March 19, 2022

Defending Democracy: If Not Now, When?

by Hal Gershowitz

Comments Below

As goes Ukraine, so goes the decade(s) ahead. That’s the reality we face.

No one should be lulled into thinking that the war in Ukraine is simply a grizzly dust-off between Russia and Ukraine or, perhaps, between Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskyy. What we are likely watching in Ukraine is phase one of what will be an increasingly violent struggle between an autocratic aggressor nation, Putin’s Russia, and various former Soviet-bloc nations that escaped from Russia’s grip after the Soviet Union collapsed. It is phase one of a larger struggle to come.

What can we expect in phase two?

Ukraine is a proxy, a presumed-to-be, manageable target for Putin’s attempt to reconstitute as much of the old Soviet Union as he can. What was once ours will always be ours to claim is Putin’s unspoken message. Many nations in the aftermath of World War Two were simply Stalin’s to take, and, let’s face it, ours to give, when Hitler’s 1000-year Reich collapsed after a dozen miserable and violent years. That, however, was nearly a century ago, and when the Soviet Union itself collapsed, almost a half-century after that war, many of those enslaved nations had a choice to make, and they chose freedom. They couldn’t rid themselves of Russian control fast enough.

We are watching the Coming Attractions unfold in Ukraine; a glimpse into Vladimir Putin’s cause célèbre; the eventual reconstituting of the old Russian sphere of influence. A belligerent Putin won’t stop with Ukraine, should he succeed in crushing the life out of the Ukrainian people, not when fourteen other former Soviet-bloc nations rushed to join the NATO defense pact once they were free. Nine of those nations had been signatories to the Warsaw Pact that the old Soviet Union created and forced them to support to counter NATO, which was formed in response to Stalin’s aggressive attempt to subjugate millions of people from Berlin to Athens.

Assuming he survives (which may be an uncertain assumption), Putin will have one of two courses to pursue when the fighting stops in Ukraine. (1) He might think: that didn’t go so well, so I’ll reform and won’t do anything like that again; OR (2) he will take his time, lick his wounds, learn from his blunders, purge those who failed him, recalibrate and then target one or more of the former Soviet-bloc countries that have aligned with the West.

Everyone who thinks Putin will embrace the first of these alternatives raise your hand.

There is little chance he will embrace the first alternative. That would relegate Vladimir Putin to being the ruler of a nuclear-armed nation with an economy smaller than Texas but supporting a population five times larger than the Lone Star State. That is not how Vladimir Putin sees his place in history, but Putin’s dreams of a greater Russia are being dashed by the incredible determination and heroism of the Ukrainian People.

Putin is like the dog that caught the car. The dog never wins, and neither can Putin. He can create and is creating a lot of misery, but the Ukrainians have demonstrated that they will never again be part of Russia. Ukraine will be a thorn in Putin’s side for as long as he has troops there. The Ukrainians don’t want him there, and his troops don’t want to be there. He has sent massive firepower to topple Ukrainian President Zenenskyy by pummeling his cities and the people who inhabit those cities. However, still, the Ukrainians fight and give as good as they get. They will never be subdued.

Putin has the wherewithal to create carnage anywhere on the planet. That is, he believes, his trump card. That’s why he has threatened nuclear war, and, make no mistake about it, that is precisely what he has threatened should NATO interfere with his brutal, expansionist thrust into Ukraine.

President Biden has, thus far, played an intricate hand quite well, but now it would be prudent for the United States and NATO to make specific points crystal clear. Among them: (1) any use of nuclear weapons of any size or purpose, strategic or tactical, will be considered a threat to humanity and will not be tolerated. NATO should make it unequivocally clear that Putin’s use of any nuclear option will constitute an act of war against humanity to which NATO will respond. (2) Russian military officers of any rank who have participated in deliberate attacks on civilians will be investigated as war criminals, and, if found guilty, will be permanently sanctioned and subject to prosecution. (3) The United States and other NATO nations, if invited to set up observation and humanitarian service centers in the western region of Ukraine, will consider an attack on their people an attack on the participating nations. (4) Eighty-two years ago, Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared that America was to be the “Arsenal of Democracy” in the fight against Hitler’s aggression. We, and the free nations of the world, are playing that role again today against Putin’s aggression. We should make it clear that any attack by Russia on any nation’s ability to send arms to Ukraine will be considered an act of war.

While the United States is not, and will probably never be, a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC) given the constitutional sovereignty issues involved, we note that among the many countries that have requested the ICC to investigate Russian war crimes in Ukraine are numerous nations that were formerly Soviet-bloc countries. Among them are Albania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania. Putin has no friends among the old Soviet-bloc nations. They revile him.

As Peter Maass pointed out in “The Intercept” earlier this month, Vladimir Putin is today’s version of Slobodan Milošević, when the Serbian strongman sent his forces on a genocidal rampage in Bosnia thirty years ago. Putin claims Ukraine, (as Milošević claimed Bosnia), is an artificial country that doesn’t deserve to exist. Serbs shelled apartment buildings and attacked civilians as they tried to flee — just as the Russian army is now doing in Ukraine. As Maass points out, one can look at a picture of Sarajevo in 1992 and a picture of Kyiv in 2022 and not know which is which. 

Thanks to Vladimir Putin, Russia has become a pariah nation. The person the free world most admires in Russia today is probably Marina Ovsyannikova, the Russian state television producer who, at great risk, rushed onto a state-controlled prime-time live newscast holding a sign that read, “Stop the war. Don’t believe the propaganda. You are being lied to.” 

Why did the courageous mother of two take such a risk? “The war was the point of no return when it was simply impossible to stay silent,” she said, following a fourteen-hour interrogation. She stands by her remarks while acknowledging that she is concerned for her safety. Marina Ovsyannikova is today the most courageous person in Russia and one of the most admired people in the world. There will be others, and, ultimately, their truth will prevail.

All comments regarding these essays, whether they express agreement, disagreement, or an alternate view, are appreciated and welcome. Comments that do not pertain to the subject of the essay or which are ad hominem references to other commenters are not acceptable and will be deleted.

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12 responses to “Defending Democracy: If Not Now, When?”

  1. Perry says:

    Hal,

    You have laid out quite well the mindset and the ambitious plan of Putin but outside of the
    gallant defense of the Ukraine we find little comfort in the fact that Biden administration was so
    late in coming to the aid of the Ukrainians. Will it take another Pearl Harbor to realize that
    America has enemies and the world is chaotic due to America’s policies of weakness.
    Our inept departure from Afghanistan to our seeming capitulation to Russia allowing them
    to negotiate a new Iran nuclear agreement, while Americans are sitting outside.negotiations
    as Iran and Russia make the deal. Putin saw weakness in America, but again failed to understand the
    resolve of Ukrainians.
    Our own allies question our own resolve given the Axis of evil which is again rising.
    Am referring to Russia,China, and Iran, no less a possibility than the Japanese,Italian,and
    German alliance of WW2 era. America must speak clearly and act quickly in light of
    the gravity of being late in the struggle for Freedom World wide.

  2. Response to Perry: Actually, Biden’s early use of intelligence to publicly and rapidly telegraph to the world what Putin was about to do was both effective and impressive. Further, Biden’s immediate transfer of lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine, created a substantial stumbling block to Putin’s military advance into Ukraine. Biden was also quite effective in rallying robust NATO support. Knee-jerk criticism of Biden does little to advance constructive discussion.

    • Mr. Gershowitz, I totally agree with you. I think President Biden has done an excellent job in uniting NATO allies. The former president had little use for NATO and our allies were left wondering if the United States had given up its leadership role in NATO. Meanwhile the former president became pals with Putin and the like.

      I have been frustrated that we could not do more to help Ukraine, but my frustration is born out of feelings not with a clear, military strategical mind.

    • Diane Rafferty says:

      Hal I 💯% agree. Biden has not been given a fair shake since the former guy started degrading him before even his nomination. I personally believe he’s doing a much better job than his predecessor. He curbed the pandemic & distributed millions of vaccines & tests.Hes created millions of jobs, He’s fixing our infrastructure which is alot more than a 80 mile streach of WALL repair with only 5Miles of new construction. The Former guy actually bragged about making sure Biden could not abandon the Afghan pullout, so dispite it’s downfalls, he really had no choice. Plus President Biden has taken all the right moves where Ukraine is concerned, he has sent as much as he could, when he could & just today sent more. Unlike the former guy he follows Rules & does stuff by the book, he holds himself to a high standard & accountable. He didn’t have to blackmail anyone for the arms Ukraine needed. As a decent American & human being, one of compassion and reverence he has a conscience that would not allow him to waste time on such a expedient matter.

  3. Ted Goldman says:

    Is all criticism of Biden “knee jerk”?

    Perry makes valid points about the many Biden failures, including waiting months to minimally supply Ukraine weapons only after Russia’s cruel and brutal invasion.

    This is “Biden’s War” because of his weakness displayed in the Afghan debacle, encouraging Russian aggression, and
    ultimately China’s.

    If Biden had just given Ukraine the $90 Billion in sophisticated military equipment he stupidly abandoned in Afghanistan the military outlook would be much better for the brave Ukrainians.

  4. Mr. Goldman, President Biden was warning of an invasion for weeks before it happened. Unfortunately, the Ukrainians did not believe that Russian would attack them.
    Meanwhile, President Biden was working to unite the NATO leaders. That was necessary because the former president had little time for NATO and showed no interest in keeping the nations united.

  5. sheila says:

    Not only did the former president have little time for NATO, he worked actively as Putin’s vassel to deconstruct NATO. In addition,Ted Goldman and Perry, you will recall that the former president was impeached the first time, for attempting to extort Zelensky, refusing to provide the arms that had been allocated by Congress unless he was provided information that would bolster his own campaign. He would have handed Ukraine to Putin on a platter.

    We are damn lucky to have Biden as President at this time –his foreign policy with respect to Ukraine has been spot on and so far, his leadership in rallying the NATO countries and the western world and in arming Ukraine has kept us out of a nuclear confrontation with Russia.

  6. Bruce Olson says:

    The best outcome would be yet another Russian revolution and a bullet to Putin’s temple. The Russian people must show an overwhelming preference for peace, democracy and freedom from autocracy.

    • Mr Olson, I agree with you! Someone needs to put a bullet in Putin’s head immediately! I pray for that every day.

      I hope that the Russian people have the courage to revolt. Some of them have shown great courage.

  7. LWY says:

    Keep in mind – Trump put pressure on NATO to make sure they lived up to their commitments and invested 2% of their GDP in their defense. Now that Russia has invaded Ukraine, each country, including Germany, are now following what Trump insisted all the time – increase your investment in defense.

  8. BLB says:

    Agree with LWY.
    And if Biden had such great intelligence that he knew what Putin would do (it was a forgone conclusion) why didn’t Biden give them the arms they requested at once, put total SWIFT sanctions on them, and refuse to purchase any more of their oil??? Putin/Russia would have been bankrupted and possibly have even prevented an invasion.
    Diplomacy is Not The Answer. Putin is not a sane or trustworthy individual, so stop with the words….give the Ukrainians all the military might to defend themselves….NOW!!

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