Ukraine’s War of Illusions


The Big Three—Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin—at Livadia Palace, Crimea, site of the 1945 Yalta Conference. Photo: Matthew Stevenson..

“The first casualty when war comes is truth.”

—U.S. senator from California, and isolationist in World War I, Hiram W. Johnson

While it might not match the barbarity of President Vladimir Putin’s genocide in Ukraine, the West has hardly advanced the cause of peace with its endless rush to judgements—most of which are based on the video feeds of talking heads waging the good war from the safety of their Zoom redoubts.

Just this morning, I watched retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman—the Boy Scout of impeachment fame who is now working on his cable news merit badge—bang the drum of a wider war in Eastern Europe.

In arguing for Apocalypse, Now!, Vindman is making the point that Putin is a combination of a Genghis Khan and Ivan the Terrible who must be stopped with Patriot missiles, Stealth bombers, and Abrams tanks; otherwise, before you know it, he will be astride the continent, if not raping Belgian nuns (one of the rumors that fueled the early days of World War I).

Vindman could well be right, although his pious primetime pronouncements all seemed geared to restarting his brilliant career, cut short by the long knives of the Trump clan. For many propped in front of the instant-analysis cameras, the Ukraine war is a gold mine, if not a bulging wallet of cryptocurrencies.

So what other myths are clouding judgements about this war?

Europe’s Not So Magic Mountain

From the news dispatches, you might get the impression that Europe is one big happy continental family that has no cares other than ministering to Ukrainian refugees swarming across the Polish, Romanian, and Slovakian borders.

I wish it were the case, but the reality is that the European idea has been on life support for some time, ever since (you pick the start date) the Greeks ran up a bar bill on its Euro credit card and sent the invoice to Brussels and Berlin, or since a number of Eastern European countries (such as Hungary) decided to give fascism another chance.

In my mind, Europe lost its way over its handling of Yugoslavia’s demise in the early 1990s, which not only ruptured relations with Russia (going through its own post-communist devolution) but called into question the premise that Europe was a united continent.

Had Yugoslavia (as one flawed, ethnically diverse, bankrupt entity) been admitted to the European Union and paved over with subsidies, as happened in East Germany, there’s a chance that the wars that fractured the Balkans could have been avoided and better relations with Russia might have been maintained. (One reason Slovenia and Croatia bolted for the door is that they didn’t want to be on the hook for Belgrade’s Tito-era indebtedness.)

Instead, Europe decide that the war was the result of Serb (i.e., eastern Orthodox or Russian) aggression and divided Yugoslavia into what are now seven countries (Montenegro, Slovenia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Kosovo, and North Macedonia), few of which have become modern European nations (the average salary in North Macedonia is about $400 a month).

From the Yugoslav dismemberment and the Kosovo precedent, Russia deduced that it could share a similar fate if ever the EU and NATO could get their hands on Chechnya, Transnistria, Ingria, or other borderland statelets.

Elsewhere, the Yugoslav wars left Europe divided between West and East. There may be no longer an Iron Curtain running from Lübeck to Trieste, but many communities and countries in Eastern Europe find life Euro expensive, Brussels authoritarian, and democracy another word for corporate favoritism and corruption.

Finally, let’s not leave the subject of European solidarity without giving Brexit and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson a shoutout for yet another rejection of pan-European-ism, a rupture that would not have been lost on Vladimir Putin as he made his plans for a Soviet Risorgimento.

NATO’s Tin Soldiers

Prior to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Europe had at its core the Holy Roman Empire (it dissolved in 1806), although later historians liked to quip that it was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor much of an empire.”

The same could be said about NATO, which—for all that it is now rushing out-of-date East German surplus weapons to the Polish-Ukraine border and standing tall on the talk shows to Vladimir Putin—also isn’t “much of an empire”.

The NATO critique of the Russian army in Ukraine is that it is overly dependent on technology (cruise missiles, fighter jets, etc.) and less effective when fixing bayonets to rush a Kyiv housing project.

At the same time, don’t believe all the press releases that you read about NATO’s effectiveness as a fighting force, as more than anything else it has lived well in the shade of the American nuclear umbrella, and when it has seen limited action its performance has been at best lackluster.

In theory, it was NATO jets (mostly they were American, but also some British and French) that ended the Yugoslav wars with a 78-day air campaign over Belgrade and Serbia, breaking the back of Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

Few, however, remember that the NATO air campaign over Belgrade was largely a comedy/tragedy of errors. Despite claims of pinpoint accuracy with its laser-guided missiles, NATO bombs hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, numerous residential apartment buildings, a TV tower, and a regional passenger train near Grdelica. (Note: Milosevic remained in office after the bombing ended.)

Nor did NATO forces cover themselves with glory in the Afghan wars. NATO sent a symbolic number of troops to the Khyber Pass in support of the United States after September 11, but it was enough of a presence in the campaign to share in some of the losses—and reinforced the damaging image that NATO is just another American posse.

Painting the War By the Ratings Numbers

Pretty much anyone who was deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq is now working full-time for the networks, analyzing the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

They stand in front of illuminated maps that have thrusting arrows and shaded areas of occupation, and drone on (forgive me) about how this armor column is stuck in the mud or how that advance into Kharkiv has stalled near a metro station.

It all sounded fairly persuasive to me until, about a week into the fighting, I started seeing the same photographs and video uplinks, no matter what the attack or the front under discussion. (Walt Whitman: “The real war will never get on cable.”)

And that mired column of Russian armor, stretching miles back toward the Belarus frontier, makes a primetime appearance whenever one of the online generals is making a point about struggling Russian supply lines or the water in the canteens of stalled paratroops outside Kyiv.

I suppose that it’s possible that the Russian army is as bad as described in numerous interviews, but I also think that many of the retired generals on the silver screen may have no idea what they are talking about.

Keep this in mind: what drives the ratings of the network war coverage is the narrative of the plucky Ukraine resistance, the steely resolve of President Volodymyr Zelensky, and the incompetent cruelty of Putin’s advancing columns. That doesn’t mean what’s being broadcast is true.

General David Petraeus Makes His Pitch

I have spent innumerable evenings in the video company of the retired American general (and unfrocked CIA director) David H. Petraeus while he explains the complexities of urban warfare or how helicopters can be vulnerable when they are “low and slow”.

To hear Petraeus tell the war stories, you might think that the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were something other than an unmitigated disaster that helped to bankrupt the economy (except for those Blackwater-ish contractors) and defiled the idea of what it means to be American.

From his primetime press box Petraeus poses as the military heir of Stonewall Jackson or George Marshall, when in fact he was a political general, in the mode Alexander Haig, who earned his many stars briefing his superiors and making nice to the likes of President Barack Obama (who didn’t want his generals to sound or act like William Tecumseh Sherman or George Patton).

Now in his military afterlife (leaving aside that he broke the law in trying to impress his mistress, Paula Broadwell, by giving her classified documents when he was head of the CIA), Petraeus is the pitchman and talking head for the military-industrial complex, serving as the chairman of the KKR Global Institute, a private equity poster child on the nexus between corporations and government that never saw a war or military contract it didn’t love.

Here are his corporate marching orders, as described on its website: “To accomplish its mission, KGI [KKR Global Institute] integrates expertise and analysis about emerging developments and long-term trends in geopolitics, macroeconomics, demographics, energy and natural resource markets, technology, and trade policy, as well as environmental, social, and governance (ESG) considerations.”

No wonder Dave is working so hard to land the new Cold War account.

Come Out With Your Yachts Up

It says something about the American way of war that the Biden administration is pinning its hopes for a Russian retreat on the seizure of a few oligarchs’ yachts in the Mediterranean.

By this logic the keelhauled sailors, down to their last several billion in gold bars and Bitcoins, will rise up in rebellion against Putin’s autocracy and aggression and yet again make the world safe for August along Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda.

Needless to say, there are sanctions in force other than yacht impoundments, but again all those frozen bank accounts and trade blockades are based on the premise that only rich people can effect change in government—in Russia or, presumably, elsewhere. (Notice that no one grounded any of the paddle boats on the lake in Moscow’s Gorky Park.)

According to the received wisdom about Russia’s government and ruling class, Putin created an oligarchy so that it could manage his offshore wealth and so that he could place the Russian means of production in a small boyar class beholden to his munificence. By American and EU logic, the loyalty of that lumpenproletariat is now open to the highest bidder.

It would be nice to imagine that war is a variation on leveraged buyouts or a Sotheby’s auction, but the forces guiding any society into battle are more complex than the name on the back of a bearer bond, even if that name happens to be that of Vladimir Putin.

Question: would the United States have withdrawn from Vietnam in 1967 if the Russians had levied fines against chief executives of the Fortune 500?

Sanctions: Fool’s Gold

What drove the president’s legions to attack Ukraine were a myriad of reasons, from Putin’s anger at President Zelensky to a personal desire to restore the Russian empire to its imperial glory—what Winston Churchill once described as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

I doubt whether even oligarch billions, even with a few angry phone calls, can either put Humpty Dumpty back together again or, for that matter, remove him from office.

I confess that I have always looked upon sanctions as fool’s gold, a coin of the realm in foreign affairs that has little fungibility. They didn’t do much to change hearts and minds in South Africa; nor, for that matter, in the ayatollah’s Iran. But as a way to corner distant markets, or drive competitors into bankruptcy, I am sure they are unrivaled.

For Putin to lay waste to Ukraine (clearly his intention) he just needs enough soldiers on the march and home-made weaponry in his casements to see him through whatever botched tactics his commanders unleash initially on Kyiv or Kharkiv. Rape and pillage aren’t necessarily weapons of war that are sourced in foreign markets—certainly not for anyone ruling the roost in the Kremlin.

In many ways it seems two wars have broken out that have almost nothing in common. The Russians are fighting a war to wipe Ukraine from the map and incorporate its land into the Russian Federation, while NATO and its allies would seem to be fighting an economic war, with the goal being to seize as many assets as can be rounded up.

One fight sounds like Hitler’s invasion of Poland; the other has the feel of an IRS audit, or of railroad robber barons trying to squeeze the Union Pacific.

The Mask of War

I realize that worrying about the climate during a war is akin to wondering if Russian soldiers, when crossing into Ukraine, were required to test for covid or quarantine for two weeks in their tanks.

At the same time in addition to charging Putin and his henchmen with crimes against humanity, it would be nice if charges could be brought on grounds of environmental destruction.

Think of all the damage that the war has caused not just on the ground in Ukraine, but in the air and the water table.

Then there is the aspect of the assault that has acted as a corner on fossil fuel markets, driving up prices in a host of commodities, foremost oil and gas (Russia’s primary exports), and has relegated discussions about climate change to a realm concerned, say, with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Reparations: Making the Hun Pay

The specter of war reparations (appropriate here) has had an ugly history since the Treaty of Versailles, settling World War I, put the screws to Germany for damages inflicted on the allies during the fighting.

The French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau pushed hardest for reparations against the defeated Germans (in Versailles parlance it was called “Making the Hun pay”) while President Wilson and the American delegation were most concerned that Britain and France repay their American war loans. (Speaking later on the question, Calvin Coolidge expressed the views of many when he asked: “They hired the money, didn’t they?”)

Postwar, assuming the fighting doesn’t end with Putin and his forces in Paris, Russia and its oligarchy could well afford with their petrodollars to rebuild Ukraine, beginning with the city hall in Kharkiv brought down by a thermobaric bomb. But countries like Ukraine rarely find themselves, as the judicial phrase has it, “made whole” after a war.

Years after NATO bombed Belgrade, the buildings hit from the air were left untouched as skeletal remains, although that might have been to remind the local population that Serbia had been the victim of Western aggression.

In many Russian cities, German war damage is often incorporated into local memorials. Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad, not only has soaring monuments to recall the cataclysmic battle that saved the Soviet Union, but many hollow buildings, lest we forget what the Germans wrought.

One of the ironies of the attacks on Ukraine is that many of the Russian cruise missiles have targeted the governmental administration, which tends to be housed in Soviet-era buildings.

Thus Putin, whether he realizes it or not, will have destroyed some of the last links between Ukraine and the Soviet Union (all those 1950s wedding-cake buildings of socialist realism with red stars on the roof). Politically, that may be the biggest reparation of all.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.