Millions of lives could be destroyed to slake Vladimir Putin’s Cold War obsession.
Less than three weeks into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – a historic outrage 30 years in the making – the world is looking on in horror at the barbarity, human tragedy, appalling destruction and worldwide reverberations sparked by one man’s orders.
Ukraine’s fate starkly underlines that even 20 years into the 21st century and despite the world’s vows to learn from history, a lone autocrat who has ruthlessly fashioned a political system to eliminate dissent and reality itself has the power to cause unfathomable human loss and misery.
Putin’s apparent willingness to bombard Ukraine into submission and clearly gratuitous targeting of the innocent civilians he insisted are Russian kin mean the humanitarian disaster is likely only just beginning. More than a million refugees have already fled their homes, according to the United Nations. Millions more will likely follow – as family lives, jobs and communities are shattered. That’s without the thousands of civilians sure to die in a prolonged Russian blitzkrieg.
While there is speculation about Putin’s goals and state of mind and huge public interest in the courage of Ukrainians vowing to resist the invasion, it is critical for the world to properly understand the basic reality of the apparent war crimes that are now occurring in Ukraine.
In a Kyiv suburb on Sunday, two small children and two adults were obliterated by Russian shelling as they tried to flee. “A family died … in front of my eyes,” Oleksandr Markushyn, the mayor of Irpin, said. Meanwhile, the dead lay unburied in the smoldering wreckage of Kharkiv – a city of 1.5 million people, which was under a prolonged bombardment that served as a warning of Kyiv’s likely fate to come. Other Ukrainians were trapped by shocking Russian shelling of humanitarian corridors. Photos and video of Ukrainian men putting their families on evacuation trains and heading out to fight are reviving the trauma of a continent’s blood-soaked history.
If harrowing video of Ukraine was in black and white, it would be easy to mistake it for historic newsreel of World War II, the last time such scenes of devastation and cruelty were inflicted by one sovereign nation on another in Europe.
And it all flows from the mind of a Russian President apparently motivated by his own historic scars as a KGB officer in East Germany when the Berlin Wall fell. Putin, seeking to redraw the post-Cold War map of Europe, has now engineered the counterpoint to those joyous scenes three decades later in his relentless bombardments designed to revive Russia as a superpower.
Ukraine’s future looks increasingly bleak
The events of a bloody weekend underscore that despite the West’s impressive ramping up of sanctions strangling the Russian economy and the courage of resisting Ukrainian civilians and the pleas of their president, Ukraine’s future is bleak, with Putin having raised questions about it continuing to exist as a nation state.
Massive Western sanctions might eventually whip up sufficient opposition inside Russia, where citizens are struggling under a collapsing economy, to topple Putin. Arms shipments to Ukraine from the West will certainly increase the cost to Moscow’s forces of the invasion and possible occupation.
But the reality that the West will not intervene directly to avoid triggering an escalation with Russia that could spark a nuclear exchange grants Putin an advantage and deepens Ukraine’s tragedy. Sooner or later, the outside world may find itself looking on at a massacre it was powerless to prevent. This terrible possibility was raised in Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s latest heartbreaking appeal for help on Sunday.
“We are humans, and it’s your humanitarian duty to protect us, protect civilians, and you can do it,” Zelensky told the world.
“If you don’t do it, if you at least don’t give us airplanes so that we could defend ourselves, that the only conclusion remains – you also want us to be very slowly killed.”
Putin is still dictating events
While the US is talking with Poland about a plan to send its Russian-made warplanes to Ukraine and there is debate about a full embargo on Russian oil exports, the West is close to hitting the limit of what can be done without triggering a direct conflict with Putin. Thus, US messaging is beginning to stress the magnitude of what has already been done to help. That includes western sanctions that have thrown the Russian economy back into a Soviet-era dark age and the arsenals of anti-tank and anti-aircraft rockets poured into Ukraine in the West’s new proxy war with Russia.
As Americans cursed Putin over the weekend with gasoline soaring well above $4 a gallon in some states because of an oil market rocked by the invasion, Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned on CNN’s “State of the Union” that the Russian leader’s savagery was still dictating events.
“Vladimir Putin has, unfortunately, the capacity – with the sheer manpower that he has in Ukraine and the overmatch that he has – the ability to keep grinding things down, against incredibly resilient and courageous Ukrainians,” he told Jake Tapper.
Speaking from Moldova, a non-NATO US ally that fears it might be next in Putin’s firing line, Blinken seemed to be looking ahead to a post-invasion future in which a western-supported Ukrainian resistance might make Putin’s troops pay a heavy price.
“I think we have to be prepared for this to last for some time. But just winning a battle is not winning the war. Taking a city does not mean he’s taking the hearts and minds of the Ukrainian people,” Blinken said. “On the contrary, he is destined to lose. The Ukrainian people have demonstrated that they will not allow themselves to be subjugated to Vladimir Putin or to Russia’s rule.”
Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, also stressed the severity of Western sanctions but signaled that Zelensky’s plea for immediate EU membership was unlikely to be fast tracked.
“Nobody doubts that these brave Ukrainian people and the outstanding leadership of President Zelensky, all fighting for our common values, that they belong to our European family,” von der Leyen told Tapper. “And with the application, President Zelensky set a process in motion. This process will take some time.”
Putin’s personal crusade
The way that Putin has single-handedly pushed his country into war, crushed internal dissent and berated apparently bemused national security aides on television has underscored how much of the Ukraine war is a personal crusade.
His unhinged and ahistorical speeches about the war – including his false claims he is trying to denazify Ukraine – have sparked concern about whether a leader once seen as a ruthless and cool broker of Russia’s national interests has slipped into a parallel mental reality. That, along with his nuclear threats, have caused concern about how far a desperate Russian leader, who has effectively made his own political survival contingent on a war that is turning into a quagmire, might go.
“He is now engaged in a conflict where he’s either going to have a costly military victory, followed by a costly occupation that he can’t afford, or he’s going to get caught in a long-term military quagmire, at the same time as he’s facing a second front, which is an economy in free-fall in his own country,” Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said on “State of the Union.”
“So, the combination of these two things, I think, puts us in a very dangerous place. And that is, he’s going to have to do something, some escalation, some amplification of this crisis, in order to restore strategic balance, in his view, with the West. And I’m worried about what those things could be.”
So far, in the two-and-a-half weeks since the invasion, Putin has done nothing but escalate, despite a calm Western reaction to his nuclear provocations. It remains unclear how he would react to the possibility that Poland or Romania might provide fighter jets to Ukraine – a step that appears to drag two ex-Warsaw Pact nations closer to indirect conflict with Russia.
The record of the invasion, however, shows that regardless of how much pain new Western steps might inflict, they are unlikely to stop Putin playing out his obsession that Ukraine must never be allowed to join the West – even if that means blowing it and its people to smithereens.
As Zelensky put it in a new video message Sunday evening, “The aggressor’s audacity is a clear signal to the West that sanctions imposed against Russia are not enough.”