I haven’t been here for a while. Yet the world slouches on.
The Ukraine war is set to regather intensity as the winter cold ends. Western weapons pour in. Russian conscripts line up to be blown to bits. Shares in Poland are rising as Germany’s reputation as Europe’s natural leader ebbs away:
Polish leadership of the European response to Putin’s invasion is forging unprecedented bonds between the Polish and Ukrainian people. These two nations have had their share of fights and historical disagreements in the past. However, they now find themselves united by the existential threat coming from today’s Russia. Ukrainian opinion polls regularly identify Poland as the country’s closest partner.
Of course it was not always thus. In decades past Poland was seen as a smug wannabe neo-imperial power by many Ukrainians.
Once Russia is defeated, Ukraine will likely deepen its partnership with Poland to form a powerful bloc within European politics. Together, the two nations will have an authoritative voice in the wider democratic world. Europe’s geopolitical center of gravity is shifting eastward, and Poland is leading the way.
Quite a thought. The combined demographic weight and agricultural potential of Poland and Ukraine would be something new to be reckoned with by the weary Western side of Europe.
Here’s a long piece on it all that I have written for the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs. With, of course, some Wittgenstein to start:
In his Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein made the following laconic observation: “There is one thing of which one can say neither that it is one meter long, nor that it is not one meter long, and that is the standard meter in Paris.” But what does that mean? If you can’t say that the standard meter bar in Paris is one meter long, what’s the point of the standard meter bar?
A dense thicket of philosophical analysis has grown up around this idea. For our purposes, let us take the philosopher to have meant that it is a sort of “category mistake” to say that the standard meter bar is one meter long. Why? Because we use the bar to define what a meter is so that we can use it to measure other things. The bar cannot measure itself.
Or, to put it more generally, one must define a starting reference point before tackling any question. As Wittgenstein put it right at the beginning of his Philosophical Investigations, “Explanations come to an end somewhere.”
Thus, the deep question raised by the Russo–Ukrainian War, especially for any of us wondering whether some sort of negotiated outcome might be possible, is: What are the fundamental categories of explanation to use in exploring these issues?
And what are the fundamental categories for wondering what sort of ‘negotiated’ outcome might be possible?
The painful truth here is that the war is the negotiation. There are difficult issues of land, language, legitimacy, and many more to be discussed between Russia and Ukraine, and the wider European family. But what is there for Kyiv to discuss when Moscow is calling into question the very basis of Ukraine’s existence as an independent state free to choose its own international partners?
Putin’s Russia is basing that argument on insinuations that the Ukrainian language is some unworthy mongrel deformation of Russian, and that Ukrainians who insist that they have an identity distinct from Russia’s are ipso facto a species of Nazi.
For Kyiv, the issue is stark. Either Ukrainians as a people and the Ukrainian language exist, or they do not.
This situation has obvious parallels with successive Middle East “peace processes.” If openly or by implication one party in a conflict is challenging the other party’s core legitimacy, if not its very right to exist, what scope is there for meaningful discussion and hard but honest compromise around a negotiating table?
… The key point under international law is that Moscow’s violent, aggressive land-grabbing response to missteps by Kyiv is far beyond disproportionate.
Back to Wittgenstein’s subtle idea that we need a foundational reference point for starting to think about any issue.
For most of my own life as a child of the 1950s, the reference point for international security has been the legal order created by the United Nations and Bretton Woods institutions.
Above all, this means upholding the sanctity of the rules for managing international borders, whatever disputes about them may arise. Without the wider order of reliable borders, there is no hope of maintaining coherent national legal order. Sooner or later, fighting will erupt and the lights will go out.
The Russian attack on Ukraine challenges head-on that foundational principle. When a permanent UN Security Council member invades a neighbor with full military force and commits crimes against humanity with a view to stealing land, while at the same time vetoing any international operational consensus against its aggression, the logic and moral authority of the whole UN system start to be called into question.
The guiding norm is no longer what is right or what is lawful. It is what you can get away with. Explanations end with the law of the jungle.
Of course options exist for ending the fighting but steering the conflict into less violent or maybe even peaceful processes.
For example, the Ukrainian leadership and Russian leaderships alike accept that a grisly stalemate has been reached. Ukraine can’t summon the weapons and fighters to eject Russian forces from all of Ukraine’s territory including Crimea: Russia can’t do anything more than grimly hang on to whatever Ukrainian land outside Crimea it currently holds.
Thus the fighting stops by some sort of agreement supported by UN peacekeepers and the usual international acronyms. The situation solidifies around an ad hoc ‘demilitarised zone’ separating Ukrainian and Russian soldiers. As a matter of law (de jure) all Ukrainian territory including Crimea still belongs to Ukraine; as a matter of the facts on the ground (de facto) some Ukrainian territory including Crimea is controlled and administered by Russia.
This sort of pragmatic/cynical/realistic/immoral ‘deal’ might drag on for decades, creating all sorts of exotic diplomatic and practical new realities. See eg the fate of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, whose annexation by the USSR was not recognised de jure by many Western governments. Or the division of Korea into North and South.
Such an outcome has pros and cons for both Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine can start rebuilding across the great majority of its territory with accelerating EU and wider support. But it has conceded a key principle, namely that de facto Russia can grab some of its land and get away with it.
Russia gets the doubtful but not only symbolic ‘victory’ of stealing some Ukrainian land. However, it has achieved that at a stunning cost to its economy and to its military and wider diplomatic status, not least in Central Asia where at long past Moscow starts to look weak. And a grubby if politically sustainable stalemate on the ground will do nothing to get Western sanctions lifted. Without progress there, Russia’s economic (and military) prospects will be dismal:
Because of export controls, Russia’s semiconductor or chip imports, the lifeblood of Russia’s weaponry, have dropped by nearly 70 percent compared to the same time period in 2021. Russia does not produce its own advanced semiconductors, so it is heavily reliant on outside sources.
As a result, Russia has struggled to sustain, restore, and replace many of its weapon systems, including over 6,000 pieces of military equipment, such as tanks, armored personnel carriers, and infantry fighting vehicles that were destroyed over the last year. In a way, this impact is harder to observe, because nobody hears the dogs that do not bark. Weapons that are unable to be repaired or replaced cannot be used. But just imagine if there were no U.S. export controls.
So on it goes, until someone steely in the Russian system decides that V Putin’s now openly sadistic if not deranged rule has to come to a sticky end, and acts wisely and well on that decision.
NOTE: According to WordPress’s ‘readability’ criteria, this piece is BAD. No sub-headings. Overlong sentences. Too many passive phrases. So if you’ve made it thus far, well done.