Upending the Global Order
BY RICHARD C. GROSS
“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
A rusted Russian Iron Curtain may be descending on a vulnerable corner of Eastern Europe, lowered by a ruthless dictator trying desperately to undermine Western democracies and restore a lost empire.
But the Russian offensive in neighboring Ukraine, in its fifth day Tuesday, appears to have slowed, with reports of poorly trained troops sabotaging their own vehicles and convoys running out of food and fuel as Russia increasingly bombards civilian areas and the West tightens sanctions against Moscow.
At least 136 Ukrainian civilians reportedly have been killed.
A 40-mile-long Russian convoy headed for the capital of Kyiv seems to have stalled, presenting what would be a perfect target in a different war — something akin to Israel’s destruction of Egyptian armor in the Sinai desert’s Mitla Pass in 1967.
Russian President Vladimir Putin may be the head of what New York Times columnist Paul Krugman labeled a “Potemkin superpower,” meaning the mighty rival of NATO and the United States may not be as tough as its May Day parades like to pretend with all its missiles and armor.
The whole world but some far-right American Republicans appears to be against the Russian leader.
Putin could be in big trouble even though he has put his nuclear forces on high alert because of “aggressive statements” by the West. President Joe Biden virtually ignored him. There was no indication publicly of an increase in U.S. nuclear readiness.
Escalating a conventional conflict to potential nuclear status was a move of desperation.
Putin is “potentially putting in play forces that, if there’s a miscalculation, could make things much, much more dangerous,” a senior U.S. defense official told the Associated Press.
Adding to the conflagration, Belarus, which borders Ukraine on the north and has served as a staging area for Russian forces to sweep into Ukraine, reportedly plans to join the invasion, a U.S. administration official have said. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is a close Putin ally.
Putin launched an unprovoked multi-pronged conventional land invasion of Ukraine Thursday, obsessed with an attempt to recreate at least part of a bloc of Eastern European “republics” known as the Soviet Union. It dissolved in 1991.
The offensive that erupted without cause came weeks after Putin repeatedly lied that he had no desire to take over the country of 44 million as he virtually surrounded it with up to 190,000 troops and armored vehicles.
It marked another “day of infamy” in a world overwhelmed with division, diminishing democracies, a deadly pandemic that won’t quit, absurd rebellions against masks and vaccines and inflation that is bound to worsen with the price of oil hitting more than $100 a barrel.
It’s a war without a reason other than the apparent bitterness and vindictiveness of a leader seemingly gone mad in pursuit of restoring a history whose time and machinations of conquest long ago have been overtaken by an interconnected, globalized and hi-tech world seeking peace through trade, not war.
And this irresponsible “shock and awe” conflict against a 30-year-old democracy exploded about eight years after Russia sliced off Crimea from southern Ukraine and annexed it and fighting erupted between Russian separatists and Ukrainian defenders in the Donbas region in the eastern part of the country, along the Russian border.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a Jew whose parents and other relatives were swallowed in the Holocaust, begged the West to help his beleaguered country as the Russians swept in, tactics that are a throwback to the bloodiest century in history, of powerful dictators like Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Tito and Milosevic.
He made a passionate plea to the European Parliament Tuesday to join the 27-member European Union, to which he submitted an application Monday.
“We have proven as a minimum that we are exactly the same as you,” he said. “So do prove that you are with us, do prove that you will not let us go, do prove that you are indeed Europeans.”
But for strict sanctions that have been imposed on Russia, some of its leaders and oligarchs, little can be done militarily to combat the scourge of one tyrant without going to war; months of diplomacy failed. But Ukraine isn’t in NATO, ruling out a military counterattack against Russia.
What’s happening in Ukraine at the behest of one man who may be out of control should be a warning and a lesson to Americans about whom they elect to lead them.
“If you my dear world leaders . . . leaders of the free world, don’t help us today; if you do not strongly help Ukraine,
then tomorrow war will knock on your doors,” Zelensky said in an address to his battered nation Sunday.
The EU and Washington unleashed a storm of sanctions against the Russians after the Ukrainian leader entered the EU’s virtual meeting the night of the invasion from Kyiv Thursday. He pleaded for five minutes for help for his besieged nation, The Washington Post has reported. He asked for food, ammunition, fuel and sanctions, it said.
“It was extremely, extremely emotional,” said a European official briefed on the call, the paper reported. “He was essentially saying: ‘Look, we are here dying for European ideals.’”
Europe came through like the cavalry, albeit unarmed but seemingly more united than ever, pledging more than $500 million for weapons and other supplies to Ukraine.
About 100,000 people at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate protested the Russian invasion Sunday and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a major jump in defense spending. He wants to double it from last year to $110 billion, the Post reported.
“Putin wants to establish a Russian empire,” Scholz told parliament.
Whether Putin will be able to follow through on his desires may well depend on the extent of free Europe’s backlash to his spurning of Ukraine’s sovereignty, which so far seems to be unusually severe. Germany in particular, since its reunification in 1990, has developed a rare case of ensuring Russia’s containment.
It generally has been reticent to get involved in other country’s problems.
“For the first time ever, the European Union will finance the purchase and delivery of weapons and other equipment to a country that is under attack,” the Post quoted European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen Sunday. “This is a watershed moment.”
That’s for sure.
But despite Europe’s willingness to rush aid to Ukraine, the absence of a three musketeers-like “all for one, one for all” solidarity of NATO was absent because it could not act the militarily. Ukraine long has wanted to join NATO.
If Putin hadn’t realized before that his military strike against a democratic state marked a huge error of judgment in underestimating European unity, he probably does now.
Washington reportedly has urged Zelensky to get out of Kyiv and is prepared to extract the president from his wounded country, its cities and civilians mercilessly under attack with missiles, aircraft, artillery and armored vehicles. He has said more than once he’s a target of assassination. The Russians apparently seek to decapitate the Ukrainian leadership in order to install a puppet government.
But Zelensky stubbornly refused to exit, like a captain at the helm ready to go down with his stricken ship. His people and others have branded him a hero.
In a statement on Twitter, the Ukrainian Embassy in London said America made an “evacuation offer” to Zelensky but that his response was, “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.”
Sounds like some heroes of the American Revolution.
Just the opposite of Trump, who with his wife and young son scooted to the White House bunker to escape demonstrators in the streets of Washington. A profile in cowardice.
Trump and his worshipping acolytes like Tucker Carlson at Fox “News” praised Putin for his offensive against Ukraine, with the former president calling him a “genius,” “savvy” and “smart.”
If Trump were still in power, it’s a good bet he would shrug off the Russian invasion and would ignore NATO and EU efforts to save a democracy. He couldn’t stop praising Putin as president.
The Ukrainians, civilians included, bravely have been resisting against tremendous odds, slowing the Russian advance on Kyiv, situated in north-central Ukraine about 140 miles south of the border with pro-Putin Belarus. An estimated 660,000 Ukrainians, most of them women and children, have fled to neighboring countries, the U.N. said.
The length of the war may depend on how long Ukraine can hold out. Can it pull off a semblance of Britain’s darkest hour and survive alone against Russia in the way London did during the Blitz in the face of a Nazi onslaught that included the alarmingly rapid fall of France in 1940?
The way Israel defeated Arab armies that outnumbered it in 1973, 1967 and 1948?
The United States and its NATO allies have been sending arms and ammunition to Ukraine and troops to other former Soviet bloc countries who are members of the 30-member Western alliance to deter Russia from attacking them. But they have vowed not to send forces to Ukraine.
This isn’t the first war in Europe since the Balkans erupted in flames in the 1990s and the two world wars together killed tens of millions of people. But this is the first major conflict on the heavily scarred bloodied continent started by a first-rate nuclear power, a rival of America since the end of World War II.
Nearly a year after that horrific war ended in Europe May 8, 1945, Winston Churchill, the wartime British prime minister, declared at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., March 6, 1946 that the Soviet Union had dropped an Iron Curtain over Eastern Europe, spreading communism throughout the region and launching the Cold War.
Churchill chose just the right venue for his speech. Missouri was the home state of then-President Harry S. Truman.
It’s just as well America doesn’t confront Russia militarily. This war between Slavic brothers who read and write in Cyrillic is not a counterinsurgency or a low-level fight against terrorism; Russia is not the Taliban.
A nuclear war between two superpowers would mean game over for all of us.
Richard C. Gross, a correspondent, bureau chief and foreign editor of United Press International, retired as the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.