I haven’t posted to this blog for a while due to an extraordinarily heavy travel schedule related to Liberalism and Its Discontents, but the book promotion phase is largely over now and the school year is done.
There are two big developments happening now that will affect global democracy in the future, the congressional January 6 Committee hearings and the ongoing war in Ukraine. The two are actually directly connected.
The revelations of the four hearings that have already been aired are astonishing, and it is extremely frustrating that they have had modest impact on public views up to now. To anyone paying the least attention, it is crystal clear that January 6 was not a spontaneous protest that somehow got out of hand. It was planned from the beginning by Donald Trump, who relied on the crackpot theory of John Eastman that the Vice President had the power to reject slates of electors sent to Congress by the states. Eastman seems to have known that his theory would not survive Supreme Court scrutiny and sought a preemptive pardon in case he was criminally charged with subverting the election. Trump put heavy pressure on Pence to send swing-state slates of electors back; when the latter refused, Trump seemed content to have the violent mob go after the Vice President directly despite pleas from his staff and family to call them off. Trump was told repeatedly that he lost the election by officials around him, beginning with his own attorney general and Justice Department, information that he rejected on the basis of no evidence. Since that fateful day, Trump has only increased the volume and intensity of his assertions that he won the election, and has convinced large numbers of his followers that the American system is highly corrupt.
As conservative former federal judge Michael Luttig testified, had Trump’s plan succeeded, it would have constituted “the first constitutional crisis since the founding of the Republic.” No other politician in American history that I am aware of has sought so brazenly to overturn a legitimate election; as Luttig concluded, Trump and his supporters constitute a “clear and present danger to American democracy.” Many mainstream Republican leaders like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy understood what Trump was trying to do, and yet have coalesced around support for the stolen election narrative that they know to be a lie. And the party is working hard today to put Trump-aligned people in power in the states to facilitate a similar move in the 2024 election. Given the unpopularity of Biden and the Democrats right now, it is entirely conceivable that Trump will be re-elected.
Now to Ukraine. In my last post on the subject, I voiced confidence that Ukraine would be able to push Russian forces out of areas that they had occupied after February 24 in the Donbas and in the south of the country, just as they did in the areas surrounding Kyiv and Kharkiv. This has obviously not happened; the Russians have followed a somewhat smarter strategy concentrating their forces on a small front and have apparently captured the last remaining city in the Luhansk oblast, Severodonetsk. Here, geographical conditions do not favor the Ukrainians as much as they did in the north, and the battle has shifted into a slow and grinding war of attrition.
The slowing of Ukrainian military momentum has predictably led to fractures in Western unity compared to the unity expressed in the early weeks of the war, with calls for negotiations coming from the New York Times to Henry Kissinger to the French, Germans, and Italians. This swing from initial pessimism to optimism and back to pessimism is unwarranted, however, as is the political conclusion that the Ukrainians now need to settle with Russia in order to prevent a long and bloody war of attrition. Anyone watching Russia’s behavior over the past two decades would realize that a settlement now would leave Russia presiding over yet another temporarily “frozen conflict” with even larger territorial gains than the ones achieved after 2014. The settlement would not begin to resolve the underlying conflict, which is Russia’s desire to extinguish Ukrainian nationhood; a settlement would last as long as it took Russia to rearm. Leaving Russia in control of Ukraine’s southeastern coastline would mean the economic strangulation of Ukraine over the coming years, and is in no way a sustainable outcome for Kyiv.
The assumption that a prolonged military stalemate is inevitable is wrong and should not be the basis for policy. Since beginning its offensive in the Donbas in early May, Russia has made only marginal territorial gains while continuing to suffer enormous losses. Right now, the Ukrainians are facing a straightforward problem: They are running out of ammunition for their Soviet-era artillery, due both to high expenditure rates and a concerted Russian campaign to prevent resupply from other sources. A great volume of new weapons has been promised, including U.S. HIMARS systems, but has been very slow to arrive. There are other Ukrainian deficiencies: Russian air defenses have gotten better and have been effective against Ukrainian drones and aircraft, which is why you’re not seeing so many strikes by Bayraktar TB2s on social media as earlier in the war. These systems as well as ground-based forward observers are critical for the targeting of long-range weapons. The Ukrainians will have to coordinate the suppression of these air defenses and the opening up of airspace over Russian forces as they learn to use and to resupply the newly arriving artillery systems.
Ukraine still has a big advantage in morale and manpower, which is Russia’s biggest weakness at this point. According to British Defense Intelligence, the Donetsk People’s Republic casualties have amounted to 55 percent of their entire force, more than 10,000 dead and wounded among their most experienced fighters. A number of Western sources have argued that Russia is nearing exhaustion of its own resources and will not be able to keep up the (slow) op tempo of recent days. The Ukrainians have been taking huge casualties as well—some 100 to 200 KIA per day, according to President Zelenskyy. But they have been able to mobilize a much larger proportion of their population than have the Russians. By late August we will know if they can use their new kit to push the Russians out of critical southern cities like Kherson.
These two developments, the exposure of Trump’s role in seeking to overturn the 2020 election, and the uncertain outcome of the war in Ukraine, are related. The Republicans are doing everything they can to put officials in place that would allow them to successfully overturn the popular vote in 2024 if it turned against them, allowing Donald Trump to return to the presidency. According to John Bolton and others, Trump had pledged to withdraw from NATO if he were elected to a second term. There is no indication that he has lessened his dislike for Ukraine or his infatuation with Vladimir Putin and Russia. For the extreme MAGA-types, Ukraine is responsible for spreading “woke ideology” and Putin is the defender of Christian values. The simplest path to a Russian victory in their war with Ukraine would be the return to power of Trump and his hardcore supporters, something that Russian TV talking heads are anticipating with glee.
Up to now, however, there has been relatively broad bipartisan support for Ukraine in Congress. But with every successive Ukrainian aid bill, the number of dissenting Republicans has increased. With the likely Republican takeover of the House of Representatives this November, some of Ukraine’s most vocal advocates on the Hill will lose power, and the consistency of U.S. support will weaken.
Time is thus of the essence. The Ukrainians need to turn the military momentum back in their favor quickly and the United States and NATO need to keep pumping in new weapons and ammunition with renewed urgency. This needs to happen before the fall elections, to break the trend toward growing pessimism that will peel away Republican support. I believe that it is entirely possible—indeed, likely—that the Ukrainians will be able to push the Russians out of those critical southern cities by late summer. It will be good for them, obviously, but also good for American politics to see a positive foreign policy outcome.
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