Think This is Just Russia Mucking Around in It’s Back Yard? Think Again
Events are Moving, Rapidly and in Unexpected Directions
When I started drafting this article, war was looking likely but had not come. Now that it has, news is coming fast, often unclear, or inaccurate, and ometimess as very unexpected.
Half the things we discuss here may be overcome by events in the short time between when this is published and when you read it. Such is the nature of this thing. Keep checking for current updates
Why is Putin Doing This?
Well, that is THE question, isn’t it? The answer is complex, but it seems to come down to four major factors.
- Personal – Putin took the fall of the Soviet Union personally and very hard. He feels passionately that this never should have happened, and that the West took unfair advantage. Putin also feels strongly that neither he nor Russia has gotten the respect deserved from the West. The man is looking to even the score.
- Historical – It is certainly true that the history between Ukraine and Russia is intermixed. That is a long way from Putin’s claim, often repeated, that Ukraine is not and never has been a country. Inaccurate though it may be, Putin believes Ukraine belongs to Russia.
- Strategic – While Putin likely has no illusions that he can reconstitute the Soviet Union, he clearly thinks he can recreate much of it. His earlier conduct in Chechnya, Georgia, and Eastern Ukraine makes that viewpoint clear.
- Ideological – Putin likely has zero fear of NATO having troops close to Russia. This is not an offensive alliance that is likely to ever attack Russia. What he does fear is a Russia with a diminished sphere of influence and especially the prospect of a Slavic nation, one that looks like Russia and has much in common with Russia, becoming a democratic, free market country right next door. That sort of thing could be contagious, you know.
Overall, this is all happening for deeply flawed reasoning, historical misinterpretations, and personal psychology of a man with no checks on his power and no one to tell him he is making bad choices.
This is NOT Remote. Look at a Map
I suspect that even today many Americans could not find Ukraine on a map. Many likely think it is some obscure, tiny country at the far end of the Earth. That is a serious oversight. Ukraine is about the size of Texas, which means it is larger than much of Western Europe combined. Russia talks of it as a buffer zone to keep the Motherland safe from NATO. That works two ways – Once Russian troops are back in Ukraine, they are at NATO’s border in direct contact. How is that OK?
Ukraine also is a remarkably important place for food production, for many valuable minerals, as a transportation hub. It has numerous nuclear plants (one under siege at this writing by the Russians. Not smart, risking war time explosions around a nuclear facility.
And lastly, there are the echo effects. What happens in Ukraine will inform future Russian policy toward the West and toward its former subject states. Peace and stability in Europe have lasted for decades, but that is not the historical norm. Much more can be set in motion and put at risk by Putin’s decision to start all this.
What is at Risk? Why Should We Care?
A great deal is at stake. Trying to decide if Ukraine itself is a vital national interest to the US is not the right scale to weigh this criis and its attendant risks. Four key elements are at risk, any one of which merits our dedication to a solution.
Security: Europe becomes unstable and at risk if this aggression is allowed to stand. Others who wish to challenge the West will be much more inclined to do so if Putin succeeds. And Putin himself would be emboldened.
Leadership: Trump did more damage to NATO and to America’s leadership in the world than I could have ever imagined. Think about where we would be today if he was still in the White House and Putin told him to sit down and shut up. Biden and team have done a remarkable job so far in restoring American leadership. We will never get back to where we were, but this team has brought us damn close. Our NATO partners consistently say they have not seen American leadership this effective in decades, and they welcome it.
Morals: At its simplest level, this is about the most naked and wrong aggression seen in Europe since WWII. A fledgling democracy is fighting for its life. Everything it is fighting for is right and consistent with our values. Everything seeking to destroy it is anathema to all we hold dear.
If we are not willing to take some risks and bear some small amount of pain ourselves to help them, who are we? Could we say we stand for anything? Could we really be so narrow in our defense of worthy causes that we only rally when enemy troops cross our borders? That is patently, obviously the case for some Americans today. I hope and expect that is not true for most of us, including many who would claim mantels of leadership.
Strategy: Being a player in the world as a great power means thinking wide, deep, and long term, all the time. What is happening in Ukraine is part of world history and dynamics on a global scale. Think of it as a kaleidoscope. Various pieces move about and line up in unnatural and unforeseen ways. Seeing this set of events as lynchpins to other times and places is the only framework that makes sense. All the elements are not of equal value, but they all are important to work with or around.
Ah, Yes. The Republicans Responses. An interesting mix
Where to begin here? Trumps praise of Putin and suggestion we do the same on our Southern border. The Putin lapdog on Fox in the evenings? The would-be next Trumps who are choking up trying to not repudiate Trumps remarks while still not making him angry. Pitiful bunch, this is.
Perhaps a tip of the hat to the goodly number of Republicans who actually have said the right things and supported Western responses so far.
And alas, the so-called national leadership of the party in Congress. We are in the midst of the worst military crisis in Europe since the Cold War; arguably since WWII. The US has taken a leading role and is doing well at it. In any other time, we would knock off the politics at the water’s edge, back our president and coalesce around next steps.
Not this bunch. In the middle of the fight, they blame Biden for all this as a weak president. What is it that makes him “weak” and what these yahoos would do differently remains a mystery for the ages. Yet one more view of why none of these people deserve the time of day.
Who knows, maybe this is something that will actually start to really isolate Trump and his sycophants from the remains of a once important party that tries to rebuild. I doubt it, but fingers crossed.
How is NATO Doing?
Rather well, thank you for asking. I have not seen NATO this unified and energized in many decades. The change has been phenomenal and most welcome. Especially Germany. Wow, what a set of actions they have taken. Same for the European Union. If much of these changes hold, the world looks different in important ways, if changes last.
We can “thank” Putin for these outcomes. If the Russians still had a politburo, this sequence would have been grounds for them to try to fire him. Not clear who would do that how now. They have built a system designed to work or implode – no exit ramps.
You Know Who Else Cares? China
China is paying close attention for at least three main reasons. One, this keeps the West, and especially the US tied up and occupied. Two, if we blow this, it makes their case of the US as a declining power and democracy as an unstable system. Three, it could leave them more room and in a limited sense a model for moving on Taiwan.
But all this is not without risk for China, and they seem to acknowledge this. They could ease much of the pain the embargos and other punishments are heaping on Russia, but they seem leery of being seen as Putin’s saviors. There abstention in the Security Council was an impressive result of Biden’s lobbying efforts with them. It will be interesting to see how things go in the coming weeks. The upcoming vote in the UN General Assembly will be telling.
The Wild Card is Putin’s Brain
As it was in the beginning, what happens next depends largely on what is going on in Putin’s head. The mix of hunger for power, insecurity and (apparently) some level of psychosis makes prognostication a folly. Likewise, if it continues to go badly for Russia, who knows what others in positions of power, including oligarchs, may decide to do.
We are in for some long, tough days. The Ukrainians have set the benchmark in courage and determination. I hope we prove worthy of their friendship and hopes.
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2 replies to Ukraine is an Even Bigger Issue Than Many of Us Realize
Great insight Bill! Well done to synthesize these complex issues into thought provoking truths about what this means in the world and recent history. I strongly believe that “Putin’s Russia” (with no exit ramps or as we call it checks and balances) is exactly what Trump craved for America with him at the helm.
Bill, thanks for this thoughtful analysis of a very complicated and threatening global situation. We should hear more this evening in the State of the Union address, just short of boots on the ground.