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Kiev Falling: It Did Not Have To Happen

Putin has Ukrainian blood on his hands. So does the West -- a lesson we had better learn for the future
Kiev Falling: It Did Not Have To Happen

As this week’s readers know, I have been extremely angry at the role the West has played in bringing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to pass, and am in a real state over the prospect of a new Cold War, which may turn hot in places. Here in Central Europe, in a country that borders Ukraine, everyone I talk to is very, very worried about the future. A Slovenian friend texted me yesterday morning to say, “Welcome to World War III.” I asked him to explain what about this makes it a “world” war. He responded that the Russians will not stop here. Look, he said, for their Serb allies to try once again to reshape the borders of the former Yugoslavia. I met later in the day with a journalist who covers that region, and he predicted the same thing.

There is nothing abstract about this for these people. I had lunch yesterday with a Hungarian friend who told me hair-raising stories of World War II, passed down from her grandparents. It occurred to me after lunch that we had been eating in a restaurant in Krisztinavaros, the hilly district in Buda that was at the heart of the 1945 Siege of Budapest, the last stand of the German army here. The siege, in which the Red Army expelled the Nazis, was some of the most savage fighting of World War II. Some 38,000 Hungarians died, most of them by starvation and disease.

Here is a documentary, with English subtitles, about that siege. I watched it last year when I first came to Hungary. Now that I live in Krisztinavaros (I lived across the river in Pest last year), and walk these same streets, I’m going to watch it again. I urge you to watch this, though I warn you, it’s very tough:

I’m thinking about this documentary now, on Friday morning here in Budapest, as the news reports that the Russians appear to be encircling Kiev. We don’t know whether Kiev will fall without a fight, or what kind of fight the Ukrainians will put up, but it’s obvious that the Russians will win this, due to overwhelming force. Putin will install an occupation government. Meanwhile, I’m watching as I write this, video from Moscow showing Russian anti-war protesters being arrested by police and taken to jail. This is what it means to live under Putin’s government.

What will happen to Kiev today, and over the coming days? Will it be destroyed, or heavily damaged, as Budapest was in the waning days of World War II? The prospect is agonizing to contemplate. And the most important fact to know is that Vladimir Putin chose this.

As you may know, Kiev is uniquely important in Orthodox Christianity and therefore in Russian culture. It is where Christianity was born in Russia in the year 988. The Monastery of the Kiev Caves, nearly 1,000 years old, as a world treasure, and one of the greatest holy sites in all of Orthodoxy. Is that monastery and the many other churches and shrines in Kiev now in danger? How can they not be? I doubt the Russian military would target these sites, but war is not a precision operation.

So we watch, we wait, and we pray. Ukrainian president Zelensky is saying this morning that the West is not doing enough to come to his country’s aid. If Zelensky ever thought that Western countries would militarily engage a nuclear-armed Russia over Ukraine, he was seriously deluded — but if we in the West encouraged him to think so, then shame on us.

How can you not be touched, and not admire, the suicidal defiance of the 13 Ukrainian soldiers who refused to surrender their post on Snake Island, and were killed by Russian fire?

These soldiers were victims of Vladimir Putin. However justifiable his security concerns were vis-à-vis Ukraine and NATO, Putin did not have to do any of this. His was a war of choice. I don’t suppose we will have any way of truly knowing what the Russian people think about this war, but you shouldn’t assume that everyone there is behind the Putin government. Russia is the only former Communist country where there is no contract to translate and publish my Live Not By Lies — a fact that I found strange, until I realized that in the book, there this passage from a 2019 interview I did with Father Kirill Kaleda, a Russian Orthodox priest:

Father Kirill was thirty-three years old when the Soviet Union fell. This man who grew up in the culture of official lies, and who has given his life to maintaining the historical memory of Bolshevik crimes, emphasizes that propaganda did not die with the USSR.

“Despite the fact that there’s so much information available, we see that so much propaganda is also available. Think of what’s happening now with Ukraine,” he says, referring to the armed conflict between Russian-backed separatists and the Kiev government.

“We have seen the way TV changed us Russians from thinking of them as our family to being our enemies,” he says. “The same methods from the communist era are being used. People today have a responsibility to search out more information than what they are offered on TV, and to know how to look critically on what they’re reading and seeing. That’s what is different now than before.”

His point was that the cultural memories Russians have of closeness with Ukrainians are being erased thanks to propaganda.

I’m thinking of Father Kirill today, and wondering about how many ordinary Russians have been taught by their state-controlled media to hate Ukrainians. Plus, one of my book’s heroes is the Soviet-era dissident Alexander Ogorodnikov, an Orthodox Christian who has made himself a thorn in Putin’s side. The KGB destroyed his marriage, murdered his brother, and killed his secretary. Yet in more recent times, Ogorodnikov has continued to protest corruption under Putin.

I recall from reading Dissident For Life, Koenraad de Wolf’s excellent biography of Ogorodnikov, that one of the things Ogorodnikov struggles against is the chronic impoverishment of Russian life, based in part on endemic corruption and the absence of civic consciousness and Christian values in public life. Putin promotes himself as a guardian of Christian culture, and in some ways he really is. But he is also presiding over a system that, according to Ogorodnikov, is far from Christian in its lack of respect for honesty, justice, and charity towards the weak. Putin’s laudable opposition to the gender ideology that has captivated the West cannot erase those deficits.

Just now I see this tweet:

If this is true, it is good news, and a way out of this crisis. It suggests that Russia wisely doesn’t want a brutal subjugation of Ukraine and years of low-level civil war, but only the neutrality between Russia and NATO that Putin has been demanding all along. Perhaps, then, further destruction can be avoided — the physical destruction of Ukraine, plus the deepening immiseration of Ukraine and Russia under sanctions brought about by Putin’s bellicosity. Finlandization — the rendering of Ukraine into a neutral state, without requiring it to be re-united to Russia — is probably the best Ukraine can hope for in the real world.

I urge you again to watch the 2015 John Mearsheimer lecture about Ukraine and its crisis. It is a bracing cold splash of realism. Prof. Mearsheimer argues that the West is responsible for all this, because the West’s goal has been “to make Ukraine a Western bulwark of Russia’s border.” Russia cannot accept this, says Mearsheimer (and I think you’d have to be bonkers to think that Russia could ever do this, any more than the United States could accept a heavily armed Russian or Chinese ally in Mexico). Mearsheimer also says that Russia would be crazy to try to conquer Ukraine in the same way that both the USSR and the US tried to conquer Afghanistan (it would “wreck Russia,” he says). Seems right to me … which this new report by Engel indicates.

Mearsheimer says in the prophetic lecture that in the same way that the US insists in the Monroe Doctrine that the Western hemisphere is our backyard, and no great power had better set up a base over here, this is how Russia sees things with Ukraine. If you think what Russia is doing is wrong, you had better apologize to the Cuban government for the Cuban missile crisis, and the Sandinistas for the contra war.

He also says that Washington (by which he means the US foreign policy and national security community) lives in a fantasy world in which old-fashioned balance of power thinking doesn’t matter. This is not the case with the Chinese and the Russians, and until we get that figured out, we’re going to keep getting ourselves into trouble. Plus, says Mearsheimer, our vision is clouded by the illusion that America is always a benign hegemon, and that our motives are always pure, our goals decent.

Mearsheimer goes on to say that we are nuts if we think that the Russians are going to quit on Ukraine if we just inflict enough pain on them. “Ukraine matters to them,” he says, “but Ukraine doesn’t matter to us.”

He’s talking about strategically. To bring Ukraine into NATO would mean granting them the protection of Article V of the NATO treaty, which obligates all members to respond when a single member is attacked. “You only give Article V guarantees to countries that are of vital strategic interest,” he says. Earlier in the lecture, he defined such countries as those where it is worth sending troops to fight and die to defend.

Is Ukraine such a place? To the Ukrainians, it certainly is. But to Americans? No, it is not, no more than Mexico is a country worth sacrificing Russian lives for.

In a part of the lecture that is painful to hear today, in light of what has happened, Mearsheimer warns that the West’s preoccupation with Ukraine — remember, he gave this talk in the wake of the Euromaidan, and the civil war in the Donbass — is blinding it to the very real threat from rising China. China, he says, poses a huge strategic challenge for the US; Russia does not. “We are going to have our hands full in Asia,” he says. “Europe is not going to matter.”

Mearsheimer then predicts that “the Russians will be with us” in lining up against China. “What we are effectively doing is driving the Russians into the arms of the Chinese. There’s a great strategy,” he said, with acid sarcasm.

Well, it has happened. From February 4:

Russia forged new long-term supply deals with China as the Kremlin aims to strengthen ties with the Asian nation amid souring relations with the West.

Energy giants Gazprom PJSC and Rosneft PJSC signed agreements with the world’s largest energy consumer as President Vladimir Putin met his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Beijing ahead of the Winter Olympics. The two leaders are drawing their nations closer together, united by political, military and economic frictions with Europe and the U.S.

“Friendship between the two states has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation,” the Kremlin said in a statement following the meeting.

In the lecture, Mearsheimer says that the best we can hope for is the neutralization (“Finlandization”) of Ukraine:

This, however, would be a disaster, because it would make NATO and Russian troops face off at the Dnieper River:

Mearsheimer cites these statements as the crux of the crisis:

It has been there since 2008! What happened this week in Ukraine was telegraphed by Putin back then — but we didn’t want to listen. This is why Mearsheimer says in his lecture that the West is “leading Ukraine down the primrose path, and it’s going to get wrecked.” That is, we were encouraging the Ukrainians to play hardball with the Russians, allowing them to think that eventually the West would defeat Putin and get its way.

Some of you are thinking, “Dreher started this post sympathetic to the Ukrainians, but then he pivoted and started restating Russian propaganda points.” Look, I am sympathetic to the Ukrainians. But sympathy doesn’t erase the hard reality of Ukraine’s unfortunate geography, or its historical, cultural, and religious relationship with Russia. Ukraine will never be part of NATO, because no Russian state could allow it. Unless we in the West are willing to go to war over this — and that would be suicidal madness — we are going to have to live with it.

I keep banging on about all this because in reading the US media this week, I’m seeing very little realistic thinking about any of this. Once again, it’s driven by emotion. I’ve said many times here how much I learned in retrospect by allowing my emotions and my idealism to lead me into the pro-war camp after 9/11. Back then, every time I heard someone say that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, or that we were not going to be able to bring liberal democracy to Iraq, I would turn off my mind by reminding myself of the 9/11 dead, and by telling myself that the critics were probably racists by saying (as I falsely construed it) that Arab Muslims were incapable of liberal democracy. Besides, I recall writing back then, even if it’s a roll of the dice regarding liberal democracy in Iraq, we need to try something to shake the region up, because what we’ve been doing isn’t working.

Look how that turned out for us.

All the “how dare you!” and “have you no decency?!” squawking I’m hearing now from idealists of the Left and Right regarding Russia and Ukraine were the same kinds of things we heard back in 2002, when people who advised against the Iraq War raised objections. So, y’all can be mad at me if you want, but I’m going to keep saying these things, even as I also say that Putin should not have invaded Ukraine (though pro-Russian voices can fairly say that, given the West’s refusal, even up to the point of the actual invasion, to give Russia veto power over Ukraine’s NATO bid backed Putin into a corner). We have lived for twenty years with the results of foolish wars and nation-building folly instigated by Washington, wars that have taken the lives of thousands of US service members, even after American generals concluded that they weren’t winnable (as in Afghanistan, years before withdrawal). Do you want to keep doing this? Do you want the Blob to continue to lead us into these deadly crises? Read this fresh piece by Jack Matlock, who was America’s last ambassador to the USSR (1987-91). He explains why this Ukraine war was entirely avoidable — and how we in the West, including every US administration since Clinton, provoked it.

And I’m also going to keep yelling about America’s deep internal divisions making it harder in the long run for the US to keep up its global status in the face of massive challenges from China (and now, from Russia). If you don’t believe that wokeness is a national security threat, you are in la-la land. Half of our young are being taught that America is a racist, sexist, transphobic hellhole whose historic culture is poisoned by “whiteness”; the other half, being demonized like this by the ruling class because of their race, religious convictions, and/or love of American and Western history, is perfectly entitled to wonder why it should risk its collective life to defend a social order that treats it as deplorable.

Here’s how pig-blind these elites are. At a time when they want the West to unite against Russian aggression, a group of elite neocons and neolibs, led by Anne Applebaum and others, are opening a front against Hungary’s government, which at this point is favored to win re-election in next month’s voting.  They declare that Hungary is the “next battleground state in the global fight to defend democracy.” They are driving Hungary towards Russia and China, but that’s okay, I guess, because like the elites who gigged Ukraine to nurture dreams of NATO membership, They Mean Well.

Anyway, if we ignore America’s internal weakness caused by the civil cold war elites are waging on the deplorables like we ignored Russia’s legitimate complaints about the West’s attempts to break Ukraine away from the Russian orbit and move it into the West’s, and we will be in for more shocks like occurred this week — but next time, they will occur with China. Mearsheimer, in that prophetic 2015 talk, said, “China is going to eat our lunch.” He was right about Ukraine then; will he be proved right about China tomorrow?

As I wrap up, the latest reports show that Russian troops have definitely entered Kiev. Let us pray that peace will soon return to that poor suffering land, cursed by being so close to Russia.

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