by William Milam 6 March 2022
I traveled across the US last Tuesday and am now back in California for about six weeks. As is my custom when flying, I brought along in my carry-on bag my preferred reading material, a novel of international intrigue. I find this genre perfect for flying; their rapid and usually exciting action helps keeps one awake but does not demand a high level of concentration to follow the plot, nor require the reader to reread pages after awakening from an unplanned nap. The book I had chosen, by one of my favorite authors working in this genre, is about spying and resistance in World War 2 France.
Other than the usual logistics of travel, I had not thought about much else in the few days before my departure except the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which had occurred only 2or 3 days before my departure. And when I opened the book, I saw that the narrative begins in the early days of World War 2. The hero, a handsome, vital, and intelligent young man was obviously going to end up joining the resistance and spying on the Nazis. I look forward to his historically inevitable success, i.e., finishing the book.
And though I had thought about the almost identical circumstances between Adolph Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939 which launched World War 2 and Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, which could either launch Cold War 2 or World War 3, their nearness in time had not struck me. This two disasters have occurred within the lifetimes of many of our citizens. And both are examples of unhinged attempts to transform the global power structure and the European map in malign ways—towards authoritarianism and away from democracy. Another, perhaps more descriptive, way to put it is away from a rules-based global power system and toward a sphere of influence system in which the powerful do what they want and the smaller, less powerful get pushed around mercilessly.
The historical parallels would be fascinating if the present crisis weren’t so tragic and so implicitly threatening. A nuclear World War 3 has been unthinkable since, really, the end of World War 2, although at least one near miss has occurred since then—the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. But in that crisis neither side was led by a man that was unhinged. Kennedy and Khrushchev, both rational men acutely aware of the apocalyptic horror of nuclear war, wanted and found a way out which preserved face and defused the momentary threat of mutual annihilation. A thread that has become common currency among analysts in the present crisis is that Putin is seriously unhinged. And he has already warned the West of his nuclear prowess if it interferes with his takeover of Ukraine by overwhelming force.
Hitler played on German feelings of victimhood from the loss of World War 1 and the punitive nature of the Versailles Peace Treaty as well as a vision of German dominance in a Wagnerian Third Reich, while Putin has mused publicly about Russian victimhood after the Soviet Union collapsed, and a return of geopolitical spheres of influence that would restore Russian control over its “near abroad,” its near neighbors. Both pushed the definition of “nation” to be all native speakers of the two countries’ languages; Hitler used the idea that Germany had to protect German speakers in Czechoslovakia and Poland and elsewhere in eastern and Central Europe. Putin has said in some extraordinary public statements recently that Russian speakers anywhere are part of the Russian nation.
This makes Ukraine ripe for Russian intervention as a significant portion of its population are native Russian speakers. Of course, the vast majority of those Russian speakers in Ukraine identify themselves as Ukrainian. Clearly, Putin, unhinged or just driven by a surreal vision of an international system that works only for the strong, and anxious to use Russian military strength to restore the political strength and the prominence of the Soviet Union in such a system, is a danger far beyond the borders of Ukraine. Just as it was very naïve to believe that Hitler would stop his predatory behavior after he had got the West to back down at Munich and that either annexing the Czech Sudetenland, and conquering Poland, and Western Europe would sate his appetite for conquest, it is naïve to think that Putin will stop his aggressive policies after Russia has conquered Ukraine. And it after his public remarks, which sounded as if he were in a trance, in the weeks leading up to the invasion, it was naïve to think he would stop short of conquering the entire Ukraine.
The Ukrainians are fighting an overwhelming force courageously and intelligently, and earning the admiration of the West. Wouldn’t it be emotionally satisfying to be able to help them fight as well as to supply the arms and all the other assistance the West has been supplying since the invasion? The Ukrainians have been asking for no-fly zone. But this is something that no US President or European leader dares to do given Putin’s reckless behavior and his intimation that any direct Western interference in his brutal conquest of Ukraine might tempt him to turn to the nuclear option.
The US and Europe, lacking the usual tool to meet military challenges have, thus, turned to what some might call an equivalent of the nuclear option in economic sanctions. They have introduced what I would term as very innovative “super sanctions” which are designed to drive the Russian economy right into the ground, primarily by sanctioning directly the key institutions of the Russian financial system, the Central Bank and other important large banks and the their partners in the private sector. The objective is to make it impossible for Russia to use it vast earnings from oil and gas exports to offset sanctions by buying rubles in the West with which it could support the currency and prevent an economic crash of very serious proportions. The ruble lost 30 % of its values the first few days these super sanctions were implemented. Yet whether this will work over the longer term and continue to drive the ruble down is not clear yet, and there is much concern about the growing demand that NATO shut off the flow of Russian oil and gas to the West. This would be a body blow to European economies and possibly divide what to now has been a very united and vigorous NATO response.
I admit that I was not confident that the American public would strongly support the already vigorous response. These sanctions cost the sanctioner as well as the sanctioned, and with the pandemic which still is hurting the US economy, and sickening people, it has been a tough couple of years for the American public. Now, the public is also feeling the pinch of the pandemic related growth of serious inflation. But my doubt has been alleviated by recent polls based on President Biden’s State of the Union Address to Congress on Tuesday evening showing very strong support for the sanctions—up over 80%, with over 50 % of the respondents supporting the policy even if it cost them more. But like all public opinion polls, this support can change quickly if the costs ratchet up too much.
Many military experts are now saying that despite the enormous difference in the size and armament of the two sides, this war could go on for some time. This possibility raises many questions. While that could give the “super sanctions” time to work, it might mean that when the war ends Russia is an economically devastated Russia, with as well a physically devastated Ukraine needing serious reconstruction under its thumb. If it goes on for 2-3 months, as I heard predicted this evening, the brutal method of Russia’s military, as it appears to be trying to kill as many civilians as possible, will increasingly infuriate Western publics and put more pressure on Western governments to intervene to save innocent Ukrainian lives. There is also the danger of the Russian military’s reckless attacks against nuclear plants, viz. the attack on one last night, will cause a meltdown that endangers other parts of Europe.
Finally, where is this going? It seems likely that if this invasion is not the start of World War 3, it is the beginning of Cold War 2 with World War 3 always looming in the background, as it always loomed in Cold War 1. Either an economically devastated still hostile Russia/Putin emerges with vengeance as its primary goal, and a Cold War emerges between The West and a Russia/China clique, in which China will emerge the leader, although with a more pragmatic approach. Or, on the other hand, if Russia emerges without having lost too much face among the authoritarian group, and its inevitable victory over Ukraine with Putin still in firm change, it seems naive to think he will stop and accept the rules-based world we still live under and still want to live under. He will certainly continue to rail against the West, and its system and to move against NATO countries that will abut his newly gained protectorate called Ukraine.
One final thought. Much to the surprise of all who knew him, Ukraine President Zelensky has emerged as genuine hero in the West. Zelensky spoke Friday night by video from an undisclosed location in Kyiv to large crowds in almost every European capital. We certainly need a hero in this otherwise really ugly time.
The article appeared in the Friday Times