Thursday, May 19, 2022

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Making sense of Ukraine


I’m sitting here trying to write a column about Ukraine that makes sense. It’s hard to know where to start.

A few nations are blessed, or cursed, to be situated strategically between two or more superpowers, and consequently to suffer occupation after occupation with accompanying damage and death. Ukraine, the second largest nation in Europe by area, is one of those nations, and its persecution continues.

Through history the number of conquering powers that claimed Ukraine as their own is almost uncountable. Ukraine was ruled by Polish, Lithuanian, Romanian, Mongol, Tatar, Turkish, Cossack, Austrian, Russian, German, Soviet and other dominators for centuries. It is only since Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly to declare independence from the defunct Soviet Union in 1991 that they have finally been able to make their own political decisions.

But it hasn’t been easy for Ukraine over the past 30 years. Chronic corruption has been a problem. The newly independent nation voluntarily gave up its nuclear weapons, numbering in the thousands, in 1994 in return for guarantees of its independence by Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom. 

In 2014 the Ukrainian people overthrew their Russian-oriented President and elected a popular TV comedian, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who shared their desire to reorient the nation toward the West instead. Democratic government seemed to have taken root.

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But Russian President Vladimir Putin wasn’t having it. Putin’s troops promptly occupied Crimea, the peninsula that juts south into the Black Sea, and backed Russian separatists in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Then a few weeks ago Putin moved nearly 200,000 Russian troops into positions close to the border, gave them the go-ahead, and proceeded to push into Ukraine.

Ukraine’s military resistance has been courageous and effective at slowing Russia’s onslaught, but it is significantly outgunned. Western military hardware has helped the resistance, but Russia continues to pummel Ukrainian cities, killing thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians. More than two million Ukrainians have fled to neighboring countries.

The United States and its NATO allies have taken the position that they will provide arms to Ukraine, but not troops or air power. That decision probably signals an eventual Russian takeover of Ukraine.

U.S. President Joe Biden finds himself in a situation vis-à-vis Russia and Putin exactly opposite to that which faced President Franklin Roosevelt vis-à-vis Germany when Hitler was gobbling up Europe in the years before America entered World War Two. Back then the mood of most Americans was to stay clear of “foreign wars.” Roosevelt had to tread carefully to aid England and the Soviet Union while avoiding pushback from Congress. Only after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor did the American people have the will to go to war against the Axis.

Today, however, polling shows strong sentiment among Americans to do more to help Ukraine resist the Russian onslaught than the Biden Administration seems ready to do. A bipartisan segment of Congress supports sharing military aircraft with Ukraine, and even creating a no-fly zone above Ukraine to halt Russian air strikes.

Of course back then Germany didn’t possess nuclear weapons. Russia now does. A major difference. For the West to join Ukraine’s military efforts would mean wartime conditions between NATO and Russia. Would Putin refrain from using nuclear weapons—tactical or worse—in that circumstance? No one knows.

What’s more, Ukraine does not belong to NATO. The United States stands ready to defend its NATO allies militarily if Russian—or other—troops or missiles attack a NATO member’s border. But so far we’re unwilling to do the same for a non-member like Ukraine.

The West appears to have made the choice that in the final analysis, Ukraine will have to fight Russia on its own even though the U.S. and Western Europe will provide armaments for Ukraine’s defense. It’s a hard-nosed strategic decision, and a frustrating one as television reveals, across the world and 24 hours a day, the dimensions of Russia’s brutality.

Russia is a major player in world oil markets. The West’s economic sanctions against the aggressor have sharply driven up the price of oil and of gasoline at the pump. 

Americans seem of two minds about that. A poll last Sunday found 63 percent of the American people willing to pay a higher price for gas in order to hamstring the Russian economy. But the same poll found 70 percent of those same Americans disapproving of Biden’s handling of gas prices. Go figure. 

Putin reportedly has several objectives: acknowledgement by the West that Ukraine belongs in the Russian sphere of influence, Western acceptance of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the lifting of Western economic sanctions. 

Attaining those goals is a long shot at best for Putin. It’s highly unlikely Russia can control Ukraine peacefully once the military fighting ends. Ukrainians continue to demonstrate their admirable courage and their desire for independence to TV observers around the world. Russian occupation will not be easy for either the occupiers or the occupied.

A Russia puppet government in Kyiv will face perpetual resistance from the Ukrainian people, if the current level of anti-Russian sentiment is any indication. The Soviet Union tried to work its will on Afghanistan, and that didn’t turn out well either.

The current war conditions can’t continue indefinitely. Without Western intervention of a radically different kind, Russia will doubtless defeat Ukraine militarily. Then Putin’s long-range problems will surface. It won’t be easy for him. ♦

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