Western commentators on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing war are frequently using the term, ‘quagmire’ – a bog, swamp or morass, from which, once you have entered, it is between hard and impossible to get out, as every move you make to free yourself sucks you deeper in. The term was widely used in the 1960s about the USA’s war in Vietnam.
As Lawrence Freedman has pointed out in one of his commentaries on the war, the term has a closely related partner – escalation, which might seem to a state stuck in a quagmire like the only way out. Both terms have a history and have considerable currency when analysing the problems and risks big states face in wars with smaller states.
But there is another metaphor from the time of the Vietnam War and all those arguments and debates, which I find even richer – the six-sided box. By invading Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has taken his country into a box from which it is hard to see the way out. And that is bad news for everyone.
As a metaphor depicting where the USA got to in its long intervention in Vietnam, we owe the six-sided box to Theodore Sorensen. He was a lawyer who became an adviser and speech-writer for President Kennedy. He was one of that group of men with whom Kennedy surrounded himself, memorably tagged by David Halberstam in the title of his history of the USA’s war in Vietnam as The best and the brightest. In March 1968, Sorensen spoke at a public debate in New York about Vietnam.
This was the month after the Tet offensive when North Vietnam’s forces temporarily took control of most of South Vietnam’s provincial capitals and even fought their way into the Presidential Palace and the US Embassy compound in Saigon. Though the North suffered serious casualties and the immediate successes did not last long, the Tet offensive sparked a sharp increase in the scale and breadth of support for the US anti-war movement.
It was in this political atmosphere that, at the beginning of March 1968, the meeting in New York was held. A thousand people attended. The New York Times reported. Sorensen was one of four speakers. The box, he said, was one the USA “did not intend to make and cannot seem to break.”
How were the six sides constituted? Sorensen expressed it in three pairs:
- “Our worldwide military primacy cannot produce a victory, and our worldwide political primacy cannot permit a withdrawal.
- “We are unable to transfer our will to the South Vietnamese and unable to break the will of the North Vietnamese.
- “Any serious escalation would risk Chinese or Soviet intervention, and any serious negotiation would risk a Communist South Vietnam.”
Those six sides, somewhat reformulated, seem to press in on President Putin and Russia too:
- (1) Russia’s standing as one of the world’s three great powers is not enough to secure victory yet (2) means it cannot pull back.
- (3) Russia cannot break Ukraine’s will to fight and (4) has no ally to stand up and fight beside it.
- (5) Serious escalation could have extreme consequences for Russia (as well as many other countries, or most, or all, depending on exactly how serious) and would not necessarily bring victory, while (6) negotiating in good faith means acknowledging the invasion failed in its initial and main purpose.
The USA never managed to defeat the logic of Sorensen’s box. It eventually got out of Vietnam by doing what the sixth side told it to: negotiate, settle and accept what happens after that.
If Russia cannot refute the third side of the box I have just proposed – if it cannot break Ukraine’s will – then the rest of the box’s logic will hold. Even flouting the fifth side and opting for serious escalation will only confirm the logic of being boxed in for, whoever else suffers horribly, Russia and Russians most certainly will.
It is not hard to find in some Western leaders’ statements and among some Western commentators a degree of satisfaction and almost pleasure at the way Russia is boxed in. It highlights the war’s debilitating effect on Russia and encourages the West to aim at the strategic objective expressed by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at a press conference in Poland: “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” It is allowing parallels to be drawn with Afghanistan in the 1980s, when US policy supported the Mujaheddin in order to weaken the USSR.
It is, of course, not without risks. One category of risk, perhaps the first one to strike us in the West, is flagged by the speculative scenario in which a trapped and weakened Russia opts to flout the fifth side of the box and goes for serious escalation. Depending on how serious and depending on the West’s response, the outcome could be globally disastrous; this is the extreme scenario, however, and at this stage, the odds are against it occurring.
There is another kind of risk, however, which is less catastrophic, though still horrible, and less unlikely. It is laid out in front of us by the Afghanistan parallel. In the 1980s, it was deliberate US strategy to bleed the USSR. The US policy-makers who pushed that strategy – the bleeders, as I recall them being known at the time – presumably looked back on their work a decade later and congratulated themselves on its success. The USSR was indeed weakened and failure in Afghanistan is one important part of the explanation of why the USSR came to an end.
But when we know how things turned out after that in both Afghanistan and the ex-USSR, perhaps the issue of success looks different.
To end, a fourth metaphor
The question of how the war ends if neither Russia nor Ukraine achieves a decisive victory has been discussed from the outset and the metaphorical question that was asked became, what (or where) is the off-ramp, the exit from the highway? What is the way out that doesn’t involve extreme escalation?
It might be a peace agreement. It might include a guarantee of Ukraine’s future neutrality, which Ukrainian President Zelensky has said he is willing to discuss. It might be a process involving formal agreement, some tacit understandings (about territory, for example, though Zelensky has spoken out against ceding territory in the Donbas to Russia), along with readiness to discuss a new security architecture in Europe. It might be a scenario in which Putin forces NATO to the negotiating table over the future of European security. Or it might be one of a variety of other scenarios, some which don’t look particularly attractive to anybody.
In short, for all the energy that has gone into talking about an off-ramp or exit or way out – call it what you will – I am not sure anyone has yet found one that looks both attractive and likely.
As I wrote in my previous blog post, of course peace is possible in Ukraine: all that is needed is for Russia to decide to withdraw its forces. I think that maybe, for all this discussion of the quagmire and the box, escalation and off-ramps, maybe it all comes down to that, the decision in the Kremlin that it is time to stop.
As I also wrote, however, that is only the start of a longer process if there is to be a sustainable peace between Russia and Ukraine.