Since for me going to fight in Ukraine would probably be tantamount to suicide, many of my friends want to talk about it with me. I've found myself on the phone several times a week explaining who Neville Chamberlain was, what his policy of appeasement was-- and why it didn't work-- and what the Sudetenland was. I even wrote a paragraph about it here. Here, let me re-run it: I spoke with a smart and well-educated friend of mine today who knew who Neville Chamberlain was but didn't know why he knew... and had never heard of the Sudetenland. I feel like I have to explain that to help put why the resistance to Putin is so important to people who do know what that was all about. Keep in mind, Putin claims he just wants to protect Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine (the Donbas region). The Sudetenland was an amalgam of German-speaking regions of Czechoslavakia-- a country created after World War I-- bordering on Germany and Austria. After Hitler got away with kicking the French out of the Rhineland in 1936 and then annexing Austria in 1938, he felt emboldened to threaten war with Czechoslovakia if they didn't hand over the Sudetenland. Neville Chamberlain, a Conservative Party appeaser and political coward, forced them to do it in return for a promise to not attack the rest of Czechoslovakia. A few months later, German troops marched into Prague and annexed all of Czechoslovakia while the French and the British sat around with their thumbs up their asses. Seeing how easy that was, Hitler invaded Poland the same year. Even after Chamberlain declared war on Germany, there was no fighting for 8 months-- as Germany (and Russia) gobbled up Poland. Chamberlain was sacked and the war, which would have never happened had France and Britain stood up to Hitler in the Rhineland, Austria or Czechoslavakia, began. History teaches us that you don't prevent war by giving in to tyrants. You just whet their appetites.
This morning The Atlantic published a piece by Ukrainian journalist Veronika Melkozerova, The Western World Is In Denial, although I think it was originally titled, "What If World War III Has Already Started." She wrote that she "understands why democratic countries are reluctant to fight, but I worry they don’t understand what will happen next... Every day Russians commit more and more atrocities in my country. Only after Putin unleashed hell on our lands did the West finally unite in support of Ukraine, providing more weapons. Finally, the collective democratic world squeezed Russia with unprecedented sanctions. However, this has not stopped Putin from bombing and destroying Ukraine. If anything, his resolve has only strengthened. The Kremlin knows that Russians will feel the full impact of sanctions in a month or so. It also knows that Europe is so dependent on Russian fossil fuels that such harsh sanctions likely won’t last long. I already see more and more tweets sympathizing with Russians, saying those people do not deserve the limitations imposed against their nation for Putin’s war."
This is the same nation where 58 percent of people support Putin’s actions in Ukraine, according to the latest polls. Putin doesn’t kill anyone in Ukraine with his own hands; other Russians are doing that. The Kremlin has been planning to invade and destroy the identity of my country, and to do it quickly, and the Russian people are backing it. Russians are making this calculation because they believe they can afford to. The Kremlin knows that the West, despite its public admiration for Ukrainian courage, has left Ukraine alone on the actual battlefield. Westerners would rather help Ukraine with weapons and money but stand aside.
People in these countries are scared of World War III. I understand the fear-- but don’t you understand that World War III may have already arrived? Ukraine has been begging NATO to establish a no-fly zone, to protect us from Russian bombs, or at least give us fighter jets so we can better protect our skies. So far, the answer on both is “no.”
Meanwhile, more than 2,187 people have died because of Russian attacks in Mariupol alone, according to officials there. Russian attacks from the air have almost destroyed Volnovakha, Kharkiv, and many other towns in Ukraine. Ukraine’s authorities, who first pressured world powers to impose preventive sanctions, then pushed them to cut Russia from the SWIFT international-payment system, then pushed them to cut Russia from the rest of the world, have been asking how many more people should die for the skies to be closed over Ukraine.
What I see from NATO is a version of this message: The war in Ukraine is not our war. We will come forward only if Russia attacks an alliance member or bombs our convoy to Ukraine.
People of Europe and the U.S. have been pressing their governments to take a proactive position. They sent donations. They sent thoughts and prayers. The governments, especially in Europe, are still very cautious when it comes to making any move that might provoke Russia. Leaders such as Emmanuel Macron still seem to believe that dialogue can persuade Putin to stop his atrocities. For many in Europe, Russia’s petroleum and gas are more valuable than Ukrainian lives.
I understand the Western governments’ position.
I also used to say “This is not my war” while watching Russia’s atrocities in Aleppo. I also sent my thoughts and prayers to the people of Syria, also destroyed with the help of Putin. And back in 2008, I was so young that I did not even care to think about Georgians, whose land was also devastated and divided by Putin. And before that Moldova, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Libya, and other African countries.
Those were not my wars. But in 2014 the war came to my country. Back then, the world continued to cooperate with the aggressor Russia, deepening its dependence on Russia’s fossil fuels. Western leaders were willing to turn their back on the war, certain that Putin would never dare to attack the powerful collective West.
We in Ukraine also did not believe that Putin would dare to launch a full-scale invasion. But he did. Because in Moldova, Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine, Russia got away with its crimes. It did all this after the infamous “reset” of relations with the United States, and the United States allowed it. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on March 3, the West will “get over” its “hysteria” about Ukraine too.
I am afraid he might be right. And I am afraid of what that will mean for the rest of the world. Russia can’t let itself lose in Ukraine and has enough resources to keep its economy alive. Putin has made clear that he doesn’t see Ukraine as a sovereign nation and that he would rather destroy it than let it exist as a free European nation. Many, if not most, Russians share his view. Even many who claim to be liberals have tended to see Ukraine as a “special country,” meaning their country.
So maybe by saying “This is not our war,” the world’s leading democratic countries are simply showing that they are in denial about what will happen next. What if World War III has already started? Perhaps it began in Georgia, Moldova, and Syria. Perhaps in the future, the invasion of February 24 won’t be seen as the start, but as a key turning point.
It is obvious that Russia will not stop its crusade against democratic values and common sense in Ukraine. Russian propagandists have been talking about which country will be invaded next. Ukraine’s Defense Secretary Olexiy Danilov has said it might be Lithuania, a NATO member. Will NATO act only after Lithuania is invaded?
I don’t know. And I don’t call upon the peaceful nations of Europe to join our war either. All I can ask is that you think about your beloved cities and the people who might one day become Putin’s next targets.
Ukraine used to be known as a country of beautiful Soviet modernist architecture, featured in numerous Western music videos. It used to be a country of beautiful landscapes, cool restaurants, and humming rave culture. It is a country that has hosted two Eurovision Song Contests and one European soccer championship. A country that has become a battleground for U.S. politics and led to an impeachment scandal in America.
Kyiv used to amaze people with the beauty of the Dnipro River and impossibly long summer nights; Lviv dazzled people with its restaurants; Mariupol offered a vibrant mix of heavy industry and a lazy seashore-vacation mood. Kherson had awful roads but offered beautiful nature, pink lakes, the Black Sea, and plenty of homegrown food as compensation. Kharkiv, an education center, has hosted hundreds of international students and kept the special pride only a country’s first capital can have. For me, Kharkiv was a city of mathematics and large squares.
The Ukrainian people always welcomed guests from across Europe. We were so proud that the world had finally become interested in what we had to offer after the Maidan Revolution of 2014. Now the whole world is watching Putin destroy our land and murder our people: Kharkiv, Mariupol, Kherson, and now, the analysts say, Kyiv will be next.
Sanctions work, but they have not stopped Putin’s rockets falling from the skies. Now, after Georgia and Syria, those deathly rains have come to my land. What if they come to your land next?
Earlier yesterday, in the same magazine, Eliot Cohen wrote that America’s Hesitation Is Heartbreaking, a less emotional appeal but just as powerful. While he acknowledged that "the Biden administration has done an admirable job of winning the information war, mobilizing the NATO alliance, and imposing crippling (if not yet complete) sanctions on the Russian economy... [and] has sped the delivery of some weapon systems (notably Javelin anti-tank missiles and Stinger man-portable surface-to-air missiles) to Ukrainian forces... beyond those measures to prosecute this proxy war as a war, it is stumbling."
His point is that "The American fear of escalation has been a repeated note throughout this conflict. But to the extent American leaders express that sentiment, or spread such notions to receptive reporters, they make matters worse, giving the Russians a psychological edge. The Russians can (and do) threaten to ratchet things up, knowing that the West will respond with increased anxiety rather than reciprocal menace. We have yet to see, for example, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin telling the world what a wretched hand the Russians are playing militarily, and how much superior ours is-- a message he is particularly fit to deliver. As for the nuclear question: We should not signal to the Russians that they have a trump card they can always play to stop us from doing pretty much anything. Nuclear weapons are why the United States should refrain from attacking Russia directly, not why it should fear fighting Russians in a country they invaded. Only a few years ago, the United States Air Force killed Russian Wagner mercenaries by the hundreds in Syria; American and Russian pilots tangled in the skies over Korea and possibly Vietnam. Nuclear deterrence cuts both ways, and the Russian leadership knows it. Vladimir Putin and those around him are ill-informed but not mad, and the use of nuclear weapons would threaten their very survival."
When the Ukrainians are willing to spill their blood, seemingly without limit, in a wholly admirable cause, American hesitation is heartbreaking. New Hampshire license plates bear the state motto Live Free or Die, attributed to the Revolutionary War General John Stark. The Ukrainians are acting on that belief, which previous generations of Americans acted upon as well.
And it is all completely unnecessary. In many ways, American decision makers are still acting on the basis of widespread prewar analysis of the Russian military that has proved utterly unjustified by events. The Russians do not have what is technically termed escalation dominance. NATO (and above all, American) air power could sweep the skies over Ukraine clear of Russian aircraft, and after a week or two of smashing Russian air defenses, devastate its ground forces. The Russian army is not advancing implacably; it is plagued by incompetence, poor supplies, corruption, terrible morale, bad tactics, and a cause in which its soldiers do not believe. Russian reserves are not like the Israeli reserves, the Finnish reserves, or for that matter the American National Guard: They are badly equipped and do not train. The truth is, with enough arms, the Ukrainians can break the invaders, and in some areas they have begun to do so.
It is not just the fact and the atmospherics of arms supply to Ukraine that matter now, but scale and urgency. The United States has said that it has begun shipping $200 million in aid. That sounds well enough, but when Javelin missiles cost in the low six figures each, that is less than it sounds-- and at least an order of magnitude less than is necessary. As the leader of NATO and of the free world, the United States needs to think much bigger than it has thus far. The stream of arms going into Ukraine needs to be a flood.
This is a war of desperate importance not just to Europe but to international order and freedom everywhere. American officials need to rise to the moment. They cannot snipe on or off the record at allies, they cannot dodge the extent of what needs doing, and they most definitely cannot talk as though they are afraid of what Putin may do. That is the most ruinous error of all. They need to say, and say repeatedly, that a Russian war with NATO would only consummate the destruction that the Russian military is suffering at this very moment.
In the movie The Untouchables, the cop Jim Malone tells Eliot Ness what bringing down the gangster Al Capone is going to require: “You wanna know how to get Capone? Here’s how you get him. He pulls a knife; you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital; you send one of his to the morgue… Now, do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that?”
Putin and his subordinates are, in fact, less politicians than gangsters, and need to be treated as such. Instead of talk of off-ramps, for example, there should be promises of war-crimes trials (names included) for those who kidnap mayors, shoot at fleeing civilians, and target maternity hospitals; instead of worry about escalation, there should be promises of the eradication of the Russian army in Ukraine should it use chemical weapons. Instead of carefully titrated military aid, there should be a massive effort to arm people who know why they are fighting and are good at it.
This is all bloody and brutal stuff. But, to quote Clausewitz again, “If one side uses force without compunction, undeterred by the bloodshed it involves, while the other side refrains, the first will gain the upper hand.” We are dealing with an enemy that is vicious but weak, menacing but deeply fearful, and that is likely to crack long before our side does-- if only we have the stomach for doing what needs to be done.
Over the weekend, historian Niall Ferguson was interviewed by Nikkei Asia, explaining that this is "the moment when Europeans and Americans have woken up to the reality that Vladimir Putin intends to resurrect the Russian Empire and has not finished, even if he is successful in taking control of Ukraine... Putin cannot have expected such unity and severity in the realm of economic sanctions, as we see. It turned out that Europeans were far more willing to impose sanctions on Russia than he probably expected-- not only that, more willing to supply military aid to Ukraine. He has absolutely no interest in there being an escalation, because he would lose any war with NATO unless he was prepared to use nuclear weapons, and that's just a bluff."
Ferguson doesn't think Putin is crazy but that power-- relatively unfettered absolute power-- "has corrupted him. And it has also distanced him from reality. He clearly underestimated the Ukrainian resistance, and he clearly underestimated the risk to the Russian economy. These are miscalculations, not signs of madness. They're the kind of miscalculations you make if you are very divorced from reality, because you lead the life of a czar, in vast-- if hideous-- palaces, surrounded by people who are terrified of you and tell you what they think you want to hear. If I put myself in Putin's position, I don't think he's trying to resurrect the Soviet Union. He's looking back even further and trying to bring back the Russian Empire, with himself as 'Czar Vladimir.' It's an ideology of conservative, orthodox nationalism that Putin offers, that has nothing to do with the Soviet legacy. A lot of people get this wrong. He has a huge incentive to speed up the defeat of Ukraine, using more brutal methods if that's what it takes. Because if he doesn't win, then I think his position at home will become very vulnerable. If I'm him, the crucial thing now is to achieve victory over Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian army as fast as possible so that we can get to some peace negotiation from a position of strength. In that negotiation, Putin might be willing to make some concessions to get the sanctions reduced or removed."
I'm thinking that if you read everything above, you know what Volodymyr Zelenskyy is going to say at his joint session of Congress tomorrow. Although... he was a professional comedian before he became an internationally admired hero, so who knows? Maybe he'll give a shout out to fellow comedian Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) or have a hot response ready if Marjorie Traitor Greene (R-GA), Lauren Boebert (R-CO), Rand Paul (R-KY) and Ron Johnson (R-WI) start their joint baboon routine of heckling him, the way the former two did to Biden a couple of weeks ago. But most of all, I wonder want he says if crazy Little Madge decides to wear her Sunday best in honor of her master's master.