Bullies understand one language. The U.S., West must speak with one voice
Ukrainians demonstrate outside Downing Street against the recent invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 in London, England. Overnight, Russia began a large-scale attack on Ukraine, with explosions reported in multiple cities and far outside the restive eastern regions held by Russian-backed rebels. European governments reacted with widespread condemnation and vows of more sanctions. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
There are days when big news events just swallow up your entire schedule. Thursday was one of those days.
As was the case at the onset of the pandemic, and again with the 2020 election and its aftermath, and the violence of Jan. 6, it felt like the only thing we could do as a news organization was to burrow into the violent conflict taking place half a world away, explain to our readers how their elected leaders were responding to it, and try to tell them how it will affect their lives in both the near- and long-term.
If this were an ordinary column, this would be the part where I’d offer some neat prescription or exhort policymakers to take action on the solution that’s staring them in the face.
But the truth of it is that I don’t have a pithy solution or a soundbite-sized call to action as the United States and the west confront a humanitarian disaster in the making.
And that’s because there are no easy answers. The fact that we are even in this place to begin with is the fruit of two decades of failures and missteps, across presidential administrations, to bring Russian strongman Vladimir Putin to heel.
I do, however, know one thing: There is only one language that a bully and murderous thug such as Putin understands. And if our nation and elected leaders truly are serious about defending liberal democracy in Ukraine and around the world , they have to speak loudly, and with one voice, and tell Putin he can go no further.
I realize this is far easier said than done. It’s hard enough for the United States to speak with one voice at home on the most basic of issues.
It is a problem exacerbated by our polarized politics and the sad reality that there’s a whole segment of one of the major political parties that has proven, through its actions on Jan. 6 and beyond, that it has little to no interest in democratic norms. It can appallingly dismiss the carnage of that horrible day as an exercise in legitimate political discourse, and actively try to erase from its ranks those who think otherwise.
I am also painfully aware of the kind of reality distortion field that must be erected to decry Putin’s war of choice in Ukraine, even as the specter of three decades of American misadventures in the Persian Gulf and a war of choice in Iraq glares over our collective shoulder.
But it’s clear that every tool in the international community’s arsenal, short of direct force, has to be deployed as Putin tries to reset the international order that traces its origins to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the former Soviet Union that followed just a few years later. Make no mistake, that is his goal – a resurgent Russia that stands above the west.
On Thursday, President Joe Biden piled more sanctions on Russia, decrying Putin’s “brutal assault” on Ukraine and its people, the Washington Post reported. The Pentagon ordered an additional 7,000 soldiers to Europe, the New York Times reported, in a move that cheered allies, but surely sent a shudder through American military families already weary of more than two decades of continuous war.
On Thursday, a veteran armed forces officer told me that they were closely watching developments in Ukraine unfold, and the Pentagon’s response to it.
The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, so that they could speak freely, said a U.S. response could start with such rapidly deployable forces as the 82nd Airborne Division, as was the case with the evacuation of Kabul Airport last year. Indeed, elements of the 82nd already have deployed to Poland, according to published reports.
A military response is surely the least palatable and most potentially catastrophic option. History teaches that ground engagements with the Russians never end well.
As one expert notes, that currently does not appear to be in the cards. Instead, “the U.S. is rallying the world to isolate Russia through economic sanctions and to respond to cyber attacks,” analyst Jon Hutson wrote on Twitter on Thursday.
And with Putin muttering threateningly about nuclear strikes if the west launches reprisal attacks, according to The Telegraph, the West cannot engage in similar saber-rattling. That’s effectively how Europe blundered into World War I.
Still, there’s no middle ground here. This is a battle between good and evil.
“Everything that the Kremlin says is a lie. Please don’t both sides this,” podcaster and analyst Terrell Jermaine Starr wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “Putin is killing innocent people and Ukraine did nothing to deserve it.”
That’s a message that needs to be repeated over and over again.
John Micek is editor of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, part of the States Newsroom network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.
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