Putin’s 2nd year of war: What’s next?


First the irreconcilable, the scenes shown on public television of the bodies of Russian soldiers strewn across the landscape, some not even in official uniforms, left unburied, some shot in the back by their own commanders, a bloody mess.

Turn the page. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, giving his own “State of the Union” address in a pristine blue and white Kremlin setting, everything as neat as a staged theatrical production, like a Hollywood depiction of a stage for Saint Peter at the Gates of Heaven, an alternative reality that actually suspended reality. The paradox of Putin as Mr. Clean vs. the grim reality of what he has wrought.

Three days later, Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Security Council of Russia says: “It is so important to achieve all the goals of the special military operation. To push back the borders that threaten our country as far as possible, even if they are the borders of Poland.”

Then a new poll showed 32% of Americans saying that we should stop giving or are giving too much to Ukraine to defend itself against the Russian invasion. That polling result begs the question: If Russia resorts to its nuclear arsenal, or if it pushes its forces further into Poland, or the Baltic states, triggering Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, will these folks support the American soldiers who would be committed to the defense of its NATO allies?

The good news is that in the same poll, 67% of Americans say that the amount we are giving is right, or that it’s not enough. This is encouraging because if we don’t stop the Putins, the Medvedevs or the Prigozhins (Wagner Group) in Ukraine, we will be sending our own sons and daughters and more blood and treasure to Eastern Europe as Putin advances on other NATO nations beyond Poland such as Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Sweden, triggering Article 5 of the NATO Alliance.

Putin’s modus operandi is intimidation. His method is to say: if you try to stop us from our righteous path to recover what was once ours, we’ll cut off your energy. We’ll use tactical nuclear weapons if we have to. We’ll open up our hypersonic-missile war chest if we have to. We’ll level Ukraine to a wasteland with no infrastructure left in which to exist except for nomads.

Historical wartime behaviors are useful indicators of current wartime situations and potential outcomes. Hitler’s excuse for his aggressive expansion in Europe was that Germany had been humiliated by the outcomes of World War I. Russia’s excuse for its special military operation is tied to its post-Soviet humiliation by the “West.” Hitler intimidated, starting with the taking of the Rhineland, then Austria, then the Sudetenland, then Czechoslovakia, then France. Europe was afraid and cowered, first with the Munich Agreement, then the Russian-German Agreement to divvy up Poland.

What happened then is a cautionary tale for today. Nations were afraid of Hitler. They sought appeasement and deals to keep their own country free from his ambitions. European countries struggled to coordinate their responses to Hitler’s aggression. Authoritarianism grew as a political alternative to Fascism as some countries like France acceded to a retreat from democracy.

Today, nations like India, Turkey, Pakistan, the UAE, some African nations, and some of Russia’s neighbors like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are fearful of angering Russia for economic or security reasons. India, for example, is an opportunist that sees the current situation with Ukraine as a way to make energy deals with Russia for incredibly cheap oil. They also count on Russia for weapons systems.

Vladimir Putin will take as much as he can take through intimidation. He probes for softness, weakness, insecure factions and opportunists. The current incremental, “boiling the frog” approach to deal with Mr. Putin doesn’t alarm him. The war will not end until Putin sees steel resolve. If we retreat to self-absorbed domestic concerns, Putin will take note and things will unravel in Europe quickly.

Make no mistake that there are international consequences for what’s happening in Ukraine today. David Brooks of the New York Times enumerated them succinctly when he cited a spreading humanitarian crisis, a crisis of war crimes, changes in global energy flows, a renewed and reformed western alliance, an expansion of American influence, changes in modern military tactics and strategies, and a renewal of Russian-Chinese relations.

Some have sighted an historical comparison to the Korean War with the war in Ukraine, as a proxy war between superpowers (Russia and the U.S.) and later China. Russia tried to advance its military through the agency of communist North Korea to take all of Korea. They never thought the U.S. would come back to that part of the world, but we did, and we must in Ukraine.

China has made a big deal out of its foreign policy canon that encroachments against the sovereignty of another nation is a incontrovertible violation of international law, whether militarily, politically or culturally. Yet its muted support for Russia’s “Special Military Operation” against Ukraine is a blaring contradiction. But China is stuck with this contorted endorsement because it wants to leave that door open for the conquest of Taiwan. The rationale being that in both cases these lands were at one time (but not always) a part of the Chinese and Russian empires. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned that, “Beijing is watching closely to see the price Russia pays or the rewards it receives for its aggression. If Putin wins in Ukraine, the message to him and other authoritarian leaders will be that they can use force to get what they want.”

This is yet another reason for the U.S. and its allies to assert diplomatically and militarily that with Ukraine, our “red line” is not just imagery. It is an unrelenting steel wall of resistance, with no recourse but to cease and desist. Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States said recently, “In diplomacy, morality is part of the public narrative, but rarely part of the real decision-making process.”

History teaches us there is nothing to be gained from weakness in the face of intimidation and aggression, especially when international rule of law and democratic ideals and institutions are at stake.

Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.

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