Bearing Witness, Asking for More…

Photo by cottonbro on

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.


42 thoughts on “Bearing Witness, Asking for More…

    1. Neil, with regard to the trump comparison, I think Putin is clearly smarter and better trained, but in the egomaniacal and depravity departments, trump could easily reach those depths if given a chance. We must never find out!

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Thanks Annie. The heroes are many, but they need help to stand down the malevolent acting tyrant who cares not if children die or that people in his own country suffer. Keith

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Agreed, Keith. I just wept watching Zelensky’s speech before Congress—and the painful video of Ukraine before and after Putin inflicted his horrors. I hope President Biden has some announcements that meet the moment.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Annie. Your first few paragraphs comforted me and brought me to “good” tears, as you nailed exactly my feelings. I will never understand war. 🙏🏻☮️💙

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Fred. I think war is inevitably failure of one kind or another. It shouldn’t happen, but …
      It’s especially hard when you know that one party is fighting for their country and autonomy—and really just wanted to be left alone to live and build and thrive.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I understand the frustration. We’ve all seen the horrors that are happening. But I believe our current course is the correct one. We are doing a great deal. The sanctions are devastating Russia’s economy and the personal finances of many of the gangsters in Putin’s inner circle. The weapons we are supplying to Ukraine are proving effective and making a real difference. Don’t forget that the war has been going on for less than three weeks. It’s wrong to say that the measures we’re taking are not working because the violence has not been stopped instantaneously.

    Imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine would mean NATO planes shooting down Russian planes which violated it. That would create an unambiguous state of hot war between NATO and Russia, which is far too dangerous to risk. The point is not that Putin would automatically resort to nuclear weapons — the problem is that wars involve mistakes and mistaken information and accidents and misunderstandings, and it would be too easy for things to escalate out of control. We can’t take that risk when the end-point might be an all-out nuclear exchange.

    (I discussed this issue in greater detail here.)

    But why is it that we who are deterred by Russian nuclear threats do not feel Russians would be deterred by ours?

    They are being deterred. Russia has also avoided risking direct warfare against NATO. Not even Putin is mad enough to take such a risk.

    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 else what? Escalate to a direct NATO-Russia conflict and gamble with the possible incineration of a billion people (including pretty much all the people reading this blog)?

    Or can’t we set some ground rules…perhaps in conjunction with the UN?

    Neither Biden nor Putin is foolish enough to take the UN seriously.

    Unfortunately we are not omnipotent. There are things we would very much like to do which we simply cannot do without creating unacceptable danger to the lives of the whole population of the US, Russia, and Europe.

    Putin’s invasion is failing disastrously. He thought Ukraine would crumple in a few days, and in almost three weeks only one large city has fallen and the Russian army is getting bogged down everywhere. The Russian military is rapidly running out of things and has shown that it can’t handle the logistics of a war right on its own border. Putin has exposed Russia’s superpower pretensions as a potemkin façade. Their technology is crap, their logistics is crap, their military leadership is grossly incompetent, their soldiers are confused and unmotivated. Like every despot before him, Putin thought the democracies were weak and would be beaten easily, and he can’t even beat one democracy (Ukraine) with only one-third Russia’s population. He has already had to ask for help from Kazakhstan and China. In a matter of days the Russian military will start running short of critical supplies and will be unable to sustain the offensive. Even the missiles they’re using to attack the cities — they’ve already used about 700 of them and they don’t have an unlimited supply. It’s becoming steadily more likely that the Russian military or oligarchy will decide that Putin’s rule is an embarrassment and a danger Russia can no longer bear, and act accordingly.

    Biden has handled this exactly right, producing the strongest possible pressure on Russia and the most effective aid to Ukraine while minimizing the danger to America’s territory and population — which are, after all, his primary responsibility.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Infidel–
      I appreciate this very careful response–and your link with additional information. I do want to note that neither Rothkopf nor I called for a no-fly zone. I had read enough to realize that would clearly be crossing the line. One source was a former officer who was responsible for the US no-fly zone following 9/11: he pointed out all the complex logistics involved in an area far smaller than Ukraine.

      I realize that Putin is faring badly and has sought help from Kazakhstan and China; Jake Sullivan’s lengthy, intense meeting with Chinese counterparts may have helped convince the Chinese to make a mildly rebuking statement against Putin without mentioning his name. If they don’t help the Russians financially, that could be significant.

      As I’ve said in this context and others, I’m grateful for President Biden’s careful leadership. Perhaps today’s announcement of an even larger response will make a big difference. And the brilliant “transparency” of American intelligence has played a huge role in keeping Putin off guard, it seems–and has surprised both the Chinese and Russians, who wonder where the leaks are in their communications with one another.

      But I worry. Since there seems no evidence that Putin will back down despite the dreadful performance of his troops, the question is what will he do next? His back is to the wall.

      I fervently hope you’re right that it’s becoming more likely the Russian military or oligarchy will take matters into their own hands. And that they do so soon–before any more innocent Ukrainians must pay with their lives for Putin’s madness.

      Liked by 3 people

    1. I’ve seen people on Twitter who’ve added the Ukrainian flag and 51johnsonmustgo to their Twitter handles. What do you hear, Matthew? What is the Scottish press saying?
      PS: Don’t be embarrassed. Look what we lived with for four years—and haunts us still!


      1. There’s a strong sense that oligarch money has inveigled itself into our institutions, from newspapers (Evening Standard) to football clubs (Chelsea), and that this money is influencing politics. The Scottish press is pretty scathing, but Westminster has been slow, very slow in reacting.

        Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Denise. It’s so hard to fathom. We’ve long known that war is hell, but we’ve never seen it so up close and so quickly devastating—at least I never have. And usually there have been more shades of gray re: the good guys and bad guys.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A good post Annie about a really difficult topic. It’s difficult to sit and watch while a country is being destroyed. As for Biden’s decisions, it’s really hard to stay the course when one’s inclination would be to jump in and help right away, perhaps leading to an even more catastrophic situation. I wouldn’t want to be the one making those decisions.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes, Joni. It’s a nearly impossible situation. And Biden is one of the more anti-war and compassionate souls we’ve had in the White House in my memory. I’ve long felt he was underestimated; I think that’s become more apparent.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Perhaps it is time to look to post war issues in Ukraine
    1) Rebuilding. The damage to physical assets including potential environmental damage from massive fuel leaks, unexploded ordinance and other risks will plaque Ukraine for years and possibily decades to come.
    2) Zelensky had his own oligarch problems. Espiacially as he tried to address corruption and createing a civil society. Will this war reshuffle the political deck and further empower Zelensky to clip the political and economic wings of his oligarches?
    3) Limiting any right wing populism and hyper nationalist’s from using the war to gain power and influence.
    As with all countries there is a far right political movement akin to bannon’s/Jan 6’ers supporters here in the US.
    This will interact with point 2 since they have used corruption, much of which is the right’s, as a cudgel to weild against any who oppose them.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Interesting questions, anyname…
      Zelensky is a prodigious talent; I hope he realizes that his country needs him alive even if he must relocate.
      Post-war, he would appear to be in a strong position to continue his anti-corruption efforts and unite the country for the massive rebuilding that will be necessary.
      I look forward to having this discussion sooner, rather than later!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Scattershot comment, no idea how well any of it will age.
    Someone familiar with Putin’s handling of Syria (disgracefully abandoned by Trump, let’s remember that) put out some advice for Ukraine. Don’t label anything as having women or children in it as Putin’s forces will go for those first (opportunity for mis-labeling? Dunno) top of the list. Source – I don’t remember, somewhere on Twitter, I think.
    Zelenskyy did plead for enforcement of a no-fly zone over Ukraine. The answer he got most publicly was “how can he come ask the U.S. for help and not put on a suit?! Rude!” and ridiculous. The guy who twittered that wanted more respect shown to the “Unites States”. We’ve probably all seen this idiot’s comment and the double- and triple-down follow ups by now. source: don’t remember the original, but Stonekettle chimed in to call him an idiot.
    No fly zone seems to be out for reasons outlined – but U.S. police forces are allegedly packing up some of the military surplus hardware they have been gifted over the years to send to Ukraine. That’s good on two levels. Also, calls are going out for U.S. citizens to donate spare guns to the cause – source: The Daily Show. It’s a recent clip.
    Biden also told Poland, apparently, to just hand over the aircraft they wanted to funnel to Ukraine through the U.S. source – speculation from reading of Poland’s request, Biden’s refusal, and Poland reconsidering – mostly headlines.
    Maybe if someone plants the idea that all that destruction of power plants will inspire introducing a lot of alternate energy plants when the shooting is eventually stopped and the oiligarchs take it seriously they’ll step in to slow down the destruction. This is total fairy dust, but just let me have this for today, please.
    Thanks for this article.

    Slava Ukraini
    (source – end of Zelenskyy’s speech)

    Liked by 3 people

    1. A potpourri of interesting thoughts, mdavis. I do think the Ukrainians now know not to label sites—mislabeling sounds good to me. I tune out the empty suits who criticize Zelensky’s attire—and the Tuckyo Roses—and the disloyal R’s who voted against aid and now criticize Biden for not doing enough. As to power plants, etc, I would love to see the Dems bring up the climate change portion of BBB; then we’ll see who cares about making Russia irrelevant while helping to save the planet.
      You can have all the fairy dust you want, IMO: these are wrenching times.
      Thanks for your comment. Slava Ukraini!

      Liked by 2 people

  7. I have to say I have changed my opinion on NATO involvement. At this point I think NATO should intervene. Not only with no fly zones but with on the ground humanitarian corridors to Kiev and other major population centers. Guarantee food, water and weapons to the Ukrainians.

    Of course the argument is that this will give Putin an excuse to widen the conflict. My response is that Putin knows his military is no match for NATO. His military will back down or be devastated. Also, it dies not matter what NATO does or does not do. Putin will lie at any rate. If he wanted a confrontation with NATO he can create one at anytime. Th tells me he understands that NATO would destroy him.

    I have a relative who was very high up in the US military who has retired. He visited last year and was very clear that Russia’s military was a corrupt joke. Looks like he was correct.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Part of me would love to see that happen, Joseph. The other part of me sees Putin as perfectly capable of using chemical and biological warfare at least. He is being increasingly humiliated and not behaving rationally. Is there anyone around him who will stop him from his nukes?

      Liked by 1 person

    2. The concern isn’t that Putin would make a straightforward decision to go nuclear if NATO intervenes (though that’s remotely possible), the concern is that once NATO and Russia are in a direct shooting war with each other — something which both sides have been careful to avoid for decades — there’ too much opportunity for miscalculation, erroneous information, accidental hits on civilian targets in Russia or a NATO country, etc to put us on a path to a nuclear exchange. It’s simply too dangerous; we’d be taking a real risk of ending us with the deaths of a billion people. We didn’t do that for Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968, nor did Khrushchev risk it for Cuba in 1962. We shouldn’t do it for Ukraine now. What we are doing is working. There are limits to what it’s reasonable to expect.

      You are right that the Russian army would be no match for the main NATO forces (US/UK/France), but one of the main danger points in a conventional war between nuclear powers is exactly the point when one side is clearly losing. Putin might well gamble that a limited use of tactical nuclear weapons would make NATO back down rather than escalate, then NATO would make the same gamble with a tactical nuclear response, and so on to total annihilation.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. This is the problem of the west. We try to anticipate Putin. Cannot be done. If he wants to challenge NATO he will simply make up an incident. NATO nations have already been providing plenty of weapons that are killing Russians. That is easily a reason for him to go after NATO bases in Poland, Slovakia,etc. But Putin is silent on that. He knows the Russian military is no match for NATO. Do not let him dictate the course of the war. He is a paper tiger.


      2. A paper tiger with an unstable mind, chemical arsenal, and a vast store pile of nukes—which some say may not all be functional—but I, for one, do not want to find out about.


  8. 2 points.
    !) Have the IOC and FiFA commit to awarding the Olympics in 8 years to Ukraine and, contrary to recent past economic fiasco’s, commit to funding all the infrastructure needed including transport systems and other support facilities needed as a gift to the Ukranian nation, After several historically bad choices that helped promote authoratarian regimes (Berlin 32, China 2022, Dubai upcoming World cup) time they helpe the “good guys” for a change. (p.s. Until Putin and his ilk are gone from Russia cancel Winter Olympics since they seem to trigger Putin)

    2) Putin seems to be taking Russia back to the 1200’s when it was a vassal state of the Golden Horde had Moscow as a client state and were the ones who in “1263 his son Daniel I was appointed to rule the newly created Grand Principality of Moscow, which was a vassal state to the Mongol Empire (under the “Tatar Yoke”),”
    So one could see with a decline of fear of russian military and a collapsed economy China would take over the role of the dominant power.Funny is instead of gaining Ukraine they might have to surrender territory in the East to historical Chinese claims.


    1. A very creative idea re: the IOC and FIFA! But I don’t think they do that—don’t countries bid to earn the honor—going to great expense themselves to get the venue ready? Nor do I expect much from the leadership orgs. Anyway, anyway (sorry; couldn’t resist…), I trust there will be a Marshall Plan type rebuilding effort.

      I do think it’s clear that Putin’s judgment was horrific, and I hope he’ll pay dearly one way or another. But it’s a shame the Russian people must suffer too. China seems now to be hedging its bets.

      My worries center on the impact of the huge migrations, compounded by the loss of food crops, which could have worldwide implications.


      1. Agreed that the IOC and FIFA are used to extracting as much as possible to continue to be able to purchase influential supporters etc? So yes I agreed with you that they are very unlikely agree to spend any of their money on anything but luxuries for leadership. But when one considers the dearth of bidders to host these indulgent self indulgent exercises of public extortion they may be urged to try and clean up their images by contributing rather then continue their leeching off of fools spending public funds for bogus and illusionary profits.
        Not to mention with Putin attachment to the pageanty of organized athletic events and the pretense of legitimision such events supposedly bestow upon participant’s. This reward for the Ukrainians and a thumb in the eye of Putin.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. 1. You forgot the World Cup in 2014 in Russia. The Qatar WC this year is a shameful example of the corruption in FIFA. Should not have happened. I would suggest that Ukraine will need a tremendous amount of financial aid just to get back to rebuilding basic infrastructure. The WC is the last thing n its list of needs. But I understand the impulse.
      2. I agree with you that China, if Xi plays his cards right, is the only big winner in this. He will have all the cheap oil he wants from Russia. He will have a greatly weakened Russia on his western/northern border. Looks like Russia is on the way to becoming a North Korea style society. Except Putin cannot control his borders and the brain drain has already begun as thousands of younger Russians have left and will continue to leave. The long term effects on Russia will be devastating. But, as in Hitler’s Germany and Trump’s America, it is the less well-educated and more “traditional” rural areas that continue to support the authoritarian, no matter what.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. All true, Joseph—though China has troubles of its own, including a lockdown for Covid now that’s wreaking damage on its economy. And that’s a warning to us, as our own preparedness for Covid has been hampered by R’s refusal to increase funding—and fraudulent misuse of earlier funding.

        Obama’s domestically defeated plans for an Asian alliance as a ballast to China seem wiser every day.


      2. I would argue that Boris Johnson is the biggest beneficiary of the invasion of the Ukraine. From a steady drumbeat about “party gate” and possible votes of no confidence to crickets with occasional dry reports of a Tory “captured” met reviewing questionnaires.


      3. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it seems that unlike the disloyal opposition in the US, the Brits rally round their leader, even as they criticize him.


  9. Joseph Urban: NATO nations have already been providing plenty of weapons that are killing Russians. That is easily a reason for him to go after NATO bases in Poland, Slovakia,etc. But Putin is silent on that.

    Because he knows that once he did that — got into a shooting war with NATO — there is too much risk of the situation escalating out of anyone’s control and turning into an all-out nuclear exchange. He doesn’t want to risk that because it would mean the annihilation of Russia, just as we don’t want to risk it because it would mean the annihilation of the West. That’s why he won’t take the initiative to attack NATO and why we won’t take the initiative to impose a no-fly zone or do anything else that would mean NATO and Russian troops in direct combat with each other.

    I don’t know how to make this any clearer. It’s not about provoking Putin. It’s about avoiding direct combat between NATO and Russian forces, regardless of who starts it. Because once that hard line is crossed, the risk of nuclear escalation is too great, even if neither side wants it (which they certainly don’t), for the reasons I described above.


    1. Infidel: From what I’ve read, both issues factor into the West’s decision-making: concerns about incidental warfare AND about Putin’s instability, which may lead this failing tyrant to resort to chemical weapons or worse.


      1. I’m sure that’s the case; I’m just saying that the issues are qualitatively different. Provoking Putin into using chemical weapons would mean a further increase in the number of ghastly deaths in Ukraine; that’s the type of risk that one can rationally talk about taking if the expected benefits would be high enough (such as shortening the war). Engaging NATO and Russian troops in direct combat means a fairly high probability of everybody posting in this thread, and most of the people in the US, Russia, and Europe (including the Ukrainians), being burned alive within a few weeks. That’s not a risk that either side can rationally take, no matter what the hypothetical benefits of allowing such direct combat.

        The situation remains extremely dangerous because, while Biden obviously understands the above, we can’t be equally confident about Putin. He has also avoided risking direct combat with NATO so far, which implies he does grasp the danger, but he’s a megalomaniac and has spent the last twenty years in a bubble surrounded by yes-men and toadies who only tell him what he wants to hear. It’s hard to know how good his judgment is. As I said, if direct combat between the two big nuclear powers occurs, it doesn’t matter which side starts it — the danger is the same regardless. That’s probably why we’re hearing increased mutterings about the Russian elite possibly plotting to remove Putin. They don’t want to risk their country being wiped out any more than we want to risk it for ours.


  10. The Newsweek article to which you link acknowledges that there’s little evidence to back up the claim. Obviously very hard to get a meaningful sense if there’s any such motion. I’d love to think US intelligence, which seems to be quite accurate, would have some idea.

    I did hear one commentator say, wryly, that those around Putin would rather kill him than try to tell him he’s wrong.


  11. Thanks again Annie. I appreciate your post and those of your thoughtful readers. A tragic and complex situation to say the least. At some point, I think Putin will find himself trapped like a rat in a cage. When that day comes, I don’t have faith that the experts know how he’ll react. He’s obviously a heartless brute who cares little about how much blood he sheds.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Carol. Today’s NY Times speaks of US intelligence pointing to dissension between Putin and his defense chief, a long-time stalwart and possible next in line. One can only hope. I think the longer Putin remains in power, the more danger there will be. It’s unclear if he knows how badly the Russians have been doing.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I tend to agree with you Annie. The level of stress right now in the Kremlin must be immeasurable. I hope someone sane emerges to one day tell the world what went on behind the scenes.


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