In what should be more than a war of words, the term “genocide” is being tossed around in the wake of the fighting during Putin’s War. Russian President Vladimir Putin used the term prior to his invasion of Ukraine, claiming that the Ukrainians were committing genocide against the Russian speaking population of Donbas in the eastern part of Ukraine. Indeed, it is part of his disinformation campaign to justify his invasion and he connects it to his declaration that the Ukrainian government is run by “Nazis.” There is a long history of this sort of talk from Mr. Putin. In short, the Soviet Union’s war against Nazi Germany in World War II is glorified in Russian history beyond any level that we in the United States may understand. He is trying to build support for his war by tying it to the success of the Soviet army against the Nazis. Forgotten in that telling, of course, is that in 1939 the Soviet Union was allied with Germany via a non-aggression pact and they divided Poland between them. Also conveniently forgotten is that in April and May of 1940 the Soviets executed about 22,000 Polish military officers and intelligentsia in the Katyn forest.
In 2022 we face a difficult situation. President Joe Biden called Mr. Putin a “war criminal” for the atrocities taking place in Ukrainian areas occupied or under siege by Russian troops. At last count, Ukrainian government prosecutors were investigating about 5,800 cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity, with more uncovered everyday. These are facts which, unfortunately, many of us can see for ourselves each night on the national news. Last week Mr. Biden took it a step further during an event in Iowa by saying that Mr. Putin is “a dictator that commits genocide.” Later, he doubled down on his statement saying, “Yes. I called it genocide. It’s become clearer and clearer that Putin is trying to wipe out the idea of being Ukrainian.” Which has a basis in fact, as Mr. Putin repeatedly claims that Ukraine should cease to exist as a sovereign nation. He believes it should be Russian with only Russian speakers living there.
War crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide are all legal terms under international law. Each is the result of ever more horrifying actions of one people against others. Genocide, however, has usually been reserved for the most heinous of crimes and gives another level of importance to the events in Ukraine. As if they were not already of utmost importance. The moral stakes are as high as they can be.
The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (often called the Genocide Convention) codified the United Nations resolution of 1946 that made genocide a crime under international law. In Article II, the Convention document defines genocide as meaning “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group as such: Killing members of the group; Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
I will leave it to the international law experts to define what “in whole or in part” means, but it would seem that actions by one nation attempting to eliminate another does not have to succeed in entirely wiping them out. Merely trying to do so is a crime. In fact, the Convention states that conspiracy or incitement to commit genocide is itself a crime. Certainly it is easy from what we know in open source reporting that the Russians have violated at least four of the five genocidal actions under the Convention.
Sadly, whether brought up on war crime charges or for genocide, it is unlikely that Mr. Putin or any of those in his inner circle or those carrying out his orders will be brought to trial. Under the Convention the investigation and trial of such crimes are to be undertaken by the nation in which they occurred or in international court.
The real issue here is a moral one. It raises new questions about how NATO should support Ukraine and how this conflict will end. If we in the West truly believe in the slogan “Never Again!” — meaning we will never again sit by and watch the slaughter of thousands or millions of our fellow human beings as occurred in the Nazi death camps — then now is the time to step up. This is a major test of the world order and a test that will have consequences for decades to come. Russians are deliberately torturing, killing, beheading, raping, and desecrating civilians in Ukraine. I’ll repeat that. Deliberately. Even though I cannot understand how human beings can be so cruel to others — and yes, I know my history from around the world including here in the U.S. — it is none-the-less happening. It is an instrument of planned terror. It also provides a look into the psyche of the average Russian. Only by dehumanizing an opponent — thinking of them as “scum” (Putin’s word) and other than human — can people be so cruel.
These actions also impact how the war will end. How can Ukraine reach a negotiated settlement with Russia if the Russians are attempting to wipe out the very meaning of what it means to be Ukrainian? How can the West broker a settlement with a country accused of genocide? Is anything short of a complete defeat of Russia rewarding their genocidal policy? Does giving up Ukrainian territory — rewarding Russia for committing genocide — even make sense? Such questions have a significant impact on the course of the war, who gets involved, and its outcome.
My thoughts on NATO and with that, U.S. support to Ukraine have evolved over the course of the last few weeks. I think we need to go all in. Not with troops in Ukraine — at least not yet — but with every offensive and defensive weapon we can reasonably give to Ukraine. I am sure that we are providing valuable intelligence data to the Ukrainians (surprise Russian flagship Moskva!) to help them with their targeting but we should take that a step further to allow them to attack into Russian territory to hit supply, fuel and military targets. Continue to put our best military minds to work with imaginative, but deniable, actions that hinder the Russian military. Sanctions are the public face of such efforts — and they are beginning to work — but there is much more to do. Our covert capabilities are excellent. There is more to do without directly fighting the Russians.
The moral imperative is there now. I have come to understand what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is saying about how this is a fight for the future of western democracies. It may sound like hyperbole, or over-dramatization on their part, but as we see the ruthless brutality of the Russians such statements take on more meaning. Importantly, remember why Mr. Putin started this war. Once the propaganda is removed it is for one major reason. He saw a direct challenge to his totalitarian regime. If Ukraine — where many Russians have family members as do Ukrainians in Russia — becomes a full fledged western democracy sitting fully on his border, he will soon have internal domestic problems as more and more Russians clamor for a similar assimilation into Europe. As it is, many of his troops are seeing a way of life that they could not imagine. In addition to the subjugation of a nation, there is a reason Russian troops are carrying away washing machines, laptops, televisions and other consumer goods. They cannot get them in many parts of Russia and certainly, many average Russians cannot afford them.
Mr. Putin is desperate to maintain his way of life and to rule Russia with an iron fist. That is why Ukraine is such a threat. He must destroy it in order to show that the western democracies of NATO cannot succeed in protecting it, therefore no nation should think that democracy is a way of governing that succeeds. How far he is willing to go in this scorched earth policy we can only guess. This is the first time in my experience that sober, knowledgeable people are talking about the use of nuclear weapons. Many surmise that Mr. Putin thinks such weapons are a viable option if needed to succeed in Ukraine. That should give all of us pause and emphasize once again how serious this war is and how much more serious it can become.
We get easily distracted by such things as “The Slap” at the Academy Awards show, or whether we now have to wear masks on airplanes. Life goes on, yes, but the stakes are higher in Ukraine than many believe. Five million people to date have left Ukraine for other countries. This in its self is a humanitarian crisis. It is also part of the Russian plan to destabilize western Europe by disrupting the ability of democratic governments to care for their own people and the refugees.
Genocide is underway. There is a massive humanitarian crisis underway. Terror is raining down on the civilians in many Ukrainian cities, killing tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children. Russia is reportedly deporting women and children from occupied areas to camps in Russia. More atrocities will be uncovered. Mr. Putin is trying to destroy the ideals of western democracy. The list will grow longer.
If we mean “Never Again!” we need to act on it.
Ukraine has not yet perished, nor its glory and freedom,
Luck will still smile on us brother Ukrainians.
Our enemies will die, as the dew does on the sunshine,
and we too, brothers, will live happily in our land.
We’ll not spare either our souls or bodies to get freedom
and we’ll prove that we are brothers of Kozak kin.
— English translation of the Ukrainian National Anthem adopted in 1992.
Roughly seventy-two hours ago, the Russian military attacked and invaded Ukraine from the air, land and sea. It was expected that the Russians would swiftly roll over the Ukrainian countryside and capture key cities, especially the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. So far, that is not happening. The Ukrainian military is fighting hard and inflicting severe casualties on the Russian invaders. Although accurate information is difficult to come by, especially since Russia has released no casualty figures, the Ukrainians are believed to have captured, killed or wounded thousands of Russians. At the same time, the Ukrainian government is mobilizing the population, arming them — over 18,000 weapons were issued to civilians in Kyiv alone — and teaching them how to make Molotov cocktails (gas filled bottles with a fuse thrown at vehicles — ironically named after a Soviet era Foreign Minister) and other improvised explosive devices (IEDs). None-the-less, the world does not expect Ukraine to defeat Russia or even to hold them off forever. Ukraine is getting moral support and supplies, but under the current conditions, there is no expectation that outside forces will come to their support by fighting inside Ukraine. Instead, countries around the world are imposing the “Mother of All Sanctions” on Russia. Realistically, this will not stop Russian President Vladimir Putin from destroying Ukraine, but it will make it much more painful for his country’s citizens than they may be prepared to experience.
The biggest concern to the rest of Europe and to the United States is that purposefully, or through an accident, the war will spread outside of Ukraine. In particular, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are worried that Mr. Putin will take the opportunity to reimpose the outlines of the former Soviet Union. Likewise, Romania is concerned about the integrity of its border. All are NATO countries. (Norway is also a member of NATO and borders Russia, but has fewer concerns about an attack.) I am neither a psychologist nor a psychiatrist but the speeches that Mr. Putin has given the last few days are bordering on the psychopathic. He sounds delusional, fundamentally unsound, and oblivious to any criticism inside or outside of his inner circle. In short, he sounds like a madman, even insinuating that anyone that thwarts his plans could be subject to a nuclear attack. Last Thursday he referred to the fact that “Russia remains one of the most powerful nuclear states” and went on to say that “there should be no doubt for anyone that any potential aggressor will face defeat and ominous consequences should it directly attack our country.”
As the fighting continues, for the first time in NATO history in response to war on the European continent, the NATO Response Force (NRF) is being activated. The NRF includes 40,000 military personnel from countries throughout NATO, and in past exercises included forces from non-NATO members Finland and Sweden — both of which border Russia. Their governments are now considering joining NATO in response to the Russian aggression in Ukraine. The force includes aircraft and naval forces in addition to land troops. The president order the deployment of about 7,000 more troops from the United States for the NRF, which is in addition to the thousands already deployed from home in response to Russia’s attack.
What are the chances of war spilling over into other areas of Europe? As I often do, let’s take a look at history to see if there are any parallels. There are two that jump out in my mind. One is the events leading up to World War II. The other is the Cuban Missile Crisis. (I am of the generation that in elementary school, we practiced hiding under our desks or assembling in the hallways should there be a nuclear attack. No joke. When we assembled in the hallways, we would press up against the walls in two rows. I always wondered about the kids in the outer row who in my mind would take the majority of the blow from an explosion. Of course, we were too young to appreciate that none of us had a chance in the case of an actual attack.)
The Cuban Missile Crisis reflects the dangers of miscalculation and sheer brinksmanship between two nuclear powers. We are not there, but a chance encounter could put us into this category.
So far, this is a conventional war so let’s use the run-up to World War II.
- Following the end of World War I, the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 formally ended hostilities and completely reshaped the geographic boundaries of many central and eastern European nations, in some cases creating or recreating nations that had “disappeared.” CHECK. Following the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, newly independent countries emerged such as the Baltic States and Ukraine. Mr. Putin calls this the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” and is the basis for his claim that Ukraine does not exist as an independent country.
- In 1938 Germany annexed the Sudetenland (part of Czechoslovakia) as a result of the Munich Agreement between Germany, United Kingdom, France and Italy to bring “peace in our time.” CHECK. In 2014 Russia annexed Crimea, part of the territory of Ukraine. The world scolded Russia but made no meaningful effort to stop or reverse the first such annexation in Europe of one country’s territory by another using force since World War II.
- Throughout the spring and summer of 1939 Germany annexed parts of countries throughout central and eastern Europe claiming that that they were ethnically, culturally, and traditionally a part of Germany. CHECK. Mr. Putin claims that Ukraine is actually part of Russia and points to the large number of ethnic, cultural and linguistic similarities between the two countries. He claims that he must move into Ukraine to protect Russians.
- On 23 August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty providing for a secret plan for the two countries to divide Poland and “giving” the Baltic States and Finland to the Soviet Union. CHECK. Prior to the Beijing Olympics this year, Mr. Putin and China’s President XI Jinping met. Although the details of any agreement is not known publicly, it is assumed that some sort of deal was reached that at a minimum, China would not interfere with Russia’s ambitions in Europe.
- On 1 September 1939 Germany invaded Poland. France and the United Kingdom had promised to protect the territorial integrity of Poland. World War II began. CHECK? No guarantees were given to Ukraine that its territorial integrity would be protected by NATO or any country. However, NATO is implementing the NRF to protect NATO states from Russian aggression. NATO and non-NATO nations are supplying Ukraine with significant weapons and materiel to fight the Russians. To keep those supply lines open under the current conditions could easily result in a Russian attack on the supply lines into Ukraine.
- In September 1940 the America First Committee was formed to pressure Congress to keep the United States out of foreign wars. Although its aim was to promote American isolationism, it was also antisemitic and largely pro-fascist. Charles Lindbergh (yes, that Charles Lindbergh) was the face of the organization that eventually reached about 800,000 dues paying members in 450 chapters around the country. The goal was to put, surprise, America First by not getting involved in World War II and by protecting “American” culture, which did not, in their view, include taking in immigrant Jews from Europe. The committee disbanded on 10 December 1941. CHECK. Our own American useful idiots for Russian propaganda want to put America First and raise many of the same questions that the original brand raised. DJ Trump, M. Pompeo, T. Carlson, and many others in the MAGA crowd question why we don’t support Russia (after all, they are just protecting their borders) or openly admire Mr. Putin (“genius”, “savvy”, “talented”, “enormous respect”, “capable statesman”, etc.) Indeed, Russian state television is running verbatim clips of a certain Fox evening celebrity defending Mr. Putin and asking “Why do I hate Putin so much? Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him? So why does permanent Washington hate him so much?” (There’s more but I can’t stomach any more of this unpatriotic nonsense.)
There are many parallels. There are areas where there are no parallels. The point is that history often has serious lessons to be learned. I have no idea if the war in Ukraine will spread, but I think that every American should be paying attention to it because there are indications and warnings that it could, in fact, spread to a NATO country and then the world is at war. Even without war, there will be hardship in the United States. Nowhere near the hardship the Ukrainians are going through, or even the families of those young Russians sent out to die for Putin, but the American populace should be ready for economic sacrifice as the world’s economy is impacted by sanctions on Russia and their reciprocal actions. We in the United States have not really had to sacrifice in any real way in a long time. The “Greatest Generation” knew sacrifice. We do not. Shoot. We as a nation could not even be bothered to wear a mask during the greatest pandemic in the world in a hundred years without whining about it and claiming that health professionals were fascists and dictators. No wonder Mr. Putin and those like him think he can get away with an unprovoked attack on a neighbor.
I hope that President Biden and his administration do a better job explaining to our fellow citizens why it is important to help Ukraine defeat Russian aggression. We have seen time and time again that ruthless dictators are never satisfied. Mr. Putin’s stated objective is to restore the Russian empire and to regroup those nations that were once Soviet Republics. Like so many despots and autocrats, he is telling us what he plans to do. Believe him.
I am gobsmacked that many Americans do not know that Russia is a dictatorship and Ukraine is a real, no kidding, democracy. The Ukrainians have some problems. They are working on those issues. So, when did we stop supporting democracy in order to cheer on a dictator? A dictator that works aggressively to undermine everything that we stand for in this country? I really do not get it.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainians hunker down in a real fight to the death. The very survival of their country is at stake.
“Ukraine has not yet perished.”
As I write this piece, the world is on the brink of the biggest combat operations in Europe since World War II. Approximately 190,000 Russian troops threaten Ukraine’s borders on three sides supported by air and naval units in position to attack targets inside Ukraine. In military intelligence terms, all of the Indicators and Warnings (I&W) point to an invasion within days or even hours. Most telling is that the Russians have moved perishables, such as blood and plasma supplies, to positions near the border. Those types of logistics cannot sit in storage at the front for long.
Yesterday President Biden made a rare revelation in a speech to the nation addressing the impending crisis. When asked if Russian President Vladimir Putin had decided on his course of action, the president responded, “As of this moment, I am convinced he’s made the decision.” By that, he meant that Mr. Putin had decided to invade. When asked how he could know, he responded that the U.S. has a “significant intelligence capability.” This is important on several levels. One is that he is telling the world that the full weight of American capabilities indicates that the attack will happen and we should be prepared. On another level he is giving Mr. Putin an indication of our skill and capability in using our intelligence assets to keep a much closer eye on him and his activities than he might know. Finally, if we have this level of granularity into the Kremlin’s thinking, we may yet deter him from taking military action.
Personally, I have thought for quite awhile that the Russians would attack Ukraine. The only questions were when, and how strongly. He is going to do it. Mr. Putin clearly stated on numerous occasions that he considers Ukraine to be part of Russia. He will not be deterred. How far he goes depends on the Ukrainians. Mr. Putin’s goal is to depose the current Ukrainian government and to replace them with one that is more “friendly” to Russia. How far he goes militarily most likely will depend on the depth and degree of resistance from the Ukrainians and whether the current government stays in place.
This afternoon the artillery and Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) attacks from the separatist regions of Ukraine have dramatically increased. At the same time, they are evacuating civilians from cities in the Donbas region, specifically the Donetsk People’s Republic — one of the break away regions in southeastern Ukraine — to Russia. The Russians and their proxies in the occupied region are trying to provoke a response from the Ukrainians as a pretext to attack. So far, the Ukrainian military has exercised remarkable restraint by not taking the bait. As the Biden Administration has warned over the last several weeks, there is likely to be a major “false flag” incident (Russian agents attack their own people, or buildings or otherwise make it look like an atrocity occurred) to further the lie that Ukraine is the instigator of hostilities. There are numerous misinformation campaigns underway on the internet claiming that the Ukrainians are conducting genocide against the separatists or that chemical weapons attacks have occurred there. It is likely that some major manufactured incident will give the Russians their excuse to invade.
The Biden Administration has put steel into the spine of our NATO and EU allies. After weeks of diligent diplomatic efforts, the vast majority of the world’s leaders are condemning the impending attack and are onboard with sanctions aimed at crippling the Russian economy and going after Mr. Putin and his pals directly. Questions remain as to whether those sanctions should be used before or after the invasion. Many diplomats argue that invoking sanctions now may give Mr. Putin an excuse to attack. Others, such as Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky argue that they should be put in play immediately. At a security summit in Munich today, Mr. Zelensky addressed the assembled diplomats, including Vice President Kamala Harris, and bitterly chastised the western powers for waiting. He argued that sanctions need to be implemented now, not after the attack when Ukraine’s economy will have collapsed and “parts of our country will be occupied.”
Further, Mr. Zelensky decried the absence of support promised in a 1994 agreement known as the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. Put together by the United States, United Kingdom, and the Russian Federation, the Memorandum gave security assurances to Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan against threats or use of force to change the territorial integrity or political independence of those states in return for their relinquishing all nuclear weapons. Following the break up of the Soviet Union, those three countries had large stockpiles of former Soviet nuclear weapons. Indeed, in 1994 Ukraine had the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal. While the Russians retained operational control of the weapons due to controls required to utilize them, the Ukrainians had physical control of them. Arms control experts around the world worried about those three states’ ability to protect the weapons from falling into the wrong hands, especially terrorist hands. Mr. Zelensky today pointed out that in 2014 Ukraine got no help from anyone when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea. He wants it now.
Post World War II history teaches us that our enemies, competitors and adversaries often grossly under estimate American resolve. They view our very public domestic political fights as signs that we are distracted or weak. Currently, the incorrect view that we “ran away” in Afghanistan solidified the narrative that the U.S. was no longer a player on the world stage. Wrong. Over the last year, the Biden Administration worked hard to repair the damage done by the former guy to our relationships with our allies and especially within NATO. In my view, Mr. Putin did not expect the strong, and most importantly, unified stand that the West is taking to support Ukraine. He miscalculated. The effort to deter him permanently will probably fail, but it appears he is at least thinking twice before proceeding. In the end he probably will calculate that he can survive the sanctions and other non-military measures from the West. He is on a vision quest to restore the Russian Empire and Ukraine is the key to his ambitions. At this point, he cannot totally turn away. Deflect, delay, or otherwise play games with the timing or methods of attack, but in the end he will not leave Ukraine as it is.
The U.S. deployed about 5,000 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division to Poland. Accompanying them is a headquarters element from the XVIII Airborne Corps to form Joint Task Force (JTF) Dragon. Their deployment is designed to strengthen our ties to NATO and probably to help with the influx of refugees into Poland when the fighting starts. Additionally, about 2,000 troops are redeploying from Germany to Romania for the same reasons. Both Poland and Romania border Ukraine. There are about 80,000 members of the U.S. military in Europe including forces from every branch. Some of those are rotating forces that come in and out of various countries based on the threat and/or exercises. Less well known is the fact that the U.S. has elements of the U.S. Navy ashore in Poland and Romania. The Navy’s Aegis Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) System that is the main battery on our cruisers and destroyers is now in ground based installations in those two countries. Known as Aegis Ashore they are placed there to protect our NATO allies from “rogue” ballistic missiles — most likely from Iran or North Korea. They are purely defensive in nature, but you will sometimes hear Mr. Putin reference them when he talks about Russian security threats from NATO.
When the invasion begins, it is unlikely to start with Russian troops blasting their way across the border. The fighting will come in stages, perhaps with operational pauses to negotiate before the next attack. Cyber attacks will be followed by an onslaught from the air from the Russian air forces and from cruise missiles from Russian ships in the Black Sea. Ukraine has little in the way of air forces or air defense capabilities. The Russians will own the air space which will allow them to move forces with impunity and attack at will. Russia does not have to occupy the entire country. Decapitating the government and holding key positions in key cities will give them the “victory” that they need to control Ukraine’s future. Russia has been fighting in Syria for years. They made a point of rotating all of their key combat units through that battle space so that they are now all battle tested. Both in terms of individual units, and in terms of command and control of combat forces spread over a wide area — two things that they did not previously possess or do well. They have learned a lot of lessons and have applied them.
The Ukrainians have the will to resist but little in the way of organized military forces once they have been decimated from the air. Their plan is to conduct a guerilla war and to inflict as many Russian casualties as possible to undermine the will of the Russian people when their sons and daughters are killed or maimed.
Make no mistake about it. This is going to be ugly. Barring a Ukrainian surrender or collapse at the start, there will be tens of thousands of casualties and as many as a million refugees fleeing the country. This will have world impact, economically and politically. We will all suffer. As is often the case, once war begins, no one can predict whether it will spread or how it will play out in the end. A few “mistakes” could lead Europe into another war. Kyiv is a modern city with about 2.5 million residents. Once electricity is knocked out and water is unavailable living conditions in the city will deteriorate rapidly. In addition to war casualties, it will be a humanitarian disaster.
As President Biden and his cabinet have been warning us, events in Ukraine will not be about some far off place nobody has ever heard of or people we do not care about. Even if one thinks that now, a war in eastern Europe will impact all of us.
As we are all undoubtedly aware, over the last two months Russia has increased the size, lethality, and capability of its combat and logistics forces along its border with Ukraine. Ukraine is now surrounded by Russian troops in Crimea (stolen from Ukraine), Russia, and Belarus, placing them under threat from the North, East and South.
There is much speculation as to what will unfold and as to Russia’s intent. There is only one person who knows whether Russia will attack and that is Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is entirely possible that even he does not know at this moment in time as to what he will do, but he has himself in a position of strength that gives him many plausible opportunities to achieve his goals.
We are at a moment in time where Mr. Putin sees his opportunity. The leading nations within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are facing domestic issues that help him with his plans. The United States is facing Congressional mid-term elections, France has national elections coming up, there is a new government in Germany that is still trying to find its way, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom is under considerable political pressure at home.
Negotiations are under way in Europe, with the US taking a leading role, to try and defuse the situation without abandoning Ukraine. To date, the Russians are making outrageous claims and are putting forward proposals that they must know are totally unacceptable to the West. Foremost among Mr. Putin’s demands is that Ukraine never be allowed to join NATO — a condition that cannot be accepted if nations are to be sovereign, independent and allowed to find their own destinies. He is also demanding that NATO revert to its 1997 boundaries. This means withdrawing all troops and weapons in Eastern Europe deployed since then which leaves Eastern European and Baltic States dangling as current members of NATO. On its face this is totally unacceptable, which Mr. Putin must know.
Mr. Putin does not want any western or western leaning countries on his border. In his public pronouncements he likens it to our reaction if Russian forces were in Cuba or Venezuela — which he made vague threats to do if he does not get his way. He believes that all former Soviet Socialist Republics as a minimum should be in his sphere of influence and that no former member of the Warsaw Pact should be in NATO. The world has moved on, but he has not.
What motivates his undivided attention on Ukraine? Traditionally and culturally the area of Eastern Europe that is now known as Ukraine was part of Russia. Kyiv was the first capital of the Rus people in the 10th to 12th centuries. Following WWI a Republic was born which resulted in civil unrest and battles with the Red Army. These continued until the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was established in 1922, making it one of the three original members of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Ukraine reclaimed its independence in August, 1991. Their independence became official when Ukraine, Belarus and Russia (the original founders) officially dissolved the USSR in December.
Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine stayed closely aligned with Russia. Starting in 2014, with considerable internal unrest, Ukraine began to move more towards western Europe. In that same year, Russia invaded Crimea (with stealth forces and special operations forces — the infamous “little green men” that Russia claimed were not theirs) and subsequently annexed it into Russia. Meddling in Ukraine continued as Russian operatives supported a civil war in southeastern Ukraine in a region known as Donbass. Fighting there continues to this day and has claimed about 15,000 lives.
Understanding the ethnicity and culture of Ukraine helps to explain some of the developments and may indicate where fighting could erupt, at least in the opening stages of military operations. Crimea is mostly populated with ethnic Russians, and large portions of eastern Ukraine (such as the Donbass) are heavily ethnic Russian. Central, northern and western Ukraine, including around its capital in Kyiv, are predominantly ethnic Ukrainians. There is a smattering of other nationalities throughout the country, especially Poles.
It is impossible for me to know his intentions but it would seem that Mr. Putin’s aim is to replace the current western leaning government with one within his sphere of influence. It would be a de facto puppet government, or at least one totally aligned with Russian interests. He is looking to dominate Ukraine as he does Belarus. Although Belarus is independent, their government makes no moves without at least tacit Russian approval.
Why do we care here in the United States? After all, we have plenty to worry about with the state of the pandemic and thwarting attempted coups. One reason is that there is the potential for the largest land war in Europe since WWII. Our lesson learned from the twentieth century is that our political and economic interests in Europe will inevitably pull us in to the conflict. NATO was formed as a deterrent to the USSR but also to bring together the fractious nations of Europe into a common cause. Further, we claim to honor the rule of law, the right for each nation to determine its own destiny, courses of action and affiliations, and to protect democracy.
It is unlikely that Mr. Putin will stop with Ukraine should he be successful. He has similar claims for the need to “protect” ethnic Russians in the Baltic States, Poland, and parts of other Eastern European nations. If successful in Ukraine, he will meddle elsewhere. If one thinks that a Putinesque leader is satisfied with “only” Ukraine, take a look at the developments in Europe in the 1930s leading up to WWII. Adolf Hitler was “just” protecting ethnic Germans in Poland, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere. There is no end.
There are many, many scenarios for Mr. Putin to achieve his ends. He does not necessarily have to invade with ground troops to achieve his goal, although the roughly 130,000 Russian troops from all over Russia that now nearly surround Ukraine certainly raises that possibility. His goal is simple, topple the current government and replace it. In recent days, public US and UK intelligence reports indicate that there are Russian operatives in Ukraine prepared to carry out “false flag” operations and other sabotage and that there are individuals in Ukraine or nearby that are set to take the reins of government. One scenario is that Mr. Putin gradually ups the ante. First comes crippling cyber attacks. Next, or simultaneously, take out energy and water supplies. If those actions are not sufficient to bring Ukraine to heel, then selected or even massive aerial attacks could ensue that take out culturally significant buildings and monuments and also aims to decapitate the existing government. These might be similar to the US “shock and awe” campaign in Iraq prior to the ground war. Sending troops across the border could be the last resort. As part of his plan Mr. Putin may even threaten Estonia, Latvia and/or Lithuanian or parts of Poland in order to take assets away from NATO that might otherwise provide support to Ukraine.
I do not envision that NATO will fight in Ukraine, but the member states can provide significant support. NATO is preparing to activate the NRF (NATO Response Force) designed to respond to threats to NATO members under the auspices of Article Five of the NATO charter where an “attack on one is an attack on all.”
The US and Europe are threatening very strong sanctions against Russia. However, there is little agreement as to exactly what those sanctions should be and should they apply before or after an attack? Does NATO deter or respond to Russian aggression? The biggest threat to Russia would be to cut off their petroleum exports. Unfortunately, the main source of heat in much of Europe is Russian natural gas and it is, after all, winter. To cut off those exports would devastate the Russian economy but it would also severely impact Europe’s economy and it would have a real impact on the rest of the world as well. No politician going into elections (which are coming up in the US, UK, and France) wants gas prices to go up just before an election.
One proposal is to block Russia from SWIFT. (The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications — the Belgian based intermediary for all bank transactions world wide.) This would essentially cut off Russia from any international commerce — they would be unable to sell or buy on the international market. Economically, it is a “nuclear option” with unknown consequences.
The US already has about 70,000 military personnel in Europe with about 6,000 of those in Poland and the Baltic states on short term unit rotations. Yesterday, the US announced that an additional 8,500 troops were put on heightened alert (meaning able to deploy within five days of getting the word to go) in order to bolster the NRF or to respond to other NATO nation’s requests for additional forces. In military terms, 8,500 troops in Europe is a symbolic gesture, but in strategic terms, it sends a clear signal to Mr. Putin that the US is serious about protecting our allies and that we would respond, thus upping the ante for Mr. Putin. There are not significant troops (roughly less than a hundred for training of Ukrainian forces) in Ukraine and there is no intent to put any combat troops in Ukraine.
Mr. Putin holds all the cards. He does not care much about sanctions as it will not impact him personally. To be honest, he probably thinks that any severe sanctions would be temporary and he would still have been successful in Ukraine. He probably feels that he has already raised his stature in Russia by making it appear that Russia is a great power that all the other countries in the world must respect and come to him to meet on his terms. In military terms, because of the common border, he has internal lines of communication and can quickly move forces as needed. Additionally, he already occupies some of their territory.
It is possible that he is waiting for the right time to strike, including waiting for the right weather conditions. There is a window fast approaching where the ground will be frozen hard enough to support large tracked vehicles such as tanks and mobile missile launchers. If he waits too long, the spring thaw will make much of the ground too marshy to effectively use until late spring or summer.
I am out of the prediction game, but at this point, I do not see Mr. Putin backing off. The only thing that will change his mind about attacking Ukraine, in whatever form, is the total capitulation of the Ukrainian government. To date, the Ukrainians swear that they will not fold. As a result, some sort of physical action will be required on Russia’s part to subjugate the Ukrainians.
It is equally unclear how far the US and Europe are willing to go to help Ukraine. Particularly weak in the knees right now are the French and German governments, the heart of any coordinated European response to Russian aggression. A secondary Putin goal is to weaken NATO and if possible, to create the conditions to render it meaningless as a toothless organization. To that end he may have already failed as both Finland and Sweden, not currently members of NATO, have expressed interest in exploring the chance to join. Both border Russia.
The coming weeks will be tough ones for Europe and the world. History tells us that to unleash the hounds of war often leads to perverse and unintended consequences and hostilities can easily spread. In the end, Mr. Putin may decide that in his risk/benefit calculation a direct assault on Ukraine will be counterproductive. History also shows that once nations mobilize for war, they are hard pressed to back down. There is a certain “use it or lose it” mentality. Let’s hope that clearer heads prevail.
Regardless, the next several weeks are fraught with danger.
Nothing is impossible for the person that doesn’t have to do it.
— With apologies to A. H. Weiler
There is plenty of blame to go around for the current state of affairs in Afghanistan. It took a lot of work by multiple U.S. administrations to get to the point that we are at today. President Biden is getting the blame today because, it is after all, his watch. He is responsible for what happens during his time as president. However, it is amazing how short the American memory is for politicians, journalists and pundits as they continue to heap scorn on the president for the current “fiasco” and “embarrassment.” Let’s get a few facts straight.
It is wrong to call this a defeat of the American military and that it shows that we are weak and incompetent. The Taliban did not defeat the American military. They defeated the Afghan military. As has happened throughout history, an army can be well trained, fully equipped with modern technology and it means nothing if there is no will to fight. In the end the Afghan military did not have the will to resist the Taliban. The reasons for that are many. Saying that they lost the will to fight in no way diminishes their numerous achievements on the battlefields of Afghanistan nor does it diminish the bravery of many Afghan soldiers and units during twenty years of war. In the end, they were betrayed by their own political and military leaders. The Taliban regaining control over the entire country was a political and policy defeat, not a military one, that had been years in the making.
I do not think it was a wasted war. American lives were lost in the cause of destroying terrorists that attacked our country. We did that and more. The U.S. military should be proud of the sacrifices that they made. It was worth it.
To begin a discussion, one has to decide whether or not we should have withdrawn from Afghanistan. Since 2011 and the killing of Osama bin Laden then Vice President, now President, Biden has been calling for the end of American involvement in Afghanistan. The original mission was to overthrow the Taliban, defeat al-Queda and to capture or kill Osama. In 2011 all of that was accomplished. Many argue it was essentially finished within a year of our invasion of Afghanistan and that it could have included Osama’s death if we had not let him get away in Tora Bora. Indeed, the Taliban offered to surrender in 2001 and the U.S. refused. As is often the case, the original mission morphed into a nation building exercise. Again. Again we learned that cultures with no history of democracy or loyalty to a central government will not adapt to American style democracy. President Biden’s decision to withdraw can be debated — I happen to think it was the right choice for reasons that I will explain below — but it is reasonable for others to argue that we should have stayed. Those people that so argue should also recognize that we would have had to return large numbers of American military personnel to the country. The 2,500 that were there when the Biden Administration took office would not have been sufficient to stop the Taliban’s increasing influence and control over the entire country. More troops would have been required. More troops in combat means more casualties. To argue that there had been no casualties for over a year ignores the reasons for that — the fact that the Trump Administration struck a deal with the Taliban. Had we not left as the previous administration agreed to do, undoubtedly there would have been renewed attacks on U.S. personnel.
Once the decision to leave is made — and it should have come as no surprise to anyone — then it is up to the Department of Defense, State Department and other government agencies to execute it to the best of their ability. I happen to think that they are doing a better than average job under very trying circumstances. To date, over 20,000 civilians have been evacuated from Kabul without a single American casualty. As the president said, however, it is a very volatile situation and there is no guarantee that it won’t fall apart at any moment. But despite the chaos of the first day, it has proceeded better than most could have hoped.
The real criticism of the Biden Administration — and a situation that needs a Congressional inquiry — is the total and complete miss on the intelligence estimates of how long the Afghan government and military could continue to function after the U.S. withdrew. Either there is a long litany of lies about conditions in Afghanistan or the Intelligence Community totally missed the boat. As is often the case, it is probably some combination of the two, but the fact remains that public statements did not in any form match the reality on the ground that the Taliban would take down the government controlled areas of the country in just over a week.
It should not have been a surprise. Twenty years on the ground with supposed experts making entire careers analyzing events in the country should have known what was going on. In the simplest terms, open source material indicates that following the 29 February 2020 Trump Peace Accord, known formally as “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan Between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America” — just the name of the agreement tells us something — the Taliban began preparing for their take over. Note that the agreement was between the U.S. and the Taliban. The Afghan government had no say or role in the negotiations and got no results from the agreement. The following are the key parts of the agreement which are spelled out in detail in the Accord:
- The U.S. agreed immediately to begin to reduce the number of troops in the country and promised to withdraw all remaining forces within fourteen months (May 2021).
- The U.S. released 5,000 prisoners that were Taliban fighters.
- The Taliban promised to prevent terrorist groups, especially al-Queda, from using Afghanistan to attack the U.S. or its allies.
- The Taliban and the national government of Afghanistan will enter negotiations for a cease fire and a coalition government.
- The Taliban will no longer attack U.S. forces or bases while the U.S. withdraws.
Almost immediately the Taliban began to approach low-level officials, and then gradually more and more senior officials and leaders throughout the country to convince them, through persuasion, threats and especially bribes, to surrender their villages, cities and regions to the Taliban when the time came in return for protection for them and their families. When the leadership quietly slipped away in the night, the rank and file were not going to risk their lives for nothing. In much of Afghan culture their loyalties are to family, village, tribe and not the central government in Kabul. Graft and corruption are so rampant in the country that many of the police and soldiers had not been paid in months. When offered money, and knowing that the central government would not help them, they took it.
Recall the optics of the Trump agreement. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Doha Qatar to meet with the Taliban and proudly stood side by side for photo ops. Recall that the ex-president while in office wanted to bring the Taliban negotiators to Camp David on 11 September 2019. Trump adviser Stephen Miller — the virulently anti-immigration nut case — actively undermined the Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) program for Afghanis that helped us as translators and in other ways because he did not want them in our country. And on and on. It is more than hypocritical of Republicans in Congress and the right-wing media to accuse President Biden of selling out the Afghan people and giving recognition to the Taliban. It was already done. President Biden could have refused to follow the Trump deal, but he made the decision to delay the withdrawal from May 2021 to August 2021 to allow more time for a better deal to be reached. It wasn’t. Neither the Taliban nor the Afghan national government were interested in any type of serious agreement with each other. I suspect that the Afghan government did not really expect the U.S. to leave completely, or else they already had their escape plans in place. None-the-less, the Biden Administration is in charge and it is their responsibility. But let’s not forget how we got to this point. These events set the stage for what we now see happening.
There were elite, well trained and disciplined Afghan special forces. They were ready to defend Kabul. When the president and most of the cabinet, along with other senior government officials, flew out of the country without warning, they melted away like all the others. They cannot fight to save the national government if there is no national government to defend.
It was, in essence, at the end, a nearly bloodless coup. Money talks and a lot of Afghanis walked. I think President Biden is correct to say that he will not send young American women and men to fight and die in a country where their own military will not defend themselves. It is over. The decision is made. It is time to make the best of a bad situation.
What makes it bad is that many American civilians remain in the country and it becomes a greater moral dilemma because we owe a debt to tens of thousands of Afghanis and their families who helped us over the course of twenty years believing that things would end differently. This is the mess. The timing comes under this administration, but this same circumstance would have ensued whenever the end came. Once people believe that all is lost, the stampede is on. As soon as the U.S. began withdrawing its embassy personnel, aid workers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and others, the Afghanis would know that it was over and panic would ensue. Could it have been timed out better? Yes. Could the chaos have been avoided? No. It is inevitable at some point.
The question now is what to do. The U.S. goal is to complete the evacuation by 31 August. Many critics believe that is too early, ignoring the president’s statements that the date is a goal, not a hard and fast requirement. Developments over the next few days will determine what happens. People are looking for hard and fast answers. That is reasonable but not realistic. The commanders on the ground are going to have to make some quick and difficult decisions. It is a very fluid situation. So far, for the most part the Taliban have stuck by their agreement to let the evacuation continue. There is no way to definitively say that this will last forever. I believe the Taliban leadership wants it to go smoothly and quickly because they want us gone. The sooner the better. They do not want to risk our return. That does not mean that some hothead on the front lines or a group of hotheads might not take matters into their own hands. The situation could blow up quickly with very little instigation. This is especially true if the U.S. begins going outside of the airport perimeter, or even outside of Kabul, to bring evacuees in.
There is a lot of blame to go around. Our collective amnesia of events in other administrations should not cloud our thinking about the current situation. In the end, the Biden Administration will demonstrate that they have the ability and know-how to pull off a Dunkirk style evacuation. Or not. Until then, the critics should hold their fire until the results are known.