Implausible Undeniability

As the front in Eastern Ukraine has pushed, again, to Mariupol, a number of commentators have called on the West to finally “stop pretending” that Russia isn’t really invading Ukraine.

That is, to be honest, a bit disingenuous. Western leaders have been calling the Russian spade a spade since at least August. Here’s Obama saying it, Cameron saying it, and Merkel saying it. Could they say it again? Sure. Could they say it louder? Why not. But here’s the real question: What difference would it make?

What the present situation makes clear is this: Morality and truth hold no force on the battlefield. No amount of evidence, no incessant rehearsal of the facts will turn the tide of this war.

The attack on Mariupol, in all likelihood, ensures that European sanctions will remain in place after March, when they are up for renewal. Washington may ramp up its own sanctions. And those sanctions will continue to be multiplied in force by depressed oil prices and pressure on the ruble. But that has not been and will not be enough to stop the carnage and restore Ukrainian sovereignty.

The West cannot and will not go to war against Russia until Russia crosses a NATO border. And Putin knows that, which is why he will not cross a NATO border: Russia is no more eager for a nuclear confrontation than the West is. But Ukraine is not a NATO border. And so Russian troops will push as far as Ukraine’s resistance will allow.

If the force of arms fails, and if the truth cannot be weaponized, what remains? The West is banking that its strength resides, for all intents and purposes, in its banks — that Russia’s isolation from Western capital markets will, in time, raise the cost of Russia’s Ukrainian acquisitions. If Western pressure remains consistent, then Russia indeed stands to lose much more from this conflict than it could ever gain: a generation of foregone development would be a very high price to pay.

The Kremlin is, of course, assuming that eventually, once the territory it wants is taken and the shooting stops, memories will fade and pressure will ease. It is an ahistorical assumption, however. While the efficacy of sanctions is debatable, the reality is that, once in place, they tend to be durable: 35 years and counting in the case of Iran, 54 years and counting in the case of Cuba (recent news notwithstanding), and 64 years in the case of North Korea. Moscow would do well to remember how long it took Washington to repeal Jackson-Vanik and normalize trade relations with Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union.

This will, of course, be small solace to the suffering people of Ukraine, but this much is also true: the truth that matters so little today will matter very much more tomorrow.

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