Twenty-five years ago I wrote a book called Getting to War. The full title is Getting to War: Predicting International Conflict with Mass Media Indicators, which gives you a sense of what it is – a dense academic book that tenure-track professors publish lest they perish. It’s been out of print forever, of course, but I went on Amazon this morning to see if it still had a listing … LOL. As befits the 5,799,744th best-selling book on Amazon, you can get a Kindle edition for the low, low price of $69.95 (I guess the Univ. of Michigan Press licensed Kindle versions of their back catalog?) and – get this – a used hardcover copy for the low, low, low price of $2,077.36 from some dude in San Marcos, Texas. Honestly, I have questions. Why the 36 cents? Why the additional $5.02 for shipping with a March 10 estimated delivery date? Anyhoo. Please do not buy Getting to War! I’m sure there are tens and tens of academic libraries that have a copy deep in the stacks if you’re really desperate to read it, and one of these days I’ll rewrite the book as a proper book.
The book deserves a rewrite, because buried within the unreadable academic forms of formal modeling and data appendices are three truths.
Truth #1 – All governments, no matter the country or the type of government or the time period, make an effort to mobilize domestic public opinion before doing something risky like starting a war.
Truth #2 – All efforts to mobilize domestic public opinion, no matter the language or the ethnicity or the culture, share a distinctive and measurable grammatical structure.
Truth #3 – The real world of politics or economics is made up of discrete events, not smooth processes, and these events are decidedly not independent of each other, which means that most models used to predict the political or economic future will be quite wrong in quite predictable ways.
I’m going to save Truth #3 for another day, even though in many respects it’s the most important and fundamental of the three. Truth #3 is one of those things where if you know, you know … but there’s a fair amount of exposition required if you’re coming at it from a cold start.
But we all get Truths #1 and #2. We all see them happening, right now with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
And yes, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is happening right now. Or rather, the final go-decision in Moscow to invade Ukraine was made weeks if not months ago. What we are seeing today with the ongoing diplomatic negotiations in Paris and Berlin is part and parcel of that invasion. There’s nothing bona fide about the negotiations in the sense that they could result in Russia just bringing the troops home and calling the whole thing off. That cannot happen.
The international “negotiations” are 100% designed for domestic Russian consumption. They are as necessary a part of successfully invading Ukraine as mobilizing troops and tanks.
Russian officials not optimistic but willing to keep communication open after US makes no concessions on Ukraine.
That’s how Western media is describing the current state of play in the negotiations, based on the Russian characterization of the talks.
Look at the grammar of the Russian framing!
“not optimistic” … we were cautiously optimistic coming into this negotiation process, because our position is so obviously just, but our hopes for the West to come to its senses and pursue a path for peace have been cruelly dashed.
“willing to keep communication open” … a sensible party might well have shut the door on more NATO lies and intransigence, but we want peace so badly that we will go the extra mile and allow our patience to be tested still further.
“US makes no concessions” … sadly, NATO expansionism and aggression have pushed us into a corner and our backs are against the wall; the only possible path forward is for the US to retreat publicly from its war-mongering policies.
None of this is an actual bargaining position. There is no overlap between the reservation price for peace on the Russian side (publicly bar former Soviet states from future NATO membership, halt military modernization/expansion in Central Europe and Baltics) and what is politically possible in the West. I mean, can you imagine what would happen in domestic American politics if the Biden Administration agreed to this? It would make the Afghanistan fiasco look like a gentle spring rain.
In his marathon press conference last week, Biden suggested that the US might not respond as forcefully to a mild invasion of Ukraine, sparking furious White House backtracking and damage control efforts as everyone on the American political spectrum went absolutely ballistic. You think this White House is going to open themselves up to the Abandoning Our Allies! TM narrative – AGAIN – by making “concessions” to the Russians?
Now as a quick aside, I think our current NATO expansion policy is nuts. I think it’s absolutely ridiculous for the United States to have a mutual defense pact with Lithuania. Or Montenegro. Or Slovenia. Or even Poland, for that matter. In the immortal words of Henry Kissinger, “when you’re allied with everyone, you’re allied with no one”, and that’s exactly what NATO has become – an alliance of everyone and no one all at the same time. I think it would be good policy to limit both future NATO membership and current NATO modernization efforts in Central Europe. But that cannot happen as a result of Russian demands.
And Russia knows this. Russia knows full well that American domestic politics will not allow “concessions” to the Russian demands, and yet they make the demands anyway. Why?
Because the demands are not being made as part of an international political game, but as part of a domestic political game.
Will the Russians invade Ukraine tomorrow? I doubt it.
Will the Russians invade Ukraine soon enough? I have no doubt. Because they already have.
Or rather, the decision to invade Ukraine has already been made. All we’re seeing now is the mobilization of forces to give that invasion the best chances of success, both a troop mobilization for the international political requirements of the invasion AND a public opinion mobilization for the domestic political requirements of the invasion.
That’s how we get to war.