Putin chooses war
He knows what it’s good for.
Vladimir Putin recognized the independence of breakaway Ukrainian provinces and announced his intention to send in Russian forces to “maintain peace.” The long-watched-for Russian invasion of Ukraine is underway and Vladimir Putin has chosen war, just as we always suspected that he would.
But that’s really misstating the issue. Putin did not start a war this week. The blatant Russian occupation of parts of Ukraine is really a continuation of the war that he started back in 2014. That year, Putin’s unmarked “little green men” occupied Crimea, which was then annexed by Russia, and Russian proxies launched an insurgency into Donbas, Donetsk, and Luhansk, the provinces that Putin is formally occupying this week.
While the fighting faded from the front pages, it didn’t stop. Fighting in Ukraine has continued to cost hundreds of lives each year since 2014. In total, the death toll for Ukraine has exceeded 13,000 people, about a quarter of them civilians. In a country of 44 million, that number represents a large loss of life.
Putin’s aggression is no respecter of parties either. Some have made much of the facts that the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 when Carter was president, Chechnya under Clinton in 1994, Crimea under Obama in 2014, and is now invading parts of Ukraine under Biden. But this omits that both the Second Chechen War and the Russo-Georgia War occurred during the Bush Administration and that Russia intervened in Syria while Trump was president… and while the US had troops fighting ISIS in the same area.
The fact that the Russo-Ukrainian War has been simmering for almost a decade now makes it laughable historical revisionism that the Russian bear would not be on the move if Donald Trump had won a second term. In reality, Russia kept up the proxy war throughout Donald Trump’s entire tenure as well as launching numerous cyberattacks on Ukraine during that time that targeted both military weapons and civilian infrastructure. In 2018, Russian naval vessels attacked Ukrainian patrol boats and took 24 sailors prisoner, holding them for months. Suffice it to say that Trump wasn’t strong on Ukraine.
Add to that that the reports from former White House staffers that Trump was planning to leave NATO if he won (or stole) a second term, Trump’s continued obeisance to Putin, and the fact that the isolationist said as recently as January that Ukraine is “a European problem.” The sum total paints a picture of a president who would not stand up to Vladimir Putin. When US forces withdrew from Syria on Trump’s orders, the Russians moved into our old bases.
Trump apologists point out that the Trump Administration was first to approve the sale of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, but the truth is more complex. Trump reportedly opposed the deal and the terms of the sale reportedly prohibited the weapons from being used against the pro-Russia separatists and required them to be based in Western Ukraine, far from the fighting where they were needed. It was only a few months ago, in November 2021, that Ukraine confirmed that Javelins were being used against the Russia-backed rebels. Trump’s hold on military aid to Ukraine for personal political reasons was what triggered his fist impeachment.
On top of all that, as I’ve pointed out in the recent pieces, today it is the Republicans whose voices are loudest in opposing the potential use of American force against the invaders and who are even justifying Putin’s actions. I’ve even heard that some on the right are cheering for Putin to win and Biden to fail, although I haven’t seen this myself. If there are such people out there, I would suggest that it is incredibly self-centered to wish a nation into Russian slavery so that your party can score political points.
We really should all be on the same side here. That should be the side of freedom against authoritarian aggression. This isn’t about our domestic politics and the next election, it’s about who will control vast swaths of Ukraine for the foreseeable future. It’s about a country that only recently escaped the Russian sphere of influence and is now being dragged back in against its will.
At this point, it’s difficult to say what the future holds, but I think the smart money is that Russia will gobble up a few eastern provinces and then stop for a while. I don’t expect the Ukrainians to let this territory go without a fight. After all, they’ve been fighting for eight years already.
Nobody wants a war between the US and Russia, not even Putin. Most of us also don’t want to see a Russian dictator take over a free country. Fortunately, there is a lot of middle ground between going to war and doing nothing.
We can expect to see more US aid to Ukraine in addition to 300 more Javelin missiles that were delivered in late January, presumably without the “do not shoot at Russians” clause in the sales contract. What we won’t see is a deployment of American soldiers to the front lines. In addition to military aid, crippling sanctions that target Russian financial institutions, imports, and exports would be the best course of action. Make it bloody for Putin to take parts of Ukraine and economically painful for Russia to keep its prizes.
While I disagree with a lot of things that the Biden Administration has done, in Ukraine they seem to be hitting the right tone. After a few early missteps, Biden has consistently and strongly opposed Putin’s moves and kept the NATO allies together in their response. So far that response has included a round of sanctions that target banks and wealthy individuals by the UK and the halt of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline by Germany. The Biden Administration has called Putin’s move an “invasion” and said that the US response will be “swift and severe.”
Over the weekend, I went back to Manhattan for the first time since before the pandemic started. It’s always fun to visit New York City (but I couldn’t live there.) I’ve made some trips to the region, but this was my first chance to cross over the Hudson into New York proper.
The Big Apple was as bright and shiny as ever but not nearly as crowded as it used to be. Even Times Square wasn’t wall-to-wall people. That could be partly due to the cold and windy weather.
One of the most crowded places that I’ve been in the past two years was a dim sum restaurant in lower Manhattan. If Times Square wasn’t crowded, this place was.
Masks were optional in most places, although I did get asked for my vaccination card in a couple of restaurants. I was happy to provide it as well as to wear a mask when requested. In fact, the mask helped to keep my face from freezing when we were walking around.
Two things that had changed since my last visit were the streetside stands that COVID testing that replaced some of the ubiquitous hot dog vendors and the presence of marijuana vendor trucks. In fact, I caught a mobile COVID test site parked next to a weed wagon in an image that seems to sum up new New York. I didn’t partake of either.
It’s always nice to visit New York for a few days. I’ll be ready to go again soon and I’m glad to see that the pandemic seems to be fading in what was its American Ground Zero.
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I wish that the Biden administration was a bit more creative and in a position to aim the American fossil fuel producers at Europe with some programs to incentivize Americans to attempt to make up for energy shortfalls in Europe with domestically-produced natural gas and the like.
I'm not sure whether a move like this wouldn't be extremely expensive, but it would be great to see Free Nations purchasing their energy from other Free Nations instead of autocrats. It would be the right thing to do from a global power politics perspective, and might go some ways in pulling away from Trump the allegiance of the American energy industry (especially all the folks working in the petrochemical sector, like some friends and family I have in the Southwest).
I respectfully disagree with you.
I noticed that you never mentioned that Trump authorized the aerial strike on 300 Russian "mercenaries" advancing on a US base in Syria. If he was so in cahoots with Putin, he would have ordered the US forces to withdraw and allow Russians to own that battlefield.
You should know better, Putin basically kept status quo in Ukraine during much of Trump's term. he did not mass troops at the border as he did last year leading up to today's situation, other than typical annual winter exercises. Of course, status quo doesn't mean things stay static, it simply means that the circumstances by large haven't drastically changed. He could have built up the troops in the border regions during Trump's term and ordered them to advance into Donbas region, he had plenty of time and choose not to do that.
I still don't think Biden is making all right moves in Ukraine. I would argue that Biden's chaotic handling of Afghanistan is what emboldened Putin to make aggressive moves on Ukraine.
I know you like Biden a lot and probably would vote for him again in 2024, that's your opinion, and I respect that. I guess we'll have to just agree to disagree on Biden and Trump's actions in Ukraine.
Ukraine IS an European problem. This is something the rest of Europe should decide for itself on whether to take up the arms against Russian aggression. If most of NATO countries are unwilling to do this even though Ukraine isn't a NATO member, then it doesn't bode very well for NATO's existence. For years, they relied on the US muscle to deter USSR and now Russia, they have not done much to improve their militaries, barely spending much on their defense budgets. If they're only limiting themselves to supplying Ukraine with supplies and weapons, then I'm sure the Baltic states will be wondering if they're better off leaving NATO and make peace with Russia. This is where Germany, France, and UK must step up to provide substantial defense to Ukraine, if they are unwilling to draw the red line in Ukraine, then where should they draw the line? Baltic states? If they won't do it, then I see no reason for US to do it either.
This crisis is the opportunity for Western Europe to get out of its slump and rise to the occasion by defending Ukraine as a free country with every right to maintain its territorial integrity from Russian aggression. It's time for USA to exit the left stage and leave it to Europe. It's a real test, let's see if the rest of Europe can push back against Russia. Otherwise, we'll be over there holding European hands perpetually. Do we really want that?