Hell, It's War
You don’t often get, or want, to quote the National Lampoon’s Animal House when discussing geopolitics, certainly not with a failure as grim as today’s Russian invasion of Ukraine. Still, there I was Wednesday night watching the BBC World Service when Mrs. M. asked what happened to the world’s third largest arsenal of nuclear weapons that Ukraine possessed at its independence. “They handed them over.”
“Why did they do that?”
“Because we, along with Great Britain, guaranteed their territorial integrity should the Russians come back.”
“Biden says we aren’t going into Ukraine?”
“We aren’t. We don’t want to escalate the Russians into going nuclear.”
“With the nukes we talked Ukraine into handing over?”
“Yup.” I was looking at Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba speaking to the UN. “Ah Dmytro, you fucked up. You trusted us.”
The next morning, well, it morning was worse.
Make no mistake, whether the US sends troops or not, we are all in the dumpster now. And it is clear that Vladimir Putin’s aims are not just the breakaway “republics” but to roll up to the doorstep of NATO’s article 5: An attack on one member-state is an attack on all. And just like that the world has run out of red lines.
He knows he can’t win a NATO war, and it would be the end of his regime. And for his sort, that probably means the end of his life. The margin of error, though is microscopic. President Putin has threatened to go nuclear if the West interferes with his mission and know we know that the man is deranged enough to do it. So, in a military sense, we are leaving Ukraine to its fate. We missed our chance – a virtuous red line, as it were – to act. That was in 2014. Not militarily, but with the crushing sanctions we are only now applying.
To cut Russia out of the global system will hurt, but it’s time for the US and the world to pay that price, because letting it side will only hurt worse later. Despite the recent ink and blue-light spilled on the ineffectiveness of sanctions, don’t rule them out. Money does make the world go ‘round. Putin rules over a cowed country, but is one that has gotten used to Western goods and lifestyles. It's one thing to keep people down, it's another to take things away. People get restless. The last time the Iron Curtain came down wasn’t so much John Paul II and Ronald Reagan’s leadership, but the Iron Curtain itself. Truth, justice and the American way are great, but a more compelling argument is that what drove Eastern Europe westward was advent of satellite television and the realization that Bulgarian blue jeans sucked.
True, Putin doesn’t really care about the Russian economy beyond its effect on his power. On the other hand, the oligarchs who keep him in power don’t really care about him, either. Their contract isn’t for loyalty or patriotism, but their eye-watering portfolios. And they might just bring an end to the crisis for us.
Understand that the Roman Empire some 75 emperors, only 19 of whom died of natural causes, two retired and 9 died in battle fighting an enemy of Rome. That leaves 43 – over half – who were either assassinated, forced suicides or died in captivity. And the majority of these were not snuff jobs weren’t by political rivals so much as their own praetorian guard. The historical precedent for getting to a leader’s cronies is fairly solid. Freeze their assets and they will start thinking of ways to get out of the corner.
Until that happens, though, we need to assess the ongoing damage and try to reckon just what the man is after. There is no point in parsing what he’s said, because he’ll say anything. My guess is that Putin is ultimately paranoid of a NATO invasion rolling across border that is some 2,250 km (1,398mi) of impossible to defend prairie. To the west of Ukraine are the Carpathian Mountains, through which there is no good way to move heavy armor. Absorb Ukraine and (assuming Belarus as a buffer state) the likely overland NATO invasion route gets reduced to around 232 km (144 mi).
Then again, I thought that the man was bluffing.