In 2014, Putin crashed a tank through the “rules-based international order,” annexing Crimea and occupying Ukraine’s eastern territory. We cleared our throat, shuffled our feet, and bravely confronted him with furrowed brow. And then took his 30 pieces. The tank is now spinning on a locked tread, grinding women and children into nothingness.
What does that portend?
In 1932-33, Stalin broke the back of Ukrainian resistance by starving millions, “to teach them a lesson,” dehumanizing them as mere “ethnographic matter.” This was in a dispatch from the Italian counsel at the time in the eastern city of Kharkiv, quoting with specificity the terminology of a senior GPU officer. Use of the word “famine” was outlawed. (Today, Putin outlaws use of the word “war.”)
British historian, Norman Davies, wrote that Moscow’s intention “was to kill any notion of Ukrainian statehood.” Rafael Lemkin, the father of the UN Genocide Convention, condemned it as classic genocide. The West sniffed and turned away, and the U.S. concurrently legitimized the slaughter by extending diplomatic recognition to the Stalinist regime at the height of the genocide.
Putin has been denying the existence of Ukrainians for two decades. Now, Putin’s calls to “kill all Ukrainians” are vitriolic, Russian television declaring that “The existence of Ukraine harms peace and security in Europe even more than American imperialism.” Plans are in place for public executions and concentration camps to finally subdue a nation. Besieged cities will be starved into submission. Another genocide looms, and Ukrainians are pleading for protection under a no-fly zone in their own, sovereign air space.
Washington and NATO have choked. “A no-fly zone means starting World War III.”
Not so fast. The record is the opposite. Putin didn’t whimper when, in 2018, U.S. troops decimated its commandos in Syria. Or when, in 2015, Turkey, a NATO member, shot down a Russian plane with an American F-16. Putin respects only resolve backed by muscle.
Second, escalation demands assumptions: (a) that a NFZ will not deter Putin from Ukraine’s airspace, either upon its announcement or after any possible encounter; (b) that any encounter will necessarily grow into a direct broader war with Russia; (c) that this will necessarily escalate into a nuclear exchange. Remember the catechism a few years ago that withheld lethal aid to Ukraine on the rational that it would also lead to escalation? So, went the pinstriped analysis, the less able the Ukrainians are to defend themselves the safer they would be. The preceding assumptions underpinning NFZ denial are scarcely more persuasive, including that we would have to necessarily destroy Russian anti-aircraft capabilities on Russian territory.
Putin holding on to power is not just everything. It’s the only thing. Challenging NATO under such circumstances—remember, the NFZ is over Ukraine’s sovereign air space where he has no right to be—would weaken him internally even more.
Third, where is prevention of a nuclear cataclysm in the chorus of NFZ denial? Russia has taken over Chornobyl, and power supply for cooling has been cut off. The International Atomic Energy Agency reportedly has lost contact with its operators. They have been on shift for two weeks, under the barrel of a gun. Russia also occupies another nuclear plant, the largest in Europe.
A nuclear catastrophe, accidental or as a diabolical maskirovka “justifying” Putin’s use of tactical nuclear weapons against the largest nation in Europe, is pending. It will be spun as a defensive strike given the “discovery” of a surreptitious Ukrainian dirty bomb project. Listen to the Russian public being prepared for a nuclear event. Putin wouldn’t dare? What does his barbarous nighttime bombing of Russian apartment buildings, in a false flag operation blaming the Chechens in the 1990’s, tell us?
Would chemical/biological warfare against Ukrainians be more acceptable?
Fourth, without demonstrable resolve, deterrence dissolves. A NFZ broadcasts recoupment of our credibility, where we’re in the eleventh hour of a global salvage operation. Deterrence has some risk. No deterrence means nothing but risk. China, North Korea, et al. are the multiplier. Unity and resolve on sanctions are admirable. But as the Ukrainians long ago predicted they would not stop Putin. We have already taken “strategic ambiguity” off the table by renouncing in advance any commitment of US troops. And Ukraine is not asking for that. The no-fly zone is the next best “hard” measure that Putin will understand. So will China and North Korea.
Fifth, denying NFZ because of a quaking fear of escalation is nuclear blackmail of ourselves by ourselves. It also means that there can be no NFZ or other military assistance for a non-nuclear country against an invasion by a nuclear power. Now think Taiwan, then let your imagination roam. America’s credibility vis a vis NATO members will be fundamentally shattered. Telegraphing fear is checkmate. We remain hostages to ourselves.
Sixth. Ukraine is not a coral atoll in the Pacific. Its independence ensured the fall of the USSR and our “winning the Cold War.” What is that worth? A Russian armored column has entered Ukraine, waving the Soviet flag. What if a remilitarized Germany again invaded a neighbor waving a Nazi flag, where its leader was a former Gestapo officer celebrating Hitler? Putini has been worshipping Stalin for two decades. We dozed.
Seventh. We hectored Ukraine into surrendering the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal. What is that worth? What’s the messaging to China, North Korea and Iran?
Eighth. Ukraine is one of Europe’s oldest democracies. What is that worth?
Ninth. Do we understand the impact on world food supplies?
Tenth. Ukraine is fighting against the country that in the 1980s engineered Islamic terrorism against the U.S., including 9/11 and the Boston Marathon. What is that worth? Where is our credibility in the Middle East and with China if we again throw Ukraine under the bus?
Eleventh. The price tab for the “rules-based international order” were the horrors of the 20th century. Ukraine’s share in WWII was the highest of any nation on the planet. Some 9 million civilians and military personnel were lost, more than the military deaths of United States, Canada, the British Commonwealth, France, Germany and ltaly, combined. Twice the number of Ukrainians served in the Red Army than the U.S. Army in Europe. After WWII, the U.S. forcibly repatriated, to their death, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian survivors of the genocidal famine.
Twelfth. A NFZ would give Ukrainians a fighting chance to become a counterweight to Russia as we deal with China. It’s pivotal for US security. What is that worth?
Thirteenth. Putin is waging war against the world. The “democratic West” refuses to prevent the slaughter in Ukraine, oblivious that its own fecklessness invited the cataclysm. President Obama’s said in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, “We do very little trade with Ukraine and geopolitically what happens in Ukraine doesn’t pose a threat to us.” Do we still not understand our stunning failure thirty years ago and that now has exploded?
We’re at a hinge moment in history. If we do not implement a NFZ in Ukraine, and concurrently exploit Russia’s massive internal vulnerabilities, we will be justly damned for our betrayal of Ukraine, of ourselves and of humanity. As of this writing, Washington has also denied the delivery to Ukraine of Polish MIG’s, preventing even a partial NFZ that could be at implemented by the Ukrainians themselves. Our credibility and world leadership is guttering to a close. That is what will ignite WWIII.
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