Would Western leaders have acted as they did towards Ukraine knowing what we know now? Would they act differently if their eyes were open?
This post wades into very dangerous territory—what do they say—never speak on religion or politics with those you don’t know really well. That is one part of it. The other is that some of the views expressed here will be alarming and offensive.
But here goes.
The situation in Ukraine is deplorable. Vladimir Putin is reprehensible. We are witnessing the unfolding of a humanitarian disaster. It is like watching a slow motion train wreck. And the perverse beauty of a slow motion train wreck is that it happens on tracks—in other words, it is possible to see the trajectory…in other words, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how awful this will get. My question is to know whether seeing the see-able, or even foreseeing the see-able, as just a little foresight would have made possible, would have in any way affected how we might have prepared, or helped Ukraine to prepare, for this unforgivable human and geopolitical tragedy taking shape on the edge of Europe.
There is a lot of hand-wringing going on right now. As with so many people on the side lines, there is a desire to be doing something, anything. We put ourselves into the situation so that we might feel relevant, assuage our own consciences. My graduate school, for instance, is sending daily emails about how we might get involved as alumni. Never mind that my graduate school has absolutely nothing to do with Ukraine geographically, politically, or subject-matter wise. There is no connection whatsoever, other than perhaps a few students or a professor or two over the years, and yet there is this powerful desire to overcome.
And I wonder why. For who is this being done?
Does Ukraine Matter?
I was asked by a friend about what impact Ukraine was going to have on their finances. Another asked me about investments, the stock market, the housing market. And just yesterday I was being paid to opine on a particular industry that I happen to know about and the subject of Ukraine came up. My opinion rendered was that purely economically speaking, Ukraine was unlikely to make a difference to the prospects of any of these different investments—it is simply too peripheral. My one caveat, woops, was the potential for a nuclear meltdown, but aside from this, the world was not going to give a damn.
Does me saying that from a geo-political standpoint that Ukraine does not matter make me a horrible person? No. I am simply parroting or putting into blunt words what the actions of NATO and Western Leaders have demonstrated. To them, Ukraine does not matter. Enough. Does not matter enough.
Defending Ukraine is not about principle. It is not about the right of all people to self-determine. It is not about freedom. It is not about the right of all humans to live free from tyranny. It is not about protecting people from mob rule, or letting a bully have his way. These are not value statements, they are simply what the collective action, or lack thereof, of Western governments are saying.
And the reason for this? Because a bully is at the controls in Russia. A slightly unstable, irrational bully…Or at least that is how he is charactertised. But he is neither. He may be arrogant and brutal, but he is not irrational, nor unstable. He is simply applying the bully’s gambit—I will bully and they will fold. And the West is not willing to call his bluff. Why? Because the West does not have the cojones to follow through, and he knows that. Putin knows that the West will not act.
Why does he know this? Because he knows that he has done a good job cultivating in the West a healthy fear of his freedom of action. He has already established that the West is capable only of sanctions and hand-wringing. He has demonstrated in small ways that he is prepared to act in ways that we are not:
- Invading Georgia and keeping a part of it
- Invading Crimea and keeping it
- Forcing an ongoing war inside Ukrainian territory for several years in the Donbas region
- Murdering dissidents overseas, or attempting to do so.
I can just see the Joint Chiefs of Staff sequestered in their bunkers saying “Oh that Putin, he sure means business,” and Putin knows this. He knows that he has cultivated plausible fear, plausible irrational-instability, and conveyed a sense of unpredictability. He knows that the West will not call his bluff.
The cynicism of Western Values
What we are seeing is that we don’t believe in our values enough to fight for them, enough to stand up to a bully. In other words, they are as false and flimsy as Putin has said. It was easy to say “we are standing up for democracy” in places like Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, because we can bomb the shit out of those places, and nobody will fight back. We aren’t doing it now because Russia might. Because Ukraine doesn’t matter enough. Because we are scared.
Sanctions sting but don’t stop
Western leaders can speak with pride about the. “toughest sanctions ever”, but tell that to the people that are hiding in the subways under Ukrainian city streets. Tell that to the men who have had to stay behind to fight to defend themselves. Tell that to the wives and children who have been packed onto trains or have fled. [Part of me is torn by this default to sexist tropes, but this isn’t the post for that.]
The point about sanctions is twofold: they don’t hurt enough to stop or change behaviour (I am reminded of the metaphor of the frog who will jump from a pot of boiling water v. the one that is cooked slowly and dies), and second, they hurt the people at the bottom rather than the people at the top causing the problems in the first place.
Does Russia even matter?
Barely. Yes, they have oil and natural gas. Yes, they have some talented engineers and scientists. But the Russian economy is so peripheral to the rest of the world, that if it disappeared tomorrow, we’d barely feel a blip. Putin knows this, and he doesn’t like it, and these actions are as much about Russia asserting a right to sit at the top table as anything else. We pay attention to people when they hold a gun to our heads.
But Western leaders are not behaving as if they recognise this. We are talking, applying the gentle pressure of sanctions, but on the ground, we are allowing Russia to erase a culture, a country, a people.
And Western leaders are standing by, preparing to absorb refugees, but not willing to enforce a no-fly zone, not willing to enter into direct conflict, not willing to let a Cold War turn Hot, because neither Russia nor Ukraine really matter. At least, that is how they are behaving.
What’s the Endgame?
Russia has been saying very clearly, and very loudly, and very insistently, for a very long time that they feel deeply threatened by the presence of NATO on their border. This was ratcheted up a notch when NATO admitted the Baltic States, once themselves a part of the Russian sphere. The Western flirtation was a colossal provocation to Russia, and indeed, we have been playing Russian roulette with Ukraine ever since this topic began…
But the difference is that we have been flirting in the West, but the Russians have been demonstrating that they mean it. Russia is not acting to teach the West a lesson right now. They are securing their border, securing a buffer zone, they are taking over Ukraine. Speculation about whether they would assassinate Ukrainian President Zelensky and install a friendly puppet is a distraction. Russia is going to absorb Ukraine. End of story. Why? Because they feel they have to. And because they know they can, and that we will stand by and watch.
A Dangerous Precedent
Does that outcome figure in our calculations? It doesn’t seem to. NATO is not at all prepared to actually defend Baltic Countries should Russia ever decide to invade. It is strategically nearly impossible…and now, with Russia having a border on these countries once again once they have completed their takeover of Ukraine, they will be making a mockery of Article 5 of the NATO treaty. If Ukraine doesn’t matter, why on earth would the West ever rise to defend such puny and insignificant countries as the Baltic States. And of course, once you think like that, why bother defending Poland, or the former Czechoslavakia, or former Yugoslavia…no, Putin, you can have them back. All that stuff about domcracy and the free world, we didn’t really mean it. For that matter, you can have Italy, after all they have flirted with both fascism and communism…and why stop there?
Yes, I understand, who wants to die? Even more, who wants to die for your neighbour? But also, who has morals? Who thinks that our beliefs matter? Who believes in freedom and self-determination. I would argue that if you are to take such a concept for yourself, then you must crusade for it everywhere. That means being willing to make extraordinary sacrifices. If we are not such, then we are incapable of making the world a better place. Culture and society depend absolutely on people going beyond themselves to support the collective good.
I believe that the actions taken by the West thus far, and by the outpouring of moral outrage and handwringing are more about assuaging Western guilt than about. Changing the course of the inevitable erasure of an independent Ukraine. The thing is, Putin knows this.
What Could we Have Done Differently?
Only an idiot did not see the buildup of Russian troops as a prelude to invasion. Only an idiot has not believed Russia’s anger over NATO expansion expressed over decades. Only an idiot would not look at Russian action on the ground in their backyard as demonstrative of intent.
In other words, we knew what was coming…and we know where it is going. The only way to have stopped this course would have been to arm and train the heck out of Ukraine…nothing like what we have done, nothing. That would have demonstrated intent.
Now what could we do?
The only way to stop Russia at this point is to fight. No fly zone is not enough. To stop Russia this is what it would take:
- Immediately convene NATO and bring Ukraine into the treaty nations;
- Vow to Russia to pound the shit out of anything that is theirs on Ukrainian soil, and to pound the shit of anything not on Ukrainian soil that is used to harm Ukraine;
- Back it up with a demonstration of overwhelming force;
- Keep the channel open to Russia on the nuclear front—we will not be the first to use them.
Will we do this? Of course not. So let’s not handwring now, and let’s not handwring when the future plays out according to the bully’s rules. We are equally responsible for the outcome. And you might say, “but he is the aggressor,” but that would be naive. But when someone tells you over and over again that your tree is blocking the shade in my garden, is dropping leaves in my pool, and I’d like you trim it, and they do so over decades, don’t be surprised to come home one day and find the tree toppled. We all know that many a neighbour has fallen foul over such things. This is no different. We might feel justified in our provocations–after all, we can tell ourselves we were supporting and encouraging democracy. What a noble goal! But to have done so and to not have realised how provocative and threatening this was to an authoritarian, un-democratic neighbour (and it isn’t like they didn’t tell us so) is to believe. our own propaganda. Can we not see that we sewed the seeds of Ukraine’s destruction by encouraging democratic provocations in Russia’s backyard, whilst either not defending or not giving adequate tools for self defense to the Ukrainians? Why can we not see the consequences of our own actions, and now, of our inaction, and unwillingness to act? Yes, this blood is on our hands too.
What Other’s Will Learn and Why China refuses to Call this an Invasion
But what Putin knows and is acting on, is nothing compared to what China sees from this.
There is moral handwringing as to why China has not called out Russia for this unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation. Why would they? Do they not have their own designs on another sovereign nation? Taiwan. Have they not already absorbed another once sovereign nation? Tibet. Why on earth would they criticise Russia for something they have already done and which they intend to do.
Watching the world stand by and do nothing substantial will give them confidence in their own plans and long-term designs. In truth, collective Western inaction, is giving succour to bullies everywhere. And that’s why it matters.
When one side is willing to die to take over another country, to send their troops to the death, but the other side is not, there is an imbalance of commitment. Ukraine cannot save itself on its own, no matter how committed they are, because of numbers, training, weaponry. We should not fool ourselves into thinking that we even have values if we are not willing to stand shoulder with them.
In other words, we are as responsible for the course of history when stand on the sidelines and watch the train wreck take place, as those who are the protagonists. We have enabled Russia, and we could foresee it. We can still foresee it. We are also showing a path for China to commit its own atrocities.
And I would argue that we won’t care then either. Taiwan also does not matter from a geo-political or global economic standpoint. So why should we care? As long as the rest of us can go out shopping and being good consumers, pursuing the American dream or whatever other thing we might call our bourgeois self-indulgent lives. Why bother fighting for freedom when we are already dead?
Appeasement Doesn’t Work
History, both recent and ancient, has shown that appeasement of the enemy is a bad strategy in the long run. Do you remember the relative peace and calm of the Cold War years? Some think on the potential for mutually assured destruction as a time of nightmares, but it is still here, only we don’t talk about it as much. These past days have reminded us of how real the threat is. And I ask you this? Are we better off in the West for Nixon having acceded to China’s request to not recognise Taiwan? For decades of appeasement and tacit and. direct. support of China’s economic development? Have any of our repeated resets with Russia gotten us anywhere? The answer is surely no.
And I don’t like the idea of my tax dollars going towards illusions. If we are going to stand for liberal democracy, then let’s do it, but if we are onlyi there to pay lip service, then please bring that money back home and invest it in our way of life. This half way house is nonsense.
Rather than sitting around wringing our hands and lamenting that someone should do something, let’s just stop. Let’s recognise that most people are not willing to fight for their values. That most people don’t give a damn about anything until it is in their own backyard. Or if you do, then saddle up and head to the theatre of conflict.
In the meantime, we have taken in a refugee family that has fled from the conflict and are helping them on their way to a “new” life in the West. I guess that’s a start, but it sure isn’t satisfying.