As I write, I am on a nine-hour flight returning home to the U.S. from Frankfurt, Germany. My wife (a German citizen) and I have spent the last week celebrating two important birthdays with her family in the cities of Münster, Marburg and Siegen. Amidst celebrations and catching up on family developments, I come across a fascinating article in the SB Journal: Das Magazin zum Wochenendem Siegener, dated 5 November 2022, by one Matthias Koch.

While virtually all Germans view Ukraine and the unjust war being waged against her by Russian forces with a sympathetic eye, they perhaps are not prone like the journalist Koch to probe the wider meaning of the war in Ukraine. Aside from the immediate lifestyle inconveniences of surging energy costs as they head toward the winter, it is proper to ask, from a German perspective, what lies behind this war.

In his essay “Attacke auf alle Europāer” (“Attacks on all Europeans”) Koch is concerned to examine the wider implications of Putin’s war, a war that did not begin in February but which has been going on since 2014 by means of proxy forces in Ukraine’s eastern regions. That war, as determined by Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, is intended (a) to deny the nation’s sovereignty as established in 1994 by the Budapest Memorandum and (b) to undo the collapse of the Soviet Empire in the early 1990s. As Putin has often publicly lamented, that collapse was “the greatest disaster of the twentieth century.” No less than returning Ukraine to the Russian fatherland is Putin’s initial aim; therein he will not be prevented, and should she resist that “return,” she will cease to exist. Such, of course, is in keeping with the spirit of Mao, Stalin, and Hitler. And indeed already in the late 1990s we find public statements from the Kremlin to that effect: war would be the result should Ukraine attempt any alliance with the West. This, in Putin’s eyes (and those sympathetic to the Russian imperialist vision), is the unforgiveable sin. But there is more.

It is to Koch’s credit that in his essay he warns against the war’s wider significance. Whether in his thinking Koch is representative of most Germans is difficult to say. While Germany’s present governing coalition – consisting of Greens, Social Democrats, and Free Democrats – is decidedly left-leaning on most issues, that coalition, led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz, has been surprisingly supportive of Ukraine. This is true even when eight months into the war in Ukraine Germany has generally been slow to provide the weaponry, technology, or intelligence that Ukraine so desperately needs. (And it is true even when, as I write, the German Chancellor is meeting with Chinese dictator Xi Jinping in Beijing, not to raise concerns over China’s persecution of minorities or challenge China’s failure to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but to strike business deals between the two nations and reaffirm cooperation.) In any case, Koch demonstrates a clear-sightedness, acknowledging that this is a war against the West and everything for which Western societies stand. In more recent public pronouncements, the Russian dictator has made this abundantly clear, particularly in the last two to three months as Ukraine has taken back territory that was earlier claimed by Russian forces.

In supporting his position, Koch cites an unusual (at least, for Germans) source: Douglas London, who teaches foreign policy in the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University in Washington. These days London is frequently asked about his own assessment of the war. How is it that Ukraine has been able to take back territory seized by the Russians? How will Putin respond to the surprising military setbacks that he has incurred? Is the threat of nuclear war likely? London’s perspective strikes Koch as decidedly different from many of the so-called “experts,” not least because before assuming his post at Georgetown, London worked for thirty-four years with the CIA as a Senior Operations Officer, serving as Chief of Station and the CIA’s Counterterrorism Chief for South and Southwest Asia. (London’s work focused chiefly on the Middle East, South and Central Asia, and Africa, while he held senior management positions for the Near East, Counterterrorism, Counterintelligence, Iran, and Cyber-operations.)

For London, the Russian dictator is not interested in merely military questions; his aims are far more. In fact, London insists, Putin distrusts the military. And evidence indeed suggests this to be the case. On more than one occasion since the war’s beginning, we have read reports that high-level military officers have been removed by the Russian dictator. For example, in October the commander of Russia’s Eastern Military District, Col. Gen. Alexander Chaiko, was dismissed, while Gen. Aleksandr Dvornikov, who had been commander of all Russian forces in Ukraine, was removed earlier, upon which Putin announced that Sergei Surowikin, a “Russian hero” because of his role in Syria, would take over that command. It needs reiterating that, in 2015, Putin learned important lessons in Syria – one year after having annexed Crimea. At bottom, these military dismissals help deflect blame back home for Russian failures on the field.

As a former CIA officer, of course, London is in a position to remind us: Putin is a former KGB operative, which means that deception and aggression are his modus operandi. He is never “predictable” or “logical.” He will distance himself from his mistakes as well as from any expectations that might be foisted upon him, regardless of their source, internally or externally. Hence, we can expect a “back and forth” approach to the onset and application of Russian military assault, even as Putin seeks to manipulate the war’s aims through any and all tactics – cyber-attacks, economic blackmail, diplomatic deception, social-cultural distortion, the gathering and use of intelligence, nuclear blackmail, suicide drone attacks, even – as recent news reports suggest – the destruction or sabotaging of undersea pipelines between Norway and Germany. Secrecy and deception are paramount. Nor do heavy losses on the battlefield matter to Putin; he will sacrifice all – whether on the Russian or the Ukrainian side – to accomplish his demonic goals. His merciless attacks on Ukraine’s civilian population only bear out this cruel reality. Even as I write, Russian evacuation of the city of Kherson is being accompanied by looting and destruction; Moscow’s goal is to render the city uninhabitable.

We may thus expect a continuation of nuclear threats from the Kremlin. The use of nuclear blackmail, after all, is part of the repertoire of psychological warfare, which Putin learned well as a KGB operative. Sabotage and nuclear saber-rattling have the benefit of costing nothing. What’s more, they exploit the inherent weakness of the West, which has been lulled asleep through appeasement for the last thirty years. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky surely does not overstate when he insists, as he did on October 11 by phone to the leaders of the G-7 summit: “There can be no dialogue with this leader of Russia,” whom he – quite correctly – describes as an “international criminal.” Pleas for negotiation with Putin, regardless of their origin, merely embolden him. We must not offer to this “little Hitler” an “off-ramp,” as some Western leaders have suggested. Rather, we must keep him in the dark with regard to the risks of war that he himself has started, and he himself insists on prosecuting. 

As Matthias Koch and Douglas London well intuit, the war in Ukraine is not limited to Ukraine. Nor did it appear out of nowhere, catching Western nations by surprise. Abundant evidence indicates that it has been brewing since the late 1990s. It is, yes, a war against a defenseless nation – a nation whose sovereignty and territorial integrity were affirmed in 1994 and a nation which did not choose this war. We in the West are therefore morally and politically obligated to her defense, assisting her with any and all means necessary for her protection and survival. In doing so, we simultaneously acknowledge that her defense is our defense, that freedom and self-government are the right of any people-group, and that the totalitarian spirit must be resisted at any cost. And because Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran are presently allied against the West and its values, it is accurate to view Ukraine as their collective battlefield.

Whether we in the West are in fact capable of the moral and political reasoning necessary for freedom and self-government and whether we can fundamentally discern between good and evil in order to overcome the totalitarian spirit remain to be seen.