Here is what I would like to happen in Ukraine:
Outraged by Russia’s aggression, armed Ukrainians in both the country’s military and its spontaneously formed civilian militias are able to fight hard enough in all regions that the demoralized and confused Russian army retreats with its tail between its legs. Appalled by the spectacle, and vowing “never again,” the international community comes together to turn Russia into a pariah state — limiting its access to international institutions, weakening its economy, draining the country of talent, and making Vladimir Putin’s position untenable even within his own circle.
Alarmed by their vulnerability, previously unreliable nations such as Germany commit to increasing defense spending and to taking NATO more seriously. In the West, the tales of Ukrainian bravery become the stuff of legend, and in Ukraine, President Zelensky cruises to reelection as the new symbol of national resolve. In casual conversation, “Zelensky” and “Putin” become avatars of Good and Evil, while “invading Ukraine” becomes colloquial shorthand for “doing something stupid.” Putin is forced out of office, and Russia reforms itself. The experiment is universally deemed to have been a failure, and we learn that, despite all odds, the world has changed substantially since the mid 20th century.
That’s what I’d like to happen. It’s also what I’m being led to believe, by social media and the hive that sustains it, is happening. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that anything ever turns out that neatly, and I’m not sure that the crisis in Ukraine will, either. As a country, we would do well to remember that, and so to ask some meaningful followup questions beyond “Which team do we like?”
The sad truth is that — myself included, of course — we really do not know as much about what is happening in Ukraine as we’d like to. Some of the things we thought we knew — that 13 soldiers were killed heroically on Snake Island; that a mysterious flying ace was downing Russian planes; that random women are carrying rifles on public transport — turned out not to be true. Some of the things we have simply assumed — that because Russia’s invasion seems to have made slower progress than the Kremlin anticipated, the Russian military is on the verge of giving up rather than of changing tactics — are as much wishful thinking as they are analysis.
And some of the things that we seem to have forgotten — that the world is full of extremely complex systems that usually cannot be altered overnight — will soon become as apparent as ever. If Russia loses this war, Noah Rothman notes over at Commentary, many of the results will be “of material benefit to the West” — but also “extremely dangerous.” As the ultimate stewards of our government, we would profit from ensuring that our national conversation covers these specifics as much as it is covering the generalities.
War is a terrible thing, and it seems likely that it is about to get far more horrible still. Unless the Russians contrive a clever reason to desist, the next stage will likely involve the broad deployment of heavy artillery and the beginning of missile strikes on Ukrainian cities. There will be fighting in and around major population centers. Volunteers will be wiped out. Children will be maimed. War crimes will be committed. The result of this — even if the ploy ultimately fails — will probably not be the good guys rushing in to save the day, but thousands upon thousands of painful deaths.
And then what? It seems clear that there remains enough fighting spirit within the broader Ukrainian population to make a permanent Russian occupation impossible. But Russia, too, can play games with its enemies’ resolve. It’s easy to tweet platitudes and change your Facebook avatar to a yellow and blue flag. But are we going to risk a nuclear war over Kyiv or Kharkiv?
All of this is a long way of saying that Americans should be careful not to get carried away, or to become so obsessed with hating the bad guys and loving the good guys that they become unaware of the details on the ground. Despite what the media would like to be true, Americans do not actually need to be fed infantile or cynical analogies in order to discern that Russia is the bad actor here: As of yesterday, just 2% of Republicans and Democrats thought that the United States had been “too tough” in response to Putin’s aggression, while 80% of Republicans and 44% of Democrats believed that it had not been “tough enough.” What we need is to be leveled with — about the real state of the war, about the most likely set of outcomes, and about the broader knock-on effects that might result. We need to grasp the potential consequences of escalation, and the potential consequences of inaction.
We need to ask ourselves tough questions such as, “If Russia were to invade Poland, should American soldiers be deployed?” and, “At what point are we willing to fight?” We need to distinguish between war propaganda — which has a real value to those fighting — and the truth. And, perhaps most important of all, we need to evaluate our nonviolent responses on their long-term merits, as well as within the existing good guy–bad guy dichotomy.
There is a season for cheerleading, but cheerleading alone will not suffice. Après cela, le déluge.