March 18, 2023

Ukraine: Killing her Slowly

by Hal Gershowitz

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U.S. and NATO strategy in Ukraine has been to deny Russia a swift victory. We have accomplished that. Now, prepare to accept indefinite Russian control of vast regions of Ukraine.

A slow but very costly Russian victory over parts of Ukraine appears to be an achievable Putin objective, and we and our NATO allies may have to accept that reality. It’s not the best way to halt Russian aggression, nor the best way to help a beleaguered nation being raped by the thugocracy that is Putin’s Russia.

First, understand Ukraine is defending itself against an unprovoked war of aggression. While no one is arguing for a US-Russian dust-off, we and our allies are not, to date, providing Ukraine with the means to send the Russian marauders packing either. We are, instead, satisfying ourselves that Russia is paying a stiff price for its unprovoked aggression.

To be clear, history will accord President Biden huge credit for denying Vladimir Putin the quick victory the Russian strongman thought was his for the taking. Biden broadcast to the world real-time intelligence, including photography and video footage of the Russian build-up to the war, denying Russia the false flag excuse it was planning to justify its “special military operation.” Biden also rallied our NATO allies to support Ukraine’s determination to defend itself generously. It has been NATO’s finest hour in generations.

Russia’s neighboring nations know they will be in Russia’s crosshairs should Ukraine fall, and make no mistake about it—they will be in Russia’s crosshairs. They have now rushed to join NATO (think Finland and Sweden, for starters).

But Biden’s plan, and therefore NATO’s strategy, presumes that Ukrainian resistance, which has been fearsome, will ultimately prove too costly to Putin and that he will be forced to seek a negotiated settlement. And, yes, that Ukrainian losses, which are substantial, will pressure President Zelensky to pursue a negotiated settlement. To put it more succinctly, the plan appears to allow, through a negotiated settlement, Putin to pocket much of his clumsy and bloody grab while leaving whatever is left to Ukraine.

Ukraine will have paid an enormous price for such a settlement. The war has deteriorated into a contest to determine which nation can afford to bleed the most. Russia, with a population nearly four times greater than Ukraine, can afford to spill much more Russian blood, and Putin seems quite willing to spill as much Russian blood as it takes. The United States and our NATO allies estimate that as many as 120,000 Ukrainian ­fighters have been killed or wounded compared to about 200,000 Russian casualties. Ukraine has fought heroically, but the country cannot continue to sustain such losses of life while simultaneously having its cities and infrastructure flattened by Russian missiles.

Before the invasion in February 2022, Russia had nearly five times as many troops as Ukraine, a defense budget eleven times larger, an economy almost eight times larger, and significantly better military capabilities. The Russian arsenal is formidable. It includes advanced fighter aircraft, excellent artillery hardware, a massive fleet of tanks, an immense inventory of nuclear weapons, many of which Ukraine handed over to Russia in return for Russia’s promise to recognize Ukraine’s independence, and a vast array of offensive cyber capabilities. Only Ukrainian determination to remain free and independent, backed by a far more motivated military and massive material assistance from America and the rest of NATO, has upended Putin’s plan for a swift and relatively painless victory.

Understand this. Russia, in 1994, pledged in the so-called Budapest Memorandum to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and the inviolability of its borders and to refrain from the use or threat of military force against the former Soviet republic. In return for this written pledge, witnessed and signed by the United States and Great Britain, Ukraine turned its entire nuclear arsenal, the third largest in the world, over to Russia for dismantling.

However, in Vladimir Putin’s mind, that accord was of the 20th century and pre-Putin. This is now the 21st century, and this is Putin’s Russia. So, in 2014 he unilaterally tore up the Budapest accord, grabbed Crimea, and began an aggressive assault on Ukraine’s industrial Donbas region.

When he attacked Georgia six years earlier, Putin had learned that much of the old Soviet Union might be his for the taking. He has used the same playbook in Ukraine that he perfected in Georgia when he attacked that nation on behalf of separatists. That, too, was a so-called “special military operation” that Putin then called a peace enforcement operation.

The impetus for Putin’s Ukraine campaign probably began when he realized he could throw his weight around in the old Soviet republics with relative impunity. When Putin decided to support separatists in a grotesque ethnic cleansing of Georgians residing in the so-called self-declared republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, he got away with it, pocketing about 20% of the region. Probably then, he began to set his sights on Ukraine seriously. He has used the separatists’ campaign against the Georgians as a template for the 2014 annexation of Crimea and as the precursor to incursions into Ukraine’s Donbas region and last year’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. 

Putin’s Ukrainian blood-letting is particularly tragic here in America because the Trump wing of the Republican Party has been seduced into either softly or overtly supporting Putin’s rape of Ukraine. Former President Trump’s first impeachment resulted from his failed attempt to coerce Ukraine’s young President, Volodymyr Zelensky, into launching an investigation into Trump’s 2020 presidential opponent Joe Biden. The coercion, the reader might recall, involved slow-walking already approved military aid to Ukraine unless Zelensky cooperated in finding dirt for Trump to throw at Biden.

So, to avoid alienating the Trump crowd and Trump bloviators such as Tucker Carlson, Republican officeholders, and candidates must profess opposition to Ukraine’s courageous determination to defend itself. We have learned through discovery in the Dominion Voting Machine case that Tucker Carlson actually “passionately” but secretly “hates Trump.”

“Ours forever,” Putin likes to say of Ukraine’s Donbas. After all, he hastens to remind us that most of the people there still speak Russian. He sounds much like King George III, given that most people in King George’s old, lost American colonies still speak English.

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