Vladimir Putin, wannabee Russian tsar, continues his history-upending assault on Ukraine — a war crime being committed in plain sight, with civilians indiscriminately killed or forced to flee in what has become, per the U.N., the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II: 2 million in just two weeks.
With this war now in its second week, what Putin thought would be a cakewalk has become a slog. Thus, per experts, Putin will resort to the default Russian military doctrine: pulverizing the enemy, what ancient Roman historian Tacitus called “laying waste.”
What can be done? Against brute pulverizing force, the toolkit of Civilization and democracy has always been under-supplied. (Ukraine is a very young democracy, having declared itself in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed.) As countless talking-heads tell us now, we are in the true nightmare-scenario: If a madman is bent on waging war, and brandishes the nuclear threat, nothing really can stop him. But, there are tools to fight back — as Ukraine is valiantly doing on the battlefield, with some success.
Best to listen to what besieged Ukraine says it needs for tools. Foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba maps it out, in a Washington Post op-ed titled, “What the world can do to keep helping our resistance in Ukraine.”
Invoking the post-World War II vow “Never again,” Kuleba rightly claims the same conditions pertain, again, that forced that vow, citing Russia’s “evil” and “barbaric effort to redraw borders by brutal force and erase national identity and self-determination.” He gives a situation report: “Ukraine has already foiled Putin’s blitzkrieg, inflicted disastrous losses on the invaders…. We are holding our ground.” Then the ask: “We need aircraft. We need effective air defense and missile defense systems. We need to protect our skies to stop Russian aircraft and missiles from killing more civilians.” Tellingly, Kuleba does not explicitly ask for a no-fly zone, only indirectly, perhaps because Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky repeatedly asks for it, with no success.
No-fly zone: A new development
By now we all know that a no-fly zone is resisted by Pres. Joe Biden and NATO, because it might bring the superpowers Russia and America into nuclear confrontation, a calamity which must be avoided. Short of nuclear holocaust, a wider war in Europe is feared, but: If Putin takes Ukraine, he will widen the war. It’s a terrible conundrum, thus the resistance to a no-fly zone.
But a limited no-fly zone — to protect civilians — is now being floated as an option. In an open letter, 27 foreign policy experts urge the administration and NATO “to impose a limited No-Fly Zone over Ukraine starting with protection of humanitarian corridors.” They add: “NATO leaders should convey to Russian officials that they do not seek direct confrontation with Russian forces, but they must also make clear that they will not countenance Russian attacks on civilian areas.” Also noted: “additional military means for Ukrainian self-defense are desperately needed, and needed now.” These experts also invoke the vow “Never again.”
Military materiel: The flow
As for the aircraft Foreign Minister Kuleba asks for: The deal with Poland for transfer of its 28 MiG jet fighters to Ukraine is constantly on, then off. These jets are Russian-made; Ukrainian pilots know how to fly them, having trained in them. (At this posting, this deal is off, vetoed by the Pentagon as “not tenable,” as risking direct confrontation between the U.S. and Russia.)
As for the air defense and missile defense systems Kuleba asks for: Why oh why cannot Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system, which shoots down incoming missiles at an almost no-fail rate, be sold to Ukraine…? The Times of Israel reports Ukraine approached U.S. officials last year in a bid to buy this system, but Israel demurred, “fearing Russian reaction” (“in light of Moscow’s influence over Syria,” Israel’s belligerent neighbor). A joint Israeli-American project, the Iron Dome cannot be sold to third parties without both developer countries’ O.K. What does Israel say now, with Russian missiles expected to be the delivery system of Putin’s coming pulverizing…?
As for the flow of materiel from U.S. to Ukraine, it is extensive and has been flowing since last November, per deeply-reported stories in the Post and New York Times, when Pres. Biden — wisely — turned on the spigot. Ukraine is receiving the requested air and missile defense systems. (Such systems are, by definition, defensive, while jet fighters are offensive, risking superpower confrontation.)
Economic sanctions: Biting, but quick enough?
To cut off Putin’s capacity to finance his war in Ukraine, historically broad and harsh sanctions have been leveled by the rules-based international order against Russia, notably its banks, with the instant result that the ruble dropped 30% in one day. Thus the sanctions are biting, but is it quick enough? (Foreign Minister Kuleba asks for “more severe sanctions.”) Ukraine can win the fight against its much larger foe only if it can hold out long enough — basically, if the Russian war machine runs out of gas, with no ability to refuel. Just now, Pres. Biden has announced the U.S. will ban Russian oil imports, “effective immediately,” and the European Union pledges to phase out its dependency on Russian fossil fuels “well before 2030.” Already 70% of Russia’s oil is off the market. Again, will it be quick enough? (Foreign Minister Kuleba also asks, in advance, for “financial assistance for civilians…to rebuild our nation.”)
International combat volunteers: A new factor
Moved by images of suffering innocent humanity, and Ukraine president Zelensky’s creation of an “international legion,” thousands of combat veterans from around the world are answering the call to duty. As one volunteer said, in a New York Times article titled “‘I just can’t stand by’: American veterans join the fight in Ukraine”: “Sanctions can help, but sanctions can’t help right now, and people need help right now. I can help right now.” Foreign fighters serve in the International Legion of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense forces. Pres. Zelensky last week claimed 16,000 had joined (that number cannot be verified).
Volunteers for Ukraine, a pop-up group, serves as a coordinator in the U.S. Says its David Ribardo, “It’s a conflict that has a clear good and bad side, and maybe that stands apart from other recent conflicts.” Says the above-cited vet: “Sitting by and doing nothing? I had to do that when Afghanistan fell apart, and it weighed heavily on me. I had to act.” Writes the Times: “After years of serving in smoldering occupations, trying to spread democracy in places that had only a tepid interest in it, many are hungry for what they see as a righteous fight to defend freedom against an autocratic aggressor with a conventional and target-rich army.”
But: Will the flow of international volunteer fighters slow as Russia’s pulverizing climax gets underway? (The Volunteers for Ukraine website lacks a media contact link, so I could not ask. The site connects volunteers with donors contributing money and air miles to fly in-theatre.) As the Brookings Institution warns, right-wing extremists must be screened out from these numbers.
Protest in Russia: The big unknown
While my title references the “Free World,” which Russia sadly is not, internal developments there may yet factor in this volatile moment. Growing numbers of protesters, at enormous personal cost in a police state, flow into Russia’s streets to decry “Putin’s war,” getting arrested. The bulk of the Russian public, fed only state media’s lies, are still with Putin. But: What happens if — a big if in closed-off Russia — it comes out that their soldiers, deployed to Ukraine to engage, per orders, in nothing more than “training exercises,” are revealed instead to be killing their Ukrainian brothers: What then? Could they ever turn on Putin, revolt?
Meanwhile, Alexey Navalny, opposition leader and Putin’s internal Nemesis, who was allegedly poisoned on Putin’s orders, survived, and now serves a 15-year sentence, from his prison cell issues Twitter messages putting to the Russian people the central question for them in this moment: “Whether Russians actually support the hideous war that Putin has waged against Ukraine is a matter of utmost political importance. The answer to this question will largely define Russia’s place in the history of the 21st century.” Navalny’s question is not only political but moral, addressed to the renowned “Russian soul” reflected in the works of Tolstoy, Chekhov, Akhmatova, Solzhenitsyn, other great artists. What will be the response? Navalny’s snap poll shows the Russian public’s support for Putin’s war is falling.
The world’s esteem: A special weapon in Ukraine’s kit-bag?
Finally, as help of a spiritual nature in their hour of supreme peril: The Ukrainians have ignited the world’s esteem — for their bravery taking on the Russian machine, for the unity they show as a people, for the clarity with which they express their commitment to democracy. Foreign Minister Kuleba writes: “We do see, feel, and appreciate the world’s solidarity. The admiration for our people, armed forces and president fills us with pride…. As Ukraine’s emissary to the world, I have been deeply moved by the millions who have protested Russia’s invasion in the streets of their capitals, increasing the pressure on their governments to act.”
Let us pray this help, all of it, enables Ukraine to keep its freedom.
If you would like to help, please see The New York Times guide, “How You Can Help Ukraine.”
For my earlier post, “Putin Attacks the Rules-Based Order. The Order — and Humanity — Fight Back,” see here.