Cover Image: Putin meeting with China’s Xi Jinping on 2/4/22 during the Beijing Winter Olympics, shortly before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Photo credit: http://www.kremlin.ru
Did you ever deal with a childhood bully? I did. Every day for years and years. He never stopped, and I never stopped him. I tried talking things out with him, befriending him, avoiding him, but nothing worked. It made no sense to me to use violence against him because violence itself made no sense to me. I also worried that if I allowed myself to feel enough anger to fight back, I wouldn’t know when to stop, and either I would kill him or he would kill me. And if we survived, I figured that he would treat me even worse after that. So instead I endured regular pummelings, daily humiliation and ridicule, and the constant threat of violence – either from him or from lower-tier bullies who saw from his example how easy it was to push me around.
As of this writing, nearly three weeks of war crimes have been taking place in Ukraine, some of them captured on video for all to see. The world had optimistically hoped that Putin would not be so bold as to invade another sovereign country with no provocation, but he did, plunging the citizens of Ukraine into a brutal war and a horror show of grim choices: abandon my home or fight and potentially die, split up my family or put them in danger, shoot my mortally wounded father lying in the road or let him bleed out. But how does this conflict differ from the other genocides over the past 60 years – Palestine, Rwanda, Congo, East Timor, Somalia, Myanmar, Syria? While it is potentially valuable for the Caucasians among us to examine how the skin pigment of the victims may be affecting our personal level of concern, I would argue that there is a geopolitical element that makes Ukraine different and particularly urgent: the global ambitions of Vladimir Putin and other dictators – ambitions which have only grown more intense as the United States of recent decades has come to be seen as a nation of weak, inconsistent leadership and internal disunity. In particular, Putin and China’s Xi not only wish to expand their nations’ borders, but have a feeling of entitlement to specific countries that they believe they are justified to “take back.”
Putin grew up in dire poverty in bombed-out post-WWII St. Petersburg (then Leningrad). He was bullied by local thugs and learned to become a bully and a thug himself. He had a deep sense of pride in his Soviet homeland and grew up to successfully pursue his dream of becoming a KGB officer. While many greeted the collapse of the Soviet Union with excitement and optimism, Putin viewed it as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” – the humiliating downfall of a glorious empire shattered into independent fragments as a result of American meddling. As President of Russia, Putin has decried NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, an alliance of western nations formed after World War II) and sought its demise, in part because it is the most potent military force holding him back from invading the former Soviet nations, and in part because he sees more and more of those former Soviet nations seeking NATO membership.
A desire to stop NATO expansion and a nostalgic fantasy of reconstituting the USSR are the primary drives behind his invasion of Ukraine. Putin’s excuse that he is “denazifying” Ukraine is such an absurd and lazy rationale as to indicate a core belief that he shouldn’t even need an excuse to “take back what is rightly his.”
We have all admired the stunning bravery of Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people who have stayed to fight off the Russian invaders. From our relative comfort in the United States, we check the news, root for the Ukrainians, damn Putin, pray for a peaceful outcome, and hopefully make donations to humanitarian organizations helping civilians on the ground there. But this is nowhere near enough. The courage on display in Ukraine is not sustainable without real help, including military assistance. The 40-mile convoy of stranded Russian tanks north of Kyiv was a glaring opportunity for fighter jets to decimate a large portion of Putin’s army. Instead of providing such bombers, America sat by, with its most promising solution being a deal wherein Poland would give Ukraine Soviet-era jets and the US would backfill the Polish air force with American fighter jets. As that deal was discussed and ultimately fell apart, Russia got the needed fuel and supplies to the tanks, and now they are back on track and closing in on Kyiv.
So what do we do when they have Kyiv surrounded – with more fresh Russian troops arriving daily, when Ukrainian forces have run out of ammunition, when they’ve grown exhausted and sick because they are getting little sleep and their water and electricity and heating have all been cut off, when we wake up to the news that Zelenskyy is one of the many dead under a pile of rubble? Do we just feel sad, shrug, and wish that things had gone differently? The Ukrainians are outnumbered and outgunned, and their courage must be backed by steady outside help. We can at the very least provide them ample ammunition and weapons, including fighter jets, without hiding behind other countries in convoluted arrangements to do so. And we can also work covertly for the rapid elimination of Putin from the Russian Presidency.
Putin has repeatedly mentioned his nuclear arsenal as a threat to anyone who might wish to step in and interfere with his slaughter of Ukrainian civilians. And in truth, the relative absence of the Russian Air Force from the current conflict may mean that he is keeping those forces on standby to deal with outsiders. Having grown up during the Cold War with the threat of nuclear annihilation constantly looming in the background of daily life, I take seriously the horror that a nuclear conflict would bring. But Putin seems to have turned the Cold War policy of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) on its head. Whereas in the past, it was a deterrent against Soviet use of nuclear weapons, Putin is using it as a cudgel to hold the world at bay while he does whatever he wants. And we’re accepting that.
So what is our red line before we are willing to get involved? Clearly it is not the commission of war crimes or the targeting of civilians. Is it the use of chemical weapons? Biological weapons? The death of Zelenskyy? Deliberate face-to-face executions of Ukrainian soldiers? Of civilians? Bulldozers loading them all into mass graves? The expansion of the invasion to Moldova? To Finland? Or do we simply do nothing until an actual NATO country is attacked?
Putin will decide what is or is not a provocation for him to use nuclear weapons, if he is actually willing to use them. And that provocation can be whatever he chooses – interference from America, a desire to save face after unexpectedly fierce Ukrainian resistance, a perceived slight from a world leader, anything. In the meantime, he is learning with each new atrocity that his initial calculation was correct: that he can do anything he wants as long as he occasionally uses the magic words “World War III” or “nukes.” Rest assured that China, who wishes to invade Taiwan, is learning by watching all of this as well. So do we wait for China – with a larger and far more potent military force than Russia – to make its move? Is that our red line? The farther out we push the boundary of what we will accept, the more dangerous the odds become.
Through action or inaction – either way – we are potentially provoking World War III. The difference is that action now has a chance of sending a message of deterrence to the world’s expansionist thugs. Inaction will hand us a pre-1945 world, where invasions of sovereign countries for the spoils of war are once again commonplace, borders are fluid, international rules become completely unenforceable and therefore nonexistent regarding things like the development of nuclear weapons, and fear becomes much more of a constant across the globe. Putin’s war on Ukraine is not just another military conflict in another country. It is a gateway to a new era of global lawlessness and conquest, and we have the choice right now whether we will be meekly dragged through that gate by a bully or if we will have the courage to use our strength to hold that gate shut.
– rob rünt