Focus on Stopping Putin’s War in Ukraine Now
“Lessons learned” come later
Too soon, the “lessons learned” from Vladimir Putin’s ongoing war in Ukraine come tumbling forth — as if Ukraine were already lost, as if it were just another case study in the fate of small nations in big-power politics.
Example: “What Democracy’s Advocates Can Learn from Ukraine,” at The Atlantic, about how democrats the world over can learn from Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky’s very effective ”messaging.” While the article’s point is inarguable, it is too soon and bespeaks a mindset that’s already “post-Ukraine.” The other day I heard a talking-head refer to “the post-Zelensky period.” Stop!
Putin’s war machine, now within miles of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv and encircling it, mows down civilians, blows up maternity hospitals and kindergartens. In the port city Mariupol, encircled by Russian troops and cut off from food and water for a week, children are dying of malnutrition. Wave after wave of desperate Ukrainians is shown fleeing, with children in their arms, their lives in tote bags. (I see the elderly being hurried away in wheelchairs and worry, Did they take their medications with them?). Hard as it is to watch — The New York Times calls this the “first live-streamed” war — it also presents us, the world, with a choice: Look away and start analyzing, forgetting, etc. — or stay with the suffering humanity in Ukraine and the war crime now being inflicted on it. The mindset is all. Putin is bent on razing Ukraine, compounding his crimes with threats of nuclear and chemical weapons.
Here are new thinking and new developments that bear on stopping Putin’s war in Ukraine now:
Rethink “offensive” and ‘defensive” weapons: Congressman Jason Crow (D-Colo.), a former Army Ranger who served three tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, makes an important distinction. Citing the U.S. decision to scuttle the transfer of Polish MiG fighter jets to Ukraine because such offensive weapons risk U.S. vs. Russia confutation, he calls it a “nonsensical distinction.” Explaining, Crow says: “I don’t believe there is a distinction between providing a MiG and providing a Javelin [anti-tank missile] and a Stinger [anti-aircraft missile]. These are defensive systems. We are not providing offensive capabilities because Ukraine is not on the offense [italics mine], all they’re doing is fighting for their survival and trying to maintain their democracy against a Vladimir Putin invasion.” He urges the West to provide more such weapons, especially as Ukraine tries to prevent Russian air control. It must constantly be asked, Is there not more we can do?
Rethink “escalation”: Similarly, Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia (2012–14) and omnipresent TV talking-head who’s dealt with Putin and is in constant contact with friends in Ukraine and Russia, counsels a rethink of “escalation.” Noting the current thinking that the West, as it seeks to help Ukraine more, risks “escalating” tensions with Putin, McFaul declares: “Putin’s already done that, he’s already escalated.” Of course, with both points — a rethink of offensive and defensive weapons as well as escalation — absolutely, direct U.S. vs. Russian confrontation must be avoided. But to the extent possible, Putin cannot be the only one defining terms and conditions.
Keep the narrative Russia-Ukraine, not Russia-U.S.: Dr. Fiona Hill, long-time Russia expert now at the Brookings Institution who at ex-president Donald Trump’s first impeachment warned about “false” narratives, now counsels this: As Putin levels more and more of Ukraine, and as the U.S. seeks to provide maximum help to Ukraine to hold out, it is vital that the narrative not take on a U.S. vs. Russia focus. Instead, the onus must stay on Putin the instigator, the warmonger, the war criminal; the proper frame, to be repeated as a mantra, is, “This is Putin’s war.” Because, as Hill warns, if Putin can point to a U.S.-driven narrative, he’s more likely to claim he’s being forced to escalate — to a whole new and awful realm. With Putin now welcoming Syrian volunteers to serve in Ukraine and asking China for more weaponry — both moves widening the scope internationally — more and more light is directed at the U.S. Attenzione. In this regard, The New York Times’ banner headline, print edition, “U.S. Will Send More Arms, Defying Moscow,” specifically the verb “defying,” is not helpful.
Recommit to Ukraine’s fight, because if Ukraine loses, a wider war is likely: Retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, also a star witness at Trump’s first impeachment, appearing as the National Security Council’s Ukraine specialist (and subsequently fired by Trump), has throughout this war been, as a Ukrainian-born native, a dedicated but restrained advocate for more U.S. military aid to Ukraine. In a Foreign Affairs essay, “America Must Do More to Help Ukraine Fight Russia,” he calls on the U.S. to establish a lend-lease program to expedite a broader range of weaponry to the out-manned and -armed Ukrainian army, stating this is “a fight that the world cannot afford to let the Ukrainians lose.” But last Friday on “Amanpour & Co.,” Vindman dropped the impassive demeanor and declared, passionately: If Ukraine does not win this war, Putin will march on — and, Vindman declares, there will be wider war, a “hot” war.
Rethink: How to stop Putin: Stephen Kotkin, a history professor at Princeton, in an instructive interview with The New Yorker, describes how autocracies work (or don’t); how this autocrat, Putin, aiming to restore his brittle state to world status, overplayed his hand in Ukraine; and how, on this basis, he may be approached. To New Yorker editor David Remnick’s citing Sun Tzu, ancient Chinese theorist of war, “that you must always build your opponent a ‘golden bridge’ so that he can find a way to retreat,” Kotkin responds: To avoid in Ukraine the leveling that Putin rained on Grozny (Chechnya) and Aleppo (Syria) — “That’s the pathway we’re on now” — he urges “catalyzing a process…where he [Putin] doesn’t have maximalist demands and it stalls for time, for things to happen on the ground, that rearrange the picture of what he can do.”
For this role of bridge-builder, Kotkin nominates the President of Finland, “whom [Putin] respects and knows well…. The Finns know Russia better than any country in the world.” Regarding the Biden administration, “The pressure is on to be maximalist on our side, but, the more you corner [him], the more there’s nothing to lose for Putin, the more he can raise the stakes…. He has many tools that he hasn’t used that can hurt us. We need a de-escalation from the maximalist spiral, and we need a little bit of luck and good fortune, perhaps in Moscow, perhaps in Helsinki”; also Jerusalem or Beijing; and “certainly in Kyiv.” Perhaps there is another third party, already present or yet to emerge, who can build this golden bridge…?
From within Russia as well, Putin may be experiencing pressure to stop the war (it’s forbidden, by hastily-enacted law, to refer to the war in Ukraine; it’s a “special military operation”). Steven Hall, former director of CIA Russia operations and CNN national security analyst, says Putin may be worried about “collusion” against him, for the badly-managed war and sanctions. That pressure, Hall speculates, would come, not from the oligarchs, but the security and military elites, who “have armed forces that serve under them, also intelligence and the ability to operate clandestinely.” (Hall’s op-ed in The Washington Post is titled “Putin Shouldn’t Fear a Coup by Oligarchs. But He Should Fear His Fellow Spies.”) Additionally, per an eye-opening article in The Daily Beast, there is reportedly growing opposition at Russian state TV, which is more propaganda arm than a news organization, for Putin to stop the war.
And Alexey Navalny, opposition leader, and Putin’s internal Nemesis, came out again against the war in Ukraine, again from his prison cell, to urge response from the Russian public. Navalny’s chief of staff told Christiane Amanpour: “Putin’s support base is vanishing…. But I don’t believe there’s a silver bullet that could stop Putin. I believe that pressure has to be applied from all possible directions.” Navalny himself tweeted to the Russian public: “[L]et’s at least not become a nation of frightened silent people. Of cowards who pretend not to notice the aggressive war against Ukraine unleashed by our obviously insane czar.” But: Will the Russian soul respond….?
Thus: The forces in play are mighty and many — and they are still in play. Thus any “lessons learned” — especially any “post-Ukraine” lessons — are yet to come: Ukraine is here, not to be sidelined, fighting against insane odds. For now, all attention must focus on the valiant Ukrainians in their existential fight with Russia. For they fight, not only for their own independence and democracy, but, in truth, for the world. If there is a lesson already learned — and I sense many Americans already understand the gravity of the moment, if not the why — it is this: If Ukraine is lost, so is freedom, truth, human rights. The battle is that basic.
For Russian-American reporter, Masha Gessen on Putin and his war in Ukraine, listen to her NPR “Fresh Air” interview here. For The Washington Post article, “‘No Off-Ramps’: U.S. and European Officials Don’t See a Clear Endgame in Ukraine,” see here. For my previous posts on Ukraine, see here.