The Ukrainian Line in the Sand

Alan Zendell, March 12, 2022

Watching horrific videos and interviews with ordinary Ukrainians, it’s important to remember the elephant in the room: Nuclear War. That would be the end of civilization as we know it and possibly the destruction of all life on Earth. As some politicians and pundits beat war drums and others fuss about the cost of helping Ukraine, President Biden faces the defining challenge of his presidency.

When I studied game theory, whose principal purpose is learning to optimize positive outcomes in conflict situations, the first thing I learned was the difference between tactics and strategy. Tactics is about winning battles and defending people and places under threat. Strategy is about the long term. If battle tactics define victory as the “last man standing,” you picked the wrong strategy. What’s the point of winning if everything has been destroyed?

President Biden is keenly aware of the alternatives before him. Many people fantasize about the good guys rushing to Ukraine’s rescue, wiping out what appears to be a seriously over-rated Russian military. If the Ukrainians could hold off a force of 200,000 infantry for weeks, NATO ought to have an easy time of it, right? Our military leaders have dozens of winning tactical scenarios, and they’d probably work if Russia’s underperforming army weren’t backed up by nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons controlled by a leader skilled at playing the madman game.

We’ve been here before. In 2000, Russian President Vladimir Putin began an “anti-terrorist” campaign against Muslim insurgents in Chechniya. Within months, after the city of Grozny was reduced to rubble, Russia had re-absorbed the former Soviet Republic. Western countries stood by and watched. In 2008, Russia invaded the former Soviet nation of Georgia. The world tried minor sanctions, but otherwise let the Russian military take over the country in twelve days.

In 2014, Russia invaded the Crimea region of Ukraine. President Obama imposed a few sanctions, but again, the west sat by and let Russia annex the province. People who knew Putin well warned that he wouldn’t stop there and the west’s lack of response would embolden him.

Students of history compared Crimea to Hitler’s aggressive moves on the Sudetenland, a region of Czechoslovakia populated mostly by German-speaking people that borders Germany. Hitler insisted that Sudetenland was rightfully part of Germany, and he simply annexed it, running into little opposition. Western Europe, led by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, adopted a policy of appeasement. We know how that turned out, yet when Putin seized Crimea in an almost bloodless coup under virtually identical circumstances, Obama, whether because he was hamstrung by an obstructionist Republican majority in Congress or because he seriously misjudged Putin, committed the same error as Chamberlain.

Along came Donald Trump, who immediately set about creating discord among the NATO alliance, while simultaneously seeming to revere Putin. Trump praised Putin for being a strong leader and complained that if only he weren’t constrained by the Constitution he’d sworn to defend, he could be equally strong. Putin played Trump like a violin and did everything he could to create disunity among NATO countries. Experts warned that Putin’s ultimate goal was the reunification of the former Soviet countries under his dominion, some of which are now members of NATO.

With Ukraine making overtures to NATO and Biden setting about reunifying our allies, Putin had to act fast if he expected to re-absorb Ukraine without having to confront NATO forces. But master strategist Putin made some serious miscalculations. NATO turned out to be more united than ever, and Ukrainians were willing to fight to the death to defend their homeland. The irony is that the west, having finally learned the lesson of World War 2, that appeasement only encourages aggressors, was confronted by the reality that Article 5 of the NATO Treaty might result in World War 3.

The question all Americans are asking is how far Biden will go in defending Ukraine. His strategy has been to enclose Russia in a net of worldwide sanctions, and to re-evaluate our relationships with adversaries like China, Venezuela, and Iran. The objective is to create so much internal pressure on Putin that he either backs down (extremely unlikely) or is removed from power internally.

We and our allies, led by Biden, are pouring massive amounts of munitions and equipment into Ukraine. How far will Biden go? We got a clear message when Poland offered to funnel Soviet era MIGs to Ukraine through an American Air Base in Germany, which would support the creation of a No-Fly-Zone and raise the specter of NATO aircraft coming into direct conflict with Russian forces. Biden rejected the plan over the loud objections of some politicians. Interviewed yesterday, he said, “we will defend every inch of NATO territory… if we respond [to Russian aggression] it is World War III…we have a sacred duty [to defend] NATO territory… [but] we will not fight the third World War in Ukraine.”

I’m proud to have a president with sound judgment who knows the difference between friends and enemies.

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2 Responses to The Ukrainian Line in the Sand

  1. Norman says:

    What do you think NATO would do if Ukraine were a member of NATO? Would they fight against the Russians or would they back out and go against their pledges? Putin would not go to war against 31 countries three of whom also have nuclear weapons. Even if he wanted to the Kremlin and the Russian people would take him out of office. Will never have another opportunity to get rid of Putin then we have now. I believe this is going to be the worst mistake for the US since Vietnam.

    • alanpzendell says:

      It’s a fascinating question. If we believe Biden, we’d probably be rubbing up against WW3 right now. You’re right that Putin is very much at risk, but the risk of nuclear war makes this feel (no pun intended) like Russian roulette with the whole world in the balance.

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