By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
Vladimir Putin is giving Atilla the Hun a run for his money--attempting to raze Ukraine to the ground. Though at the moment parts of Putin’s forces are in temporary retreat, no one with sense would wager that, if Putin ultimately succeeds, he’ll stop with Ukraine.
Yet, NATO and the U.S.—fearful of expanding the Russo-Ukraine war into World War III—continue to dither about what kind of aid to give Ukraine, how much and when. They seem exceedingly reluctant to accept what the Ukrainians persistently shout from the rooftops—or should I say, from the rubble of their cities and their dead: Ukraine’s ability to fend off Russian expansion is all that stands between Putin and the rest of Europe. If Ukraine falls, it is highly likely that some NATO country will be attacked next.
Russia’s War without Quarter
Experts of every stripe have concluded that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a move towards re-establishing the Russian empire. The unexpectedly staunch resistance of Ukraine has led Putin’s forces to employ scorched-earth tactics.
Failing to advance successfully with land forces, Russia has hit Ukraine with a punishing barrage from the air, deliberately bombing such civilian targets as a maternity hospital, apartment buildings, and even a municipal theater that had the word “children” painted in large letters viewable from the sky outside the building. Russia also agreed to humanitarian escape corridors from the besieged city of Mariupol, only to shell refugees who used them.
That did not beat the Ukrainians into submission. Rather, Ukrainian forces managed to push the Russians back. So, the Russians moved on to even more barbaric warfare. According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Russian soldiers have been shooting columns of civilians on the road and blowing up shelters where people were hiding from airstrikes. He has also said the Russian military has abducted over 2,000 children, as well as looted cities it has captured.
In his address to the UN Security Council on April 5, Zelensky set out a litany of the barbaric horrors he saw in Bucha, after the Russians retreated from that city: civilians shot in the back of the head or in the eye after being tortured, some with their hands tied behind their backs; civilians blown up by grenades in their apartments or houses; civilians in cars in the middle of the road that had been crushed by tanks; people with limbs cut off or throats cut; women raped and killed in front of their children—Zelensky’s list went on and on.
According to The Atlantic, not even animals have been spared. The Ukrainian government has accused the Russian military of intentionally striking dog shelters and horse stables and also leaving behind “bullet-riddled corpses” of cattle, horses, goats, and pet dogs—in the wake of their retreat from the Kyiv area.
Sanctions—an Inadequate Response
The most publicized aid given Ukraine by NATO and the United States has been in the form of incremental sanctions on Russia intended to cut into the wealth of Putin, his oligarchs, and the Russian economy. The hope has been that the pressure would change Russia’s behavior. So far, it has not worked.
Nevertheless, in response to the Bucha slaughter, the U.S. has adopted new measures, coordinated with the G-7 and European Union, under which all new investment in Russia will be banned, and sanctions on financial institutions and state-owned enterprises in Russia, its government officials and their family members will be instituted and/or increased.
Furthermore, because of the revelation of the undeniable atrocities committed in Bucha, the European Commission (EC) has agreed to adopt a ban on the import of Russian coal, a full transaction ban on four crucial Russian banks, and a block on Russian and Russian-operated vessels from access to European Union ports.
But according to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, a ban on buying oil and gas is the true key to stopping the financing of Putin’s war machine. However, Germany and Austria, dependent on Russian oil and gas, are not willing to go so far as a gas embargo.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said the EC’s ban is “not really an adequate sanctions package to the massacres that are being uncovered.” He tweeted last week, “a feeble response is just an invitation for more atrocities.”
I agree. Instituting economic sanctions as an auxiliary pressure is not a bad thing, but applying it as one’s main weapon will not stop a determined aggressor. Sanctions, by nature, will take a long time to work. But the Ukrainians don’t have time. They’re being murdered—annihilated—now.
Likewise, since the Bucha atrocities, there has been talk of holding Putin accountable for war crimes. But that too takes time. So, accountable when? When every Ukrainian is dead, and Putin has replaced them by transplanting Russians to the area? Because that’s what it looks like the Russian aim is.
According to The Atlantic, before executing some civilian men in Bucha, one of the Russians told helpless Ukrainian witnesses: “Don’t worry. You are all normal—and this is dirt. We are here to cleanse you from the dirt.” As The Atlantic put it, “the war of attrition has morphed into a war of annihilation. The Russian invaders are now treating the entirety of the population as combatants, as dirt to be cleansed.”
After President Zelensky’s strongly worded video address to the U.N. Security Council last week, in which he presented video evidence of Russia’s war crimes, that body voted to suspend Russia’s membership in the U.N. Human Rights Council. But Russia still retains its veto power on the U.N. Security Council. And condemnation or ostracism by the U.N. will not prevent Putin from continuing his Hitlerian, Stalinesque actions.
Investigations and collection of data concerning the deliberate massacre of civilians is being collected in anticipation of war crimes trials—but that, like the effect of sanctions—will be a long time in coming. Would it not be better to stop the genocide rather than merely punish it after the fact?
Practical Aid from NATO and the U.S.—Is It Enough?
Last week, national security council special adviser Matt Miller enumerated on MSNBC some of the practical military aid now being delivered to Ukraine’s forces. He noted that Ukraine is not only being supplied Stinger missiles and more Javelin missiles like those the Ukrainians used to destroy Russian tanks, but also long-range air defense systems, and coastal defense systems that Zelensky specifically requested. Miller added that the government is also providing types of weapons it won’t discuss because our allies don’t want to disclose that they’ve provided them or because Ukrainians don’t want it disclosed.
In addition, the Pentagon has trained a small number of Ukrainian soldiers, who were already here in the U.S. many months before the war for professional military education, on Switchblade kamikaze drones so that they can train fellow soldiers on their arrival home.
Miller said that the U.S. has tried to “identify the weapons… that we think would be most effective and that the Ukrainians are trained on and know how to use, that we can get into the country quickly and they can deploy into the battlefield quickly without having to take weeks or months to train upon new systems.”
Given Ukraine’s demonstrated level of sophistication, I find it hard to believe that Zelensky would ask for military aid Ukraine could not use. It seems like the height of paternalism for the United States and NATO to claim that we won’t give them something they desperately ask for on the grounds that they won’t know how to use it.
President Zelensky and his government have repeatedly pleaded, argued, and tried to persuade NATO and/or the United States to create a no-fly zone over Ukraine. NATO and the U.S. have refused on the grounds that if such planes—which they would have to fly—engaged with Russian planes, that would be the beginning of World War III. NATO also appears to be cowed by Putin’s warnings a month ago that he had put his nuclear forces on high alert.
But Ukraine’s argument that it is all that stands between Putin’s aspirations to expand Russia’s control to NATO countries is, in my opinion, a reasonable assessment. A number of NATO countries—Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, for starters—were formerly either Soviet satellite countries or incorporated into the Soviet Union. If Putin’s ambition is to re-establish the Russian empire, they surely would be future targets. And if Putin is not stopped now, he will have to be stopped later.
Furthermore, as Alexander Vindman, former Director for European Affairs for the U.S. National Security Council, said on MSNBC last week, Putin’s nuclear threat is simply “nuclear blackmail.” Vindman suggested that Putin is trying to ward off us doing what’s in our best interest by “giving a saber rattle.” He argued that the fact that we have “as potent if not more potent” a nuclear arsenal renders Putin’s threat “hollow.” Vindman maintained, “The Russians will not wage nuclear war against us because they will be destroyed.”
Still, regardless of the nuclear question, it is understandable that NATO does not want to be drawn directly into an arial fight for a non-NATO country. Fair enough. But President Zelensky has also asked for Russian MiG fighter jets so the Ukrainians themselves could combat Russia’s bombers.
While the United States does not have these Russian planes, Poland does. But, apparently fearful of making the exchange itself, Poland wanted the U.S. to act as middleman. This would have involved Poland sending the planes further west, to a U.S. air base in Germany, and the U.S. making the transfer from there.
On March 9, the U.S. rejected Poland’s proposal. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “The prospect of fighter jets at the disposal of the United States Government departing from a U.S. NATO base in Germany to fly into airspace contested with Russia over Ukraine raised some serious concerns for the entire NATO alliance…our goal is to end the war, not to expand it—including potentially expand it to NATO territory.”
The result: Mariupol, Kharkiv, and a number of other Ukrainian cities are now rubble. It is expected that this may be a protracted war, continuing for months or years. How long can even a people with great fortitude hold out against such a barrage of bombs, missiles, and atrocities against the survivors who emerge from the wreckage?
In refusing to find some way to get MiG fighter jets to the Ukrainian military, the Western NATO powers are being profoundly shortsighted, While they are so busy trying to avoid World War III, their timidity may bring it about.
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.