It’s been a mercifully long time since Henry Kissinger made headlines, much less sparked a serious debate, but his doleful words this week in Davos, Switzerland, did both. The gnomish 98-year-old ex-diplomat told the assembled elites at the World Economic Forum that Ukraine must make peace by ceding territory to Russia.
His finger-wagging stirred outrage, not least from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who likened his fellow victim of European tragedy—both are Jews whose family members perished in the Holocaust—to an appeaser of Nazi aggression in 1938.
In fact, Kissinger was speaking like the adherent, which he has always been, of “international realism”—the school of thought that values stability above all else and, in that spirit, touts the interests of great powers and their spheres of interest over the ambitions (however lofty) of less mighty countries.
One flaw of this thinking is that it ignores the many changes in global politics since a half-century ago, when Kissinger’s “triangulation” allowed him, as Richard Nixon’s statesman, to play Washington’s interests off those of Moscow and Beijing. (Things have changed even more so since the Congress of Vienna 200 years ago, when the five great powers of Europe divvied up the continent, as Kissinger described in his career-launching book A World Restored, back when he was a Harvard political scientist.) First, the end of the Cold War and the subsequent diffusion of global power have diminished the leverage of former power centers and blocs. Second, in this more anarchic world, the agency of medium-size countries can no longer be cavalierly dismissed. Finally, in most respects, Russia is no longer a great power, and so peace no longer requires treating it as such.
However, Kissinger did hit one live nerve at Davos, and that is a growing impatience—even among Kyiv’s most stalwart backers—for how long this war is dragging on and how deeply it is damaging not just Ukraine but the worldwide economy.
Five days before Kissinger’s speech, the New York Times editorial page, which has been avid in its support for Ukraine, cautioned:
Americans have been galvanized by Ukraine’s suffering, but popular support for a war far from U.S. shores will not continue indefinitely. Inflation is a much bigger issue for American voters than Ukraine, and the disruptions to global food and energy markets are likely to intensify. … Biden should also make clear to … Zelensky and his people that there is a limit to how far the United States and NATO will go to confront Russia, and limits to the arms, money and political support they can muster.
The Times’ worry was that the war could widen and escalate, whereas Kissinger’s was about preserving a balance of power in Europe that no longer quite exists. Still, the message is the same: a growing itchiness about the war and a growing desire to shut it down, perhaps prematurely.
The University of Maryland’s Critical Issues Poll also shows signs of “public fatigue” over the Ukraine war. A majority of Americans surveyed are still prepared to accept higher inflation and energy prices as a result of the war, but that share has diminished since March from 65 percent to 52 percent (for inflation) and from 73 percent to 59 percent (for high gas prices).
Some in Europe are beginning to waver on their commitment to end oil or gas imports from Russia. The leaders of France and Italy, while not as explicit on the matter as Kissinger, are pressing Zelensky to make a deal to end the war before a clear (and perhaps unrealistic) Ukrainian victory. It is also becoming increasingly apparent that, outside Europe, especially in the Southern Hemisphere, there is little enthusiasm for this war—and much distress over its far-reaching consequences.
Zelensky is well aware—and deeply fearful—of this flagging interest, which is why he continues to give rallying remote speeches almost daily, pressing his allies for more heavy long-range weapons more quickly. The campaign is succeeding. Biden has recently agreed to provide the most cherished weapons on Zelensky’s wish list—the Multiple Launch Rocket System and High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, which, depending on their loads, can hit targets between 100 and 300 miles away. In the fight over Donbas, the Ukrainians have been at a disadvantage: Russian artillery have been able to hit them, but the Ukrainians’ rockets have lacked the range to hit back. MLRS and HiMARS will even the contest—if not reverse the odds. With weapons of such range, Ukrainian troops could fire even deeper still, into Russian territory. This is why Biden had hesitated to send these weapons, and why some worry about the decision to send them now: Yes, it gives the Ukrainians a boost, but if they fire rockets into Russian territory (something Zelensky has agreed not to do), Russia might respond by hitting arms depots and supply lines in, say, Polish territory—and then we’re off to a war between Russia and NATO. That could trigger further escalation—or a panic over the prospect of escalation, which could bring the war to a swift, forced ending, most likely to Ukraine’s disadvantage.
The Biden administration, by stepping up its military aid to Ukraine, is playing a role in setting off this panic, because its own goals in this conflict have steadily expanded. This became explicit last month, when Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said that U.S. aims in the war were not only to protect Ukraine as a democratic sovereign country and to help it stave off Russia’s invasion but also to “weaken” Russia as a military power. Some officials were shocked at Austin’s frankness, but no one has pedaled back his words. Regime change is certainly an implicit goal of the onerous sanctions piled on the Russian economy, on its financial tycoons with close ties to Vladimir Putin, and on Putin himself.
And so, the war has entered a new dimension: time. It is not only a contest between Russian and (Western-backed) Ukrainian military forces. It’s also a contest between how long it takes before the West grows leery of letting the war continue and how long it takes before Putin (or his tyranny) collapses. This is one reason the war will intensify, the longer it slogs on—and why there’s every reason to believe it will slog on for as long as either side can make it so.