I watched Putin’s speech that day and had to admit: he didn’t make a great impression. Senator Lindsey or Graham criticized it as a return to Cold War rhetoric, but America was fighting two hot wars at the time, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Putin’s Russia seemed too weak to worry about. Not anymore.
Putin’s bleak anger seems to be exploding. As the Munich Security Conference takes place this year, Russian-backed separatists are reported to fire a barrage of missiles into Ukraine as Russia prepares for a ground invasion with More than 150,000 soldiers. The standout speech this time was from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who vacillated between demanding security guarantees and criticizing the West for “appease. “
Despite the bleak news from Ukraine, there was an almost festive tone among many of the assembled Western leaders. Several speakers boasted that NATO was back, after a wet period described here just two years ago as “weird. European allies joined the United States in pledging sanctions against Putin that were described as “heavy”, “huge” and “rapid and severe” – but Zelensky criticized them too late to prevent the massacre that had already begun in his country.
NATO unity is indeed an achievement. But the war always fails. This was built, in stages, for years. Putin announced his intentions almost. Forums and proposals that could have prevented conflict were clear. However, Russian tanks thrust into what may be the deadliest and most unilateral attack in modern European history.
Zelensky, a feisty and eccentric man who often seems more suited to his former role as a television comedian than as Churchill’s warlord, Ask a question that should haunt the Munich delegates: “How did we get to this point in the twenty-first century where war is going on and people are dying in Europe? … To me, this answer is clear: the security architecture of our world is fragile, and outdated. The rules the world agreed upon decades ago no longer work. “.
One of the few checks that could make a difference to Putin came from Wang Yi, the foreign minister of China, Russia’s only major ally these days. And he warned in a video speech that “the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of any country must be respected and preserved.” And that “Ukraine is no exception.” Putin is willing to violate the norms of the West, but perhaps not China.
How will this war unfold, if Russia continues to “dismantle” its massive fighting force, in the sensational phrase used by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin? The tip came from a Saturday night simulation organized by Dmitriy Alperovich, the Russian-born founder of computer security firm CrowdStrike. In his scenario, Kiev surrendered after five days of Russian missile and artillery bombardment and a three-pronged ground offensive. After that, Russia set up a puppet government, held rigged elections, and immediately withdrew most of its forces.
Alperovitch asked me to play the American role, and I worked within the limits set by President Biden. The United States will support the Ukrainian resistance and impose heavy costs on Russia, but it will stay out of the war unless Putin is stupid enough to attack NATO territory. Alperovitch predicted that this outcome would be another “frozen conflict” of the kind that Putin has already scattered across the former Soviet empire.
America’s ability to defeat Putin’s strategy of almost completely neutralizing Ukraine depends on the willingness of the Ukrainians to wage a long, bloody insurgency against Russian invaders, backed by the United States and its European allies.
At the conference, there was a wonderful sense of solidarity for the long struggle that might be coming. “I don’t think Putin was ready for unity within the European Union,” a Swedish official said. “We have rediscovered habits of cooperation,” said a senior US official. “We are ready to defend our land and our people,” vowed Vitali Klitschko, mayor of Kiev. For once, Germans, Poles, French and Americans seemed to sing from the same NATO songbook.
Putin makes the perfect villain in this war. He is brutal, arrogant, and contemptuous of the rules of order that America and its allies celebrate. Tell us what he’s going to do, and he does it. He is moving to take Ukraine hostage this week, which will leave three options unpalatable. Either the West negotiates with the hostage-taker, that is abhorrent. The West frees the hostage by force. Or we wait until the hostage-taker becomes poor and tired and stops fighting. That last outcome, which would be the best for the West, might also be the most likely — if the United States and its allies could be patient.
However, there will be no good choices in the coming weeks and months, only the consequences of bad ones that have allowed Russia and the West to talk to each other, avoiding difficult questions, for more than a decade.
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