Siege being laid upon city after city; the rape, torture, and murder (including beheadings) of untold numbers of citizens; indiscriminate slaughter of the civilian population; the bombing of railway stations containing thousands of fleeing citizens; tens of millions of refugees; and tens of thousands of anti-war protestors being imprisoned—such atrocities form the pattern of Russian war abominations in Ukraine since February. And such atrocities identify the clear and undeniable character of an unjust war.
The tragedy of the end of the Cold War three decades ago was our failure to recognize evil and call it by its name, as President Ronald Reagan willingly did, to his great credit and under great criticism. Therewith the age of appeasement began, and the West fell asleep. The concept of evil formally became out of fashion, even when for decades the nihilism of modern and postmodern Western cultural values had rendered the acknowledgment and naming of evil an utter embarrassment—notwithstanding the killing fields of Asia, the butchery and bloodbaths of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo as well as Rwanda and central Africa, and the murder of innocents by terrorists worldwide.
Does the image of a missile landing in Ukraine, with the Russian message “For the Children” painted on its side, bother us at all? Does it reveal the utterly vile and demonic character of Putin’s assault on the innocent citizens of a nation—a nation that has suffered brutally and interminably over the last century due to Russian imperialist designs? Shame on us if it does not cause us to act, motivated by justice, with not only disgust but determination and deterrence. And shame on us if we lack the moral backbone and commitment to provide whatever Ukraine needs to defend itself against evil and annihilation.
To talk about sanctions or “post-war” obligations to Ukraine at this point is irrelevant; what we need to confront is our (i.e., Western) obligation to act now in support of Ukraine, in order that it might defend itself against horrendous evil in the present—not in the weeks or months ahead. For if we do not rise presently to this moral obligation—and it is a just, moral obligation—there will be no “post-conflict” rebuilding of the Ukrainian nation. Rather, what will exist will be Russia’s “post-war” decimation of Ukraine. Russian forces would have destroyed Ukraine’s sovereignty and institutions while subjugating her, in line with Putin’s intent to “return” former (pre-1989) satellite countries to the Russian family.
Let us not fool ourselves. After Ukraine’s heroic defense of Kyiv, a new stage of the war has begun as Russia shifts toward the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine. Not only does the Russian tactical shift exploit the influence of Russian separatists who occupy those regions, but it also mirrors the future concentration of Russian rogue assaults on the nation. These assaults will be bloody hell, and the frightful images of Mariupol—where rape, murder, and the unspeakable have occurred—tell us what lies ahead. Moreover, Putin’s appointment of Gen. Aleksandr Dvornikov to command the armed forces in Ukraine is a most ominous sign. Dvornikov is a veteran of operations in Crimea, Chechnya, and Armenia, and helped prop up Bashar al-Assad in Syria. This man is ruthless, indeed demonic, and has a history; he is the real “butcher of Baghdad.” Alas, in the days and weeks ahead, the war will take on a far more dreadful and evil character than anyone—whether in Ukraine or the West—would have imagined.
But the West’s response (or, non-response) cannot be forgiven. We have been witnesses to Putin’s intentions since 2014—in truth, since 2008—and we have been foot-dragging in our hesitation to aid Ukraine as needed from the war’s inception in late February. President Joe Biden’s persistent fault, as “leader of the free world,” has been to talk of “genocide” and “war crimes” yet balk at providing enough lethal weapons that would help Ukraine strategically where it is desperately needed. Correlatively, Biden has consistently broadcasted, for fear of so-called “escalation,” what the US will not do—a remarkably foolish policy that has played perfectly into Putin’s hand.
Can the US and NATO proactively deter Russian forces as we head into the spring and early summer? Ukraine has demonstrated that she will not accept a cease-fire, and Putin, as expected, declared that “peace talks” have reached a “dead-end.” Russia has launched assaults in the eastern and southern regions that will be indescribably brutal. Can we stop using the language of “sanctions” and supply Ukraine with weaponry that is not merely “on the shelf” but that truly has present strategic and deterrent value? Can we both supply military hardware that is useful to the defense of Ukraine on land, in the air, and at sea as well as provide training in the employment of this hardware? The specific military needs are apparent—among these are air defense, naval defense systems, mobility of forces, artillery, and intelligence. In Brussels Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kubela quite appropriately criticized the “hypocrisy” of nations supplying only “defensive” weapons, since every weapon used in the war against Russian forces is in fact defensive.
The Russian goal is regime change and nothing less. Hence, Russia will resort to maximalist military options; it must control Ukraine’s foreign policy and governance—foremost of which is to prevent her from joining NATO. This is why, early on in the war, Putin used the nuclear threat to negate the West’s full-throated response in defending Ukraine. It is why on April 14 the deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, threatened to station nuclear forces in northern Europe between Lithuania and Poland, should Finland or Sweden—both of which have been deliberating NATO membership—join NATO. (While Sweden today maintains a longstanding “neutrality” in terms of its foreign and security policy, Finland shares over 800 miles of border with Russia.) It is also why, in addition to nuclear blackmail, Putin in recent days and as already noted has called upon the “Butcher of Baghdad” to work his magic in Ukraine. What, then, is our response to nuclear blackmail? To crimes against humanity? To evil and an unjust war?
The war in Ukraine, with its indiscriminate slaughter and mass murder of thousands, forces us—indeed, it forces the world—to admit the reality of evil. Yet, tragically, most of the world cannot bring itself to name and decry evil where it occurs. Tellingly, last week only 24 of the 141 member nations of the United Nations voted to remove Russia from the UN’s Human Rights Council, with 58 abstaining! The implications are stunning: most nations of the world are willing to facilitate evil and tyranny. Putin’s regime will use murder and atrocity to achieve its goals. The best way of preventing unspeakable suffering in the days ahead—a path that is supremely difficult for the US and NATO nations to acknowledge—is to threaten and deter Putin militarily so that he does not (a) prolong mass suffering in Ukraine (which he will do) and (b) employ nuclear blackmail (which he is doing and will continue to do). In Putin’s mind, there is no such thing as a “strategic defeat” for Russia. Sanctions will not suffice; neither will public statements by the US government about “war crimes”; nor will outdated weaponry that is insufficient to the task of defending an innocent nation against present totalitarian threat. Alas, Putin is committed to the subjugation or obliteration of Ukraine. Period.
If we fail to have a sense of urgency in helping to defend Ukraine and deter evil, Russians will release new attacks with greater vindictive and barbaric force than we heretofore have witnessed. Will Ukrainian blood be on our hands as well?