America vs. Putin — to the Last Ukrainian
We'll skip peace talks, and go straight for Russian regime change?
The Kremlin has said the war could be over “in a moment” if Ukraine would agree to never join NATO; separately, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has indicated that’s fine with him, since NATO obviously isn’t truly coming.
The door to peace is ever-so-slightly ajar.
And so we rush to slam it shut.
Because hey — maybe we are coming. Maybe the United States really will find ourselves going to war with Russia.
It’s day 20 of the Russian invasion, and some of our top minds in Washington are already convinced combat with Russia would be a cake walk. For example, according to the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Idaho’s Jim Risch, we don’t want a war with Russia, but it’s not like it’d be a big deal. “I wouldn’t call it World War III,” Risch said. “I think it’d end pretty quickly, because with the conventional forces that [Putin’s] had there [in Ukraine], we haven’t seen this kind of ineptness in a long, long time.”
This is supposed to be a sober analysis, from one of our top-ranked senators? The senator from Idaho blithely ignores that Russia also has small nuclear weapons — thousands of battlefield nukes — that Vladimir Putin will be sorely tempted to reach for if his war continues to slip sideways.
Russian soldiers also bogged down early when they invaded Chechnya in the 1990s — the West laughed derisively then too, “what an inept performance!” So Boris Yeltsin’s Kremlin just dialed up the insanity and carpet-bombed everyone into submission. (That’s something I saw on the ground for the Los Angeles Times.)
The Ukrainians, like the Chechens before them, are certainly making the Russians pay for every step. And it’s inspiring to see David hold his own against Goliath. But this is not a sporting event for us to cheer or boo over. It’s a massive tragedy for millions — an obvious tragedy for Ukrainians, a less visceral but still very real tragedy for Russians. It will either be brought to a halt soon, or get much, much worse. Those are the options.
Unless someone brokers a peace deal, the Kremlin — embarrassed and infuriated at having its ineptness disdainfully noted the world over — will up the ante. Perhaps, God forbid, it will do so even as the prime ministers from Poland, Slovenia and the Czech Republic have put themselves personally into the crossfire. The leaders of these three NATO-member nations have just arrived by train in Kyiv, which as dramatic demonstrations go is equal parts vague, admirable and hair-raisingly reckless.
What happens if one of the bombs raining down on Kyiv kills the prime minister of Poland? Does anyone think killing a head of state wouldn’t qualify as an act of war? And according to the NATO paperwork, doesn’t a Russian war with Poland automatically upgrade us to the big bonus war with the United States?
Senator Lindsey Graham is so unconcerned by the thought of that war with Russia, he’s been openly calling for Vladimir Putin’s murder. After mentioning famous assassins or would-be assassins — Brutus for Julius Caesar, Lt. Col. Claus von Stauffenberg for Hitler — Graham wrote on social media, “The only way this ends is for somebody in Russia to take this guy out.” That’s a U.S. Senator speaking. (The White House at least disavowed this; while Graham’s press office later clarified that Graham is o.k. with a coup instead, if assassination is too extreme for people).
Calls to assassinate Putin — on radio shows, by ex-British military commanders — are proliferating so fast that Facebook’s parent company first allowed them, along with calls to kill Russians generally (!), then backtracked and has now ruled they can’t be posted. Twitter allows them:
We’re also floating wild plans to police the Ukrainian air space with our own fighter pilots — the so-called No-Fly Zones, which would almost certainly lead to war. It’s interesting to note that Americans, who are essentially good-hearted, pragmatic people, initially express support for the general idea — “can’t we stop Russia from bombing innocent children?” — and then appropriate skepticism when it’s framed, correctly, as an act of war:
One pitch for a harebrained “No Fly Zone” scheme comes in a letter signed by 27 national security notables that was organized by Anders Aslund — the very same person quoted above rambling on about using $50 million or $100 million of U.S. tax dollars for a hit man. Aslund was once a famous person in Russian political and economic circles. He was notorious 30 years ago as one of the economists urging Boris Yeltsin to administer “shock therapy” to Russia — to immediately free all Soviet-established price controls — a radical idea that unleashed 2,500 percent inflation in a single year and wiped out the nation’s savings (including my father-in-law’s bank account). Now here we are again, 30 years later, with radical and poorly-considered Western schemes again wiping out Russian bank accounts — and with Anders Aslund again cheering from the sidelines, excitedly pontificating about his latest preferred way to inflict pain on ordinary Russians.
Inflict pain we have. We’ve cut off access to nearly half of Russia’s financial reserves — some $300 billion — and put the country on a path to default on its foreign debts. We’ve shut down their stock market; the ruble, crippled, has lost a third of its value and is still falling. Everyone from oil companies to Papa John’s Pizza are evacuating. International air travel is largely shut down. This is all described as an effort to “stop Putin” — somehow — even as there is apparently no coordinated or considered effort to broker a peace. It’s all stick, no carrot; or for the Russian-speakers, all кнут (whip) and no пряник (gingerbread cookie).
We should be focused on the Ukrainians — the conscripts fighting Russian forces across a landscape dotted with more than a dozen active nuclear power plants, the civilians being killed. Instead, suddenly, and without any real debate here in the United States, we’re skipped right past that usual step of seeking a ceasefire and peace talks, and have moved on to the Mother of All Regime Change. We should be concerned when we hear of thousands of ordinary Russians arrested for protesting Putin’s war; or that the Russian government is blocking Facebook, nationalizing property of fleeing Western companies, and declaring critical journalism to be punishable by 15 years in jail; or conversely, that Google and YouTube are in turn blocking our access to Russian sources, like RT and Sputnik. (No doubt it’s for our own good).
Instead of concern or alarm, the reaction seems to be cackles of satisfaction. It’s all going according to plan! The Putin regime is wavering! (Really? He’s got like a 71 percent approval rating … )
Russian regime change? Trying to topple Putin from the presidency? When did we decide on this? Is it a good idea?
“To be clear, we are putting a historic amount of pressure on Russia, more than some countries endure in a real, kinetic war,” observes Harry Kazianis, who is with a conservative Washington D.C. think tank and media company:
“Yes, that means regime change, wrapped in all of its fantastical failures, is making a comeback in Washington, and no one seems to notice or even care. No one also seems to understand that’s our new goal now, what that means, and the ramifications …
“We haven’t even stopped to grasp what sort of future awaits us mere months down the road. That’s because we don’t even know what we are doing, as feel-good hashtags on social media, trending topics, and activism-based policy lead us down a dark path.”
That’s fine, we’ll just keep stumbling along in the dark, with U.S. President Joe Biden trotting off to Europe next week for a hastily organized NATO meeting that, per a close read of The New York Times, doesn’t have a plan:
We are making this up as we go. There is no U.S.-led peace plan. Little is being done — certainly not under U.S. leadership — to do anything to stop or even slow the violence. A former German chancellor on a lonely peace mission gads about, from Hanover to Moscow to Istanbul and back, and the rest of the world just makes fun of him for trying. The news coverage drips with condescension: Gerhard Schröder is betting “what’s left of his reputation” on an “unlikely mission”, “widely criticized,” as “a tyrant’s stooge,” a member of Germany’s Putinversteher — Putin apologists!
Schröder has been made wealthy by Putin, and he has sympathies for Russian government positions, but it’s worth noting he’s been asked to intercede here by the Ukrainians. After all, apparently no one else wants to try. So Schröder’s the only current or former world leader to have met in person with Vladimir Putin in recent days. They apparently spoke for two hours. Seems like something many ordinary people around the world would be hungry to know more about! Certainly all parts of my family — the American, the Russian, and the Ukrainian wings — would support anyone working to broker a ceasefire.
Instead, as the Western world mocks Schröder for trying, we pour thousands of shoulder-launched missiles in to Ukraine — shades of Afghanistan circa 1980 — and we raise false hopes.
Here’s a public message from our Secretary of State just one month before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in which he asserted — across a backdrop graphic of every NATO national flag — that the U.S. and all our NATO allies were “united across the board in our commitment” — even though there is no commitment:
Who is the audience for a public message like this from the Secretary of State? Russia. Why send it? Precisely because we haven’t enrolled Ukraine in NATO — for lots of very good reasons. Some in Washington find that irksome, and wish we could skip all of the democratic niceties about getting treaties ratified through Congress and approved by the American people; let’s just pretend the treaty’s already there, and move on to selling Ukraine the NATO weapons package.
Washington officially acts like it has no clue why Putin invaded Ukraine — “go figure, he just must be crazy!” — despite U.S. State Department pronouncements like the one above, which clearly show we understood the issue.
In fact, as private cables from Wikileaks show, we’ve understood it for years:
The Russians have long said that they will no more tolerate a hostile military force setting up shop in Ukraine than we would tolerate, say, the Russians setting up a submarine base in Cuba, or the Chinese installing missile launchers in Mexico.
Yet we defiantly plow ahead with NATO expansion. (Why?). A crisis builds, inexorably but steadily, for years — exactly as many of our best foreign policy experts predicted it would. When it finally explodes, we cry out, “Thank goodness for NATO! The Alliance stands ready!”
As the historian Richard Sakwa once put it: NATO exists to manage the crises created by NATO.
It’s a terrible shame, because without aggressive U.S. (and U.S. defense contractor) lobbying for NATO expansion, Ukraine might well have gone the way of Finland — a prosperous, non-aligned state on Russia’s borders that serves as a neutral gateway nation between East and West, a state of affairs which until recently at least had great benefits for all. Ukrainians no doubt had Finland’s experience in mind when, in July 1990, they issued their Declaration of State Sovereignty of Ukraine, and pledged for themselves exactly that sort of coveted neutrality:
“[Ukraine] declares its intention of becoming a permanently neutral state that does not participate in military blocs and adheres to three nuclear-free principles: to accept, to produce and to purchase no nuclear weapons.”
With thoughtful U.S. and world diplomatic leadership, perhaps there’s still time to return Ukraine to that beautiful founding vision — to save Ukraine from the Kremlin, and from the West. For now, we just need a ceasefire.
Editorial postscript: Some of you have signed up as paid subscribers, and as soon as I got over the shock of seeing that first $5 payment arrive, I realized I was on the hook. No turning back now! Thank you for the votes of confidence, much appreciated.
Matt, your sound analysis, expert context, and thoughtful commentary is greatly needed.
Excellent analysis. Good to see that a few keep a sound perspective!