Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba appears to have launched a new strategy in his country’s war against Russia. Insult Kyiv’s closest supporters by calling them Russian pawns.
He penned an article in Foreign Affairs, what amounts to the venerable newsletter of the Blob, the internationalist establishment. The US and Europe are not doing enough for Ukraine in his opinion. Indeed, he believes that the allies, despite sanctioning Russia and providing weapons to his country, are effectively going over to the dark side.
Kuleba wrote: "calls for dangerous deals are getting louder. As fatigue grows and attention wanders, more and more Kremlin-leaning commentators are proposing to sell out Ukraine for the sake of peace and economic stability in their own countries. Although they may pose as pacifists or realists, they are better understood as enablers of Russian imperialism and war crimes."
A student of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People Kuleba is not. Denouncing the very governments he expects to help is a dubious tactic. Telling them to ignore the interests of their own nations won’t work. That is a step too far even for Kyiv’s friends.
Kuleba’s frustration is understandable. His nation has been invaded, a crime and tragedy. The human and material costs are horrendous. Despite early setbacks, the Russian military retains significant advantages, such as artillery dominance, which has led to steady if slow gains in the east. And despite Kuleba’s optimistic assertion that Ukraine can win, Moscow can escalate through full mobilization and resort to WMDs, something Kyiv cannot match. So he wants more, ever more assistance from the US and Europe.
This is understandable, even expected. However, if Kuleba and his government are counting on Western aid to save Ukraine, they are likely to be disappointed. Although the invasion has dominated media attention and driven the allies to take unusually tough and swift action against Russia, the conflict is not their, and certainly not their people’s, top concern.
First, this is Ukraine’s war, not the West’s crusade. There have been many conflicts since World War II, and even the US, the most militaristic power since the end of the Cold War, has avoided participating in most of them. When intervening militarily, Washington has always set limits, eventually deciding, with good reason, that it should stop pouring good lives and resources after bad into them – Afghanistan and Vietnam most dramatically. No other country will care as much about the outcome in Ukraine as Ukraine.
Indeed, Kuleba admitted: "It is only natural that people and governments lose interest in conflicts as they drag on. It’s a process that has played out many times throughout history. The world stopped paying attention to the war in Libya after former leader Muammar al-Qaddafi was toppled from power, in 2011. It disengaged from Syria, Yemen, and other ongoing conflicts that once generated front-page news. And as I know well, the rest of the world lost interest in Ukraine after 2015, even as we continued to fight Russian forces for control over the eastern part of the country." Everyone is more concerned about their families and friends, as well as their communities and nations, than about "the world."
Second, Kyiv’s fight is not for Europe, the West, or any other country. Ukrainians are fighting for Ukraine. Kuleba claimed: "If we lose, there will not just be no more Ukraine; there will be no prosperity or security in Europe." Yet no one in NATO, except perhaps the Baltic States, which would do little of the fighting – NATO always has stood for North America and the Others – has ever considered Ukraine to be a vital interest worth fighting for. The alliance failed to act on a succession of promises to induct Kyiv and did not directly intervene after Russia’s 2014 territorial seizures. Today allied governments are acting in the very ways that so upset Kuleba because they believe it is vital to avoid being dragged into the conflict.
Third, Moscow is a declining, not expanding, power. Kuleba imagines otherwise: "Russia is a revanchist country bent on remaking the entire world through force. It actively works to destabilize African, Arab, and Asian states both through its own military and through proxies. These conflicts have created their own humanitarian crises, and if Ukraine loses they will only grow worse. In victory, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin would be emboldened to stir up more unrest and create more disasters across the developing world."
This apocalyptic vision likely reflects Kuleba’s expressed frustration that the Global South has refused to join the anti-Russia campaign. Moscow has been involved around the world for decades, as has America, but the former’s recent victories – most importantly preservation of a mere shell of Syria’s Assad government – are few and dubious. Indeed, the US has created far more "unrest" and "disasters across the developing world." Russia will end up paying a high price for any geopolitical gains it ultimately makes in Ukraine. The war looks more like a coda to Putin’s aggressiveness than a jumpstart to world conquest.
Fourth, the fight is not over democracy, freedom, the rules-based order, or any other abstraction. Washington officials constantly chatter about such ideals, but only honor them in the breach, rarely practicing what they preach. That the US and European governments so often fall short of the values they espouse obviously does not justify Moscow’s behavior but makes a mockery of their constant claim to fight for something greater.
The US and some European nations engaged in an aggressive war against Iraq, which wrecked that nation and resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. Washington, London, and others profited by arming Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, and then aiding them in Yemen, helping to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians. The human and material wreckage left by allied wars in Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria also will be long with us.
Fifth, those allied officials who, as Kuleba angrily charges, propose "to sell out Ukraine for the sake of peace and economic stability in their own countries" are doing precisely what they were elected to do. No politician in the US or Europe was chosen to do anything other than promote "peace and economic stability in their own countries." Ukrainians selected President Volodymyr Zelensky to do the same for their nation.
And people naturally seek to avoid involvement in terrible wars. In the 1990s and 2000s an estimated 5.4 million people died in a massive conflict enveloping the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Did anyone in Kyiv propose intervening to uphold international law and save lives? Who in Ukraine demanded action to protect the Syrian people during a decade-long civil war? Rather, the Ukrainian people expected their leaders to advance "peace and economic stability in" their nation.
Sixth, putting one’s own nation first and avoiding conflict does not make one "Kremlin-leaning." A political leadership’s highest obligation is to protect its own people, though the means must be moral. There is no affirmative duty to go to war on behalf of others and failing to do so does not mean one favors the aggressor. Especially given the likely negative consequences of joining other nations’ wars. No one starts a conflict expecting to lose, but most wars turn out very differently than predicted. Allied governments that seek to limit their involvement in Ukraine are leaning toward their own peoples, not the Kremlin.
Seventh, the Russo-Ukraine war could escalate in unpredictable and dangerous ways. Kuleba breezily dismisses any risks: "Putin is not suicidal; a Ukrainian victory will not lead to nuclear warfare. Such fears may be deliberately fueled by the Kremlin itself for strategic purposes. Putin is a master of gaslighting, and I am sure that Russians themselves are peddling worries of a cornered Putin in order to weaken Western support for Ukraine."
Kuleba might believe this argument, but he has reason to do so since his preference is for the allies to enter the war. (There’s nothing wrong with that, but there are very good reasons for the US and Europe not to oblige.) And no one believes Putin is suicidal. Rather, the fear is that the prospect of loss would encourage him to escalate to advance an interest he believes to be existential – for Russia but not the allies. The war matters more for Moscow, which will therefore spend and risk more to prevail. Just as Kuleba and his colleagues have done, seeking to fight on to victory despite the terrible destruction being wreaked on their nation. That decision is theirs to make. But they should not underestimate the willingness of Putin also to fight on to victory with all the weapons at his disposal.
Ukraine has every right to choose to battle rather than negotiate. However, Kyiv should carefully weigh the cost of doing so and the likelihood of victory. Moreover, the allies must make separate decisions based on their interests. If they increasingly press for a negotiated settlement, Kuleba would do better to listen to their arguments than insult them. In the end, the US and European governments must act on behalf of their peoples, not the Ukrainian government.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.