Why James Kirchick Is Wrong About the War in Ukraine

James Kirchick’s essay How the Anti-war Camp Went Intellectually Bankrupt in The Atlantic is a defense of U.S. involvement in the war in Ukraine. The essay mostly consists of name-calling and ridicule of cherry-picked arguments made by antiwar commentators from the left (e.g., Noam Chomsky), from the right (e.g., Ron Paul), and from what he calls the realist center (e.g., The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft).

Kirchick resorts to name-calling and sarcasm because he fails to address many of the strong arguments made by peace groups calling for a negotiated peace in Ukraine.

In particular, Kirchick doesn’t discuss the many ways in which NATO expansion was unnecessarily aggressive and was opposed by many senior US diplomats.

Kirchick also doesn’t acknowledge how US military planners were quite aware that their actions in Ukraine and other Eastern European countries were a direct threat to Russia’s security and would provoke a military response from Russia. See, in particular, the 2019 RAND Corporation study Overextending and Unbalancing Russia, which says “Providing lethal aid to Ukraine would exploit Russia’s greatest point of external vulnerability. But any increase in US military arms and advice to Ukraine would need to be carefully calibrated to increase the costs to Russia of sustaining its existing commitment without provoking a much wider conflict in which Russia, by reason of proximity, would have significant advantages.” The highlighted words show that the authors knew that US actions would provoke war.

Kirchick doesn’t acknowledge US support for the 2014 coup in Ukraine or the presence of neo-Nazi forces in Ukraine (e.g., the Azov Batallion) and their anti-Russian violence.

For a point-by-point rebuttal to Kirchick’s essay, see here. For a concise summary of US provocations see my Playing Russian Roulette in Ukraine With Rep. Adam Smith in the Seattle Emerald. For a detailed accounting of US provocations, and documentation about Nazi activities, see How the US Provoked Russia in Ukraine: A Compendium.

In short, the US is far from innocent in Ukraine – echoing Thomas Friedman’s opinion piece This Is Putin’s War. But America and NATO Aren’t Innocent Bystanders in the NY Times – and, hence, the US needs to show more restraint in a crisis that could lead to nuclear war.

Another reason to end the war is that it is doing substantial damage to the economies of Europe and the US The sanctions against Russia are failing; Russian oil exports have increased in value since the start of the invasion, and now OPEC has agreed to restrict production, further raising oil prices and risking Democrats’ reelection chances in November. See Patrick Cockburn’s How the West’s Sanctions on Russia Boomeranged.

Even Henry Kissinger and former Admiral and Joint Chief of Staff chair Mike Mullen are calling for a negotiated end to the war in Ukraine.

To be clear, I do not claim that U.S. provocations justify Russia’s invasion – which was criminal, brutal, and stupid. But the US bears substantial responsibility and should work hard to de-escalate the crisis. Instead the US is intent on weakening and humiliating Russia, even at the risk of causing a nuclear holocaust. Both sides are wrong in this crisis.

Kirchick has been called a neoconservative by Ben Norton in Salon, by Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine, by Glenn Greenwald in The Intercept, and, indeed, by himself. So it’s no surprise he would defend this war.

Read the point-by-point rebuttal of Kirchick’s article.

Donald A. Smith is a writer, a peace activist working with CodePink, a Democratic Precinct Committee Officer, the editor of http://waliberals.org, and the creator of https://progressivememes.or. He lives in Bellevue, Washington and has a PhD in Computer Science.

17 thoughts on “Why James Kirchick Is Wrong About the War in Ukraine”

  1. James Kirchick is wrong about the war in Ukraine and should be charged with yellow journalism but of course won’t. Yellow journalism is what makes the press thrive. It’s the media’s job to inform you. They sometimes misinform you.

  2. Sorry, but anyone who claims knowledge of this conflict who fails to account for the last 30 years of US involvement in moving NATO to the Russian border is full of it up to their ears.
    Anyone exposed to the constant stream of US invasions, proxy wars, coups, interventions, and the like, who ignores this history while making judgments about the present conflict, is an idiot.

  3. “To be clear, I do not claim that U.S. provocations justify Russia’s invasion – which was criminal, brutal, and stupid.”

    I keep seeing that seemingly required disclaimer, but no one who says that has, as far as I know, ever said what Russia should have done instead that they didn’t try to do. How much more provocation do you think Russia should have put up with? What else should they have done to try to stop the provocations?

    Speaking of provocations, my understanding is that cease-fire violations were increasing daily and almost exponentially in the Donbass region, almost entirely by ukrainian forces in the days leading up to Russia’s invasion. It is widely believed that ukranian forces were building up for an overwhelming assault on the ethnic Russians living in eastern Europe. What if Russia’s invasion prevented that assault and saved many lives? Would the invasion still be considered “criminal, brutal and stupid”?

    1. I hear you, but I condemn military aggression in (almost) all cases. I agree that the U.S. and NATO were evil and devious in how they baited Putin, knowing very well that they were forcing him into a war. Unfortunately, Putin fell into the trap and may get eaten alive. In the process we may all be killed in a nuclear war.

      The neocons who run U.S. foreign policy sure are evil bastards. But the provocations still doesn’t justify what Putin did. Our main problem now is to educate the public about what really happened in Ukraine. Even if I thought Putin’s invasion was justified, it would be stupid to say so because people would think I’m a nutcase.

      I know that this issue divides the peace movement. There are three groups within the peace movement: (1) those who condemn the Russian invasion while supporting NATO’s arming of Ukraine. (2) those who condemn the Russian invasion while also condemning NATO provocations. (3) those who condemn NATO provocations and exonerate Putin, saying he was acting in self-defense. People in group (1) don’t count much as peace activists, in my opinion. Like World Beyond War and Code Pink, I’m in group (2). You, Dark, seem to be in group (3).

        1. What could Putin have done? Appeal more to the UN and to international groups…. But you are correct that the US has demonized Putin for so long so that people wouldn’t believe him. As I say, the necons are evil bastards.

          The first step to getting to what you want is to educate people about how evil the provocations were. Then maybe SOME people will agree with you that Putin’s invasion was justified. Many people are against war on principle and will disagree even knowing about the provocations. Nonviolent resistance is better, even if people have to die (Gandhi, MLK).

        2. Well, that depends on what he wanted to accomplish.

          Ukraine becoming a member of NATO was only an issue because he wanted it to be. Otherwise, he’d have sent Sergei Lavrov to one of the more Russia-friendly NATO members regimes (Hungary, perhaps) with a basket full of goodies and an envelope full of threats and the regime in question would have passed a resolution declaring that its policy would be to veto any proposal to admit Ukraine. “Problem” solved.

          The US did its best to bait him into this war. And unless you think he’s an idiot, it follows that he recognized that and had his own reasons for taking the bait.

          1. Putin is not stupid. This war is about revanchism. A desperate attempt to reverse 45 years of declining Russian power since the USSR invaded Afghanistan. Since he was a teenager Putin worshiped power. He practiced and refined the ruthless use of power to achieve his ends. Like other double alpha males political and military leaders, Putin is blind to the possibility of defeat by a weaker opponent. On paper Ukraine was no match for the Russian military. And despite his intelligence, Putin is an arrogant Russian chauvinist who does not believe that Ukrainians have a national identity. He also has no appreciation of how 700 years of oppression shaped Ukrainian views of Russia.

          2. I agree that Putin is not stupid, which is why I doubt that he entertains any delusions of reversing the Russian empire’s decline in his lifetime.

            The best he could have hoped for — if the Ukraine invasion hadn’t turned into a fiasco — was to slow that decline down.

            Some significant American politicians really do seem to fantasize that the decline of the US empire can be reversed, or even that it’s not happening at all.

            Many people think that the new rising empire is China, but I’m skeptical of that belief. It looks to me like the current Chinese empire is, if not in decline, at or near its peak.

          3. “It looks to me like the current Chinese empire is, if not in decline, at or near its peak.”

            I guess what you are saying is that all empires are at or near a decline. Wouldn’t it be nice if that were a indicator that the future may be empire-free.

          4. Yes, that would be nice. But I doubt that it’s going to work out that way.

            Empires are always in the process of rising and falling. Sometimes one is far enough along in its rise to exploit the decline of others, sometimes there seems to be a period when none of them are really getting anywhere.

            At the moment, the conventional wisdom seems to be that China is well-positioned to be the beneficiary of the declines of the US/NATO/EU and Russia empires. And that conventional wisdom may be correct.

            But if someone told me I had to bet $100 on what “the Chinese empire” will look like at the end of the 21st century, I’d bet that the Chinese Communist Party will no longer be in power, that Taiwan will still be independent, that rising Muslim powers in central Asia will be pouring fuel into a continuing insurgency in Xianjiang, that Tibet will no longer be occupied, that Hong Kong will only just be beginning to crawl back toward “world financial center” status after the CCP regime continues cratering it until that regime’s collapse, and that India will be at least close to becoming a peer economic and military power.

    2. “Would the invasion still be considered ‘criminal, brutal and stupid’?”

      Whether or not a Russian invasion saves any lives at all is beside the point, although you would be hard pressed historically to show anytime war resulted in fewer deaths than otherwise. The point is, moral action is not a numbers game, in other words it is not a net number on a tally sheet, its positive or negative characteristic determining whether or not the action is moral. The problem with war is that the political leaders are essentially explicitly choosing which innocent people live and which ones die, and no human being has that right, that is properly God’s province. It would be difficult to morally justify any military action which resulted in the death of even one innocent person who otherwise would not have died.

      I don’t expect you to simply agree with me on this, particularly if your basic world view is utilitarian, and certainly not if it is nihilist. But I am coming from a position where I see that there are some moral absolutes, even though these are few and very narrowly defined.

      1. dark eevee, could you possibly offer a reasoned argument in a reply instead of simply down-voting me? I would really like to hear why you considered my comment to be so wrongheaded it deserved a down-vote.

  4. the entire competing industrialised militarised Powers dynamic for profit is psychopathy institutionalised.

    Refusal to state that is intellectually and emotionally blind.

    It’s easy enough to understand the motivations on all sides of a war.

    Examine the propaganda, examine the literature and video of all the leading players on all sides, look at the history and the continuum of war as a tool of foreign policy, and then look at where the budget is going and who is becoming richer. It’s all there.

    it’s just banal stupidity to take ANY side other than that of the civilians caught in the cross fire.

    But when people suggest that, given that all wars end in negotiation, why not protect the civilians, and skip the wars? We are labelled as weak, as apologists, as utopian nutters, as traitors…

    I’m effing bored with it all – where are the thinkers?

    Yet my boredom is nothing compared to the suffering of ordinary folk caught in the cross fire, and the terror and horror of the conscripted mired in gore.

    When will someone with a voice speak the to the core of this dynamic?

  5. Any future study of the war is going to see NATO expansion as one of the underlying causes. You have to be an imbecile not to see it. I guess when I read about people like Kirchik I have to give thanks to my high school history teachers, particularly Western Civ where we always got the causes and effects of events questions on our test essays. I know he eventually got into Yale but he obviously lacked a sound grade school education.

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