How to think about the Ukraine Invasion
Putin is a global pariah & social media is a new factor in global conflict
The Russian war in Ukraine is shockingly evil, and the surge of 2m refugees who have fled the country’s borders in the 14 days since the invasion began will triple before long. Events on the ground have moved quickly, and worse days are ahead, but there are many events that should strengthen your faith in the Western idea of liberal democracy — yes, there is a softness to modernity, but also a moral spine that is stronger than our enemies understand.
Events at first blush:
Putin’s attack was MUCH bigger than expected. Below is an informative map of Ukraine from Visual Capitalist. Many observers (myself included) wrongly thought that Putin’s pre-invasion threats were bluster for attention, pride, and concessions, but nobody anticipated the scale of the attack. If they had, Kharkiv would have been abandoned weeks ago. The invasion is total. Encircling Kyiv? Bombing Odessa? There was a sense in the months before the invasion that at most Russia might seize a land bridge to the Crimean peninsula, not that major cities would be bombarded. This is total war. Civilians are targeted. All manner of weapons are utilized. Putin clearly wants more than a land bridge, and more than a puppet regime in Kyiv, he wants to punish the Ukrainian people.
Putin miscalculated. The resolve of Ukrainian resistance to the invasion has been a wonder to behold. By now, we all can see how poorly the Russian army has performed, especially its centrally-planned operational model and its logistical weakness (and corruption). Whether the invaders will prevail is unclear, but the attack seems to become more tactically brutal by the day. Pentagon intel suggests some 4,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in action. Again, this is total war. I strongly believe that Putin will intensify the ruthlessness of the invasion, that he will never give up, and that we have yet to see a fraction of civilian atrocities that will be coming in late March and April.
The refugee crisis is just beginning. Two million Ukrainians have fled the country, mostly to Poland and other neighboring nations to the west. Perhaps 10x that many are displaced internally. Expect the pace of 1 million refugees per week to rise, and remember that the national population of Ukraine is 43 million. How NATO responds is arguably the most important policy decision of the long war — the new cold war between the liberal West and the autocratic East. Consider Kharkiv, a city of one and half million people bordering Russia that is being bombarded. I read one estimate that two-thirds of the city’s population has evacuated, even though the city has not yet fallen. Now imagine the population east of the Dnieper River fleeing throughout the spring, fleeing the bombs, but also fleeing starvation and disease. This is total war.
Ukraine is different. I agree with Peggy Noonan’s analysis in the WSJ that the casual description of this moment as “our Sudetenland” is off the mark. Nor do I think Ukraine is the appetizer for Putin’s grand scheme to reconstitute the Soviet empire. Nor do I worry about stumbling into WW3. But the most offensive analysis is that people are more upset about Ukraine than, say, atrocities in Afghanistan, Syria, or Rwanda. None of those comparisons fit because none of them involved state-on-state violence by a nuclear superpower.
The information battlespace has evolved and real-time video of a conflict has never been at the wider world’s fingertips like this. The world is rallying to Ukraine, and against Russia, with a speed and strength that is alarming to Beijing’s expansionist designs, and a great credit goes to social media. Putin, in short order, is a global pariah and his legacy will be this generation’s Hitler. Twitter is a force to be reckoned with against naked war-mongering.
Biden’s Weakness Matters. President Biden signaled weakness and deference before the invasion (which I personally found pathetic and destabilizing), arguing that the approach would help prevent a war. Wrong. If this isn’t signaling weakness, above and beyond the Afghanistan abandonment, nothing is: “Mr. Biden has repeatedly made clear he has no intention of sending U.S. troops to defend Ukraine.” - New York Times, Feb. 13, 2022.
Give Proxy War a Chance. I understand the attraction to do more fighting. I am far from a pacifist. I dearly wish the U.S. embassy had stayed open with U.S. Marines on station in Kyiv. But I also want you to understand that for the U.S. Air Force to enforce a no-fly zone in Ukraine now — and let’s be clear, this would be to shoot down Russian aircraft, not all aircraft — would be no different than sending in the 101st Airborne on the ground. It’s a declaration of war. That’s just not smart. Biden’s disengagement die was cast and cannot be uncast. What can and should be done is supporting by all means a proxy war against the invaders — first and foremost by sending martial drones and other hardware, and also continuing the aggressive use of “intelligence disclosure” to expose Russian misinformation and global propaganda.
There is a lot more to be done to help the Ukrainian people. It sure seems that the U.S. response to the refugee crisis has been tepid, and I don’t understand why. There is a moral dimension here that Biden isn’t capitalizing on. There may well be some big announcements in the works, but 14 days on, it feels like a big dollar commitment supporting Poland’s refugee camps is overdue. And why isn’t the U.S. welcoming any Ukrainian refugee with family ties to U.S. citizens? Put C-17s in the air over the Atlantic and start shuttling them to Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis….
Or let it be citizen led. Set up a website where Americans can register their homes as a refuge. I bet 10 million spaces would be registered by Sunday. We can do better.
What Are We Fighting For?
There is a silver lining in the context of the Ukraine-Russia War as an atrocity that can never be made right. The first is that many young people are reacting to the war in inspiring ways. They are involved. They care deeply. Young Americans with no living memory of Soviet communism during the Cold War, Tiananmen square in 1989, or even Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, are witnessing something that is easy to forget: There are monsters in the world. In the absence of active deterrence, monsters will feast. And Putin is a monster. This is a reaction that we make instinctively — a global reaction thanks to Twitter — and it’s not wrong in any way.
There is a deeper truth as well, and it traces back to Fukuyama’s thesis that humanity has reached the end of history. That phrase befuddles many, as if “end” meant the finish line rather than its proper interpretation as the ideal of civilization. Properly understood, the beginning of history is the state of nature (the barbaric war of all against all) whereas the end is the classical liberal democracy marinated in property rights, free markets, and the rule of law. This is what is at stake in Ukraine.
Putin is a throwback to the strong man of history, with power derived from bullying domination over others in a hierarchy of coercive power. It may be helpful to recognize that he, much like Beijing’s rulers, conceives of power in hard terms. He equates Russia’s power with the largeness of its borders. Land is the measure.
In contrast, the Enlightenment considers the state a servant to the people rather than the master. The operational measure of value is people themselves, not land. Look at the income per capita of bubbles where enlightenment values took hold. Hong Kong. South Korea. Jerusalem. Wealth is no longer understood as how much gold a king has in his keep but the productivity per capita of a population. More to the point, economic power is well understood to derive from knowledge, technology, and brainpower as opposed to soil, cities, and resources.
Putin is fighting for things that mattered two centuries ago — the landmass of Ukraine — while the people, the true gold of modernity, flee to the west.
Wisdom would welcome them.