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  • Where Will We Draw the Line in Ukraine?

    Published on March 14, 2022

    Sam Ben-Meir

    With last week’s bombing of a maternity ward, the increased targeting of Ukrainian civilians, and the strike against a military base just miles from the Polish border, the brutality and audacity of Russian forces will only grow as Putin becomes increasingly desperate to crush Ukraine’s government, its independence, and its will to fight. As White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan has pointed out, there is also indication that Putin is already contemplating the use of chemical and biological weapons that could cause massive casualties. The US and NATO must draw a bright red line with the use of any such weapons, on the other side of which is a conflict that will inevitably spell the end of Putin’s unconscionable reign of terror.    

    Putin went into Ukraine gambling on a quick victory and lost; and now he has virtually no face-saving way out of this horrific war of choice against a peaceful neighbor. Thomas Friedman, writing for the NY Times, is right to point out that this is a terrifying thing to acknowledge, because Putin is not one to accept humiliation and defeat. Which is to say there is no line – no line – which Putin will not conceivably cross if his back is sufficiently against the wall.

    But then the West must ask itself if it can afford to respond to Putin’s use of WMDs with simply more sanctions, should it come to that. If his “special military operation” turns into a nightmare series of war crimes and atrocities will NATO still refuse to enter the fray? And if this turns into outright genocide, then what? How far will we let Putin go before we say that sanctions are no longer enough? We have not reached that point yet but there are enough dark clouds on the horizon that we must be ready to confront the dire reality when we meet it face-to-face. We must draw the line somewhere – otherwise, what indeed was the point of saying “never again” for the last 80 years? And once that line is crossed, we must act, come what may.     

    Biden has stated explicitly that American and NATO forces will not engage with the Russian military directly because this would mean “World War III.” Fortunately, since the beginning of the Russian invasion, Ukraine has fought with remarkable bravery, tenacity, and determination. Ukrainian President Zelensky has shown to the world the meaning of true leadership and dedication to the highest ideals of commander-in-chief.

    Ukraine’s forces have proven yet again that an army and a people that knows what they are fighting for can defeat an ostensibly stronger force when the latter is utterly lacking in moral direction and resolve. The incompetence of the Russian forces must be attributed in no small measure to this inner failing, the absence of any clear moral purpose. The Ukrainians, on the other hand – solder and civilian alike – know precisely why they are engaged in this struggle and are absolutely united in common cause. The more brutal and inhumane the Russian forces become, the more resolute and determined will be Ukraine’s defiance against the enemy.

    Even if Russian forces succeed – after inflicting countless casualties – in toppling the government and crushing the ability of the Ukrainians to mount any meaningful resistance, Putin must either install a puppet regime or annex Ukraine outright. And then what will follow? Russia will face an insurrectionary uprising which will likely prove too costly – in blood and treasure – for Putin (or his successor) to maintain.

    Certainly, the Western alliance is wise to proceed with the utmost caution in dealing with an unhinged autocrat, unaccustomed to defeat, with over 6,000 nuclear warheads at his disposal. Moreover, Americans are going through a period of war fatigue, after finally concluding a twenty-year war in Afghanistan – the longest war in our history – with absolutely nothing to show for it, but the loss of over 2,500 American soldiers and trillions of dollars spent.

    Moreover, having reached the second-year anniversary since the pandemic began – with Covid yet to be firmly fixed in our rearview mirror – Americans, it is safe to say, are ‘sick and tired of being sick and tired.’ Couple all this with the highest economic inflation in 40 years and it is understandable that most Americans do not want to risk a global conflagration because of a country over 5,500 miles away.

    But there is something else we must also frankly acknowledge – that America has desperate need to feel proud of itself again, to feel united and transformed, just as the Ukrainians have been transformed and reborn in the terrible crucible of war. We were tested by the pandemic, and sadly, after nearly one million Covid deaths, the country is more divided than it has been in many decades.

    America needs a spiritual rebirth, more so than an economic one; it needs to focus and unify its vast energies behind a moral cause that transcends mere economic growth and the bottom-line, as Joe Biden himself acknowledged on March 10, at the Democratic National Committee’s Winter Meeting: “in this time of war, it’s not a time of profit.” Although his remark may have surprised many, the president is surely right: whether we engage Russia militarily or not, Europe is in flames and on the move to a degree such as we have not seen since World War II. This is a time calling for self-sacrifice and solidarity – not individual profiteering.

    As Robert Reich recently wrote: “Ukrainians are reminding us that democracy survives only if people are willing to sacrifice for it… You may have to fight a war to protect democracy from those who would destroy it.” The US and its European allies must draw a clear red line for Putin – if we do not than we threaten world peace more assuredly than if we impose a no-fly zone or commit ground troops to prevent Russia from committing atrocities that the West dare not look upon and answer with only more sanctions.

    If there is no red line for the West, no evil that we refuse to countenance, no amount of slaughter for which an economic response is inadequate, then indeed our most cherished ideals are simply hollow, our words empty of meaning and conviction – and worst of all, we are inviting a new age of barbarism the likes of which the world has truly never seen.      

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