March 8, 2022
I’ve written about the power imbalance between good and evil. It’s because the good are constrained by moral scruples, while the evil are not. I was writing mainly about U.S. politics, but Ukraine exemplifies the principle.
This will get worse, because there is no moral restraint on the Russian side. Is Putin a madman? Maybe not exactly, but he seems messianic about restoring Russia’s greatness (even as he destroys any goodness in it; compounding the vast Ukraine crime with a spiraling crackdown against Russia’s own civil society). And Putin conflates Russia with himself, making the stakes existential for him. He will do anything — anything — to avoid losing. Hence his nuclear threat should not be dismissed as mere bluster.
Already his original plan is faltering, so he’s gone to Plan B. Russia’s invading forces have performed worse than expected, while Ukrainian defense is much stronger. So rather than overrunning and occupying cities, Plan B is to annihilate them. The morale gap between the sides being obviated by use of devastating weaponry.
And yes, that could include nuclear, if all else fails. Having gone this far, smashing through other guardrails, why would Putin stop at the nuclear taboo? He sees this as the strong against the weak; literally, might making right. Exploiting that power imbalance between good and evil. Out-crazying his opponents.
Meantime we have gone to our own version of the nuclear option — in terms of sanctions. Far beyond what anyone ever envisioned. Previous sanctions Russia could laugh at. But not these, a wrecking ball to its economy. Western nations are unexpectedly willing to take some pain to their own. Though stopping short of blocking Russia’s crucial oil sales. And even that extreme step may come soon.
Putin was not expecting sanctions so severe, just as he wasn’t expecting Ukrainians to put up such a fight. But neither factor is stopping him. Instead, pushing him to the next level, raising the stakes. Having now already paid such a big price for his Ukraine adventure, that’s all the more reason to do whatever it takes.
Meantime, it’s been a worry that Russia’s absorption of Ukraine would embolden China vis-a-vis Taiwan. Xi Jinping does share some Putinistic messianism. However, perhaps the nightmare Ukraine has become for Russia itself will deter Xi.
For us, in a way it makes sense to use economic weapons rather than the military kind. But on the other hand, we’ve spent trillions over decades building the strongest military machine in world history. For use against — what? If not this? The biggest threat to global peace, to civilization itself, in our lifetimes.
In hindsight, when we saw Russia’s massive buildup surrounding Ukraine, clearly presaging invasion, we ought to have organized a coordinated inoculation of that country with Western troops. A coalition like the one that reversed Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Yes, Putin would have gone ballistic, considering that a heinous provocation. But what would he have done? Anything worse than what he’s doing now? Which we might actually have headed off. Would Putin have invaded knowing it would mean actually battling U.S. forces? He went ahead because he saw us as weak. And by relying only on non-military means, we conveyed weakness, encouraging him.
But people in the West feel done with war, a psychology of pacifism become so pervasive that we couldn’t even really believe it when an actual war was staring us in the face. Nobody was advocating sending defensive troops into Ukraine. And that pacifism actually brought on the war. As a Roman general said, if you want peace, prepare for war.
Yet even now we’re still ruling out combat engagement. Ruling out a no-fly zone, which could have us shooting down Russian planes. The fear of escalation might be rational, except that Russia is escalating anyway. If we do shoot down their planes, what more could Putin do, that he’s not doing already? Launch attacks outside Ukraine? — which would certainly incur an equivalent military response. It’s tempting to say, bring it on. Though the nuclear threat is indeed extremely scary. But it’s hard to see how, exactly, Putin can now be deterred from using nuclear weapons in Ukraine, if that’s what it takes to enable him to claim victory — however hollow.
Maybe if we’d now declare that any nuking in Ukraine would bring the same on Russia — would that finally deter Putin? Would we have the balls to say it? To do it? Would it be moral?
Or will sane elements in the Kremlin, staring into the abyss, remove Putin, to save their own skins? Easier said than done. The personal risks of any such plotting would seem prohibitive. Those around Stalin were in constant danger from his murderous whims, but that very terror paralyzed any would-be plotters — even when Stalin lay helpless and dying. Putin too is a killer.
He pretends to justify his invasion by ridiculously calling Ukrainian leaders Nazis. Of course, it’s Putin’s own conduct resembling nothing so much as Hitler’s in WWII. After conquering Poland, he went on to subjugate most of the rest of Europe. If not stopped in Ukraine, what nations will Putin threaten next?
Our choice may eventually come down to watching that horror unfold — and with it our ideals for a better global order, which America worked so long and hard to build — versus major military engagement after all. But many Americans seem more worried about gas prices than about the fate of civilization.