Remember the wonderful opening lines of the first installment of Peter Jackson’s masterful film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy? In case you’re not a fan of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Middle Earth writings, they went like this: “The world is changed: I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, I smell it in the air.”
They came to mind to me today upon reading some of the big national media headlines on the course of the Ukaine war.
Like this from The New York Times: “As Russia Forges Ahead, Europe Recaluclates.”
And this from The Wall Street Journal: “Ukraine Fears Defeat in East Without Surge in Military Aid.”
In fact, this theme began appearing even before this morning.
Like the Los Angeles Times’ claim that “Momentum shifts in Ukraine war as Russia advances in the Donbas.”
And then there’s the news that’s been dribbling out from Kyiv on Ukrainian casualties – numbers that had been very closely held. But on May 31, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stated that his country’s military was losing up to 100 killed and 5oo wounded each day. Just over a week later, Zelenskyy aide Mykhalo Podolyak pegged the daily battlefield deaths at between 100 and 200 – which presumably means a higher wounded count, too.
Don’t get me wrong: None of this means that Ukraine is doomed to defeat at the Russian invaders’ hands. But it sure looks like we’re a long way away from the heady days of just one and two months ago, when
>U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was declaring that the Biden administration and most of the rest of the world believed that Ukraine “can win” the struggle;
>when Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken endorsed the goal of ensuring that the Ukraine invasion turned into a “strategic defeat” for Russia; and
>when Defense Department spokesman John Kirby stated that “We want Ukraine to win this fight [with Russia] and we are doing everything we can here, at the Department of Defense, to make sure they have the capabilities to do that.”
And the apparent shift in the war’s momentum, especially in Ukraine’s east, adds urgency to questions that understandably receded in importance when a victory by Kyiv seemed much more plausible.
Principally, President Biden recently stated that his goal was moving “to send Ukraine a significant amount of weaponry and ammunition so it can fight on the battlefield and be in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table.” Yet how will he reconcile the likelihood that the continued heavy combat bound to result from these efforts on the one hand, with the determination he expressed on the other hand — in the same article — to keep the war within Ukraine’s borders and thereby avoid a direct U.S.-Russia military confrontation that could all too easily escalate to the nuclear level?
How will he decide when Ukraine is armed well enough to negotiate successfully? And how does the President’s reference to arming Ukraine to maximize its chances in peace talks dovetail with his position that his “principle throughout this crisis has been ‘Nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.’ I will not pressure the Ukrainian government — in private or public — to make any territorial concessions. It would be wrong and contrary to well-settled principles to do so”?
From a purely tactical standpoint, if Ukraine continues refusing even to consider compromises on territory or on sovereignty, (which could include the issues of membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or the European Union) then how important — let alone successful — could any negotiations be?
From a broader standpoint, does Mr. Biden really believe that Ukraine should call all the shots related to this crisis once the conflict enters the diplomatic phase? And why would he keep deferring to Ukraine even though he’s implicitly acknowledged that the United States has its own crucial interests – chiefly avoiding a wider war and direct superpower conflict – that aren’t necessarily identical with Ukraine’s goals?
At the same time, it’s possible that the President doesn’t believe that the war is in a new phase at all. And he may be right. If that’s the case, though, he’d be well advised to level with the American public, because the kind of lengthy stalemate and lack of an exit strategy this conclusion implies means that there’s no exit strategy for the surging oil and gasoline prices, consequently worsening overall inflation, and higher federal spending brought on by the conflict, either.