Beware the Ides of March.
When Julius Caesar and his legion invaded Italy from Gaul by crossing the Rubicon River it is said he uttered, “ãlea iacta est,” (the die is cast). He knew there was no turning back. And so, it may well be with Vladimir Putin and his Russian legion. There is, perhaps for Putin, no turning back. The die is cast.
Just about every nation in the world except, perhaps Belarus, is observing with both disgust and horror Putin, like Caesar, pummeling civilian communities wherever his artillery and missiles can reach. Caesar went on to fight his way to Rome where he declared himself ruler for life in 44 B.C. He was dead a month later, assassinated by his countrymen on March 15th, (the Ides of March). Now, two thousand and sixty-six years later, Putin’s inner circle, like Caesar’s, might well be contemplating at this Ides of March what Putin has wrought. It is an eerie time of the year in this tortured corner of the world. As it turned out, Czar Nicholas II abdicated 105 years ago on March 15, 1917, and 83 years ago Czechoslovakia was ceded to NAZI Germany on March 15, 1939.
Putin’s efforts to hermetically seal off the people of Russia from the news of the catastrophe in Ukraine will ultimately fail. Body bags deliver a remarkably unambiguous message. Losing face, however, may be the least of his worries were he to fail in his effort to rapidly conquer a remarkably resistant Ukrainian army and civilian population. Every day the Ukrainians fight for survival is another day of humiliation, dishonor, and shame for the Russian strongman, fortified behind the walls of the Kremlin. Putin will be welcomed nowhere in the civilized world again. Massacring civilians in an attempt to destroy a nation’s will to fight is not a new phenomenon in warfare, but having the entire world watch as it happens is.
Putin is turning himself and his nation into a pariah in the eyes of a horrified world. He has left himself no alternative but to pummel on. As Nazi Hermann Goering complained at his war-crimes trial in Nuremberg, “the victor will always be the judge, and the vanquished the accused.” Putin is determined to be the judge of his place in history. And he may be if the rest of the world, including the Russian people, fail to stop him.
This aggression will not end in Ukraine. The one thing authoritarian strongmen cannot do and survive is lose face at home, and in the eyes of the world they wish to intimidate, if not conquer. He is being bloodied in Ukraine, a large non-NATO nation that has posed no threat to him. Meanwhile, tiny nearby NATO nations such as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania look on shielded by NATO’s commitment to defend them if they are attacked.
Sooner, rather than later, the United States and the rest of the free world will face a fearful decision; to intervene or not to intervene. Russia’s ground army has demonstrated that it is no match for a well-organized, well-equipped, highly-motivated fighting force. However, artillery shells, missile warheads, and bombs know no fear. They simply go where they are sent and destroy and kill wherever they land. Putin, therefore, has incredible killing power at his disposal, and it is programmed to strike targets well beyond Ukraine in the United States and Europe. Similarly, the United States and its allies have equally destructive munitions aimed at Russian targets. And so, the doomsday scenario of mutually assured destruction must now be factored into any decision-making process the free nations of the world contemplate.
Perhaps, there are those in the Russian military establishment who are not favorably disposed to the needless destruction unleashed in their name. Russian soldiers of every rank, including three generals, have fallen prosecuting a senseless and unprovoked war. There is little cheering in Russia for the slaughter of Ukrainian civilians, and there will be growing agony as young fallen Russian soldiers are brought home from Putin’s war to be buried. There was another bloody, unpopular war a century ago that changed the course of Russian history. This one may also change Russian history, and not in a way Putin ever contemplated.
Nothing has awakened European and American memory of the dark days of the Third Reich as has Putin’s unconscionable and vicious targeting of civilian populations. Belatedly, but with determination, the free world is responding by sending the means with which Ukrainians and other nearby nations can defend themselves. The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, summed up Europe’s great awakening, “European security and defense have evolved more in the last six days than in the last two decades,” she said.
NATO secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, declared, “Putin’s war affects us all, and NATO allies will always stand together to defend and protect each other. Our commitment to Article 5, our collective defense clause, is ironclad. There must be no space for miscalculation or misunderstanding. We will do what it takes to defend every inch of NATO territory.”
Putin, who perhaps fancies himself the Russian Caesar, has awakened memories of the deadliest war in history, and the nations that bore witness and were victims of that war are rising up in anger. Nearly every country in Europe, along with the United States, Canada, and Australia, are bolstering their own defenses while speeding munitions to Ukraine. Even traditionally neutral countries like Sweden and Finland are sending arms to Ukraine. Whatever they have, they are sending.
It is estimated that between 20,000 and 25,000 NATO troops have already been moved into neighboring NATO-member countries that border Russia in response to Putin’s aggression. NATO members and some non-NATO nations are sending everything from pistols and machine guns to Javelin anti-tank missiles, Stinger surface-to-air missiles, and missile-firing drones to the Ukrainian defenders.
Meanwhile, Russian insiders from the oligarchs who run much of Russia’s economy, to career military leaders who are watching Russia’s ever-growing isolation from the modern world, to the families who are receiving their returning war dead, must be asking how Putin’s arrogance and miscalculations could possibly be in their nation’s best interest. Who, many must be contemplating, can bring a stop to this madness.
Beware the Ides of March.