By David Craig & John Waters for RealClearDefense
Appearing last week in an olive-green t-shirt, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made an impassioned plea to a joint session of Congress for a “humanitarian no-fly zone,” as well as more air defense systems, armed drones, and other weapons. To help make his case, he invoked Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11, “when evil tried to turn [American] cities into battlefields,” drawing parallels to the carnage in Ukraine over the past three weeks.
The argument was compelling and sincere. Since last Wednesday, the White House promised an additional 800 million U.S. dollars to bolster the people fighting to defend their homes and neighborhoods against an invading army.
But the outlook for Ukraine is grim.
Russia’s military is nearly four times the size of Ukraine’s and consequences of the mismatch have already been devastating. Vehicles incinerated with helpless victims inside. Hospitals bombed, families separated, women and children fleeing to western Ukraine and beyond. The truth is war means separation from family.
It destroys who you were and takes away everything you had planned for your future.
What we watch happening in Ukraine seems strangely foreign. Pictures of combat shock the conscience, jarring loose old memories of battlefield carnage and its toll on the innocent, young and old. We realize now these are things we will never forget. And yet, the fighting in Melitopol and Mariupol is hard for us to relate to, much less understand.
Our military training and deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan were predicated on always being the superior force—having the weapons, manpower, and logistical re-supply to overwhelm a smaller, if determined, enemy. Despite our own combat experiences over many years, it is difficult to put ourselves in the shoes of Ukrainian foot soldiers standing at the barricades in downtown Kyiv, wondering if a Russian tank or bomber awaits in the darkness.
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Putin’s aggression should not come as a shock.
Already it has been nearly a decade since the Russian Federation annexed Crimea then intervened militarily in the Syrian Civil War. Along the way, redlines and threats have done little to chasten Putin. His tactics have always been brutal. He supported Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator who used chemical weapons to kill and disfigure hundreds of his own people.
He either authorized or condoned the Russian Federation’s use of chemical weapons in at least two attempts to assassinate his political enemies, both of which violated the Chemical Weapons Convention. Because Putin has the means and motive, we shouldn’t be surprised if he employs weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine, too. We fear the worst is yet to come.
America has acquitted itself honorably in response.
In addition to providing money and materiel to Ukrainian fighters, Western nations have leveled enormous sanctions against Putin, seeking to cut off his regime from the global financial system. The effects of the sanctions are already reverberating. “Our economy will need deep structural changes in these new realities,” Putin said in televised remarks last Wednesday. “I won’t hide this—they won’t be easy [;] they will lead to a temporary rise in inflation and unemployment.” This was an understatement.
The United States and Western allies have begun an economic war against Russia that will reveal itself through surging gas, metal, and food prices for countries around the world. Food shortages and high prices will hit hardest in the developing world, and civil unrest could follow. We have no doubt the economic war will have significant human costs.
And yet, some are asking for more.
From a no-fly zone to cyberattacks directed against Russian command and control networks, politicians and foreign policy experts seem intent on prodding the U.S. toward a deeper military involvement, one with uncertain costs and an even less certain end state. American military veterans are traveling to Ukraine, either to pick up arms alongside the defenders or simply to collect a photo op before jetting back to the States. It has been strange to watch.
We would have thought that 20 years’ worth of poor returns in Afghanistan and Iraq would be enough to humble our interventionist instincts, especially in the context of another war complicated by ethnic, cultural, and historical elements which few in the West understand. Instead, we see signs of the same recklessness and arrogance of 2001 and 2003, nearly unabated by two decades of defeat.
We’re old enough to recall a time when Americans expected to be greeted as liberators in Iraq and Afghanistan, when a radical new strategy of counterinsurgency would redeem our efforts to save Iraq, when regime change was the prudent course of action in Libya and when an “Arab Spring” was imminent, a new future for the Middle East on the horizon.
None of it turned out to be true. It’s not hard to see some of the same impulses playing out in policy discussions about how far we should go to counter Russian aggression. They say the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Let us not allow the emotions of the moment—our empathy for the people of Ukraine or our revulsion at Putin’s ruthlessness—to exhaust our ability to think critically about America’s interests in eastern Europe. This time, scoring political points could win a third world war.
David Craig is editor of Real Clear Defense. John Waters is a writer in Nebraska.
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