The Russo-Ukrainian war is in the news again. Not content with its annexation of Crimea—when is an aggressively expansive imperialist country ever content with Crimea once it’s got it in the pocket?—Russia has amassed an invasion-sized force at the border of Ukraine and is busily mobilizing reservists sufficient to provide an occupation force.
The usual pundit voices can be heard discussing the geopolitical implications of the buildup, sifting through tea leaves and undisclosed sources to explain why it’s just another training exercise (Russia’s official explanation), or how Putin and Russia have been provoked by the aggressive expansion of NATO westward and why the Budapest Memorandum wasn’t legally binding, or how Ukraine has always been Russian anyway so why shouldn’t they just snap it up and something about spheres of influence.
The effect—perhaps the purpose— of all these cynical and wearisome discussions is that Americans and others with a modicum of interest in the subject throw up their hands in frustration, and say “Let it be.”
This would be a mistake, especially for those observers who feel a certain intuitive connection to a group of people who are and have been fighting repeatedly for their freedom and independence from imperial overlords (Poles, Austro-Hungarians, Lithuanians, Ottomans, Russians, Nazi Germany, and the USSR) since the 17th century. It would be a badly timed mistake, too; the lies justifying the United States’ invasion of Iraq and occupation of Afghanistan were based on a powerful truth—that the cause of freedom-loving people is always the cause of Europe and America. If one believes that there is a good worth defending with one’s military in the world as an American, surely it must be that good.
And that good is the ground truth in Ukraine.
When I left Ukraine in late 2017, after having lived there on and off since the spring of 2015, I was keen to put the headache of caring about a paradox over which I had no control behind me. There, it’s perfectly normal to live knowing Russia might attack at any moment. Since 2014, when (to them) the unthinkable occurred, every Russian statement and training exercise has been an explicit reminder of what happens when you let your guard down. Living in Kyiv from 2016-17, the volume of threats involving some mix of invasion, assassination, destabilization, and cyberhacking was sufficient to get me spun up on a weekly basis.
The Ukrainians seemed accustomed to the beating of Russian war drums. Not comfortable with it—how can one be comfortable when one’s powerful and hostile neighbor issues threats in a town with no police?—but accustomed. It is not a thing most civilized people can bear unless they’ve grown up with it, much as people living by the ocean or in the mountains treat wildlife like a nuisance to be respected rather than a tragedy waiting beneath every wave or behind every tree.
Russia is not a bear or a shark, it’s a nation led by people who act according to some discernible logic. In this case, either Russia is carrying out a training exercise designed to simulate an invasion of Ukraine, or they’re preparing to invade Ukraine, and neither option feels particularly reassuring. Militaries only train to prepare for future operations—otherwise why waste the money, time, and energy that could be productively invested elsewhere? Even in the best case scenario, Ukraine can’t be thrilled.
This impulse to think about Ukraine and Russia in abstract terms is as seductive as it is pointless. All the words and thoughts being poured into understanding movements and posture and likely actions elide a basic truth, which is that if Russia plans on conquest it will cause extraordinary harm on a scale unseen in Europe since 1945.
The awful spectacle of this summer, with crowds of Afghans scrambling to escape the Taliban dominating news and headlines, will seem simple, commonplace, compared to what will happen in Ukraine and Europe. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of people will die as Ukraine’s military struggles to hold onto its territory, hoping against hope for reinforcement, and millions of desperate survivors will flee westward. If as many now suggest the invasion occurs during the winter, the loss of life and health to innocent civilians will be magnified greatly by the vicious cold, to say nothing of how it will help spur the ongoing pandemic.
In the east of Ukraine, I met some of the few people who stayed put when war came to their land. Older people, mostly women, who could barely afford enough coal or wood to heat their homes on paltry monthly pensions and would sleep on their stoves for warmth. Single mothers finding ways to scrape by, living with relatives or shacking up with soldiers or officers on rotation to the front, doing whatever they could to keep food on the table. Couples who’d moved to what had once been quiet suburbs to pursue the remainder of their lives in peaceful retirement and who obstinately but understandably decided that they’d been uprooted enough.
Several older folk had survived World War II, and had memories of the Germans and then the Red Army coming through, washing across the area like waves piling onto the beach during a storm. Things weren’t much better when I was there during trips working on a report for the Center for Civilians in Conflict, or later, on my own, tracking down individual stories. The boom of heavy artillery and the chatter of machinegun fire is something I couldn’t get used to as a civilian, even though it’d been a regular part of my life as a soldier with the U.S. military.
Why do we permit war? When we have the ability to stop it, shouldn’t we do whatever is necessary to say “war will not arrive in this country,” like Gandalf telling the Balrog “You shall not pass”? The gamble we made at the end of our war in Afghanistan was extraordinary; extraordinary because it was made on such flawed premises that nobody knew the government’s weakness until its president was on a plane for Doha with bags full of cash under each arm, and even more extraordinary because the Taliban seem to have (against all expectations) refrained from the wholesale bloodshed and orgy of revenge killings that were feared.
Perhaps much or most of the Taliban’s expected thirst for vengeance has been redirected toward the urgent and demanding work of governance, but in Ukraine, Russian opportunities for evil will be legion. It will take great violence to dislodge the Ukrainian military from its positions in the east of the country, positions that I have seen; it will require the type of heavy bombing and shelling that tears the landscape and does not discriminate between pensioner and soldier. It will take far more to dislodge veterans and volunteer-filled paramilitaries from Ukraine’s cities. This is not a hypothetical—it’s how Russia and Ukraine have fought each other since 2014.
An invasion of Ukraine will mean untold death and suffering. For what? So Russia can “rebuild the USSR?” Or bring back its empire? Is this worth a single skull—the skull of a child or an old woman—let alone a pyramid of them? In the U.S., during the runup to Iraq, my friends and I protested vehemently against America going to war for spurious reasons. It was obvious to us, as recent college graduates, that the Bush administration had utterly failed to make a compelling case for war against Iraq. Just as obvious to me now is the idea that every reasonable avenue ought to be pursued when it comes to avoiding war and bloodshed.
Maybe we’ve forgotten that there’s no good reason to invade another country. It’s taken Americans the better part of two decades to claw most of its military back from Iraq and Afghanistan. At this precarious moment when the world seems poised on the edge of a serious land war in Europe, wise and visionary leadership can make use of the lessons of the last year, of the past decades, and forestall an avoidable catastrophe.
Inaction—our own, that of the Afghan government—doomed that country to destruction. There is still an opportunity to stop a similar calamity in Ukraine, and we ought to use our power to prevent it .