Cutting through the Fog
Putin Needs Tribalism
For months, the world has watched Russia amass troops on Ukraine’s border, pondering whether Vladimir Putin would launch an offensive into a country he doesn’t believe is sovereign. On Wednesday night in the U.S., he answered the question.
In a speech broadcast preceding the invasion of Ukraine, Putin said, “For this, we will aim for demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine, as well as taking to court those who carried out multiple bloody crimes against civilians, including citizens of the Russian Federation.”1
This stated intention goes far beyond the defense of the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk but instead goes straight at the government of Volodymyr Zelensky, president of Ukraine.
He also sent a warning, “To anyone who would consider interfering from the outside: if you do, you will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history. All relevant decisions have been taken. I hope you hear me.”
President Zelensky responded to the attack, addressing anyone who would listen. Jim Swift of The Bulwark wrote a great piece on the speech, quoting Zelensky,
We know for sure we do not need a war—not a cold one, not a hot one, not a hybrid one.
But if these forces attack us, if you attempt to take away our country, our freedom, our lives, the lives of our children, we will defend ourselves.
Not attack—defend. And in attacking, you are going to see our faces. Not our backs, our faces.
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Predictable Hot Takes from the Bubble
There has been no shortage of patently absurd takes over the past few weeks and in the hours after Russia invaded. In the monetized world of Outrage, Inc., unserious people without any responsibility for the U.S. response wax about whatever agenda item is paying their bills.
In offering any examples of this, I would be providing these people the oxygen and attention they so desperately crave. Let’s sum them up in more general terms:
Blame Biden and the Democrats: Russia sees Joe Biden’s weakness and will walk all over Ukraine. Let’s not forget Hunter Biden, so he will spare no life to protect the secrets hidden in Kyiv. Of course, there is the Mueller Report and subsequent impeachment of Trump.
Blame Trump and the Republicans: In four years, Trump was cozy with Putin allowing him to build up his war machine. There is the underlying “Russian propagandists” because conservatives are suddenly less hawkish.
Blame the Green New Deal: Biden’s energy policies of allowing the Nordstrom 2 pipeline to move forward, combined with blocking domestic oil exploration, have created an energy crisis at home and abroad.
Distraction: Inflation, COVID cases declining, and a weak economy are all political crises that need a distraction.
Blame the U.S. and NATO: None of this would have happened if the U.S. had not committed to adding Ukraine to NATO in 2008. Alternately, Putin’s grievance of any NATO expansion after the fall of the Soviet Union is amplified by people in this country.
It’s a grossly slanted and oversimplified worldview. Putin has inherited a tradition forged by Peter the Great, Josef Stalin, and the fall of the Soviet Union. Don’t be fooled by distractions; Putin alone bears responsibility for the invasion and every death associated with the war to come.
In the waning days of the Cold War, he watched former Soviet Republics and Iron Curtain countries embrace the West in a rush to join NATO. Why? Because the history of Moscow’s brutality and oppression of the region spans centuries.
While that influence ebbed and waned, it never disappeared. We should listen to the people who know the Russians the best, their neighbors, not self-styled influencers who think the world cares about their click count.
What Putin Expects
First, more sanctions and isolation. Putin’s spent years testing the limits of the West to see what would happen. He’s prepared the Russian economy for widespread sanctions from the international community. He’s invested heavily in the Russian military and hoarded rubles to prepare for the winter of another Cold War. That’s not to say sanctions won’t hurt, but they have to be swift, broad, and meaningful.
Second, his aim is not to erase Ukraine but to control it. Right now, this is a war between Russia and Ukraine, and it’s unclear how long Ukraine will sustain the assault alone. We can expect to see a combination of military offensives, cyber attacks, and disruptive terrorist attacks by pro-Russian civilians inside Ukraine to weaken the Zelensky government.
Third, a divided American resolve. The Russian efforts to sway the 2016 election opened an intelligence operation for Putin. On our own, we’ve provided ample information to the world from our COVID response, the 2020 election, and the aftermath, displaying political division in this country.
A wildcard factor will be whether NATO nations like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, or Poland preemptively engage Russia in defense of Ukraine. These nations have their own long, complicated history with Moscow and are understandably worried about their security. A broader military response will turn a regional war into a continental one. Or worse.
Cutting through the Fog
Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” We’ve been riding the high of a hyperpartisan world for some time, and it’s time to detox a bit. Dissent, even in times of war, is as American as it gets. It’s one thing to disagree with the policy, but don’t lose sight of the bad actor, Russia.
In times of crisis, solve the crisis. In the days ahead, you’ll hear people step to offer opinions on how we got here, most of them will be long on blame and short on solutions. Few of them will answer the question, “So what do we do now?”
There are no instant fixes, but every option belongs on the table. We need to rethink our energy policy. The U.S. and the world rely on oil and gas; we have it. In the meantime, don’t panic-buy gasoline, it will only drive up prices.
We have to define our strategic interests and not rush headlong into another military exercise of indefinite length and objective. Short of engaging in military action, the U.S. can provide a strong response. At the same time, we have to keep an eye on other nations bent on chaos and expansion that more directly threaten our strategic interests.
We need to tackle the immediate supply chain problems that weaken our long-term ability to withstand the fallout of a prolonged conflict in Ukraine or beyond.
We need to renew and strengthen our diplomacy around the world, not to be the world’s policeman, but provide meaningful support to those closest to the conflict, including military equipment.
Let’s take an optimistic view of American greatness2. It will take leadership in Washington, a city where politics has crippled our institutions on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. This nation has been here before and emerged as vibrant as ever, and we can again this time. It’s easy to be cynical and say, “That can’t happen.” Vladimir Putin is counting on it.
This post has been updated from an earlier version.
Zelensky is Jewish. His grandfather, Seymon, served in the Red Army during World War II. Seymon’s father and three brothers were lost to the Holocaust.
I realize just how idealistic this is, but doom casting isn’t going to change things.