Thinking About Things: The Tragedy of Ukraine and the Incompetence of American Strategy and Leadership

By John DeQ Briggs

I come at the current horror of the Russian invasion of Ukraine with a previously existing and sharply critical point of view of Mr. Biden and his administration. See my articles in this publication of September 11, 2021 criticizing the President broadly and deeply for every aspect of his actions and inactions on Afghanistan and October 12, 2021 focusing on his similarity to blind Mr. Magoo, but without Mr. Magoo’s charm or amiability. My views on him have not much changed.

I would grudgingly give Biden credit for mobilizing the western allies against Russia if I thought he deserved it, but frankly based on what I think I know, I give nearly all of that credit to President Zelenskyy of Ukraine, who has been the closest thing we have seen in this century to a Churchillian figure. A true leader. Listening to him and watching him makes we want to take up arms and go to Ukraine myself, notwithstanding the reality that “the West” bears much blame for its blind sleepwalking into cornering Russia and Putin in a variety of needless ways. A little bit on this nuanced, complex, and hotly debated issue towards the end of this piece. For the moment I am focused not on how or why we got to where we are, but what to do now that perhaps predictable events have arrived. On that score, listening to Mr. Biden makes me weep. He is without an ounce of any Churchillian quality. But he does much resemble Neville Chamberlain, although without Chamberlain’s panache, vision, courage, and will to defend England. Whispering into the microphone is a sign of something, but certainly not leadership.

The Ukrainian citizenry also has shown us something we have not seen in this country for a generation: courage, grit, extraordinary bravery, and a willingness to die for country and freedom. This young girl standing guard with a gun and a lollipop (if not a cigarette) is a remarkable photographic symbol of that courage and determination.

She stands in sad and stark contrast to the shocking Quinnipiac University poll released a few days ago, which was the subject of a piece in last Saturdays Wall Street Journal. The pollster asked: what would you do if you are in the same position as Ukrainians are now, stay and fight or leave the country? More than half of the Democrats (52%) said they would run away and not fight if the US homeland were invaded by the Russians (or anybody apparently). Only 40% say they would stand the ground and fight. More than two thirds of Republicans (68%) said they would stand the ground. Better, but still hardly the “Don’t tread on me” spirit that the author of the article was expecting. Sadly, it is pretty much what I would have expected, as was implicit in my November 1, 2021 article in these pages wondering whether anyone today would actually fight to preserve the Union, although that article assumed secession, not invasion by a foreign power.

I am both at a loss for words and not at a loss for words. That is to say, words at this juncture fail me, but I do have something to try to say. Personally, it seems to me that the Biden administration has been simply dithering while the crisis was developing. This was a continuation of the dithering on Afghanistan and other things. What the administration did do was almost worse than dithering: the President, his National Security Advisor and the Secretary of State made multiple public statements about what they were not going to do in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. For as much of my life as I can remember, administrations have engaged in some form of “strategic ambiguity” if not a clear statement of what might or would be done in certain circumstances. Letting the enemy know what you will not do sends a strong signal of weakness and leave the door open to enemies to act in a more focused and strategically disadvantageous way vis-à-vis the United States. The administration’s policies have been the exact opposite: foolish strategic transparency.

In years to come, I have a suspicion that the failure of Mr. Biden personally to approve the transfer of Polish Soviet made fighters to Ukraine will prove decisive in any ultimate Russian “victory” over Ukraine and is certainly responsible for much of the unimaginable destruction of many Ukrainian cities and towns. We have supplied anti-tank weapons; antiaircraft weapons; the Turks have supplied lethal drones. The failure to support Poland in its offer to provide Russian made aircraft to Ukraine to be flown by Ukrainian pilots, and the Biden decision to veto the stationing many such planes at the outset at an American air base in Germany was hardly a profile in courage. Likewise, the dithering over whether to increase domestic oil production so as, once again, to be energy independent, and so to be able to provide to Europe much of the energy that it now receives from Russia seems unbelievably foolish. To turn over to the “greens” such important geopolitical strategy cannot end well for the United States. To bow before the alter of Utopian green dreams in the face of the realpolitik on the ground is a luxury the nation cannot afford and for which we should expect to pay a very high price in the end.

I do not mean to take lightly the threat of a madman to use nuclear weapons, and Putin has proved himself to be a madman. He has even allowed or encouraged his military to assault nuclear power plants in Ukraine and thereby run some nontrivial risk of a nuclear meltdown. But the very idea that we would allow ourselves to be drawn into a nuclear war with Russia over Latvia or Estonia or Lithuania (all NATO members) after Putin has secured Ukraine seems like an unnecessarily suicidal strategy and a demonstration of an internally inconsistent military policy.

I was in the Navy, not the Army, but it seems relatively obvious that the time to allow the Ukrainians to have access to Soviet made aircraft (as well as U.S. Stingers and Javelin) was before Russia had begun its campaign to destroy the cities of Ukraine; before most if not all of the airfields in Ukraine had been disabled or destroyed by the Russian Air Force; and before thousands of civilians had been slaughtered and millions of women and children forced to flee. Had American resolve been anything like that of the German resolve, the Polish resolve, or the Ukrainian resolve, we would have been ready on day one of the Russian invasion to provide the type of military hardware and logistical support that is still being kicked around as a “possibility” in the halls of the White House and Congress.

I was born in the middle of World War II. My educational years were the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s. During those years we read broadly and deeply about Hitler becoming the democratically elected chancellor of Germany in 1933 (followed almost immediately by the burning of the German Reichstag, the Nazi boycott of Jewish owned shops, the Nazi’s book burning projects, and the opening of the Dachau concentration camp all in that same year); the Nazi’s 1934 murder of Austrian Chancellor Dollfuss; Hitler’s 1935 Race Laws; the 1938 Anschluss with Austria; Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement that year to achieve “peace in our time;” Hitler’s 1938 taking of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia and the subsequent resignation of the Czech government; and the onset of actual war in 1939 when the Nazi’s entered into a pact with Stalin (August 23, 1939), two days later Britain and Poland signed a Mutual Assistance Treaty, and on September 1st the Nazis invaded Poland. World War II began, followed by the Cold War with the USSR, which lasted for some 45 years from roughly 1946 until 1991. The postwar years were followed by the Pax Americana, which seems to have finally ended last month, although it really ended probably with the some years ago when the United States lost the will to lead (e.g., leading from behind) or a willingness to fight against even the Taliban in Afghanistan, or in response to the assault on U.S. embassies, or the use by Bashir Assad of chemical weapons against his own people when our President had publicly said that any such action would be “unacceptable.” Well, it turned out to be quite acceptable indeed..

I grew up in a world in which the news media, educators, commentators, relatives, tout le monde, was of the view that conduct like Hitler’s persistent grabbing of territory and slaughter of people “ … would never be allowed to happen again.” But it is happening again and it is happening right now. The current policy of the Biden administration seems to be to cross its fingers and hope that Putin will be deposed by saner powerful forces in Russia or that there will be some kind of internal uprising in Russia. While perhaps possible, they do not seem very likely. Indeed, in what seems like nearly the blink of an eye, Putin has returned Russia to his Stalinesque totalitarianism into which news from the world outside of Russia can rarely be heard or found. Putin controls the internal Russian narrative with frightening effectiveness. Ukrainians stuck in bombardments of cities telephone relatives back in Russia and are told by those Russian relatives that their eyewitness reports from Ukraine are simply fake news and that the Russians are merely responding to vicious attacks by Ukrainian Nazis.

It seems to me, in short, that the time to have “done something” was a few weeks ago or a few months ago when the threat was obvious and understood by American intelligence agencies. It may not be too late, although perhaps it is. But if it is too late, then it is fair to say that World War III began back on February 23 if not somewhat sooner. A decision to challenge Russia later will be a more difficult decision that it has proved to be today given the proximity of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to the Soviet Union itself. Despite the gloom, or at least my gloom, I listened to some CNN interviews with a supposedly bipartisan group of Senators visiting U.S. troops on the Polish Ukrainian border. Senator Blumenthal of Connecticut, who has never seemed worthy of any particular respect in my mind, made the strongest statement I have heard by a Democratic Senator against the administration’s dithering about the provision of airplanes and other war and humanitarian material to Ukraine. Senator Blumenthal is hardly a centrist, but it is clear that many senior members of the Democratic Party have been deeply troubled and influenced by what they have seen with their own eyes on television recently. Perhaps they have also been inspired by the extraordinary courage and leadership of Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian citizenry. For whatever reason, he and other like-minded Democrats may be putting pressure on the Biden administration to do more, most especially to arrange to assist Ukraine and having access to Soviet made aircraft now owned by formerly eastern bloc countries.

There is the threat of a nuclear response, but that response almost certainly would involve the use of “small” tactical nuclear weapons, not large strategic nuclear weapons. The few people who purport to have insights into the Russian military psyche seem to be of the view that it is improbable that the Russian military would, in the end, follow orders to launch nuclear weapons in the present circumstances. That is not a guarantee, but if the bully is not stopped in Ukraine, he might be far more difficult to stop further north, where NATO countries are involved, or even further to the west or south, where other non-NATO territories could be grabbed and likely would be (Moldova and Georgia come to mind).

By the way, at present, NATO has 30 members. In 1949, there were 12 founding members of the Alliance: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States. The other member countries are: Greece and Turkey (1952), Germany (1955), Spain (1982), the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland (1999), Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia (2004), Albania and Croatia (2009), Montenegro (2017) and North Macedonia (2020). It is hard for me to accept that we would fight for every inch of those countries in the event of a Russian attack on any of them, while letting Ukraine fall into the hands of Russia in such a brutal and unconscionable fashion. On the other hand, I have little doubt that Mr. Biden is one of the 52% of Democrats who would flee rather than fight in the end. He does not seem like the kind of person who would fight for anything or be willing to die for any national interest (the same is likely true of many or most of our recent presidents).

On this score, today Atlantic Magazine (reliably literate left of center, but not always) ran a  piece about the western world being in denial. It starts with the author’s  understanding of why the democratic countries are reluctant to fight, but expresses concern that those people simply do not understand what will happen next.

Meanwhile, as I am finishing this up, I see a headline that says Russia is asking China for military assistance. This tells me that the administration might once again have screwed the pooch, so to speak, by waiting too long to make the correct decision allowing Ukraine to defend itself more effectively at the outset of the war.

Finally, I am not addressing right now the very complicated question of how we got into our current predicament. There are many highly knowledgeable, articulate and conflicting schools of thought on this, and part of me agrees with some part of each school of thought. This article from yesterday by Matt Taibbi is chilling for its factual accuracy in most of its details. But no matter how correct the view that historical acts by the West have served to corner Russia and motivate Putin to invade Ukraine (and to a degree this is no doubt true, although to a different degree the projection of weakness by our government and military over the past many years on many fronts, most recently Afghanistan, has provided a similar and maybe more immediate incentive), fixing the blame for the current situation does not point the way to a manner of addressing it in the moment.