Andrius Kubilius. Russia’s war against Ukraine: what would F.D.Roosevelt and Winston Churchill say about the West’s aims in this war?

2023-08-17 | Russia, EU relations with Russia

Andrius Kubilius, former PM, MEP, initiator of  the “United for Ukraine” network

(The Lithuanian version of the article was published on 17.08.2023)

I wrote earlier that the West still does not see Russia’s war against Ukraine as “its war”, as “our war”. Support is being given to Ukraine, but the new-quality weapons are only reaching Ukraine after a long period of hesitation by the West, after fears about how Putin will see it, after strange connections between its own actions – German Chancellor Scholz has promised to start supplying German long-range Taurus missiles only if US President Biden agrees to start supplying ATACMS missiles. For his part, Biden finally announced, after much hesitation, that the US will start training Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16 fighter jets and they will become real pilots, but only in July 2024. This is apparently a good thing, but at the same time it is reported that only 6 Ukrainian pilots have been accepted for such training. Six. When maybe 60 or 100 are needed.

Why is Western support so lukewarm, slow and delayed?

I am convinced that it is because the West has not clearly, unequivocally and publicly defined its own objective in this war.

Ukraine’s objectives are clear enough: to defend its freedom, to liberate its occupied territories and to do everything possible to ensure that Russia does not dare to attack Ukraine again in future.

The West’s objectives may be the same as Ukraine’s, they may be greater than Ukraine’s (pursuing not only military but also geopolitical objectives: the geopolitical transformation of the eastern region of Europe (including Russia and Belarus) towards democracy, thus eliminating the very source of the threat), but they may also be lesser than Ukraine’s objectives, the West’s primary concern being that Russia, if it is defeated, should not be totally weakened and engulfed in complete, allegedly very dangerous chaos.

Unfortunately, so far, the West has avoided defining its own independent objectives in this war and has limited itself to nice-sounding but very lukewarm phrases: that the West will be with Ukraine for “as long as it takes”; that only Ukraine will decide when peace is possible; but always remembering to emphasise that NATO (i.e. the West) is not a part of this war (“we are not part of this conflict”). And for general reassurance, the beautiful (but empty) diplomatic formulation is repeated – “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine itself”.

It would seem that the West is demonstrating its full solidarity and loyalty to Ukraine with such formulations. As long as it takes… You might think that this loyalty declared by the West may be too unambitious, too slow and sometimes not effective enough, but it is still there, and it sounds nice.

But just sounding nice is not enough. The impression is that the West itself does not dare to say for itself what it wants in this war: it does not dare to say that it wants, and will want, Ukraine to liberate all its territory and Russia to lose this war. The West is supposedly subordinating its own objectives in this war to those of Ukraine, and this looks very much like solidarity. However, it also sounds like an effort by the West to preserve for itself the possibility of exerting covert or overt pressure on Ukraine to lower its objectives in this war and, for example, to stop seeking the liberation of its entire territory. Because such a liberation would be very painful for Putin. And the West is afraid of the consequences for Russia. Therefore, by not formulating its own objectives in this war, the West is leaving itself open to pressure Ukraine to rethink its objectives in this war. It is also possible to start putting conditions on the supply of arms. And when Ukraine, under pressure from the West, is forced to reduce its objectives in this war, the West will be ready to publicly and loudly support Ukraine, because the West is always with Ukraine whatever it takes.

One could disregard the possibility of such scenarios, being confident that it would never happen. However, seeing how difficult it is for Ukraine to regain control of its territories, and following the international media and the deliberations of Western experts, it is possible to predict that a new wave of pressure on Ukraine to “make peace and start negotiations” will start in the autumn. Because the war is supposedly unwinnable for Ukraine. And it can be predicted that this new wave of “peace” will involve not only the traditional “peace on any terms” harbingers – Africa, China, Brazil – but also a part of the West.

The greatest danger in this possible “peace (on Putin’s terms)” scenario, which is unacceptable neither to Ukraine nor to us, is that part of the official and unofficial Washington may be actively involved in all of this (and already seems to be).

The well-known Russian opposition expert A.Piontkovsky has recently been convincingly written about such scenarios of the Washington’s possible involvement in the “peace wave” (here and here). A.Piontkovsky is himself currently living in Washington and is closely following Washington’s official and unofficial actions these days and its plans for such actions. Piontkovsky examines in detail the activities of the “Not-defeated Russia” group, to which Piontkovsky attributes W.Burns (former US Ambassador to Russia, now Director of the CIA, recently promoted to the level of Cabinet Member, who is in regular contact with Russian Intelligence Chief Sergei Naryshkin), J.Sullivan (J.Biden’s National Security Adviser), T.Graham (former Special Adviser to President Obama and Director of Russian Affairs at the National Security Council in 2004-2007).

One would think that these are just fabrications and conspiracy theories by Mr. Piontkovsky, a well-known Putin critic. However, what makes one take Piontkovsky’s observations and warnings seriously is the fact that Piontkovsky is not so much giving his own thoughts as he is retelling and commenting on a recent detailed review published in the Newsweek magazine on the CIA’s (and Burns’ own) activities in the Ukrainian war, both now and before the war. Reading the text of the article and the numerous testimonies and analyses quoted from the CIA itself, one gets the impression that the CIA itself had a vested interest in the appearance of such a text.

The most interesting thing in the publication itself is the testimony of a CIA official about Burns’ visit to Moscow in November 2021 (before the Russian invasion of Ukraine), where he met with Naryshkin and had a phone conversation with V.Putin. They talked about Putin’s threats of war against Ukraine. And it turns out that both sides agreed on how that war should be conducted and what both sides would do and what they would do. Here is Newsweek’s account of the visit and the talks:

“In some ironic ways though, the meeting was highly successful,” says the second senior intelligence official, who was briefed on it. Even though Russia invaded, the two countries were able to accept tried and true rules of the road. The United States would not fight directly nor seek regime change, the Biden administration pledged. Russia would limit its assault to Ukraine and act in accordance with unstated but well-understood guidelines for secret operations.”

The position of the US administration and the CIA as set out in this Newsweek article is summarised even more clearly in the publication on the Italian website. This article summarises the content of the Newsweek article in the following passage:

“In January 2022, a month before the Russian invasion, the CIA would have acted as an intermediary between Washington and Moscow to establish a series of shared “rules”: during an already known visit to the Kremlin by the director of the agency, William Burns, Russia pledged not to extend the conflict beyond the borders of Ukraine and to avoid the use of atomic weapons; in return, President Joe Biden’s administration would ensure that Kiev would “would not take any action that could directly threaten Russia or the survival of the Russian state”. Based on the agreements between Washington and Moscow, it would be up to the United States to ensure compliance with these commitments.”

Such agreements between Washington and Moscow on the course of the future war against Ukraine sound strange, to say the least. It seems that Putin has managed to extract from Washington almost a tacit “blessing” for his aggressive war, on condition that the Kremlin abides by certain limitations in this war. And Washington has additionally committed itself to abide by the restrictions as well. And also to influence Ukraine: what it can and cannot do in this war.

In the Munich Agreement of 30 September 1938, Hitler (together with Mussolini) also undertook to take from Czechoslovakia only the German-populated Sudetenland and to guarantee the security of the new borders of Czechoslovakia (without the Sudetenland), while the West (Chamberlain and Daladier) not only blessed Hitler’s action, but also pledged to convince the Czechoslovakian leadership to not resist the implementation of such an agreement of the “Great Ones”. The Czechoslovak leadership had no choice but to accept such an agreement and the security guarantees of all the participants in the agreement for its new borders. As is well known, Hitler had already occupied the entire territory of Czechoslovakia in March 1939.

I do not want to use the same clichéd comparisons with the Munich Agreement to talk about the West again, but they are a comparison that naturally come to one’s mind. The conclusion is that it is not only hopeless but also morally very slippery to negotiate with an aggressor about the need to limit its military aggression in some way, because the aggressor thereby creates the impression that its actions are blessed by the “great” democrats in the West.

Today, the fundamental question is: why, after all, does the West succumb to the seemingly hopelessly naïve temptation to negotiate with the aggressor on the mutual rules to be observed in such aggression?

Newsweek quotes a US intelligence official as saying that the US simply fears that Russia might escalate its war effort if it sees that US support for Ukraine goes well beyond the limits previously discussed with Russia:

“Don’t underestimate the Biden administration’s priority to keep Americans out of harm’s way and reassure Russia that it doesn’t need to escalate,” the senior intelligence officer says.”

Another reason for this cautious US stance can be explained by what has emerged from expert publications on informal conversations this year between former Obama officials, now in high-level expert positions, and the Kremlin’s leadership, including Lavrov himself. According to NBC, these conversations with Lavrov included Richard Haass, a former diplomat and outgoing chairman of the renowned expert Council on Foreign Relations, as well as Charles Kupchan, a European expert, and Thomas Graham, a Russia expert, both former White House and State Department officials (under Obama), and now associates of the same expert Council on Foreign Relations. All three are also known as important US opinion-makers, influencing the Biden administration, often writing about the war, about Ukraine, Russia and US objectives in this war.

What they discussed with Lavrov is best summed up in the words of one of them, quoted by The Moscow Times:

“An attempt to isolate and cripple Russia to the point of humiliation or collapse would make negotiating almost impossible — we are already seeing this in the reticence from Moscow officials,” he said.

“In fact, we emphasized that the U.S. needs, and will continue to need, a strong enough Russia to create stability along its periphery. The U.S. wants a Russia with strategic autonomy in order for the U.S. to advance diplomatic opportunities in Central Asia. We in the U.S. have to recognize that total victory in Europe could harm our interests in other areas of the world.

“Russian power,” he concluded, “is not necessarily a bad thing.”

Thus, at least part of Washington’s influential political community simply does not want a Russian military smashing because it would hamper the much sought-after “peace” talks. And peace talks, they believe, are necessary because they are the only way to preserve Russian power. Because Washington supposedly needs such power too. This is how the West’s objective in this war is understood by those in Washington who are influential and whom Mr Piontkovsky aptly called the “Not-defeated Russia” group.

There are, of course, those in Washington who think differently. And they have a major influence on both President Biden’s administration and public opinion. They support Ukraine’s victory and Russia’s defeat unconditionally and are not afraid of the supposed threat of such a Russian defeat.

However, ambiguities in the official position of the United States remain quite numerous. Far too many to be able to take it calmly and fold one’s arms and just hope that, in the end, America will still do the wise thing. Despite the fact that elections are approaching. While the United States is simultaneously claiming that it supports Ukraine’s victory (whatever it takes), and at the same time is foolishly worrying about how to make Russia feel that it has not lost the war, we are all left in the dangerous limbo of the “Washington fog”.

It is worth remembering that at the NATO Vilnius Summit, the US was the main and almost the only participant who was categorically opposed to the Summit formally inviting Ukraine to join NATO. No clear reasons were given. Everyone else did not dare to oppose this US position. The consequence of this uncertainty in Washington’s thinking is that these days a senior NATO official (the head of the NATO Secretary-General’s cabinet) has already announced that Ukraine could expect to become a NATO member if it were to abandon its ambition to liberate all the occupied territories and leave them at Russia’s disposal. I have been in politics long enough to no longer believe in the coincidence of such phrases being uttered by such high-ranking officials. This is usually an informal but deliberate way of probing and trying to influence public opinion. The Ukrainians have reacted very harshly to such talk. We do not know how NATO members, including Lithuania, are reacting to such statements by a NATO official.

That is what is most frightening. The fog in Washington’s thinking can suck in everyone, including Ukraine’s strongest supporters in the West, including Lithuania. And that is because no one in the West has so far dared to ask a clear question: what is the ultimate goal of the West in this war? Declarations of solidarity with Ukraine are no longer enough: you cannot simultaneously declare that you support Ukraine’s victory and be afraid to say that you will seek a clear defeat for Russia.

This ambiguity in the Western thinking is becoming dangerous not only for Ukraine but for the West as a whole. Because the West must be concerned not only about how the war can be brought to a speedy conclusion with a Ukrainian victory, but also about what a post-war peace on the European continent will look like. Putin who does not lose the war will remain the greatest threat to the security of the entire European continent. “The Munich Peace” lasted only 6 months. How long the “Putin peace” would last is anyone’s guess.

The failure of the Munich “peace agreement” was a good lesson for the Western political leaders of the time. The conclusions eventually drawn by the leaders of the war against Hitler (US President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Churchill) after Munich could be a good example for the present-day Western leaders.

It is worth remembering that in January 1943, at the Casablanca Conference, Roosevelt and Churchill, having invited the leader of the undefeated France, General de Gaulle, to assist them (in the absence of Stalin), adopted a declaration in which they defined clearly and unequivocally the purpose of their participation in the war against Hitler. The stated objective left no ambiguity: the members of the Alliance would seek Hitler’s unconditional surrender; there would be no separatist negotiations with Hitler; and there would be no negotiations with Hitler “for peace and a ceasefire” – only Hitler’s unconditional surrender was the objective of the war and the definition of victory.

The Allies were united in this position until the end of the war.

Why they did so was made very clear in Casablanca by Roosevelt himself: the only way to ensure a lasting sustainable peace after the war was to pursue a policy of unconditional surrender, while the ceasefire negotiations would only bring about a temporary cessation of hostilities (but would not guarantee a lasting peace after the war). An unconditional surrender clause would encourage both the German military and the wider German public to start to reject the war. If the Alliance members succeeded in weakening the foundations of support for Hitler within Germany, thereby weakening the motivation and morale of the army itself, it would only be a matter of time before Hitler was finally crushed. President Roosevelt stressed in Casablanca that the West’s objective of Hitler’s unconditional surrender was not at all about smashing German society, but only about smashing the prevailing Nazi philosophy in Germany, the thinking that is based on the conquest of other nations and the subjugation of others (one can read about it here and here).

History has shown that the clear war objectives of Roosevelt and Churchill – only the unconditional surrender of Hitler – have proved to be completely correct. It allowed the birth of a new Germany after the war, which said goodbye to the Nazi philosophy that had been crushed in the war. A lasting peace was thus established in the western part of the European continent. Germany, for a long time the greatest threat to European security, was reborn as a stable democracy after the unconditional surrender of Germany, becoming the locomotive for the peaceful unification of Western Europe.

I could confidently expect that, in response to the rhetorical question posed in the title of the text, how Roosevelt and Churchill would today formulate the West’s objective in the Ukrainian war against Russian aggression, their answer would be as unambiguous as it was in Casablanca: the unconditional defeat of Russia. For only in this way can the criminal “Novorossiya” philosophy that still prevails in Russia be crushed, and this is what is needed for lasting peace on the European continent.

Putin’s war against Ukraine is, of course, different from the World War II that Hitler had caused. Although the difference is not very great – the only significant difference is that Hitler did not have nuclear weapons, whereas Putin does. And also the fact that the West is not going to occupy Russia, whereas Germany was occupied.

However, these differences only add to the need for the West to clearly define its objective in this war today. It is clear that the only way for the West to remain consistent, not only in its concern for Ukraine, but also in its concern for a post-war, lasting peace on the European continent, is for it to repeat the words spoken in Casablanca today: The West’s goal in this war is the unconditional defeat of Russia, through the liberation of all the occupied territories of Ukraine. Russia can withdraw from these territories itself, or they will be liberated with the help of Taurus and ATACMS missiles and F-16 fighter jets. Such a definition of the West’s objective in this war would be a first step towards a much broader Western strategy of how a fundamental geopolitical transformation can be achieved in the East of Europe (Russia and Belarus), returning these countries to the path of democracy. Because everything in such a reconstruction starts with a Ukrainian victory. And, at the same time, it starts with the unconditional defeat of the current Russia.

Such a Western position does not require the miraculous resurrection of either Roosevelt or Churchill. The US presidential election campaign is a good opportunity for one of the candidates to make this point loudly, and therefore to win the full support of all Ukraine’s friends, both in the world at large and among American voters, in Chicago, California or New York, and everywhere else where Lithuania once had unequivocal support for the recognition of its Independence.

Russia and the Kremlin will, as always, try to participate in the US presidential elections and will pin a lot of hopes on the possible outcome of the elections. Lithuania and the whole of Central Europe can remain mere observers and “sofa commentators” in these elections, or we can set ourselves the goal of working together with the US electorate to ensure that Russia loses the US Presidential election unconditionally.

To do this, we must not be afraid to state loudly and boldly that the West’s goal in this war must be Russia’s unconditional defeat; we must be able to mobilise Western sympathisers who share this view; and we must not be afraid to appeal to the US electorate, whether it be in New Hampshire, in Santa Monica or Arizona. And everywhere else.

After all, this is our war too, and Russia must lose it unconditionally! What we need from the US is not just ATACMS and F-16s, but a clear statement of the West’s purpose in this war. America is certainly capable of repeating what Roosevelt and Churchill once did.