Letter to the editor: a response
Notes on the crisis, Part II
This is Part II of my response to a letter to the editor. You can read Part I here.
Reader: Backing Russia generally, and Putin specifically, into a corner is almost certainly a very dangerous game that seems to me to have vastly more downside than upside for the US.
Claire: Who’s backing him into a corner? We didn’t invade Ukraine. He did. No one in the West told him this was a good idea. To the contrary. He backed himself into this corner. I agree, this is a very dangerous situation. But it is dangerous because that idiot backed himself into this corner.
Reader: You have in the past few years repeatedly (and correctly) been warning that nuclear weapons have not magically gone away.
Claire: I sure have been. (NB to everyone else: believe me yet?)
Reader: Whether we like it or not, the fact that Putin has command authority over 6,000 nuclear warheads and the ability to deliver them basically anywhere on earth means that Russia has enormous power that it can use to get some of what it wants.
Claire: We have this power too. How far do you propose to let him get through nuclear blackmail? Seriously—where’s your red line?
Unless we stand up to him, the lesson will be impeccably clear to every state and polity not yet under Russia’s thumb: Nuke up as fast as you can. Will we be safer in a world with a nuclear Poland, a nuclear Germany, a nuclear Turkey, a nuclear Nordic bloc, all of them hostile to Russia and vice-versa? Hard to say; indeed, I’d say literally impossible to predict; this problem is not amenable to human reason, so perhaps emotions should be our guide. And my emotions, in response to being blackmailed are, “Fuck you, Russian warship.”
Reader: Consider the insanity of a no-fly zone over Ukraine. The twitterati seem to think this is some kind of force field. They are so hubristic that they think the US just has air supremacy over the entire planet, not caring that what they are advocating is actually large-scale aerial combat with Russia, something we carefully avoided for the last 75 years.
Claire: I’ll share a secret, since I’m not influential enough to matter. If I were the President of the United States, I’d probably hesitate to declare a no-fly zone over Ukraine for just that reason.
But I want everyone who reports to Putin to see that the public in the West has lost its ever-loving mind. That this was too far. That we will not stand for this even if it means war with Russia. When the call for this authentically comes from the ground up—from the people, not our leadership—it strengthens our leaders’ hands, in both deterrence and in negotiation. So yes, I agree with you: making the decision to escalate to direct conflict between the US and Russia would be insane.
My calling for a no-fly zone isn’t insane. Implementing it may not be a wise course of action. I leave that question to the pros. But discussing it complicates Russian decision making, and that is only good.
At the risk of being emotional, what’s your response to Daria Kaleniuk? Johnson has said, sensibly, that there will be no no-fly zone. But the more pressure our politicians are under to implement one, the more credible they’ll be when they use their back channel to Russian military commanders and say, “Knock off killing civilians or I won’t be able to help you: These people are going to elect a leader who will be a lot crazier than I am.”
Reader: At what point do enough Russian soldiers being killed by Javelin missiles supplied by the US become a casus belli for the Russians?
They are already. But see above: They’ve been at war with us for a long, long time.
Reader: There are now small numbers of retired US special forces operators volunteering to serve in the international brigade for the Ukrainians, to much acclaim. If this drags on, how likely is it that these become “retired volunteers” that seem to spend a lot of time in Langley, VA? Would we believe this of Russian “retired volunteers” fighting in some third-party conflict? How does this lead the Russians to perceive this and react?
Claire: I think Russia already has a pretty clear perception of how we feel about this, no? Check out our universal translator to get a sense of what the Kremlin is thinking. (Mind you, Russians are already being told that Ukraine’s the CIA’s dancing puppet and all of the misfortune they’ve encountered is owed to our “retired volunteers,” so if this were to become true, it certainly wouldn’t change the way things are being reported in the Russian media.)
Reader: One of your authors casually indicated that he thought US active participation in this war was inevitable if the war lasted 30 days. This is all war fever. The US engaging in a war with Russia over the Ukraine could only happen through insanity, accident or miscalculation.
Claire: I put this to our author, who replies: The prevalence and probability of "insanity, accident or miscalculation” is—exactly—why I believe the United States will get involved given a war of sufficient duration. I won’t defend the thirty-days timeframe, which is an acknowledged ballpark guess, but the point remains.”
Reader: What is the end-game and a strategy to get there? Serious consideration of this has been notably absent from the high-profile discussion in the media.
Claire: I can’t speak for anyone else, but I hope we can all face the reality now that we will not have peace—in Europe or anywhere else—until we have regime change in Russia. That is the end game. We should welcome a new Russia as a partner for peace provided the worst of its war criminals are handed to The Hague and a Nuremberg-style trial conducted; this trial should extend to the crimes of communism, as Vladimir Bukovsky always said. When this happens, the US and EU must deliver a robust Russian Marshall Plan so that Russia’s transition to democracy and free markets is not so painful that they again reject it. The failure to put communism on trial and support the new Russian democracy were the errors we made in the 1990s, let’s not repeat them.
What’s the strategy to get there? Here’s what it shouldn’t be: invading Russia in the winter. Can we get there any other way? Yes. We collapsed the Soviet Union by containing it and outspending it. We can do it again. We can probably do it faster. It may take just as long. But we have a strategy already: It is the one we used during the Cold War. It worked. This time, however, we must also win the peace.
Reader: Do you really think that without committing NATO troops Ukraine can win the war?
Claire: Do you really think Russia can win it?
Reader: Or is the goal to turn this into a new Vietnam for Russia—
Claire: Whose goal? You say this as if we encouraged Putin to invade Ukraine. We did not. If it turns into a new Vietnam for Russia, it’s for once not our fault.
Reader: —and fund a multi-year insurgency in the middle of Europe?
Claire: As I said: No one in his right mind would want any of this. This is Putin’s doing, Putin’s war. Are you suggesting we shouldn’t send weapons to Ukraine and should simply do nothing? While Putin commits genocide in the heart of Europe?
Reader: —What are the ways that could go wrong?
Claire: I don’t have the space to list them. This situation is incredibly dangerous. It is so dangerous, and so shocking, that Germany—Germany!—has committed weaning itself off of Russian gas and building a massive military. That doesn’t happen because things are going just fine. But what’s your point? Do you know a secret way to make this go right? Turning off the channel and pretending it’s not happening won’t do the trick. “Staying out of it?” Well, tell me what you propose when Putin sweeps across the Suwałki corridor. Then what?
Reader: How realistic is it that Russia will proceed beyond Ukraine and why?
Claire: If he’s not stopped? 100 percent. Every time he wins a war he starts another one; his irredentist views extend not only to the whole of the former Soviet Union but to the whole former Russian Empire, and he’s explicitly said he’s at war with the West for years; we just haven’t wanted to listen. Actually, our military planners have been listening, but the public hasn’t been.
Putin made a terrible mistake: His campaign of subverting the West was working exceedingly well. He could have continued that way until we were, really, prostrate. Trump could have been back in office in 2024 and then—goodbye, NATO. Putin got overconfident. He tipped his hand, galvanizing and unifying not only the West, but the world. Big mistake.
Reader: And so on, almost ad infinitum. Ultimately, what is the stable order that we are trying to get to—that we have the means to achieve?
Claire: A stable and democratic Russia, allied to the West, and a Europe whole and free. We have the whole world behind us, except for Russia and China, and we have no choice. If we can’t do it, the world will get worse and worse until the alligator eats us—and perhaps he won’t even save us for last.
For all the talk of China’s might and economic power, the world’s democratic nations still wield massive global economic power. We should be more confident in it. Don’t fall for the Kremlin narrative that confronting Russian forces is tantamount to starting a nuclear war. We know, from long experience in the Cold War, that Russia only stops if they are stopped—but they do stop if they’re stopped. We have a bigger, better military; we have allies; and we have something more important than either of them: We have the moral high ground. What we and the free world stand for really does matter. No one—no one!—wants to go back to the Age of Empires and be colonized by China and Russia.
Reader—Barring global war, this means figuring out something the Russians can live with and helping them accept it without rubbing their faces in it.
Claire: Which Russia? The Russia Putin imagines? Or the real Russia? Hard for us to judge how much support in this Putin really has, but I suspect it’s a lot less than he thinks, or he wouldn’t be trying to hide everything not only from the people, but from his own military.
Reader—Finally, even this whole conflict with Russia over Ukraine shouldn’t be seen in isolation, as tempting as it is to have tunnel-vision on such a dramatic event. The key strategic US and Western rival is China. The nightmare scenario for the West is a China-Russia-India bloc.
Claire: Won’t happen. India and China are never going to be part of a bloc. India’s hesitation about condemning Russia is precisely because they’re praying for Russia’s support against China. And people in India, which has a free (enough) press are seeing exactly what we’re seeing: They don’t like the sight of it.
Reader—Western reactions are obviously pushing Russia into an alliance of convenience with China for reasons you know well, but also note that India has conspicuously avoided condemning Russia, I assume because of long-standing defense ties with Russia.
Claire: I’m unworried about India joining this bloc. In fact, as we learned in the Cold War, the Russia-China bloc is by no means an immutable fact of nature. I cannot think of anything more salutary than China watching what’s happening to Russia right now. I do not think, as you suggested, that China is “laughing their asses off” at the sight of this. I think they’re chilled to the bone. I don’t know, of course; I have no special insight into the Zhongnonghai. But their propaganda organs are becoming notably uneasy. China’s largest state-controlled banks are limiting financing to purchase raw materials from Russia. They fear secondary sanctions.
China clearly bought the line that it would all be over in 48 hours and the decadent West would as usual carp about it in the UN then forget about it. Frankly, so did I. That’s just what I figured would happen. I’m glad I was wrong. I don’t quite understand why this matters so much more to the world than the complete destruction of Syria, but the sleeping giant is—finally—awake.
Reader—As in all wars and cold wars, maintaining focus on the key adversary usually requires making lots of compromises with countries that you otherwise don’t like a whole lot. I think it would be very helpful for CG to consider this as well.
Claire: Indeed. And who is our key adversary, in your view: China? Or the guy who just put his nuclear weapons on high alert, told us so, and invaded a European country?
I might be prepared to make some compromises with China right now—are you?