Ukraine:  Our response to the Russian invasion is incoherent and confused, but the bravery of the Ukrainian people themselves could be the deciding factor

Europe hasn’t seen a war like this in over 80 years, but so far the response from the United States and the rest of the world has lacked any coherent strategy as we impose sanctions for the sake of sanctions and search for a “free lunch” approach that both maximizes and minimizes economic pain.  In the meantime, the Ukrainians have taken matters into their own hands, fiercely defending their homeland.

Last Friday, Fox News obtained cell-phone camera video of one of the most blatant, surreal, and disturbing war crimes in recent memory.  Completely unprovoked, a Russian tank flattens a car on a Ukrainian street, rolling right over the puny vehicle like it was made out of tissue paper, with no thought for the driver and any passengers inside.  The whole thing takes barely a few seconds, made even more dramatic by a lack of audio, like a scene in movie without the soundtrack.  The car is driving down a largely empty street in what appears to be a relatively quiet section of a city, a tank appears, and immediately takes direct aim, actually steering in the car’s direction, an overly aggressive driver approaching a speed bump.  The car offers about the same level of resistance, completely crushed without a sound, and the tank actually remains on top of it for a few moments, as if exalting in its victory.  Miraculously, the driver survived, and was removed from the wreckage shortly after.  This war crime and presumably many others (the Ukraine government claims even children have been intentionally targeted) is occurring amid the largest troop movement and military conflict on the European continent since the outbreak of World War II.

It has been over 80 years since anyone has seen the like:  Somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 Russian troops have launched a unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, supported by hundreds of missiles and 75 bombers.  At least 300 Ukrainians have been killed, likely more, including over a dozen children.  Well over a thousand have been wounded, at least thirty three of them children, and what does President Biden choose to do last Friday, as the fighting rages on in a country that is supposed to be our ally?  Announce his nomination for Supreme Court Justice, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, of course, hailing the fact that she is indeed a black woman before bothering to mention her many credentials for the position.  He also refuses to talk about China, largely believed to be closely involved with Russia behind the scenes.  After, he went to Delaware for the weekend. Predictably, the media took a moment to swoon, declaring Judge Jackson a “legal deity.”  “I think she brings here is the knowledge of don’t we want somebody in the Supreme Court of the United States, only nine of them, to reflect the people of the United States. Not just in scholarship although her credentials frankly sounded as if Mount Olympus decided to choose and give her each of the credentials and gave this great almost a legal deity of sorts,” gushed CNN legal analyst, Laura Coates.  “And yet she disrupted the myth that you had to be but one thing in order to be a Supreme Court justice.”  Even the promise of a more diverse, progressive court, however, couldn’t keep the announcement in the headlines for long.

By Saturday, Judge Jackson was pushed beneath the fold as the mainstream media grappled with how to cover the unfolding disaster in Ukraine.  Increasingly, they vacillate between framing the war in the starkest terms, condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked aggression, and providing cover for the desperately flailing Biden Administration.  In between hard-nosed reporting from journalists in a warzone, we get puff opinion pieces on the President’s “intensive” diplomacy.  CNN’s Frida Ghitis described the administration’s actions in advance of the invasion, as “unprecedented, aggressive,” releasing “detailed information announcing every step Russia would take just before Moscow moved into Ukraine.”  She praised President Biden for exposing Russian “propaganda” in “real time,” clearing suggesting that actually preventing the invasion was impossible.  Instead, “Putin’s lack of credibility, the attack’s lack of legitimacy and Biden’s successful deployment of the truth, have fortified NATO, united the world against Russia’s aggression and made Russia’s neighbors even more suspicious of Moscow. These European nations are more eager to draw close to the West, precisely the opposite of what Putin wanted,” as if the Russian President isn’t getting exactly what he wanted by taking Ukraine in front of the entire world.  Essentially, Ms. Ghitis is praising Biden for successfully pointing out that a country can’t retroactively declare their neighbor isn’t in fact a country at all as a pretext for invasion.  What next, President Biden shoots down claims that Texas and California are actually part of Mexico?  Regardless, the “threat from a nuclear-armed dictator defying the international community and sending a massive military machine to crush its neighbor in the 21st century cannot be overestimated.”  Even so, “Biden has done a stellar job of uniting America’s bruised alliances despite some tactical differences. Putin may not have expected such a united front by NATO and the world’s democracies. Biden has rallied the international community to issue a forceful condemnation of Russia’s violations of the most fundamental principle of international law by attacking another without provocation or a genuine justification.”

Likewise, Politico was completely shocked that “Putin was playing Biden all along.”  It seems impossible for them to understand why Biden’s repeated attempts to “reason with the steely-eyed strongman” completely failed.  After all, President Biden told his Russian counterpart point blank that his “credibility worldwide” was on the line and urged him to “return to diplomacy” because an invasion of Ukraine would “produce widespread human suffering and diminish Russia’s standing.”  Alas, “none of these efforts mattered. In launching a massive assault on Ukraine this week, Putin proved that he sees the world, and his interests, very differently than Biden hoped.”  Nahal Toosi continued to note without any irony that President Putin “proved resistant to many traditional tools of diplomacy and deterrence,” as if he weren’t an ex-KGB agent with a history of assassinating his political enemies using radioactive poison, not to mention this his second time launching an incursion into Ukraine alone.  All the same, “for Biden and his team, it is a deeply frustrating moment. Their strategy toward Russia has largely failed, despite their effort to adjust it over time to account for Putin’s stubborn moves.”  All is not lost however, when they can still blame former President Trump, even though he remains the only President in the 21st century to not have Russia mount an invasion of a neighboring country on his watch.  Biden and his aides, you see, “took office at a time of disarray in U.S. foreign policy, making their job harder.”  Trump, himself, “had a contradictory approach to Russia,” albeit one with the aforementioned benefit of not having an invasion on his watch, and “Biden administration officials spent much of their first few months trying to repair ties with countries like Germany and France.”

Of course, what’s completely missing in this and similar analysis is an unbiased look at how completely incoherent President Biden’s strategy has been all along and remains even after the (long expected) invasion.  In December, he promised “severe consequences, severe consequences, economic consequences like none he’s ever seen or ever have been seen.”  Last week, however, he informed the world that no one “expected the sanctions to prevent anything from happening.”  In between he insisted that he didn’t “underestimate” Putin, and that his sanctions regime will ultimately prove effective.   “This could take time,” he said.  “And we have to show resolve so he knows what’s coming, and so the people of Russian know what he’s brought on them. That’s what this is all about.”  Wait, I thought this was about containing Russia and stopping the destruction of a sovereign state?  Regardless, he says this even as the United States is still buying oil from Russia right now.  Russia in fact is the third largest importer of oil into the US, accounting for some 7% of the total.  In November alone, we imported some 18,000,000 barrels, meaning we are threatening sanctions while feeding Russian coffers with massive amounts of cash, just like the Europeans.  

When asked how this is possible, Secretary of State Antony Blinken provided a babbling at best answer.  CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell noted the Russian economy is fueled by gas, and wondered whether the “the US consider cutting off oil and gas purchases from Russia?”  Secretary Blinken replied, “Well, what we’re doing, Norah, across the board is making sure we inflict maximum pain on Russia for what President Putin has done while minimizing any of the pain to us.  We’re in full coordination with other countries both consumers and producers alike, to minimize any impact this may have on energy prices and gasoline.”  Nor was Press Secretary Jen Psaki any more coherent, as she promised to inflict maximum pain while minimizing everything else.  We might call it the “free lunch” strategy.  A reporter asked, “Why are you guys waiting to apply maximum sanctions on Russia?”  She replied, “I would say there are a couple of principles through which the President has approached sanctions one is maximizing the impact on Russian leadership and the Russian financial system so that there will be a particular squeeze.”  At the same time, the second principle requires them to take “steps to minimize the impact on the American people” and the global economy.

In the middle of this rambling answer, she took the time to claim we’re blocking Russian access to “technology, and semiconductors and AI that President Putin desperately wants” without explaining how that was possible when China can supply the same.  To date, we have issued some ten tranches of sanctions, sprayed across Russian individuals including Vladimir Putin himself, export controls undermined by carve outs for energy and other sectors, and limits on multiple Russian banks including restrictions on access to the global SWIFT system, but what is the specific purpose beyond inflicting maximum pain while minimizing the global impact, whatever that means in the real world when they seem completely incompatible goals?  How precisely are they calculating this balance?  How can we know they have the right balance? What if they prove to have the wrong balance?  Likewise, we are uniting the world and rallying NATO and the alliance is stronger than ever before, but to do what, precisely?  How is more “intensive” diplomacy going to work when they acknowledge Putin isn’t interested in anything of the sort?

Sanctions are a means to an end, not the end itself.  They are the application of financial power, but in order for power to be effective it needs to be directed and tightly targeted.  There needs to be an objective by which we can measure their effectiveness, beyond merely claiming we’ve issued sanctions and plan to issue more.  Putting it another way, you go to war with a strategy.  You plan your attacks to either secure territory or destroy military equipment, capture cities or occupy strategic positions.  Sanctions can be seen as bullets in the realm of economic warfare.  Right now, we’re effectively shooting at the clouds and hoping some rain down on our enemy. A sanctions regime, however, will only work as part of a comprehensive, targeted strategy.  In my opinion, this should include three primary goals. First, we should inform Putin in no uncertain terms that we are specifically targeting the Russian energy sector and we will make it impossible for him to export any oil and natural gas to Europe or the United States.  Our goal is nothing short of complete destruction of their energy industry if he doesn’t relent.

Second, we will do the same thing to the financial sector, cutting Russian banks off entirely from the global economy, making it virtually impossible for Russia to do business anywhere in the world.  Third, rather than focusing so much on rallying NATO, which should certainly be sufficiently rallied already  given the war is in their backyard and could easily spill over into their countries, we should be rallying US companies to cease operations in Russia, primarily technology companies.  If Google, Apple, Facebook, and Twitter were to shut down operations for a single day, the impact would be far more devastating and measurable than anything we have done to date.  There are already reports of protests by the Russian people.  Canceling Google Maps will certainly push them to act.  These three techniques combined would significantly damage the Russian economy, and greatly reduce the funds available to wage this and future wars, while significantly disrupting communications and overall operations within the country.

It is true that the global economy might suffer somewhat in the short term, but in the medium and long term Russia could not continue down the current path for long.  No country can survive when its primary industry is decimated and their financial and technology sectors cease working. You might disagree with this approach or have one of your own, but the unavoidable fact remains:  We need a coherent, actionable and measurable strategy, one that is aimed at specific, vital areas of the Russian economy and Russian life.  Instead, we have nothing of the sort.  While we can’t expect President Biden to transform into Shakespeare’s Henry V leading his men “once more unto the breach,” we should at least expect the bare minimum of coherence, focus, and clearly defined goals.  Can’t we?  Of course, we can just trust Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and her assessment that President Biden is performing “brilliantly.”

A final point:  One thing no one, and I mean no one expected, was the fierce determination and courage of the Ukrainian people to defend their homeland.  Before the invasion, it was considered a foregone conclusion that Russia would sweep through the country in a few days.  To my knowledge, neither President Biden nor any world leader ever mentioned the possibility that Ukraine could prevail.  Instead, the entire world has been inspired by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy remaining in the country and fighting beside his men.  We’ve seen members of parliament take up arms and boxing legends, Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko, go to war.  The bravery has been so inspiring that even CNN is reporting the Ukrainians have “shamed” the world into action.  As Stephen Collinson explains it, “Five days into Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his courageous nation have already done more to transform the West’s policy toward Russia than 30 years of post-Cold War summits, policy resets and showdowns with Russian President Vladimir Putin.”  The US and Europeans are apparently supplying more arms, and should continue to do so.  It would be some twist of fate if Russia is repelled entirely, defeated on the world stage in a war everyone thought they would win.  While I’m not going to say it’s likely, stranger things have happened.

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