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Sometimes it helps to look at things backwards…What should the US government recommend to Ukraine if they were losing the war? Should we tell them to negotiate? Or would it still be appropriate for Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon, and General Milley to say: “It’s your call. If you want to keep fighting, here are the weapons.”
The answer, of course, is neither. Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon aren’t in the business of looking after anyone else’s interests or helping them achieve their goals. The Pentagon, and the State Department, the job of Gen. Milley, broadly speaking, is to look after US interests. If there’s a situation in which the interests of another state and those of the US happen to coincide, then we can support their actions. But we do so - or we ought - because such actions further US interests.
Thus, when this past week General Milley said: “it’s for the Ukrainians to decide” (when to negotiate), he was wrong. We are paying for this war, it continues because we let it; we get 51% of the vote.
Of course, it’s more complicated than that. The problem is that wars are difficult things. Like riding a tiger, nations get involved in a war and think they can control what happens. But they can’t. Consider it the geo-political equivalent of chaos theory.
This past week China offered up a peace proposal, which was quickly rejected by most, to include the senior advisor to President Zelenskyy, as well as President Biden. And, it drew the above response from Gen. Milley.
But consider another peace proposal; this one from the Vatican, which suggested, among other things:
simultaneous, reciprocal reduction of armaments
renunciation of war indemnities
evacuation and restoration of all occupied territories
an examination “with conciliatory spirit” of contentious territorial claims
Of course, this was written by Pope Benedict XV, some 106 years ago, in an effort to stop the bloodletting in Europe. It was rejected out of hand by the British, French, Americans and Germans. And the war continued for another 18 very bloody months.
Worse than the butcher’s bill were the unintended consequences, and the 2nd and 3rd effects. At the top, of course, was World War II. But the list of things that happened as direct fallout of World War I is long and painful, and played out over the next 25 years: the Great Depression, the collapse of Tsarist Russia and the Rise of the Communists; the collapse of all the other empires (Ottoman, German, Austro-Hungarian, French, and of course British), the rise of powerful central governments in the wake of the great depression, the creation of the atomic bomb.
At the very least World War I greatly accelerated the demise of Russia and led to rise of the Soviet Union and communism, and led to the bloodiest war in history, the 7 decade enslavement of Eastern Europe, and the spread of Communism into China and the continuing enslavement of the Chinese.
It can be argued that those things would have happened anyway. But they did happen as a direct result of the slaughter and political and economic destruction of World War I. None of these outcomes were desired by the major decision-makers, none of them were even considered.
Like the lady on the tiger, everyone thought they had control.
Consider just a few what ifs:
What if Russian losses lead to its break up and loss of control of the nuclear arsenal?
What if Russia’s break up leads to China seizing eastern Siberia? How would that change the global balance of power?
What if the war grinds on for another year or two, or three and in the end Ukraine is a shattered country with half its people scattered around the planet, victorious but sitting on an ash heap?
What happens if Russia starts to win?
And what happens, as becomes more likely every day that the US dips into its weapons stockpiles, when Xi decides to take advantage of US and Western exhaustion and reaches out for more terrain?
Let me be crystal clear: I want the Ukrainian people to be free and independent. But if I had to make a choice between the interests of the United States and those of Ukraine, I’m not going to hesitate for a moment. And if that’s true for a private citizen, it should, it must be, true for the President and the Secretary of State or Defense, or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Letting this war grind on until one of the two fighters finally calls it quits is going to leave Ukraine as a ruin, Russia possibly as a ruin, and will to a certainty lead to monstrous 2nd and 3rd order events that are on no one’s wish list. And we should assume that some of them will be massively violent.
That’s why we should be insisting Ukraine enter negotiations right now. If not, we need to take another lesson from World War I and the years immediately after: start building weapons.
If we insist on war, we need to understand that a bigger war is coming; stop everything else right now and arm up. Figure out missile defense, strengthen (and harden) our industries, build up our farms, develop excess capacities in all the things that matter to fighting and surviving while fighting. Reinstitute the draft and all that that entails. That is the price of giving Ukraine the nod to spend our money and use our tools the way they want without regard to US interests and simply letting the war grind on. That’s where we‘re likely to be within one generation. That’s the cost of riding the tiger.
About Pete O'Brien
Peter O’Brien has more than 30 years of successful leadership and planning experience in a wide range of organizations afloat and ashore on three continents. Mr. O’Brien’s Navy career included ten years at sea, more than a dozen years stationed overseas and multiple ...