‘On To Moscow!’ The NATO Leader Said
To bring you up to speed: I believe Russia's invasion of Ukraine was wrong. I believe Russia should get out of Ukraine. I believe that Ukraine surrendering the Russian-owned areas of Donbass and Crimea and accepting Finlandization in exchange for peace -- a peace that can somehow depend on far more than Russia's word -- would be an acceptable price to end this war. Of course this is unacceptable to the Ukrainians, who want the Russians off their land. But this is the real world. We have to deal in what is possible, not in what is ideal. The fact is, the longer this war goes on, the worse it is for Ukraine, and the greater the risk of a wider war. More on this in a moment.
But first, Twitter brought to my attention some extraordinary comments at the Munich Security Conference made by Kaja Kallas, the leader of Estonia. I've cued the video to the question she was asked in a panel discussion, and her answer: watch it here. In her answer, she calls not only for a postwar Nuremberg trial for Russian leaders (she was explicit about that at an earlier point in the discussion), but also here for a vast de-Putinification program in postwar Russia, to re-educate the Russian people about their nation's crimes. The only way we can have lasting peace, she says, is by re-educating the Russians and changing them.
This is insane. You know that, right? How the hell does one get into the position to behave that way? You have to utterly conquer a nation. Kaja Kallas is calling for total war on Russia. If that's not what she means, then what does she mean? Earlier in her panel comments (here, at the 45:00 mark), she dismissed fears of nuclear war with Russia by saying that "it just cannot be" that countries with nuclear weapons are "beyond the law." Just like that: it is intolerable that a country with nuclear weapons can do what it likes with impunity, therefore the West must behave as if Russia does not have the power to incinerate every Western city with the push of a button.
This too is insane. You know that, right? Of course states with nuclear weapons are beyond the law. It should not be, but it is. The United States, Britain, France, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, and any other nuclear states on earth, will never submit to total defeat and occupation, such that an occupying power can undertake to "re-educate" its citizens, precisely because these states have nuclear weapons, and would impose too great a cost on any would-be conquerors. Why do you think it mattered so much to the North Koreans to acquire nuclear weapons? They saw what happened to Libya and Iraq. You'd have to be a fool not to understand that this is the way the world works. If Hitler had had nukes, there would have been no Nuremberg trials, no de-Nazification campaign. There also would likely not have been a Europe.
What the Estonian prime minister is saying is incredibly dangerous. We all understand, or should understand, why peoples of the Baltic states fear and loathe the Russians. Still, imagine that you are a Russian, and you hear that the leader of a NATO member country is calling for the re-education of your country, according to Western standards. You will know that to accomplish this requires your country to be invaded, defeated, and occupied. What are you supposed to think? What Kallas said is a total gift to Putin and his propagandists. She makes it clear that the Russians really are fighting an existential war.
She is not entirely wrong, let's be clear. A few years back, a Ukrainian immigrant friend showed me a news report from Russian TV depicting, favorably, the raising of Stalin statues all over Russia again. He explained -- and a Russian friend confirmed this -- that the Putin government is resurrecting a cult of the worship of Russian power above anything else. This is how it intends to remain in power itself. I have no argument with Kallas's claim that Russia's internal propaganda can be a threat to the peace.
But again: what's the solution from the outside? We cannot accomplish what Kallas calls for absent total war -- a war that Russia would end with a nuclear barrage annihilating the West before it would surrender (we Americans would do the very same thing if similarly threatened, and don't you doubt it for a second). Kallas's remarks are unhinged -- and notice that nobody on her panel, or in the audience, forced her to face the implications of what she was saying. Where are our leaders taking us?
A side point, but related: Kallas doesn't seem to grasp that she represents an elite class that right this very second, in their own countries, are imposing their own ideologies on their peoples, and on other countries under its power. As you know, I live in Hungary, a European democracy that is despised by the Great and the Good in Europe because it has the nerve to believe its elected representatives should have more sovereignty over internal affairs than Brussels believes it does. The Hungarians do not want to live in a country in which children and minors are subject to media and classroom discussion causing them to question their sexual orientation or gender identity. Maybe the Hungarians are wrong about that -- I don't think they are, but let's say for the sake of argument that they are -- but I believe that they have a sovereign right to be wrong. If the Dutch want to follow a different model for educating their children, fine -- let the Dutch be Dutch, and Hungarians be Hungarian.
Yet that's not how the EU sees it -- and it's not how Washington sees things here in Hungary. It recently dispatched USAID Administrator Samantha Power to Budapest to spread encouragement, in whatever forms, to color revolutionaries in this country, under the guise of helping independent democratic institutions. It's a farce, really. I would like to know, from Kallas: will the Russian people truly be free, and will peace truly return to Europe, only when Russian school children are taught that Masha has two mommies?
I'm joking, but only slightly. Because if I were a Russian, even if I hated Putin and this war, I would not one bit be interested in having my country dominated by Western values. Comments like Kallas's only make the continuation of war more likely, because they make it plausible for Moscow to tell its own people that if Russia doesn't prevail in Ukraine, the West is going to come in and attempt to occupy their land, and their hearts and minds.
While we are on the subject, I want to commend to you this long interview with Stephen Kotkin, the distinguished historian of the Soviet Union, in which he discusses the Russia-Ukraine war and its prospects for ending. Kotkin is firmly on the side of Ukraine, but has some interesting observations. Excerpts:
Last year, you told me, at a very early stage of the war, that Ukraine was winning on Twitter but that Russia was winning on the battlefield. A lot has happened since then, but is that still the case?
Unfortunately. Let’s think of a house. Let’s say that you own a house and it has ten rooms. And let’s say that I barge in and take two of those rooms away, and I wreck those rooms. And, from those two rooms, I’m wrecking your other eight rooms and you’re trying to beat me back. You’re trying to evict me from the two rooms. You push out a little corner, you push out another corner, maybe. But I’m still there and I’m still wrecking. And the thing is, you need your house. That’s where you live. It’s your house and you don’t have another. Me, I’ve got another house, and my other house has a thousand rooms. And, so, if I wreck your house, are you winning or am I winning?
Unfortunately, that’s the situation we’re in. Ukraine has beaten back the Russian attempt to conquer their country. They have defended their capital. They’ve pushed the Russians out of some of the land that the Russians conquered since February 24, 2022. They’ve regained about half of it. And yet they need their house, and the Russians are wrecking it. Putin’s strategy could be described as “I can’t have it? Nobody can have it!” Sadly, that’s where the tragedy is right now.
I would point out that Hungarian PM Viktor Orban made essentially the same point three weeks ago, in an on the record session with journalists. When I reported it, it caused a diplomatic incident, with the Ukrainians summoning the Hungarian ambassador for a dressing down. But it was true when Orban said it, it was true when Kotkin said it, and it's true, period. The Russians can't conquer Ukraine, but they can, and they are, turning it into Afghanistan. More Kotkin, being realistic:
So here we are with Ukraine, and their definition of victory—as expressed by President Zelensky, who has certainly more than risen to the occasion—is to regain every inch of territory, reparations, and war-crimes tribunals. So how would Ukraine enact that definition of victory? They would have to take Moscow. How else can you get reparations and war-crime tribunals? They’re not that close to regaining every inch of their own territory, let alone the other aims.
If you look at the American definition of what the victory might look like, we’ve been very hesitant. The Biden Administration has been very careful to say, “Ukraine is fighting, Ukrainians are dying—they get to decide.” The Biden Administration has effectively defined victory from the American point of view as: Ukraine can’t lose this war. Russia can’t take all of Ukraine and occupy Ukraine, and disappear Ukraine as a state, as a nation.
But what would Biden—and U.S intelligence and the U.S. military—really like to see, in terms of a shift in attitude, if that’s the case?
We are slowly but surely increasing our support for Ukraine. First it was “Oh, no, we’re not sending that.” And then we send it. “Oh, no, we’re not sending himars,” the medium-range rocket systems. We sent them. “Oh, no, we’re not sending tanks.” Well, yes, we’re sending tanks. So there’s been a kind of grudging, gradual escalation because of the fear of what Putin could do on his side in an escalatory fashion. And so we’ve given enough so that Ukraine doesn’t lose, so that they can maybe push a little more on the battlefield, regain a little bit more territory, and be in a better place to negotiate.
Here’s the better definition of victory. Ukrainians rose up against their domestic tyrants. Why? Because they wanted to join Europe. It’s the same goal that they have now. And that has to be the definition of victory: Ukraine gets into the European Union. If Ukraine regains all of its territory and doesn’t get into the E.U., is that a victory? As opposed to: If Ukraine regains as much of its territory as it physically can on the battlefield, not all of it, potentially, but does get E.U. accession—would that be a definition of victory? Of course, it would be.
Says you, but would the Ukrainian leadership and the Ukrainian people accept a situation in which they’re in the E.U., but Donbas and Crimea remain in Russian hands?
Well, you accept it or you don’t accept it—meaning you continue to fight. And, if you continue to fight, your country, your people, continue to die, your infrastructure continues to get ruined. Your schools, your hospitals, your cultural artifacts get bombed or stolen. Your children get taken away as orphans. That’s where we are right now. I understand they want all of that territory back. But let’s imagine that they can’t take all the territory back on the battlefield. What then? We’re in a war of attrition right now, and in a war of attrition there’s only one way to win. You ramp up your production of weaponry, and you destroy the enemy’s production of weaponry—not the enemy’s weapons on the battlefield, but the enemy’s capability to resupply and produce more weapons. You have to out-produce in a war of attrition, and you have to crush the enemy’s production.
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More realism, about what Putin could do:
But he thought that he could take Kyiv, and arrest or kill Zelensky. That was the plan, that it would be a matter of days or weeks, tops. It hasn’t gone that way. On the use of nuclear weapons––it’s been made clear to him by representatives of Western governments and the United States precisely what kind of retaliation he could expect.
Yes, I think that’s a great policy. I’m very happy that that happened. But here’s the problem. He has the capabilities. He’s got a lot of capabilities short of nuclear weapons. He could poison the water supply in Kyiv with chemical and biological weapons. He could poison the water supply in London, and then he could deny that it’s his special operatives that are doing that. He could cut the undersea cables, so that we could not do this radio broadcast. He can blow up the infrastructure that carries gas or other energy supplies to Europe. He’s got submersibles, he’s got a submarine fleet, he’s got special ops who can go right down to the ocean floor where those pipelines are located.
What does restrain him?
We don’t know. You tell me. When someone has these capabilities, you have to pay attention. You can’t say, “Oh, you know, that would be crazy if he did that. That would be totally self-defeating. What idiot would do that?” And the answer is: O.K, but what if he does it?
We have to be concerned about escalation. I have been in favor of greater supply, more quickly, of more weapons to the Ukrainians from the beginning. But not because I’m blasé about the capabilities that Russia has.
Get Stephen Kotkin on the phone to Kaja Kallas, to talk to her about her "it cannot be"! The lives of hundreds of millions of people who think that this war has nothing to do with them are at stake. Anyway, read the entire Kotkin interview, in the New Yorker.