As of 2:15PM ET, on this day, the 24th of February, Russia is in the process of invading Ukraine.
President Biden just finished speaking to the nation about the new sanctions and moves the US is taking in response to this egregious invasion. Nothing very new came of that. More sanctions. What was most chilling was the barrage of questions from journalists that followed. The questions were hard-hitting; “What are more sanctions supposed to achieve?” “Why aren’t we sanctioning Putin himself?” “Why not cut Russia off from SWIFT?” What lay at the heart of all the questions was “Is the US ready for escalation? Are we ready for another World War?” I didn’t find Biden’s answers satisfactory. But I don’t blame him entirely for that. A historical truth has been laid bare as Russian troops at this moment push into Ukraine; Strongmen aren’t deterred by anything but greater strength. While we’ve threatened the weight of NATO and the US Military, should this escalate beyond Ukraine’s borders, it’s a hollow gesture for the people of Ukraine who at this moment may be dying in the hundreds across the country – and it’s only just started. What sits deeply underneath the questions Biden couldn’t answer was a public desire to flex, and if necessary, to fight.
What should be seen, and what should be acknowledged is that a war against Russia would be devastating globally. And that’s assuming we win it. Russia may or may not be serious when they vaguely threaten the Nuclear option if we meddle. But the principle behind it is. They’re willing to say whatever, posture however, to get their way. It’s hard to combat this kind of provocation without falling into war. If we move tens or hundreds of thousands of troops into NATO countries bordering Russia, we essentially hand over political justification to the Russians that we have continued to provoke an escalation. And while most of the rest of the world can see the truth for what it is, what matters more is how our actions are perceived within Russia. If our actions continue to fuel justifications of needing to “ensure security” along Russia’s borders, we lose the ability to reason with Russia’s people. If Mexico decided to deploy tens of thousands of weapons and soldiers near our border “as a deterrent”, we would also respond with hostility and an increase in arms to secure our borders. Russia sees itself as surrounded by enemies on its western borders who pose a threat to the security of their country, and they’re sadly half-right. We can understand our intent to merely deter Russian expansion, all the Russian people perceive are guns on their borders pointed in their direction.
Unfortunately, the United States has lost much of its moral authority in the 21st Century. As the digital age has made access to our geopolitical hypocrisies more accessible, and the global discourse that comes from the internet age has made discussions of our shortcomings common knowledge, we don’t have the same moral high ground we used to claim in the Postwar era. True, we didn’t genuinely have the high ground then either. But the perception was there that we did.
I grew up in the generation that saw the War on Terror begin when we were kids. Our interaction with America’s “championing of liberty and democracy” are contrasted against a phony war against Iraq, and a lengthy, inconclusive 2 decades of sometimes brutal occupation in Afghanistan. This is the same country that essentially condoned the Haditha Massacre. We’ve provided arms to the UAE, and in many ways directly support Saudi and UAE war crimes in Yemen. So when Biden stands up there and says the United States stands for the preservation of self-determination and freedom from oppression, it feels hollow, and has felt hollow my entire life.
So what do we do? Biden says we stand up to bullies. And I want to believe that. We’ve been the bully as many times as we’ve stood up to them. And Russians are as aware of this as anybody. This war against Ukraine in a way is calling the bluff of the entire foreign policy of the United States and NATO. They know we won’t do anything of substance to stop them. They’ll take the economic hit, and they’ll fall further into China’s arms, which is a massive unbalancing of the scales of world power.
Let us not forget the long history of Russian suffering. On a cultural level, Russians are made to endure suffering. Two world wars, a world-shaking revolution, a dramatic post-Soviet rebirth, all of this came after centuries of conflict where the Russians bested Napoleon, they bested the Sublime Porte, they stared down every European power, endured blockades, starvation, death on grand scales. The first half of the 20th Century is the story of Russians throwing themselves into the meat grinder time and time again. There is a deep seated pride in the tens of millions of Russian and Soviet-ruled people who died for victory against Germany and Japan in World War 2. If any people see themselves as emotionally prepared to endure the unendurable, it’s likely the Russians. Military policy is willing to tolerate high casualties, whereas historically, the United States is casualty-averse. Great if you’re a US soldier, but put one power against the other, the one who shows up prepared to bleed itself white has the edge from the first shot. That’s who we’re dealing with. If pressed to, Russians will more than likely assume their “historical responsibility” to die for their motherland.
What are we prepared to do? Certainly not die. Not for Ukraine. Clearer heads know that the US is not emotionally prepared for a conflict of the magnitude and scale being proposed. But yet, at the heart of all the difficult questions that were asked by the journalists at Biden’s press conference is an uncertainty about how we’ve responded, and an interest in exploring other options. It’s difficult as President, I’d imagine, to explain to people that you don’t have an interest in committing Americans to die in Europe over this conflict. I could almost hear Biden’s vexation, as he could sense what these journalists wanted to hear was that America was cocking its metaphorical shotgun, and was willing to defeat Russia on the field of battle if necessary. It’s hard to explain to an uncertain mass that it’s not in their own best interest to do things that will antagonize or escalate this conflict. That the goal is to prevent death and destruction all around, instead of exponentializing it. America’s historical root as a global strongman is called into question by what feels like an unwillingness to be genuinely threatening in the present circumstance. Or at least, that is the perception. It’s not a hard one to understand, even if I would argue the harder and smarter thing to do is find every avenue besides armed conflict in this moment. But it does force us to ask difficult questions of ourselves as a nation, and that will perhaps be the scariest part for us right now.
The ghosts of Potemkin’s policies in the late 1700’s that led the Russian Empire to annex Ukraine are of the same spirit that will lead to the heaps of dead that will fall in the fields of Ukraine.
What we will witness is what large scale warfare of modernized countries with weapons of a new age will look like. What strategies and tactics are most effective at disrupting a nation’s ability to defend itself. What the appetite for death and destruction is in this new global age. In the same way the Russo-Japanese War and the Balkan Wars foreshadowed warfare in the first half of the 20th century, in the same way Vietnam foreshadowed warfare during the successive late Cold War age, so too will this war tell us what war will look like for our perceptible future.
The glimmer of hope in the coming days is that friends and foes of Russia have shown themselves considerably united in their condemnation and shock at Russia’s invasion. And if what comes of this invasion is that it brings the rest of the wider world closer together diplomatically, we may yet find ourselves able to prevent the next threat to world security. What Russia has done is sober up Europe to the lethargy that was post-Cold War security and stability, and even those countries frosty to broader cooperation are seeing the importance of it in this moment, and we may see a new life breathed into international collaboration and mutual assurance as a means of peace for us all.
These days ahead will be telling. But above the reckoning we must have with ourselves and our national identity, we must not forget the people of Ukraine, displaced or otherwise, who are the true victims of Russia’s thinly veiled Imperialism. My heart is with them. With the parents who are trying desperately in this moment to keep their children safe from the coming death and destruction. With the young who will have their youth and their innocence taken from them in the carnage and chaos that follows war. With the old who shall know no peace in their twilight. And to the brightest and best who will be the first line sacrificed in the defense of the nation.