What if Ukraine wins big? What if Russia loses big?
Two simple, yet profound questions. Questions we all should be thinking about, and which I hope others with actual power and influence have been thinking about for a long time now. There’s a third question Vindman didn’t pose so directly, but he alluded to it and I’ll discuss it later. Those two I led off with provide plenty to chew on in and of themselves. But let’s go back a bit.
I saw retired Col. Alexander Vindman on a Sat. afternoon MSNBC show earlier this month. Let’s leave aside the brain-dead idiot(s) in the control room directing/producing the show for only allotting a few minutes for the interview. Clearly he had much more to say but his segment ended a minute or so after those questions were raised so he couldn’t paint the kind of picture someone of his knowledge and experience could have and should have been allowed to paint. Even more important is the over-arching question Col. Vindman didn’t specifically state but certainly alluded to:
Who will decide not just when the fighting is done, but WHO will decide what winning is?
Consider this: From President Zelensky and his military & civilian leadership all the way down to children it’s been almost all Ukrainians doing the fighting, dying and enduring the suffering that Putin and Russia have inflicted on that country. Let’s also be clear that Russia’s strategy has increasingly been to rely on flat-out sustained War Crimes in the hopes it will break Ukraine’s will. It only makes that will stronger but I suspect anyone telling Putin that isn’t long for this world
But here’s the kicker – this didn’t start a year ago. No, it started with the Russian takeover of the Crimean Peninsula and those creations of separatist sections in eastern Ukraine. But a year ago things went to a whole new level with full-on invasion. Ukraine not only fought back hard and well but has gained the upper hand. They know it, Putin knows it and the whole world knows it. Ukraine will win and Putin, like Trump can’t accept that he’s lost. (Of course, for Putin that means a bullet in the back of his head eventually) So months ago he decided to inflict as much pain and suffering on Ukraine, not their fighting forces but civilians and civilian targets as he could. WAR CRIMES by any standard.
So, if you’re Ukrainian what’s a just end to this war? What’s a just restitution from Russia? Compromises have been bandied about by NON Ukrainians such as allowing Russia to keep those separatist areas, or maybe one of them. Ukraine hasn’t given any indication they’d go for that. No, I think they want and will insist on pushing Russia all the way back into its own borders and Russian sympathizers in those disputed areas with them. However, there’s an even bigger issue that almost no one is talking about.
Take a look at the map, and how Russian control of the Crimean Peninsula impacts the flow of exports. Russia took it when Ukraine was too weak, and had too many Russians or Ukrainians beholden to Russia in a position to allow it to happen. What if Ukraine says, even demands that control of Crimea be rightfully restored to them? Keep in mind, Ukraine is a huge exporter of grains and foods, and Russia’s control of choke points as well as ports in Crimea are part of what’s driven up commodity prices worldwide is this war. Energy (oil and natural gas) aren’t the only weapons Russia has employed to bend the world to Putin’s will. But Putin’s real ploy to begin rebuilding the old Soviet Union could arguably be said to have started nine years ago with the takeover of Crimea. And following that up with “Russifying” a couple a swaths of eastern Ukraine and warfare to keep them under Russian control. Is Ukraine going to be asked, and if so would they accept letting Russia keep any of this?
Think about THAT, and think hard. These are huge questions that will have to be addressed this year. Who will decide what winning is? What will rebuilding from the ruins of this war take, and who will pay for it when Russia’s economy is in tatters? Who will control what territory?
There’s an old saying about winning the war being the easy part – winning the peace is much harder. I always loved what Congressman Charlie Wilson said after Russia was driven out of Afghanistan, again with us not taking direct part but providing the means for it to happen. Crazy as what was in the movie was, those involved say the movie was a toned down version of how crazy the goings on actually were. However it’s the end of that movie that has haunted me, with Wilson running around pleading for a measly few million dollars to establish some medical clinics and schools and being rebuffed by the GOP administration and GOPers in Congress, and frankly his fellow Democrats too. Most Afghans had no idea it was us who made their victory possible, and we all saw what that led to. At the end of the movie was a quote of Wilson’s:
“These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world… and then we f***ed up the end game”
This situation is different and in important ways. Ukrainians know full well who has led the effort to supply them during this war, both with military and humanitarian aid. To be sure Biden’s visit to Kyiv and his strolling the streets with Zelensky without a cadre of U.S. or even NATO troops for security was an epic U.S. Presidential trolling of Putin and Russia – a “Hey Vlad! I’M here and YOU’RE not! However it was far more than that. It was a shot of adrenaline to the hearts of Ukrainians, as well as a message to NATO (and other allies) that this isn’t over and we will need to keep up what we’ve been doing for Ukraine. Oh, I think we can be sure that every intended audience got the message loud and clear!
Speaking of NATO, Ukraine doesn’t have to join NATO. Just just becoming a member of the European Union will be more than enough to ensure NATO protection in the future. And joint military exercises will make that clear to Russia, and Belarus for that matter, as well as wavering allies like Turkey who had been making nice with Russia and have realized they played footsies with the wrong country and leader. But not formally joining the alliance might be played as a sort of sop to Russia, a face-saving move. They are after all a country with a massive inferiority complex going back centuries but that’s another topic for another time. However getting back to Ukraine and NATO they’ve in effect had NATO’s protection for the asking for roughly thirty years now.
People forget (if they ever have known) that only ONE country with nukes has given them up. Ukraine! There were a LOT of nukes in Ukraine during the Cold War, and in the treaty where Ukraine agreed to give theirs up there were some key points. One, and this is going to come up when negotiations to end this war get serious is that Russia promised not to invade Ukraine. (So Putin wound up trying to take over by installing a puppet govt.) He will bluster Ukraine started it so he didn’t have to abide by that provision of the treaty but the world will call bullshit on him. Another but less explicit provision was that if Ukraine needed help NATO would provide it. I figure people are going to be learning an awful lot about that treaty in the not too distant future.
Anyway, a year ago Putin (and frankly so did probably most people who weren’t Ukrainians) assumed that in a few days his troops would take Kyiv, the Ukrainian govt. would have fled into exile and that in a few weeks his tanks and trucks would have rolled through and occupied the country with relatively little damage to infrastructure, factories and croplands. Within a month a new puppet govt. would have turned Ukraine (again) into a province of Russia. I mentioned Ukrainians for a reason because there is a deep, and I mean all the way to their DNA hatred of “mother” Russia. For them Russia ain’t “mother” Russia but rather a historical brutal oppressor of them and their land. And, unlike the rest of the world (which still doesn’t grasp it) Russia was created by intrepid Ukrainians that struck out eastward and settled that territory a thousand years ago!
I could write several articles about why Russia’s highly vaunted army was overrated and given a good deal more respect than was warranted. Hell, many people already have. And while yes, Ukrainians were startled in that first day or two that Russia actually did invade (who wants to believe something that awful is happening, and instead rationalize it as saber-rattling?) they quickly recovered. And, having so many people scattered around who’d spent time fighting the Russian proxy forces in those two eastern portions of Ukraine they had a better sense of Russia’s capability to mount a countrywide takeover of Ukraine than the rest of us did. Just as importantly, they had combat experience!
All they needed was help – in the form of weapons and getting them quickly, along with a clear pledge of support from western nations. The promises came right away and Ukraine took what it had on hand and bloodied Russia badly – especially that large force that was supposed to take Kyiv. Sadly, it took time to get all those Ukrainian Reservists back on duty, and to train and equip new volunteers so Russia was able to take over a significant chunk of territory in eastern and southern Ukraine before Ukrainians were able to start the grinding process of driving Russia forces back. As time went on, the western style Ukrainian army got organized and just as importantly equipped/supplied and Russia became outmatched. And while not all the way Russia has slowly been driven bit by bit back towards their border.
Ukraine will win this war. It’s just a question of when. How much more death and destruction will happen before Russia either gives up or is defeated?
And that gets us back to those questions that seem so simple, yet mean everything if you think it through.
Who decides when it’s over? What if Ukraine wins big? What if Russia loses big? Those last two are both inter-related yet also separate questions. Yet that first one which as I said Col. Vindman didn’t explicitly state but was clearly prepared to discuss is in my mind the most important question of all. And will likely be the most difficult to resolve.
So, I ask you to think about it as though you were Ukrainian. Especially if you’ve been there living through this Russia created nightmare, or fighting in it. And have been wounded, or have friends and loved ones who have been wounded. Or killed. I rather doubt any Ukrainian leader who settled for less than serious, even severe consequences for Russia would last long in power.
Russia has had its ass handed to it militarily. They’ve known for a long time they can’t win fighting Ukrainian forces so they’ve waged a war of terror, committing repeated crimes against humanity to try and bleed the Ukrainian people into submission. And as I’ve noted Ukrainians hated Russia (it’s leadership in particular) for generations. With each brutal attack on civilians Russia only increases Ukrainian resolve to see Russia crushed once and for all. And to be afraid, very afraid to even think about ever attacking their country again.
Now, imagine you’re a Ukrainian and especially one who’s lived through this war going on around you. Or been on the front lines fighting. Who has had friends and relatives killed or badly injured. Who has seen some family home or business that goes back generations destroyed because Russia made a point of attacking civilian targets instead of fighting Ukrainian forces directly. Tell me you wouldn’t at least think about getting serious payback, if not retribution in the form of serious punishment.
If Ukraine wins big, Zelensky will face enormous pressure from his people to extract… Payback. Revenge. Whatever you want to call it a substantial portion of Ukrainians will want to see Russia suffer, and suffer big. As I’ve alluded to, that quite frankly could pose all sorts of problems, including ending the war.
If Russia loses big, given the corruption in that country and what’s surely going to be a vicious power struggle (Putin of course will wind up dead) and while the world and the Russian people might get lucky and have a pragmatist emerge, that country is already suffering (well, the regular folks are) from serious and even crippling sanctions. If the people don’t see quick improvement in their lives they might decide someone even worse than Putin should be in charge. So, like it or not and remembering the “Charlie Fox” as the country tried democracy after the fall of the old USSR a choice will have to be made. If Russia loses big and can’t help itself rebuild an economy and governing structure how much does the rest of the world help?
As I said, the questions are separate but inter-related. The rebuilding of Ukraine will be expensive and while the main thrust will be brick and mortar stuff ensuring they use the aftermath to clean out corruption and get a free govt. on solid footing will be a tall task. The latter more difficult than the former, especially if the west helps Russia in any way. Making sure Russia somehow emerges as a fair player in regional and eventually world affair will be even more complicated and the bigger they lose in this war the more complicated it will be.
The war will end. There will be consequences for both the winner and the loser. That will include unintended consequences, some actually good and some not so much.
Right now I can think of only one person with the stature to create and convince everyone to implement a 21st century version of the Marshall Plan that did so much to heal after WWII. Sadly, he’s not the eighty year-old version of himself and in fact former President Jimmy Carter isn’t going to be with us much longer. But, perhaps as we honor and celebrate his extraordinary life of service, someone will bring up that we sure could use the likes of him when the fighting winds down in Ukraine. And maybe, just maybe there’s someone with the knowledge and gravitas to become a 21st century version of George C. Marshall. Ukraine (and Russia for that matter) and Europe need it, as does the whole world.
We can only hope that Col. Vindman’s questions are already being looked at both here and abroad. And that a worthy heir to Marshall emerges to guide the process of “winning the peace.”
Outstanding piece, Denis. I’ve always thought that Ukraine gets to decide when the war is over and how much of their territory they get to keep/reclaim. If I understand you correctly, I like your idea about Col. Vindeman. He just might be the right person for this moment in history.
I maybe conveyed something I didn’t mean to. Vindman I think would be an essential advisor to whomever from the U.S leads out part of negotiations (and we surely will be playing a major role) but frankly he doesn’t have the international gravitas to be the architect of a peace plan and more importantly the ability to get not just the directly combatant nations but others to agree to a peace treaty – and rebuilding plan. No, we need a statesman. I thought perhaps John Kerry but I’m not sure he’d command the respect internationally because so many Republicans in the U.S. would blow a gasket over him in such a role. I’ll be giving it some thought to be sure. I suspect President Biden has been wondering, if not worrying about who to name to a peace negotiations group. Perhaps there’s someone in Europe who might be suitable but I simply don’t know enough about who’s who over there. And, since the U.S. will wind up (just as was the case after WWII) footing the lion’s share of the costs another foreign dignitary would be politically problematic here at home. These are difficult questions, but they are going to have to be addressed. Perhaps sooner than we think so again I hope it’s something DOD and State have been working on.
Ok, I get it. You mainly mentioned him, as a person who raised these issues. I certainly like the idea of him being advisor to whomever may ultimately get the job.
A true hero. Still fighting the good fight.
How much less bloodshed would there have been, if at the collapse of the USSR and the emergence of the new Russia, the republican neo-liberals hadn’t been in power here with advice for a privatisation agenda for Russian state assets?
This ensured the wholesale theft of those assets by a bunch of corrupt oligarchs and led directly to today’s corrupt kleptocracy.
If Russia had had a proper Marshall plan back then, maybe it could have become a type of Sweden instead of a type of Somalia?
You want proof?
Look at every former Soviet satellite country that threw off the yoke.
It’s easy to see why Ukranians aspire to be more like Poles, East Germans, Lithuanians and Rumanians rather than Russians.
If there is a chance to do another Marshall plan to save Russia, it is imperative that none of the philosophy and poor advice that applied last time with Gorbachev and Yeltsin is applied to Putin’s Russia.
I was in Ruassia a LOT during those years (late 80’s to mid-90’s). You are 100% right Concinnity!!! Couldn’t agree with you more.
If anyone is interested in a deep dive into how Russia came to the present as they are, I’d recommend a book called “Red Notice” by Bill Broward. An American businessman and investment manager who became the largest stock trader in Russia. It’s a riveting tale about the chaos after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and how those currently in power – the oligarchs were able to do what they did. Also leaves no doubt as to the ruthless evil with which these people pursue their goals.
I echo everyone else: Outstanding piece Denis. Detailed and historically accurate. You mention stuff even I forgot and both my grandmother’s were born there and 30 years ago I travelled from one end of the place to the other. Thank you to this service to Politizoom’s readers.
Udachi! Mazal tov.
Some background: In 1987 I was a Canadian businessman in Russia with the inaugural (and sadly, only) mission of the Canada-USSR Business Council. I was very interested in possibly building housing in Moscow and Leningrad but it took little if any time time (2 years at most) to realize just HOW corrupt Post Soviet Union Russia was. The line at the time, in reference to Moscow’s mayor, was “Don Corleone only wishes he was Yuri Luszkov!” A good example of this corruption ( https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/canadian-owned-moscow-hotel-shut-down/article20434787/). Putin did not spring out of nowhere. He was the most ruthless mafioso in a country of mafiosi. The ONLY thing Putin comprehends is killing. Subtlety to him is killing a million people instead of 5 million. He cannot change. The only path to peace is total unambiguoius military decimation of the Russians. Nothing less will do. And make no mistake, Putin IS a threat to the entire planet. 90 years later, Neville Chamberlain is STILL wrong, and Biden is 100% RIGHT!