Espreso. Global

Imaginary 'escalation' cannot be argument for banning Ukraine from striking at Russian territory

12 September, 2023 Tuesday

What it must be allowed to do, to have some chance of stopping those Russian practices in Ukraine, is to have the capacity to win the war


Russia’s gains in this invasion were made almost entirely during its first few weeks, in February and March 2022. Those gains were largely possible thanks to the fact that Russia had seized the Crimean Peninsula in its earlier invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Over the course of 2022, Ukraine won the battles of Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Kherson, and took back about half of the territory Russia gained.

Russia now has no meaningful offensive potential. Its strategy is to continue terror against civilians until Ukrainians can endure no longer. This, judging from my experience anyway, is not a tenable approach. On the other hand, Russia has had time to extensively fortify a long long of defense in the east and south, and to prepare for Ukrainian offensives. This makes Ukrainian offensives very difficult.

"That said, Ukrainian territorial advances this summer have been sufficient to trigger a barrage of calls for a cease-fire from Kremlin-friendly voices. Given the way or media seems to work, these calls (rather than the events on the ground) sometimes seem to be the news."

Pro-Kremlin op-eds smuggle in the assumption that Ukraine is not advancing, when in fact it is. The Kremlin allies make their case in terms of Ukrainian suffering, but never cite Ukrainians, nor the polling data that shows overwhelming support for the war.

Russian propagandists talking to Russian audiences do not hide that the goal is the destruction of the Ukrainian nation, and that a ceasefire would just be meant to buy time. Now that the nuclear bluff has largely worn itself out, Moscow has changed its approach, trying instead to make people believe that nothing is happening on the battlefield. Moscow’s hope is to motivate Ukraine’s allies to restrain Ukraine long enough for Russia to shift the balance of forces in its favor. 

"This war has brought an entirely new theory of what a defensive war means: fighting only on one’s own territory. This does not correspond to international law and has never made any sense."

It is a bit like rooting for a basketball team but believing it should play without ever taking the ball past halfcourt, or rooting for a boxer but claiming he is not allowed to throw a punch after his opponent does. Had such a notion been in place in past wars, none of Ukraine’s partners would ever have won any of the wars they are proud of winning. 

The voiced concern is that Russia could “escalate.” This argument is a triumph of Russian propaganda. None of Ukraine’s strikes across borders has done anything except reduce Russian capacity. None has led Russia to do things it was not already doing. The notion of “escalation” in this setting is a misunderstanding. In trying to undo Russian logistics, Ukraine is trying to end the war. 

"Ukraine will not do in Russia most of the things Russia has done in Ukraine. It will not occupy or seize territory, it will not execute civilians, it will not build concentration camps and torture chambers. What it must be allowed to do, to have some chance of stopping those Russian practices in Ukraine, is to have the capacity to win the war."

With every village that Ukraine takes back, we see the most important de-escalation: away from war crimes and genocide, towards something more like a normal life.

This war will not end because of one sudden event, but nor will it go on indefinitely. When and how it ends depends largely on us, on what we do, on how much we help. Even if we did not care at all about Ukrainians (and we should), getting this war to end with a Ukrainian victory would be by far the best thing Americans could do for themselves. Indeed, I do not think that, in the history of US foreign relations, there has ever been a chance to secure so much for Americans with so little effort by Americans. I do hope we take that chance.


About the author. Timothy Snyder, historian, professor at Yale University.

The editors don't always share the opinions expressed by the authors of the blogs.

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