The People Giving Putin a Pass

Well, at least he waited till the Olympics were over.

As we watch the early stages of the largest military invasion on the European continent since World War II, a wanton act of unprovoked aggression by a brutal dictator abrogating the sovereignty of a democratic neighbor, one of the most striking things to this observer is that the rhetoric from America’s hard left and hard right is almost identical.

And the gist of that rhetoric is: “Meh.”

I should qualify that. On the right there are many who are not just indifferent but active fans of Vladimir Putin, who admire him, who think that his invasion of Ukraine is great. This gang includes a former President of the United States and his Secretary of State, along with not a few Republican Senators, congressmen, newscasters, and pundits—not for nothing, influential people who openly aspire to lead this nation again. Just by the by.

But only a few of these, like the aforementioned Florida retiree, are so monstrous as to wear their admiration for the Russian despot on their silk sleeves. The majority of pro-Putin right wingers are savvy enough to keep it on the down-low, making them even more insidious, and therefore more dangerous. These right wing Putin “neutralists” operate under a dishonest veneer of alleged respectability and moderation—a veneer so Kleenex-thin that it would disintegrate in even a light breeze, but a veneer nonetheless—asking, with mock sensibleness, why we care about Ukraine, don’t we have other stuff to worry about, and anyway isn’t Russia entitled to its national security concerns in its backyard the same way the USA is?

As with most things that issue out of Republican pieholes, it’s hard to tell if this is genuine moral hideousness or simply sheer cynicism. Equally hard to tell? Which one is worse. 

Their far left wing brethren who are similarly unbothered by events in Ukraine come at the issue from a very different position—diametrically so, in fact—one that emphasizes American sins and blithely papers over Russian ones, if they merit mention at all. But the net effect is the same: to give cover to Vladimir Putin’s wholly indefensible invasion of Ukraine, and the global risks it foretells.

Who says America is riven in two and can’t agree on anything?

So let’s take this phenomenon apart in counter-clockwise fashion, beginning with the more conventional critique from the left, and work our way round to the ghoulish circus taking place on the right. 

MOSCOW MULES

Regular readers of this blog know that I have tremendous respect for Noam Chomsky, that great outsider of American political commentary, whose invisibility in the MSM is a telling measure of his acumen and the threat he poses to the status quo. His critique of domestic US politics of late has been especially acute, IMHO. 

But on Ukrainehis running conversation with the interviewer C.J. Polychroniou in the pages of Truthout has missed the mark. Both men acknowledge Putin’s awfulness, but only in passing, on their way to lengthy diatribes about what they see as the United States’s blame for this crisis. 

Their general argument is a familiar one in foreign policy circles, because it is Putin’s argument too: that the US is ignoring Russia’s legitimate security concerns, particularly with regards to the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO, and therefore is the party at fault for “creating” this crisis. Compounding the sin, in this view, is the fact that there is no real chance that Ukraine is going to become a member of NATO in the foreseeable future, making the US refusal to “meet Russia halfway” even more unjustified.

Pundits across the reasonable political spectrum from Mehdi Hasan to Chris Hayes to David von Drehle to Peter Beinart have endorsed or at least mused about something similar. It is a mantra often traced back to a 2014 article in Foreign Affairs by the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer, titled “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault,” bearing the subtitle “The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin.” (Talk about blaming the victim. Was Ukraine wearing a short skirt or something?)

But the argument is unsound. 

While the US is open to Ukraine joining NATO—itself a relataively new development—our European allies, Germany above all, are dead set against it and have told Moscow as much in so many words. 

So if there is no chance of Ukraine joining NATO, how does that justify such “security concerns” on Putin’s part….. and not just any ol’ security concerns, but the kind that require a military invasion? 

The post-1991 expansion of NATO into former Soviet republics, during America’s hubristic, oat-feeling “hyperpower” period, may well have been ill-advised—not merely as part of the game of nations, but in hindering efforts for genuine democracy to rise within Russia. Thomas Friedman is among those making that case, quoting the great and wise George Kennan. 

Then again, one might well argue that Ukraine has very good reason to cozy up to the West, whose democracies (flawed though they are) it seeks to emulate. It has equally good reason to be hostile toward Moscow, which overtly denies that it is even a real country with a right to exist, and has long intervened in its affairs, including a previous military incursion into Crimea just eight years ago. Indeed, the expansion of NATO and the deterrent threat of Article 5 might be the only thing keeping Putin from gobbling up all of the former Soviet Union and its satellite states.

That can be filed under “Chicken or Egg? Discuss.” But to swallow whole Putin’s fish story about NATO and faux alarmist “security concerns” is to ignore the other plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face reasons why he wants the state of Ukraine wiped off the face of the Earth. Even Friedman acknowledges that Vlad is latching onto NATO merely as “low hanging fruit,” which is part of why it may have been foolish and self-damaging on the part of the US in the first place.

TWO WRONGS

The other aspect of the Ukraine crisis over which the far left has been hammering the US is that of simple hypocrisy. And to be fair, they have a point there. 

How, they ask, NATO or no NATO, would the United States respond to a foreign adversary pressing on our borders—that proverbial backyard—or indeed anywhere we deem of strategic concern, which is pretty much everywhere……how have we responded, in fact, from the Monroe Doctrine to the Cuban Missile Crisis to Operation Just Cause? 

Yes, we “secretly” invaded Cambodia in 1970 in violation of international law, a disaster that led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge. Yes, we dropped into Panama in 1989 and overthrew the government when Noriega became insufficiently cooperative, threatening US control of the canal. Yes, we nonsensically invaded Iraq in 2003, in irrational response to 9/11, to play out the Bush family’s Oedipal drama as far as I can tell. (But as Rumsfeld explained, Iraq had all the best targets!) Chomsky has long described even the US presence in South Vietnam as an invasion, and he’s not wrong.

And that is limiting the laundry list just to large scale military operations, leaving out covert skullduggery and proxy wars from the toppling of Mosaddegh in Iran to the Bay of Pigs to the murders of Allende, Lumumba, and more.

OK, so we’re no angels.  

But the fact that the United States has engaged in indefensible acts of international aggression does not make Russia’s latest demonstration of the same any more acceptable. Two wrongs, my friends, as any preschooler can tell you. 

More to the point, how is it that these critics are so unconcerned with Putin’s crimes, giving them only the scantest mention, while railing ferociously and at length about those of the US and the West? It is very reiminiscent of the 2016 election, when I often heard otherwise intelligent people continually say,”Yeah, Trump is awful, but….”, then spend hour upon hour and column inch upon column inch decrying everything that was allegedly wrong with Hillary. 

We saw where that got us. 

These critics cannot possibly believe the West is worse than the Russian autocracy; if so, their credibility is suspect from the jump. If it is only a matter of holding democracies to a higher standard, it still has the net effect of propagandizing for authoritarianism by dint of sheer journalistic real estate. Conversely, to argue that the West doesn’t deserve a higher standard—that is, that a Western democracy like the US, flawed though it is, is the moral equivalent of a jackbooted police state—is to parrot the exact argument Putin has been making for more than twenty years. 

In other words, a little perspective is in order here. Even if one accepts the Mearsheimer argument (which I do not), does that justify an invasion and the attendant slaughter of tens of thousands? Truthout & Co. have not been very forgiving of the US when it has done so, or as understanding of its reasons as they are of Putin’s.

So by all means, let’s call out the US’s failures and transgressions—it’s our moral duty to do so. But let’s not give Putin and other despots a pass in the process. 

PUTIN ON THE RITZ

If the left is bad on Ukraine, the right is infinitely worse. 

Show of hands: who’s shocked?

In right wing media, the narrative about Ukraine includes that same bullshit about NATO, but less elegantly framed, amid the usual head-in-the-sand “populist” isolationism:  

It’s none of our business! Why should we care about some obscure former Soviet republic halfway around the world? It’s in Moscow’s sphere anyway! It’s the Super Bowl halftime show that’s the real outrage!

Prominent in that choir, Tucker Carlson is a literal shill for the Kremlin, blasting out Putinist propaganda to his millions of mouthbreathing viewers every night. Not for nothing is he regularly featured in the Russian domestic media and on Russia Today, that country’s premier state-run TV network targeting the outside world. 

The Bulwark’s Charlie Sykes gives us a nice survey of Carlson’s service to the Kremlin:

“Vladimir Putin does not want Belgium,” explains Tucker. “He just wants to keep his western borders secure. That’s why he doesn’t want Ukraine to join NATO, and that makes sense.” As for Ukraine? “It’s run by a dictator who’s friends with everyone in Washington,” Carlson said. 

The Russian are, of course, thrilled.

A rogues’ gallery including the likes of Tulsi Gabbard, Maria Bartiromo, Paul Gosar, George Papadopolous, Candace Owens, and Laura Ingraham are also advancing the canards that “Zelenskyy is a dictator,” and that the White House is trying to distract us from its (supposed) failures on COVID and (zzzz) the border, and of course the latest on Hillary spying on Donald! Owens went so far as to suggest the US send troops into Canada to overthrow Justin Trudeau. (I’m not kidding.) The left and right meet in the person of Glenn Greenwald, the hard left contrarian who is now a regular presence on Fox News, including Carlson’s show, where he serves as resident progressive apostate and all-purpose housepet. 

Fiona Hill, formerly the senior director for Europe and Russia at the National Security Council, whom you may remember from Trump’s first impeachment, has called Carlson and his ilk “the ultimate stooges.” Arguably the central figure from that impeachment, LTC (Ret.) Alexander Vindman—himself a Ukrainian émigré, lest we forget, born in what was then the USSR—has said they have “blood on their hands.”

And it’s not just limited to the freak show of Fox. Presidential aspirant Mike Pompeo practically slobbered in describing Putin’s shrewdness and his own respect for him–he made me a better diplomat!!!!!—trying to walk the very thin line that will allow him to insist that he didn’t praise Putin per se, even though he knows that’s how it will read to MAGA Nation, and to Putin himself, which of course is how Mike wants it to read. (“Maybe Vlad will hack the DNC to help me,” is what’s in the thought bubble above Pompeo’s head.) 

Senatorial candidate J.D. Vance, locked in a race to the bottom with the other hopefuls in the Ohio GOP primary, took time out from taking obscene cheap shots at genuine American war heroes to suggest that migrants at our southern border are a greater national security concern than Putin. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent took him apart like a wolverine who’d been thrown a pork chop, noting how repulsive it is to treat “immigration to the United States as a species of invasion on a par with what Russia is threatening.”

The best people, amirite?

In some ways, of course, the newfound GOP affection for Russia is astonishing, given that Russophobia has been at the very heart of the American conservative movement for almost eight decades as the organizing principle around which all right wing American foreign policy revolved.

But at the same time, head-in-the-sand isolationism is an equally old and venerable tradition among American reactionaries—America First, anyone?—creating a fundamental conflict with that jingoism. Postwar revisionism in the glow of victory has erased the memory of the vast number of right wing Americans who were perfectly fine with Nazi Germany—admiring of it, even—in the years before Pearl Harbor made that position untenable, from Lindbergh to the Silver Shirts to the German American Bund to many ordinary Hooverite conservatives. 

Which brings us to the truly appalling aspect of right wing apologism for Putin: It is not merely that many American conservatives are willing, for whatever reason, to overlook his ghastliness, as some on the far left are. They are kindred spirits who share his worldview.

The revanchist right views Putin as a great bulwark of white, putatively Christian supremacism in a world beset by the horrors of politically correct liberalism, the LGBQT movement, hip hop, and the tuck rule. (It is no coincidence that Putin and his cronies are fanatically homophobic, sometimes homicidally so.) 

That phenomenon reached its apotheosis with the ascendance of Donald Trump, whose bizarre, groveling subservience to Putin has been well-documented in this blog and innumerable other places. When the right looks at Putinist Russia, with its autocratic cult of personality, its governmental control of the media, its brutal suppression of dissent, and its retrograde anti-liberal agenda, they see not a nightmare but a dream to which they aspire.

GENIUS RECOGNIZES GENIUS

Even as Fox News makes the predictable Wag the Dog allegations, it may well be that we are past the era when the rally-round-the-flag effect of a foreign war helps a sitting American head of state, even as a distraction—not at a time when the leading members of the GOP are happy to openly root for our chief foreign adversary over our own President. Among Republicans, Putin’s “very unfavorable” rating is around 45%; Biden’s is 80%, and Pelosi’s and Harris’s are even higher than that. (#misogyny). 

But except among the already zombified, the expected cries from the right flank that Putin is going into Ukraine because “Sleepy Joe is weak” fall flat. It is certainly fair to say the Putin has been emboldened by American behavior in recent years, but a vast amount (and the worst examples) of that emboldening happened on the watch of Mr. Biden’s predecessor.

Contrary to his predictable claims, if The Former Guy were still in office, it’s safe to say that Putin would be waltzing into Ukraine with nary a peep of complaint from the White House, only the sound of Trump shaking his pom poms and jumping around in his pleated skirt, while hoping Vlad feels him up afterward at the big postgame homecoming dance. (“He’s so dreamy!!!”) 

During the Trump administration there was no need for a Russian invasion of Ukraine or anywhere else, because Putin had lackeys in the White House who would let him menace Kyiv without need for military force. As Damon Linkerwrites in The Week: “Putin didn’t play nice guy from 2017 to 2020 because he was afraid of Donald Trump. He did so because he knew he had nothing to fear from the fanboy in the Oval Office.” Forget Kremlin worries about NATO expansion: Trump was actively trying to pull the United States out of the alliance.  

Indeed, one could argue that Trump and the Republicans have been abetting the invasion of Ukraine for six years, stretching back to the change in the 2016 GOP platform on that issue. (After all, Manafort had been a lobbyist working on behalf of Yanukovich for more than a decade.)

Asked about the invasion this week, the first words out of Trump’s mouth were “Well, what went wrong was a rigged election.” Truly, the man is one note and one note only. But he soon got around to praising Putin as a “genius.” (Not a very stable one, though.)

The sight of prominent American politicians cheering for a brutal dictatorship over our own country’s leadership is nauseating to say the least. Reporting this in the wake of Russian troops rolling across the Ukrainian border, the Washington Post put it blandly, but accurately:

The comments reflect the novel phenomenon of a major political faction openly siding with the leader of a US adversary against the American president. They cite Putin’s shrewdness and strength, along with an unfettered willingness to use force to expand his country’s reach, suggesting that creates a flattering contrast with Biden, whom they portray as weak and feckless.

Yet Putin is an authoritarian leader who has jailed adversaries, shut down political opposition and moved to eliminate a free press and independent judiciary. He has dispatched his powerful military against an independent neighboring country.

That second graph is meant to be in contrast to the first, but for Trump Nation, they are one and the same. Putin’s brutal authoritarianism is a feature not a bug.

THE CASE FOR GIVING A FUCK

So what’s really behind the invasion of Ukraine, and why should we care? 

The latter ought to have been clear in 2019, when we impeached a US president over relations with that country……an impeachment, you may recall, that turned on Trump illegally withholding some $400 million in military aid to help Kyiv defend itself against Putin and Russia unless the Zelenskyy government manufactured a bullshit investigation of the man who is now President of the United States and leading the global effort against that very attack.

In a recent piece for The Journal of Democracy, the former US Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, and Robert Person, director of the International Affairs curriculum at West Point, writes: “Forget his excuses. Russia’s autocrat doesn’t worry about NATO. What terrifies him is the prospect of a flourishing Ukrainian democracy.”

Putin would not stop seeking to undermine democracy and sovereignty in Ukraine, Georgia, or the region as whole if NATO stopped expanding. As long as citizens in free countries exercise their democratic rights to elect their own leaders and set their own course in domestic and foreign politics, Putin will keep them in his crosshairs.

In other words, it is not NATO expansion, but the homegrown pro-democracy movements of the so-called Color Revolutions in the former Soviet republics and satellite states that threatens Putinism. 

McFaul and Person note that “From the end of the Cold War until Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, NATO in Europe was drawing down resources and forces, not building up. Even while expanding membership, NATO’s military capacity in Europe was much greater in the 1990s than in the 2000s. During this same period, Putin was spending significant resources to modernize and expand Russia’s conventional forces deployed in Europe. The balance of power between NATO and Russia was shifting in favor of Moscow.” (Indeed, in 2000 Putin himself suggested that Russia itself might one day join NATO.)

Putin may dislike NATO expansion, but he is not genuinely frightened by it. Russia has the largest army in Europe, now much more capable after two decades of lavish spending. NATO is a defensive alliance. It has never attacked the Soviet Union or Russia, and it never will. Putin knows that. But Putin is threatened by a successful democracy in Ukraine. He cannot tolerate a successful, flourishing, and democratic Ukraine on his borders, especially if the Ukrainian people also begin to prosper economically. That undermines the Kremlin’s own regime stability and proposed rationale for autocratic state leadership. Just as Putin cannot allow the will of the Russian people to guide Russia’s future, he cannot allow the people of Ukraine, who have a shared culture and history, to choose the prosperous, independent, and free future that they have voted for and fought for.

Putin’s chief goal in his roughly 24 years in power has been to demonstrate to the world that Western democracy is a farce, no better than Russian-brand autocracy. Understandably, the rise of nascent democracies in the former Soviet sphere works mightily against that aim, and nowhere more so than in Ukraine. 

In The Atlantic, Franklin Foer seconds this argument:

Why did Putin cling to Ukraine? In 2014, his fear wasn’t Ukraine’s drift toward NATO. It was its drift toward the European Union, with its insistence on rule of law. To preserve his hold on Ukraine, Putin tried to instigate a counterrevolution in cities with large Russian-speaking populations. He invaded Crimea and the Donbas, threatening to carve the country into two. What he feared most was Ukrainian democracy, which would deprive him of influence over the colonial possession that he felt was his birthright.

Foer details the way Moscow kept Kyiv under its heel, and the West’s general indifference and willingness to let him do so:

Even if Russia nominally accepted the fact of Ukraine’s post-Soviet independence, the Kremlin treated it as a vassal state. Putin manipulated Ukrainian politics so that its corruption enriched his cronies and its leaders never deviated too far from his desired policies. The pipeline traversing Ukraine, which sends Russian gas to Western Europe, provided a massive pot of money that the Kremlin dispersed to serve its murky purposes. Meanwhile the Ukrainian state was deprived of cash that could have been spent on schools and roads.

Even now, as Russia threatens to invade Ukraine, it is talked about as an abstraction—a passive victim of great-power politics. Perhaps this explains why many foreign-policy realists and much of the American public are so willing to readily sacrifice the country to Russian President Vladimir Putin. They see Ukraine as part of a sphere of influence, not a collection of human beings.

One of the sharpest observers of contemporary Russia, the émigré Masha Gessen, writes in The New Yorker of how Russia and Ukraine were on parallel paths after 1991, contending with corruption, poverty, and uncertainty, not to mention leaders who tried to steal elections. But it was the Ukrainians who twice—in 2004 and again in 2013—rose up in revolt over those attempted coups, gathering in Kyiv’s Independence Square. 

They stayed there, day and night, through the dead of winter. They stayed when the government opened fire on them. More than a hundred people died before the corrupt President fled to Russia. A willingness to die for freedom is now a part of not only Ukrainians’ mythology but their lived history.

Many Russians—both the majority who accept and support Putin and the minority who oppose him—watched the Ukrainian revolutions as though looking in a mirror that could predict Russia’s own future. The Kremlin became even more terrified of protests and cracked down on its opponents even harder. Some in the opposition believed that if Ukrainians won their freedom, Russians would follow. There was more than a hint of an unexamined imperialist instinct in this attitude, but there was something else in it, too: hope. It felt something like this: our history doesn’t have to be our destiny. We may yet be brave enough and determined enough to win our freedom.

That is precisely what Putin is afraid of, and why he is so desperate to strangle Ukrainian democracy in the cradle. 

Of course Ukraine matters as a symbol of the lost Soviet empire. Ukraine was the second-most-populous and second-richest Soviet republic, and the one with the deepest cultural links to Russia. 

ANNE WITH AN “E”

Among the most eloquent and passionate writers on this topic is The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum. She writes:

But modern, post-Soviet Ukraine also matters because it has tried—struggled, really—to join the world of prosperous Western democracies. Ukraine has staged not one but two prodemocracy, anti-oligarchy, anti-corruption revolutions in the past two decades. The most recent, in 2014, was particularly terrifying for the Kremlin. Young Ukrainians were chanting anti-corruption slogans, just like the Russian opposition does, and waving European Union flags. These protesters were inspired by the same ideals that Putin hates at home and seeks to overturn abroad. 

After Ukraine’s profoundly corrupt, pro-Russian president fled the country in February 2014, Ukrainian television began showing pictures of his palace, complete with gold taps, fountains, and statues in the yard—exactly the kind of palace Putin inhabits in Russia. Indeed, we know he inhabits such a palace because one of the videos produced by Navalny has already shown us pictures of it, along with its private ice-hockey rink and its hookah bar.

(Coming soon to hipster Brooklyn: ice rink and hookah-bar.) 

Putin’s subsequent invasion of Crimea punished Ukrainians for trying to escape from the kleptocratic system that he wanted them to live in—and it showed Putin’s own subjects that they too would pay a high cost for democratic revolution.

She goes on to write that Putin “wants his neighbors—in Belarus, Kazakhstan, even Poland and Hungary—to doubt whether democracy will ever be viable, in the longer term, in their countries too” Farther abroad, he wants “to undermine America, to shrink American influence, to remove the power of the democracy rhetoric that so many people in his part of the world still associate with America. He wants America itself to fail.”

Now, I should say that on many other foreign policy matters, Applebaum is too hawkish for me. Another of her recent articles for The Atlantic, “There Are No Chamberlains in This Story” (subhead: “But There Are No Churchills, Either. And Ukraine Will Fight Alone”) charts a course that would have the US get into a shooting war in Ukraine. (Last summer, on Afghanistan, she made a similar case for continuing that futile war.) But her expertise on Eastern Europe is indisputable, meaning she deserves to be taken very very seriously. Very. 

Of Putin himself, Applebaum writes: “Although he is sometimes incorrectly described as a Russian nationalist, he is in fact an imperial nostalgist.” The diagnosis speaks directly to his oft-quoted 2005 remark that the breakup of the USSR was “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” More specifically, she identifies him as good old-fashioned power-mad despot­­–nothing mysterious about it. 

Yet, she writes that “Putin (is) simultaneously very strong and very weak.”

He is strong, of course, because he controls so many levers of Russia’s society and economy. Try to imagine an American president who controlled not only the executive branch—including the FBI, CIA, and NSA—but also Congress and the judiciary; The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News, and all of the other newspapers; and all major businesses, including Exxon, Apple, Google, and General Motors.

And yet at the same time, Putin’s position is extremely precarious. Despite all of that power and all of that money, despite total control over the information space and total domination of the political space, Putin must know, at some level, that he is an illegitimate leader. He has never won a fair election, and he has never campaigned in a contest that he could lose. 

He knows, in other words, that one day, pro-democracy activists of the kind he saw in Dresden might come for him too.

For such a man, rising democracy on his border is a greater threat than all the tanks and fighter planes NATO can muster. Which is a great lesson for us all, as we contemplate the looming threat of homegrown autocracy here in the US, and what we can do to fight back.

LINE IN THE SAND, 2022 EDITION

So let us not be taken in by Putinist propaganda, nor its American amplification either by the right or left. But where we go from here is unclear. 

In The New Yorker, Benjamin Wallace-Wells notes that Alexander Vindman sees the current crisis “as a way to signal to other democracies that the United States would support them if they were menaced by authoritarian regimes.” Vindman argues that “You can’t be progressive without believing, and buying into, the notion of supporting democracies.’”

100%.

But now we are into Applebaum territory, and the question of what that support looks like, short of risking the nuclear war that we managed to avoid for 77 years. 

If Putin rolls all the way into Kyiv, slaughtering tens of thousands along the way, rounding up his enemies list and putting them in concentration camps, and hanging Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s corpse upside down from the balcony of the presidential palace, it will make even our harshest sanctions and other non-military responses look feckless and weak. 

But it is equally likely that this invasion will backfire badly on Putin and prove a disaster for Russia, as so many have predicted. Putin may have just dragged his country into a grinding, decades-long insurgency reminiscent of the USSR’s catastrophic misadventure in Afghanistan (or the United States’ in Iraq). Already, even in these earliest days of the war, he has kicked off a wave of patriotic fervor and unity among Ukrainians. Fearful of NATO, he has—ironically—already strengthened it to a level of unity and cohesion not seen in decades. Seeing his willingness to massacre and occupy his neighbors, non-NATO members like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, and even Finland, once happy to stay neutral, may now clamber to join. He has already brought on non-military retribution in the form of sanctions and other economic pressure that will cripple the already precarious Russian economy, and hit even him and his cronies personally. Though he has long since co-opted most of the country’s oligarchs, those billionaire gangstercrats will not be happy to be squeezed out of the global financial playground. Threatened by pro-democracy movements in neighboring countries, the Ukraine invasion may well inspire the kind of homegrown resistance he has thus far been able to brutally suppress. Already there are anti-war protests in the streets of Moscow–not a typo, I don’t mean Kyiv, I mean Moscow—protests that are being violently put down by militarized Russian riot police. Imagine the courage it takes to get in the streets of Putin’s own capital, an infamously harsh police state, and protest the invasion of a foreign neighbor. And yet Russians are doing it. 

I guess Putin has good reason to be worried about pro-democracy movements. 

Even as he is openly trying to restore the Soviet empire and cement his place in history as a modern Peter the Great, Putin may wind up trashing that legacy—already dubious and blood-drenched—and be remembered instead as the overreaching fool who drove Russia even further down into the ranks of second-rate powers. But along the way, many many innocent people are going to die.

So I’m sorry to say that what’s going on in Ukraine right now is our business as Americans, because we are involved in humanity.

Here is the foreign policy thinker Max Boot, who like Vindman was born in the Soviet Union, writing in the Washington Post, echoing the French newspaper Le Monde in the wake of 9/11 (“Nous sommes tous américains”):

With his military superiority, Putin can invade Ukraine and maul its armed forces. He can even install a puppet regime in Kyiv. But he cannot make Ukrainians accept the Russian yoke. He cannot prevent Ukrainians from fighting back, whether with massive “people power” demonstrations (like the ones that toppled a previous pro-Russian ruler in 2014) or with guerrilla attacks (like the ones carried out by Ukrainian fighters against Soviet rule in the 1940s and 1950s).

The West must do whatever it can to support Ukrainian patriots. Ukraine’s fight is our fight, too. As Sen. John McCain said in 2014, during the last Russian invasion of Ukraine, “We are all Ukrainians.”

And the Americans who, either cynically or benightedly, want to downplay the brutality of this man and his actions are tiptoeing perilously close to playing for Putin the role described (apocryphally) by another famous Russian leader:

“Useful idiots.” 

*********

Russian tanks staged in Belarus earlier this month for the invasion of Ukraine, conducting joint exercises as part of the Response Force of the “Union State,” a military alliance between Moscow and Minsk. Credit: Russian Defense Ministry/AFP/Getty Images.

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