Niall Ferguson on the Ukrainian War, By Richard Miller (London)

Leading historian Niall Ferguson in his interview with UnHerd's Freddie Sayers, discussed a number of topics centred around the theme of populism and its discontents, and the geo-political instability of the world. One topic covered was the Ukraine war. Once more Ferguson takes a slight departure from the conventional academic line here: "So this is the critical problem, any of the kind of options that have been discussed to date seem likely to leave Russia in control of at least some parts of Ukraine that it didn't control prior to February 2022. Parts of the Donbas that it didn't control and possibly parts, uh, of the, of the Black Sea coast, the so-called land bridge to Crimea. Now, I don't think there's any, uh, viable Ukrainian government that could accept that, so I don't think any peace treaty is in the offing. As in the Korean case, you end up with an armistice, the fighting stops, and you have this, uh, border that is not really stable or accepted, but could very well become, uh, for a long period of time, the functional border, uh, between Russia con- Russian controlled Ukraine and independent Ukraine. That's a plausible outcome."

The idea is that a negotiation would involve allowing the Ukraine to maintain enough territory to be a successful economic unit, much like South Korea situation. This could be forced upon them by the US under Trump cutting weapons to them, and on the other hand threatens Russia, if it refuses to compromise, that a massive turnover of weapons to the Ukraine will be given if no peace deal is made. This does seem better than endless war, but it will require the election of Trump; Democrats are not going to go for this compromise and want to battle it out to the bitter, nuclear, end.

Freddie Sayers: Many of the so-called populist right parties in Europe are a little bit more skeptical about the NATO/Western-led efforts to resist the invasion in Ukraine. On the basis, I suppose, that a lotta people are dying and not a lot, not a lotta progress seems to be being made. You take a very different view on that. You, you, you d- as I understand it, you'd be critical of those right-wing parties' hesitation and feel, like, the effort needs to be strengthened if anything. Is that fair?

Niall Ferguson: I think first of all, when you look at any people, any of the parties on the so-called far-right, the first question to ask is, "How much money have you received from Russian sources in the past 10 years?" And if the answer's none, then we can assume that there's a good faith debate going on, but it's not gonna be none in every case 'cause the Russians have thrown money at populist parties on the right, uh, over the last decade. And not without some success in influencing the direction of travel. Second question-

Freddie Sayers: You're thinking of Le Pen?

Niall Ferguson: There was-

Freddie Sayers: You're thinking the RN in particular?

Niall Ferguson: ... certainly, there was certainly Le Pen, uh, Putin connections. But there's been money, uh, going into the Eastern-Central European, uh, populist, uh, parties too. So this is a-

Freddie Sayers: Is that not-

Niall Ferguson: ... this is a bit-

Freddie Sayers: Are we not getting a bit conspiracist there?

Niall Ferguson: No. No, I don't think that-

Freddie Sayers: Even if it's factually true that-

Niall Ferguson: Well, a fact-

Freddie Sayers: ... that, that... But if it's-

Niall Ferguson: If it's factually true, it's not conspiracy, is it?

Freddie Sayers: ... if it's factually true that Le Pen's party was borrowing money from Russian banks because she was being frozen out of Western banks, uh, is that proof that she's a Putin puppet or are we-

Niall Ferguson: Follow the money is a good journalistic rule, as you know, Freddie. And I just say, if you're gonna have a debate about Ukraine, first can we be clear that this is a good-faith debate? 'Cause it isn't in every case. Uh, secondly, what exactly do you think would happen if Russia achieved its objectives? Which, uh, were at the very least, to render Ukraine non-viable as an independent, uh, democracy. I mean, annexation was, I think, uh, the most ambitious of Putin's war aims, but I think he would consider it a victory if Ukraine, uh, was, uh, sufficiently broken that it couldn't really function as an independent democracy. Now, how good would that be for the rest of Europe? You don't need to go, uh, very far to get an answer to that question, just go across the border from Ukraine to Poland or go to any of the Baltic States and say, "How would that be for you guys?" And the view there is, it would be disastrous. Uh, because it was-

Freddie Sayers: You mean, if he was allowed to continue or allowed to-

Niall Ferguson: If Ukraine fails-

Freddie Sayers: Or if, if the conflict was frozen in its current form? What are we be, what are we talking about?

Niall Ferguson: Well, I, I think the term f- So this is the critical problem, any of the kind of options that have been discussed to date seem likely to leave Russia in control of at least some parts of Ukraine that it didn't control prior to February 2022. Parts of the Donbas that it didn't control and possibly parts, uh, of the, of the Black Sea coast, the so-called land bridge to Crimea. Now, I don't think there's any, uh, viable Ukrainian government that could accept that, so I don't think any peace treaty is in the offing. As in the Korean case, you end up with an armistice, the fighting stops, and you have this, uh, border that is not really stable or accepted, but could very well become, uh, for a long period of time, the functional border, uh, between Russia con- Russian controlled Ukraine and independent Ukraine. That's a plausible outcome.

Freddie Sayers: And is that bad if it's a... if it stops people dying and there's-

Niall Ferguson: It's only bad, Freddie, if it leaves a rump Ukraine that is not economically viable. And that, that has a lot to do with how much territory the Russians remain in control of. Now, the problem with the suspension of US aid that began late last year and continued into this year, but has now, uh, stopped is that in that period Russia began to make territorial gains again. And the further west Russia goes the less viable Ukraine is, the harder it becomes to imagine successful economic reconstruction of Ukraine and, and a stable Ukraine. Uh, so a lot depends on where you actually stop the fighting, where the armistice, uh, f- uh, froze, uh, the Russians in, in control. Now, I think from an Eastern or Central European perspective, if Ukraine's left a South Vietnam, i.e. it's only a matter of time before it's gone, as opposed to South Korea, uh, in which case it has a viable and possibly very successful economic future, that makes a huge difference.

Freddie Sayers: So you would support a freezing of the conflict and an accepting of an armistice, if not a full treaty, as long as... What? There was access to the sea from-

Niall Ferguson: That's vital.

Freddie Sayers: ... Ukrainian, uh-

Niall Ferguson: That's vital.

Freddie Sayers: ... point of view.

Niall Ferguson: It's very [inaudible 00:38:59], it's very, very important that Russia not be in control of so much territory that it le- it renders Ukraine not viable. That's especially important on the, the Black Sea coast. But it's, uh, also quite important that they not be too close to Kharkiv, for example. So it's a very difficult-

Freddie Sayers: So roughly where they are now, perhaps?

Niall Ferguson: Uh, it'd be better if they were further east. But we are where we are and I think to be pragmatic, it's hard to imagine the fighting continuing, uh, for much more than another year because the costs on both sides are just unsustainable. The critical thing missing at the moment is a perception on the Russian side that they just are gonna have to keep on fighting and incurring costs. As long as they think, "Victory for Donald Trump in November makes the aid to Ukraine end, we get to win," they'll keep fighting. If Trump wins and signals, "No, no, no, we're gonna keep supporting Ukraine," which by the way Trump has said recently in an interesting, uh, change of direction, then I think the Russians will have to settle. Uh, so I think inevitably the intensity of fighting has to diminish and if it's anything like the Korean War, uh, it's sorta year three that both sides decide "enough." It's just a question of where the line is drawn at that point and what security guarantees Ukraine can then get. Because it's pointless from a Ukrainian point of view, to have an armistice if it just gives the Russians and chance to have a breather and then resume the reconquest of Ukraine subsequently.

So there's a huge amount that is very difficult. We know how difficult this is because back in May of 2022 when it was clear that the Russians had failed to take Kyiv, they did start negotiating. As we know what kinda the issues are, it's really, really hard, but I think exhaustion will-

Freddie Sayers: Boris Johnson got involved.

Niall Ferguson: He did. It's not clear how constructively. I think he encouraged... It's, uh, it's argued that he encouraged Zelenskyy to play hardball when there was some kind of a deal on the table.

Freddie Sayers: What you've said is actually not so far from some of these, uh, populist parties that are accused of basically being Putin apologists. And that's what I object to. It's now accepted that it's a fantasy that the west are gonna push Russia out of Crimea and the Donbas and return to pre-2014 borders. Even though that is officially the position of all the western powers, as I understand it. So there needs to be a sort of a- adjustment to reality. And if you want that and if you accept what you were saying earlier about the relative weaknesses of the Western powers, it just seems sensible to adjust reality and expectations closer together.

Niall Ferguson: But we must be clear who we're putting pressure on. It's not Ukraine. The pressure has to be on Russia to force them to negotiate in earnest. And that, that's where I differ from a lot of the more skeptical voices in, in the west and particularly in the United States. It was very, very bad that the House Republicans interrupted the aid to Ukraine. It created a huge opportunity for Putin to strengthen Russia's position and it exposed the Ukrainian forces to the nightmare of being in a d- defensive positions without enough ammunition. If the Russians think, "Ah, there's never gonna be any Western resolve here, it's only a matter of time before right-wing governments come in and pull the plug on Zelenskyy," then there's no way there's gonna be a negotiation. The pressure has to be on Russia and the only way you put pressure on Russia is you d- arm Ukraine, you actually need to give Ukraine more arms. They need to start being able to inflict real costs on the Russians so that the Russians realize, "You know what? Actually, we're gonna have to settle." And that's what's not happening.

Freddie Sayers: Okay. So the question is, where are all these arms and all this money coming from? Because what you started off telling us was that the US is not capable of producing enough to guarantee its own safety.

Niall Ferguson: Well, don't confuse-

Freddie Sayers: And so characters like Elbridge Colby-

Niall Ferguson: Yeah.

Freddie Sayers: ... who's been on this show will make the case that, "Yes, what Niall Ferguson says is exactly right, the US has strategic weaknesses so it can't afford to throw everything it's got at Ukraine. It needs to focus on China."

Niall Ferguson: My view is that if you just s- uh, cut off Ukraine, maybe cut off Israel too and focus on Taiwan, you, you have a self-fulfilling prophecy on your hands because first of all, you show that the West has no resolve 'cause you've just abandoned two allies. Uh, and then you arm Taiwan to the teeth, which is precisely the kinda thing that the Chinese will take to cross their red lines. I think there's a grave danger in that approach. What's interesting to me is that in the last year or so Republican thinkers like Mike Pompeo, Mike Gallagher, Matt Pottinger, people who I take very serious. Robert O'Brien, our former national security advisor, have realized the critical point that you have to maintain strength on all these fronts. Eastern Europe, Middle East, and Far East because they're part of one Cold War in which China, Russia, Iran, North Korea are working together as a kind of axis of ill will. And weakness in one will only encourage them in the other theaters. Now, it's true that there's a real fiscal constraint, but that's not an argument for appeasement, we did try that in the 1930s in this country when were fiscally constrained and you'll remember how that went.

Freddie Sayers: Everyone always talks about appeasement, uh, it's always the, the argument that people reach for. I think a more relevant example is, Iraq and Afghanistan, recent examples where there has been an idealistic i- sort of ambition, which was not met by real power and real capability. If you're right that the US is strategically weak and doesn't have the resources it used to, it can't afford to fight on all of these fronts. Can't happen overnight that it rebuilds capacity. So in the medium term it needs to make choices and a lotta people think that just pouring money into Ukraine-

Niall Ferguson: But we're not po- we're not pouring a significant amount (laughs) of money into Ukraine. Look at the numbers, it's a very, very small part of the US, uh, defense budget. It's a rounding error. The cost of arming Ukraine is really not large. What has constrained us has been Joe Biden and his advisors' insistence that we mustn't escalate because terrible things could happen. So we haven't delivered, uh, the kind of armaments that would really have kept the Russians at bay. The Germans are still sitting on their, on their Taurus missiles that the Ukrainians badly need. Not because they're strapped for cash, the missiles are there and paid for, but because of this fear of escalation. My point is that you have to escalate to de-escalate. You have to send a signal to Russia that we're not contemplating throwing in the towel. And fiscally, this is not a problem. Uh, you have to look, for example, at the Ukraine Support Tracker, the data from the Kiel Institute on the world economy, to see how trivially small support for Ukraine has been, compared with large scale fiscal efforts that the, the Western powers have made in the recent past.

The financial crisis, COVID cost orders of magnitude more than support for Ukraine. So this a kind of, I think, economically illiterate argument people are making. Aid to Ukraine is really not the same as intervention in Vietnam because American troops are not on the ground, neither are British troops. We are confusing ourselves by not understanding the orders of magnitude. And in all debates about policy you have to begin by realizing that it's a bargain to keep Ukraine in this war. The Ukrainians do the fighting, they do the dying, and we are not supplying them with sufficient weaponry to win. We're supplying just enough for them not to lose and that's not a sustainable policy.

Freddie Sayers: Final question on this 'cause I wanna get to the UK. And we could, we could go on... But we talked about Pravda and these kind of complicated messages. I mean, escalate to de-escalate might sound a little bit Pravda-esque. It's a kind of paradox that... what does escalate to de-escalate mean?

Niall Ferguson: Well, if you've never been in a fight-

Freddie Sayers: But the-

Niall Ferguson: ... then you won't understand it. If you have been in a fight, you will. I mean, you... the way you end a fight is not by saying, "I'm not gonna hit your face, I'll only hit you on the shoulders." So it's actually quite simple. The logic of, of violence is not well understood in our s- in our highly civilian societies where only a tiny number of people serve. And then most people don't experience any kind-

Freddie Sayers: Yeah.

Niall Ferguson: ... of organized violence. If you do not signal to the Russians the cost of this war is gonna remain high and get higher for you, we will never get to meaningful peace negotiations. This is not a profound and-

Freddie Sayers: And what if-

Niall Ferguson: ... paradoxical idea.

Freddie Sayers: ... what if there just isn't public support for it? So you might think it's sort of strategically wise to show that strength, commit those additional resources, what you had said about it being a bargain because Ukrainian lives are being lost instead of, uh, American lives. Some people will hear that and think, "That doesn't sound like s- a policy I wanna stand behind.

Niall Ferguson: Well, what would you rather?

Freddie Sayers: It sounds-

Niall Ferguson: Would you rather have Russia... Le- just put it [inaudible 00:47:29]-

Freddie Sayers: Well, let me [inaudible 00:47:29]-

Niall Ferguson: Let me put it such, to such people-

Freddie Sayers: Regardless what either of us might think.

Niall Ferguson: Let, uh, put two such people-

Freddie Sayers: If there isn't popular support-

Niall Ferguson: Yeah.

Freddie Sayers: ... in Western countries like the US-

Niall Ferguson: Well, then-

Freddie Sayers: ... for those kind of measures, then it's-

Niall Ferguson: First of all, the, the-

Freddie Sayers: ... it's not possible.

Niall Ferguson: ... the, the popular support has not diminished, uh, that significantly as you would imagine 'cause it's not as if there're body bags coming back, uh, to Idaho, uh, or Iowa. Uh, popular support's actually fairly resilient. There's some... there were some erosion amongst Republicans, there's been some erosion amongst, uh, people on the European, uh, right. Uh, but it's not actually a huge shift. If one looks at the polling over the last two plus years of this conflict. But the point is simple, if you allow Ukraine to be defeated, if you turn it into South Vietnam, whether it's defeated tomorrow or three years from now, what does that mean? Do you honestly think that Vladimir Putin would say, "That was it. That's all I wanted. I'm fine now." Or would it not a matter of, of a, a short time before Lithuania was next in line? Russia is clearly not gonna rest content with victory, uh, over Ukraine any more than Iran is going to stop seeking ways to destroy Israel. And China is not about to say, "As long as you respect the One China policy we won't do any more fly overs or blockade simulation.

So let's try and learn some history, some serious history. Unlike people who like to talk about appeasement, I've studied it, I wrote a book about it, War of the World. One of the things that I try to show there was, that if you allow yourself to be fiscally constrained to the point that you say, "Well, our debt burden is such that we just can't do this. We better give Hitler a, a bit of Czechoslovakia and hope that that will do." You know where that leads. And if we've forgotten that, if we haven't understood how the British Empire got into the disastrous situation in 1940, then how are we ever going to advise the Americans as they face the same challenge? If you're gonna match them as they build their nuclear arsenal, you've got to learn the real lessons of the mid-20th century. And I worry that in a whole bunch of different ways we're forgetting them. We're forgetting them with respect to the fate of the Jews. That seems to be one of the more striking features of the past year. A kinda weird amnesia about, uh, what the Holocaust was and where it came from. And we're suffering the same amnesia when we are confronted with an obviously fascist regime in Russia, if we think that, uh, handing them Ukraine is going to somehow buy us peace in our time-

Freddie Sayers: But no one is talking about handing them Ukraine.

Niall Ferguson: But that would be the effect.

Freddie Sayers: You, you were talking about South Korea as an e- example-

Niall Ferguson: That's what we have to, that's what we-

Freddie Sayers: ... which is still-

Niall Ferguson: ... can realistically get to.

Freddie Sayers: Many people would still say that was surrender, if you were gonna allow some part of pre-2014 Ukraine to formally become Russia. That's really the argument.

Niall Ferguson: That seems like a wild-

Freddie Sayers: Is it appeasement-

Niall Ferguson: ... conflation-

Freddie Sayers: ... or is it Korea?

Niall Ferguson: ... of completely different terms. Because what was amazing about our intervention in the Korean War was that we prevented the dis- disappearance of South Korea. And South Korea then went on to become the single most successful economy of the late 20th century." 



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Friday, 19 July 2024

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