Magical thinking will not end the war in Ukraine, no matter how many times you click your heels.
The war in Ukraine has been raging for a considerable duration now – 500 days if you date it back to the full-scale Russian invasion of February 2022, or nearly a decade if you start with attacks on Crimea and the Donbas in 2014. Tens, if not hundreds of thousands, have been killed on the battlefields; civilian and solider, Russian and Ukrainian alike. Ukraine has been devastated economically, both by military attrition and deliberate, targeted Russian assaults on key civilian infrastructure. Genocidal massacres have been carried out by Russian forces, cementing names like Bucha in the historical record. Nations around the world have aided the Ukrainians in their brave resistance to Muscovite domination. Others have supported Russia’s revanchist claims. Suffice it to say, this war is as real as it gets.
Still, far too many distant observers of the conflict – politicians and commentators both – tend to engage with it on a purely fictionalized level. They do not conceive of the Russo-Ukrainian War as a real event impacting millions of lives every day, but as an abstract concept to be argued over on the internet. This abstraction from the ground level paints a flawed picture of reality and leads to magical thinking, an approach that is highly imaginative, yet entirely untethered from the realm of the possible or probable. This magical thinking is the antithesis of level-headed analysis and prompts the errors of bad strategy, foolish rhetoric, and visions of the war’s end that fail to take into account the realities of the conflict.
This magical thinking is not siloed to one side of the conflict, but infects the fringes among both pro- and anti-Ukraine partisans. The tendency to abstract is especially high in Western Europe and the United States, as we are geographically distant from the front lines, yet our involvement in the war has been high. Imaginations in the US run wild, especially when it comes to the potential endgame of the fighting. Realistically, this conflict will most likely end with some sort of nasty, morally-gray compromise. That end result will be affected by the amount, type, and rapidity of the military aid provided to Ukraine, but no Western involvement short of actual combat – a total non-starter across most of the NATO alliance – will lead to a total victory for Ukraine. In the same vein, it is essentially impossible for Russia to achieve its war aims of destroying Ukrainian sovereignty and incorporating the ‘Russian motherland’ into a neo-Tsarist imperium.
Wars rarely end neatly and tidily, wrapped up with a bow. Unfortunately, our historical memory seems myopically limited to the Second World War, which ended with a truly long-tail outcome: unconditional surrender on multiple fronts. This is historically aberrant, particularly since the dawn of the early modern period in the 1500s. As nation-states emerged, territorial polities became more stable and permanent, and international relations became more regularized, wars became more complex and outcomes more limited. Largely finished were the days when a rampaging conqueror would genocidally eliminate or enslave his opponent’s population, raze his cities, and salt the earth on which they stood. In that pre-modern era, wars generally ended when the loser was prostrate before the victor and his territory fully usurped by the dominant civilization. Unconditional surrender, despite the Allies allowing Germany and Japan to remain in existence, was far more similar to those earlier outcomes than it was the modern norm.
That norm would best be represented by World War II’s predecessor and the messy diplomacy and residual combat which characterized its denouement. World War I’s culmination involved several years of negotiations resulting in a web of sometimes-conflicting treaties, lots of smaller localized conflicts that persisted after the Parisian diplomacy concluded, and little in the way of deterrent impact – after all, there was another, even deadlier, global war which broke out less than two decades later. The Treaty of Versailles is taught in American schools, but this was but one of the many treaties which dealt with various theaters of the worldwide fracas. There was the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which was signed by the nascent Soviet Union to drop out of the fight with Germany; the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, which ended war with Austria and demolished the Habsburg Empire, creating new states like Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia; the Treaties of Trianon and Neuilly-sur-Seine, which made peace with and stripped lands from Hungary and Bulgaria, respectively; and the Treaties of Sèvres and Lausanne, making peace with Turkey first after the main war and then after its war of independence and subsequent conflict with Greece. Clearly, this was no simple conclusion.
This historical norm of messy terminations to wars, especially those among somewhat evenly-matched powers, is what we should expect from Ukraine, not the relatively cut-and-dried resolution of 1945. But the magical thinkers beg to differ. They see opportunities for clean exits around every corner – of course, these tend to neatly fit their ideological priors and rooting interests. Imagination, however, is no substitute for actual diplomacy. Most galling is the fact that these surrealists often couch their outlandish schemes in terms of ‘realism’ or claim theirs is the only ‘moral’ perspective. They have no true grasp on reality when it comes to Ukraine and Russia, nor do they hold a monopoly on morality. This magical thinking on both sides of the aisle is best understood via a few key examples.
On the more Ukraine skeptical side of things, we have two of the main Republican candidates for President, the leader of the pack and former president Donald Trump, and the man who one could call his echo, businessman and anti-woke crusader Vivek Ramaswamy.
Trump has no real foreign policy interest beyond appealing to his isolation-curious base and saying nice things about international leaders who suck up to him personally, regardless if they are geopolitical friend or foe. The former president has repeatedly claimed that he would end the war in “24 hours” if he were elected to lead the country in 2024, but until recently he had not been pressed on this absurd contention. To her credit – a broken clock is indeed right twice a day – Fox anchor Maria Bartiromo did ask him how he would pull off such a feat. The answer, as you may expect, was sorely lacking. Trump responded to Bartiromo’s inquiry with this word salad:
“I know Zelenskyy very well, and I know Putin very well, even better. And I had a good relationship, very good with both of them. I would tell Zelenskyy, no more. You got to make a deal. I would tell Putin, if you don’t make a deal, we’re going to give him a lot. We’re going to [give Ukraine] more than they ever got if we have to. I will have the deal done in one day. One day.”
Personal relationships with a carnival huckster, even one that happens to be the American president, are not enough to end a real-life war. Ukraine will not make a bad deal just because Trump tells them to. Similarly, Putin will not withdraw his forces from Ukrainian territory due to nebulous Trumpian threats of arming Ukraine – something we’re already doing (if at a slower pace than I would like). This is a child’s view of geopolitics. Donald Trump is fundamentally untrustworthy on foreign affairs because of this faulty, baby-like vision of how the world works; his magical thinking may win him the GOP nomination, but it will not bring peace between Moscow and Kyiv.
Ramaswamy, Trump’s competitor for the Republican nomination – if constantly playing the former president’s own tune amounts to competition – has an even more imaginative idea about his ability to end this war. Vivek’s plan amounts to his very own Nixon-to-China moment, with himself playing the roles of both Nixon and Kissinger. (He sure has a high opinion of himself, doesn’t he?) In this fantasy, he would give Putin 72 hours to agree to a deal which would see the US fully drop its support of Ukraine and assent to Russian territorial annexations of sovereign Ukrainian lands in exchange for Russia removing nuclear weapons from its European exclave of Kaliningrad, rejoining the New START nuclear arms treaty, and completely ceasing its ‘no-limits’ partnership with China. Besides the face that Ukraine would not sign on to such a deal – nor would many NATO allies like Poland and Baltic states – the asks of Putin are downright ridiculous.
There is no way in hell that Russia would ever de-nuclearize Kaliningrad, as that nuclear positioning provides a massive trump card for Moscow in its ability to constrain Eastern European defense policy. Rejoining New START would be a terrible idea, as it relies on Russia’s famously unreliable promise of compliance and limits the US without impacting China at all. And speaking of the Middle Kingdom, the biggest problem with Ramaswamy’s plan is the idea that Russia would cut off its military partnership with China solely because we gave them a free hand in Ukraine. This is magical thinking at its finest. We need to prioritize the Indo-Pacific, but this is without a doubt a terrible way to do that. Russia and China are profoundly linked at a strategic level, agreeing on their primary objective: the destruction of the American-led world order. We cannot aid Russia in that grand aim without betraying our own interests, so there is no hope for a partnership, or even a détente, with that goal firmly ensconced in the Russian mind. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?
But the Ukraine-skeptical right is not the only group that lives in Fantasyland when it comes to the war; pro-Ukraine liberals do their part as well. Three major veins of magical thinking characterize the pro-Ukraine partisans: the idea that Russia has already lost the war, the fantastical demands for territory and immediate NATO accession, and the idea that Putin should be aggressively sought for war crimes prosecution.
The false narrative that Russia has already lost the war or that it is doomed to an inevitable defeat tempts fate in the worst possible manner. This flawed talking point has been repeated by American politicians galore, including members of the Biden administration and the president himself. Don’t get me wrong, I fully believe that Ukraine will stymie Moscow’s expansionist war aims, but nothing is guaranteed. History is contingent; pretending like it is not leaves one open to serious mistakes or overconfidence. In fact, it is dangerous to the Ukrainian cause itself. As I mentioned earlier, this war will most likely end with a stalemate and a compromise ceasefire that pleases no one in particular. Given that reality, the type of weaponry and the speed at which we deliver it to Ukraine could make the difference between recapturing a key city or losing it for good. The more we assume that the war has been won, the less proactive we are in actually trying to win it. As Yogi Berra famously said, “It ain’t over til it’s over.” That malapropism applies just as much to geopolitics as it does baseball.
Another version of pro-Ukraine magical thinking comes with respect to the potential end results of this conflict and has been promoted by online commentators and some Ukrainian officials. I’ve written about this phenomenon before, but it bears mentioning again: outsized demands for territory and immediate NATO accession are counterproductive. On territorial claims, Ukraine seeks its 1991 borders, inclusive of the Donbas in the country’s east and the Crimean Peninsula seized by Russia in 2014. I firmly believe that Crimea is rightfully Ukrainian territory, but it is unlikely to be reunited with Kyiv anytime soon. It has been a de facto part of Russia for nearly a decade now, it is heavily linked to Russia ethnically and economically, and it will be near-impossible to seize without total devastation. All of those factors militate against Ukraine’s ability to enforce its rightful claims. In reality, Ukraine would do better to focus on recapturing the Donbas and consolidating its hold on the main portion of the country. That would be an achievable goal, both on the battlefield and in negotiations with Moscow.
With respect to NATO membership, that is a fine long-term goal, but it must wait until the conflict is resolved to proceed. Immediate accession to NATO would undermine the Article V mutual defense commitments of the existing member states, as none would be interested in going to war in Ukraine upon its accession. That failure to provide full-scale military assistance would weaken the deterrence factor which is the most important feature of Article V itself. Once deterrence is hamstrung, the door is left wide open for further provocations aimed directly at current NATO member states. This is a self-reinforcing feedback loop that could pave the way to a great power war on the European continent. Historically, those tend to be bloody affairs. Immediate NATO accession would also play into Putinist propaganda, which claims that NATO is fighting Russia in Ukraine right now. That present falsehood would morph into future fact if Ukraine were to join NATO and trigger Article V. Besides these pitfalls, instant Ukrainian NATO membership is a non-starter due to the necessity for consensus on new admissions. Magical thinking fails again.
Finally, we have the idea that Vladimir Putin should, at the conclusion of this conflict, be arrested and tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity at an international tribunal. This has been proffered sincerely by a wide variety of politicians and commentators, up to and including President Joe Biden. Biden had previously called for Putin’s deposition; a gaffe that was largely walked back a few days later. I believe, as do many Americans, that Vladimir Putin is a malignant force in international politics and, in an ideal world, that he would be removed from power. But the fantasy that he will be arrested, tried at the Hague, and imprisoned or executed – this is what calling him a war criminal means in reality – is utterly unrealistic. On top of that, repeating this sentiment will only serve to harden Putin’s resolve to prolong and escalate this conflict, hardly paving the way for peace. The Russian dictator often tells a story from his boyhood that opens a window into his mind: he cornered a rat in his family’s dingy Leningrad apartment, but the rat turned around and attacked him, scaring him off. In our circumstance, the rat is Putin; confronted by threats to his regime and his life, he will strike back with all the fury of a cornered rat. Pushing a war crimes prosecution of Putin will make the stakes existential for him, but this will not cause a climbdown. Indeed, if his rat story tells us anything, it will cause a drastic escalation. This would hardly be in our or Ukraine’s national interests. But it sure makes for a good bedtime story.
All of this goes to show that magical thinking will not get us out of this mess in Ukraine. Living in a fantasy world where all of your dreams come true may be appealing, but it is not feasible. Acting as though we do live in that dreamland will only ensure that it never comes to pass, as it distracts from the realistic options by which we can end this war, secure Ukrainian nationhood, and deter Moscow from future aggression. The war will not be ended in 24 hours by the personal charisma of Donald Trump; nor will the Sino-Russian alliance disappear because we gave Putin a good deal in Ukraine; nor has Ukraine already won the war; nor will Ukraine reclaim all of its territory and join NATO tomorrow; nor will Vladimir Putin end his life in the stocks. All of this is literally unbelievable.
This brings to mind a fantastical tale from history, that of the utopian socialist Charles Fourier. The Frenchman was one of the first proponents of this fanciful ideology, writing about the amazing changes that human society and the physical Earth would undergo once we adopted his favored thinking. For Fourier, socialism was the ultimate panacea, perfecting human nature and bringing “moderation” to the universe. In a famed passage from his seminal 1808 work Théorie des quatre mouvements et des destinées générales, he wrote of the utopia that socialism would create:
“…[its] influence, which among other benefits will change the taste of the sea and disperse or precipitate bituminous particles by spreading a boreal citric acid. In combination with salt, this liquid will give the sea a flavour of the kind of lemonade known as aigresel. It will thus be easy to remove the saline and citric particles from the water and render it drinkable, which will make it unnecessary for ships to be provisioned with barrels of water. This breaking down of sea water by the boreal liquid is a necessary preliminary to the development of new sea creatures, which will provide a host of amphibious servants to pull ships and help in fisheries, replacing the ghastly legions of sea-monsters which will be annihilated by the admixture of boreal fluid and the consequent changes in the sea’s structure. The sudden death of all of them will rid the Ocean of these vile creatures, images of the intensity of our passions which are represented by the bloodthirsty battles of so many monsters. Death will strike them all at the same moment, just as we shall see the hateful customs of civilized man, barbarians and savages disappear in an instant, to give way to the virtues which will be honoured triumphantly in the combined order because they will become the way to wealth and pleasure.”
Not only would socialism purify human civilization, ridding us of barbarity and evil, it would turn the ocean into literal, drinkable lemonade. Oh, and that would somehow also create new species of sea creatures which would help mankind in our endeavors. Of course, this magical thinking didn’t make any of this happen. (Don’t drink ocean water, kids!) In reality, utopian socialism didn’t turn the ocean to lemonade, but it did make the world’s rivers run red with the blood of those sacrificed to its false idol. Today’s magical thinkers would do well to learn Fourier’s lesson and live in the real world; otherwise, the costs for Ukraine and the US could be staggering.