Reviews | The thoughtcrime of progressives against Ukraine

The letter to President Joe Biden from 30 House progressives led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has elicited the same overwhelmingly negative reaction to public reflections on the diplomatic deals of Elon Musk and Henry Kissinger. You don’t have to endorse any of the specific proposals that these very different people are talking about to be bothered by the campus fervor with which they were deemed unspeakable and unthinkable.

While it is possible that the Russian war machine, if you can call it that, will simply collapse in Ukraine, it is more likely that the war will end in a messy compromise involving a negotiated settlement. Recognizing this – and that the continuation of the conflict is a humanitarian disaster with enormous costs for the West and the world – should not be a near thoughtcrime.

Jayapal’s letter’s call for « direct talks with Russia » as Ukraine advances on the battlefield and Russia has responded with attacks on civilian infrastructure was obviously untimely, and it wouldn’t be the first step despite everything – we would like to embark Volodymyr Zelenskyy with any diplomatic proposal as the first order of business.

Yet the letter was hardly an excuse for Vladimir Putin. He references « Russia’s war of aggression » and « the outrageous and illegal invasion of Ukraine », while hailing Biden’s support for Ukraine’s « self-defense » as a « Independent, sovereign and democratic state ». He expressed support for an agreement « preserving a free and independent Ukraine » and stipulated that there should be security guarantees for Ukraine acceptable to all parties, « especially the Ukrainians ».

Still, a member of the House Democratic leadership told POLITICO Playbook that « Vladimir Putin would have signed that letter if asked. » That’s not remotely true, but it shows how deviating an inch from orthodoxy on the war is automatically seen as an admission of affection for the Kremlin, even when Democrats talk about other Democrats. (Admittedly, the Democratic leadership also didn’t like exposing party divisions just before a midterm election.)

The letter’s observation that there are high costs and risks to protracted conflict was obviously correct, and it shouldn’t be controversial to say so.

Nonetheless, Jayapal hastily retreated, « clarifying » the letter by redefining it as advocating only « diplomatic support for Ukraine » and then shamefully retracting it.

The extraordinary value of the Ukrainians and the vast reservoir of moral capital they have built up in the West means that there is particular sensitivity to the possibility that Kyiv will be excluded from any negotiations. This is why the administration follows the mantra « nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine ». It’s a good principle, but it shouldn’t mean we can’t take the lead on important war-related issues, or wield our enormous influence over our Ukrainian allies.

In reaction to the letter, the chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Rep. Marc Takano (D-Calif.), released a statement saying, « Only Ukrainians have the right to determine the terms on which this war ends. » But the Ukrainians are not fighting alone – they are crucially dependent on our financial and military support and, by the way, we are the leader of the Western alliance. It makes no sense to cut us out of the equation.

While our interests largely overlap with those of Ukraine, they are not identical. We want Putin to learn that military aggression against the West and its allies is too costly to venture again, and so are the Ukrainians. We want a free and independent Ukraine, and Ukrainians too. We want a Ukraine that can defend itself in the future, and the Ukrainians too.

Ukrainians, however, understandably care more about returning every inch of their territory than we do. They also want to be part of NATO for understandable reasons, when we have no interest at the moment in having to honor a treaty commitment to militarily defend Ukraine in the future.

The Biden administration has been too slow to give Ukraine the weapons it needs, and we should give it more now to push its advantage. If the Ukrainians can score a clean win by forcing a Russian withdrawal, that would be wonderful, and certainly a desirable outcome. It is more plausible, however, that we are shaping the terms of an eventual negotiation which can only temporarily suspend the conflict and which will certainly not be an ideal end state.

A potential deal would involve Russia holding Crimea, a guarantee that Ukraine will not join NATO, and a referendum in areas Russia has held before the start of this phase of the war in February 2022, while the Ukraine recovers the rest of its territory and moves towards the West. Kyiv would be armed and rebuilt by the West, and establish relations with the EU.

Could this be « rewarding Russian aggression? » Moscow would have taken a bite out of Ukraine, yes, but at such a high cost that no one could reasonably conclude that Putin did anything other than a calamitous blunder. Moreover, whatever we prefer, it is unlikely that Russia will ever give up Crimea. As for NATO membership, Ukraine is not joining despite everything, and we have shown that we can provide massive aid to its defense even without a treaty.

The principle that territory cannot be taken by force is worth defending, but there is always the prudential question, at what cost? If the war drags on, it is not inconceivable that a member of the Western alliance could crack, fracturing NATO, and the Western appetite for sustaining the war will not be unlimited. Kevin McCarthy generated his own breakdown saying that if the Republicans take the House, the Ukrainians will not get a « blank check », although no one – not even the US Navy – will get a blank check and that is simply a fact that the West will not get Ukraine funded at this level forever.

For the moment, neither Ukraine nor Russia would accept such an agreement. Getting there at some point will require strength and skill on our part. We will have to be direct and firm with the Ukrainians behind the scenes, reassure Poland, the Baltic countries and Romania that we are not letting the Ukrainians or them down, and convince Putin that he will never win the war, only make a even more pathetic vassal of China.

Unrealistic? Maybe. Easier said than done? Absolutely. Sore? Sure. But diplomacy, like war, has its price, which is not a good reason to forbid any discussion of it.


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