Victor Davis Hanson On War In Ukraine
Orban Succeeds, Russia Can't Afford To Lose, Business vs. Conservatives
Victor Davis Hanson of The Hoover Institution joined me for a conversation this week on the Ben Domenech Podcast about the war in Ukraine, the meaning of an America First foreign policy, the need for reform of the Pentagon and military leadership, and more. The episode, which also includes and interview with Gen. Jack Keane, drops later today. Here’s an excerpt of the conversation with VDH, lightly edited.
Ben Domenech: What is unique about the current Russian/Ukrainian conflict? What stands out to you as being something that is significantly different, perhaps, than conflicts in the past?
Victor Davis Hanson: What's different is that, especially in the immediate past, with Georgia and Crimea that were easily annexed, and Chechnya, which was within the Soviet Union — it wasn't a breakaway Republic, it wanted more autonomy — and now is: that Ukraine is a separate entity, and it's been leveled. And we haven't quite seen that since maybe the siege of Stalingrad in ‘42, or Leningrad from '41 to '44, or maybe the siege of Berlin in '45.
Once Putin’s agenda of an easy annexation of Kiev eastward failed and once it endangered not just his expeditionary agenda, but maybe his hold on power, he decided to make a demonstration. It seems to the world that you don't cross Vladimir Putin, and if he can't have Ukraine, nobody is going to have it. He can demilitarize it in a way that diplomacy can't by leveling most of the major cities and municipal areas.
Now, whether he will finish that task, I don't know, but that's different. I think there's a lot in common with historical precedent… Russians never do well as an expeditionary force. But once you go into Russia, as we know that from Charles the 12th and Sweden and Napoleon and of course Hitler, then it's a whole different story. And so I think when people were saying this is going to be a walkover, they didn't realize that this is a multiethnic, huge country in terms of topography and landscape, it has very great amount of difficulty of uniting everybody for what they would consider an optional war. Hmm. So I think that's been holding precedent.
I'm a big supporter of Zelensky. We've got to give him as much aid as possible without a trajectory to World War Three. But there are certain other historical parallels that are disturbing. When in World War I, we said, the Germans were satanic. We banned German from the high schools during World War II. We put Japanese Americans and Japanese residents with no history of espionage within the continental United States and camps. I thought we were a postmodern society. But you know, when you look at a Hollywood movie in the last five years, every villain is a shaved head, tattooed Russian mafioso. And we had the Russian collusion hoax, the Alpha Bank collusion hoax, the Hunter Biden laptop, the Russian disinformation hoax. Now we've got Putin responsible for high gas prices to inflation. We're banning Russian ballerinas, Russian concerts. It's really doesn't work out well for us when we start doing that…
Once Putin went in to to Ukraine, when all of those issues could have been negotiated, whether we had legitimate or semi or not legitimate issue, they could have been negotiated. But once he went in there to try to go Carthaginian or medieval on them, then everybody I think united.
But after saying that, there's been some really crazy talk, whether it's Joe Biden walking back, not walking back, the idea that he should be removed. This is a Russian head of state. And Lindsey Graham and others say he should be assassinated. We don't have a good record, whether it's Dim and Vietnam, having him assassinated, or cackling over Gadhafi “we came, we saw, he died” as Hillary Clinton did. What followed? Or the threats to Castro. It'll be another 40 years before we get what they boomerang on...
But my point is that not only is it contrary to our values, but more importantly when you take out these strong men, you don't really guarantee there's going to be a replacement. You know, we got rid of the Taliban. Then we got 20 years of quagmires. And so it raises that chicken or the egg question.
Ben: Does ISIS rise with a Saddam who's still in power?
VDH: Absolutely. Or is Vladimir Putin an aberration or simply the illustration of what Russian society sees as necessary in their governments? Yeah. And it's when I hear all these people say, “get rid of Putin”, and a lot of them are my colleagues at Hoover. I'm thinking, OK, there were democratically elected czars or there were democratically elected Soviet commissar, or there were democratic Cold War strongmen like Yeltsin before Putin. I don't think so. Yeah, so that gives them the idea that we're going to to kill Putin. Aside from the fact that every time that we've done that, not only is it contrary to our values, it didn't work out. But nobody's ever done that with a nuclear state. The idea that you're going to take out the head of a nuclear power with 7,200 nukes is absolutely insane. And they should not talk about it because they're endangering people all over the West that are elected leaders.
Putin's already in a bunker and he needs a way out because he's been disgraced — not that we have empathy for him, we just don't want World War Three. And if you don't give some out lame crawl back and claim a sliver of the borderlands or whatever. But my God, when you talk about killing him, you're endangering Zelensky's life or endangering a lot of people, and Russia has the ability to take out people. We've seen that with these nerve gas attacks over the last 20 years.
Ben: What is the best way for us to achieve a situation where Putin and Xi and the Chinese regime and the Russian regime are not more closely aligned against an America that still has a lot of problems at home that it needs to deal with?
VDH: You know, I think we were getting there with Trump for all of his excesses. The people who were around him, his national security advisers, and people who were advising him, I think he did get to a Jacksonian common ground. And by that, I think it's similar to what you and I are talking about, and that is you create deterrence abroad and you don't screw with the United States.
Whether that's taking out Baghdadi, who is responsible for killing U.S. people, or you’re 200 Russian mercenaries and you attack an American installation, or whether it's Soleimani who has caused so much mayhem. But you're not going to get on an expeditionary huge military engagement or even something like Libya. Trump did not want to go in and create a no-fly zone between Turkey and Kurdistan. And the Never Trump right went crazy, but that was wise. So we were kind of saying “no better friend, no worse enemy”. But we weren't going to try to remake the world in our own image.
And that sometimes meant talking to North Korea. If you want to talk crazy stuff, we can talk crazy stuff and we've got a lot better deterrent against you than you do against us. And so for that four-year period, we did some pretty Jacksonian things, including taking out a lot of bad people. We destroyed ISIS and we backed North Korea into a corner. We moved the embassy to Jerusalem. But if it wasn't for the hysteria over the Russian collusion hoax, the Alfa Bank hoax, the laptop hoax, I think Trump would have had more latitude still. But he was getting to a point in the art of the deal style, where he was back to the Kissinger formula that China will never be a better friend of Russia than it will be to us. And the same is true of Russia. It won't be a better friend to China than it does to us. And within that triangulation, you have a sense of stability. The only thing that is changing is now Russia is the weakest of the three rather than China…
But what we do in Ukraine and vis-a-vis Russia at this late date, how we got here, I think, will be a discussion because we could have been prevented had we armed Ukraine with javelins much earlier. So if they had maybe 20 thousand anti-tank weapons and Sams rather than, you know, five or six hundred the first day of the war… but we had we pumped oil and kept it up to 13 or even gone up to 14 or 15 million barrels. We wouldn't have been in this situation, but nevertheless, I think if we can deter Russia, and that means that Putin doesn't take most of Ukraine and pays a big price, then I think China will respond. They're already hedging a little bit. If you look at their communiques, they thought this was the blueprint for Taiwan and it would be legitimized by the world. So when they did it to Taiwan, it would be just as easy and nobody would complain. And now they're thinking second thoughts and thinking, well, one if the Taiwanese are like the Ukrainians, what if they parachuted Japanese SAMs and stingers in there? What if they did these sanctions on us? Like, what if these Europeans who were our puppets, what if they got on their hind legs and acted toward us? What if we lost 380,000 students in the United States, and they all had to be sent home? So I think that is you can start to see the formulation of what we can do if we have somebody there that knows what he's doing…
As far as the Russian and Ukraine, just similar experiences, I think in a way they're similar. I think the Ukrainians are fighting against the Russians very adroitly and the Russians are fighting incompetently. And if you flip the situation and Ukraine started to really win and it went into Russia, I think it would be flipped. It would have the same Soviet era top down incompetent lack of communications. It would get its general and the Russians would suddenly become a nation in arms. And that's the way that that part of the world works. They are the most fierce and combative troops when they're protecting their home soil, and they're not very organized and they're not transparent and they don't have a confidence in their institutions enough to when an army is really tax, after all, it's when it's an expeditionary army when it goes outside. And that's what we do pretty well, at least military now, politically, but militarily, we usually get the objective, then we screw it up.
I think all of us realize how we define that subset, whether it's Red State America or whether it's the guys from upstate New York or from Bakersfield, Calif. there is an alternate universe within the United States, just true. And the military knows that, and you can define them as second generation Mexican-American guys in L.A. or Fresno that would love to go to the Marines and some of the best fighters. Or you can to say that there are people south of the Mason-Dixon line, or they grew up on a farm in North Dakota or Wyoming. But whatever that is, it's a muscular Jacksonian, patriotic what you said. And that's the basis of the U.S. military on the combat level. Maybe it's not the bureaucrats in the Pentagon, but that's the bases and we're we don't want to ever tamper with that and now we're tampering with it. And when Mark Milley gets in front of Congress and says he's going after white rage and white conspiracies, and Lloyd Austin does the same thing and they don't produce any proof that there's some cabal of white supremacists within the military, then what they're basically doing is they're telling that group of white, Christian, rural, traditional third and fourth generation, the military, you're suspect. And the problem with that is that comes at the same time that they're talking about proportional equality and representation and diversity.
Ben: My sister, who works in policy on the House side as a senior level and has a history working at the DOD for Bob Gates under both Republican and Democrat administrations, is very frustrated by the situation that we encounter when it comes to military leadership. She has suggested to me, jokingly but also seriously, that what we really need is an approach that is divorced from the the D.C. political process of hierarchy. She says: “We need a BRAC for generals.”
VDH: She's totally right. I mean, when you look at Iraq, we had some of the most incompetent people at the Four-Star command level in Iraq, and it was sort of like the Civil War where Lincoln, you know, went through McClellan and he went through and he went through Burnside and you till he finally found Sherman and Grant. I thought, Well, we kind of found Petraeus, who was two did pretty well, but there were other criteria whether it was the old boy network or was diversity concerns, or it was anything other than a proven record of battlefield efficacy. And we have to start with the idea that a good general is someone. In war, that probably is not successful in peace. So George Patton was a complete maniac, so was Curtis LeMay. So was William Tecumseh Sherman. Douglas MacArthur was an egomaniac, but in a particular time and place, you need that person and you maybe treat him terrible. And they were all treated terribly after the war. They were treated terribly before the war. But there are people in the U.S. military that will not fit well within the matrix, and they won't be promoted and they won't be advanced and they won't be retained at the level they deserve because of their combative nature or their love for battle. But at a particular moment, you want them there, you want them available, and we don't have any.
We're losing that, partly it's because it's so Washington-centric when you look at these generals. We have a lot at Hoover that come out. They're worried because at the captain level, at the major level, or lieutenant colonel, more and more people want billets to be on the National Security Council, kind of an Alexander Vindman type of career. Or they want to be attached to the Pentagon, or they want to go into a Senate or House role, and they don't want to be attached to an armor unit or an artillery unit. And when they go up for promotion, they know that how many shells hit the target and their brigade is not what's going to make them successful, but how many women or minorities or gays or these woke issues.
So we're advancing people who are political careerist. And then it gets even worse when you get up to one and two star, because they start to get in their fifties and they think, you know what? The corporations are woke and, you know, I may make $200,000 in retirement, but my God, General X and Admiral Y at Raytheon, General Dynamics, Northrup, Lockheed, they're making so much more. It's not like the old days when they retired into, you know, $300,000. With stock options, you can make millions of dollars for your knowledge of the acquisitions process within the Pentagon and all your contacts. So you just go in and you make a ton of money, but you can't do that if the corporation thinks that you're an old style blood and guts general or admiral. They want a sensitive person that's presentable. So we're massaging that profile of failure in so many political ways.
As one guy told me off the record as an admiral, he said: If you talk tough and you talk about sinking ships or bombing then when you go off and retire, you're not going to get a job at a corporation, and if you did, the revolving door will come up to haunt you with people like Elizabeth Warren. If you testify that you're interested in stamping out white rage or subsidizing transgendered reassignment surgeries, then Elizabeth Warren really won't care whether you are going to be a corporate lobbyists. And that's the atmosphere. The ultimate expression of that is Mark Milley. It really is. Or Lloyd Austin who came into Raytheon, went to Raytheon, came in and he'll go back to Raytheon.
Has The Ukraine War Saved Orban?
Hungary is not the dictatorship Orbán’s more strident critics allege, but it departs from the stated norms of European liberal democracy in a number of ways. Under his leadership, the ruling Fidesz party has placed its thumb on the electoral scales, ensuring that while elections are free, the government enters them at an advantage. Opposition candidates are given significantly less airtime on state broadcasting networks than government figures, with the result that Fidesz narratives dominate the airwaves; the opposition claims that electoral boundaries have been redrawn to favour the government, a charge that Fidesz disputes; and a sophisticated politics of patronage has created a new conservative elite which owes its survival to Orbán’s continued rule.
It is precisely these same innovations, which make Orbán’s Hungary anathema to Western liberals, that make the country so attractive to so many Western conservatives — particularly Anglo-Saxon ones. Where conservatives in Britain and America can win elections but find their governance impeded by a liberal powerbase in the media, NGOs and the judiciary (termed by conservative Hungarian intellectuals as an anti-democratic “juristocracy”), in Orbán’s Hungary the liberal intelligentsia’s political powerbase has been dismantled and replaced with a confident new conservative elite. A wealth of glossy conservative magazines, universities, think tanks and NGOs are the lavishly-funded product of Orbán’s Gramscian conservativism.
Rather than the vulgar 20th-century authoritarianism with which his more excitable critics charge him, Orbán’s dominance of Hungary’s politics is a subtler, more postmodern exercise. A product of George Soros’s attempt to nurture an elite governing class in Central Europe, the disaffected liberal reformer has adopted and inverted the same methods that produce liberal hegemony towards distinctly post-liberal ends. No wonder so many Western conservatives, who cannot translate electoral success to meaningful political power, find Orbán’s Hungary an object of both envy and inspiration. At Gólya, a far-Left cooperative and cultural space in a disused Budapest warehouse bedecked with PKK flags, I met the Marxist journalist and leftwing activist Csaba Tóth, who wryly described Orbán’s Hungary as “Rojava for western conservatives”, an idealised polity onto which they can project their political hopes and dreams.
Why Russia Cannot Afford To Lose
BM What do you think would be the final goal for the Kremlin at this point? What would be considered a successful outcome for the invasion?
SK I don’t know what the outcome of this war will be, but I think it will involve the partition of Ukraine, one way or another. Hopefully there would still be something called Ukraine left at the end. But Russia cannot afford to “lose”, so we need a kind of a victory. And if there is a sense that we are losing the war, then I think there is a definite possibility of escalation. This war is a kind of proxy war between the West and the rest – Russia being, as it has been in history, the pinnacle of “the rest” – for a future world order. The stakes of the Russian elite are very high – for them it is an existential war.
BM You talked about demilitarisation of Ukraine, but it seems that such a goal would not be achieved if the West continues to provide Ukraine with weapons. Do you think Russia will be tempted to stop that flow of arms, and does this risk a direct clash between Nato and Russia?
SK Absolutely! There is a growing probability of a direct clash. And we don’t know what the outcome of this would be. Maybe the Poles would fight; they are always willing. I know as a historian that Article 5 of the Nato treaty is worthless. Under Article 5 – which allows a state to call for support from other members of the alliance – nobody is obliged to actually fight on behalf of others, but nobody can be absolutely sure that there would be no such escalation. I also know from the history of American nuclear strategy that the US is unlikely to defend Europe with nuclear weapons. But there is still a chance of escalation here, so it is an abysmal scenario and I hope that some kind of a peace agreement between us and the US, and between us and Ukraine, can be reached before we go further into this unbelievably dangerous world…
BM Putin has argued that Ukraine does not exist as a nation. I would imagine that the conclusion from the events of the past weeks is that Ukraine does exist as a nation, when you have the whole population, including civilians, willing to sacrifice their lives to preserve the sovereignty and independence of their country. Does Ukraine exist as a nation, or is Ukraine just a part of Russia?
SK I am not sure whether there is a massive civilian resistance as you suggest, rather than just young men joining the army. In any case, I don’t know whether Ukraine will survive, because it has a very limited, if any, history of statehood, and it doesn’t have a state-building elite. Maybe something will grow from below, but it’s an open question… We shall see… This war – or military operation; however you call it – will decide. Maybe the Ukrainian nation will be born: I will be happy if Ukrainians have an effective, viable government – unlike the situation during the last 30 years. They were the absolute losers after the Soviet Union, because of their lack of a state-building elite.
BM If there is a partition, would the Russia-controlled section of Ukraine preserve a nominal independence, or would it be absorbed by Russia?
SK If the operation is to turn Ukraine into a “friendly” state, then absorption is clearly not necessary. There might be some kind of absorption – which has happened, effectively – in the Donbas republics. Whether they will be independent or not – I think they might be. Certainly there are calls for referendums there, but how you could run referendums during a conflict I do not know. So my judgement would be that some of Ukraine will become a friendly state to Russia, other parts may be partitioned. Poland will gladly take back some of parts in the west, maybe Romanians and Hungarians will, too, because the Hungarian minority in Ukraine has been suppressed along with other minorities. But we are in a full-on war; it is too hard to predict. The war is an open-ended story.
BM One argument is that Russia will fall under Chinese control, and this war does not help – because by isolating Russia from the West, it turns Russia into easy prey for Chinese economic influence. Are you worried that this could be the beginning of a “Chinese century” for Russia?
SK There are two answers to your question. One is that China’s economic influence in Russia and over Russia will grow. China has most of the technologies we need, and it has a lot of capital, so there is no question about that. Whether Russia would become a kind of a satellite country, according to the Chinese tradition of their Middle Kingdom, I doubt it.
If you asked me how I would describe Russia in one word, it is “sovereignty”. We defeated those who sought to rule us, starting with the Mongols, and then Carl [Charles XII] of Sweden, then Napoleon and Hitler. Also, recently, we had years of Western domination here. It was almost overwhelming. And nevertheless, you see what has happened: Russia revolted against all that. So I am not afraid of Russia becoming a part of a great China. The other reason I’m not afraid is because Chinese civilisation is very different. We have our Asian traits in our genes, and we are in part an Asian country because of this. And Siberia is at the core of the Russian empire: without Siberia, Russia wouldn’t have become a great country. And the Tatar and Mongol yoke left many traits in our society. But culturally, we are different, so I don’t think it is possible that we will become a subsidiary country.
But I am very concerned about the overwhelming economic predominance of China over the next decade. People like me have been saying precisely [that] we have to solve the Ukraine problem, we have to solve the Nato problem, so that we can be in a strong position vis-à-vis China. Now it will be much more difficult for Russia to resist Chinese power.
The Right’s Divorce With Big Business
So far this business-skeptical conservatism is an intellectual muddle. The new conservatives are right that 1980s conservatism has become zombified — always advocating the same solutions (tax cuts and deregulation) regardless of the problems. Nobody these days looks to the Club for Growth for intellectual enlightenment. The new conservatives are also right that conservatism at its best is about the pursuit of a civilized life rather than economic growth for its own sake. Conservatism arose as a critique of the excesses of the French Revolution and its zeal for liberty, equality and fraternity. Today its future lies as a critique of postmodern liberalism and its zeal for a strange combination of unfettered individualism and group rights.
But the new conservatives, particularly their Catholic wing, seem to lack a conservative sense of balance. Their dream of imposing a “common good” on a society that disagrees about fundamental things is a formula for intensified culture wars. They also ignore the strikes, discord and malaise that many of the policies they favor, particularly those giving more power to producer interests, led to in the 1970s. Disraeli owes his place in the conservative pantheon not to his youthful antagonism to the market but to his mature success in combining the best of economic liberalism with the best of conservatism.
Still, for all its intellectual flaws, the new business-skeptical conservatism confronts the corporate world with serious practical problems. It removes a hitherto reliable safety net. Corporate types can no longer rely on Republicans or Conservatives coming to rescue them when the going gets tough, as it surely will as the cost-of-living crisis deepens. It opens the possibility of some interesting cross-party collaboration. Right-leaning Republicans and left-leaning Democrats increasingly see eye-to-eye on issues such as tariffs on trade, tax credits for families, intervention to support communities that have been decimated by globalization and the breaking up of big tech companies. And it raises the serious possibility of something much bigger: the creation of a fully-fledged new conservatism that uses a plethora of interventions in the market such as tariffs and wage subsidies to shift the balance of power from business to labor.
The Reagan-Thatcher era of pro-business conservatism looks increasingly like an aberration rather than a natural state of affairs.
Items of Interest