Anatol Lieven: it’s not quite early 1914, but…
This is the edited transcript of an interview I did with with Anatol Lieven, Eurasia Program Director at the Quincy Institute, on Behind the News, February 16, 2023.
I’ve seen people in the last week or so making analogies to early 1914. Do you get any of that feeling?
Yes, to a degree. The Biden administration is still trying to keep America and NATO out of direct war with Russia, but clearly they’ve done a number of things which had they been done to the United States probably would have us in a war by now. There is also the growing and growing confrontation between the US and China. So, I don’t think we’re in July 1914 yet, but it’s not too hard to see how we could get there.
I want to speak about China in a little bit, but let’s talk about Ukraine for a moment. We keep seeing these stories of massive Russian casualties. The British Defense Minister said 97% of Russian forces, which would mean over 300,000 are in Ukraine. Now, that sounds a little hard to believe, but do we really have a clear picture of what’s going on there at all?
Well, we don’t have an exact picture. It must be remembered that US intelligence has said that Ukrainian casualties have been roughly the same as the Russians from, of course, a much smaller population. So, this has been a, a very bloody war on both sides. But I don’t think there’s any doubt whatsoever that especially in the first months, the Russian forces, and especially their best forces, which they used at the start of the war, have suffered very badly indeed. As a result, Russia is now, it seems, making very slow progress at all on the ground in in Eastern Ukraine. So that for months now, people have been talking about another analogy to the First World War, which is of course, the situation on the western front from 1914 to 1918, when both sides were bogged down in a war of attrition in the trenches with very, very heavy casualties on both sides.
I just looked up the casualties. I’d forgotten that 9 million soldiers were killed—remarkable bloodletting. But it does seem like they’re reviving that style of warfare with human wave attacks and blasting each other, and it all seems absolutely pointless and horribly bloody.
Yes. Obviously, this war, from Russia’s point of view, has been a complete disaster as well as a crime on the Ukrainian side. You have to ask not just obviously now, but for years, even since 2014, why exactly Ukraine wants back Crimea and eastern Donbas which are heavily populated by Russians and Russian speakers who by all reliable accounts do not want to return to, to Ukraine. So, the question is, what is Ukraine risking and losing in order to recover these territories, and what would it do with them if it got them back? But of course, it’s become a both a symbol of Ukrainian national pride and victory and an attempt to impose such a crushing defeat on Russia that the Putin would fall and perhaps Russia would break up as a state.
Which of course, on the other side is why the Russian regime is absolutely determined to fight on, to hang onto what it’s got. And Crimea particularly as not, not just symbolically for Russians, but actually in strategic terms as well as the only real Russian port on, on the Black Sea, and therefore the only one with access to the Mediterranean. This isn’t just a symbol of Russia as a great power. It is actually a key part of the reality of Russia as a great power. A great many Russians will undergo considerable hardship and loss to maintain that status, as of course many Americans would do for US global primacy.
Now you said the Biden administration is holding back, not escalating as quickly as it might, but they are amping up the level of arm shipments. It just keeps getting to be more and more sophisticated, more and more deadly. What is the goal here? Do they want to beat Russia? You see hawkish voices in the US and elsewhere saying, we want Russia to break up as a state as you mentioned—what is the point? What’s the end game?
There are obviously divisions within the Biden administration as there are divisions within Europe, both within European countries and between them. And as you’ve said, there are ultra-hardliners who actually do want to destroy Russia as a state as far as one can make out and from leaks. The majority opinion in the Biden administration wants to impose enough of a defeat on Russia. That Russia leaves all the territory that it has conquered since February of last year, which is essentially the land bridge between Russia and Crimea. And in return, the US would advocate a ceasefire in which Russia would—not legally this wouldn’t be recognized—but would in practice hang on to Crimea and probably the Eastern Donbas. And they want to give enough weapons to the Ukrainians to enable the Ukrainians to do that without the Ukrainians actually being able to attack Crimea and possibly trigger a nuclear war. But of course that is a very, very delicate balancing act.
Yes. The phrase “playing with fire” comes to mind.
Well, absolutely. I mean how do you calibrate that? And how do you stop the Ukrainians if they do achieve some smashing breakthrough with US weapons and then do what they say they’re going to do, which is actually aim for everything? Mind you whether, even with US weapons, the Ukrainian army is capable of breaking through. We really are not clear about that, just as it seems unlikely that Russia can do more than incrementally capture maybe the whole of the Donbas. But the people who say that Russia has to be completely defeated or even destroyed in, in order to save an independent Ukraine, they are, well, let us be kind and say deceiving themselves because that issue has been settled. Unless the United States sort of disappears from the world stage and all aid to Ukraine dries up.
We know by now that the Russian army is simply incapable of capturing Kiev and overthrowing the Ukrainian state, or even since the Russians withdrew from their only bridgehead west of the Dnieper River there, there’s no realistic way in which they can capture the Ukrainian Black Sea Coast either. So, most of Ukraine is now guaranteed its independence thanks to the victories that the Ukrainians won in the first weeks of the war. That was the decisive period. Everything else since then has been battles for limited amounts of territory in the east and south.
Do you see any outlines of a plausible peace deal? I know in this world that doesn’t necessarily mean that will people embrace it, but is there something that could plausibly be done to end this bloodletting?
If the West had an objective view of this war and was prepared to push a rational peace settlement, then yes. And the obvious way to base this in the longer run is a UN conducted process to do something which remarkably few observers are calling for or even noticing, which is for heaven’s sake to ask local people what they want to have referenda under international supervision, asking the population of the Donbas and Crimea which country they want to be in, and the other Russian-occupied territories as well. Now, of course, it would have to be conducted by the United Nations with full guarantees. But one’s assumption is that the areas that have traditionally identified with Russia and, which have, one must remember, been either bombarded or blockaded by Ukraine ever since 2014, would probably vote to stay with Russia.
And the areas that Russia has invaded and bombarded since last February would vote to return to Ukraine. I mean that is, as far as I can see, the only legitimate basis for a long-term solution. it would take a long time to get there, but we have precedents and mechanisms: United Nations peacekeeping forces, demilitarized zones, international supervision, and as I say, finally supervised referenda. Obviously, Russia would have to agree, but if Russia could actually get the legal transfer of the Donbas and Crimea, it could well be that that would be enough for Russia. But of course, the West would have to agree to put pressure on Ukraine to abandon limited amounts of territory, which at the moment, nobody is willing to do.
These weapons they’ve been sending, they’re not like rifles, which you can just pick up and shoot. They’re complicated, require a lot of training and maintenance. That means US forces will have to be on the ground. Isn’t that possibly quite dangerous?
Yes. And then we’ve heard in just in the past week the proposal to actually have US forces directly training Ukrainians. They’re described as scouts, but the line between a scout and a saboteur is a very thin one. And yes, the US is getting more and more stuck in on the ground, and we don’t know where that will lead because on one hand, if US troops are killed, that will be another cause of escalation on the American side. On the other hand, if these forces—as clearly many Ukrainians and very understandably, I have to say, would like to do—start extending their activities into Russia itself, then that will undoubtedly be another motive for Russia to escalate. So, you see, it’s not that we are going to suddenly go straight to nuclear war, but it’s so easy to draw a scenario in which one thing leads to another, leads to another, and then eventually we fall over the edge.
The forces of restraint on both sides seem to be missing.
Well, the Russians have, I think had a degree of restraint simply, as you might say, beaten into them. I don’t know a single Russian observer who I regard as sane, who thinks now in private that Russia can, can possibly capture Kiev. They recognize that most of Ukraine is lost, but that’s not hope with which Putin began the war. But military reality is military reality; if something is impossible, it’s impossible. So, I think the Russian regime, compared to its position a year ago, has reduced and modified its goals. It’s had to, but the question is what are our goals?
Do we know? is there an answer to that question?
The key problem is that the Biden administration has not formulated its key goals, and it hasn’t really linked them, at least not in a way that I find reassuring, to its military strategy in Ukraine. And meanwhile, of course, you have powerful forces in Washington and in parts of Europe, in Britain, and of course in Eastern Europe with their traditional hatred of Russia, who are pressing for total victory. So, the Biden administration does need to develop a clear line and stick to it.
But I guess there are just so many divisions within the US elite on this question that it’s hard to see how they’re going to come up with one.
Yes, and of course if there is going to be a ceasefire, let alone a peace settlement, then at some stage, unless we’re going to run a really serious risk of nuclear annihilation, it will be necessary to tell the Ukrainians to stop. And we’ve had indications, some fairly heavy hints, for example, from Gen. Milley saying just yesterday that Ukraine has already won great victories, which by implication is, “look, you don’t need much more than this.” But to actually come out publicly and tell the Ukrainians to stop would require considerable moral courage on the part of the Biden administration, given the attacks to which they would be subjected. And moral courage is not the chief distinguishing feature I would say of the Western political elites.
No, certainly not. So, China. Kirsten Gillibrand, the senator from New York, was on local radio the other day claiming that Xi Jinping wants a world war, has been planning for it for years, wants to defeat the US, and we have to start acting as if that’s the reality. What in God’s name is going on? It seems like people in senior positions in the US government really are looking to something like war with China.
I don’t think they exactly want war with China, but they are progressively trapping themselves in rhetoric, particularly about Taiwan and about the supposedly megalomanic and apocalyptic Chinese goals, which do risk bringing that about. This is the anniversary of George Kennan’s long telegram of 1946. I’m just reading a new biography of him, and it’s very striking how Kennan introduced the plan for the containment of the Soviet Union, but containing it within its then borders in Eastern Europe. And Kennan was horrified to find the way in which this was turned into a militarized and globalized struggle. And that is exactly what we see today. And of course, it then also becomes a bidding war within Washington, not just political party, against political party. But as with this latest comment, which has no basis in evidence, it becomes a bidding war between individual politicians to show who is tougher, who is more hawkish, who will give more money to the military.
There is a difference, of course, also that in the 1950s and 1960s, Soviet communism genuinely was still a dynamic ideology with great appeal in what we used to call the Third World. And there was a genuine competition between America and its allies and Soviet communism to see who would take over the collapsing British and French empires. Well, there, there is nothing like that in Chinese strategy today. China is not a revolutionary power. There is no sign whatsoever, and I mean no sign whatsoever, of China trying to bring about revolutions or even coups in other countries. Outside what America would call its own backyard in East Asia, China has in fact pursued an extremely cautious policy. China’s kept out of the Middle East. China is not developing military bases outside China. It has one. The US has what, 600? You are seeing the grotesque exaggeration of Chinese aggressiveness and ambition with really, I mean really, really strong parallels with the, the Cold War, but with much less justification. And of course, the results as we saw in the Cold War, some something that people have totally forgotten about it seems, is that if you portray the enemy in these apocalyptic terms, you end up deciding that there is a domino effect that America has to fight Chinese influence everywhere in the world, and eventually you stumble into something like Vietnam.
Behind all this, if I put on my Freudian cap here for a moment, it seems like people in Washington are having a hard time coping with the relative decline of the US, its political prestige and economic preeminence all eroding. China, like it or not is emerging as a really serious economic rival to the US. It no longer is the subordinate assembler of printed circuit boards but is now developing its own advanced technology. What do you see as underlying this outbreak of extreme hawkishness among so much of the US elite?
Well, I think it’s two things. It is that for a while, but when you think about it, it was very short while from about 1989 to when Iraq started going badly wrong in 2004, 2005, America genuinely was the global hegemon. And many people simply cannot bear to give that up. Because actually if you think about it, if you go back to 1988 or even after that, the United States behind its existing alliance systems—and that by the way now includes the new members of NATO in Eastern Europe—is enormously safe. There is no threat to the American homeland, except obviously from nuclear war. Russia has proved in Ukraine that it is simply not capable militarily of attacking NATO.
People talk about how China wants to drive America out of East Asia completely and replace America. That is simply not physically possible as long as Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines want America to be there. For China to, to drive America out of East Asia, China would have to eliminate the American and Japanese navies and invade Japan to shut down the American bases at in Okinawa and Yokosuka. That’s beyond fantasy. It’s beyond paranoia. It simply cannot be done, nor is that the slightest evidence that China has any plans to do this. This is all about Taiwan, basically. And that is a that is admittedly a very, very difficult question. But because the overall American position in East Asia is in no danger, that should be a strong incentive to America to basically try to do what after all it’s been doing for the past 40 years, which is kick the Taiwan issue down the road.
Now, admittedly, of course this means sharing influence with China in East Asia, but America cannot of course be the unilateral hegemon anymore. But, let’s remember China hasn’t been the leading power in East Asia for much more than the past 2,000 years. How long has America been the le leading power in East Asia? There is a degree of ahistoricism about this, which is terrifying.
The other thing I’d say is that it is clear that liberal democracy in our societies is in danger, but it’s in danger for domestic reasons. The growth of extremism and polarization both in America and in parts of Europe, and in my own country, Britain, the, the appalling decline of standards of governance and public honesty—these are all for internal reasons. Reasons that we’ve endlessly debated, but most of which we know very well.
They have nothing to do with some global alliance of autocracies. If people are voting for Trump, it is for very American reasons. If people in France are voting for Le Pen, it’s for French reasons. But of course many people—I suppose one has to say the liberal mainstream—have convinced themselves that there is this link. But also I fear many of them, whether deliberately or unconsciously, think that they can undermine their domestic enemies by accusing them of being Russian or Chinese agents. Well, there’s a word for that. It’s called McCarthyism.