Now What?

Zelensky's Burden

I’m just gonna riff here, if that’s okay, because the Danish and American media aren’t occupying my mind right now: I’ve got my wartime goggles on and don’t believe anything I read anyway, so there’s no point trying to make sense of it.

And because this is a riff that represents nothing more than my own idle thoughts, if you were ever thinking of dropping a comment on this blog then now would be a good time to go ahead and share your own thoughts.

To the extent there’s any overarching western strategy at all, it appears to be a novel one: to win a war, or at least avert a military loss, without the use of direct military force. We’re going to use economics and in-kind contributions instead. I’m skeptical whether that can work, and I’m not sure I’m on board with the morality of sacrificing a nation of 44 million to an experiment, but I’ll be the first to admit my skepticism was misplaced if it succeeds. It would be a remarkable success. I mean that unironically.

I also want to mention right up front that I think that the west may stop swooning over Zelensky’s noble heroism once they realize that a lot of his theatrics are intended to draw us into a war we have no intention of joining. At some point we’re going to realize that in lionizing his heroic bravery, we’re tacitly acknowledging our own ignoble cowardice. “I don’t need a ride, I need ammo!” was a magnificent line—but it was also a brutal condemnation of our value as allies. We ought to have been a little embarrassed at the implication. Our elites are a thin-skinned lot: at some point I suspect they’ll turn on Zelensky for making them look bad. “He’s wonderfully brave,” they’ll say, “but hopelessly unrealistic. He has to understand the bigger picture.” And yadda yadda yadda.

(An interesting but tangential point Herself has been making, by the way: if freezing accounts is what hardcore economic warfare looks like, doesn’t that make Trudeau guilty of waging hardcore economic warfare against his own people? “By god, we’re gonna be just as hard on Russia as Trudeau was on the Canadian truckers and the people who turned out peacefully to support them!”)

Mainly right now I’m curious what western success looks like. We know what Putin wants (Ukraine, empire, the collapse of NATO). We all know what Zelensky wants (to be left the hell alone by Russia). We all know the worst case scenario (World War III, mushroom clouds, etc).

What is it we want, exactly? What’s our best case scenario? What does western “success” look like?

We’re obviously never getting back to the status quo ante, so what do Ukraine and Russia look like after a western “success?”

Is Ukraine whole and intact and sovereign and is Zelensky still its head of state?

If not, how much of Ukraine are we willing to cede to Russia within the parameters of western success?

Is a chastised Putin still in charge in Russia?

If not, who is in charge?

Are the Russian people grateful to the west, or resentful?

How much death and destruction do we allow within our definition of success?

Does success mean anything other than avoidance of nuclear war?

Are we calibrating our success at all based on how China interprets our behavior? If so, does success simply mean China doesn’t gobble up Taiwan or Hong Kong before Easter?

What does success entail with respect to the relationship between Russia and China?

Is there a limit to what we’ll tolerate before we suck it up, acknowledge failure, and engage our militaries despite a risk of nuclear war? There has to be some kind of limit, doesn’t there? We can’t just let Russia run roughshod over the world indefinitely because we don’t want to risk provoking them, can we?

I have no answers to any of these questions.

I don’t know anything about modern military operations. I don’t know the mind of Vladimir Putin. I don’t know much about Ukraine or Ukrainians.

I don’t know how individual Russians feel about Putin or the invasion right now, or how much they even know about it. (Knowing what the western media are reporting about the Russian state of mind is meaningless.) I don’t know how the average Russian feels about Ukraine or NATO or the EU. Like if you were talking to them in the privacy of their own homes, where they could speak honestly and without fear of being thrown in jail or injected with radioactive isotopes.

Are they all rah-rah for Putin, the way the west is going rah-rah for Ukraine?

Or are they annoyed at the mess he’s created for them?

Are they divided? (There are reports they may be: are they accurate?)

If so, can we exploit that in a way that doesn’t bite us in the ass?

At this point, can we do anything that won’t eventually bite us in the ass?

Are we worrying too much about getting bit in the ass?

Speaking of division, is Ukraine as unified as western media are portraying it? That hadn’t been my impression before. I’d always thought it was divided. Like, maybe most of the country felt warmly about being part of the west, but maybe a third of the country was more attached to Russia. Did the invasion patch over those differences, or have the western media gone all-in on the propaganda effort to paper them over?

I have no idea at all what (or whether) Ole Puddinhead is thinking, or what his advisors are thinking, and the same goes for all the European heads of state and their lackeys.

But I’ve read a damn lot of history and even remember some of it, and that’s enough to give me a pretty bad feeling about where things are and where they’re headed. I like to think we’re trying this no-war approach to war as an experiment, but have our leaders got a Plan B? Is it sanctions or bust, or are contingencies being prepared for?

Things aren’t “spinning out of control.” They are out of control. That’s never good. So presumably our immediate goal should be either to get things under control or, if that’s not feasible, to brace for impact.

I’m intrigued by the lack of visible effort to get things under control. The western response so far has been entirely reactive. We tried prevention, half-heartedly and half-assedly, and we failed. Miserably. So now we’re trying punishment. I don’t see any serious effort to try and get out ahead of anything, so shouldn’t we at least be taking steps to brace for impact?

Do I even know what I mean by that?

No, I don’t, not entirely.

I think I mean that pushing a few troops and some hardware along the lines of the old Iron Curtain seems more theatrical than practical to me, at least in the kinds of numbers I’ve seen. The rhetoric about defending every inch of NATO and EU soil has been pretty good, but are we doing things behnid the scenes to show that we actually mean it? Are we quietly doing things to the raise the hair on the necks of Putin’s intelligence people? Are any western countries activating their reserves? Hardening their targets? Has anyone begun wartime-level manufacturing production? Is anyone at least drawing up plans to do so?

The American administration won’t even commit to cranking up petrofuel production. Isn’t that a little unserious, when Europe itself is finally giving nuclear power a second look and calling nuclear and petrofuel energy “green” just so they can keep using them?

Is America really just “doing whatever we’re doing and doing it every day,” (per her vice president) and hoping this all blows over with no consequence more dire than a need to redraw our maps and make a few anguished speeches at the UN?

Thucydides said of the Peloponnesian War: “The real cause I consider to be the one which was formally most kept out of sight. The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon, made war inevitable.”

This time around it was the apparent decline of the power of “Athens” that inspired a sense of opportunity among “the Lacedaemonians” and made war inevitable.

I say apparent because I believe “Athens” in the modern example, whether interpreted as NATO or even just America alone, is in fact wildly more powerful than Russia, but we’ve been radiating weakness for decades. We’ve been too busy hating ourselves to assert any power. I’ve been over this before, I won’t bore you with it again now.

But surely that’s part of the equation of “how we got here,” and we’re going to have to address it on our way out. We need to find our way back to civilizational confidence. The west needs to get its groove back. Or at least a little pride. Some swagger and mojo.

Everything that’s true on a grade school playground is true in geopolitics. Bullies don’t pick on the strong and the confident: they go after the timid and insecure.

Could Ukraine repulse the Russian army completely? Vanquish them? Doesn’t seem likely. And even if they did, would Vladimir Putin accept defeat graciously? Even less likely.

There’s a rising buzz to get rid of Putin. Overthrow him. I’d love to see him go, but what comes next? Do we know it would be better?

Reaching for the rose-colored glasses, could there be a kind of stalemate where the Russians get bogged down all over Ukraine but manage to take absolute control over the eastern part of the country and some kind of peace agreement is reached where Russia gets to keep the east, cementing a corridor to Crimea, in exchange for allowing western Ukraine to keep its sovereignty?

Maybe, but then we get to the question of whether sovereignty includes allowing non-Russian Ukraine to join the EU or NATO, or both. Russia has made it very clear they will not “allow” that. Vladimir Putin would never sign a peace of paper agreeing to such terms. It’s his putative casus belli already.

But if the west lets Russia take eastern Ukraine as a spoil of war through our policy of non-intervention, is western Ukraine going to accept Russian demands on what they can and cannot do as a nation? Won’t they be desperate to join the EU or NATO or both at that point, since that’s the only way they know Russia won’t come knocking again?

Would Russia allow Zelensky to keep his post? Would Ukrainians agree to replace Zelensky if Russians insisted on it? And is it likely Russia wouldn’t insist on it?

And even if all of that could be negotiated, would Russia be content to sit tight afterwards? If so, for how long? They would have gone against the world and won—that’ll put some gunpowder in anyone’s ass.

And what would the whole episode have taught China about Taiwan?

In all the inevitable conversations I’ve had with people about this stuff, I keep saying I don’t think this ends without Putin losing power or a nuke being detonated—or both.

That would have been crazy talk just a month ago.

But nobody I’ve spoken with to this point has said, “that’s crazy talk.”

And that’s crazy.

So go ahead… change my mind.