The New York Times is reporting that the U.S. government is helping Ukrainians target and kill Russian generals, which the article itself acknowledges the administration has sought to keep secret “out of fear it will be seen as an escalation and provoke President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia into a wider war.”
With the exception of U.S. boots on the ground and enforcement of a no-fly zone, it’s almost like nothing is off the table these days. Or, as Julian E. Barnes, Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt explained:
The intelligence sharing is part of a stepped-up flow in U.S. assistance that includes heavier weapons and tens of billions in aid, demonstrating how quickly the early American restraints on support for Ukraine have shifted as the war enters a new stage that could play out over months.
There are a lot of fascinating details in this story, but one thing you won’t find is any questioning of whether this is a good idea. There’s not a single voice advocating any form of restraint. There’s no discussion of whether it’s worth possibly provoking Putin into a wider war. No dissenters are quoted. No dissent is even noted.
Also unmentioned is the Times’s rationale for publicizing a secret that could lead Putin to escalate. I totally support that decision, because I think the public needs to know about these things in order to debate them. I’m just surprised that the Times didn’t explain that — or recognize that there was a debate at all.
I wrote a piece about the failures of American press coverage of the war in Ukraine last week for Responsible Statecraft, the online magazine of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. In case you missed it, here it is:
The American media is failing us on Ukraine
As U.S. leaders speak more openly about their geopolitical goals, and Russian leaders warn of the risk of nuclear war, there are essential questions that journalists should be raising in their coverage of the war in Ukraine that they are not. Chief among them:
- Is escalating what has clearly emerged as a proxy war between the United States and Russia hastening an end to the war, or prolonging the carnage?
- And: What’s the best way to minimize the risk of a nuclear conflict?
Thus far, most American news coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has reflected an unquestioned conviction that the more weapons the United States and the West send the Ukrainians the better.
It may well be that continuing and accelerating the arming of the Ukrainian military is, in fact, the best of bad options, the quickest way to peace, and doesn’t increase the likelihood of a nuclear strike. But that’s a hypothesis, which should be questioned and discussed, not blindly embraced as fact.
And in the meantime, Ukraine is being destroyed. Civilians are dying, refugees are fleeing for their lives, untold damage is being done to Ukraine’s infrastructure, and young men in arms are killing each other.
It’s time now for journalists to talk and write about at what point the goal of punishing Russia could diverge from the goal of bringing peace to the Ukrainian people as expediently as possible — and what the West should do if and when that happens.
For instance: If there’s a way for Vladimir Putin to save face and end the war more quickly, would that be palatable to U.S. officials who are now committed to a weakened Russia, if not to regime change?
The New Republic’s Walter Shapiro has been one of the few media figures to raise some of these issues. “Even with enhanced weaponry… being sent to Ukraine by the United States and NATO allies, the only certainties are more death and destruction,” he wrote last week. He urged more attention to “the conundrum of whether America is willing to grant Putin any reward for his morally indefensible war and the war crimes that have gone with it.”
And we should be openly raising questions about how to make sure this conflict doesn’t go nuclear. Nothing’s more important than avoiding a nuclear war. And while succumbing to nuclear extortion feels very wrong, if the fate of the world is at stake, it’s only common sense.
There is, of course, plenty of precedent for the media failing to ask the right questions at a time of war. The reflexive commitment to the more-weapons view at our major news outlets is, unfortunately, reminiscent of their gullibility and culpability in the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
In several ways, the two events are not comparable. Just for starters, the American public is not being lied to this time, and there’s an enormous humanitarian imperative in Ukraine. This war also has a particular emotional resonance, especially now that Russian atrocities have been revealed in close-up. That, too, makes it easy for journalists to see it in moral absolutes. But justice for war crimes comes in an international court, not on the battlefield.
There’s no excuse for journalists to relinquish their skepticism — not to mention howl for war. For a while last month, White House reporters were repeatedly demanding to know why Biden didn’t want to enter the war directly. CBS’s Steven Portnoy asked Press Secretary Jen Psaki: “Why shouldn’t the image of the atrocities from Bucha compel a worldwide unified coalition kinetic response…a military response led by the United States and international partners?”
Meanwhile, network TV news is full of talking heads making the argument for more arms. But as Aditi Ramaswami and Andrew Perez observed in Jacobin, many of the “experts” have been “defense- officials-turned-consultants” whose current jobs — and clients — aren’t disclosed to viewers.
In an extraordinarily detailed and compelling New York Times article by Steven Erlanger, Eric Schmitt and Julian E. Barnes about how “the race is on” to arm Ukraine, the only real question examined in the piece was whether it is fast enough.
By contrast, the media is consistently refusing to amplify the voices of restraint, even though time and again we have learned that when it comes to the U.S. war machine, “doing something” can turn out worse than doing nothing.
If those who support yet more weaponry being sent to Ukraine are so sure they’re right, they should welcome debate rather than ignore it. And they shouldn’t demonize those who are realists about the cruelty of great-power politics.
CNN ran a powerful opinion essay by Jeffrey Sachs on its website last week, but hasn’t had him on camera. His conclusion:
All of Biden’s tough talk — about Putin leaving power, genocide and war crimes — will not save Ukraine. The best chance to save Ukraine is through negotiations that bring the world onside. By prioritizing peace instead of NATO enlargement, the US would rally the support of much more of the world and thereby help to bring peace to Ukraine and security and stability for the entire world.
Another unquestioned conviction in the media coverage has been that economic sanctions against Russia are good, and more sanctions are better. But what’s the precedent? Sachs wrote:
<blockquote”>[E]ven as sanctions cause economic distress in Russia, they are unlikely to change Russian politics or policies in any decisive way. Think of the harsh sanctions the US has imposed on Venezuela, Iran and North Korea. Yes, they’ve weakened these economies, but they’ve not changed the politics or policies of these countries in the ways the US government has sought.
U.S. government officials have made a persuasive case that weapons and sanctions are punishing Russia. But they haven’t been sufficiently pressed to explain why they think this is the fastest path to peace.
In fact, it’s becoming clearer that they have other things on their mind. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told CNN’s Jim Sciutto on Tuesday that the entire “global international security order” put in place after World War II is at stake if Russia gets away “cost-free” following its invasion of Ukraine.
“We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Monday. And while Washington Post reporters Missy Ryan and Annabelle Timsit described that simply as “a sharpening of rhetoric,” David E. Sanger wrote for the New York Times that Austin “was acknowledging a transformation of the conflict, from a battle over control of Ukraine to one that pits Washington more directly against Moscow.”
Mr. Austin and others in the Biden administration are becoming more explicit about the future they see: years of continuous contest for power and influence with Moscow that in some ways resembles what President John F. Kennedy termed the ‘“long twilight struggle” of the Cold War.
Sanger’s piece was also a call to arms for his fellow journalists to start worrying about the nuclear risk. He wrote that government officials considered Putin’s use of “battlefield” nuclear weapons “barely conceivable eight weeks ago,” but are regularly discussing it now.
The one thing we know for sure is that, eventually, there has to be some kind of peace treaty. But the mainstream media has paid little attention to the on-again off-again peace talks — or to what an eventual peace deal could look like.
“Tell me how this ends,” Gen. David Petraeus famously asked Washington Post reporter Rick Atkinson, a few months into the nearly nine-year Iraq War.
Anatol Lieven wrote for Responsible Statecraft that if “what is meant by victory is Ukrainian reconquest — with Western help — of all the areas lost to Russia and Russian-backed separatists since 2014, then this is a recipe for perpetual war, and monstrous losses and suffering for Ukrainians.”
And, he noted: “A U.S. strategy of using the war in Ukraine to weaken Russia is also of course completely incompatible with the search for a ceasefire and even a provisional peace settlement.”
Reporters should be demanding of U.S. officials how they see the war ending. Do they anticipate the Russians being driven out of Ukraine entirely? Partly? What end game best serves Ukraine, and spares the most Ukrainian lives?