Pondering the Ukraine war endgame

I guess it’s good news that so many Americans now hate Vladimir Putin and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In a way, I’m surprised because about 30% of voters tend to vote Republican and whatever Dear Leader (Trump) says goes. Trump has never hid is fascist inclinations. Indeed, he sensed them in the party and brought them to life. Trump’s initial praise of Putin’s invasion though was quickly tempered when he discovered it wasn’t working with his base.

Granted, the Republican Party in mostly Southern states has certainly not given up its fascist tendencies. They’re taking a mile instead of an inch. In Missouri, it’s likely that it will soon be a crime for a woman to go out of state for an abortion, a law which I suspect violates the interstate commerce clause of our U.S. constitution and will probably get invalidated. In Florida, you can’t say gay or LGBTQ and keep your job, at least if you are a public school teacher. This also seems to violate basic civil liberties and probably won’t stand up in a federal court either. Meanwhile, in Texas, which is all about ensuring parental rights by making sure students can’t get banned books in its schools, is perfectly fine with taking away parental rights to make decisions about helping their transgender kids get the hormones and surgeries they need to thrive. It’s an anti-freedom agenda masquerading as a freedom agenda. These sorts of policies would feel very much at home in fascist Russia.

But there is something about waging an unprovoked war on a neighboring country has them siding with Democrats, for unknown reasons. Or maybe it is sort of known. Ukraine is overwhelmingly White. When they get to see it up close on the news, it’s not hard to picture that happening here. They don’t want that. It might interfere with their church services and affect the value of their stock portfolios.

So on this issue pretty much exclusively they are aligning with the civilized world and even (ick!) Democrats. You know they are serious when they are for banning oil from Russia, even though it would push up oil prices at home. Their campaign ads will say otherwise, but they can’t hide their votes in Congress.

In the ten days since I wrote about Ukraine, not a whole lot has changed. Certainly a lot more people are dead, the carnage is increasing and likely people are beginning to starve, on both sides. A massive Ukrainian nuclear power plant had a close call and hospitals and residences have been blown up, but Russia hasn’t really gained any ground since March 3. It occupies at best about ten percent of the country, it has few troops in reserve, and logistical difficulties make some sort of partial retreat, or at least troop consolidation, likely.

But Russia still has nukes, and Vladimir Putin has ordered his nuclear force on high alert and has made vague statements like he might start a nuclear war unilaterally. If he is determined to win in Ukraine, nukes would probably do it. There likely wouldn’t be many Ukrainians left afterward. But he’s already reviled across the world, so it’s not implausible that he might use them.

Ukrainians are calling for a no fly zone over their country, enforced by NATO. If I lived there I’d want one too. But it’s a really bad idea if you consider nuclear war worse than horrendous bloodshed in Ukraine. I am grateful we have a president that knows this and won’t put our armed forced into play in or over Ukraine. Had Trump won reelection, he’d probably have encouraged Putin to do his worst to the country.

No one wants to see this continue but it’s hard to see an endgame. That’s not to say the future is hard to predict. This is becoming Putin’s quagmire. There is no face saving way to get out of it and declare a partial victory. It’s unclear if he even understands that he is losing. He’s surrounded by people who have survived by honing their skills as yes men. By controlling the Internet and the press, most Russians don’t understand what’s really going on and are cheering him on.

With time though it will be impossible for them not to figure out that their Dear Leader made a huge mistake. Their currency is becoming worthless and getting goods and services from outside the country is becoming impossible. With time, things will just stop working for lack of parts and people who can fix them. Putin can’t hide the closures of so many western businesses in the country, particularly the local McDonalds. Its military is already bogged down and supplying it will become increasingly problematic. As body bags keep returning regularly, it will become difficult to hide the scope of his misadventure. Moreover, most Russians are used to the Internet and richer Russians used to foreign vacations. They will resent what they have lost.

That’s not to say Putin won’t retain power. He has a powerful police state and saying anything not the party line can get you fifteen years in prison. But his focus will inevitably turn inward. His failures could tip him into the selective use of nuclear weapons. He doesn’t appear to be one of these people that can accept defeat or accept compromises.

So for the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis there is a real possibility of the use of nuclear weapons. It may be the use of one tactical nuclear weapon, say a neutron bomb over Kyiv, or a bunch to quickly take control of major cities. Putin does not appear to be suicidal, which is what their use on the West would result in. But he’s a hard man to read other than he’s infinitely stubborn and unwilling to compromise, traits that unfortunately resemble the vast majority of Republicans in power too.

If we can keep Putin from using his nuclear weapons (a big if), it is likely that in a year or two this will resolve itself. Russia is likely to grind to a halt to be held together through intimidation and force of arms. While it may hold itself together, it will be a shell of its former self and increasingly unable to maintain even basic services. A new Russian revolution is certainly possible, but unlikely. Anarchy and large scale national dysfunction is the more likely result.

I don’t think socially-distanced Vladimir Putin will be alive in two years. I think it’s much more likely that someone close to him puts a bullet in his head first.

Trump’s nuclear no-no

Oy! It was another week of bellicose theatrics from our president. Trump, ever eager for more attention, went places that no recent president would have ever dreamed of going. As usual Trump picked the worst location to threaten nuclear war: the United Nations, an organization we helped create to promote peace and understanding and reduce the likelihood of war through the promotion of civil dialog.

Trump’s target this time was North Korea, which keeps lobbing missiles over Japan and recently concluded a likely hydrogen bomb test. Trump’s implicit threat to utterly destroy North Korea is today only possible using our nuclear arsenal. This means, if it’s true, that Trump is considering proactively using our nuclear weapons. He’s also assuming it can be done in a way that won’t send a nuclear warhead at us or our allies, a dubious assumption at best.

Trump isn’t the first president to threaten North Korea with nukes. President Eisenhower did too, mostly out of frustration because the interminable peace talks at the time were going nowhere. We were basically the only nuclear power at the time, with the USSR just getting into the game, so it was a viable threat. The threat didn’t bring peace in 1953, but it did lead to a cessation of hostilities, making the 38th parallel a neutral zone and an exchange of prisoners.

All these years later we are still grappling with a way to bring true peace to the Korean peninsula. Trump’s strategy seems to be to try Eisenhower’s strategy again, as if you can still scare the North Korean government into submission. All it has done so far is ratchet up the tensions and lead to ever more bizarre and bellicose statements from the “leaders” of both sides. With each exchange of insults, these “leaders” look more puerile. If only the United Nations could take them out of the sandbox and give them long timeouts instead.

As for utterly destroying North Korea, that’s exactly what our air force did during the Korean War with conventional weapons. It wasn’t enough. We had total dominion over the Korean skies. Toward the end of the war North Korea looked pretty much like Dresden after World War Two. The Chinese helped of course by supplying soldiers and material. As the Vietcong also learned, there are ways to move militaries without being seen. North Korean and Chinese soldiers were very fast with their feet and traveled mostly at night. So total destruction did not mean winning the war. Nuking North Korea would not end this war either. It would also not necessarily destroy North Korea’s nuclear program or its arms caches, which are likely well underground. It would likely kill tens of millions, including millions of South Koreans, and at best provide the illusion of peace. It would leave a generational memory that would resurface again and again.

Not content with chastising just North Korea, Trump excoriated Iran during his U.N. speech too. He called our nuclear deal with Iran the worst deal ever. Yet even his administration agrees that Iran has fully complied with the terms of the agreement. If the United States were to cancel the deal, the effect would likely be disastrous. Iran would be free to continue to develop its nuclear stockpile and work on nuclear weapons. It’s understandable that Republicans would be upset by what the deal doesn’t do. It doesn’t keep Iran from developing long-range missiles, but it wasn’t designed to be comprehensive. It was designed to keep a new nuclear power from forming in the worst possible part of the world. So far it’s succeeding in those goals. The Trump administration could open talks on these other issues, probably multilateral talks like the Obama Administration used. Or we can start a war with Iran instead. Which is likelier achieve our aims?

Like it or not, the United States can no longer use military power to achieve its aims, at least not with countries beyond a certain size. Most use of military power like this is counterproductive both in the short and the long term. The conflicts we are dealing with are much more complex than they used to be. Today they are less nationalistic than ideologically driven, and that includes here in the United States where a great conflict of ideology is underway. With Republicans in charge, the bias is toward using the military to achieve its goals, which means there is a bias not just toward war, but also toward creating wars.

Because Republicans respect force, they think it is the solution to all these problems. While certainly Democratic administrations have had similar proclivities (Kennedy and Johnson in particular, although they inherited the Vietnam War), it’s been mainly Republicans that have proctored our involvement in new wars. Eisenhower proctored proxy wars in Iran and Guatemala that were covertly run by the CIA. Our meddling in Iran eventually saw the eviction of the Shah and the creation of a deeply anti-American Islamic Republic there. In essence our involvement caused the animus Iran now has toward us. Reagan’s meddling in El Salvador led to civil war and right wing death squads that continue to this day. It certainly did not lead to stability in Central American. Nixon’s secret war in Cambodia and Laos exposed a larger war but also proved ineffectual. George W. Bush’s war in Iraq has proven to be disastrous and also based on lies. It led to among other things the creation of the Islamic State and the collapse of Syria.

Trump seems almost eager to continue this Republican losing streak, perhaps reigniting the Korean War as well as setting off a potential war with Iraq. It’s really about showing American potency and relevance. It’s effectively being the muscular guy on the beach and taunting guys coming by so you can kick sand in their faces.

Solving these problems is going to be very hard and requires new thinking. It will require a bias toward multilateral solutions and diplomacy rather than force, in short using bodies like the United Nations more rather than less. It will mean dialog and engagement, particularly with those we find most difficult to engage with. It will take time and trust and verification. It will mean we will have to make concessions to affect a greater deal.

It’s painfully clear none of this will happen until not just Trump is gone, but Republicans no longer control the White House.