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As a commander of US Army troops that defeated the Nazi regime in Germany 77 years ago, Gen. Omar Bradley knew a lot about war. Three years after the Second World War ended, he warned, “The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.”
In the 10 days since Russia unleashed a massive attack on Ukraine, the effects of “power without conscience” have been on full display – the civilian casualties, the destroyed homes and offices, the hospitals moving underground, the masses of people fleeing for the safety of neighboring countries.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion shocked the world. But it was not a surprise. For months, the US government publicly shared intelligence that it was in the works. And for those who had followed the recent history of Putin’s actions, the writing was on the wall for years.
When Olesya Khromeychuk’s elder brother, Volodymyr, enlisted in the Ukrainian military and fought against the pro-Russian separatists after war broke out in the Donbas region in 2014, he told her, “Little one, don’t you realize this is a European war. It just happened to start in eastern Ukraine.”
As she wrote for CNN Opinion, Khromeychuk’s brother “was killed by shrapnel in 2017 in the Luhansk region on the front. He was fighting against Russian troops that were pretending not to be there. They no longer need to pretend. The Russian president ordered their assault on the whole of Ukraine, targeting the military as well as civilians, including hospitals and ambulances.”
Khromeychuk, the director of the Ukrainian Institute in London, added, “I am a historian. I realize that we are living through a moment that will be on every syllabus of European history. Now is the time to decide what place each one of us wants to have in that history. Stand With Ukraine.”
There were plenty of warnings. “This terrifying, world-changing conflict in Ukraine did not start in 2022,” wrote Natalia Antelava. “Nor did it start in 2014. It began a decade and a half ago when Russia invaded Georgia and got away with it.” She recalled interviewing a Ukrainian soldier named Dima in 2015.
Dima was “stoic, determined, calm. He was 23, a software engineer from Kyiv who had only recently decided to leave his job and join the fight. His girlfriend was furious with him, he told me, but fighting was not optional. ‘They think we are fighting to join NATO. But we are only fighting for our values and they happen to be the same as Europe’s values. We are fighting for them too. I wish they realized it,’ he said.”
“They do now,” Antelava observed. “The whole world is suddenly high on moral clarity. For everyone who has lived on the frontlines of Putin’s hatred for liberal democracy, this show of Western unity and the resurgence of liberal values comes as an incredible relief. But it won’t last unless we also accept that it already comes too late for far too many.”
Liora Rez, whose Jewish ancestors fled Kyiv during World War II, noted that “the United Nations estimates that more than 800,000 refugees have already evacuated Ukraine since the outbreak of war. Many of these refugees are women and children torn apart from their husbands, fathers and brothers who remain in Ukraine, banded in their determination to protect their land and defend their democratic values.”
In 1941, more than 33,000 Jews were shot to death by the invading forces of Nazi Germany at a ravine called Babyn Yar, on the outskirts of Kyiv. Last week, Russian troops attacked a TV transmission tower, striking the area of the Babyn Yar memorial site.
“It seems history is repeating itself less than one century later, and the heartbreak I feel stems from the understanding that this unprovoked conflict, started by yet another dangerous man, will lead to so much unnecessary suffering. To remain indifferent is not an option. We all have a moral obligation to halt this tragic suffering through an outpouring of humanitarian aid to the innocent refugees and victims.”
In Tuesday’s State of the Union address, President Joe Biden fiercely condemned the invasion of Ukraine. Putin “thought he could roll into Ukraine and the world would roll over. Instead he met a wall of strength he never imagined,” Biden said. “He met the Ukrainian people.”
“Throughout our history we’ve learned this lesson when dictators do not pay a price for their aggression they cause more chaos. They keep moving. And the costs and the threats to America and the world keep rising.” Yet Biden made clear that NATO countries have no intention of directly intervening in the war to counter the Russians, limiting their response to arming the Ukrainians and imposing heavy sanctions.
“Millions around the world watch, outraged, and ask, ‘Are we just going to let this happen? Is the world allowing a large, powerful country to swallow up a smaller, weaker one?’ And so many people can’t believe the world is allowing it to happen,” wrote CNN’s Marcus Mabry.
During the Cold War, “despite a ‘twilight struggle’ between the superpowers and their many proxy conflicts and close calls, like the Cuban missile crisis, they never allowed confrontation to escalate to a direct conflict, or worse… There was no nuclear war. No WW III. No annihilation of humanity. Yes, millions were oppressed by Soviet communism. But realpolitik is not, strictly speaking, concerned with that. It is a world Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden grew up in.”
“But we have never had to watch realpolitik unfold in real time on 24/7 social media in a world of ubiquitous camera phones,” Mabry observed. “And it complicates matters, especially for world leaders, like Biden and Putin. It makes the cruelty of traditional power politics transparent and ubiquitous.”
Americans need to stand united against the Ukraine invasion, even when its economic consequences might further raise prices at the gas pump, wrote Garry Kasparov and Uriel Epshtein. Polls show that more than four out of every five Americans – Republican and Democrat – support sanctions against Russia. “Anytime Americans agree on something is notable, but it is particularly remarkable given numerous partisan attempts to have us look away, do less and allow Russian leader Vladimir Putin to run roughshod over the Ukrainian people…”
“Americans must maintain this unity, continue our support of the Ukrainian people and recognize the fight for democracy is about much more than one country’s ability to determine its own fate. The struggle for democracy is also about the ability to live in a world where disagreements can be solved through diplomacy, where human rights are protected and where peace is the status quo.”
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The world’s vote
Russia vetoed the UN Security Council resolution condemning the invasion of Ukraine, but it didn’t have the power to stop the international body’s General Assembly from voting overwhelmingly against it. On Wednesday, the Assembly voted 141 to 5, with 35 nations abstaining, to demand immediate withdrawal of all Russian forces from Ukraine. “When the tally was announced,” observed Frida Ghitis, “the chamber burst into a spontaneous standing ovation. It was the most resounding evidence of how Putin has unwittingly advanced the causes he opposes with his assault against Ukraine.”
“The crisis he created presented us with the real-life dangers of unrestrained autocracy, and a very tangible demonstration of the importance of democracy, freedom and self-determination. Rights that are so often seen as lofty, ethereal concepts suddenly became palpable when Putin tried to steal them from the Ukrainian people,” Ghitis wrote.
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What’s the goal?
The furniture chain may never have had a requirement that if “you break it, you own it,” but the caution first voiced in the wake of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq will likely always be known as the “Pottery Barn rule.” (Here’s an account of its history.)
If Vladimir Putin succeeds in bringing Ukraine under Russia’s control, he’ll have to contend with that rule, taking responsibility for whatever comes next.
The likely goal of his invasion is to oust Ukraine’s leadership, according to Alexander B. Downes, author of a recent book which studied regime change, “Catastrophic Success: Why Foreign-Imposed Regime Change Goes Wrong.”
Writing for CNN Opinion, Downes observed that, “The history of regime change…is littered with catastrophes. The recent examples of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya leap to mind, but these are not isolated cases.” Three examples from 1979 tell the story. “In Cambodia, a Vietnamese armored blitzkrieg of the sort that Russia has launched in Ukraine ousted Pol Pot and his murderous Khmer Rouge regime. Instead of giving up, however, Cambodian leaders rallied their troops along the Thai border and waged a decade-long insurgency.
“In Uganda, invading Tanzanian troops overthrew Idi Amin but his successor, a leader in the rebel movement, lasted a mere three months before he was removed,” Downes wrote. “And in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union occupied the country after replacing one Afghan communist with another. Despite killing roughly 1 million people and driving several million more out of the country, the Soviets withdrew in failure ten years later. The mutilated body of their hand-picked ruler (Mohammad Najibullah, himself installed in another regime change in 1986) was hung from a lamppost across from the presidential palace when the Taliban seized Kabul.”
It’s history like that which made people wonder if Putin’s decision to invade was rational. Former CIA station chief Douglas London has spent decades watching Putin, who as a KGB agent also dwelled in the intelligence world. “Has Vladimir Putin gone mad? How else could the Russian President have so recklessly placed the world on the precipice of the unthinkable, with what outside the Kremlin is seen as an unjustified and unwinnable war in Ukraine?”
London argued that the problem isn’t with Putin’s sanity but with the information he’s getting – “intelligence that bears little resemblance to reality…Putin’s is an activist philosophy that seeks to leave nothing to chance and seizes the initiative so as to force his foes to react to circumstances he aims to dictate. But all of that depends on good intelligence. You build a house of cards when a plan is constructed without awareness of its potential flaws and vulnerabilities.”
Concern about the potential for a confrontation between nuclear-armed nations added an ominous note to the world’s anxiety over the invasion, noted Jill Filipovic. “For members of my generation (I’m a geriatric Millennial) and those younger, the threat of nuclear war was a scary relic of bad times past,” she noted.
“Those among us who are beginning to feel the very real fear of this moment should consider what we want to do about it. Unfortunately, this latest conflict may teach world leaders all the wrong lessons about nuclear weapons: that is, that surrendering them as Ukraine did or dismantling a program to build them, as Libya did before its dictator was toppled, makes you vulnerable. And despite this looming (if slim) nuclear threat, there hasn’t been nearly enough talk about nuclear nonproliferation, and how to scale back nuclear arsenals, not have them at the ready.”
State of the Union
Biden’s emphasis on Ukraine brought members of both parties to their feet in the House chamber Tuesday, despite the bitter partisan divisions in Congress. Kirsten Powers wrote that he “came across in his speech as empathetic and capable, perhaps the two most important traits that got him elected president. He maximized this opportunity to connect to the American people fresh off rallying America’s allies against Russian aggression, earning plaudits for his leadership across the board. This was a president in command.”
“Biden offered a rousing close that was nakedly patriotic and proud of America’s role in the world, and reflected a deep belief in the resilience of the American people and the country itself.”
Van Jones noted that “on the campaign trail in 2020, Biden challenged autocracy and dictatorship overseas, while offering himself as a champion of national unity and cross-party cooperation at home. He has blown off course at times during his first year. But during his first State of the Union address, Biden found his footing – and his true north – once again.”
SE Cupp faulted Biden for failing to call out the threats to democracy within the US: “Putin’s war of aggression isn’t just happening ‘over there,’ but here in America, too. Putin’s oppression and disdain for democracy is winning the hearts and minds of too many American voters, stoked by a former president, members of a political party and right-wing media machine that has defended Russia, tried to overturn democratic elections and is trying to keep people from voting through new restrictive voter laws.”
Biden may not have moved the needle on Democrats’ chances in the fall midterm elections, wrote Scott Jennings. “He did not meaningfully pivot on any issue that gives his party a chance to change its trajectory, leaving Democrats on the path to a shellacking in November’s midterm election,” Jennings observed. “There are common-sense ways he could’ve shown himself to be the pragmatic moderate he promised to be in his campaign, such as announcing a ban on Russian oil imports and ending his administration’s war on American-made fossil fuels. Instead, he doubled down on a green energy agenda that does nothing for poor Americans who are struggling (and will struggle more) to fill up their cars and heat their homes in the weeks ahead.”
In 1987, a photographer asked Stephen Rosenthal and classmate Ketanji Brown to pose with some props for their high school yearbook. She held a copy of “Winnie the Pooh” and he cradled a teddy bear for the photo, which appeared with captions labeling them as members of the school’s hall of fame. “I want to go into law and eventually have a judicial appointment,” Brown was quoted as saying.
Friends since middle school, the two also attended Harvard College and Harvard Law School together. Now Ketanji Brown Jackson is a federal judge and Biden’s nominee for the Supreme Court seat held by retiring Justice Stephen Breyer. Rosenthal, a lawyer based in Florida, says the President couldn’t have found a better choice.
“Year after year, she was elected by our peers to be class president in our large, diverse public high school. She was something of a living legend within the 1980s high school speech and debate circuit, a perennial champion who was not just widely esteemed but truly adored…”
“Over the past decade, she has shouldered the weighty responsibilities of being a federal judge, with the hard work and consequential decision-making it requires, all without losing her humility and grounded sense of humor.”
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Sara Stewart posed the paradox simply: “The best new show about middle America stars New York City’s raunchiest cabaret singer. Anyone have that on your cultural-weirdness bingo card?”
“Bridget Everett is the lead in HBO’s ‘Somebody Somewhere,’ which concluded its short first season Sunday night. Everett plays Sam, a middle-aged woman who’s moved back to her Kansas hometown, Manhattan, to care for her dying sister. (HBO and CNN share a parent company.)
“We meet Sam in the aftermath, sleeping on her late sister’s couch and unsure what to do with the rest of her life.”
The show is a “bridge between the two Manhattans,” Stewart wrote. “As someone with Midwestern roots – I’ve got family from Manhattan, Kansas, too – I find Everett’s show revolutionary in a very generous way. It’s a nuanced, lived-in portrayal of a community, and even in the glut of TV offerings today, that’s still fairly rare.”