Paul Wells
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Ukraine: Mr. Thorsell dissents

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Ukraine: Mr. Thorsell dissents

A talk about war, futility and how to disagree
William Thorsell at home in Toronto, March 12. Photos for PW by Sarah Palmer

This week’s podcast episode is unusual. My guest is William Thorsell, former editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail (1989-1999); former Director and CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum (2000-2010); current Distinguished Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

It’s rough out here for an old pundit sometimes. William likes to send occasional emails on topics in current affairs to an email list of friends who hold interesting jobs, or used to. (I published one of his old emails on my Medium page, during the 2015 election. It drew a lot of attention.) He’s not particularly seeking influence. He’s had influence. These days he wants to be read, and argued with.

Since 2022 almost all of his emails have been about Ukraine. Or they were; several months ago I asked him to take me off his recipient list. He thinks Ukrainian resistance is increasingly futile, NATO support increasingly destabilizing, a negotiated ceasefire increasingly necessary. These are not popular opinions even among his friends. Maybe three of us sent brief rebuttals. Most never reply.

My post last week about Emmanuel Macron’s surprising remarks on Ukraine prompted Thorsell to send me his latest missive. It reads, in part:

Hola amigos,
Here is an update on my analysis of the war in Ukraine, which as you know, I believe to be of American origin and a tragedy for Ukraine likely, I thought, to lead to a “Korean” standoff where a stalemate on the ground would lead to a ceasefire without any other negotiations. That would be a rational outcome, given the scenarios. A few months go, I argued that this should be recognized lest Russia actually start making military advances in 2024.
I had argued in 2020 and through 2021 for what I called a “Canadian Solution” in Ukraine, reflecting the Minsk Accords which foresaw a kind of federalism in Ukraine where the Donbas provinces would have strong local powers and a meaningful role in the national government - as Quebec and Alberta do here. I suggested a conference at the Munk School then to proffer our widoms there, but it came to naught. Perhaps it was naive. Perhaps it was smart. It is history.

Now, we get back to facts on the ground.
* Ukraine is clearly out-matched by Russian military power and will probably continue to lose ground in the east as Russia fleshes out the border of the Donbas provinces.
* Russia has explicitly not ruled out Odessa as the last piece in their wish list.
* Ukraine is making effective targeted strikes against the Russian fleet and some other targets through drones. Otherwise Ukraine in pulling back on the ground. The game plan for 2024 is to hold defences.
* The EU will provide Ukraine with $54-billion over two years in cash to fund its government, which is otherwise bankrupt. This will allow Ukraine to pay its military forces, employees and pensioners etc. It does not include meaningful military aid. The EU will pay Ukraine’s internal financial bills.
* The US is considering $64-billion in aid to Ukraine, which includes money plus weapons, including ammunition. As we know, this is opposed by a significant measure of Republicans in the House since November, and its prospects remain unknown going into April. Whatever happens there, it would be the last of any such appropriations for Ukraine in all likelihood.
* Within Ukraine, it is clear that their manpower for the front is greatly reduced, and that current efforts to enhance conscription are unpopular and failing in the legislature. The military says it needs 500,000 conscripts, and Zelensky is not standing for that. It is not in the cards.
* In February, Zelensky fired the chief of his military, Valerii Zaluzhny, who had said last fall in an interview with the Ecomonist that Ukraine was a a “stalemate” with Russia on the front. Zelensky rejected that and repeated his unalterable was aims: Recovery all of all territory lost to Ukraine since 2014, including Crimea, prosecution of Putin and others for war crimes, and complete Russian reparations.

If this is the context, “as long as it takes” will be Keynesian kind of thing: “In the long run, we are all dead.” It will not happen.

I stopped reading there. I don’t usually last that long. I am a creature of pure orthodoxy on the Ukraine question. I think nothing Ukraine or its Western allies has done justified a Russian invasion of Ukraine. I think Ukraine’s resistance is heroic, and richly justified in international law, whether it succeeds or not. I think we will have a much darker future if Putin’s aggression is rewarded than if it is foiled. I can’t think of a better use for Canadian military assistance than this.

But here’s this other guy who thinks differently, and I decided we should hear him out.

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Paul Wells
The Paul Wells Show podcast
Canada's leading podcast for serious, respectful interviews with leading newsmakers, thinkers and creators from Canada and around the world.