Wars and rumors of wars abound as the Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its third improbable week. As the world has watched, the story of the Ukraine has become a modern day Greek tragedy; a bitter, avoidable end that is positively Shakespearean.
Between the “if onlys” and platitudes about hindsight from foreign policy experts, is the sobering reality that this conflict likely could have, and definitely should have, been avoided by world leaders.
The Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a failure by economic and security collectives to offer the Ukraine protection and membership, along with a dozen other factors, undoubtably played a part.
Most of all, this current crisis pushing the world to the brink of nuclear was caused by a long-standing willingness to leave well enough alone in Ukraine.
Moscow and Vladimir Putin have been slow-scale invading the nation since 2014; and long before that. Since 2008 Russian intelligence and military agencies have been conducting operations meant to undermine the Ukraine, economically, militarily and in the world community.
In retrospect, the end game is so obvious: We are living it right now.
This is why Putin fought so hard to keep the Ukraine out of global security collectives. This is why the Russian propaganda machine has been going into overdrive since 2008, ramping up in 2014 and again in recent years.
This attack wasn’t in response to bioweapons labs, violent Ukrainian fringe elements, Ukrainian government corruption or anything else; it was planned by Vladimir Putin well in advance of the invasion for his own reasons.
Just weeks before Russian troops moved across the border, key Ukrainian government systems were hacked to display the following message to users: “Be very afraid, the worst is coming.” While Vladimir Putin was denying any such plans, and agreeing with French President Emmanuel Macron to a “cease fire” he was carefully maneuvering the world toward this scenario.
With the news today that an airstrike by Russian military forces hit a military base in the Ukraine, reportedly killing 35 people, comes a flood of other reports, some of misleading, conflicting or so steeped in politicization as to be useless as sensible commentary on the conflict.
Media publications breathing a sigh of relief with headlines about how the war has given President Joe Biden a “war-bounce” in the polls are not doing the Democratic Party any favors with this type of ghoulishness.
Likewise, neither are conservative publications covering themselves in glory using every tragic development and headline as an opportunity to take a cheap shot at Joe Biden.
There have been everything from erudite assessments of “The Russian Military’s Debacle in Ukraine,” to dispassionate examinations of, “How many nuclear weapons does Russia have in 2022?”
There have been articles declaring Putin a bumbling idiot and predicting Kiev will be his Waterloo; and grim pronouncements that the worst possible outcome is in store Eastern Europe and the world.
In response to the escalating conflict, President Joe Biden has just approved another $200 million in immediate military aid to Ukraine. Whether or not it will help Ukrainian forces hold out against the might of the Russian military, is far from certain.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been doing all he can to stifle honest reporting about the conflict. The Russian media is producing a constant stream of misinformation downplaying the conflict for Russian audiences.
Putin has made it a crime punishable by 15 years in prison to report on the situation in any way unapproved by the Kremlin, including using words like “war” and “invasion”. The front isn’t a safe place from which to send dispatches. One American journalist covering the war has already been killed in the conflict zone.
Nevertheless, the amount of information and details currently available about Putin’s war plans would make Winston Churchill faint with envy. There are even maps showing the invasion in real-time, for those in nations with unfettered access to information.
The map reminds us that besides the human toll, which is incalculable, there are other deeply disturbing things about this conflict. War threatens to spread like wildfire.
With the world’s eyes on Russia, the Mullahs of Iran are flexing their martial muscles again, firing missiles at a U.S. consulate in Iraq. In North Korea, Kim Jong Un is up to his usual intimidation tactics, with a keen eye to “reunite” the Korean Peninsula with a march through South Korea.
More worrying still, the Chinese Communist Party has already begun warning the world of the “worst consequences” should any nation provide material military support to Taiwan in the event of an invasion by the People’s Liberation Army.
Taking a page from Vladimir Putin’s book by threatening nuclear war, without even the courtesy of thinly veiling it, Chinese supreme leader Xi Jinping is undoubtably learning much from watching Russian struggles in Ukraine.
No doubt Jinping hopes to accomplish in Taiwan what Putin planned to accomplish in the Ukraine, only in far less time. Overwhelming force in Taiwan by the far-superior Chinese military would mean less time for world leaders to interfere, less time for pro-Taiwan forces to dig in on their home turf.
Threatening nuclear war is a conversation killer, a diplomatic brick wall. It is the unhinged threat of a terrorist, of an extremist willing to achieve their goals by any means necessary.
Of course, crossing the Rubicon of threatening to use violence to achieve an end is only required once. There is a good reason most world governments make it an official policy not to negotiate with terrorists.
Someone willing to use the threat of nuclear force to achieve one end will soon find other important ends that need achieving at any cost.
Today, Vladimir Putin is threatening nuclear retaliation against any nation defending the Ukraine against Russian forces or attacking Russia; tomorrow, the threat of nuclear war will be wielded for other reasons, too.
“No humanitarian support for Ukraine…or else,” or, “No accepting Ukrainian refugees…or else.”
“Unlike long-range strategic nuclear weapons designed to destroy cities, tactical nuclear weapons are meant to press military advantage on the battlefield,” wrote Alexandra Vacroux, executive director of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian affairs on the National Security Council, this morning for USA Today. “The Soviet Union had about 20,000 such weapons as a way of compensating for conventional forces that were weaker than those of the United States and NATO. Estimates vary for how many ‘nonstrategic’ weapons are now in Russia’s arsenal; it may be up to a quarter of what the USSR had before its fall.”
Employing a strategy Russian military forces call “escalate to de-escalate”, Putin could attempt to employ overwhelming force to bring a quick end to the conflict- via tactical nuclear weapons.
As much as world leaders would like to avoid being drawn into and escalating this conflict, there is a good reason not to choose expediency, as indeed the easiest choice may be the choice to merely delay. Like it or not, whether this conflict escalates or spreads isn’t really up to world leaders at all.
“As we seek to avoid World War III, we must remember Putin will use his own definitions of what constitutes escalation and direct NATO intervention in the war,” Vacroux concludes. “Putin cited ‘aggressive statements’ by NATO countries and financial sanctions when raising Russian military readiness levels. He might decide that supplying more weapons to Ukraine constitutes escalation by NATO and respond more aggressively.”
Vacroux has a good point, and it is a point being glossed over or outright ignored by too many well-meaning media outlets trying to bring a swift end to this invasion with carefully couched news coverage.
This conflict wasn’t started by sensible world leaders trying to mediate an end to the violence; it was started by Vladimir Putin and only he knows how far he is prepared to take it.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)