Allies can be exasperating. But try being invaded by your neighbor and lectured by everyone else, informs The Atlantic.
“The history of all coalitions is a tale of the reciprocal complaints of allies.” Thus said Winston Churchill, who knew whereof he spoke. This summer of discontent has been one punctuated by complaints: from Ukrainian officials desperate for weapons, and from Western diplomats and soldiers who think that the Ukrainians are ungrateful for the tanks, training, and other goods they have received.
Most of the Western sputtering occurred in and around last month’s NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, through anonymous leaks and public grumbles. Indeed, according to one report, the U.S. administration was so miffed by Volodymyr Zelensky’s complaint about the slowness of the NATO accession process that some advocated watering down language about NATO membership for Kyiv. Withdrawing the word invitation from the communiqué would, in their view, be a suitable punishment for a mean tweet.
One gasps at the petulance on display here, as at otherwise staunch British Defense Minister Ben Wallace’s snap about Ukraine treating its Western suppliers as a kind of Amazon of weaponry.
Peevishness about allies is a common and understandable mood that all senior diplomats and national-security officials eventually experience. A monologue sooner or later goes on in their heads that sounds something like this:
I’m lucky if I get a decent night’s sleep once a week. I leave work before my kids are up and get back after they’re asleep, six and sometimes seven days a week. I stress eat and can’t take a vacation without being called back to the office. Meanwhile, everybody thinks that the [insert ally’s name] are a bunch of victims or heroes, when they are, in fact, manipulative, ungrateful little bastards who don’t have a clue what I am doing to save them from [name a rival official, nation, or department of government]. And their American sympathizers are a bunch of nasty dupes who are just as ignorant, but with fewer excuses.
The adult thing to do in such cases is to get in a workout, complain to one’s loving spouse, or commit these thoughts to a diary for the delectation of historians who will read too much into what are, in sober hindsight, mere tantrums. To mention them to the press, or, even worse, act upon them is unfair and irresponsible.
Such eruptions occur when officials let their irritations suppress their empathy. At the moment of peak whine, they forget what it means to have a fifth of your country occupied, or to know that a far bigger country is attempting, every night, to smash your power plants, blockade your ports, and destroy your crops. They are not holding in the forefront of their minds obliterated towns and mass graves. They do not know what it is to welcome back exchanged prisoners of war who have been castrated. Or to mourn old men and women murdered, or younger men and women tortured and raped. Or to worry frantically about thousands of children kidnapped. They forget that while a Western official’s sleep may be interrupted by a phone call or an alarm clock, a Ukrainian official’s sleep is more likely (and more often) interrupted by a siren or the crash of a missile slamming into an apartment block.
Ukrainian officials are thankful. Analysis of their speeches reveals plenty of expressions of gratitude. But they are also insistent and vociferous in their cries for help. They would be both inhuman and derelict in their duty if they were to be anything else. Hopefully, after a whiskey (or two) on the plane back to Washington or London, Western officials simmer down and return to some level of maturity in understanding their beleaguered ally.
Unfortunately, the impulse behind the whining can also manifest in subtler, but no less pernicious, forms. Much of the public discussion of Ukraine reveals a tendency to patronize that country and others that escaped Russian rule. As Toomas Ilves, a former president of Estonia, acidly observed, “When I was at university in the mid-1970s, no one referred to Germany as ‘the former Third Reich.’ And yet today, more than 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we keep on being referred to as ‘former Soviet bloc countries.’” Tropes about Ukrainian corruption abound, not without reason—but one may also legitimately ask why so many members of Congress enter the House or Senate with modest means and leave as multimillionaires, or why the children of U.S. presidents make fortunes off foreign countries, or, for that matter, why building in New York City is so infernally expensive.
The latest, richest example of Western condescension came in a report by German military intelligence that complains that although the Ukrainians are good students in their training courses, they are not following Western doctrine and, worse, are promoting officers on the basis of combat experience rather than theoretical knowledge. Similar, if less cutting, views have leaked out of the Pentagon.
Criticism by the German military of any country’s combat performance may be taken with a grain of salt. After all, the Bundeswehr has not seen serious combat in nearly eight decades. In Afghanistan, Germany was notorious for having considerably fewer than 10 percent of its thousands of in-country troops outside the wire of its forward operating bases at any time. One might further observe that when, long ago, the German army did fight wars, it, too, tended to promote experienced and successful combat leaders, as wartime armies usually do.
American complaints about the pace of Ukraine’s counteroffensive and its failure to achieve rapid breakthroughs are similarly misplaced. The Ukrainians indeed received a diverse array of tanks and armored vehicles, but they have far less mine-clearing equipment than they need. They tried doing it our way—attempting to pierce dense Russian defenses and break out into open territory—and paid a price. After 10 days they decided to take a different approach, more careful and incremental, and better suited to their own capabilities (particularly their precision long-range weapons) and the challenge they faced. That is, by historical standards, fast adaptation. By contrast, the United States Army took a good four years to develop an operational approach to counterinsurgency in Iraq that yielded success in defeating the remnants of the Baathist regime and al-Qaeda-oriented terrorists.
A besetting sin of big militaries, particularly America’s, is to think that their way is either the best way or the only way. As a result of this assumption, the United States builds inferior, mirror-image militaries in smaller allies facing insurgency or external threat. These forces tend to fail because they are unsuited to their environment or simply lack the resources that the U.S. military possesses in plenty. The Vietnamese and, later, the Afghan armies are good examples of this tendency—and Washington’s postwar bad-mouthing of its slaughtered clients, rather than critical self-examination of what it set them up for, is reprehensible.
The Ukrainians are now fighting a slow, patient war in which they are dismantling Russian artillery, ammunition depots, and command posts without weapons such as American ATACMS and German Taurus missiles that would make this sensible approach faster and more effective. They know far more about fighting Russians than anyone in any Western military knows, and they are experiencing a combat environment that no Western military has encountered since World War II. Modesty, never an American strong suit, is in order.
One way to increase understanding among Ukraine’s friends would be to put substantial military legations in Kyiv. American colonels and generals do not have to go on patrols or storm tree lines, but they would benefit from continuous, in-country, face-to-face contact with their Ukrainian counterparts. They would be able to communicate realistic assessments of the fighting and of Ukrainian tactical and operational requirements. They would also convey to Ukraine a reassurance that videoconferences cannot, and perhaps bring a bit of humility to deliberations in Washington.
Such an effort entails risks, but that’s what soldiers sign up for. Maintaining a continuous physical presence in Ukraine with a high-level military mission, supplemented by frequent visits from the head of the U.S. European Command and other senior leaders, would be invaluable in making the judgments that could help Ukraine defeat Russia, regain its territory, and win this war. And winning, not whining, is what it’s all about.