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Putin’s Savage War in Ukraine: The Tough Lessons We Must Learn

HIMARS. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
HIMARS. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

What Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine War has Taught the World Over the Last Year: Without justification, Russia’s Vladimir Putin unleashed the horrors of hell upon Ukraine a year ago.

Tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed. Millions of people have been driven from their homes. Cities have been pulverized. Ukraine’s economy has been wrecked.

With Moscow now launching an offensive backed by new troops, the war’s end looks further away than ever. Although it would be foolish to bet on the Putin regime after it botched its initial offensive—indeed, Russia’s latest effort so far has not impressed—Ukraine’s losses also have been heavy. Optimistic plans by Kyiv to retake occupied sections of the Donbass and even Crimea look unduly optimistic as well.

A number of lessons have, or at least should have, been learned.

Ukraine As a Teacher 

Anything is possible in international relations. Virtually everyone, me included, did not believe that Putin would launch a full-scale invasion. Western officials, who dismissed Russian security concerns and denied their culpability for the consequences, naturally assumed that Putin was bluffing and would do nothing. When Washington policymakers next imagine what a hostile regime, whether China, Iran, or North Korea might do, they should expect the unexpected.

What even malign governments say matters. Whatever the nature of their governments, statesmen routinely pontificate, exaggerate, and lie, but they often reveal their interests and intentions. Putin made a well-crafted and bluntly-spoken speech at the 2007 Munich security conference. Last year he apparently had decided that America and Europe were determined to bring NATO into Ukraine even if Kyiv formally remained outside NATO, and that would pose a serious threat to Russian security. He went to war as a result. So when the Chinese talk about the importance of Taiwan, US officials should take note. When the North Koreans insist that they won’t surrender their nukes and plan a major increase in their nuclear arsenal, Seoul and Washington should pay attention. And so on.

It doesn’t matter how allied governments believe other countries should assess an issue or behave in response. What matters is how others perceive the issue. NATO members insist that they are pure of heart, devoid of ill intentions, exempt from original sin, and dedicated to turning Europe into a utopia on earth. Maybe. However, that still doesn’t mean their saintliness is necessarily recognized by others. Alas, few Russians held that opinion after the allies lied about NATO expansion, launched an aggressive war to dismember Serbia, promoted “color” revolutions in both Tbilisi and Kyiv, backed the overthrow of the democratically elected, Russia-friendly Ukrainian president, and more.

Fourth, abstract humanitarian feelings are less important in international relations than concrete security considerations. Hence the status of Kyiv has always mattered and always will matter more to Russia than to America and the bulk of Europeans. Never mind the long list of alleged vital interests represented by Ukraine. The fate of the world does not depend on who controls that territory. There is no global struggle between democracy and autocracy: democratic nations long have been ready to deal with the vilest tyrannies, such as China, Saudi Arabia, and even Russia when convenient. The rules-based order is a pious fraud, something the US and Europeans interpret and violate for their benefit. The outcome of the Russo-Ukraine war will no more determine the fate of the world than America’s failed interventions in Vietnam and Afghanistan—at least so long as the US doesn’t sleepwalk into a nuclear conflict.

The US and European nations never believed Ukraine was worth fighting over and still don’t do so. Under pressure from the ever-reckless George W. Bush administration, NATO promised membership for Ukraine and Georgia in 2008. However, over the succeeding 14 years, until the Russian invasion, allied officials talked the talk while refusing to walk the walk, as in do anything to advance Kyiv’s alliance ambitions. When war erupted not one NATO member advocated military action on Ukraine’s defense. Although there is much discussion about how the security environment will or should look after the conflict ends, there has been no push to bring Kyiv into the transatlantic alliance. Even the US administration, which continues to expand its ongoing proxy war against Russia, has stepped carefully to avoid triggering Russian retaliation.

Few governments are prepared for the wars that they start. Moscow long was thought to have the world’s second most powerful military, but the force’s failings were only too obvious when Russia attacked its smaller neighbor. The allies also discovered that living on historical reputations while refusing to invest in current forces is a recipe for humiliation. The United Kingdom has taken the lead in demanding tough action against Russia, yet London’s current inventory of Challenger 2 tanks is just 227. And that is before sending any tanks to Ukraine. Even the US is running short of armaments, having dramatically underestimated the consumption of ammunition and other weapons during high-intensity conventional combat.

Autocratic and democratic governments both suffer vulnerabilities in war. Russia’s experience in Ukraine has demonstrated the shortcoming of authoritarian governance: bad news rarely gets to the boss, corruption undermines the military like other government programs, and domestic opposition rarely can prevent a disastrous intervention, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

However, democratic governments have their own difficulties. This has long been evident: President George W. Bush lived in a fantasy world no less than does Putin. The former believed that Americans were attacked because they were freedom-loving angels, the conflict would be a beatific cakewalk, Iraq’s Shia Muslim population was filled with Republicans-in-waiting ready to embrace America’s neoconservative agenda, and anyone who raised doubts about the administration’s Iraq fantasies was a defeatist and Democrat. Similar myopia is evident today, as partisans use superficial public support to ever more ostentatiously confront Moscow. The determination to eliminate dissenting voices has created an opinion echo chamber in which unpleasant facts also are routinely banned. Sometimes the news blackout is almost complete: Once it was evident that Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky used his own nation’s missile strike on Poland in an attempt to lie the US into the war, the American media instantly lost interest in the issue.

Washington has spent years inflating the Russian threat, thereby justifying bloated military budgets. After a year Moscow’s attempted Blitzkrieg has gone, well, not very far. The fear that the Red Army reborn was going to roll through the Baltic States, overrun Poland, take a pleasure drive up Berlin’s Unter den Linden, parade past the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and speed on to Lisbon and the Atlantic now looks more than ludicrous. At least it would be if the Europeans bothered to arm themselves, as opposed to spending most of their time in a fetal position insisting that Washington do more to protect and reassure them.

Despite all this, there is no accountability for failure in Washington, especially among the infamous Blob, as the foreign policy establishment is known. It does not matter how great the mistake and horrendous the cost, members of the exclusive club never pay the bill. US policymakers have been drenched in a tsunami of blood—from Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen, and now Ukraine—but no matter. No one has paid a professional price for multiple blunders and crimes, including going to war on faked WMD claims, aiding a killer prince in launching an aggressive war against his impoverished neighbor, and spending decades seeking to impose a corrupt, incompetent democracy on a traditional society in Central Asia. The total number of dead from America’s recent wars is a million and growing, and the blunders continue unabated. Yet the culprits remain Blob members in good standing, proposing yet new disasters.

The most celebrated solons often are the most irresponsible and reckless, little more than over-educated morons and fools. The George W. Bush administration was warned that it was relying on faked claims to justify its invasion of Iraq. Successive administrations were told that NATO expansion was incendiary for Moscow. Most establishment figures ignored two decades of failure in Afghanistan and insisted that the US stay essentially forever. Even the most discredited figures now advocate going to the brink in Ukraine.

Consider the case of David Petraeus, one of a cavalcade of commanding generals who presented Afghanistan’s ancient graveyard as a modern Garden of Eden to the American public. Ousted as CIA director after he was exposed disclosing government secrets in pillow talk with his biographer/mistress, he received a gentle wrist slap and now is playing respected statesman, urging military confrontation with Russia, madly presuming Putin would prefer surrender to escalation. (His one-time partner has found far less acceptance.)

Threats of sanctions and proxy wars are insufficient to prevent governments from acting to advance what they believe to be vital or existential interests. There has been much shock and sadness at the failure to deter Russia’s invasion. However, when have economic penalties coerced governments to abandon fundamental political or military objectives? Not Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Syria, or North Korea, all of which face all-encompassing US and sometimes international sanctions. With the war, Moscow proved willing to suffer very substantial allied military support for Kyiv and as yet gives no evidence of weakening its commitment to the war.

Most of the world does not accept the West’s sanctimonious portrayal of itself and its actions. As US and Europe policymakers circled the globe insisting that governments fall into line behind the West’s benevolent and wise leadership, the near unanimous reaction was the diplomatic version of “Up yours!” Many members of the Global South remembered ardent colonialism, support for dictatorships, promiscuous war-making, ruinous sanctions, political hypocrisy, Western disinterest, and more. Moreover, poor nations see no reason to punish themselves economically to promote allied governments’ self-serving foreign policy objectives, even when the latter are presented as near-divinely inspired. As countries outside the West’s exclusive club grow in influence and power, Washington and Brussels will find it ever more difficult to impose their will on others.

Finally, the longer the war goes and the greater the West’s commitment to a Ukrainian victory, the higher the risk of escalation and expansion. Politicians are notoriously susceptible to the fallacy of sunk costs. Having invested so much, they grow even more committed to hopeless ends.

The History Lesson

This tragic mindset helped prolong World War I. After a couple of years amid horrific trench warfare and massive casualties, it was evident to all major powers that the conflict needed to end. However, almost uniformly statesmen on both sides believed that they had to win the peace to justify the horrendous costs already incurred. And they kept fighting, incurring even higher casualties, suffering from regime collapse, and ultimately fighting another, even worse, conflict a generation later. By the late 1960s it was evident that the US was failing in Vietnam, yet US officials, including Richard Nixon, resisted admitting the obvious in a desperate attempt to preserve international credibility. The same mistake is possible today in Ukraine—with potentially even worse consequences from a direct confrontation between nuclear powers.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was an atrocity, but irresponsible allied behavior helped create the conditions for the current crisis. The resulting lessons have been dearly bought and should be learned, lest an even worse conflict erupts in the future. The American people should hold inept, dishonest, and dangerous policymakers accountable for their disastrous mistakes.

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Author Expertise and Experience: 

A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.

Written By

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties. He worked as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and editor of the political magazine Inquiry. He writes regularly for leading publications such as Fortune magazine, National Interest, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Times.