On the Nuclear Challenge

As you are probably aware, Russian President Vladimir Putin has recently repeatedly threatened to use so-called “tactical” nuclear weapons as a way to reverse Russia’s no-longer-deniable battlefield debacle in Ukraine.  At a gathering on October 6, President Joe Biden reportedly observed, “I don’t think there’s any such thing as the ability to easily [use] a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon.”  ­­­­­­­­­­­The President’s comments are obviously the most authoritative allusions to the risk of nuclear holocaust arising from the Russian invasion.

On October 1, Wall Street Journal Columnist Peggy Noonan quoted former President John Kennedy from June, 1963, when Mr. Kennedy asserted, “Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating defeat or a nuclear war,” and “[Leaving a nuclear-armed adversary no option but a humiliating defeat would be] a collective death-wish for the world.”  She also quoted former President Ronald Reagan’s well-known declaration, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”   

On October 2, Wall Street Journal Columnist Walter Russell Mead wrote, “As the Biden administration scrambles to manage the most dangerous international confrontation since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, it must see the world through Mr. Putin’s eyes.  Only then can officials know how seriously to take the nuclear saber-rattling and develop an appropriate response. … Mr. Putin sees global politics today as a struggle between a rapacious and domineering West and the rest of the world bent on resisting our arrogance and exploitation. … Mr. Putin’s version of the anti-American world view gives a special role to Russia.”

On October 7, MSNBC’s Morning Joe’s Joe Scarborough declared:  “I know people love to say … that there’s no substitute but the complete destruction of Vladimir Putin.  No!  … They have more nuclear weapons than anybody else on the face of the earth, and we’re … going to have to be creative as Kennedy was when you got the missiles out of Cuba but quietly got the missiles out of Turkey.  We’re not dealing with Belarus here.  We’re dealing with a country that has nuclear weapons and doesn’t have any problems threatening to use them.”

The President is obviously the best judge regarding the likelihood of escalation if Russia chooses to use nuclear weapons in the Ukraine conflict.  That said, I completely disagree with the implication of Ms. Noonan and Messrs. Mead and Scarborough (which, no matter how obliquely they phrased it, I submit is inherent in their comments) that we should look for a way to – there is no other word for it – appease Mr. Putin’s delusions.  It’s too late for that.  Such perspective is akin to someone saying in 1940, “We need to see the world through Herr Hitler’s eyes.  He sees the extermination of the Jews as existential to Germany’s survival.”  At this point, the Ukrainians (with our and NATO support) should be – as they clearly are — in it to win it.  Mr. Scarborough’s reference to Mr. Kennedy’s order removing our nuclear arsenal from Turkey following the Cuban Missile Crisis is inapposite.  In October, 1962, no shot was fired, no lives were wantonly sacrificed, no property was needlessly destroyed.  Here, we have a campaign of unbounded barbarism – the latest intense barrages against Ukrainian civilian infrastructure coming this week — intended to destroy a people and its culture.  These losses cannot be undone.  Since the invasion began, media talking heads have constantly intoned about the need to provide Mr. Putin an “off ramp.”  Putting aside the fact that the Russian President has shown no indication that he is looking for an off ramp, I don’t see how any just settlement could include allowing Russia to retain any of the territory that it has stolen from Ukraine or releasing Russia from its obligation for reparations for Ukrainian losses (reportedly over a trillion dollars; a knotty problem obviously not yet ripe for consideration).  Most strategically, I myself can never get beyond the question I’ve already posed in these pages:  Unless one believes – and I do not see how one could – that following any Russian-Ukrainian settlement, Mr. Putin would cease attempting to undermine Ukraine’s and other democracies across the world, what long term value does an inevitably temporary settlement bring?  The Ukrainians and NATO must unreservedly press their advantage to culmination here – which, I concede, is more likely than not to involve the deposition of Mr. Putin.

I also take issue with those that conflate what may be politically (and perhaps literally) existential for Mr. Putin with what is existential for Russia.  U.S. and NATO officials need to continue to emphasize that they have no designs on Russia beyond reestablishment of Ukraine’s borders as they existed prior to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.  Among the audiences for such reassurances are members of the Russian leadership and the Russian populace (for the latter, to the extent that the messages get through.)  Although Mr. Putin is reportedly now only surrounded by hardliners, perhaps these reassurances about the limits of NATO’s aims combined with Russia’s battlefield losses will ultimately cause some of Mr. Putin’s advisors to ask themselves:  Is our floundering attempt to expand the Russian Empire worth nuclear Armageddon?  However, declarations regarding the limits of NATO’s mission apparently also need to be reinforced with the Ukrainians.  Washington Post Columnist David Ignatius reported this week that many Ukrainians see Russia, not Mr. Putin, as the enemy.  While those sentiments are certainly understandable, Ukrainians must come to recognize that while they deserve recompense for what has been done to them and protection against future Russian imperialism, any aspirations to bring about the dissolution of a nuclear-powered Russian state are neither attainable nor even advisable.  

I’ve heard any number of commentators inquire of any idea to avoid a possibly approaching nuclear confrontation.  I have one.  If this hasn’t already been tried, I would counsel Mr. Biden to quietly – with no notice to news outlets before or after — call the one man who probably still has significant influence on Mr. Putin:  Chinese President Xi Jinping.  I would propose that the President make clear to Mr. Xi that if Russia uses nuclear weaponry in Ukraine, we are prepared to respond in kind.  If Mr. Biden is serious – and he’d better be — I would  suggest that the President specifically state that he understood that his credibility with Mr. Xi would be forever lost if he did not follow through as he was indicating that he would.  I would recommend that the President reiterate his recent observation that he saw little hope for avoiding a nuclear Armageddon if such an exchange began.  I would advise that the President then suggest to Mr. Xi that Mr. Xi call Mr. Putin and indicate that if Russia initiated the use of nuclear weapons in its Ukraine struggle, China would join the international community in opposing Russia.  Additionally, Mr. Biden might suggest to Mr. Xi that since China undoubtedly has sources very close to Mr. Putin as we obviously do, Mr. Xi might instruct his agents to do what they could to impede Mr. Putin if it seemed likely that Mr. Putin was about to resort to a nuclear option.

I’ve recently heard our current relationship with China described as “cold,” “almost nonexistent.”  No matter.  Nuclear issues transcend all others.  The question would be how Mr. Xi would react to any overtures from Mr. Biden as outlined above.  The primary principle of foreign policy would apply:  nations will act in what they consider their own best interest.  Presumably, Mr. Xi wants China to ultimately control the world, not have it blown up.  If Mr. Xi either doesn’t take Mr. Biden seriously or calculates that there is better than an even chance that China will ultimately benefit from a U.S. – Russian nuclear exchange, he will stand back.  If Mr. Xi instead determines that China and the world he seeks to dominate will be engulfed if the U.S. and Russia so engage, he might well act as Mr. Biden suggested – even if he indicated on the call that he wouldn’t.

I disagree with the notion that China may view the U.S. support of Ukraine as an opportunity to expedite any plans it has to invade Taiwan.  America retains the Pacific strength to effectively support Taiwan’s resistance to any Chinese aggression, and I would suspect that Mr. Xi views the U.S. support of Ukraine as evidence of a greater level of American resolve to support its allies and protect its interests — at least while Mr. Biden is President — than was apparent before Russia invaded Ukraine.  There is, of course, a concession somewhat corresponding to our 1963 removal of our nuclear missiles from Turkey that Mr. Xi might raise if Mr. Biden indeed suggested that he intercede with Mr. Putin:  our private assurance that that we would not aggressively aid Taiwan if China chose to invade the island.  While from Mr. Xi’s perspective there would be significant benefit to asking, Mr. Biden would certainly and properly reject such a suggestion out of hand.

Some might say that this note borders on rant; I would timidly venture that it is but an expression of fervent belief 🙂 .  [I suspect that right now, many of those that follow these pages are exceedingly glad that I am not advising President Biden  😉 .]  I concede that I might feel less strongly if the Ukrainians were seeking a compromise with Russia – after all, it is they who are dying, it is their existence that has been forever altered, while we sit here spouting about strategic options – but they understand that it is their (and our) freedom they are fighting for.  Too often strategy and sentiment are in conflict; in Ukraine, they align.  For those of us of or approaching Medicare eligibility, any manner of U.S. accommodation to Mr. Putin’s nuclear threats would be the easy course; given America’s nuclear armament, any material threat from foreign adversaries will never reach our shores in our lifetimes.  That said, for our children’s and grandchildren’s sake, America cannot allow itself to become the “lone island in a world dominated by the philosophy of force” that former President Franklin Roosevelt warned against in 1940.  We should continue to vigorously support Ukraine no matter what nuclear threats Vladimir Putin makes.  

Observations About Immigrants and Immigration

Last night this came up on my Twitter feed, and I feel it appropriate to record it in these pages. In recent years, I’ve had the privilege to visit with recent immigrants to the United States from many nations and with citizens of distant lands. Despite all of the rancor and discord about immigration that has arisen in our public discourse over the last score of years, those from outside our country still invariably see America as the “beacon of freedom and opportunity” President Reagan referred to in his remarks, and they feel what he described as the “magical, intoxicating power of America.” While there are many aspects of our immigration policy that require attention, we need to cherish and nurture such a priceless mantle.

End of Summer Reflections

Due to traveling and other life pursuits, in the last several months I’ve had as little time to devote to these pages as at any point since they were launched [most probably a relief to those happy for a respite from long-winded Noise  😉 ].  As life is returning to a more normal routine for us, a few reflections as summer ends:

As you may be aware, the legal status in our country for many Afghans whom we evacuated in August 2021 – Afghans who aided our war effort, and whom we evacuated because of the severe retribution they would have faced from the Taliban if we left them behind – is not yet secure.  The Afghan Adjustment Act is a bipartisan bill (sponsored in the Senate by U.S. MN Sen. Amy Klobuchar and, of all people, U.S. SC Sen Lindsay Graham) that would, if passed, ensure that those Afghans who were brought to safety by the U.S. military may apply for lasting protection to stay in the U.S. long-term.  The bill is reportedly modeled after laws previously enacted to protect people from Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Iraq.  Seemingly noncontroversial, the New York Times reported on September 22 that the bill has hit “snags” due to Republican objections that the people we evacuated were insufficiently vetted prior to withdrawal.  The Times quoted former Trump Administration official Stephen Miller (that’s a surprise) and U.S. IA Sen. Charles (“I was there when we nominated Abe Lincoln for President”) Grassley among those voicing objections for these predominately-Muslim evacuees.  Although this bill has the feel of one that will be passed in the lame duck session following the November elections, I will take the liberty of suggesting that in the near term you might encourage your Senators and Representative to vote for the legislation if they haven’t already indicated their support.

These pages’ last substantive observations regarding the Ukrainian conflict were published on April 22 – an amazing interval to this old retired blogger who professes a particular interest in foreign policy.  At that time, I offered that a primary challenge facing Mr. Biden related to the crisis was … time.  Since that note was posted – and while the world cannot forget the millions of Ukrainian lives forfeited or forever marred by the global ambitions of one man — the conflict has gone, from geopolitically-strategic and military perspectives, immeasurably better for Ukraine than the West could have then reasonably expected and devastatingly worse for Russia than Russian President Vladimir Putin could have then anticipated.  I agree with those that say that Mr. Putin’s recent mobilization of Russian reserves, orchestration of sham referenda in Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories as a preface to their Russian annexation, and threatening allusions to Russia’s nuclear weaponry are indications of his desperation, and also with those that have opined that NATO forces should actively enter the conflict in aid of the Ukrainian army if he does deploy nuclear weaponry (I might go so far to include his use of chemical weaponry as sufficient provocation).  I most strongly disagree with those favoring negotiation with Russia at this point.  If one could now concoct some internationally-engineered settlement of the conflict, do you believe that Mr. Putin would thereafter cease in his attempts to disrupt democracy in Ukraine, the NATO nations that were once part of the USSR, the Nordic nations, western Europe, and the U.S.?  To ask the question is to answer it.  What, then, is the value in negotiating with Mr. Putin when he is at his weakest point? 

That said, I still fear that time is the Russian President’s ally.  I have quoted Fiona Hill’s and Clifford G. Gaddy’s study, Mr. Putin, extensively in these pages; the gist of their analysis is that once Mr. Putin commits to a fight, “he is prepared to fight to the end”; and “he will fight dirty if that’s what it takes to win.”  Without meaning to be facetious, The Godfather provides guidance here:  when the enemy seems the most disadvantaged, triple your precautions.  If advising Mr. Biden, I would ask whether we still have any measure available to materially press the West’s advantage that Mr. Putin might not be anticipating.  If so – short of nuclear weaponry – we should spring it now.  The only way this war ends is if Mr. Putin is deposed from the inside.  A protracted conflict, given an impending cold European winter without Russian-supplied energy and a global economic recession, will be more likely to adversely affect Western resolve than impact upon Mr. Putin’s designs.

In the short run, the Green Bay Packer offense may be able to get by on the strength of its running game complemented by sufficient production from its experienced (but physically limited) wide receivers.  In the long run, the Packers have no realistic Super Bowl prospects unless at least one of its rookie wide receivers blossoms.  I’m intrigued by Romeo Doubs.  Mr. Doubs certainly contributed to yesterday’s narrow win, but seemed to me to somewhat disappear in the second half; what I couldn’t tell was whether that was a result of an altered Tampa Bay defensive scheme or due to Quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ well-known penchant for relying on veterans in tight situations.

President Joe Biden’s recent assertion that the COVID pandemic “is over” has been assailed as making it more difficult for public health authorities to combat a disease that is still taking hundreds of American lives a day (although the President did qualify his comment at the time with the indication that COVID remained “a problem”).  We can never forget the millions of lives lost to the disease worldwide, including the one million American lives lost (some significant percentage of the latter and of those we lose in the future, I would venture, being the fault of former President Donald Trump).  Even so, I would submit that the President is right in the larger sense.  We just got back from a trip across the globe.  We saw few masks.  As a retiree, I am now rarely out in morning rush hour on the route I took to work for decades; last week I was; it was the first time since March, 2020, that the volume and pace of traffic at that hour was virtually what it had been before the COVID shutdown.  As I’ve previously suggested here, the shutdown affected different dispositions differently:  some were sorely impacted by the sudden and enforced isolation; others who adjusted more readily to the solitude have perhaps needed more time to acclimate to pre-pandemic levels of social interaction.  I sense an awakening coming at a time of year that, at least in the Midwest, one customarily starts to hunker down.  That said:  Medicare authorities advised last week that updated COVID vaccines are available for increased protection against the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants to any Medicare recipient receiving his/her last vaccination/booster earlier than July 22.  That includes TLOML and me.  We intend to get the new booster.  I suggest that if you’re eligible, you should do so as well.

On Realpolitik

Yesterday on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Washington Post Associate Editor and Columnist David Ignatius observed about President Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia [the nation which Mr. Biden described during his presidential campaign as a “pariah” due, among other reasons, to Saudi Arabian de facto leader Prince Mohammed bin Salman (“Prince MBS”) Al Saud’s seemingly-well established complicity in the assassination of Washington Post Journalist (and Prince MBS Critic) Jamal Khashoggi]: 

“Biden is going in a classic exercise of what diplomats call, ‘Realpolitik.’ … [The definition of ‘Realpolitik’] is policy that is premised on power.  Raw power and the needs of power, as opposed to values and principles.  And that’s what the President is doing.  He thinks American power requires a relationship with Saudi Arabia, especially during the Ukrainian war, especially when gas prices are so high, and so he’s going to do what’s necessary to establish a passable relationship with Saudi Arabia.”

Prince MBS … is a bad man.  I described him in a post a while back as “arrogant, willful, and malign.”  Although it is up to the Almighty to judge, a case can arguably be made that he is a moral peer of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and perhaps dozens of tinhorn dictators who maintain their power across the globe through terror, violence, and repression.  As the parent of a Washington Post journalist, I could not be more sensitive to Prince MBS’ culpability for Mr. Khashoggi’s murder.  Even so, and although progressives and progressive media outlets may well condemn any indication of amity between the President and Prince MBS as a betrayal of American values, I completely agree with Mr. Biden’s apparent purpose.  When our power, vast as it is, is insufficient in and of itself, sometimes we need to make deals with bad men (and I suspect occasionally with bad women) to secure our interests.  U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill didn’t love Russian Chairman Joseph Stalin, but they were happy to have Russia’s help in defeating Nazi Germany.  Although Mr. Biden’s challenges are obviously of a markedly-lesser nature than those faced by Messrs. Roosevelt and Churchill, the principles of Realpolitik still hold.  We need Saudi Arabia’s help on energy today – which will lower the democracies’ costs and perhaps augment sanctions to weaken Russia’s economic condition — but more importantly, in the long term, given our reduced presence in the Middle East, we need to foster a bulwark, in which Israel and Saudi Arabia are necessary pillars, to hold off the advances of Iran.  

It is what it is.

Kasparov: “No Time to Go Wobbly on Russia”

Set forth below is a link to an opinion piece published earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal by Garry Kasparov, former Russian World Chess Champion and among the sharpest critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In his essay, Mr. Kasparov asserts that “… isolating Mr. Putin and responding to him with strength is the only way to make lasting progress,” and asserts that Mr. Putin’s dictatorship ” … is shaking for the first time.” He asserts that the only way for the West to save Ukrainian lives is to “arm Ukraine with every weapon that [Ukrainian] President Volodymyr Zelensky wants as quickly as possible.” He cautions against the West’s negotiating for a cease-fire, which he fears would lead to what he calls a “frozen conflict” that he asserts would enable Mr. Putin to consolidate and rearm his forces.

I follow relatively few people on Twitter, but I do follow Mr. Kasparov. While he sounds bellicose and NATO administrators do need to be mindful of the potential for Russian escalation to weapons of mass destruction, my sentiments align with those of Mr. Kasparov; given current battle conditions and the continuing general Western unity against Russia, I fear that any half-loaf settlement would have extremely dangerous long-term consequences for both Ukraine and the democracies.

I’m not sure how the Journal limits access to non-subscribers; hopefully, anyone following these pages who wishes to access Mr. Kasparov’s piece will be able to do so.

A War of Miscalculation: Part III

[I apologize for the length of this note to those with the fortitude to undertake it; since my time to post remains limited, when I get the opportunity, it seems best to just … put it all out there at once.  🙂 ]

Some say that the mind never sleeps.  Although my opportunities to delve deeply into detailed accounts of the Russian invasion of Ukraine have remained limited, the electronic media reports of indisputable Russian atrocities have been sickening, while those of Ukrainian bravery and martial effectiveness on the one hand and Russian battlefield futility and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s consequent embarrassment on the other – recently culminating in the sinking of the Russian Black Sea Flagship Moskva — have been exhilarating.  I must think about the struggle at night; despite the Ukrainian military success to date – which would not have been possible without American and NATO unity and assistance fostered in significant measure by President Joe Biden – over the last couple of weeks, I’ve awakened several mornings with the same notion, the piece of advice that I would impart to Mr. Biden if I could: 

Don’t underestimate this man.  He is literally fighting for his life. 

“… Vladimir Putin … will make good on every promise or threat.  If Putin says he will do something, then he is prepared to do it, and he will find a way of doing it, using every method at his disposal. … In short, Vladimir Putin is a fighter and he is a survivalist.  He won’t give up, and he will fight dirty if that’s what it takes to win.  … He won’t give up in Ukraine or elsewhere in Russia’s neighborhood. …If [his opponents] are prepared to fight, and he is outweighed or outgunned by his adversaries, then he will look for unconventional moves to get around their defenses so that he can outmaneuver them. … Putin knows unexpected events can and will blow things off course in domestic and foreign policy.  The key to dealing with the unexpected is to anticipate that there always will be setbacks.  This means he focuses on contingency and adaptive planning to deal with them.  Putin has consistently shown that he can learn from his own policy or tactical mistakes at home and abroad.  [Emphasis in Original].”

  • Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy, 2013:  Mr. Putin.  

“I have watched over the years as Putin has stewed in a combustible combination of grievance and ambition and insecurity.”

  • U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director and former U.S. Ambassador to Russia William J. Burns, April 14, 2022.

There has been so much comment about the conflict; what follows is what has surprised me:

As effective as the reactive American and NATO approach has been to this point, it won’t win.  Western diplomats should forget trying to give Mr. Putin an “off ramp”; not only isn’t he looking for one, there are none at this point that will provide lasting European stability.  While I understand why the Biden Administration has heretofore been “curating” – Defense Department Press Secretary John Kirby’s word — its increases in aid to Ukraine to match escalating Russian aggression – such restraint has maintained the support of some NATO allies who might otherwise have been skeptical of too pronounced a response against Russia too soon – I would submit that we now need to get ahead and stay ahead of Mr. Putin.  It’s time to discard the diplomatic fiction that because NATO and the U.S. have not deployed troops to Ukraine, Mr. Putin somehow doesn’t consider himself to be at war with NATO and the U.S.  He does.  Holding back any materiel including aircraft (save nuclear weaponry) because we don’t want to “provoke” Mr. Putin is simply silly.  (Russia’s recent threat of “unpredictable consequences” if the U.S. and NATO continued to supply Ukraine simply underscored what was already glaringly obvious regarding Mr. Putin’s view of the West’s participation in the war.)  Any continuing attempt at this point to label any type of aid – be it materiel, intelligence, or whatever – as “offensive” or “defensive” is pure sophism.  Our (albeit unspoken) definition of success should be to drive Mr. Putin from power via implosion.  Our approach should involve an effort to strangle Russia – quickly — using all means to create enough pressure on and within Russia to precipitate regime change.

As Russia and Ukraine each mass forces in the eastern Donbas region for what will reportedly be a “traditional” open-field battle of large troop contingents and heavy equipment, it feels like we’re about two weeks behind in providing the type and weight of assistance that Ukraine needs to compete.  Hopefully, continued Russian military ineptness will enable us to catch up.

I don’t know if there are any more meaningful economic sanctions that we can impose.  If there are, we should impose them.  Now.

The West’s response to Russia’s potential use of chemical and/or tactical nuclear weapons has hopefully already been decided.  This is a binary analysis.  If the Ukrainians (with the West’s assistance) fail to defeat Russian incursions, Mr. Putin won’t use such weapons; if Ukraine continues to largely successfully repel Russian advances — which is the West’s goal — at some point he will.  Any thought to the contrary is dangerous fantasy.  Since they undoubtedly know Russia’s capabilities, NATO and the U.S. need to know before Mr. Putin authorizes the use of such weapons what they will do when, not if, he does.  If counseling the Administration, I would recommend planting a question in Mr. Biden’s next press conference to enable him to say that the West is taking no options off the table if Russia deploys chemical or nuclear weapons.

I have more sympathy for Germany’s concerns about a European embargo of Russian natural gas than one might suspect, given the pugnacious nature of these posts.  The overriding explicit or implied maxim in every piece by every foreign policy analyst that one will ever read:  a nation will conduct its foreign affairs based upon what it perceives to be in its own best interest.  The first responsibility of any democratic government is to safeguard the wellbeing of its people.  It’s easy for us the U.S. to harrumph about the need to cut off Russian revenues; it will be the Germans that freeze next winter unless they have sufficient access to energy.

I have seen commentary that the true “winner” of this conflict is China; that the Russian invasion has “diverted the West’s attention” and enabled Beijing “to assess America’s likely response” if it seeks to invade Taiwan.  I don’t see it.  Notwithstanding any outward expressions of support for Russia, I suspect that whether or not they were initially, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his advisors are now both angry and frustrated about the ramifications of the invasion.  I think that during his trip to China during the Olympics and prior to the invasion, Mr. Putin gulled Mr. Xi into figuratively getting into the boat with him, and that Mr. Xi is now painfully aware of it.  [I noted in these pages a while back former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s report that an eminent Chinese official once told him that the only strategic mistake Chinese Communist General Secretary Mao Zedong ever made was acceding to Soviet Communist General Secretary Joseph Stalin’s request that China actively support North Korea in the Korean War, because the Chairman’s decision ultimately brought about America’s firm commitment to Taiwan’s defense, thereby postponing (in the Chinese official’s view) the Mainland’s takeover of Taiwan for a century.  By getting Mr. Xi to indicate that China’s relationship with Russia had “no limits” before the invasion, another Chinese leader has arguably fallen for a similar Russian ploy.]  Mr. Putin’s barbaric tactics have left China appearing to be at least an acquiescing co-aggressor and made a world already uneasy about Chinese advances – in Hong Kong, in the South China Sea, through its Belt and Road initiative, and obviously most importantly, through its bellicose attitude toward Taiwan – doubly suspicious.  In a call with Mr. Biden a few weeks ago, Mr. Xi reportedly “expressed the wish that the war was not happening [for once, an undoubtedly completely true statement from Mr. Xi 😉 ].”  In response to the Russian invasion, the western powers have unified ideologically and militarily in a way that Mr. Xi probably did not anticipate.  How China proceeds will depend upon Mr. Xi’s view of China’s strategic interest.  If he sees China’s interests most furthered by buttressing another autocracy [after all, a Russian failure might be a falling domino (to use the old phrase) facilitating a challenge to the Chinese regime], he will aid Russia, endure the ramifications to his own economy, and – most important for the long term — accept that China’s opportunity to wield influence throughout the globe will be sharply curtailed for years if not decades; it will be politically inexpedient for leaders of European economic powers to deepen ties with China.  Most importantly, in Asia, China’s area of greatest strategic concern, his adversaries (Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand) and those seeking to maintain friendly yet arm’s length relations with China (Vietnam, the Philippines) will be on guard, and even less likely to entertain Chinese overtures than they are now.  (A seemingly little-noted but I would submit significant event happened in South Korea since the Russian invasion:  Yoon Suk-yeol, a conservative urging a stronger stance against North Korea and closer ties to the U.S., won the nation’s presidency by .8% of the vote, upsetting the incumbent South Korean Democratic Party committed to warmer relations with North Korea and balancing the U.S. and China.  It is tenable that in such a close contest, the Russians’ invasion of Ukraine influenced a decisive number of South Koreans to seek a firmer stance against their own rogue enemy.)  On the other hand, if Mr. Xi believes that the geopolitical trajectory he considered to exist before the invasion – Chinese ascendency and American decline – can be preserved if the world determines that China is providing Russia more lip service than actual assistance, he will tactfully avoid any collaboration with Russia that will impede the “China Dream” to any greater extent than that which has already inevitably occurred. 

Autocracies, like democracies, are stronger united and weaker divided.  Mr. Putin may have given the democracies a wedge to at least weaken the bonds of the autocracies.  While there is relatively little the Biden Administration can do to influence China’s behavior, its primary strategic objective in this context should be to tacitly encourage any emerging gap between China and Russia.

For a while, I have been puzzled by the approach that Saudi Arabia has taken to the conflict.  In rejecting America’s request that the Saudis pump more oil to alleviate the global energy crisis and attendant cost increases brought on by the Russian invasion, Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (“Prince MBS”), the Saudi de facto leader, seemed to me to be as short-sighted as he is arrogant, willful, and malign.  While the Prince has no love for the Biden Administration – due to major actions by the Administration with which I entirely agree, and some personal snubs of the Prince that were deserved but perhaps diplomatically unwise – and by pumping more oil Saudi Arabia would violate its OPEC+ arrangement that supports and benefits Russia, it nonetheless appears that when the Ukrainian conflict ends, Russia will, from a practical standpoint, have less capability to project its power in the Middle East or serve as an intermediary between Saudi Arabia (its OPEC+ partner) and Iran (its Syrian ally).  I thought that the Prince would recognize that he needed America as counterweight against the Iranians, who are, one-on-one, simply tougher than the Saudis and who are probably just as pleased to see the Russians fall on their faces in Ukraine as they would have been to see Russia succeed (with America out of Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran doesn’t need Russia to control Assad and Syria, meddle with Iraq and Afghanistan, or bedevil Saudi Arabia from Yemen).  On April 20, the Wall Street Journal ran a detailed account of the breakdown in U.S.-Saudi relations, which I did have the opportunity to read.  What I hadn’t been considering was that in addition to his personal pique against the Biden Administration, it is likely that the Prince considers America an unreliable partner given both its continuing attempt to resurrect the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran (the Iran nuclear deal) and its withdrawal from Afghanistan.  In what could ultimately have serious consequences for us in the Middle East, I surmise – the Journal didn’t state so specifically – that given Russia’s presumed degradation, the Prince may well see China – to whom he now sells a lot more oil than he does to America – taking Russia’s place as a more reliable partner and intermediary between Iran and itself than the U.S.  If true, a dangerous turn.

It is, perhaps … what it is.  Despite what seems to have been a bit of recent unbecoming groveling by the U.S, as this is typed it appears unlikely we’ll get any help with energy pressures from Saudi Arabia any time soon.  My Roman Catholic viscera is pleased that we have taken the moral stands we have with regard to Prince MBS and Saudi Arabia; at the same time, I’m enough of a realpolitik student of former President Richard Nixon and Mr. Kissinger to believe that we have to live and operate in the real world, and accordingly rue our loss of influence with a strategic and longtime – albeit terribly flawed — ally in a very volatile region.

When possible, I intend to enter a note on the other primary challenge I consider to be facing President Biden related to the Ukrainian crisis:  time.

A War of Miscalculation: Part II

It happens that during the most momentous American foreign policy challenge since 9/11, a number of personal circumstances, many of them delightful – we welcomed our first granddaughter; an unexpectedly heavy (but welcome) time commitment to a volunteer opportunity – have prevented (and for a period into the future, may well prevent) much contribution to this site.  I am confident that no one following these pages has felt the loss very keenly; there has been enough commentary about the Ukrainians’ struggle to repel the Russian malefactors to suit any appetite.  I had a number of notions about Part II of this note when Part I was published; given the lapse of time, it has been recast.  A few current impressions:

President Joe Biden and his team have thus far done a masterful job.  While I agree with those who cringed when Mr. Biden called Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal and later uttered his declaration that Mr. Putin should not remain in power, these are relative nits; the President simply said out loud what all can see:  there will be no European stability nor Russian vitality while Mr. Putin remains in power.  On the important matters, Mr. Biden has rallied formerly squabbling and diverse NATO allies, mostly maintained the support of an otherwise sharply-divided American public, kept China largely on the sidelines, and (so far) avoided a nuclear conflict while slowly degrading (by facilitating Ukrainian resistance) Russia’s and Mr. Putin’s standing on the world stage.  In Part I, I asserted that America and its NATO allies should ship the Ukrainians all materiel they wanted short of nuclear weapons; much has been done; I join those that assert more can and should be done.  While I did and do disagree with Mr. Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, I can’t think of another major American politician on either side of the aisle who could have achieved in the Ukrainian crisis what he has through his manner, experience, and relationships.  He’s been close to spot-on.

The magnificent resistance of the Ukrainian people and their President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to Russia’s malign invasion has shown the world how a free people will fight to retain their freedom.  From the geopolitical perspective, the invasion to this point has clearly been a Russian military humiliation and a strategic debacle.  Credible reports indicate that Russian President Vladimir Putin is isolated and perhaps misinformed.  At the same time, while all who saw President Zelenskyy’s speech to the U.S. Congress found it compelling, I thought Mr. Zelenskyy also sounded desperate.  He is obviously acutely aware that despite his bravado, his people’s bravery, and Western aid, each day his people are dying, and his country is being pulverized by Russian missiles.  Mariupol is rubble.   The possibility that Mr. Putin is becoming unstable is a terrifying prospect given the nuclear and chemical weapons at his disposal.  At the time this is typed, negotiations between Ukraine and Russia are in progress.  While most NATO observers understandably doubt Russian good will, and there is a tendency, from across the ocean, to urge Ukraine to keep the fight going, to press home its seeming current advantage, it is the Ukrainians – not us — who are suffering and it is their country that is being destroyed.  I wouldn’t like it, but I would understand Mr. Zelenskyy’s acceptance of peace terms that included a confirmation of Ukrainian neutrality and Russian acquiescence to a robust defense pact between Ukraine and a U.S. – European consortium in exchange for Ukraine’s formal cessation to Russia of Crimea and the parts of the Donbas and Luhansk regions (not the entire regions) that were already under Russian separatist control when the conflict began.  (Realities being what they are, such concessions by Mr. Zelenskyy would, borrowing a phrase from former U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz, simply be giving Mr. Putin the sleeves from Mr. Zelenskyy’s vest.)  Even so:  this is not the time for the Ukrainians or NATO to ease up, even in the unlikely event that the Russians are serious.  They must continue to apply all military, economic, and other means to tighten the international vise on Russia until any settlement is achieved. 

There is a delicate word that at least I have yet to see raised anywhere – a word that I would suggest is even more explosive and challenging to prospects of peace than declaring Mr. Putin a war criminal or seeking his removal from power:  reparations.  Mariupol is the easiest example:  Who is going to rebuild it?  With what?  How about other severely damaged Ukrainian cities?  If a peace settlement is reached, who is going to remove the remains of destroyed Russian materiel strewn across Ukraine?  With what?  How is provision going to be made for Ukrainian families who have lost bread winners?  I have heard reported that $300 billion of Mr. Putin’s supposed war chest has actually been frozen by the West (not great planning on his part).  Do western democracies simply confiscate the sums they have frozen and provide them to the Ukrainians to rebuild?  A related issue:  What Russian agreements will be sufficient for the relaxation of Western sanctions?  These are sensitive issues.  If Russia is willing to pull back – a prospect truly to be doubted at this point – negotiators will need to address recompense for Ukrainian losses while being mindful that demands too punitive upon Russia, while warranted and even if accepted on paper, may – as the severe peace terms imposed on Germany by the Allied Powers at the end of World War I – simply breed future conflict.

As noted above, U.S. and NATO sources have publicly stated this week that Mr. Putin may not know the truth about the extent of the reverses Russia has absorbed and the losses it has sustained because his advisers fear for their own safety if they tell him the truth.  The New York Times has reported that Mr. Putin seemed “genuinely unaware” that Russian conscripts are being killed in Ukraine.  I view these statements and reports from two perspectives:  while they may, as some commentators claim, “play with Mr. Putin’s head” and might cause him to reconsider any unrealistic expectations about the invasion’s success that he may still hold, I fear that they also may also expose and endanger the source(s) which the U.S. has clearly placed very close to Mr. Putin.  It’s a calculated gamble as to whether the potential benefits of these statements and reports outweigh the risk to and of losing such a valuable intelligence source(s).  

Mr. Putin has made clear that he views Ukraine as part of Russia and Ukrainians as Russians.  All biographies of Mr. Putin establish that he is an avid reader of Russian history.  He has undoubtedly thrilled to the accounts of the manner in which Russians, due to sheer toughness and love of their Motherland, persevered through unspeakable hardship to ultimately repel France’s Grande Armee in 1812 and Nazi Germany’s Wehrmacht in 1942.  Mr. Putin’s greatest miscalculation in launching his malign offensive may ultimately prove to be his failure to understand that while the Ukrainians have Russian grit and tenacity, they do not consider Russia their nation.  They see Ukraine as their homeland.  Perhaps, prior to the invasion, Mr. Putin should have conducted a séance to hear from M. Bonaparte and Hr. Hitler how well an attacking force fares against a people with Russian spirit and pain threshold when they are defending their Motherland.

As the war continues, I would submit that the Biden Administration’s foreign policy opportunities are likely to expand at the same time that its domestic challenges may mount.  More on these as time allows.

On BR-319

While the international community’s attention is properly riveted on the atrocities being wreaked upon the people of Ukraine, other challenges and dangers across the globe continue unabated.  For those able to access the Washington Post, a piece just published by our favorite journalist.


A War of Miscalculation: Part I

[Note:  hopefully, those following these pages won’t find this merely a rehash.  While I have watched media accounts of the Russian invasion over the last week, other life pursuits have precluded a close reading of the accounts of credible newspapers, which I consider an American citizen’s definitive sources.  Unless directly attributed, what follows – whether useful or misguided — occurred to me without outside prompting.]

“No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main enemy forces.”

  • Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, 1871.

The conflict in Ukraine has thus far been much a war of miscalculation.  Russian President Vladimir Putin has, at least to this point, seemingly miscalculated strategically the most woefully, apparently believing as he ordered Russia’s invasion:  that the bulk of Ukrainians wished to be reunited under Russian rule; that any Ukrainian resistance his forces met during their invasion would be minimal and readily dispensed; that Russian conventional forces were highly competent; that the NATO alliance would be unable to sustain itself in the face of a direct challenge; and, probably most crucially, that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy lacked the resolve and inspirational qualities required to lead his people against a Russian onslaught.  Given its pointed efforts to shore up NATO borders and defenses in the months before the invasion, it would appear that prior to the assault, the Biden Administration had similar misconceptions regarding the Ukrainians’ resolve and military effectiveness, Russian conventional military competence, and Mr. Zelenskyy’s leadership capabilities.  I would venture that both sides believed that if Russia chose to endure the international condemnation that would accompany its attack, it would be a quick conflict in which Russia would secure Ukraine, establishing Russian control over a key part of the former USSR — which was its strategic objective; while the United States, after making all the gestures it could before the invasion to dissuade the advances of the Russian bear, viewed any Russian conquest of Ukraine as a sacrifice on the chessboard of Europe that would so terrify the rest of the continent that it would result in an energized, unified, and financially-committed NATO alliance – which was its strategic objective.

Mr. Zelenskyy’s leadership, his people’s grit, and the savage nature of the Russian assault have changed all that.  I would submit that the conflict now provides the United States strategic global opportunities not imaginable before the invasion if it acts wisely — and decisively.    

Before going there:  the courage and heroism of the Ukrainian people cannot be overstated.  I tend to look at foreign policy problems from the “Realpolitik” perspective I absorbed in my imprinting days from the works of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.  There is nothing wrong with this perspective – in a world run by humans and not saints, a great power does its citizens a disservice if it does not objectively determine and protect its own best interests – but such a viewpoint, alone, overlooks the terror and suffering Ukrainians are enduring right this minute to preserve their freedom and culture.  Hopefully, their struggle is searing into our national and personal psyches how precious freedom is and how it must be cherished — not diddled away wrangling over absurdities such as vaccine mandates and whether one should have the right to own military assault weapons.

150 years ago, Herr von Moltke was suggesting that victory in any struggle will go to the side that best adapts to changed circumstances.  I would submit that the Biden Administration should recognize that at this point, with all the destruction and ignominy that Mr. Putin has brought upon himself and his nation, he cannot and will not go back.  Even if he ultimately physically conquers Ukraine, he has lost strategically.  The personal and national respect he craves is gone.  His enemies are united and determined.  In the larger sense, this has become a struggle not for Ukraine but for Russia’s and Mr. Putin’s own future.  As long as Mr. Putin leads Russia, it will be viewed as a rogue nation – feared for its nuclear might, loathed for its barbarism, compared to Nazis.  That said, while the media has made much of the Russian people’s protests and the influence that Russian oligarchs allegedly have with Mr. Putin, I entirely discount these internal Russian factors; Mr. Putin can do as he wishes with each.  On the other hand, any dictator’s influence relies on military support and I suspect that Mr. Putin’s top military command has come to the uneasy realization that Russia will be an economically-hobbled pariah as long as Mr. Putin remains at the helm – an unease that, ominously, a man as aggrieved and paranoid as Mr. Putin is undoubtedly monitoring. 

The Administration – although President Joe Biden cannot say so out loud; such a statement itself could trigger a nuclear war – should set the stage for Russian regime change while the opportunity presents itself.  If counseling Mr. Biden, I would advise that the Administration proceed on three fronts:

Militarily:  We should ensure that we are taking every step to get the Ukrainians, either directly or indirectly, as much materiel as they want of whatever kind that they want, short of nuclear weaponry.  In other words:  “Every weapon system on the planet, that we can send to Ukraine,” as asserted by former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul.  (Mr. McFaul has gained credibility with me by being critical of the Obama Administration’s reticence to confront prior Russian aggressions, since he was part of the Obama Administration.)  Last week, the U.S. rejected a Polish plan to provide Ukraine MiG-29 fighter jets that Ukraine has requested.  There is reportedly bipartisan Senate support for providing the planes.  Our reluctance is incomprehensible.  I have no way to judge what the logistical challenges are, or whether the Ukrainians can actually make effective use of the aircraft; but we should let the Ukrainians decide what they need and can use.  Any fear we have of “provoking” the Russians is nonsense.  I am confident that Mr. Putin already considers himself at war with NATO; Russians have now begun shelling sites in western Ukraine where NATO is providing materiel to Ukraine.  Our purpose should be to help keep Russia back on its heels.  I would suggest that those talking heads chortling over the last couple of weeks about Russian military ineptitude have been whistling past the graveyard.  Even from incomplete reports, the conflict has seemed to me akin to a bout between a lumbering heavyweight boxer and a skilled lightweight.  Through skill and determination, the lightweight has done much better than expected in the early rounds; but the fact remains that if the heavyweight is able to land a decisive punch or two, the overt military conflict will be over.  If Russian forces are advancing – and they are – Ukraine is losing.

A related point:  the safety of President Zelenskyy.  By dint of bravado and determination, he is the Ukrainian resistance.  He has been compared to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.  Inspirationally, I agree; but I would actually give him more credit when it comes to raw courage.  Throughout WWII, Mr. Churchill was mostly in a bunker deep underground, with the British Navy and the English Channel between him and the Nazi Wehrmacht; in Kyiv, Mr. Zelenskyy has a relatively few miles and some amateur soldiers between him and the Russian army.  The Russians presumably consider killing or capturing Mr. Zelenskyy the single most devastating morale blow they can land on the Ukrainians.  Mr. Zelenskyy, who has rallied the world through his own derring-do, cannot be seen to have abandoned his post, while Ukraine cannot afford to lose him.  It is extremely dangerous.  This is the one area in which I would clandestinely insert American soldiers into Ukraine if such was necessary to safely transport Mr. Zelenskyy to western Ukraine (if and when he was willing to go).

To make at least a mild attempt to hold these notes to manageable length, the other two “fronts” that I would advise Mr. Biden to consider as the Russian invasion continues will be held for the remainder of this note.