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Former Ambassador Peter Galbraith, seen here at last year’s 50th anniversary party for the Windham World Affairs Council, spoke on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and what it means for global stability during a Nov. 3 talk at Brooks Memorial Library.

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Back from Ukraine, Galbraith has more questions than answers

Former ambassador voices many concerns over the prospects for peace in his annual talk to the Windham World Affairs Council

BRATTLEBORO—When Peter Galbraith heard that Russia had invaded neighboring Ukraine last winter, the former U.S. ambassador and United Nations envoy figured the headlines would melt by spring.

“The expectation on the part of many Western analysts — I have to say myself included — was that the Russians would prevail in a quick victory,” the Townshend resident said.

Nearly a year later, Galbraith recently returned from a trip to the scene of Ukraine’s surprisingly tenacious resistance.

“Wars very rarely go as their architects intend,” he said at a talk for southern Vermont’s Windham World Affairs Council, an organization that began six decades ago by hosting his father, the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith.

That’s why the diplomat isn’t venturing any more guesses about what will happen next. Instead, he’s sharing his myriad concerns about the resulting uncertainty.

“We’re dealing with a 19th- or 20th-century issue — one country invading another,” Galbraith told an audience at Brooks Memorial Library. “As a result, we’re not addressing many of the other challenges we face on the planet, including climate change and the pandemic economy.”

The 71-year-old — the first U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Croatia from 1993 to 1998, and a Democratic Vermont state senator from 2011 to 2014 — grew up as his father was advising President John F. Kennedy during the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the then–Soviet Union.

“Nuclear Armageddon hung over us,” he said. “And then, all of a sudden [in the fall of 1989], there was this great moment of liberation as communism went out and democracy took hold.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February upended that.

Galbraith doesn’t believe the aggressor’s claim that a desire to protect its neighbors is behind the largest military mobilization in Europe since World War II. Instead, the Vermonter speculates leader Vladimir Putin is spurred by something else.

“Any time you’ve held the same job for 21 years, it gets a little boring — especially if you’re getting to be about 70 and thinking of your legacy,” Galbraith said. “Putin thought the Ukrainian government would collapse and he would have been the man who created a greater Russia.”

Instead, the conflict is entering its ninth month and counting, with Ukrainian forces recapturing territory from a Russian military that has not lived up to expectations.

“One of the things I’ve learned in my career is that the first victim of propaganda is always the propagandist. They come to believe their own arguments,” Galbraith said. “Militaries are the most powerful the day before they’re used.”

The Vermonter recently visited Ukraine and the neighboring republic of Moldova.

“It’s hard not to feel discouraged when you have a war of this scale,” he said.

Galbraith believes the future hinges on decisions by not only the two warring countries but also the rest of the world. The United States, for example, hasn’t sent soldiers to Ukraine but instead authorized $40 billion in assistance. That compares with American investment of troops and $2 trillion during nearly two decades of war in Afghanistan.

“This is both much less money and much more effective,” Galbraith said of the Ukrainian aid. “I think the way the Biden administration has handled this has been extremely good, balancing the desire not to escalate things too far with providing increasing levels of support.”

But Republicans have expressed unwillingness to approve continued help if their party wins in this week’s midterm elections.

“So what happens if they take over at least one house of Congress?” Galbraith said. “I don’t know.”

Nor can he say whether Russia will turn to nuclear weapons and how the United States and fellow NATO countries would respond. Instead, he can only alert others as the death toll, refugee count, and problems caused by plummeting fuel exports continue to rise.

“What is the offramp for Putin? Will there be diplomacy? This war has gone on for eight months, and it’s certainly likely to go on for quite a bit longer,” Galbraith said. “It’s something that should concern all of us.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #689 (Wednesday, November 9, 2022). This story appeared on page B4.

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