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Fulcrum, abyss, salvation
For eight years, Ukraine has been the West’s shield against Russian aggression. Now, it is the spear.
Five days ago, I would have said that Ukraine is where we must fight the war against Putin.
Five days later, I will say that Ukraine is where we can win the war against Putin — deal him a defeat that will not only be the beginning of his end, but show a future Russia that this pursuit of domination is not the way.
Ukraine is the fulcrum between the abyss and salvation.
* * * * *
Five days ago, we stood at the edge of the abyss. A war we said we knew would happen — a crushing escalation in the war of aggression waged by Vladimir Putin’s revanchist Russian regime against Ukraine — was about to begin. And it seemed possible the West was ready to be little more than observers to the slaughter.
We watched the build up in real-time via social media. Step by step, the US government ratcheted up its worst-case scenario assessments and dire warnings. US intelligence seemed to have near-total visibility on Russian planning and deployments, on orders being sent to commanders at the front, on the timeline of advance as heaps of Russian metal were piled up around the borders of Ukraine and men from across nine time zones meandered their way westward to the front.
But we watched, and warned, and stood by, trapped by a mindset of thinking nothing can be done to stop Putin. That he must win to back down. That there is sanctuary for Russia within which the West cannot reach. Believing, far too much, the smoke and mirrors that have been an integral component of the Kremlin’s pursuit of dominance and maintenance of great power gamesmanship. A mirage of power and fear that Putin uses to control his own population — and to manipulate us.
Yes, as tanks and armor took joyrides on the tens of thousands of miles of Russian railroads, sanctions were prepared, and withheld, and rehashed, and maybe-ed and maybe-not-ed. There was no real energy to think outside of the box on deterring or confronting Putin. Even the leader of the free world admitted that the sanctions were never going to stop Russia. We thought only to punish, maybe eventually halt — not really avert or shape outcomes. There seemed to be no stomach for taking any of the painful measures needed — severing the architecture of influence and infiltration that Russia had built across our economies and societies over three decades, or cutting off the flow of dirty easy money that corroded from within our clarity on what Russia was becoming. We had ignored the warnings of the Baltic states, whose history made them clear-eyed about the threat and diligent in preparation. We had no resolve to liberate ourselves from 15 years of failed thinking, or even to accept that it had failed. Instead, there were too many statements from the White House that amounted to: “Ukraine will fight alone.”
Ukraine will fall, oh well, is a hell of a signal to send to the Kremlin. A real sense of foreboding dominated all the networks of people with whom I have watched the Russian advance since the invasion of Georgia.
Five days ago, Ukraine became the fulcrum. The point where we could fail to show up for the battle for the future. Where the decline of Western values could be sealed, toppling over into an abyss we refused to see was before us. A failure to defend the free will and the lives of 40 million Europeans who — after a 20th century defined by untold suffering of famine and war and oppression — only wanted all the things we know we so take for granted: a future anchored in the values that are the foundation of our prosperity, democracy, and history — plus the security guarantee to match. The luxury not to think about existential survival every waking minute of your life.
Ukraine had fought and would fight for these things. Two recent revolutions to keep the course, eight years of war that Russia brought to them, 14,000 lives lost, hundreds of thousands trained and deployed to the frontlines of the war between the free world and autocracy, economic sacrifice to build that national defense in wartime, mobilization for service across countless civilian sectors as well, and a volunteer network surrounding it all. An understanding of what everyone’s role was if Ukraine needed to become a weapon. If it had no other choice than that.
For eight years, Ukraine fought to defend the borders of Europe. They understood that this war was about Putin trying to put us in our place, and they understood that we mostly didn’t accept that to be the case. They fought, and they honed, and they waited.
Five days ago, Russia started a war in Ukraine that is meant to end the war Putin has been fighting against the West since at least 2007.
For eight years, Ukraine had been the West’s shield against Russian aggression. Now, it has become the spear.
And we must do what they have asked us to do all this time: arm them and let them fight. Arm them, and let them fight unencumbered by the failure of imagination and creativity and clarity against the Kremlin opponent that has kept us ensnared. Arm them to strike a blow at an enemy that has forgotten what it means to be mortal. Arm them — and decide what it really means to stand with Ukraine.
The first days of the war: winning the West
In the first 36 hours of the war, Russia had a plan — make it look like the war was everywhere at once; conduct operations to amplify a perception of total dominance; suppress the Ukrainian military’s will to fight by making it seem there was no hope; elicit panic in the civilian population so they would flee and become a hindrance to Ukrainian operations, instead of a gathering asset of resistance; get to the capital — and one basic objective: decapitate (topple, capture, force to flee, whatever) the government in the first day or so, so the war would be done before they had to take and hold any real territory. Achieve information dominance through the conduct of military operations to establish the conditions for the rest. This tracks with Russian military doctrine — that you should try to achieve the objective before all the rest.
But in the first 36 hours of the war, Ukraine understood that what they would face, more than anything, was this old Russian smoke and mirrors machine. They understood that they had to establish the conditions to shake Russian certainty. But most important of all, they understood that they had to shake Western certainty of Putin’s uncontainable might, and show the West Ukraine was a bet worth backing. Ukraine had to show us they would not crumple as predicted by the direst defeat projections; win Western hearts and minds; create pressure on Western governments to finally, finally act — and not just observe.
And Ukraine absolutely crushed the information domain.
Not used to having an active offensive information opponent, Russian attempts to create panic, make big bangs, show steady Ukrainian defeat, and have us tell that story on their behalf were utterly overwhelmed by Ukrainian mythmaking. We saw bravery, we saw heroes, we saw resolve, we saw determination — but more importantly we saw skill, and creativity, and mass mobilization, and an indomitable will to fight in the population, both military and civilian.
First, there was a swell of admiration and support online, and later in the streets of Western capitals — a near-cacophony on social media of “go f*ck yourself Russian warship,” grannies telling Russian conscripts to go home, women making Molotov cocktails, men barely old enough to deserve the label and men far older than the mandatory mobilization age alike lining up to get guns, the young president’s latest display of resolve. There was nothing murky or unclear about what had caused this war and who the villain was. Normal people watched it live, and they were rooting for the underdog.
This success in the information war created untold pressure on back-footed Western governments to actually do something — fast. Before the foretold slaughter. This completely changed the momentum of the war. It completely changed Western imagination. The entire nation of Ukraine was fighting to repel invasion. Finally, finally, the reality of attempting to meet Russian hard power with moderate and scalable economic retaliation alone was revealed as pretty darn hollow. Far stiffer sanctions, cutoffs, and embargoes began to come together. But so too did the sense that this was not enough.
Then came the information that the Ukrainians weren’t losing tactical engagements with the enemy. Cities didn’t fall or go over to the side of the invader. Planes and drones were still in the air. Casualty numbers were low. Russian attempts to take many strategic targets foundered. Ukrainians were waiting where Russians arrived. They fought like hell to repel attack or take back territory. They picked off armor and vehicles where they could. There was no panic anywhere — only a population galvanized by rage and fear into a resilient line across their territory. Planes came down. Prisoners were taken. It wasn’t all roses, but Russia was losing men and equipment and didn’t seem to understand why. You could almost hear the head-scratching of the far-away doom predictors in Moscow and the West alike.
This early military success — and essentially, just not collapsing — swung the most critical decision in favor of the Ukrainians. We would arm them because there would be an army left to arm.
We pushed forward stored munitions because we were now certain that there would be a Ukrainian fighting force left to receive it, a Ukraine resistance eager to absorb it. New commitments of resupply proceeded rapidly, with every single NATO member plus Sweden and Finland sending forward elements of their own arsenals and supplies. The pipeline was opened, and a mountain of steel headed for Ukraine.
Another night survived, another dawn came, and Ukraine was bleeding the enemy everywhere. On that second crucial night, Ukraine kept an airfield near Kyiv from Russian control. Russian forces couldn’t land the troops apparently intended to force the government out quickly. Now they would have to drive them in from Belarus. Drive them in through territory where the Ukrainians were prepared to fight them.
That pretty much ended the plan for a quick war with rapid national surrender/greeting of the “liberators,” then easy clean up across the rest of Ukraine. Now, the only choice was the hard, bloody war. But, the way they were doing this was dividing their forces and making them easier to pick off or simply block. Informal civilian resistance was getting in on the game. Supply lines never materialized. Fuel ran dry. The war was bloody, but for the Russians.
Ukrainians made memes in exactly the right spirit — a light joke to keep morale up in a time of war, and an effort to show Russian soldiers that nobody wanted to fight them if they would just turn around and go home, or surrender.
The next few days of war: cracking the Russian facade
Two more days. Ukraine was still fighting. Ukrainians were cool and resolved. By now, NordStream two was dead, and the EU had come together on direct sanctions for Putin and his top aides — dragging the Americans along behind them. You can be sure this was noted with alarm by Russian leaders who expected the Europeans to be the ones dithering. Slowly everyone came around on stiffer financial sanctions that it had been assumed would be impossible to attain. Acts to isolate Russia, both symbolic and real, were being taken — by the arts, by industry, by nations, by individuals.
The messier fight for Kyiv was beginning. Putin dialed in from a bunker somewhere to attempt to break this upswell of support for Ukraine with the usual nuclear threats. The Ukrainian President was now a mythic hero. Germany — Germany!! — raised its defense spending to meet its NATO commitments, noting that it was a new day in Europe. For the first time in history, the EU agreed to finance and deliver weapons to a nation under attack. The EU would also send some Soviet/Russian fighter jets left in NATO member rotations to Ukraine to replace lost assets. The Ukrainians had shown that they could meet Russians in a dogfight and come out ok.
Meanwhile, Russia seemed to be falling apart. Videos of captured Russian conscripts showed that many had had no idea they would actually be sent to fight. They thought it was just the exercise. Calls home to families were met with shock — what are you doing in Ukraine?Demonstrations against the war began across Russia, and so did the arrests. Parts of the internet were blocked as the government tried to keep the people from seeing what was happening. Now, the Kremlin had to fight the Ukrainian people — and their own.
While it’s likely that Ukraine’s published killed-captured-destroyed numbers are at least somewhat inflated as they are quickly assembled from battlefield reports — they are high. Thousands of Russian families just lost a son in an invasion their news isn’t talking about, and the government hasn’t admitted they are dead, and they don’t want to bring the bodies home.
The situation is still dire for Ukraine; Russia has more assets, especially in the air, to bring to the fight if they go the route of Grozny and Aleppo instead of “the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians.”
But it was clear Ukraine had a solid, clear-eyed, exercised plan of defense that was buying time to build the alliances they would need to survive. And the Russians seemed to be living inside their own smoke and mirrors.
Where we are now, on (only) day 5
I will try not to underestimate what Ukraine is still facing, or over-believe my own mythmaking. I will also try not to under-value the many resources the Russians can still commit to the fight, or over-inflate the significance of Russian domestic protest vis a vis Russian decision making.
But something significant is going on. And everyone is trying to suss out what this is.
I can’t say with certainty what this all is. But, I have a guess at a piece of it.
Most of the general speculation is still centered completely on Moscow — well, really on Putin. Is Putin mad. Is he unwell. Is he isolated. Does he not know. Does he mean it when he threatens nukes. Will they do something catastrophic to turn the momentum back to their favor. Is he firing his generals. Do they even realize that, one way or another, Ukraine will never be winnable for them.
Honestly, who knows. An internet rumor started by an account with 27 followers is almost as likely to be true as thoughtful analysis. As always, we’re trying to make sense of the smoke and mirrors instead of what is right in front of us.
And what is in front of us is that Ukraine has conceptualized how to defeat Russia, and begun to execute a military strategy to bring that to fruition.
To us, this looks bananas. How on earth can they think they can stand against one of the biggest militaries in the world?
Well, because they can. And they have. It is often overlooked how significant it is that Ukraine has not lost their 8 year war to the mutant Russian forces in eastern Ukraine. In fact, that whole situation didn’t really go to the way the Kremlin probably wanted. Donbas did not become another sapping frozen conflict that drags down a country and pulls it off course like Transnistria in Moldova, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. Ukraine had continued to strengthen its defensive capabilities, its democracy, its prospects. They took casualties, but they built readiness and experience. Sure, nothing happened in Kyiv as fast as reform advocates would have liked. But Ukraine was moving ahead. This as much as anything is why Putin probably wanted to change the course of the war during a moment when he assumed the West was still fragmented and consumed by its own domestic disputes.
The Ukrainian strategy is based entirely on risk, entirely absent caution. It’s all-in from day one, leaving nothing on the shelf — because the shelf won’t be yours tomorrow if you do. They did not plan just to make it all hurt less. They planned how to use their economy of resources against a stronger adversary. You know, essentially the core of Russian military doctrine as it has reformed after the Georgian war. Only, to use against them.
No one could figure out why the Ukrainians were so blasé about the apocalyptic predictions from the White House. But they likely knew — from first-hand experience, intensive observation of Russian hybrid and kinetic methods, planning and war-gaming with the smartest minds they could find — that the Russian forces were more hat than cattle. It has become sort of common to hear people describe Ukraine as “the testing ground” for Russian warfare, that Ukrainians were the laboratory for how to respond. But it seems we underestimated how significant this was. And so the Ukrainians seem to have planned how to make themselves a weapon the anticipated Russian war machine was ill-prepared to fight. They had experienced the “Russian way of war,” and they had actually thought about how to defeat it.
From hour one, Ukraine was using its conventional army to fight what was largely a dispersed guerrilla war. There were few amassed forces to strike. Russia tried to make it look like the war was everywhere — but everywhere they went, there were Ukrainians waiting. Unlike some western counterparts, the Ukrainians saw all the advance intelligence of Russian planning not as a recipe of certain defeat, but as the knowledge needed to hone a war plan.
It would always have been a balls-out crazy gamble. But they had already decided that there was fundamentally no choice to retain their freedom if Russia brought more war. What was usually assumed to be a kind of irritating and fatalistic bravado from Ukrainian strategists — well, they had cattle for their hat.
The core risk they took was an assessment that Russia now lives so far inside its own smoke and mirrors, they couldn’t see that they were buying their own bullshit and that Ukraine was not going to fold the second Russian forces came over the wall. The secondary risk was committing absolutely everything they have — every plane, every drone, every boat, every vehicle, every soldier, every reservist — to exposing the Russian straw man, and winning support from NATO and other European nations. The mandatory mobilization of every man who could fight — and the many women that have joined them — and the calm manner in which the new recruits arrived for service, showed how far they would go, and asked the question of us: every Ukrainian will give everything for our common values — what will you give?
Finally, finally, an answer came. More is coming. More steel, more intelligence, more aid. The Ukrainians are willing to be the army that Putin breaks himself on. If we don’t help fight Putin here, if we don’t help beat Putin here — then where? We must let them take that risk, and give them absolutely everything we can to ensure they don’t lose.
What now: seize the opportunity
Putin pre-taped his declarations of war and kept them in a can, not even bothering to change his clothes or move to a different desk as he feigned giving a sh*t about all the Russians he is sending into the meat grinder to sate his revanchist rage against an imagined Western enemy that has never been more than a hazy reflection of his own weakness and failure and disruption.
Putin fights an enemy that is not real. He has built a machine of assassination and torture and torment and fear to ensnare us in defeatism.
Now, momentum has shifted. Ukraine has shown us what is possible. Ukraine has shaken up our stale thinking and conceptions. Ukraine has inspired us to fight for what we believe ourselves to be. That we must fight for these things because Putin will not stop coming for them if he is not dealt a defeat. Ukraine has shown us that that fight is in Ukraine.
A week ago there was a lot of talk about how Ukraine would never be in NATO anyway, and of other forms of surrender that Ukraine should consider to avoid an “unwinnable” fight.
Now, momentum has shifted. NATO would be damn lucky to have such a capable ally.
A week ago, a unified Europe (yes, including the fractious UK) with moxie and certainty seemed impossible to achieve. The Americans seemed to be out in the front, prodding everyone else along.
Now, momentum has shifted. Europe is forging into the fray. Europe is back. Ukraine has cemented a place in it. American leadership is a beat behind. But everyone is hoping it will catch up.
The simple truth is, we cannot lose momentum. We must all stand together. All can still be lost. And while the price of that would most immediately be seen in Ukrainian blood, we now know that would never be the end of it. This has to be where we stand against Putin, and turn him back.
So what do we do?
We all need to think like the Ukrainians, and stop leaving stuff on the shelf. Ukraine has given us opportunity and momentum; we must use it.
What we do now is to preserve our future, save Ukraine, and save Ukrainian lives. But it is also to save Russian lives. And that should be a consideration in what we bring to bear to defeat Putin if he will not withdraw.
If Russia does not withdraw its troops and lay down arms, we must be ready for a further round of crushing economic measures and expanding Russian isolation.
If Putin considers the Grozny option — leveling cities to crush resistance — we must be prepared to enforce a no-fly zone and provide air defense.
In the meantime, we have to keep the pipeline into Ukraine open for resupply, and shove everything into it. This alone is an operational advantage against what Russia has now.
We need to listen to the Ukrainians when they tell us what they need. We need to help them with targeting intelligence.
We need to consider how our own combined assets of unconventional warfare may help train, equip, and support the Ukrainians through the fight. In a creative, break-the-boundaries way. We have a whole special forces group that has been training to support partisan warfare against the Russians behind enemy lines since its inception. Let them.
Continue the mobilization of assets in the cyber and information domains. Keep the Russians busy where we know that they might strike. Think about how to help Russians see the truth of the war, and continue on the offensive.
We need to continue the work to bolster NATO’s eastern front, and to make it clear that Putin won’t have free reign any longer to try to divide us and pick us off one by one. Ensure the new resolve becomes permanent.
Finally, Europe has already made important decisions to welcome Ukrainians who had to flee the war for an extended period, and to allow them to work and study without onerous approvals. There must be a unified effort to share costs related to resettlement. If we anticipate further refugee outflows or an increasingly dire humanitarian situation in Ukraine, we must prepare for this, and recruit Ukrainians to the forefront of these assistance efforts.
Overall, we must look to end this war by defeating Russia — however we decide to define that — so we never have to do it again.
One of the core foundational anecdotes of the mythology of Vladimir Putin is the story of his time in Dresden, in the unrest before the Berlin Wall came down. The KGB headquarters was swarmed by demonstrators, and Putin called for reinforcements. “We cannot do anything without orders from Moscow,” the reply came. “And Moscow is silent.”
For Putin, this was a sign that it all would come to an end. The unforgivable sin was that Moscow was silent in any crisis. The centralized power he has forged in Russia since his rise to the presidency was to address the specter of losing control.
And yet, in this moment of crisis, it was Volodymyr Zelensky who called Moscow, and Vladimir Putin who was silent on the line.
Let this poetic bookend be the beginning of the end for Putin. Let us have the will to be done with his terror. Let us have the resolve to do what is needed to win this war we never wanted, and move on through this century with democracies on the ascendant, and with autocrats uncertain of survival.
Ukraine is the fulcrum. Don’t choose the abyss.