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Ukraine’s Allies Are Blundering Their Handling of 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 issues of war and peace. “Crazy States: A Counterconventional Strategic Problem,” written while he was working at the Rand Corp. and published in 1971, awakened the world to the imminent threat posed by fanatical third-world regimes.

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

For Dror, now in his mid-90s, realism has been largely missing from the West’s game plan surrounding the war in Ukraine. In a recent interview conducted via email, he discussed what he views as Ukraine’s missteps in its dealings 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 is facing a Melian Dilemma.

Chafets:  Which is?

Dror:  In short, that the strong win and the weak lose. Twenty-five hundred years ago, Athenian generals presented the leaders of Melos with an ultimatum. ‘Look the facts in the face and consider how you can save your city from destruction,’ they said. ‘The strong do what they have the power to do 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, as I recall, ended in the annihilation of Melos. I assume that is not what you think will happen to Ukraine?

Dror:  No. This war, like most wars, will end with no absolute winner. Both sides will lose. The question is which side loses more. Ukraine is fighting bravely. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has become a mass media hero. Western countries are condemning Russia and providing Kyiv with weapons and sanctions. But meanwhile, Ukraine is being partly devastated and depopulated. It is paying a very high price in blood and material, while Russia remains secure.

Chafets: The US and Europe view the war in Ukraine as a historical inflection point, in which maintaining post-World War II rules-based international order is at risk.

Dror: There is no “rules-based order,” only a partly coordinated international system. There can be no breakdown of what does not really exist. And, although it is not popular to say so, Ukraine is not blameless 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 regarded Putin “as an enemy.” In December 2021, he called for pre-emptive action against Russia. No one should have been surprised by the Russian invasion in February. Zelenskiy, who is an amateur at statecraft, was surprised and strategically blind.

Chafets:  US intelligence foresaw the invasion and said so...

Dror: Yes, but it is hard for the West to grasp the depth of Russian strategic sensitivity to what happens in Ukraine. Russia has been invaded twice from the west, first by Napoleon and then by Germany in World War II. The German invasion was not a Clausewitzian “political war,” but a war of total devastation, elimination and enslavement, with very high human and material costs for Russia. That is a major component of Russia’s collective memory and military doctrine today. It does not want Western forces or Western allies on its border.

Chafets:  The US and its allies do not appear to be moved by Russian fears, real or imagined. They frame the war as a battle between good and evil, democracy versus authoritarian dictatorship, progress against reaction. 

Dror:  This is delusional. There is no such thing as an inevitable “right side of history.” Not very long ago, rule by royal dynasties was regarded as the right side of history. And today, this idea is not universally held. For example, China, a highly relevant player in the world, does not share it. It has a very long political tradition and feelings of superiority that enable it to laugh off such prevailing Western notions.  

Chafets: Do you think Putin is also laughing?

Dror:  No. Putin may well be stressed. Emotional name-calling, such as branding him as a war criminal and calling for a regime change in Moscow, may be morally and ethically correct and honorable, but it is also form of strategic madness. Russia is, and will remain, an indispensable major partner in the global arena. Attempting to turn it into a pariah state and making Putin persona non grata is an approach that could, under mounting stress, become suicidal.

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

Dror:  First, I suggest to stop feeding misery in Ukraine by adding weapons to the fire, especially aggressive weapons. The war will very likely end with neither side completely satisfied. But Ukraine, as the weaker side, will be less satisfied.

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

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

Chafets:  Does Israel have a place in this diplomacy?

Dror:  Israel is in the American camp. It is dependent on the US and must accommodate its “suggestions.” But it also has an interest in not demolishing its relations with Russia. That is the pragmatic policy that Prime Minister [Naftali] Bennett and Foreign Minister [Yair] Lapid are currently following.

More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

Germans Are Waging a War of Open Letters Over Ukraine and Russia: Andreas Kluth

Russia Is Right: The U.S. Is Waging a Proxy War in Ukraine: Author

A Nuclear Strike Might Not Prompt the Reaction You Expect: Tyler Cowen

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board 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 managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.

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

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