Tag Archives: Russian aggression

The Bewildering Cruelty of the Russian War Machine

How does a nation that boasts of its modernity co-exist with nearly medieval tactics of warfare?


Few of us can stomach it for long, but any close reading of the Russian way of war is a trip backwards to a broken society with a barbaric military. Corruption, delusions of projected power, and complicit media make it all worse. Even so, it is hard to fathom that the average Russian has not comprehended the world’s revulsion with national defense units that make so little distinction between armed and civilian targets. The West and Ukraine have unmasked the sheer ineptness of the military, even though it has still managed to send missiles to too many apartment blocks and playgrounds.

Of course, we Westerners lack the longer view that pitches the idea that states in the former Soviet Union—especially Ukraine—were meant to have a lifelong political kinship with Russia’s west. But this fantasy no longer applies, and the nation’s leadership is stuck looking in the rear-view mirror, which partly accounts for the barbaric 19th and 20th Century war atrocities visited on Ukrainian cities. So far, credible estimates indicate that Russia has destroyed 16,000 apartments, 120,000 houses and caused billions in property and infrastructure damage. When their outlaw armies leave an area, returning residents can be assured that schools and churches will have been pillaged or burned. Ruins and revenge killings are a trademark of the Russian Army, made even worse by forced population resettlement of many eastern Ukrainians.  Incredibly, this appears to be motivated in part by a strategy to bolster a sagging Russian birthrate and self-exile.

How does a nation that boasts of its modernity co-exist with nearly medieval tactics of warfare? How does the national mindset of looking the other way still work as a means of getting through the long nights and short summers?

Add in the nuclear sword play that Putin regularly struts through in his public rhetoric, and you have a picture of a kind of dissolute leadership matched only by few other states. No memories of a once-flowering Russian culture can mask the rot represented in this futile effort to rebuild national glory. Even past achievements in art and music can’t cover up the hollowed-out society that modern Russia has become. Coexisting with this failed state will require the patience and ingenuity of several future generations.

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How Long Can We Ask Ukraine to be NATO’s Defender?

photo from The New York Times
                               The New York Times

The moral quandary of the West’s position sits in clear view.

As others have noted, the Ukraine war is “asymmetrical.”  Russia is in the privileged position of attacking Ukrainian citizens with little fear of direct retaliation to its forces or equipment staged on their side of the border. Vladimir Putin has essentially used nuclear blackmail to deter the west from engaging in direct military retaliation. Russians are mostly experiencing only modest economic hardships, but nothing equal to the deaths and homelessness of thousands of Ukrainians whose towns in the east have been leveled.

It’s easy for some to say this isn’t our fight. But NATO leaders and individual governments have noted that it is unthinkable to let Russia pull another Crimea by taking the territory of a separate and emerging democracy. Putin, of course, claims he is only occupying what belongs to his pathetically out of date map that included what was once known as “little Russia.”

Everyone following this appalling war understands that NATO member states have contributed to financing and supplying Ukraine with advanced weapons to stave off a full invasion. The usual observation as per our own Secretary of Defense is that we cannot allow Russia to succeed in its continual thirst for more lands to put under its control. That seems self-evident, especially in light of a delusional Putin who recently declared himself the heir to the legacy of Peter the Great.

But the moral quandary of the West’s position sits in clear view.  How long can we ask the Ukrainians to sacrifice their citizens in the interests of NATO’s strategic goals? To be sure, containment is required in order to rein in a leader trying to expand a nation already faltering.  Except for gas and vodka, no one is buying what Russia is selling.

Russia remains one of the physically largest nations in the world. But most of its citizens still find it hard to identify with others in the hinterlands in the far east. They cherish European vitality, even though many seem to lack the national will to function with anything like the norms of a civil society.

We must be on the scene with the Ukrainians. 

ukraine flag graphicIf the idea of “western values” means anything, it should include doing more than supplying weapons with the handicapping proviso that they only be used for defense. I am no military analyst, but if there were justice in this quagmire, Russia should be forced to feel the sting of its mostly unanswered military attacks. They should face retaliation in their own regions which are used to stage assaults on Ukraine.

In addition, and at a minimum, the nearly fifty countries around the world supporting Ukraine must be prepared to strengthen threatened cities like Odesa and other land that may soon be under siege. A true multinational force could function as a peacekeeping presence in areas threatened by Russian attacks. A model for this form of ‘drawing a line in the sand’ might be Berlin after World War II. In 1948 Allied forces helped maintain the free zones of the large city, placing themselves firmly in the way of Soviet goals to move west. Food and household items were often the weapons of choice in the aircraft-centered Berlin airlift. It helped citizens live a semi-normalized life.  If the same approach was used now, the idea of attacking a true multi-national peacekeeping force should be too much even for Putin.

No doubt this would still look like “aggression” to murderous Russian leader, who seems to lack even an elemental understanding of the idea of national sovereignty. As well, authoritarians almost always overestimate their self-importance, usually scouring the empty closets of their history to justify their faded rhetoric of political hegemony. Such an incremental step of western citizens joining Ukrainians as guardians of their own nation might finally call Putin’s bluff.