Thoughts on Ukraine

It’s going to be horrific. This will not be a thrilling TV victory or even a quick defeat followed by a sullen occupation. Cities will be reduced to rubble and hundreds of thousands of people will die.

Ten years ago, I started following the war in Syria with the goal of understanding who was fighting whom and why. I eventually found the answer, at the cost of seeing too many images of dead children: lifeless drowning victims who had almost reached safety, rows of tiny victims of poison gas, small ash-gray bodies destroyed by aerial bombardment, emaciated infants starved by siege or frozen in winter cold, bodies heaped together after being set upon by men with knives, children held in prisons where systematic torture and rape are the order of the day. This is what you too can expect to see if you continue paying attention to Ukraine.

I understand the urge to turn away, but don’t shrug off this one as just another foreign war. What happens today and tomorrow in Ukraine will shape the global order of the next century. Prices of oil will rise and fall on the short term, but this war will determine where you can travel to, who you can do business with and what places missionaries can serve for a long time to come. It will determine whether we enshrine the rule Countries willing to break the law can do whatever they want as de facto international law. Whether we spend trillions of dollars over a few decades on defense budgets rather than on improving society. Whether the church’s seeds in two countries will continue to grow, or whether we will add new names to our martyrology.

Another dispiriting lesson of the last decade has been that the urge to do nothing and hope for the best is almost impossible to resist. The people who advocated our disastrous disengagement from Syria don’t even realize they were wrong. We should have done more, and we should have acted sooner. But after 20 years of terrible decisions by presidents from both parties, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

Study a topic long enough, and eventually you at least learn to separate the well-informed experts from the cheerleaders, and the voices of prudence from people who never change their minds. Perhaps I’m wrong this time and the voices of caution have it right, but everything I see tells me that important things are at stake and we’re not doing enough. We tried talk, and hopefully we’ll have that chance again. But now outcomes are being determined by guns and bombs, and yet we’re still more concerned with stating clearly what we won’t do than on accomplishing what must be done. There are wiser, more knowledgeable and more experienced people than me. You should probably listen to them. But it seems to me that if it takes planes in the air and boots on the ground to honor the security guarantees we made to Ukraine in 1994, so be it.

Let’s skip past the part where you say, “Oh yeah? How would you feel if it was your child over there?” directly to the part where I say: It is my child, an enlisted serviceman with an MOS in combat arms in a unit that regularly deploys to Eastern Europe. This could end horribly for him and my family. Before he becomes personally involved, I would prefer for well-armed Ukrainians to reduce the equipment of the Russian army to scrap metal.

A recent appearance in the media I follow are images of Russian and Ukrainian servicemen who have been killed, mostly physically fit young men who look good in a dress uniform. My son looks a lot like them. Direct involvement may come at an awful price. But the price of standing on the sidelines forever as the free world shrinks and inertia and decadence consume us is also appalling. That too is not the future I want for my children.

No matter who you are, there are things you can do. No matter who you vote for, your party has a tacit or avowed pro-Putin wing. Maybe it’s a handful of elected politicians, or maybe it’s a powerful block of prominent voices and party leaders. You can speak up and refuse to prioritize hating Democrats/Republicans/liberals/conservatives over commitment to democracy, here and abroad. You can tune out people who promote cynicism or stoke outrage, or who just got it wrong one too many times without realizing it. You can practice arguing with people as fellow citizens who have valid reasons for what they believe, even as you disagree with them.

Just because this war has entered the phase of bullets and missiles doesn’t mean that the time for thoughts and prayers is over. Figuring out just what to pray for is more difficult than you’d think, however. Praying for a peace that gives legal cover to acts of aggression and conquest seems as inappropriate as consecrating a war that will demand more lives, civilian and soldier alike. But all else being equal, the world is better when bombs stop falling, and so the formula I eventually found that I could pray for was this: for the people of the afflicted nations to have peace, freedom and safety; and for some nations to have better leaders, and other nations to have better friends.

25 comments for “Thoughts on Ukraine

  1. We can pray for a swift end to the conflict–with the best resolution for all involved being found at the negotiating table.

  2. Sadly, like all wars of this nature, it will draw out for some time and eventually, sooner or later it will involve more nations than the two. In a sense it already involves many nations as supplies and sanctions are coming from many countries to help Ukraine.

    Also, this is a sad but true testament of weak western leadership and weak policies. Had America sent in 20,000 troops and massive air defenses into Ukraine as a “training exercise” to counter Russians “training exercise” of amassing troops on Ukraine’s borders it would of remained just a training exercise by the Russians. Russia doesn’t want a direct war with America because ir knows it is severely unprepared to fight a sophisticated, well trained and well manned army.

    And this is where things to me get bothersome. Here we are, on the sidelines acting as the proverbial waterboy, in the conflict somehow hoping that eventually somehow our supplying weapons and monetary assistance and some logistical support will fend off an overwhelming horde of aggressive misaligned Russian invaders who have a madman at the helm. At some point, even arguably since day one, it becomes morally and ethically irresponsible to just hang out on the sidelines instead of giving our fellow Ukraininas full military support and strength. At some point in the conflict we are going to look and feel really awful in watching, as if going to the movies with drinks and popcorn, as historical Ukraine with all its diverse people’s get erased entirely from the earth. At some point we either got to truly take sides and stand up for what is ethically and morally responsible or hold ourselves, as a country, responsible for the genocide of a nation.

    We have the firepower, the force, the will to overcome this evil relatively fast with very little loss of life if we act now and give our true commitment to Ukraine. Sadly though I fear, because of weak leadership, we will instead see Ukraine decimated and free people needlessly and hopelessly slaughtered while we continue to eat pur popcorn and drink our sodas from the cushy seats.

  3. It is grotesquely irresponsible to discuss this war without bringing up the specter of global thermonuclear holocaust. You all talk as though the US were watching indifferently from the sidelines like in Syria. We are not. This time, we are coordinating massive arms shipments and absolutely unprecedented international sanctions that are already bankrupting the Russian regime’s ability to keep financing this insane invasion—all while trying to prevent a nuclear exchange that would leave literally billions dead, and end not just Ukrainian civilization but all civilizations.

    This new cold war may still turn hot for NATO. If so, I hope and pray that MAD will still be enough to keep Putin’s finger off the red button, because the moment NATO’s vastly superior military overwhelms Russia’s is when the nuclear option will be literally all he has left. But in the meantime, it is the height of irresponsibility and armchair generaling to lambast “weak leadership” that is, unlike in Syria, literally doing all it can to balance the impossible tightrope of both helping Ukraine and preventing nuclear war.

  4. Weak leadership treats Russia as an unleashable terrifying threat that it is scared of. This has allowed Putin to continue to terrorize. It all boils down to weak leadetship!
    Russia’s threat of nuclear war is all talk. Russia has no plans whatsoever of starting nuclear war. They play the nuclear threat war card because they know they can do what they want while holding that threat over a weak Biden administration. It’s time to call their bluff and drive them out of Ukraine and go after Putin and his Generals for war crimes.

  5. Things I have learned:

    The Russia Soul and the Ukraine Soul will come to see this conflict as being ignited by the schism between their respective Orthodox Patriarchs.

    American “Regime Change” foreign policy serves corporations instead of constitutions, contracts instead of constituents.

    Putin employs a legal framework of the United States: “preemptive war” and “preventive war” (also known as the Bush Doctrine, John Yoo and Robert J. Delahunty; he deploys military force (State vs. Donbass), after the model of the 1990s Balkan “ethnic genocide” conflict; annexation of Crimea he learned from the annexation of Hawaii.

  6. Rob: “weak leadership” applies to whom? To what? You make it sound so easy. But Putin has been slowly building towards this kind of thing for 20 years. The world has tolerated him in many forms as he has carefully and persistently dismantled the weak democratic forms that were in place when he rose to power. Every U.S. administration for a long time has tolerated him. Bringing tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine (a country that we have never done “training exercises” with in the past) would have been highly provocative and would have been, in my opinion, reckless and would have fanned the flames. Who are these weak leaders that you feel could have so easily dealt with this problem in the past? “Weak leadership” would seem to me be a dog whistle for anti-Biden sentiments. Please don’t reduce the complex, multi-national, multi-decade challenge to vague claims of weak leadership.

  7. Stephenchardy,
    Putin picked the time when weak leadership in America is in full effect. The withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan leaving behind Americans and weapons was a big sign of weakness. Biden’s foreign policies are weak. He is afraid of conflict and especially of conflict with Russia and China.

  8. Rob is willing to bet the lives of millions or even billions of people on his uninformed assumptions of Putin’s intent.

    Current leadership is not willing to make that same bet, based on information on Putin acquired over countless hours by hundreds of intelligence officers…

    What you call weak leadership, the rest of the world calls sanity.

  9. Stephen C Hardy: I’m quite prepared to call Rob utterly wrong about a lot of things (his take on BYU is the worst, for example), but in this case he’s not saying anything that informed and responsible observers haven’t already said. He’s reaching for a framing in domestic politics that I think is too easy, and his argument is certainly not obviously correct. But it’s not clearly wrong, either. Bush’s invasion of Iraq was the worst foreign policy mistake in U.S. history (so far; it’s only Monday), Obama flubbed a couple of critical opportunities, and Trump literally helped get Putin’s policy goals enshrined in the Republican platform. We’ve gotten where we are by not forcing Putin to back down when he was in a weaker position. Announcing what we won’t do in advance seems like it’s telling Putin all the things he can get away with. How is the current situation, with Ukrainian soldiers shooting Russian tanks and helicopters with American missiles, fundamentally different from American soldiers doing the same thing?

    But equally informed people think Biden has handled the crisis superbly. Transparently releasing intelligence about the run-up to invasion is generally acknowledged as a brilliant move. Getting all of Europe on board with sanctions and shipping arms to Ukraine without making the moment all about himself shows real leadership. Maybe he’s perfectly balanced on the knife-edge between escalation and passivity. I hope so, and that he can stay there as complications arise.

    Or maybe JB’s point about the primacy of avoiding global thermonuclear is correct. Why get involved in open conflict instead of waiting ten years or so for a heart condition, cancer or palace intrigue to finish off Putin?

    So let’s not tell ourselves that Rob’s or JB’s or your own position is obviously wrong. I think the patterns of recent history are a better guide than a shoddy partisan framing, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll lead to a better outcome this time. And the risks of miscalculation are enormous – both the risk that escalation will get out of control, and the risk that acquiescing to Putin’s invasion this time will leave in a stronger position, with even less to lose, five years down the road.

  10. Stephen,
    Its a reality that Biden is weak with foreign policy. It’s mostly in the wording that Biden uses. American foreign policy in general has been too lax for a while. We need leadership with balls that call people’s bluffs and refuse to be bullied around instead of playing silly games with sanctions alone. The way you speak with dictators is with military muscle plain and simple. It has to be thst way. There were so many ways we could have flexed military might without firing a single shot that would have prevented Russia from invading. Instead you have Biden crying about Russia being a nuclear nation. Even going so far as to cancel a planned icbm missile test a few weeks ago in fear of Russia. We are a nuclear nation. Why is Biden so scared? He would rather see Ukrainians suffer terror than set one American foot into Ukraine. That’s weakness!

  11. Whatever the weakness of Biden’s foreign policy, it’s a helluva lot stronger than the Trump foreign policy: “Whatever Vlad wants, Vlad gets.”

  12. What does it take to wake the sleeping giant USA? We stood by while Europe fell in WWI, it wasn’t until 1917 when our merchant ships were attacked, that the world sang “The Yanks Are Coming”. In WWII we stood by as Czechoslovakia fell, Poland fell, other countries fell. Churchill begged FDR for help during Dunkirk, and FDR declined. His help came too late for the imperiled Brits as the gimmick to circumvent the Neutrality Act (using horses and trucks to push and pull resources across the Canadian border where they could be shipped) took far too long, came too late to save Dunkirk. We painfully watched the Brits, our closest cultural and economic Allies, face what all anticipated would be their imminent doom. We could potentially watch Ukraine fall, Moldova, the Baltics fall, and still sleep. Even Russian nuclear terrorism in Ukraine (Chernobyl and Zap), failed to rouse more than a sleepy lifted eyelid before rolling back over. The giant can be woken, and will be Russia’s worst nightmare. But it takes more than countries falling to rouse it, more than humanitarian crises, more than mine-scarred land and decimated cities.

  13. Mortimer,
    That’s the sign of weak leadership for ya. It absolutely baffles me that we have refused to be more engaged in Ukraine. Do we enjoy watching people get terrorized? Where is the actual threshold? Where is the breaking point where America or NATO or some other nation finally says “enough is enough”.

  14. Rob, Are you saying that we’ve had a century of weak leadership? I’m pointing out the history to articulate the fact that the current approach is historically precedented.

  15. Mortimer,
    Call it what you will, seems like it happens with quite a few of major wars, America has had weak leadership at times in getting involved in conflict. It almost appears like the longer we wait the worse the war and carnage is. Do we not learn?

  16. Woof, to several of you in the comments. I’m really glad y’all are not in charge of deciding whether we start WWIII.

    Jonathan, thank you for this post. I love the question you end with: “Figuring out just what to pray for is more difficult than you’d think.” I’ve been thinking about that line for a few days and it’s been edifying, if very, very challenging. Your formulation at the end is pretty great though.

  17. It was the policy of every US President during the Cold War, from Truman and Eisenhauer to Reagan and George H. W. Bush, to avoid direct military confrontations with the Soviet Union because of the risk they could escalate into all-out nuclear war. That included not intervening when the Soviets crushed attempts by Hungary and Czechoslovakia to abandon communism (not an exact analog to the situation in Ukraine today but similar). If that was weak leadership, we’ve had a lot of it.

    I get it–a large part of me wants to put a stop to the barbarity too. We probably wouldn’t even need ground troops: if we destroyed a large fraction of Russia’s tanks, artillery, and other heavy weapons from the air Ukraine could probably finish the job, though given Russian air defenses doing so would be bloody. But Putin knows that losing wars is one of the things that gets tyrants like him deposed and most likely killed, so if he’s backed into a corner he may well use some tactical nuclear weapons and dare us to respond. I’m very glad I don’t have to make these calls.

    Success in a superpower conflict depends on deterrence and I actually agree with Rob that, with 20/20 hindsight, the only thing that would have deterred Putin was sending US troops into Ukraine before the invasion began–we’d have only needed enough to say “fighting Ukraine means fighting us too.” It probably would have worked, though Putin miscalculated everything else so badly you never know.

    But keep in mind that it was the reality of Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine that finally united so much of the world and the United States against him. Tucker Carlson and others on Fox News were echoing Russian propaganda until shortly before it began, and Donald Trump called Putin a “genius” the day it started. (No, the modifier “evil” was not expressed or implied.) If Biden had tried to send troops into Ukraine before the invasion, the entire Trumpist movement, including Fox News, almost certainly would have opposed it. The hard left probably would have too, and in Europe there’d probably be mixed support at best for yet more “American militarism.”

    On the other hand, now that deterrence has failed there are no good options and every path forward has serious costs and risks. One thing we can certainly pray for is that our leaders will be given wisdom. They will need it.

  18. WW3 may have already started. If not, the longer this goes on the more chances it has of becoming such.

    I think one must understand Russia’s viewpoint to understand why. For various complex reasons, Russia is reverting back to their old Soviet ways which include disinformation and misinformation. Russia’s actions are a direct consequence of their own broken system of disinformation and misinformation between their own governing bodies. Misinformation breeds well when people are not free to understand reality when there isn’t freedom of press, religion, speech, etc. Conspiracy theories become fact in their eyes. I don’t have any doubts that Putin honestly believes, in large degree, that he needs to free all of Eastern Europe from the dregs of western influence. Ukraine is just one of many territories in Putin’s eyes that they need to conquest. Putin honestly believed that this operation in Ukraine would be simple, that Ukrainians lived in constant fear under Zelenskys rule and that freeing Ukraine from their tyrannical government would be relatively simple.

    Putin basically lives under a very big rock of misinformation and disinformation. He is so disconnected from reality because of his own system he has allowed to come to pass or brought to pass himself. And this is why WW3 may have already started or has the capacity to be started. Everything we do in the West now only solidifies the misinformation Putin has as a reality to be his reality. In Putins mind, Ukraine, along with other former Soviet nations must be freed in order to prevent a major war or anhiliation of his people. Only, his very objectives actually start WW3. He has already started his own nightmare. The longer this goes on with weak response from the West the longer Putin has to forge the misinformation into certain reality and why he will see himself as savior of mankind and will use his propaganda machine to convince other nations like China to support their cause.

  19. The one bit of unexpected good news out of all this is that the Russian military turned out to be far weaker, and much less competent, than anyone supposed. Putin thought he was launching Operation Bagration, but he got The Winter War. It is a good question whether he’s getting completely accurate information, but he has to know his troops are not in Kyiv. So he also has to know that tangling with NATO would not go well for him. It’s very possible he he had hoped to conquer the Baltic nations next since they were part of the Soviet Union as well, but there’s no way he’s thinking that now.

    Russia is facing a long and costly war plus economic ruin and pariah state status. We don’t need to hurt them any more to make invading their neighbor a costly mistake they can’t afford to repeat. If there’s anything we can prudently do to reduce the human suffering caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine we should do that, including causing Russia more pain, but triggering a global war will not reduce human suffering.

  20. A great place to start is understanding Putin’s and Russia’s viewpoint. When the Soviet Union collapsed Russia agreed to allow the reunification of Germany on condition that NATO would not expand further East. That promise has been broken repeatedly, arguably because defense contractors needs someone to sell weapons to with the Cold War over. Russia has suffered 3 catastrophic invasions from the West since early 1800s. Western influence and money have sponsored numerous “color revolutions” to take down governments friendly to Moscow on Russias’s borders in recent years. Zelensky’s government has taken steps to persecute ethnic Russians like banning the Russian language which used to be the official second language. I’m not trying to say Putin is anything other than a bloodthirsty tyrant but this one s the Russian perspective and it’s not unreasonable.

    Put the shoe on the other foot. If China was sending Mexico weapons, installing an anti-American government there and talking about a military alliance how long would it take before the US invaded?

  21. Checking in on the detritus of this comment thread, I see Jared has favored us with a concise summary of the lies, distortions and propaganda that Russia feeds to gullible people abroad. If you turn on the news today, you’ll see photograph and video evidence of crimes against humanity and interviews with eyewitnesses and victims. Keep watching and don’t turn away. There will be much more of it to come in the places still occupied by Russian soldiers. This is the result of what Jared calls a “not unreasonable” point of view.

  22. @Jared, “China was sending Mexico weapons, installing an anti-American government there and talking about a military alliance how long would it take before the US invaded?”

    Your comments represent current discussions being had in Political Science Departments at universities throughout the United States. It is good to reframe contexts as hypotheticals because it helps us model strategy. We are looking at trade bloc musical chairs (BRICS and NAFTA) and Venezuela is at our border: no matter the media rhetoric, the more hands-off the United States is with Ukraine, the better chance we split China and Russia when we get to Venezuela–and the Arctic, which Russia dominates, is more valuable to the interest of American citizenry (and military strategy) than Russian regime change in Ukraine: it would be self-sabatoge for the United States to engage Russia more directly because we value a future Arctic partnership.

    Pray for Russian-American peace and partnership. LDS in Russia number in millions of not-yet baptized, our brothers and sisters.

  23. Travis, honestly, that is one of the worst takes on geopolitics I’ve ever seen. You wrote it after watching war crimes and a brutal, unprovoked attack on a neighboring country go on for 39 days. Thinking that a partnership with Russia is even possible at this point is just nuts. Thinking we should abandon Ukraine so that we can partner with Russia, on the other hand, is so loathsome, so morally bankrupt, that I really don’t want to have any interaction with you, and my posts will not be open to comments from you.

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