Ukraine’s allies blunder in their dealings with Putin

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If Israel has a senior global strategist, he is Yehezkel Dror. As a professor at the Hebrew University, he has educated generations of Israeli leaders. Six prime ministers have consulted him on war and peace. “Crazy States: A Counterconventional Strategic Problem,” written while at the Rand Corp. worked and was published in 1971, aroused the world to the imminent threat of fanatical third world regimes.

Israelis sometimes refer to Dror as Israeli Henry Kissinger. Both fled the Nazis as boys. They share German as a first language, Harvard doctorates, and a highly developed and often highly controversial brand of foreign policy realism.

For Dror, now in his mid-nineties, realism was largely lacking in the West’s game plan surrounding the war in Ukraine. In a recent email interview, he discussed what he considers Ukraine’s missteps in its relations with Russia and why he believes the US and its allies have been “delusional” in their approach to the war. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Zev Chafets: Western governments seem increasingly convinced that Ukraine has a fighting chance to win this war. Is that how you see it?

Yehezkel Dror: No. I think President Zelenskiy faces a Melian dilemma.

Dror: In short, that the strong wins and the weak loses. Twenty-five hundred years ago, Athenian generals issued an ultimatum to the leaders of Melos. “Look at the facts and think about how you can save your city from destruction,” they said. “The strong do what they can and the weak accept what they have to accept.” The Melians felt they had the high moral ground and the support of a strong ally, Sparta. So they refused to give in.

Chafets: That decision, if I recall correctly, ended in the destruction of Melos. I take it that’s not what you think will happen to Ukraine?

Dr.: No. This war, like most wars, will end with no absolute winner. Both sides will lose. The question is which side loses more. Ukraine fights bravely. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has become a mass media hero. Western countries condemn Russia and provide Kiev with weapons and sanctions. But meanwhile, Ukraine is partially destroyed and depopulated. It pays a very high price in blood and material while keeping Russia safe.

Chafets: The US and Europe view the war in Ukraine as a historic turning point, jeopardizing the maintenance of the rules-based international order after World War II.

Dror: There is no “rules-based order”, but a partially coordinated international system. There can be no breakdown of what does not really exist. And while it’s not popular to say that, Ukraine is not flawless in this conflict. President Zelenskiy failed to understand that the desire to join NATO posed what President Vladimir Putin saw as a serious strategic threat to Russia. In April 2019, Zelenskiy said he viewed Putin “as an enemy”. In December 2021, he called for preventive action against Russia. No one should have been surprised by the Russian invasion in February. Zelenskiy, an amateur in statesmanship, was surprised and strategically blind.

Chafets: US intelligence foresaw the invasion and said…

Dror: Yes, but it is difficult for the West to grasp the depth of Russia’s strategic sensitivity to what is happening in Ukraine. Russia has been invaded from the west twice, first by Napoleon and then by Germany in World War II. The German invasion was not a Clausewitzian ‘political war’, but a war of utter destruction, elimination and enslavement, with a very high human and material cost to Russia. That is an important part of Russia’s collective memory and military doctrine today. It does not want Western troops or Western allies on its border.

Chafets: The US and its allies don’t seem to be moved by Russian fears, real or imagined. They describe the war as a struggle between good and evil, democracy versus authoritarian dictatorship, progress versus reaction.

Dror: This is a delusion. There is no such thing as an inevitable ‘right side of history’. Not so long ago, rule by royal dynasties was considered the good side of history. And today this idea is not widely accepted. For example, China, a very relevant player in the world, does not share it. It has a very long political tradition and sense of superiority that makes it possible to laugh at such prevailing Western views.

Chafets: Do you think Putin laughs too?

Dr.: No. Putin may be stressed. Emotional abuse, such as branding him as a war criminal and calling for regime change in Moscow, can be morally and ethically correct and honorable, but it is also a form of strategic insanity. Russia is and remains an indispensable important partner in the global arena. Attempting to make it a pariah state and make Putin persona non grata is an approach that can become suicidal under increasing stress.

Chafets: What do you propose then, surrender by Ukraine and its western allies to Russian demands?

Dror: First, I propose to stop feeding misery in Ukraine by throwing weapons on the fire, especially aggressive weapons. The war will most likely end if neither side is completely satisfied. But Ukraine, if the weaker side, will be less satisfied.

Chafets: They seem far from a settlement. Can someone be imposed?

Dror: They need help. I suggest that the US, China, the EU and India meet in a neutral location such as Singapore. If they can reach an agreement, they can then push it on Putin and Zelenskiy.

Chafets: Does Israel have a place in this diplomacy?

Dror: Israel is in the American camp. It relies on the US and has to comply with its ‘suggestions’. But it also has an interest in not severing its relations with Russia. That is the pragmatic policy that Prime Minister [Naftali] Bennett and Secretary of State [Yair] Lapid is currently following.

More from other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

Germans are waging a war of open letters on Ukraine and Russia: Andreas Kluth

Russia is right: US is waging a proxy war in Ukraine: author

A nuclear attack may not provoke the reaction you expect: Tyler Cowen

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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