On Turning around American Opinion: What if we’re wrong in Ukraine?

By far the fairest of the material EP reads on the war in Ukraine is Johnson’s Russia List (JRL). Three or four times a week, David Johnson assembles and links material from all sides of the war, twenty or thirty items a day. These are raw files, blog entries and Russian and Ukrainian news reports chock-a-block with articles from major American and European newspapers.  Johnson takes pains to avoid steering his list towards one side, and he seldom offers commentary of his own.  When he does, it seems to be a symptom of frustration, as last month, when he began JRL 158 with a personal note to email subscribers:

DJ: On the edge of the gathering skepticism about the Ukraine war let me add an observation. The vast majority of academic experts, commentators, politicians, and journalists in the West write from a very strong bias in favor of Ukraine perspectives and deeply instinctive rejection of Russian perspectives. In most cased this is based on an overwhelming belief in the vast moral superiority of Ukraine. Are there dangers here? Does this produce accurate reporting?

He began with a quotation the next day:

George Kennan: “…that deep-seated trait of American psychology which tends to make an inscrutable devil out of any external adversary, to deny him the quality of common humanity, to expect of him the worst, and to question the value and propriety of occupying oneself seriously with the study of the adversary’s motives, his point of view, and his personality.”

Both passages made sense to me.

EP has been peripherally involved in the story of post-USSR Russia for twenty-five years, since I began covering the Harvard-Russia scandal for The Boston Globe in 1997 A Russan émigré, Andrei Shleifer by then a 29-year-old Harvard professor of economics had been hired by the US State Department to advise the government of Boris Yeltsin on privatization of former Soviet assets.

In 1997, a firm owned by Shleifer and his wife, bond trader Nancy Zimmerman, along with Shleifer’s project deputy Jonathan Hay and his girlfriend (later his wife), were accused by the US Agency for International Development of seeking to be first to enter the Russian mutual fund business. Shleifer was fired, first by the State Department, then by Harvard subcontractor, its Institute for International Development. He was defended by his friend, Lawrence Summer, then deputy Treasury Secretary, support which continued until Summers resigned his presidency of Harvard University in 2006. The US Justice Department sued Harvard and recovered its investment but failed in its attempt to collect punitive damages.

After 2014, when American cheerleaders egged on Ukrainian protestors who caused a democratically-elected president to flee Kyiv to Russia, and Vadimir Putin annexed Crimea in return, EP became sufficiently alarmed by growing  antagonism between the superpowers to write Because They Could: The Harvard-Russia Scandal (and NATO Expansion) after Twenty-Five Years, which appeared in 2018. The subsequent crossing of Russian red lines continued, until, in February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine.

To follow the war since then, I have depended mainly on JRL and the reporting of Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs and investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, two men whom I trust. Neither is perfect but both are deeply knowledgeable. In his most recent newsletter, Hersh offered an explanation of Why Putin killed Progozhin.   The rebellious commander and some remaining portion of his mercenary army had been forced into exile in Belarus, he wrote, but Prigozhin continued to make mischief. Relying once again mainly on single unidentified source, Hersh continued:

By early August there were reports of border tensions as the remnant of the Wagner Group made a series of intrusions into the airspace of Poland, and troublesome threats at the borders of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland. For Putin, triggering complaints from NATO countries was an unforgivable breach. “That was it,” a knowledgeable US intelligence official told me.…

“Prigozhin was provoking NATO and he had to go,” the US intelligence official said. “The last thing Putin wanted to do was to give NATO further cause to shelve its growing doubts about the endless financing of [Ukraine President Volodymyr] Zelensky.”  So, the official said, “Putin did it.” Prigozhin had become too dangerous.

My emotional familiarity with today’s situation in Ukraine stems from the decade I spent watching America’s war in Vietnam develop, first as a young newsman, an enlisted sailor, a Saigon-based correspondent for two years (for Pacific Stars and Stripes and then Newsweek), and, finally, as an anti-war protester.

My reluctance to blame newspapers for their enthusiasm for the war today stems from that time, too.  We in the 400+ member Saigon press corps in the Sixties were doing our best to make sense of a confusing situation. Unbridled support for any side in the Vietnam War was viewed with initial suspicion. As information accumulated, Walter Cronkite’s conclusion became widely accepted by the American public. After a tour of the country in the weeks following the Tet Offensive of January-February 1968, he declared in an influential broadcast on February 27, 1968,

[I]t seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. . . [I]t is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.

Within the next two years, virtually everyone I knew in Saigon agreed.

David Johnson was correct, I believe, when he wrote, “The vast majority of academic experts, commentators, politicians, and journalists in the West write from a very strong bias in favor of Ukraine perspectives and deeply instinctive rejection of Russian perspectives.” Johnson was right, too, that the consensus has begun to break up. A recent article in the The New Yorker, by Keith Gessen, a Russian-born American journalist and novelist, began this way:

If you want to hear a different perspective on the war in Ukraine, talk to Samuel Charap. A fine-featured Russia analyst with, at forty-three, a head of gray hair, Charap works at the RAND Corporation, a think tank that has been doing research for the U.S. military, among other clients, since the nineteen-forties….

In the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and incursion into eastern Ukraine, in 2014, Charap wrote a book, with the Harvard political scientist Timothy Colton, called Everyone Loses, about the background to the war. In it, Charap and Colton argue that the U.S., Europe, and Russia had combined to produce a “negative sum” outcome in Ukraine. Russia was the aggressor, to be sure, but by asking that Ukraine choose either Russia or the West, the U.S. and Europe had helped stoke the flames of conflict. In the end, everyone lost.

Charap’s article, An Unwinnable War, appeared Foreign Affairs in June, and has been widely discussed since then.  Its burden is that the time has come for an armistice. Stalemate is not yet the dominant view of the war in Ukraine among reporters covering the war, among correspondents in NATO capitals, or their editors in the US. But the discussion is moving in that direction.  Such an armistice seems unlikely to last for seventy-five years – the cease-fire that paused the Korean War is the example frequently given – but perhaps it would last for long enough to stop the relentless killing and enable the combatants to move on to some other stage.

Someday there will be an equivalent of the Pentagon Papers for the war in Ukraine, a review of US policy towards Russia from 1992 to some date to be determined by historical developments, by some future US Defense Department.

But that moment is nowhere near at hand.  In pursuit of re-election, former President Donald Trump is escalating his attacks on Joe Biden’s character, as The Washington Post reported last week, employing increasingly vehement terms. Time, as the saying goes, is God’s way of preventing everything from happening all at once. First comes the re-election of Joe Biden.

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