There is no way back. [Part 1]
If we want the war to stay in Ukraine, we have to win it in Ukraine.
This is part 1 of a three-part series on changing our approach to the war in Ukraine.
Part 1 argues that there is no way to return to “normal” with Putin, and looks at how and why we must change our thinking on the risk/opportunity calculus we are getting so wrong.
Part 2 looks at the considerable opportunity that Ukraine is forging for us — at the different, better future we might have if we are brave enough to take it.
Part 3 will look at what can be done in short order to help Ukraine win.
There is no way back. [Part 1]
If we want the war to stay in Ukraine, we have to win it in Ukraine.
This week — as Putin’s war in Ukraine moved toward a third week; as Russian forces in Ukraine switched to pummeling civilian areas with air strikes and heavy artillery because Putin has never paid a price for violating the rules of war; as Putin’s strategy of trying to force Ukraine to submit via organized terror advanced; as Putin reminded us that his intention is to erase Ukraine entirely — there was still this pretty typical wrong-thinking discussion of what must be done by the West. About how we must “give Putin a win” so he will relent, about how Putin “the trapped rat” must be left with “some way out.”
As Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said the war in Ukraine will continue “until the end;” as French President Macron, after a conversation where Putin said he will “demilitarize” all of Ukraine by force, warned “the worst is yet to come;” as Ukrainian President Zelensky warned, “they all have orders to erase our history, erase our country, erase us all;” as Putin once again made a range of threats against Sweden, Finland, and the Baltic states — it was clear that far, far too many people are still locked in thinking that there must be a way back to when there wouldn’t be perpetual hot conflict with Putin’s Russia.
So let me just be clear here.
There is no way back now. Not with Putin. Not for Putin.
There is no way back.
No way back to the usual look-away stalemate with Putin, where excuses remain to blame the targets of his revanchism instead of him — instead of the spaces we leave open for him to walk into. No way back to pretending we don’t incentivize the breaking of the rules that we insist must be the basis for our own “restraint.” No way back to pretending this doesn’t have a bodycount attached.
No way back to believing there isn’t a “next” on the list as the Kremlin continues to search for the line where we will stop them. No way back to pretending our mindset on Russia is achieving the objectives we need.
No way back to when to when four generations of Ukrainians had not had to rise up to fight for their lives and every inch of their land — fearless, peerless, tireless, and full of spirit — while hoping every day that help would come, help would come.
No way back to when Europe had not been fundamentally reordered by this Ukrainian bravery, some ways of which are obvious, and some which we are just beginning to glimpse. To when America didn’t feel another step more remote across the ocean.
No way back to before this inflection point, this fulcrum — the onward outcomes of which we are still trying to shape with inadequate imagination. There is no way back to believing our unchanged mindset on Russia is giving us any advantage in how events unfold.
No way back to knowing that everything that comes next wasn’t paid for with Ukrainian blood.
* * * * *
Those who project Ukraine’s fall as a forgone conclusion — as the inevitable conclusion, they say, that would always have been once Putin set himself on this course — I think they still imagine there is a return to what was before, once Ukraine is done dying — as long as we don’t interfere in the process too much. That somehow, this is the wisest course given how things are supposed to work.
But there is no “just let him have Ukraine.”
It’s easy to listen to euphemisms like “Putin is trying to destroy Ukrainian democracy,” and quite another to understand this means destroying Ukraine and killing as many Ukrainians as needed to get them to submit. Now, we have the visuals to match his words.
If our policy is to stay in our safe warm house and watch this slaughter through the window, toasting our newfound unity — then we have already accepted that it is Putin who defines us, not ourselves. We have already accepted the parameters of defeat.
Ukrainians are stopping tanks with their bodies and their hands, overwhelming potential occupiers with just the sheer presence of their numbers and “go f*ck yourself” attitude, while we are concerned about the legalese of transferring fighter jets to Ukraine, fighter jets that would mean less Ukrainians die. These paper shields will not protect us from the mortal moral wounds we will be dealt for having failed to act.
As for “once the dying is done” — after the wartime slaughter will be the “peacetime” slaughter. Those kill lists, the purge lists that we know the Russians have made because we leaked that we have them. Are we prepared not to do anything about that too? When the Maidan activists that we have feted in our capitals are rounded up and disappeared — will there also be nothing we can do?
The trap of doing nothing requires constant renewal — each day, you must renew your vow to inaction, move further away from what was right and find yourself defending more ardently what you know to be wrong.
The Cold Warriors call this “restraint.” I just think it is a total lack of imagination.
I know many people disagree with me. But to some extent, we are all trying to use the evidence of absence to make our case.
For the last 15 years, the United States has gotten the calculus of Russia wrong. The Cold War restraint model doesn’t work against the thoroughly unconventional opponent we face. Policymakers and decision-makers admit this when discussing the moments when Putin has tested us since 2007. In hindsight, they all say, we never did enough. But there has been a low cost to us for continuing on without reevaluation, because mostly, we aren’t the ones to pay the price for those errors.
Now, the restrainers say Ukraine will die no matter what. That if we act, they say, Ukraine will probably die faster. This is back to the tired of framing of “anything you do to stop Putin makes it worse.” This is a trap that I — and the people I have worked with and learned from — have never had the luxury of believing. It may make total sense from the distant theoretical world of what to do about Russia. It makes so sense at all in any of the frontline states.
My experience in the past 14 years, working in countries under various forms of attack from Russia and studying Russian actions in Syria and elsewhere, is exactly the opposite of “doing anything makes it worse.” It is not escalation that invites poor judgement or expands the potential for miscalculation/disaster by the supposedly cornered rat of Putin, but the empty space we leave before the Russians, into which they feel free to strike, when the worst moments of catastrophe come. The danger is not in action from us, action that comes with clear purpose or clearly articulated purpose, but in failing to act and leaving Putin to believe a greater risk taken by him yields greater rewards — and thus is worth taking.
The very best example of this is Ukraine. Our doomsaying on what would happen when the Russian war machine — rebooted by the Georgian war, retrained in the trenches of eastern Ukraine and the skies and dust of Syria and on all the seas between — invaded Ukraine shredded itself upon impact because Ukrainians actually fought full-on from that first minute. Russian forces met a hard surface, and the whole illusion started to come apart. Resistance was not futile. Fighting for every inch mattered. Not just to show us what could be done, but to keep the Russians from easily reaching their objectives, and to create opportunities for strategic victory.
Perhaps reorienting toward understanding outcomes and opportunity will help us escape from the endlessly circular thinking of “not giving Putin what he wants.” What Putin wants is a war with NATO, say the restrainers, so we can’t do anything because it would give him that war. Conversely, though, Putin also wants NATO to look weak and feckless, so in not standing up to him, we also give him what he wants. All of this is nonsense because it is focused only on Putin, and not on our own concept of how to shape outcomes or even articulate a strategy for victory of our own.
I say if we act, we can help deal Putin a strategic defeat in Ukraine. The form that takes is largely dependent on the Ukrainians and the tools we can get into their hands in time. I say that we have never had a similar opportunity to do so, and that we should respect the choice of the Ukrainians to take it.
Or do you imagine that we will ever have a better chance to defeat Putin than with an army of 10 million Ukrainians willing to pay the butcher’s bill on our behalf?
* * * * *
The White House and its amplifiers continue to frame everything in the context of avoiding any direct confrontation of Putin in a battle space. It’s the imagined escalation of direct confrontation —> war between the US and Russia —> WWIII —> inevitable nuclear confrontation. Putin knows this, and mentions nukes at least twice a week to keep everyone in their assigned boxes.
We think only of limited war while he operates without restraint. We give him total sanctuary while we have none. He assumes the honor on which our alliance depends is actually a weakness — and sometimes, we allow him to make it so.
In an analysis presented to a Lithuanian defense forum in 2019, Lukas Milevski (of Leiden University) discussed how the defense of the Baltic states from a Russian attack would be a war of honor for NATO — of whether we would live up to our alliance commitments to defend Baltic freedom and sovereignty. What would a success be, in this situation, for the Russians? That there would be no military pressure on Russia; that they could choose how and where to attack; that NATO is on defense only; that we allow it to becomes a conflict of endurance and a test of whether Russian political will or Western honor give out first.
This has been much on my mind as we see what plays out in Ukraine. Yes, I understand the hard line the White House keeps repeating is that Ukraine is not NATO and thus we have no alliance pledge to defend them — but nonetheless, this has rapidly come to resemble the Baltic defense scenario, and has rapidly become a test of Russian political will versus the value of our honor.
We can lock ourselves in whatever box of our own devising. Putin has already said what we are doing makes us a participant to the conflict if he chooses to view us that way. But he hasn’t acted. Because he has absolutely no interest at all in running his straw man army into a buzzsaw of American steel. This was a dynamic we saw consistently in Syria — Russian forces and mercenaries went out of their way to avoid US forces (beyond showy airmanship and other silly displays), because when fighting broke out between then, it ended very badly for the Russians. There was no World War III.
We can end this nightmare of giving things to Putin by understanding: If we truly want the war to stay in Ukraine, we have to win it in Ukraine. Stop not just his invasion of Ukraine, but the bigger war against all the rest of us, too.
* * * * *
If we want the war with Putin to end, we must see why the Ukrainians have defied all expectations — as a government, as an army, as a nation, as a people — and learn to think as they do. We must learn to see not only the risk, but the opportunities that are born from taking those risks that would otherwise not have existed.
A good example of escaping the cage of risk-focused thinking: when US intelligence saw that killing Zelensky or forcing him out would be a core goal of the Russian invasion, we told him to leave. Leave before the war, leave once the war had started, leave, just leave. So de facto, our advice to Zelensky was: “The Russians want you gone, we think you should leave.” Speaking of giving the Russians what they want. Zelensky has clearly said no.
Now, I doubt those offering this advice did so to deliver a core strategic objective to the Kremlin by getting Zelensky to leave. By our logic, it was to preserve his life, to preserve command and control during the war, to preserve statehood continuity when Ukraine was overcome. WHEN, of course, Ukraine fell. This was the wisest (meaning most risk-averse) recommendation we could provide.
Zelensky rejected that the end of Ukraine was the only outcome. By staying, he rallied his nation to fight for its survival. By staying, he created potential outcomes, possibilities, that did not exist before. By staying, he showed that there were rewards that overcame by far the risks that were the only thing we could see. By staying, he showed why it matters to stand up to Putin. Ukraine survived the first days, the pipeline opened, and lethal aid began to arrive. Their epitaph was retracted, they got more time, survived more days, opened more possibilities. Russia is taking losses — no, not enough, not yet, but more than they would have. We see now the Russian war machine is hollow, and that their war planning is founded on delusion. Again, this creates more opportunity. They are second guessing themselves in the face of Ukrainian resolve.
The whole time, Ukrainian strategic decision-making was actually about looking for victory — which technically is what strategy is for; strategy is a theory of success in war — and about creating opportunity for something other than just dying quietly in the mud and the rubble. This has given them an incalculable advantage over Russia. And honestly, over us. We haven’t quite caught up yet. [What this full opportunity looks like, I will examine in Part 2]
* * * * *
“Putin wants chaos” has been a theme of our assessments the past 5 years — but often presented decoupled from the second aspect of that, which is the belief that chaos is an environment in which Russia has advantage because they are willing to take risks and absorb failures, and, if they stay focused on core strategic objectives, they can move through the chaos better and more ably than their opponents.
The Ukrainians have honed this practice and applied it with far greater clarity of purpose.
And we have a glimpse of the cornered rat not as the rat about to launch a nuclear weapon at us, but a rat looking for hole to escape through.
* * * * *
There have been so many lies from Putin these last months — many of which the White House has been quick to expose and neuter.
But greatest lie Putin has ever sold us — ensnared us with — is the idea that our hands are tied against him. That there is nothing to be done. That he must win to abandon the infliction of more violence, more terror, more pain — even though allowing him to do so entails violence and terror and pain. That he is more dangerous when confronted than when he is allowed to nibble away at us from the shadows.
The risk this White House sees is that “confronting Putin means war with Russia,” and they frame everything through this lens of risk without seeing any opportunity.
Russia articulates quite clearly that they are at war with us already, and they have been for some time. Their primary interest — and why they have resorted to so many grey and below-threshold methods of attack in between whatever kinetic wars they think they can get away with — is that we never feel sufficient activation energy to fight them. A component of this has been constructing the trap of believing that there is nothing to be done. That inaction is wisdom.
It is not. It is the trap. As Zelensky terms it — self-hypnosis. There are miles of things to do between direct US confrontation of Russia and where we are now [this will be discussed in part 3]. If there is too much risk in a no fly zone, don’t just say no, imagine alternatives. Instead this job is left to the Ukrainians and their loose network of individual allies. The White House is now being dragged along by the Ukrainians, by some of our European allies, by the new zingier Europe — but too slowly, too slowly. This course creates more danger for what Russia might do, not less.
The White House chooses to focus on — and focus us on — the risk of nuclear conflict. This is choosing to evade the bogeyman instead of fight the guy with the knife right in front of you.
There is other risk they are choosing not to see.
They are choosing not to see the risk of failing to show up in full measure to support the right side in a just war.
They are choosing not to see the risk that we face when Europe has leapt ahead, and they view us as trailing behind and holding them back from averting atrocity. When the Europeans want more sanctions, and we urge caution — and now industry — industry!! — is self-sanctioning and clearing out of Dodge because of the reputational risk of remaining a beneficiary of Russia — well, it’s not hard to see who will be blamed.
They are choosing not to see the risk of the potential fissures emerging within the Alliance between those states stepping up and being creative to get defensive aid to Ukraine, and those who are hanging back. And what that might morph into in the future.
They are choosing not to see the risk of Ukraine falling, and the butterfly effect it will have across absolutely everything.
They are choosing not to see the risk of Ukraine surviving in defiance of us as well as Putin, if we stand aside — the risk of this victory for everything the Kremlin has always argued us to be.
They do not see the risk of missing this moment for a different future with Russia. Right now, we know ?
it only gets worse.
They are choosing not to see the risk and fragility of the future where we stood aside. Where we have done nothing, did nothing, as Putin erased Ukraine from the map. Where no rules are left, and all the nice cool logic of restraint meant absolutely nothing in the end, because Putin was willing to do whatever is necessary to end Ukraine, and we were still operating from a mindset of thinking this somehow made sense?
We didn’t start the war. But it was always about us. The collective us of free nations of which Ukraine is now firmly a part, and a leader. About the imaginary enemy that we are for Putin. About putting us in our place. About refreshing our belief that we can do nothing against him.
We didn’t start the war. But Russia is at war with us already.
And we have to end it. We can end it in Ukraine. We can end it for Ukraine. We can end it with Ukraine.
* * * * *
In an online discussion this week, historian Timothy Snyder described the opportunity Ukraine is giving us this way (greatly condensed here for space considerations, but I encourage you to listen to the whole discussion yourself):
I have this feeling that every day that Ukrainians resist is giving us another year or another decade of the kind of life we are used to having. Every day that they fight magnifies outwards and gives us a chance to reflect and affirm and to act on our own.
Freedom is all about…becoming a personal force yourself… History is also made by us… Freedom is a value…and it has to be affirmed, sometimes with risk taking, by us. We must resist notions of fate.
Ukrainians have been helping us to imagine how things could be different… If there is going to be a positive outcome, that positive outcome will have to do with Ukrainians helping us to think out our way into multiple better futures.
There is no way back. But imagine the world if we save Ukraine. Imagine the century that we might have then.
Part 2 looks at the multiple, better futures that Ukrainian bravery and sacrifice are making possible for us.
Great piece! I respect the realists, but they are wrong and kind of smug about it.
This is excellent: “Putin has absolutely no interest at all in running his straw man army into a buzzsaw of American steel. This was a dynamic we saw consistently in Syria — Russian forces and mercenaries went out of their way to avoid US forces because when fighting broke out between them, it ended very badly for the Russians. There was no World War III.”