When last we met, I was pondering whether Vladimir Putin was rational enough to recognize his losing situation in Ukraine, and—given his almost total control of the information available to the Russian public—simply declare victory and go home.
The question was partly rhetorical. He has not done so, and unlikely to going forward. Stop the presses.
Even so, Putin is proving to be somewhat rational.
The Washington Post’s Fareed Zakaria calls our attention to the military scholar Can Kasapoglu, writing for the Hudson Institute, who early on predicted that the invasion of Ukraine would really be two distinct wars, one in the south and east and another in the north and west. Having met unexpectedly stiff resistance in trying to subdue the whole of the country—a string of embarrassing defeats, really, including, most recently, the sinking of the battlecruiser Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet—Putin now seems to be recalibrating toward a less ambitious objective, one that merely carves off the oil-rich Donbas region and the southeastern portion of Ukraine, with its access to that sea.
In that regard, he is, if not declaring victory, at least moving the proverbial goalposts—perhaps by design—back to where many experts had them from the start.
Whether this is a strategic retreat after a colossally ill-conceived overreach, or what the Kremlin planned all along (my money is on the former), repelling a Russian invasion and preventing the speedy conquest that most expected already represent a tremendous upset victory for underdog Ukraine, and a deep humiliation for Putin. But the danger is far from over, and the situation remains highly fraught….in part for that very reason.
Russia’s less publicized gains in the east remain worrying, and Putin seems set on exploiting them. Zakaria:
Russia has been able to move forces and supplies out of its bases in Crimea and capture the cities of Melitopol and Kherson. Mariupol is now encircled and invaded by Russian troops, and Ukrainian forces trapped there cannot be resupplied. Ukraine’s access to the Sea of Azov has been blocked, and, Kasapoglu points out, Russian forces have a contiguous land corridor from Crimea deep into Donbas.
The loss of Odessa, the country’s main port, would be especially devastating, as it would turn “Ukraine into an economically crippled rump state, landlocked and threatened on three sides by Russian military power, always vulnerable to another incursion from Moscow.”
Zakaria also believes that this outcome would tempt Putin to invade neighboring Moldova, “which has its own breakaway region”—Transnistria—”filled with many Russian speakers.” Zelenskyy himself believes that if Putin succeeds in the south and east, he will return to try to capture Kyiv again, a view shared by the Ukrainians’ senior general in charge of the defense of Kyiv, Alexander Gruzevich.
It is also clear that Putin intends to prosecute this new, more limited campaign with the same monstrousness he has shown thus far, including the wanton leveling of Ukrainian cities with artillery and airpower, the deliberate targeting of civilians, summary executions of prisoners, massacre of noncombatants, and widespread rape, torture, and other war crimes, all perpetrated by an undisciplined force that seems to have no adult supervision. (A longstanding and blood-drenched tradition within the culture of the Russian military, it must be said.)
Images of the Kyivan suburb of Bucha, site of some the worst atrocities thus far, prompted a number of observers to note that Ukraine is “not a battlefield—it’s a crime scene.” (The analogy was made by everyone from the Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas to Vitali Klitschko, the former professional boxer whose brother Wladimir—also a former pro boxer—is now the mayor of Kyiv.) The recent arrival of a new field commander, General Alexander Dvornikov, nicknamed “the Butcher of Syria” for his performance in that theater, does not suggest that a reversal of that trend is in the works.
For a time there was talk that Zelenskyy would negotiate an end to hostilities by ceding the Donbas to Moscow. That scenario now seems unthinkable. It may yet emerge—geopolitics is famously unpredictable, in case you missed it. But having badly bloodied the Russians’ collective nose, Kyiv now has the strategic initiative; Zelenskyy is not going to sacrifice the Donbas or any other part of his country, and he should not.
His fighters certainly aren’t in the mood to wave the white flag, as witnessed by the defenders of Mariupol just this week giving the middle finger to a Russian demand that they surrender. It was reminiscent of a moment early in the war, when besieged Ukrainian soldiers on a place with the unimprovable name of Snake Island defiantly told the crew of a menacing Russian warship to “go fuck yourselves.”
And what was the name of the Russian warship? Oh, yeah: the Moskva. Which now sits at the bottom of the Black Sea.
PRESCRIPTION FOR VICTORY
So how to proceed from here? As Putin readies this new offensive, how can the West capitalize on Kyiv’s success thus far to expel Russia entirely with Ukrainian sovereignty—and territorial integrity—intact?
The primary answer is pretty simple: Arm and support Ukraine so that it can resoundingly defeat the Russians and win the war.
That such a prospect is even on table is pleasantly astonishing to most people outside of the Kremlin and Mar-a-Lago, where the faithful pennant-waving for Team Putin continues, but there you have it. And it is within Kviv’s means to achieve it, and within ours to help.
Ukrainian triumphs on the battlefield mean that the West can now pursue a more aggressive strategy of pro-active military assistance without fear of Russian escalation, and we should do exactly that. Concerns about a wider war—even a nuclear one—remain, but success breeds success, and we are in a position to act more forcefully.
Writing in The Atlantic, Eliot Cohen of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies offers a savage critique:
The Russian military—revealed as inept at tactics, unimaginative in operational design, obtuse in strategy, and incompetent at basic logistics and maintenance—can do only two things well: vomit out massive amounts of firepower and brutalize civilians. It has been bloodied very badly indeed. If, as seems plausible, it has taken losses (killed, wounded, missing, and imprisoned) of a quarter or more of the forces it committed to this war, it may teeter on the verge of collapse. We can see the indicators in reports from the battlefield: equipment abandoned, officers killed by their own men, desperate attempts to dragoon young men into military service, and blocking units to shoot deserters. The Russian military has not established, let alone maintained, control of the air. Russia threw three-quarters of its ground-combat forces into Ukraine, where they were driven from one theater and severely handled in the others, and now has no real reserves on which to draw.
Cohen believes that both Putin and his top generals are woefully ill-informed about this true state of affairs—a true hazard of despotism. To that end, he thinks Putin is foolishly about to “order offensives that, if confronted by a well-resourced Ukrainian foe, can effectively destroy his own army. The challenge for the West is to ensure that this is its fate.”
From your lips to God’s ears, Eliot.
Per Zakaria, retired flag officers like Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, former commander of US Army Europe, propose sending Ukraine the kind of equipment that will allow it to exploit the inherent weaknesses of Russia’s rigid and tactically inflexible military: helicopters, armored vehicles, drones, multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS), and good old fashioned artillery that will enable the Ukrainians to stand off and attack Russian forces from long range.
Admiral (Ret.) James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, has advocated giving Ukraine fighter planes (a contentious issue thus far), air defense systems, and more advanced anti-ship missiles like the homegrown R-360 Neptunes it used to sink the Moskva. I had previously been skeptical of the push to send old MiG fighter jets, but as Cohen points out, “the Ukrainians are now the world’s experts in fighting Russians—not us….So rather than questioning whether they need fixed-wing aircraft or can use Western military hardware, the US should err on the side of generosity.”
Zakaria also argues for a naval blockade in international waters similar to the one NATO imposed during the Balkan wars of the ‘90s, one that would keep Russian troops from making an amphibious assault and resupplying by sea. Intelligence support is also a force multiplier, and because it is by definition secret, with plausible deniability baked in, has the added advantage of not risking escalation the way, say, a USAF C-17 full of AT-4 anti-tank weapons landing at the Kyiv airport does.
In some ways, however, the shopping list is an inside-baseball matter for the military cognoscenti. It’s the speed of delivery that matters most to Kyiv.
In a recent interview with Anne Applebaum and Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, President Zelenskyy said, “When some (world) leaders ask me what weapons I need, I need a moment to calm myself, because I already told them the week before. It’s Groundhog Day. I feel like Bill Murray.”
(Cue “I Got You Babe.”)
Moscow, of course, is threatening Washington not to do any of these things, but that is the sound of a desperate man on his back foot. (White House reply to Kremlin: “You’re not the boss of me.”) Putin has little leverage with which to deter such stepped up Western aid, short of mutually assured destruction, and I am guardedly optimistic that he is not that crazy nor so out of it, despite reportedly not getting the straight skinny from his generals. (Understandably so, as few of them are keen to get fired, or worse.)
Zelenskyy also argues for the importance of information warfare in penetrating domestic Russian propaganda—not only at the state level, but also via non-state actors, like Anonymous and other hackers who can break through (or go around) Putin’s informational Maginot Line and eat away at public support for the war among ordinary Russians. Even steel-fisted dictators are vulnerable to the regiments of grieving mothers when the coffins start coming home, accompanied by questions.
Economically, depriving Russia of the roughly $320 billion it derives annually in oil and gas sales to foreign buyers—Europe, principally—would help, though Zakaria believes sanctions and embargoes alone will not force Putin to end the war. “The only pressure that will force Russia to the negotiating table is military defeat—in the south. Putin’s Plan A failed, but we cannot let his Plan B succeed.”
CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM
There is no doubt that the US can and should move faster and more aggressively to send aid to Ukraine. That said, some of Mr. Cohen’s suggestions go far beyond what I would say are advisable.
These include the deployment of volunteer US combat pilots, organized along the lines of the First American Volunteer Group, better known as the Flying Tigers, that flew under the Chinese flag before the US entered World War II. A step beyond even that, he advocates the overt deployment of active duty American advisors to Ukraine itself, presumably from the 10th Special Forces Group, which is focused on Europe, and has a forward-deployed battalion permanently stationed in Germany. (“If the Soviet Union could deploy thousands of advisers to North Vietnam in the middle of the Vietnam War without triggering a nuclear conflict, the US can deploy advisers to western Ukraine, or at least to Poland, to train Ukrainian soldiers.”)
Of course, the US already has some 8750 soldiers in Poland, including a brigade of the 82nd Airborne, not to mention whatever the 10th SFG is up to already, covertly. But to openly put American military personnel into Ukraine would be a very risky move, as history shows that “advisors” almost always wind up as active combatants.
We ought not be surprised at Mr. Cohen’s hawkishness, though, as he is a card-carrying member of the neo-con brain trust that dragged us into the disastrous and dishonest second Iraq war. It’s ironic, since those neo-cons, you may recall, were gripped by the same blinkered expectation as Putin that the nation in question would greet its invaders with bouquets of flowers.
Cohen also argues that any Russian use of chemical weapons ought to trigger consideration of a no-fly zone, which—he declines to note—is tantamount to jumping with both feet into a full-blown shooting war. Even the New York Times’s reliably conservative Bret Stephens won’t go that far, offering instead a far more measured menu of escalated response to that terrible scenario. I can’t believe I’m agreeing with Bret Stephens, but when the alternative is Eliot Cohen, it’s a sliding scale…and Stephens’ argument is sound and smart.
Cohen’s recklessness marks the boundaries of how far we ought to go in pursuing the initiative in Ukraine—a reminder that hawks gonna hawk, and we need to rein them in, even when they’re on the side of good now and then.
ALL NAZIS ARE NOT CREATED EQUAL
The war in Ukraine has had a galvanizing effect on the Western world, as we watch an embattled democracy resist a brutal invasion by a criminally aggressive, openly autocratic neighbor. Even some pacifists have noted that it’s impossible not to admire the bravery and valor of the Ukrainian people, and hard to argue that they should not fight back by force of arms.
Not since the Second World War has there been a conflict that has generated such near-universal consensus over the righteousness of one side and the villainy of the other. Other combatants in other wars have certainly had their devoted supporters convinced of the justness of their cause, but they were usually opposed by an equally devoted cohort for the other side. By contrast, in Russian’s invasion of Ukraine, the whole world is on Team Blue & Gold, save for Vladimir Putin and Tucker Carlson and their respective, overlapping cults. On that count, Putin’s supporters at least have the excuse of being in an information chokehold without access to the actual facts. Tuck’s do not; their blinders are voluntary.
To that point, Eliot Cohen represents the old school Republican attitude on foreign policy. But there is another longstanding strain on the right, and it is more Lindberghian. Indeed, this faction is eerily reminiscent of the previous one operating under the slogan of “America First!,” a group whose lobbying to keep the US out of a war in Europe was a similarly thin disguise for its flatout admiration for the aggressor in that war.
The cult of Carlson and other faithful American consumers of Kremlin propaganda seem to have swallowed whole Mr. Putin’s risible claim that his invasion of that nation is about “de-Nazification.” To cite one anecdote, the WaPo recently detailed the angry, threatening messages the proprietor of a steakhouse in Bardstown, Kentucky received for flying a Ukrainian flag, including sneering references to the Ukrainians being “Nazis.”
Funny, MAGA Nation was a lot more sympathetic to Nazis when they were marching in Charlottesville and otherwise backing the Trumpist GOP.
(But if they liked Tucker’s recent foray into homoerotic soft porn, they’re gonna love Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia.)
The symbiosis between Putinist and Trumpist propaganda is no coincidence. Heather Cox Richardson reports:
Russia specialist Julia Ioffe told MSNBC, “Every time I’m asked by Americans do Russians really believe this stuff… as if we don’t have the same thing happening here. You have 40% of the American population that was convinced in just one year that Donald Trump actually won the 2020 election….”
And, indeed, Trump loyalists like Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Fox News personality Tucker Carlson continue to echo Russian talking points to undercut Ukraine’s war effort. Media scholar Eric Boehlert noted that “the anti-democratic, authoritarian bonds are becoming tighter as the Trump movement now turns to the Kremlin for its messaging cues. The overlap is undeniable, and the implications are grave.”
What is even more astonishing is that the American right is at once able to side with Vladimir Putin, while aping the martyrhood and idealism of the people he is fighting.
LOOKING FOR A FIGHT
The chest-swelling inspiration that we draw from Ukraine’s pluck—and success—is instructive, whether it ignites “Kum-ba-ya” rhapsody for global democratic solidarity or Cohen’s innate itch for interventionism. It’s undeniable that there is frisson in observing a life-and-death drama on this scale. It makes many of us long to be part of a similarly righteous struggle for something much larger than ourselves, which is part of why so many Westerners have, admirably, if abstractly, adopted the Ukrainian cause as their own. (It’s a lot less romantic huddled in a makeshift bomb shelter in Kharkiv, or looking over gunsights in the frigid trenches outside Mariupol, or trying to flee to safety in Poland with your terrified children in tow.)
I get it. I felt it as a young man looking for adventure and for dragons to slay, or at least windmills to tilt at, and I feel it even now, as a not-so-young-man with a bad back. In some ways, those of us who have been infuriated by the rise of Trumpism and energized to push back against it have been steeped in a similar sort of passion for six or seven years now. (Not equating the gravity of the situations, nor Trump to Putin, but the sense of mission and of camaraderie is similar.)
But it’s also an impulse that can easily curdle and turn into something dangerous and toxic. I invite your attention to the fervor of the January 6th Insurrrectionists, who so passionately believed that they too were fighting the good fight. They believe it still.
It must be noted that their beliefs—passionate though they are—are grounded in self-delusion, cuckoo-for-Cocoa Puffs conspiracy theory, Salem-like mass hysteria, and a willful refusal to consult the facts, all fueled by lies told by the fomenters of that despicable cause.
So let me be clear that I am not saying, “Gee, the right wing rabble have a point,” or in any way justifying or excusing their batshit beliefs and indefensible actions, let alone comparing them to the righteousness and bravery of the Ukrainians. (I feel compelled to note again that January Sixthers and other Big Lie Republicans tend to identify and sympathize with Russia.) I am saying only that they see themselves as comparable, notwithstanding the epic delusion at the core of that belief and the falseness of the premise from which it springs.
Thus we see the self-flattering feedback loop of all those who resort to violence. Sometimes they are right, as in Ukraine. Sometimes opinion is greatly divided, from the West Bank to Derry. Sometimes they are dead wrong, from the KKK to the SLA to the Islamic State. But ”our cause justifies killing people” is the argument of all who take up arms, from sovereign states, to legitimate freedom fighters, to terrorists who claim that mantle, to aggressors like Putin himself, to lone wolf lunatics who shoot up the N train in Sunset Park. Grievance justifies gunfire. That sometimes they are right and sometimes howlingly wrong is the complexity at the heart of the whole problem.
MAGA Nation takes inspiration from Ukraine’s fight too, even as it sides with the invaders. The idea of banding together under the patriotic banner to take up arms against “tyranny” is intoxicating, even if the casus belli isn’t foreign invasion but gender neutral bathrooms, Anthony Fauci’s belief in empiricism, and Colin Kaepernick. We rightly scorn these yahoos for their adolescent eagerness for revolution, and their t-shirts quoting Jefferson about the bloody plant food for the tree of liberty. But we ought to recognize the universal impulse from which it comes.
Their self-flattery falls apart, as does its ostensible function as a pretext for armed revolution, under even a cursory examination of their agenda. The regime that Trumpists want to install is one that would eviscerate our republic, put an end to the American experiment, and create a de facto one-party right wing state, one which promises to make the (gulp) first Trump administration look like an episode of “Teletubbies.”
It is one that valorizes Putin and Putinism and as it seeks to emulate his autocracy here at home.
WANTED: FORTUNE TELLER
We cannot yet predict with any confidence how the war in Ukraine will end. Putin might well be forced to withdraw without achieving any of his objectives, but it’s not gonna come easy. While he could almost certainly sell that retreat to his domestic audience as a Potemkin victory, the international consequences of such a humiliation are very much another matter. More to the point, as we have discussed, any settlement that leaves Zelenskyy in power would also leave Vladimir’s chief strategic goal—the ruthless obliteration of an uppity pro-democracy movement on his border—unfulfilled. In fact, it would likely have the opposite effect, emboldening such democratic impulses and inspiring others that they too can defy Moscow’s desired “sphere of influence.” He is therefore unlikely to submit to such a result unless he has no other (realistic) choice. Which is to say, unless Ukraine, with our help, forces him out.
It has become trite to say that Putin has already lost the war, given that he has turned Volodymyr Zelenskyy into a global icon, brought the admiration of the civilized world onto the Ukrainian people, prompted Germany to rearm, and made Finland and Sweden seek membership in NATO, to say nothing of the lasting damage he has done to his own country. (Own goal: V. Putin/ RUS, 2’)
But Putin “losing” the war will still entail horrific suffering by the people of Ukraine along the way, and months or years of fighting, even if it is confined to the south and east. Russia may yet turn all of Ukraine into smoking rubble and massacre every last citizen with a Ukrainian passport before this is over. We can have a hand in preventing that, or at least minimizing it. Notwithstanding the recklessness of some of his more hawkish ideas, Cohen is quite correct when he writes that, “Decisive action is urgently required to tip the balance between a costly success and a calamity.”
And while we go about that effort, let us do so with a clear head and a gimlet eye, and the knowledge of how intoxicating righteous violence can be, and how readily turned to less admirable ends.