Historian Timothy Snyder asks Americans all the right questions about Ukraine

Politico is reporting that the Biden administration is “quietly” reformulating its “strategy” with regard to Ukraine, apparently in light of the fact that increased American aid to the embattled nation is now “in serious jeopardy” due to congressional Republicans.

As reported by Michael Hirsh:

With U.S. and European aid to Ukraine now in serious jeopardy, the Biden administration and European officials are quietly shifting their focus from supporting Ukraine’s goal of total victory over Russia to improving its position in an eventual negotiation to end the war, according to a Biden administration official and a European diplomat based in Washington. Such a negotiation would likely mean giving up parts of Ukraine to Russia.

The White House and Pentagon publicly insist there is no official change in administration policy — that they still support Ukraine’s aim of forcing Russia’s military completely out of the country. But along with the Ukrainians themselves, U.S. and European officials are now discussing the redeployment of Kyiv’s forces away from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s mostly failed counteroffensive into a stronger defensive position against Russian forces in the east, according to the administration official and the European diplomat, and confirmed by a senior administration official. This effort has also involved bolstering air defense systems and building fortifications, razor wire obstructions and anti-tank obstacles and ditches along Ukraine’s northern border with Belarus, these officials say. In addition, the Biden administration is focused on rapidly resurrecting Ukraine’s own defense industry to supply the desperately needed weaponry the U.S. Congress is balking at replacing.

Of course, we are not privy to what an unnamed “Biden administration official” said or did not say to Politico, but if the report is accurate, it appears to indeed represent a “change in administration policy,” whether official or unofficial. Likewise, we don’t know the content of what “Ukrainians” are allegedly “discussing” with “U.S. and European officials,” or who those officials are. Nor do we know why Hirsh would be selected as the conduit for this information, whether providing him this information is part of a broader strategy by the administration, or whether Hirsh’s source in the Biden administration reflects a dissenting or contrarian opinion within the administration itself. 

Hirsh continues:

The administration official told POLITICO Magazine this week that much of this strategic shift to defense is aimed at shoring up Ukraine’s position in any future negotiation. “That’s been our theory of the case throughout — the only way this war ends ultimately is through negotiation,” said the official, a White House spokesperson who was given anonymity because they are not authorized to speak on the record. “We want Ukraine to have the strongest hand possible when that comes.” The spokesperson emphasized, however, that no talks are planned yet, and that Ukrainian forces are still on the offensive in places and continue to kill and wound thousands of Russian troops. “We want them to be in a stronger position to hold their territory. It’s not that we’re discouraging them from launching any new offensive,” the spokesperson added.

Hirsh’s article notably delves somewhat unduly into the political ramifications for President Joe Biden of continued support for Ukraine, and it appears to premise the alleged “shift” in strategy to forestalling the “political peril” facing Biden should Russian troops make advances in the coming election year. I find it somewhat difficult to accept that the administration’s policy would turn on such premises. Hirsh also focuses a great deal on Donald Trump, correctly noting Trump’s obvious affinity for Putin but also referencing Trump’s supposedly “surging” poll numbers, which also seems to be an unusually alarmist take. 

The accuracy or inaccuracy of the information contained in Hirsh’s article notwithstanding (I frankly hope for a vigorous denial from the administration), it is significant that the article makes multiple mentions of the impact of the Republican intransigence on aid to Ukraine. 

Accordingly, this seems to be an appropriate time to recall the sentiments of historian and Yale professor Timothy Snyder regarding the conflict. On Nov. 9 of this year, Snyder authored a rhetorical masterpiece for the Kyiv Post, titled “Would You Sell Them Out?”

In his essay, Snyder provides us with fulsome perspective of what has occurred over the past 22 months. Snyder ends nearly every paragraph with a rhetorical question whose answer is—or should be—should be self-evident.

Snyder begins with an obvious point: Ukraine’s heroic stand against Russia has been the starkest, most visible effort in support of democracy that the world has seen in a long, long time.

As Snyder observes:

Americans have an alliance in North America and Europe which has existed for more than seventy years, with the goal of preventing an attack from the Soviet Union and then from Russia.  Imagine that, when the Russian attack came, the hammer fell on a country excluded from that alliance.  Ukraine indeed took the entire brunt of the invasion, resisted, and turned the tide: a task assigned to countries whose economies, taken together, are two hundred fifty times larger than Ukraine’s.  In so doing, Ukraine destroyed so much Russian equipment that a Russian attack on NATO became highly improbable.  With the blood of tens of thousands of its soldiers, Ukrainians defended every member of that alliance, making it far less likely that Americans would have to go to war in Europe.  Would you sell them out?  

He then brings up an important consideration that has received markedly little attention in the U.S. media: The deterrent impact that Ukraine’s resistance is having on China’s designs toward invading Taiwan.

For this whole century, American politicians and strategists of all political orientations have agreed that the greatest threat for a global war comes from China.  The scenario for this dreadful conflict, in which hundreds of thousands of American soldiers could fight and die, is a Chinese offensive against Taiwan.  And now imagine that this can defused at no cost and with no risk.  The offensive operation the Chinese leadership is watching right now is that of Russia against Ukraine.  Ukrainian resistance has demonstrated how difficult a Chinese offensive operation in the Pacific would be.  The best China policy is a good Ukraine policy.  Will we toss away the tremendous and unanticipated geopolitical gain that has been handed to us by Ukraine?  There is nothing that we could have done on our own to so effectively deter China as what the Ukrainians are doing, and what the Ukrainians are doing is in no way hostile towards China.  Ukrainians are keeping us safe in this as in other ways. Would you sell them out?

Snyder also emphasizes that in the eyes of the world, the United States is seen as the greatest (if not the sole) guarantor—morally, militarily, and economically—for democratic societies, and that premising elimination of aid to Ukraine on the hollow excuse of cost (when American lives are not even at risk) would wholly “demonstrate enormous weakness,” thus completely obliterating our standing with other free nations.

Next—and most significantly, in light of the Politico article—Snyder points out that while Ukraine’s path to victory is on the battlefield, “Putin has a theory of victory that involves votes in the US Congress,” and clearly “thinks that he has a better chance in the Capitol than he has in Kyiv.” Snyder rhetorically asks whether our intention is to prove Putin correct.

Snyder also brings up the practical matter of Ukraine’s status as supplier of much of the region’s food, and the dependency of the U.N. World Food program on Ukraine. He details the extent of Russia’s murderous, genocidal tactics in this war and rhetorically asks whether Americans would be willing to countenance the genocidal occupation of Ukraine that Russia would surely pursue in its victory.

And he addresses (as politely as possible) the oft-repeated assertion that Americans have become “fatigued” with the war, pointing out that he’s been in Ukraine three times since the war began and has seen almost no Americans, let alone any “fatigued” ones. He rhetorically asks how Americans could be “fatigued” by a war that they aren’t even fighting? And he points out that providing money to a worthy cause—which is all that Americans are essentially being asked to do—is hardly “fatiguing.”

As Snyder writes:

If we stop supporting Ukraine, then everything gets worse, all of a sudden, and no one will be talking about “fatigue” because we will all be talking about disaster: across all of these dimensions: food supply, war crimes, international instability, expanding war, collapsing democracies. Everything that the Ukrainians are doing for us can be reversed if we give up. Why would lawmakers even contemplate doing so?

If you happened to know lots of Ukrainians, as I do, you would know people who have been wounded or who have been killed.  You would know people who get through their days with dark circles around their eyes, because everyone has dark circles around their eyes.  You would know people who have lost someone, because everyone has lost someone.  You would know people who are grieving and yet who are nevertheless doing what they can do.  You would not know anyone in Ukraine who believes that fatigue is a reason to give up.  Would you sell such people out?

Snyder has a knack for writing the right thing at the right time: His slim, pithy treatise “On Tyranny” is now regarded as a classic assessment of how ordinary people can resist authoritarianism and dictatorship. His Nov. 9 essay for the Kyiv Post is another, once again delivered at an opportune and critical moment. Snyder is taking to task every story that Americans have told themselves and the rest of the world for decades, asking very plainly whether Americans will pay Ukraine the attention it deserves, or whether they’ll be foolish and short-sighted enough to abandon it.

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