I watched Putin’s speech that day and have to admit: It did not make much of an impression. Late. Lindsey O. Graham (RS.C.) criticized it as a return of Cold War rhetoric, but America was fighting two hot wars then, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Putin’s Russia seemed too feeble to worry about. Not anymore.
Putin’s sullen rage appears to be exploding. As this year’s Munich Security Conference took place, Russia-backed separatists were reported to be firing salvos of rockets into Ukraine as Russia prepared for a ground invasion with more than 150,000 troops. The marquee speech this time was from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who lurched between pleading for security guarantees and blasting the West for “appeasement.”
Despite the grim news from Ukraine, there was an almost-celebratory tone among many of the Western leaders gathered. Many speakers boasted that the NATO alliance was back, after a soggy period described here just two years ago as “Westlessness.” European allies have joined the United States in pledging sanctions against Putin described as “heavy,” “massive” and “swift and severe” – but which Zelensky decried as too late to prevent the carnage that has already begun in his country.
NATO’s unity is indeed an achievement. But war is always a failure. This one has been building, in stages, for years. Putin all but announced his intentions. The forums and proposals that might have prevented conflict were clear. Still, Russian tanks rolled toward what might be the bloodiest and most one-sided assault in modern European history.
Zelensky, a feisty, erratic man who often seems more suited to his former role as a television comedian than a Churchillian war leader, asked a question that should haunt the Munich delegates: “How did we get to this point in the 21st century where war is being waged and people are dying in Europe? Me To me, this answer is obvious: The security architecture of our world is brittle, it is obsolete. The rules that have been agreed upon by the world dozens of years ago are no longer working. ”
One of the few checks on Putin that could make a difference came from Wang Yi, the foreign minister of China, which is Russia’s only major ally these days. He cautioned in a video speech that “the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of any country should be respected and safeguarded” – and that “Ukraine is no exception.” Putin is willing to violate the West’s norms, but maybe not China’s.
How will this war unfold, if Russia continues “uncoiling” its massive combat force, in the evocative phrase used by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin? A hint came from a simulation Saturday night organized by Dmitri Alperovitch, the Russian-born founder of the computer-security firm CrowdStrike. In his scenario, Kyiv capitulated after five days of Russian rocket and artillery barrages and a three-pronged ground attack. Then, Russia installed a puppet government, held rigged elections and promptly withdrew most of its forces.
Alperovitch asked me to play the American role, and I operated within the limits President Biden has set. The United States will support Ukraine’s resistance and impose steep costs on Russia, but it will stay out of the war unless Putin is stupid enough to attack NATO territory. That outcome, Alperovitch predicted, would amount to another “frozen conflict,” of the sort that Putin has already littered across the former Soviet empire.
America’s ability to defeat Putin’s strategy of neutering Ukraine depends almost entirely on Ukrainians’ willingness to fight a long, bloody insurgency against Russian invaders, with support from the United States and its European allies.
At the conference, there was an admirable sense of solidarity for the long fight that might be ahead. “I do not think Putin was prepared for unity within the European Union,” said a Swedish official. “We have rediscovered the habits of cooperation,” said a top US official. “We are ready to defend our country, our people,” vowed Vitali Klitschko, the mayor of Kyiv. For once, the Germans, Poles, French and Americans seemed to be singing from the same NATO song book.
Putin makes a perfect villain in this war. He’s brutal, arrogant and contemptuous of the rules of order that America and its allies celebrate. He told us what he was going to do, and he’s doing it. He is moving to take Ukraine hostage this week, which will leave three unpalatable choices. Either the West negotiates with the hostage-taker, which would be repugnant; the West frees the hostage by force; or we wait for the hostage-taker to become impoverished and fatigued, and quit the fight. This last outcome, which would be the best for the West, might also be the most likely – if the United States and its allies can be patient.
Still, there will not be any good choices in the weeks and months ahead, only the consequences of bad ones that allowed Russia and the West to talk past each other, ducking the hard questions, for more than a decade.