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.