“Bullets, Not a Taxi”
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is the end of the post-Cold-War era and brings back the era of great power conflict.
That’s why September 11 did not herald a new era, much as it seemed to at the time. It did not raise the prospect of opposition to an American-led order by a great-power competitor: another nuclear-armed nation with thousands of tanks and modern military aircraft, the full panoply of a major world power.
David French puts it in perspective:
For almost 80 years, the combination of military deterrence and Western alliances kept the peace, a peace that had become so familiar and comfortable that our eyes rebelled at what we were seeing on our television screens last night. As we watched the live video of Russia’s attack, it was hard to believe it was real.
See also my recent interview with Shay Khatiri, which focuses on the role of the American Leviathan in securing international peace and order. That’s what is important about this war, beyond the justice of the specific case. (On the specifics, see a good summary of the case for Ukraine from Ilya Somin.) It is a test of whether Russia can rewrite the world order, and redraw the map of Europe, based on nothing more than might makes right.
To get an idea of how wide the ramifications are, check out a Twitter thread from a leftwing Finnish scholar, Janne M. Korhonen, who points out that Putin’s rambling and paranoid speech announcing the invasion implies far more than an attack on the sovereignty of Ukraine. “Now he said out loud that Lenin made an error in 1917 when he let the former Russian territories ‘go.’ One of the countries that gained independence from Russia in 1917, by the way, was Finland.” He goes on to identify what really motivates Putin: “Democratic, successful countries bordering European Russia are a menace to him personally. They show the Russians an alternative and can serve as sanctuaries for dissidents that Putin would like to invite for a tea by the window.” That last phrase, “tea by the window” is a reference to Putin’s two favorite ways of disposing of critics.
Hence Korhonen’s next move: “I firmly believe violence cannot build a sustainable world. But sometimes the democracies need to find their spine. I'm still a reservist in the Finnish army and yesterday I voluntarily reviewed my wartime tasks and mobilization packing list, just in case.” For decades, Europe enjoyed the end of the Cold War, assumed those conditions would last forever, and almost completely neglected its defenses. I think that is about to change.
But of course the prospect of a great-power war also resurrects the specter of a nuclear war, and I smiled when I saw someone recommending that the younger generations find a Gen Xer to guide them through this new era, because we grew up on the constant threat of nuclear armageddon. I cannot begin to tell you how true this is.
But unless Putin becomes even more deranged and out of contact with reality than he is now, we are not going straight back to nuclear brinksmanship—a term the kids probably don’t know and will have to learn. Despite some chatter about NATO establishing a No Fly Zone over Ukraine, we’re not going to do that, precisely because it would bring us into direct conflict with Russia.
So that makes the outcome of the conventional war in Ukraine decisive for the shape of this new era.
Let the Sunflowers Bloom
So far, the Ukrainian resistance is vastly outperforming my expectations. Late at night, as I am writing this, it is dawn in Kyiv, and the Ukrainian armed forces announced that despite an expected overnight offensive, Russian forces did not take a single Ukrainian city. (As I send this, there is a new overnight assault being launched against Kyiv.) For the most part, the Russians seem to be bogged down and moving slowly. According to a British official, “Russia has not taken any population centers, the official said, nor has it yet managed to achieve air superiority over Ukraine. The Ukrainian air defense and missile defense systems, he said, have been degraded, but Ukraine’s air force ‘still have aircraft in the air that continue to engage and deny air access to Russia.’”
The failure to establish air supremacy is enormously important, because it removes Russia’s biggest advantage. Being able to strike with impunity from the air is what was supposed to allow the Russians to break up any concentrated resistance to their armored advance and move paratroopers around the country for a swift advance. Instead, Russian troop transport planes are getting shot down and Russian casualty figures are rising rapidly.
There’s an old saying that war is God’s way of teaching Americans geography. We tend not to pay attention to the rest of the world until somebody we care about is fighting somewhere. In this case, I think most people don’t appreciate the challenge the Russians set for themselves, because they don’t appreciate the sheer size of Ukraine, which is the second largest country in Europe after Russia. To put it in American terms, it is just a bit smaller than Texas but with a larger population. And would you advise anyone to try to invade Texas?
To cross Ukraine and hold its vast territory is a monumental undertaking. But the bigger blunder is that Putin seems to have expected that Ukrainians would be demoralized and unwilling to fight. Precisely the opposite has been true.
It is the Russians who seem demoralized. I saw a report last night of Russian tanks stuck outside of Kyiv because they had run out of fuel, with the crews sent searching for diesel. In one video, a passing motorist asks the tank crew if they want him to tow them back to Russia. I find this all totally plausible, because when these same Russian troops were engaged in pre-invasion exercises in Belarus, the were known for selling their fuel for vodka.
As for the Ukrainians, here’s a little vignette of the man in the Ukrainian street from a reporter surveying the wreckage of Russian tanks after a skirmish outside Kharkiv.
Even as the artillery barrages intensified, not everyone was ready to hide. Walking with intention toward the source of the artillery booms on the outskirts of Kharkiv was Roman Balakelyev, dressed in camouflage, a double-barreled shotgun slung over his shoulder. “I live here, this is my home. I’m going to defend it,” said Mr. Balakelyev, who also pulled out a large knife he had strapped to his back as if to show it off. “I don’t think the Russians understand me like I understand them.”
A short while later, Mr. Balakelyev reached the edge of the city, where the Ukrainian troops were huddled around the abandoned Russian troop transports. They watched as he passed. No one moved to stop him. One soldier uttered: “Intent on victory.” Mr. Balakelyev, his gaze fixed and his shotgun ready, headed down the road in the direction of the booms and a tall billboard that read: “Protect the future: UKRAINE-NATO-EUROPE.”
Stories of incredible courage have begun to filter out, like that of a Ukrainian soldier preparing to blow up a bridge to stop the advance of a Russian armored column. He ran out of time to detonate it remotely, so he blew it up while he was still there.
Then there is the story of Snake Island, Ukraine’s Alamo, where a contingent of thirteen coastguard soldiers was ordered to surrender by a Russian warship.
In a radio message, the soldiers were told by a sailor on board the vessel: “This is Russian military warship. I suggest you lay down your weapons and surrender to avoid bloodshed and needless casualties. Otherwise, you will be bombed.”
However, the Ukrainian troops defiantly refused to give up the territory and instead replied with a defiant message of “Go f--- yourselves.” The Russian soldiers on radio are heard muttering the curse back at the defiant Ukrainians.
Soon afterwards, all were killed in an aerial bombardment.
It is an incident reminiscent of Cambronne’s word, and this response of earthy defiance has since been emblazoned on a Ukrainian adaptation of the Gadsden Flag.
Courage and defiance have radiated from every level of Ukrainian society. There is the woman berating Russian soldiers and offering them sunflower seeds to put in their pockets so that something beautiful will spring from their corpses when they are killed. The sunflower is Ukraine’s national flower and has since become another symbol of support for Ukrainian resistance.
There is the young couple who rushed their wedding so they could join the local Territorial Defense Center and spend their honeymoon shooting Russians. There are unconfirmed rumors of the “Ghost of Kyiv,” a Ukrainian fighter pilot who supposedly shot down six Russian jets in one day. Take that one with a grain of salt—but then again, something has got to explain why the Russians still don’t control the air.
What is most noticeable is that this kind of courage extends widely to the elites in Ukrainian society—in distinct contrast to the relationship between the common man and the elites in Russia. Boxing legends Vitali Klitschko, who is the mayor of Kyiv, and his younger brother Wladimir have both signed up to fight. Former president Petro Poroshenko was photographed slinging a rifle with a regiment outside Kyiv. And above all there is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a former comedian who got elected literally because he played the president in a TV comedy and people liked his character. Zelenskyy was criticized for his apparent complacency in the lead-up to the invasion, and a lot of people thought he was in over his head—but in the crisis he has risen magnificently to the occasion. He refused an American offer to evacuate him from the capital, proclaiming, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.” The other translation I’ve heard is, “I need bullets, not a taxi.” I don’t know if this is more accurate, but it is more literarily satisfying. Two days ago, he signed off a call with his fellow European heads of state by telling them, “This might be the last time you see me alive.” This is not mere showmanship because everybody knows it could be true.
A Ukrainian journalist describes the electrifying effect of Zelenskyy’s example, asking “How do you control a country of 44 million Ukrainians who suddenly have something to believe in?”
He still might not make it. Things will almost certainly get worse before they get better. Russia has not yet committed its full strength, and many of the middle-aged, middle-class people volunteering to take up rifles right now have little or no training. They have plenty of spirit, but that’s not enough to win against a well-trained, well-disciplined, and motivated enemy.
Then again, it’s beginning to look as if the average Russian recruit meets none of those criteria, so the Ukrainians just might have a chance. Every day that passes without clear Russian advances raises the cost for the Russian army and puts victory farther out of their reach. From what we’ve seen so far, I am confident the Ukrainians will continue some kind of guerilla war if the Russians seize control of the major cities. But we will know in the next week whether the Russians can manage even that much.
The valiant defense mounted by the Ukrainians has united much of the world and almost all of America in stunned admiration.
But not everyone. There were those who expressed admiration in a very different direction. Donald Trump praised Vladimir Putin’s “savvy.”
Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine—of Ukraine—Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful. I said, “How smart is that?” And he’s gonna go in and be a peacekeeper.... We could use that on our southern border. That’s the strongest peace force I’ve ever seen. There were more army tanks than I’ve ever seen. They’re gonna keep peace all right. No, but think of it. Here’s a guy who’s very savvy.
That link is by way of the blogger Allahpundit, who breaks down three types of conservative responses on Ukraine. There are “the ‘Never Democrats,’ the negative partisans who have no strong views of the conflict but will take whatever line on Ukraine is necessary for them to be able to argue that Biden is a wimp and a disgrace.” There are the “old-school Republican hawks, the people who fear and loathe Russia and believe we should project strength in defense of our allies.” This has included much of the older, established Republican leadership, such as Mitch McConnell. Then there are “the America First-ers, the populist-nationalists or people posing as populist-nationalists for political or financial gain who’ll insist we have no interest in deterring Putin.” Many of these style themselves not as pro-Russia but as anti-anti-Russia. As usual, this tends to become just plain pro-Russia.
Pat Buchanan was quick out of the gate arguing that the invasion is our fault because we provoked Russia. The sympathy for Putin and Putinism drips from every sentence: “Putin is a Russian nationalist, patriot, traditionalist and a cold and ruthless realist looking out to preserve Russia as the great and respected power it once was and he believes it can be again.”
Buchanan is old and washed up, but you hear the same thing coming from a younger cohort of digital-native conservative populists like Candace Owens: “I suggest every American who wants to know what’s actually going on in Russia and Ukraine, read this transcript of Putin’s address. As I’ve said for months—NATO (under direction from the United States) is violating previous agreements and expanding eastward. WE are at fault.” There is a fine line between American First and Blame America First.
You also hear this coming from prominent Trump sychophants like Steve Bannon. “On a podcast on Wednesday, Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former adviser, also praised Mr. Putin as ‘anti-woke.’ He suggested the Ukrainian conflict was ‘not our fight.’” J.D. Vance, who is in the process of selling his soul to the #MAGA right in order to get a Senate seat—and failing—joined the chorus: “I think it’s ridiculous that we are focused on this border in Ukraine. I got to be honest with you, I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or the other.” He later backtracked, but this is the kind of situation where you only get one shot at getting it right.
Charlie Kirk, leader of the massive conservative grassroots organization Turning Point USA, spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida this week—a massive gathering dominated by the Trumpist wing of the right—and dismissed the attack on Ukraine as “a dispute 5,000 miles away in cities we can’t pronounce, places that most Americans can’t find on a map.” If I gave him more credit, I would think he was deliberately paraphrasing Neville Chamberlain’s description of the Sudetenland Crisis as “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”
Kirk declares that instead of hearing about Ukraine, he wants Republican politicians at CPAC to talke about the real “invasion” of illegal immigrants on our southern border. That’s one theme in conservative deflection on this issue. The other is sympathy for Vladimir Putin because he is “anti-woke.” How can we say that Russia is the bad guy, when they don’t practice “cancel culture”?
Here is Putin’s most prominent American lickspittle, top-rated Fox News host Tucker Carlson, asking his readers to question why they should hate Vladimir Putin.
Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him? Has he shipped every middle class job in my town to Russia? Did he manufacture a worldwide pandemic that wrecked my business and kept me indoors for two years? Is he teaching my children to embrace racial discrimination? Is he making fentanyl? Is he trying to snuff out Christianity?
That part about “snuffing out Christianity” is the big underlying issue. American is becoming a secular nation, the old “moral majority” is becoming a minority, and they are in a panic. Putin, meanwhile, has climbed to power by seeking a partnership with the Russian Orthodox Church, billing himself as a defender of faith and traditional morality. There is an undercurrent in the American right that looks on this with envy, as a model they would like to adopt here at home.
That’s how we get Lauren Witzke, a former Republican Senate candidate in Delaware, siding with Vladimir Putin because Russia is “a Christian nationalist nation.”
Witzke may be a somewhat obscure crank. And so is Nick Fuentes, a white nationalist and total loser who leads a small but very fanatical group of young America Firsters living in their moms’ basements. He brought his Junior Gruppenfuhrer Club together for a parallel meeting alongside CPAC, where he got them to cheer on Putin’s invasion. Surely, this does not represent all of the right—but then again, they were cheering Putin during Fuentes’ introduction for their featured speaker, Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, who got elected by appealing to the Trump vote.
The idea that Putin, a man who has carried out a decades-long campaign of assassination against his critics, is somehow an ally against “cancel culture” is an absurdity. “Vladimir the Underpants Poisoner”—my youngest son insisted that I include that—has a history of canceling his critics in the most literal sense, with Polonium and nerve gas. Equally absurd is the idea that Russia is some sort of utopia of elevated moral values, a fantasy projected by American conservatives onto a much uglier reality.
In reality, Russia has one of the highest abortion rates in the world, nearly double that of the United States. It has an extremely low record of church attendance, though the numbers are difficult to measure, not least because any form of Christianity outside of the state-controlled Orthodox Church is liable to be considered a cult. A 2012 survey showed that religion plays an important role in the lives of only 15 percent of Russians. Only 5 percent have read the Bible.
Or consider the courtroom speech of a young Russian dissident.
An impenetrable barrier divides our society in two. All the money is concentrated at the top and no one up there is going to let it go. All that’s left at the bottom—and this is no exaggeration—is despair. Knowing that they have nothing to hope for, that no matter how hard they try, they cannot bring happiness to themselves or their families, Russian men take their aggression out on their wives, or drink themselves to death, or hang themselves. Russia has the world’s [second] highest rate of suicide among men. As a result, a third of all Russian families are single mothers with their kids. I would like to know: Is this how we are protecting the institution of the family?
But the reality of Russia doesn’t matter, only the fantasy of a “Christian nationalist” nation to be contrasted to the supposed failures of our liberal society. And of course, as in a previous Western flirtation with Russian dictatorship, all of these people are “useful idiots” whose rants are shown on Russian state-controlled TV as propaganda to support Putin’s invasion.
To get an idea of what’s at stake for our domestic politics, cruise on over and check out the Twitter feed of Sohrab Ahmari, which is basically a long nervous exchange between him and fellow Christian nationalist Adrian Vermeule downplaying the Ukrainians’ chances, mocking them for their “false hopes,” disparaging the motives and characters of Ukrainian leaders, and dismissing the vast and nearly unanimous outpouring of support for Ukraine as “herd mentality and liberal arrogance.”
It’s as if they know the game is over. Putin’s murderous madness has already exposed the vicious inhumanity of the Christian nationalist model—and worse, every day that Ukraine holds out exposes the weakness of that model. The nationalists like to thump their chests about returning to a stronger creed—but what if modern Western liberalism is the stronger creed?
Russia Must Pay
As David French puts it, “Russia must pay. Its act of aggression must cost Vladimir Putin’s regime so dearly, its ultimate failure stands as a reminder that the world rejects aggressive war—that it is a path to ruin and loss, not victory and greatness.”
As for what the US should be doing, we should obviously be giving arms to Ukraine, from rifle ammunition to the weapons that are really making a difference on the battlefield: anti-tank weapons like the Javelin and the NLAW, as well as anti-aircraft weapons like the Stinger to deny Russia control of the skies. Do it overtly or do it covertly, like we did in Afghanistan. After some apparent dithering from the Biden administration over legal niceties, it looks like that’s precisely what we’re doing.
NATO’s Response Force of 40,000 troops has been activated, for the first time in the alliance’s history, to reinforce NATO’s Eastern European boundaries, which will help deter Putin from any attempt to block our resupply of Ukraine.
The most interesting proposal I’ve heard is to drain Russia’s brains.
[T]he United States could, with a stroke of a pen, totally destroy the capacity of Russia to compete militarily or economically with us by offering a green card to any Russian with a technical degree who wishes to emigrate to the United States.
This has already been a persistent drag on Russia’s capabilities for decades, the cost of maintaining a kleptocracy.
But the overwhelming response to Russia has been a wave of boycotts and sanctions that are rapidly cutting the country off from the civilized world. After intensive diplomacy, it looks like there is now a consensus to cut off a bunch of Russian banks from SWIFT, an international payment system. There is a push, particularly in Britain, to freeze or seize the assets of Russian “oligarchs,” the Putin cronies who like to stow their looted billions safely in Western economies.
Over the past few days, Russia has also lost multiple allies, including previously sympathetic leaders in Czechia and Hungary. A whole wave of cultural exchanges with Russia have been canceled. A Russian conductor who is known as a friend and “vocal supporter” of Vladimir Putin just got his gigs cancelled at Carnegie Hall and La Scala. And in what must surely be considered a grievous blow, Russia has been denied the European Curling Championships.
More can and should be done. Everything that won’t initiate a direct conflict—and therefore a possible nuclear conflict—between NATO and Russia. We should ensure that whatever the outcome in Ukraine, Russia will lose a fair portion of its military capability and be rendered economically incapable of replacing it.
It is not just the world outside Russia’s orbit that is abandoning Putin. Kazakhstan was reportedly asked to contribute troops to fight in Ukraine—itself a sign of Russian desperation—but declined.
[M]ore than 1,000 people gathered in the center of Moscow Thursday evening, chanting “No to war!” as passing cars honked their horns. Protesters also took to the streets in several other cities, including St. Petersburg, all defying a warning from the Investigative Committee, a kind of Russian answer to the FBI, that they would face criminal action and even jail time. Police had detained 1,667 people at rallies in 53 cities by around Russia by 9:30 p.m. local time, reported OVD-Info, a rights monitor that documents crackdowns on Russia’s opposition, according to the AP. Police in Moscow said they had detained 600 people, Reuters reported.
Several high-profile musicians, TV stars and comedians making anti-war posts on social media. A large number of journalists and social media influencers have also expressed their disapproval, although few criticized Putin and his government directly. “Have been on the phone with my relatives from Ukraine since early morning,” comedian and TV host Maxim Galkin wrote on Instagram. “I cannot describe what I am feeling right now. How is this all possible! There is no justification for war! No to war!”
Singer Valery Meladze said on Instagram that “history will judge and put everything in its places. But today I beg you to stop military action and come together in talks.” Another TV host and comedian, Alexander Gudkov, posted a picture of a black square on Instagram. Alongside it, he wrote: “I am ashamed to have been born on this day #notowar.”
Elena Kovalskaya, the Director of Moscow's Vsevolod Meyerhold State Theater and Cultural Center, resigned: “Friends, in protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine, I'm leaving my post as Director of Moscow's Vsevolod Meyerhold State Theater and Cultural Center. It's impossible to work for a murderer and collect a salary from him."
These are just the first, small stirrings in a country that is long repressed and deeply corrupted by nationalism. But it’s a start, and the economic impact of the sanctions has not yet begun to be felt.
I think we can say that this has already been a disaster for Putin. He clearly expected a quick and easy takeover of Ukraine, followed by NATO folding and accepting a fait accompli—as they have after previous rounds of Russian aggression. Instead, he got the opposite.
There are three things Vladimir Putin could not afford to result from this roll of the dice. He wanted Ukraine not to develop or display a distinct independent national identity, he wanted NATO to remain divided, and he wanted to cow all of his neighbors with Russia’s irresistible military might. But what is the result? If Ukrainians did not have a strong sense of national identity before, they sure as hell do now. NATO is united, alert, and active in a way I have never seen before. As for the Russian military, it is looking a lot less impressive than advertised. If Ukraine survives, it will be exposed as a paper tiger.
We are at the ominous beginning of a new era of major-power conflict, but it could also be the beginning of the end for Putin—and for the creed of authoritarian nationalism.