NYT Board Fails to Understand the Russian War Against Ukraine. Here is Why

Tuesday, 24 May 2022 — Bohdan Bernatskyi, Erik Kucherenko, Oleksandr Kushch, Nick Yurlov
photo by the presidential office

Three months into the largest war in Europe since 1945, The New York Times Editorial Board published its Opinion "The War in Ukraine Is Getting Complicated, and America Isn’t Ready".

The Board argues that: 

1) Without clarity on U.S. aims and strategy the White House "jeopardizes long-term peace and security on the European continent";

2) "A decisive military victory for Ukraine over Russia, in which Ukraine regains all the territory Russia has seized since 2014, is not a realistic goal";

3) "Ukrainian leaders will have to make the painful territorial decisions" and "it is not appeasement".

The US has been one of the key leaders of the Western support campaign for Ukraine. Given its leading role as a cornerstone of the Euro-Atlantic Alliance, any potential US policy shift on Ukraine would greatly affect the capacity of the collective West to act, especially in view of some European states’ reluctance to sanction Russia and support Ukraine. It is for this reason that the NYT Editorial causes so much preoccupation and deserves thorough response. We hereby address the key messages of the NYT Editorial Board to dispel certain delusions about Russia and Ukraine.

Who threatens the peace in Europe?

We would like to start with rebutting the thesis that the US is a security threat in Europe. This statement, which mystically repeats the mantras of Russian propaganda, is fundamentally flawed. One of the reasons for such a belief could be a lack of understanding of the power and culture dynamics between Ukraine and Russia. Many Westerners, such as John Mearsheimer, wrongly believe that "the West is responsible" for the Russian aggression against Ukraine since the NATO expansion "provoked Russia". NYT, unfortunately, repeats it.

This view was rebuffed by Sir Adam Roberts: he explains how factors of the collapse of the empire (USSR), denuclearisation of Ukraine and the democratic "color" revolutions, not the US engagement in the region, contributed to the Russian aggression.

Another fact speaking against the NATO expansion factor is Russia's reaction to Sweden and Finland’s swift accession to the Alliance. Preventing NATO’s enlargement was one of Russia's main declared demands in the months preceding the invasion and the formal casus belli for war against Ukraine. But now that Russia is about to have its border with NATO expanded by 1,340 km, Vladimir Putin and the Russian MFA "see no problem" in it, despite earlier intimidating language

The "trouble over Ukraine'' did not start at NATO’s Bucharest summit in April 2008, as offensive realists believe.

Russia's first attempts to annex Crimea date back to 1994 when it supported Yuriy Meshkov, a leader of the separatist movement in Crimea and the Autonomus Republic’s only President (1994-1995). The attempt failed and the Crimean issue was (temporarily) settled in 1997 when Ukraine agreed to cede 81.7% of its Black Sea Fleet to Russia and allowed it to stay in Crimea until 2017. In return, the Black Sea Fleet treaties and the Russian–Ukrainian Friendship Treaty, signed within a few days and dubbed "The Big Treaty", provided that Russia is legally bound to "respect the sovereignty of Ukraine, honor its legislation and preclude interference in the internal affairs of Ukraine", "respect territorial integrity and reaffirm the inviolability of the borders".

However, just six years later, in 2003, Russia unsuccessfully attempts to annex Tusla Island. In November 2004, during the Orange Revolution, the Party of Regions led by Viktor Yanukovych (the very same Yanukovuch who will be ousted again in 2014) brought together 3,500 delegates from 17 eastern and southern Ukrainian regions with a declared aim of "establishment of a new federal state in the form of a south-eastern republic with its capital in Kharkiv" in case of success of the Revolution. The Mayor of Moscow Yuriy Luzhkov attended the meeting to demonstrate Russia’s support. 

Ukrainian politicians and security services prevented that secession attempt, so ten years later Russia prepared better. 

After 2004, the Russian secret services formed an extensive network of anti-Ukrainian organizations in the south-eastern regions controlled or even led by Russian agents.

When Yanukovych came to power in 2010, Russian agents infiltrated all major government institutions and sabotaged the state to soften it up. Dmytro Salamatin and Pavlo Lebedyev destroyed the Armed Forces of Ukraine as Ministers of Defense. Oleksandr Yakymenko (a Russian national!), as the Head of the Security Service of Ukraine allowed up to 30% of the intelligence personnel to become agents of Russian FSB and GRU. National Institute for Strategic Studies analyzes in detail how Russia prepared for conquest.

The Revolution of Dignity of 2014 was the perfect time to lauch it. After annexing Crimea, the Russians activated the separatist movements in all of the South and East of Ukraine.

A map showing the regions in which Russia organized secession movements *RSA - Regional State Administration
A map showing the regions in which Russia organized secession movements
*RSA - Regional State Administration

After years of sabotage, the security and defense system of Ukraine was not prepared to combat the long-planned operation. Yet unexpectedly for Russians, up to thirty-seven voluntary battalions were mobilized and crowdfunded to save the country from collapse. 

With the support of local elites, separatism was quelled  in Kharkiv, Dnipro, Odesa, Mykolaiv, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. However, Russia succeeded in Luhansk and Donetsk regions of Ukraine, launched a proxy war and proceeded to occupy territories in  these regions - initially by proxies and eventually with regular troops. See an extensive report by Global Rights Compliance for the legal and factual details.

So who is the threat to security in Europe?

Sure, Russian propaganda blames the US for attempting to push Ukraine from Russia, but it is no one other than Russia that has consistently alienated Ukraine by trying to subdue it: economically, culturally and now by military conquest and genocide. There is now sufficient evidence that Russia is committing genocide of Ukrainian people (we kindly ask you to sign and share the Call of Ukrainian lawyers to stop it. By suggesting that Ukrainian leaders should make painful territorial decisions, the NYT also suggests agreeing with the ongoing genocide of the Ukrainian people.

But why is Russia doing all this?

The Western analysts often overlook the principal motivation for Russia’s attempts to reconquer Ukraine – Russia has never accepted the existence of Ukraine in the first place. Kamil Galeev explains in great detail why most Russians believe that Ukraine is a fake nation with inferior culture and history. Putin’s revisionist article published in July 2021 as a prelude to the escalation, highlights Russia’s non-recognition policy of the Ukrainian nation through references to illusory "historical unity between Russia and Ukraine".

The Russian-Ukrainian war was inevitable.

And it will not end with peace, because Russia’s goal is complete subjugation and uniformity, depletion of Ukrainians’ national identity and suppression of any dissent. Even if that requires genocide. Any attempts to oppose this are considered hostile and "Nazi". That’s why the "painful territorial decisions" will not stop the war, just postpone it until Russia regains its breath for the final "solution of the Ukrainian question".

By conceding Ukraine, you concede global security 

Now let's look at what the suggested concessions will bring for the US, Europe and the world. 

NYT argues that further support of Ukrainian resistance may escalate the conflict. This statement does not seem to be well explained. We fail to see how the successes of Ukrainian Armed Forces supported by the West in pushing back Russians may set the war on an escalatory trajectory. The only theoretically possible escalation for Russia would be deploying weapons of mass destruction, which remains unlikely, according to nuclear experts. Dropping nukes or spraying gas will not provide any military advantage and will further deteriorate Russia's isolation.

Could Russia invade other countries?

Also extremely unlikely.

The vast majority (75% by the end of the first month and presumably even more now, after significant losses) of Russia's total military is committed to the war against Ukraine. It just doesn't have the capacity to wage a second war.

Furthermore, it is hard to see why making concessions to Russia will contribute to lasting peace. The West seems to repeat the same mistake it committed in 2008 when Ukraine and Georgia were not given Membership Action Plans at Bucharest summit. When next to nothing was done to counter the Russian aggression against Georgia. When half-hearted reaction to the illegal annexation of Crimea and occupation of certain regions of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, failure to impose and enforce sanctions (e.g. supplies of French thermal imagers and navigation systems for Russian tanks continued after 2014) allowed Russia to become what it is now - brazen, stubborn, paranoid, and assured of impunity.

After all those concessions, it is unreasonable to believe that making some more will bring peace.

Besides, what are those hard choices that could bring peace?

Let us assume Ukraine accepts these "hard choices" and freezes the situation leaving Russia to occupy what they control now. Would these concessions, despite being absurd and disruptive to the world security architecture, make Putin stop? 

We do not have a shred of doubt that it will be just a pause to heal Russia’s wounds and start a new wave of invasion to destroy Ukrainian sovereignty and continental security architecture in their entirety. Just as Russia returned to subdue Chechnia after the initial defeat, but now on a far larger scale.

What if in 1990, Kuwait was told to make "hard choices" and accept Iraq’s occupation? Would we be living in a better world today? Hardly so. Why doesn't the US tell Taiwan to make a "hard choice", but is willing to defend it?

The funds that the US spends supporting Ukraine should be considered as a long-term investment into global security. It will ensure security of NATO’s eastern flank by preventing potential Russian aggression towards Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland and cripple Russia’s capacity to engage in disruptive activities worldwide. Failure to make such investment now will eventually multiply the cost for the American taxpayers when faced with a direct threat to the US allies.

Ukraine is fully realistic about its prospects. We are making blood-curdling sacrifices and understand that the war might end without achievement of all our strategic objectives. But what we cannot accept is a deliberate relinquishment of a favorable opportunity to repel the aggressor, protect our people from genocide, and achieve lasting peace.

As Timothy Snyder, a world-renowned historian specializing in Eastern Europe, rightly noted, "it is senseless to shelter Putin from the sense that he is losing. He will figure that out for himself, and he will act to protect himself. [...] Ending the war means thinking more about the Ukrainian people and their future, and worrying less about problems that Putin does not in fact have."

His propaganda will find a way to explain to the Russians his retreat.

Colossus on the feet of clay 

But how realistic is it for Ukraine to actually win the war? 

Since 2014, Ukrainian Armed Forces have been trained by NATO instructors and participating in joint drills. The UAF's military experience is unprecedented on the continent, and morale is incredibly high. Ukrainian Armed Forces have already fully liberated Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy regions and launched a successful counterattack north of Kharkiv. By shrewd tactical moves, Ukraine is threatening Russian supply lines in the East. 

So far, Ukraine has liberated more than a half of the land captured in the course of the Russian aggression - even without massive supplies of heavy weaponry from the West.

As of 21 May, Ukraine has a 700.000-strong defense force, while Russian forces deployed in Ukraine, according to the US Department of Defense, amount to 105 operational BTGs in Ukraine - hardly more than 100.000 soldiers. Admittedly, they have significant amounts of artillery, they are gathering reserves and conducting clandestine mobilization, but even with the prospect of reinforcement, it is clear that the Russian invading force, with low morale and supply issues, can be pushed back by Ukrainians. As Russia’s advance has been stalled in Eastern Ukraine, the prospects of a major Ukrainian counter-blow are reachable as never before.

Ukrainian collapse is "ruled out", but a stalemate is entirely possible if the world stops supporting Ukraine. The success of Ukrainian counter-offensive very much depends on Western supplies - we need more M777 howitzers to substitute obsolete Soviet artillery, MLRS to strike deeper into the enemy lines and disrupt supplies, anti-air systems Patriot, F-16 aircraft and anti-ship missiles. The latter will be crucial for ensuring global food security since Russia is blocking the ports of Odesa and Mykolaiv in the Black Sea.

The crux of our argument is that Ukraine’s success will not depend on Ukraine’s capacity (it is significant) and Russian might (Ukrainian defenders showed the world that it is not as formidable as the NYT seems to believe). It lies squarely with the resolve of the West to support Ukraine and establish lasting peace instead of making humiliating concessions, thereby setting a time bomb for a new stage of aggression.

Now, as Ukraine is taking the strategic initiative in the war and Russia is increasingly on the defensive, it is even more baffling to see the NYT Board claim that "the war is getting complicated". 

Before 24 February, Western analysts had got Ukraine’s capacity to defend itself wrong. The West prophesied Ukraine three days before the Russian tanks would rumble into Kyiv. 

Now, three months into Ukraine’s brave resistance, you cannot afford to make yet another mistake.

Far-reaching implications of today’s decisions

As fierce battles are raging in Ukraine, their outcome will be in many ways decided by the US readiness to support Ukraine in its war against the Russian aggressor. 

The war which has already resulted in the massacres of civilians in Bucha, Irpin, Borodianka, Kharkiv, Mariupol and hundreds of other Ukrainians towns. The war that has debunked the myth of Putin’s invincibility. The war which has created the most opportune moment for the last 20 years to ensure lasting peace in Europe. 

After all the sacrifices, wasting this unique opportunity would open a Pandora’s box for dictators worldwide to start unprovoked aggressions, kill thousands of civilians and get away with all those atrocities.

Therefore, in our opinion, limiting aid to Ukraine and agreeing to concessions would be the worst geopolitical mistake of the US administration in decades. Both for the US and for the global security architecture.

By Bohdan Bernatskyi, Erik Kucherenko, Oleksandr Kushch and Nick Yurlov

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