United States wears. The ideology may be called (Wilsonian) Idealism. It stands in contrast to Realism, which is espoused by a tiny minority of American academics.
The distinction is not mere words. It is how foreign policy issues are analyzed. It is about the creation in the United States of a post-factual world that might just as well be called a virtual world.
Idealism in foreign policy rests on the assumption that universal principles shape societies everywhere. It systematically ignores national peculiarities, such as history, language, culture and will. By contrast, Realism is based precisely on knowledge of such specifics, which define national interests and priorities.
Under these conditions, the think tank scholars in the United States can sit at their computers and write up their evaluations of the Russian prosecution of the war in Ukraine solely on what they, the Americans and their allies, would do if they were directing the Russian military effort. They would fight the American way, meaning a start with “shock and awe” followed by vast destruction of everything in the way of their march on the capital of the enemy state to bring about total capitulation in short order. The reasoning of the men in the Kremlin holds no interest for them. Hence, the dead wrong conclusion that the Russians are losing the war, that Russia is not the strong military force that we feared, and that Russia can be successfully challenged and beaten down until it submits to American directions and American definitions of its national interest.
The same problem of a “virtual world” approach comes up now in the discussion among American experts of the likelihood that Putin will use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine and how the US-led West should respond. The possibility that the Russians are winning and have no need for extreme solutions is excluded. The possibility that non-nuclear solutions like carpet bombing might be applied if the Russians genuinely were stymied is excluded.
The latest variation on Russia’s possibly escalating towards WWIII by using tactical nuclear weapons is a reaction to President Putin’s vague threat of a ‘lightning quick’ response to any sign of Western powers becoming co-belligerents by their deeds in support of Ukraine. Curiously, the threat was deemed to mean precisely tactical nuclear attacks, not the launch of the new Sarmat hypersonic and ABM-evading ICBMs, or the dispatch of the deep-sea drone Poseidon to wash away Washington, D.C. in a nuclear explosion caused tidal wave. In any case, the assortment of devastating new weapons systems at Russia’s disposal seems to be ignored by our policy experts. They have settled on just one, about which they speculate endlessly.
The virtual world bubble in which the U.S. foreign policy community exists and flourishes is a disaster waiting to happen. Who will heed the wake-up call of John Mearsheimer and the few policy experts who hold up the Realpolitik standard?
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022