I am sitting in my comfortable warm home, a sliver of sunlight illuminating the papers on my desk, the sounds outside confined to the occasional passing car and disparate birdsongs.
I am writing one day before the US Congress will hear an impassioned speech delivered by the individual who has morphed—almost before our eyes—from an inexperienced young leader into a giant of a man. The term “Churchillian” has been widely used to describe Volodymyr Zelensky, and it does not seem overblown.
The strength, the courage, the persistence go well beyond inspiring—lifting his own people and many millions more. Rarely do we see with such clarity a public depiction of the times calling on the man—and the man seizing the moment.
I haven’t written much about this war. I didn’t feel I had anything to say that hadn’t been well said by others. And truly, after consuming the news nonstop for the first few weeks, I felt I had to strive for balance for my own well-being.
But such a sense, such an ability, seems dreadfully callous and self-centered. The images of the refugees packing into trains are strongly reminiscent of pre-World War II photos.
I recall my visit to Anne Frank’s Amsterdam hiding place decades ago. Knowing that thousands of people in Mariupol and elsewhere are hidden in bunkers, without food or water, presents a historical context that seems as undeniable as it is wrenching.
We are watching the decimation of a people.
Yesterday came the news that the very pregnant and bleeding young woman seen being carried from the bombing of a maternity hospital has died, as has her baby, lifeless when delivered by C-section. As with any catastrophe involving so many, the focus on the individual carries a particular pain.
A maternity hospital. Schools. Churches. Apartment buildings and homes. One twisted evil man, driven by seemingly bottomless ego and fear of humiliation. His troops attacked Mariupol, knowing it has a sizable Russian population. Russians killing Russians. Russians killing their relatives in Ukraine. Madness roams the land.
The voices are rising: we cannot let Putin get away with this. We must stop him. Former Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, one of the fine Russia experts banished by our homegrown Putinphilic madman, has said if we don’t act more boldly now, we will be pulled into a wider war. The latest Russian attack within eleven miles of the Polish border suggests he may be right.
There are calls for Biden to be more equivocal about the “if it were a NATO ally” scenario. That red line emboldens Putin, more people are saying.
David Rothkopf, a political scientist, journalist, and professor of international relations, posted a thoughtful Twitter thread after being a guest on the Morning Joe TV show. I’m including most of it.
When asked on that program what it would take for the West to defend Ukraine, he recalled that he had “offered a pretty standard answer.”
Thinking about that exchange later, he wrote, “This question haunts me,” and in elaborating, he voiced what so many of us are now thinking.
“Because letting Ukrainians die is horrific and unjust. The story of the past century is of slaughters and genocides that occurred because the political and military calculus was that the cost of intervention was too high, too risky. And every one of those answers seemed right at the time and in retrospect seemed wrong, terribly terribly wrong.
“Surely the answer is not triggering a nuclear war. But why is it that we who are deterred by Russian nuclear threats do not feel Russians would be deterred by ours?
“…What if, as Wes Clark suggested on CNN…, we asked the UN to step up and send in blue helmeted troops to protect humanitarian corridors and perhaps Western Ukraine…What if we enlisted non-NATO nations to play that role? What if we said European neighbors would play that role but only act in defense? Russia might call it provocative…but frankly, we do nothing and they manufacture provocations like this myth of bio weapons facilities.
“Can’t the international community lay down a few red lines of our own? Stop killing innocent civilians or else? Stop threatening nuclear power plants or else? Or can’t we set some ground rules…perhaps in conjunction with the UN?
“Ground rules that define a defensive mission and make it clear that defensive actions are not escalatory and that they should not be seen as such and that we will respond to escalation harshly? I’ve been very impressed with the Biden Administration and Western response to date. I believe Biden deserves credit for not taking the nuclear bait from Putin. But I am increasingly sympathetic to the idea…that a little more strategy ambiguity may be in order.
“I don’t know the answers and fortunately military strategy and foreign policy are not made in Twitter threads (or on cable television shows). But we are on the brink of once again committing the great crime of the past century, and that is of not doing enough to help millions at risk.
“And we need to recognize that it is Putin’s confidence that we will not act that enables him to take such barbarous actions. (That calculus has, after all, worked for him in Chechnya, Syria, Georgia, and Crimea.)
“We need to find a way, ideally with rules & communications that minimize the risk of escalation…ideally forcefully enough and soon enough to save Ukrainian lives…to break the pattern that has occurred as he has conducted his past wars. We need to grapple with this hard question now or we will most certainly be haunted by it for the rest of our lives.”
I think we know what Ukraine’s heroic leader will tell the members of the US Congress when he addresses them tomorrow. He needs more help to save Ukrainian lives and prevent the destruction of his country. He will ask for intervention that goes beyond what has been deemed possible, acceptable.
I don’t envy President Biden and the other heads of state. Like Rothkopf, I am grateful for the steady leadership they’ve shown thus far.
Zelensky has secured his place in history by steadfastly answering the offer to help him to safety by saying: “I don’t need a ride; I need ammunition.”
History will judge the US and our allies as well. Can’t brilliant tacticians devise a plan of action—just enough to persuade Putin that we, too, can be unpredictable?
Eleven miles separated NATO members last week from their iron-clad commitment to enter this war. There must be some way to slow or stop the slaughter now. The Putin reign of terror must be brought to an end.