Victor Davis Hanson
For all the dramatic late-summer Ukrainian success, we are witnessing yet another deadlock in the war—one that supposedly will be resolved by escalations on all sides.
Mutually Exclusive Agendas
A rebooted Ukraine is clamoring for more offensive arms. It claims it can win the war, with victory now giddily defined as sending every Russian back home in disgrace.
Russia is screaming threats about using nuclear weapons—though how Vladimir Putin would use them remains in dispute. Putin is ominously no longer qualifying his Strangelovian threat with the adjective tactical, as he calls up 300,000 more troops.
An addled and non-compos mentis Joe Biden only nominally remains the leader of the West. He initially refused to send offensive arms to Ukraine, and then offered to evacuate President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. But now Biden 2.0 has blasted Putin as a killer, someone equivalent to the domestic semi-fascists he blasted in his Phantom of the Opera hate speech.
Biden has called for Putin’s removal. But until Putin’s demise, he wants still more sanctions against Russia. Yet it is hard to distinguish who is more detached from reality—Biden, suffering from cognitive decline as he talks to dead people and shakes the hands of ghosts, or a physically ailing and paranoid Putin. Meanwhile American Vice President Kamala Harris is rambling about a mythical American alliance with lunatic North Korea and the need to disperse federal help to storm-ravaged Florida on the basis of race.
The United States is sinking knee-deep into recession. Once again it is hit with spiraling fuel prices. No matter: Biden promises to borrow still more billions of dollars for Ukrainian aid as he drains the last drops of the strategic petroleum reserve that he inherited almost full.
Biden is on record that there will not be a negotiated end to the war. He instead believes, to paraphrase Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, that the proxy disaster must serve the permanent weakening of Russia, the deserved humiliation of Putin, and his removal from office.
So how does it all end, or will it all end, with so many mutually exclusive and escalating agendas?
The Ukrainians survived the initial Russian effort to decapitate their government and absorb Western Ukraine. Months later they are still frantically trying to push Russians back to, and even well beyond, their areas of control prior to February 23.
Ukraine’s ultimate hopes seem threefold: (1) reestablishing their pre-2014 borders, (2) finding permanent collective security within the West, formally through NATO to acquire future deterrence from the Russian war machine, and (3) weakening the economic and social fabric of Russia itself to the point that it is no longer a superpower capable of such aggression. Translated that means Ukraine wishes to be a permanent proxy of the West, which will pledge its own strategic security on behalf of Zelenskyy’s agendas.
Russia Has Other Plans
As for the Russians, their idea of dissecting Ukraine by incorporating its eastern half and then gradually wearing down, whether economically or militarily, Western Ukraine, for now has failed.
But Vladimir Putin is not entirely foolish. He has pivoted by redefining victory as institutionalizing and declaring as “Russian” the disputed borderlands, and soon Crimea, that he grabbed in 2014. To fight there, he will allege, is to go on the offensive inside Russia. He believes his misadventure in a year or two will still be seen as worth the terrible costs to the Russian people and the thousands of Russian and Ukrainian dead—if he can brag that he still insidiously continues to reclaim lost lands of the Russian Empire.
In the mind of Putin, Russians’ current popular furor at his meat-grinder, at the sanctions, and at their global cultural ostracism will all fade—once Putin achieves his newly defined victory and brags that he turned back the intrusive proxy efforts of a decadent West.
Putin’s propaganda constantly escalates. Now it focuses on the idea that Mother Russia is threatened by Western Nazi-like aggressors. Like the duplicitous Stalin, Putin turns his own September 1939-like aggression into June1941-like victimhood.
So again, how do all these parties find pathways to their mutually incompatible versions of victory and thus see the war end?
Ukraine would like to push the Russians out of its former territory before the winter sets in and an additional Russian 300,000 recruits, despite their poor quality, are streamed into the invasion forces. Russians are now de facto on the defensive. But they are also the beneficiaries of shorter interior lines and more effective propaganda that the soil of Mother Russia is now imperiled from the aggrandizing West.
The use of American intelligence to assassinate Russian generals, and raid into Russia, and of sophisticated weapons to blow up Russian conscripts, and sink billion-dollar Russian ships only feed into Putin’s narratives.
Meanwhile Ukraine—waging mobile and encircling offensives on its borders against a country of 145 million and an economy 10 times larger—soon will punch too far beyond its weight. Millions of Ukrainians are leaving the country. The Ukrainian economy is in shambles. Putin has inflicted trillions of dollars in damage to Ukrainian infrastructure that is beginning to resemble 1918 occupied France and Belgium. And Zelenskyy’s appetite for far more, and more lethal, Western weapons is insatiable.
Ukraine also needs a far greater stream of replacement parts and ammunition. It demands much more Western money and economic aid. And it harangues for greater political and military Western solidarity to ensure that Europe and the United States, via NATO, would be permanently willing to deter a humiliated and defanged Russia from opportunistically resuming its aggression a few years down the road.
Strategically, Ukraine feels that it must bleed the Russian military by hitting supply and staging areas inside Russia, and on the Black Sea. It apparently assumes such risky retaliatory escalation is achievable by denying these very attacks—and, if undeniable, justifying them because “Russia, not us, started it and they, not us, invaded a neighbor.”
Even before victory is achieved, Ukraine talks of multitrillion-dollar reparations for the horrific damage and death inflicted upon it by a criminal Russian war machine. That demand is certainly justified and understandable. But historically, reparations are the stuff of postwar haggling among the victors—and commence only after the enemy is first defeated and helpless.
Western Reality Checks
Will Ukraine then end up achieving all its long-term strategic goals?
Not likely and for a great number of reasons.
A once haughty and sanctimonious green Europe is more terrified of returning to premodern winter cold and scarcity than ensuring it remains a loud model of postmodern energy sustainability. It is one thing to give Churchillian speeches in the Bundestag about new German solidarity with NATO, but quite another to send even a few multimillion-Euro Leopard tanks to Ukraine to blast away at Germany’s decade-long gas supplier. Remember, as the hated Donald Trump once warned, it was the diabolical Putin’s once dirt-cheap and reliable natural gas that gave German moralists the margins of error to push their suicidal green gospel upon the world.
Critical Russian natural gas shipments to Europe are no longer guaranteed. It will take years for Europe to find comparable alternative new sources. Yet in these months before its impending 19th-century winter, the European Union still remains hostile to its own fracking and horizontal drilling, nuclear power, and coal generation.
Under Joe Biden’s pressure, Europe passed on the win/win EastMed Israeli/Cypriot/Greek natural-gas pipeline. Some Americans talk grandly of saving Europe by shipping massive amounts of American liquified natural gas to new German terminals. But at home, Joe Biden has shut down pipelines as well as oil and gas fields. No president in the last 80 years has issued fewer new federal natural gas leases.
Europe is still wounded by greens who, albeit more quietly, prefer unaffordable gas and oil prices. Bankrupting the fossil-fuel-guzzling middle class they believe will at least spur greater use of windmills, solar panels, and batteries.
European leaders, however, who won over the American Left to their ritual cannibalistic green policies, now reverse course and beg the United States to drill all the hot-burning natural gas it can export. So, by next January, cold, broke, and immobile Europeans may resent even one more lecture from Volodymyr Zelenskyy about the need for more sacrifices on Ukraine’s behalf.
American weapons are the best in the world—and apparently the most expensive and difficult to produce in massive numbers.
Supplying Ukraine has squeezed America’s tactical and strategic weapon reserves down to dangerous levels—the military equivalent of Joe Biden’s draining the strategic petroleum reserve, even as global oil prices are once again spiraling, and the weather disrupts supply.
Joe Biden has a bad habit of exploiting the petroleum and weapons bounty that he inherited from Trump, depleting and not replenishing it, and then covering his tracks by blaming Trump.
The more our Ukraine proxy advances to the border, the more it sinks Russian capital ships and the more it conducts raids into Mother Russia, so all the more it relies, de facto, on the American or NATO nuclear umbrella in the face of Putin’s contrived threats.
But are these ultimata completely empty intimidations?
An aged and ailing Putin now cites America’s first use of a bomb over Hiroshima (that saved millions of lives by ending the Pacific war abruptly against Soviet Russia’s erstwhile four-year, non-aggression partner Japan.) To justify a nuclear strike, Putin weirdly insists U.S. World War II-area bombing was inhuman, forgetting that it served as a second front until June 1944 and thus forced the Wehrmacht to redirect homeward thousands of flak guns, fighter aircraft, and troops away from the Russian front.
Surveillance photos show Russian transference of strategic bombers nearer to the Ukraine border. All the while Putin seeks ever more diabolical ways to decouple Ukraine’s sponsors.
In sum, are the strapped American people now willing to up their nearly $100 billion supply pipeline to Ukraine, with assurance that its own cities are to risk Armageddon to deter Russian missiles over Kyiv?
As for Russia, a wounded Putin knows even empty nuclear threats must be taken seriously. But they are just one tool in his apparent ample kit to frighten off Ukraine’s suppliers. Meanwhile, Russia keeps selling oil to its new, anti-American partners China and India—40 percent of the global population. He mobilizes more manpower. He transforms his stale propaganda from posing as a reluctant, legitimate oppressor to a noble oppressed victim. He watches the West slide into recession and mutual bickering, Biden slide into utter incoherence, and America slide into dangerous pre-midterm factionalism.
No End in Sight?
So how does it all end and all these agendas become compatible?
It doesn’t and they won’t.
The once American, isolationist, and antiwar Left is now mimicking the old, interventionist, neocon Right. After the failure of the Russian collusion hoax and the various impeachments, it wishes to construct the war as proof that it was right all along about demonic Vladimir Putin—as if anyone ever doubted that he was a dangerous adversary who should never have been appeased by the embarrassing “resets” of Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Barack Obama—and Joe Biden.
Hillary Clinton’s own stealthy hiring of Igor Danchenko and Christopher Steele’s use of eager Russian sources to find dirt on her political opponent Donald Trump are ironic ways to warn about the dangers of Russian election interference.
America, then, no matter its economic and fuel woes, no matter the dangerous loose mouth of a grumpy and fading Joe Biden, and no matter the loss of American strategic deterrence in 2021-22, apparently will supply Ukraine until the last Russian leaves the borderlands.
As for Russia, it cannot fulfill even its limited goals, even with more oil money, more manpower, and more weapons—unless it can sever the supply of Western arms. So far nuclear threats, blown-up pipelines, fuel cutoffs, and Chinese, Iranian, and Indian help haven’t ended the Western-Russia proxy war.
So, Putin will still try to peel off individual NATO members with hyped threats of attack. He will hope he can sell his fuel to new customers and cut off, for good, his old dependent Western buyers. And he will search for new targets and areas for leverage, be it through cyberattacks, satellite interference, terrorism, fresh proxies, or Chinese help.
The mere idea of a negotiated ceasefire or settlement that allows plebiscites overseen by third parties in the disputed territories between 2014 and 2022 is an anathema to all sides. So, the battlefield alone will apparently be the final arbiter—as it is so often in history.
Apparently, Ukraine, Russia, NATO, Europe, and the United States all believe their own war aims can be achieved and the unfortunate losers will accept the verdict and crawl away to lick their wounds.
Good luck with that in the age of nuclear contestants, transcontinental cyberattacks, continental-sized energy dependencies, gain-of-function plagues, and globalized markets and interdependence.
Or to put it another way, everyone is signing up for a very long, very cold winter.