World War Z
When the apocalypse came, we thought it would be zombies—and I suppose, in a way, it is.
The title of today’s edition is taken from a book and subsequent film that came out a few years back which projected a global zombie apocalypse dubbed “World War Z.” Well, we’ve now got a war that involves the whole world—more on that below—and we’ve got the “Z,” the symbol emblazoned on Russian tanks and armored vehicles which has become, in effect, the swastika of fascist Russia.
Others have taken up the comparison and I think it’s an appropriate one, because we really are fighting a zombie regime, zombie ideas, and a Russian people who have allowed themselves to be turned into mental zombies.
Don’t take my word for it. Consider the statement made by Marina Ovsyannikova, an editor at Russia’s Channel One, who charged onto the set of one of the network’s shows holding a placard that reads “No War”—that part was in English, the global language of freedom—along with, “Don’t believe the propaganda. They’re lying to you here.” It was signed—again, in English—“Russians against the war.” Ovsyannikova explained her position in a video posted separately on the Internet.
Unfortunately, for the past few years, I have been working on Channel One and doing Kremlin propaganda, and now I am very ashamed of it. It's a shame that I allowed to speak lies from the TV screens, ashamed that I allowed to zombify Russian people.
She has been charged with “hooliganism,” the deliberately undefinable criminal offense that was a workhorse of the Soviet police state, and that just adds to the whole atmosphere of a rampage of the undead.
The peculiar horror of a zombie, after all, is that it has a human form and is capable of human action, but deprived of reason or independent will, driven only by a compulsion to destroy, with no way of reaching a human mind or dissuading it from its course. This is exactly the evil the civilized world faces with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The War for Normal Life
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gave a remote speech to the US Congress this morning making the case for more support for his country. Regular readers will not be surprised that I zeroed in on this particular passage:
Right now, the destiny of our country is being decided. The destiny of our people, whether Ukrainians will be free, whether they will be able to preserve their democracy. Russia has attacked not just us, not just our land, our cities. It went on a brutal offensive against our values. Basic human values. Against our freedom, our right to live freely, choosing our own future. Against our desire for happiness, against our national dreams.
Just like the same things you have, you Americans. Just like anyone else in the United States. I remember the national memorial Mount Rushmore. the faces of your prominent presidents, those who laid the foundation of the United States of America. Democracy, independence, freedom.
For every person who works diligently, who lives honestly, who respects the law, we in Ukraine want the same for our people. All that is a normal part of your own life.
This is a war for “normal life,” a concept that just keeps popping up. “Normal life” means, in this context, the kind of social and political system that has become the norm in modern, mostly Western, Enlightenment-influenced societies.
Another name for “normal life” is the “liberal international order.” That’s the term that comes up in an interesting overview of the choice China now has to make. As Noah Smith defines it:
The liberal global order involves things like universal human rights, the inviolability of national borders, freedom of the seas, a taboo against wars of choice, a preference for democracy as a system of government, and the right of small nations not to be dominated by big ones. This system of values and the accompanying institutions that protect it have served the world very well since its creation in the wake of the Second World War, bringing about an era of relative peace and an unprecedented period of broadly shared economic development.
To define the common characteristic behind all of these elements, it is a rejection of the idea that might makes right.
The war in Ukraine is about whether the “normal life” of the liberal international order will be defended and can prevail. Hence Zelensky’s peroration:
Today the Ukrainian people are defending not only Ukraine. We are fighting for the values of Europe and the world, sacrificing our lives in the name of the future.
There have been some complaints recently that Americans were not nearly so concerned about similar slaughter in places like Syria—so why are we so united behind Ukraine? Is it just because they are Europeans who look like most of us? There is something to that. It’s certainly easier to look at images of Ukrainian cities—such as the gut-wrenching video Zelensky showed to Congress—and wonder what it would be like if this happened to you.
I certainly think (and said so at the time) that we should have done more early on in Syria, rather than dithering endlessly as the Obama administration did. If we had, the Russians might not have been emboldened to use the same tactics in Ukraine. Yet there is an objective difference between the two cases. The conflict in Syria was a civil war in a dictatorship that was very much not part of the liberal international order, in a region known for tribal warfare, terrorism, and chronic conflict. It was short-sighted but perhaps understandable to write it off as a hopelessly complex brawl that we were better off staying out of. Yet Ukraine is a society with a free press and an elected government, on the doorsteps of our European allies. The liberal international order can survive if the Syrian uprising fails. It’s less clear how much of it survives if Ukraine loses.
Hence Zelensky’s plea to President Biden: “I wish you to be the leader of the world.” What we need is to restore the idea of America as the Leader of the Free World.
What would this mean in practice? Zelensky has been asking for NATO to “close the skies” by imposing a No Fly Zone over Ukrainian territory. I suppose I would ask that, too, if someone were murdering my country’s children. But much as I want to push the boundaries—and I think there is a lot of validity to Senator Ben Sasse’s complaint that the Biden administration has been overly cautious and “self-deterring”—we all know that any policy that would require NATO jets to shoot down Russian jets is not going to happen. Nobody benefits from a shooting war between nuclear powers.
So Zelensky came prepared with a completely reasonable fallback request.
This is a terror Europe has not seen for 80 years and we are asking for an answer to this terror from the world. Is that a lot to ask? To create a no-fly zone over Ukraine to save people. Is this too much to ask? A no-fly zone. Russia would not be able to terrorize our cities.
If this is too much to ask, we offer an alternative. You know what kind of defense systems we need. You know how much depends on the ability to use aircraft to protect our people, our freedom. aircraft that can help Ukraine, help Europe. We know they exist, and you have them. They are not in Ukrainian skies….
Ukraine is grateful to the United States for its overwhelming support. Everything your government and your people have done for us, for weapons and training, for leadership to pressure the aggressor economically…. In the darkest times for our country I call on you to do more.
Zelensky received a standing ovation before he even began speaking. He has the overwhelming support of Congress and of the American people. I think he will get most of what he was asking for. (Much may already be on the way, but without public fanfare.)
In particular, there are now negotiations to transfer more sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine from neighboring NATO countries, in return for America replacing those systems with newer and better ones.
Slovakia has preliminarily agreed to provide Ukraine with a key Soviet-era air defense system to help defend against Russian airstrikes, according to three sources familiar with the matter…. According to two of the sources, Slovakia, one of three NATO allies that have the S-300 missile defense system, wants assurances that the systems will be replaced immediately.
Any country providing S-300s is likely to receive the US-made Patriot air defense missile system to backfill the capability it would be giving up, according to two other sources familiar with the negotiations. Germany and the Netherlands have already publicly announced that they are sending Patriots to Slovakia….
Lawmakers in both parties, who heard from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a speech Wednesday morning, have urged the US to do more to help Ukraine obtain the weapons it is seeking, particularly after the administration opposed a plan last week to provide Ukraine with Polish MiG-29 jets.
This is a beneficial arrangement. Many Eastern European countries have old Russian defense systems which they would like to upgrade to newer, NATO-compatible systems. At the same time, the old systems will be familiar and easy to use for the Ukrainians. This should definitely happen and probably will happen, and it will make the skies above Ukraine much more dangerous for Russian pilots.
The Zombie Empire
The fact that Ukraine has become a test of the liberal international order is what makes this into a World War, in spirit if not (yet) in literal fact. Only two countries are fighting directly, but every country has an interest in the outcome.
Yevgeny Simkin explains why invading, subjugating, or destroying Ukraine is such an imperative for Vladimir Putin.
Not because he’s jealous or because he’s worried about his borders. He can’t have it because until recently when Russians looked to, say, Belgium, or France, or Germany, and asked, “Why can’t we have what they have?”—the answer was always “Because they’re different! We’re Russian. We operate differently.”
And Russians bought this explanation because there’s a grain of truth in it.
But what happens to that sangfroid if Ukraine turns into Belgium? (And they’re well on their way to doing that.)
Then Putin would be left standing naked in his garden of lies. The Russians can’t be sold on the excuse that “they’re different” when it comes to the Ukrainians because everyone in Russia knows they’re not different. And if the Ukrainians can turn their nation into a prosperous, liberal, capitalist state then the blame for Russia not being capable of the same falls squarely at Putin’s feet.
China also faces the same problem. Let me recommend again the article I mentioned above by Noah Smith. What I like about it is that it shows how all of China’s recent policies, and its many looming crises, are explained by the common theme of the regime’s rejection of the liberal international order.
Take their response to the COVID pandemic, where they have rejected innovative mRNA vaccines simply because they are Western vaccines, relying instead on inferior home-grown vaccines. That has left them with only one tool to fight them pandemic: total lockdowns imposed by genuinely authoritarian means (which are far harsher than anything denounced as “authoritarian” in the West). It is the typical response of a dictatorship. Anything that requires innovative ideas, they can’t do. But what they can do is to lock everybody up. Yet the new omicron variant of COVID is so highly transmissible that even this solution is failing.
So given that tearing down the liberal model is their central goal, Russia’s failed invasion of Ukraine puts China in a bind.
Before Putin’s attack, China and Russia looked to be growing inexorably closer together, solidifying into a new axis that seemed to have the potential to outmatch the US and its allies. But Russia moved too soon, and made the wrong move, and now China’s leaders don’t quite know what to do. On one hand, China’s state media have worked to promote Russia’s preferred narrative of the war—that NATO expansion forced Russia to act. But on the other hand, China’s ambassador to the US angrily denied that China had any foreknowledge of the invasion. And Russia was reportedly furious when China’s ambassador to Ukraine praised the country’s resistance and vowed to help Ukraine rebuild.
China is really in a bind here. If Russia continues not to do very well on the battlefield, China faces an uncomfortable choice between A) standing back and letting its most important ally break its armed forces on a failed invasion, or B) intervening to help Russia subdue the Ukrainians, convincing the world it’s as monstrous as Putin and drawing the wrath of the sanctions regime that is crushing Russia’s economy. Its attempt to straddle the fence may result in the worst of both worlds—a shattered ally and international opprobrium.
Or consider a paper by Hu Wei, an academic with a Chinese think tank, warning the country against backing Russia. (China has a weird system in which it officially suppresses all dissent but allows it in a limited form through a variety of state-sponsored think tanks.) The paper has since been censored inside China but is available in an English translation. After laying out clear reasons why Russia will be badly weakened by any realistic outcome of the war in Ukraine, Hu begins to warn about its wider implications.
The “Iron Curtain” would fall again not only from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, but also to the final confrontation between the Western-dominated camp and its competitors. The West will draw the line between democracies and authoritarian states, defining the divide with Russia as a struggle between democracy and dictatorship. The new Iron Curtain will no longer be drawn between the two camps of socialism and capitalism, nor will it be confined to the Cold War. It will be a life-and-death battle between those for and against Western democracy. The unity of the Western world under the Iron Curtain will have a siphon effect on other countries: the US Indo-Pacific strategy will be consolidated, and other countries like Japan will stick even closer to the US, which will form an unprecedentedly broad democratic united front….
China will become more isolated under the established framework. For the above reasons, if China does not take proactive measures to respond, it will encounter further containment from the US and the West. Once Putin falls, the US will no longer face two strategic competitors but only have to lock China in strategic containment. Europe will further cut itself off from China; Japan will become the anti-China vanguard; South Korea will further fall to the US; Taiwan will join the anti-China chorus, and the rest of the world will have to choose sides under herd mentality. China will not only be militarily encircled by the US, NATO, the QUAD, and AUKUS, but also be challenged by Western values and systems….
China cannot be tied to Putin and needs to be cut off as soon as possible…. Unless Putin can secure victory with China’s backing, a prospect which looks bleak at the moment, China does not have the clout to back Russia…. Under current international circumstances, China can only proceed by safeguarding its own best interests, choosing the lesser of two evils, and unloading the burden of Russia as soon as possible. At present, it is estimated that there is still a window period of one or two weeks before China loses its wiggle room. China must act decisively….
Given that China has always advocated respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity, it can avoid further isolation only by standing with the majority of the countries in the world.
This would be the smart thing for China to do, but the country is led by a dictator, and dictators aren’t driven by rational calculation. They are driven by a compulsion for power, and like I said, the cornerstone of all of Xi Jinping’s policies is the rejection of the liberal international order. Hence you hear talk like this coming out of China.
“The old order is swiftly disintegrating, and strongman politics is again ascendant among the world’s great powers,” wrote Mr. Zheng of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen. “Countries are brimming with ambition, like tigers eyeing their prey, keen to find every opportunity among the ruins of the old order.”
This would be consistent with a longstanding Chinese foreign policy that someone once described as a “zombie empire.” There is that same metaphor again. The idea is that China looks for countries that are weak and unstable and dictators who desperately need to be propped up and will be eager to take aid and take orders from China, as in North Korea or Venezuela.
If Russia relies on Chinese help now—and Putin is begging for it—then they will become clearly the junior partner in this axis of evil. Here’s how a gimlet-eyed Baltic observer sums it up.
Yes, it’s in Estonian. But this is the 21st Century, after all, so you can just hit a little button that says, “translate tweet,” and you get this: “Russia is quite likely to get its longed-for red flag back in the future. but not quite as they meant with only a few compromises.”
[Update: On Wednesday afternoon, as I was writing this section, the Chinese ambassador to the US published an op-ed in the Washington Post that was full of lies and vague generalities. But it very conspicuously did not back Russia and made a clear point about wanting to avoid economic sanctions against China—so perhaps they aren’t going to stick their necks out for Putin, after all.]
But Russia would just be another big zombie added to China’s empire, and the problem with a zombie empire is that all of your allies are, well, zombies.
The Russian economy is certainly a zombie, comprehensively cut off from the world. Check out an interesting Twitter thread in which Kamil Galeev explains how deeply dependent Russian manufacturing is on outside imports, despite official efforts at “import substitution” to replace foreign parts. One key highlight:
President Putin ordered to launch import-substitution. Governor Orlova obeyed and commanded a local factory to create a Russian tractor. CEO obeyed and engineers designed a new amazing machine АНТ 4135F. That's how Russian vertical of power works.
And yet, Russian tractor АНТ 4135F isn't Russian. It's a Czech tractor Zetor Forterra 135. I wanna clarify, it is not a copy of a Czech tractor. It literally is a Czech tractor. Russia plant buys tractor kits in Czech Republic, assembles them, and pretends they're home produced.
This is true even of military hardware. Galeev’s overall point is that Putin’s Russia is a mafia state and thus cannot support any economic process that is too complex for its mafia goons to control. Any system that needs complex engineering ends up being outsourced to countries that have now cut Russia off.
Over at Discourse, I recently published a piece defending not just the economic isolation of Russia but also some of the cultural canceling, particularly when aimed at regime insiders like conductor and Putin crony Valery Gergiev. “The comprehensive social ostracism of ‘cancel culture’ is a blunt weapon to be used in the most clear-cut and extreme cases,” I argue—and this is one of those cases.
A certain amount of Russia-hatred is going to be natural when they are deliberately bombing civilian shelters. Around the world, that is taking forms like one Irishman’s colorful protest. A New York Times article takes a more serious look at the surge in anti-Russian sentiment within Ukraine, though the article is most notable for producing this one transcendent paragraph:
Olha Koba, a psychologist in Kyiv, said that “anger and hate in this situation is a normal reaction and important to validate.” But it is important to channel it into something useful, she said, such as making incendiary bombs out of empty bottles.
Call it the Molotov cocktail theory of anger management.
But it’s worth taking a moment to read veteran Russia correspondent Nic Robertson’s expression of despair at Russia’s wasted post-Soviet potential.
Less than a month before Putin's invasion, I met anchor Ekaterina Kotrikadze of TV Rain, one of the last independent stations. Her words then were prophetic: "You can never be sure that tomorrow your TV station will still be alive and on air and broadcasting."
Days after the war started, Putin had it shut down. Kotrikadze, an eloquent voice of Russia's dispossessed bright hopes, is now on the run, outside of Russia with her editor husband and their smart young children. The country is darker without them….
Part of the pain of seeing all this is knowing that so much of Russia's vast wealth of intellect and resources lies untapped. Meanwhile, one man and his cronies is destroying the country.
If only someone could save them from this.
The Ides of March
We just passed the Ides of March, which reminds us that Caesar had his Brutus, Charles I his Cromwell, and the people of Russia…may profit by these examples.
Certainly, there are a few thousand brave souls who have taken to the streets to protest against the war. And there are some indications of turmoil within the elite. The head of the FSB’s foreign service has been arrested and is being made into the fall guy for the failure in Ukraine.
Among the reasons for the repressions are the embezzlement of funds allocated for subversive and undercover work in Ukraine, as well as deliberately false information about the political situation in Ukraine.
The FSB security service allegedly handed him intelligence suggesting that Ukraine was weak, riddled with neo-Nazi groups, and would give up easily if attacked.
That’s the problem with being a dictator. You tolerate only yes-men who tell you what you want to hear—then blame them for not providing you with competent guidance. A leaked letter supposedly from a source inside the FSB explains what went wrong.
"You have to write the analysis in a way that makes Russia the victor...otherwise you get questioned for not doing good work," they wrote. "Suddenly it happens and everything comes down to your completely groundless analysis.”
“[We are] acting intuitively, on emotion...our stakes will have to be raised ever higher with the hope that suddenly something might come through for us. By and large, though, Russia has no way out. There are no options for a possible victory, only defeat."
The hiring of mediocrities and yes-men is no accident.
During more than 20 years in power, the former KGB officer [Putin] has constructed an elaborate apparatus meant to make those closest to him believe that they would be betrayed by one another, with terrible consequences, if they sought to move against him in any way, analysts say.
“Putin has actually consolidated his power probably more completely than anyone since Stalin,” said Edward Geist, a Russia policy researcher at Rand Corp., referring to the Soviet dictator who ruled by terror, causing the death of millions, in the three decades before his death in 1953.
Geist said he was not drawing a parallel between the two, but pointed out that Putin, like Josef Stalin, intentionally surrounded himself with individuals who were “nonentities—who is going to mount a palace coup against him?”
Even one of the protesters admits, “Right now, the only reason to take part is for my own peace of mind, not to feel shame. I have resigned [myself] to the fact that we cannot change anything right now, unfortunately.”
A Russian journalist offers us a portrait of Putin in his bunker.
Mr. Putin spent the spring and summer of 2020 quarantining at his residence in Valdai, approximately halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg. According to sources in the administration, he was accompanied there by Yuri Kovalchuk. Mr. Kovalchuk, who is the largest shareholder in Rossiya Bank and controls several state-approved media outlets, has been Mr. Putin’s close friend and trusted adviser since the 1990s. But by 2020, according to my sources, he had established himself as the de facto second man in Russia, the most influential among the president’s entourage.
Mr. Kovalchuk has a doctorate in physics and was once employed by an institute headed by the Nobel laureate Zhores Alferov. But he isn’t just a man of science. He is also an ideologue, subscribing to a worldview that combines Orthodox Christian mysticism, anti-American conspiracy theories, and hedonism. This appears to be Mr. Putin’s worldview, too. Since the summer of 2020, Mr. Putin and Mr. Kovalchuk have been almost inseparable, and the two of them have been making plans together to restore Russia’s greatness….
As I have reported for years, some members of Mr. Putin’s entourage have long worked to convince him that he is the only person who can save Russia, that every other potential leader would only fail the country. This was the message that the president heard going back to 2003, when he contemplated stepping down, only to be told by his advisers—many of whom also had backgrounds in the KGB—that he should stay on. A few years later, Mr. Putin and his entourage were discussing “Operation Successor” and Dmitri Medvedev was made president. But after four years, Mr. Putin returned to replace him. Now he has really and truly come to believe that only he can save Russia. In fact, he believes it so much that he thinks the people around him are likely to foil his plans. He can’t trust them, either.
A must-read interview with Stephen Kotkin, a historian who is an expert on Stalin, reinforces this view.
He’s getting what he wants to hear. In any case, he believes that he’s superior and smarter. This is the problem of despotism. It’s why despotism, or even just authoritarianism, is all-powerful and brittle at the same time. Despotism creates the circumstances of its own undermining. The information gets worse. The sycophants get greater in number. The corrective mechanisms become fewer. And the mistakes become much more consequential.
There is some evidence that underneath all the ideology, Putin is simply afraid of ending up like Moammar Ghadafi. Certainly, that would explain his insanely paranoid speech on Wednesday in which he railed against “scum and traitors” and promised to get rid of them through the “self-purification of society.” There will be fewer but better Russians.
But Kotkin puts this in historical perspective in a way that answers apologists’ claims that somehow we brought this about through a reckless expansion of NATO.
The problem with their argument is that it assumes that, had NATO not expanded, Russia wouldn’t be the same or very likely close to what it is today. What we have today in Russia is not some kind of surprise. It’s not some kind of deviation from a historical pattern. Way before NATO existed—in the nineteenth century—Russia looked like this: It had an autocrat. It had repression. It had militarism. It had suspicion of foreigners and the West. This is a Russia that we know, and it’s not a Russia that arrived yesterday or in the nineteen-nineties. It’s not a response to the actions of the West. There are internal processes in Russia that account for where we are today.
The fundamental cause of Russia’s aggression is the unbridgeable gulf between an autocracy’s pretensions to grandeur and the mediocrity that results from a system run by corrupt yes-men.
Russia is a remarkable civilization: in the arts, music, literature, dance, film. In every sphere, it’s a profound, remarkable place—a whole civilization, more than just a country. At the same time, Russia feels that it has a “special place” in the world, a special mission. It’s Eastern Orthodox, not Western. And it wants to stand out as a great power. Its problem has always been not this sense of self or identity but the fact that its capabilities have never matched its aspirations. It’s always in a struggle to live up to these aspirations, but it can’t, because the West has always been more powerful.
Russia is a great power, but not the great power, except for those few moments in history that you just enumerated. In trying to match the West or at least manage the differential between Russia and the West, they resort to coercion. They use a very heavy state-centric approach to try to beat the country forward and upwards in order, militarily and economically, to either match or compete with the West. And that works for a time, but very superficially. Russia has a spurt of economic growth, and it builds up its military, and then, of course, it hits a wall. It then has a long period of stagnation where the problem gets worse. The very attempt to solve the problem worsens the problem, and the gulf with the West widens.
That’s exactly what’s happening now, particularly in the West’s response to Ukraine. As Kotkin puts it: “All the nonsense about how the West is decadent, the West is over, the West is in decline, how it’s a multipolar world and the rise of China, et cetera: all of that turned out to be bunk.” And that leads to the question of how all of this is going to end.
Who Is Losing the War?
The Russian invasion is undoubtedly a disaster. We can see this in the collapse of Russian morale and effectiveness as their casualties mount.
The conservative side of the estimate, at more than 7,000 Russian troop deaths, is greater than the number of American troops killed over 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
It is a staggering number amassed in just three weeks of fighting, American officials say, with implications for the combat effectiveness of Russian units, including soldiers in tank formations. Pentagon officials say a 10 percent casualty rate, including dead and wounded, for a single unit renders it unable to carry out combat-related tasks.
With more than 150,000 Russian troops now involved in the war in Ukraine, Russian casualties, when including the estimated 14,000 to 21,000 injured, are near that level. And the Russian military has also lost at least three generals in the fight, according to Ukrainian, NATO and Russian officials.
Pentagon officials say that a high, and rising, number of war dead can destroy the will to continue fighting. The result, they say, has shown up in intelligence reports that senior officials in the Biden administration read every day: One recent report focused on low morale among Russian troops and described soldiers just parking their vehicles and walking off into the woods.
Russia’s Plan A was a blitzkrieg to Kyiv, where they would install a puppet government. But this depended on the assumption that the Ukrainians would put up no resistance. Their Plan B was a long slog in which they hoped their superior numbers would make it possible to encircle Kyiv and other key cities and lay siege them until they submit. But the Russian army seems to have bogged down, and they have only been able to do this in Mariupol, where they are currently flattening the city center.
So now Russia seems to have switched to Plan C, which is not to win the war but to terrorize Ukrainian civilians through bombings and artillery while making ridiculous demands in peace talks. In effect, the Russians are using Ukrainian civilians as hostages in an attempt to win at the bargaining table what they could not win on the battlefield.
Maybe it will work. Here’s a good report on the state of the negotiations. A lot of this, including talk about “demilitarizing” Ukraine, is Russian bluster. But it also looks as if President Zelensky is being demoralized by being told that NATO membership will not be an option for Ukraine in the immediate future. Intriguingly, there is talk in this report about Ukraine wanting “security guarantees” from some sort of third party.
Ukraine needs security guarantees that would mean signatories to any deal would have to “actively participate on the side of Ukraine” in any future conflict and provide support and weapons, he said. He also made a plea for a no-fly zone, which has so far been rejected by NATO.
“Ukraine has never been a militaristic state that attacked or planned to attack its neighbors,” he added. “That is why today Ukraine wants to have a powerful pool of allies with clearly defined security guarantees.”
This seems to be a proposal for some new alliance of countries—perhaps the ones most actively supporting Ukraine now—that would be large and strong enough to deter Russia from another invasion attempt. Perhaps this signals the revival of idea I floated some years ago: a new Warsaw Pact alliance, but this time against Russia.
But the best Ukrainian negotiating position is probably just to hang on, because Russia’s position gets weaker by the day. The Russians are the ones who are already demilitarizing themselves. They have committed all of the forces they had staged for the invasion, and in fact the majority of the military power of the entire Russian nation—much of which is needed elsewhere to defend a very large territory. (This might be a good time, say, for Japan to take back the Kuril Islands.) The Russians have committed their forces, and they are stuck, and every day that passes, more of their army just melts away.
Unless something radically changes—unless Ukraine’s own forces are close to breaking—then time is on Ukraine’s side. It might not be long before Russia will need Ukraine’s permission to salvage any of its army from this fight, in which case Ukraine will be in a position to make much greater demands. But we don’t know how this will develop.
We can say at this point that Russia has already lost, but we don’t know yet whether Ukraine will win. But because this war has global repercussions, we can identify some other winners and losers.
In Germany, this war is causing a complete re-evaluation of the legacy of former Chancellor Angela Merkel, who for 16 years seemed to preside over a period of peace and prosperity—but it was a fool’s paradise.
Alberto Alemanno, a professor of EU law at H.E.C. Paris Business School, said: “No other country has downplayed Russia’s rebellious stance towards the world order as Merkel’s Germany.”
“It is Nord Stream 2 which epitomizes Merkel’s appeasement approach towards Russia, to the point of embodying today all what was wrong with Germany’s stance towards Russia. By establishing an unnecessary relationship of interdependence with Vladimir Putin, Merkel’s Germany made him stronger while weakening the whole of Europe and NATO,” Alemanno added.
The hardest hit, by far, is the populist-nationalist right in the United States. Mona Charen reminds us of some of the highlights of Donald Trump’s record on NATO and Ukraine.
[S]peaking to Tucker Carlson, Trump revealed the other ways Putin had been poisoning his mind, planting ideas about NATO countries. “Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack?” Carlson asked. Trump responded: “I’ve asked the same question. Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people…. They are very strong people. They are very aggressive people, they may get aggressive, and congratulations, you are in World War III.” Who believes that Trump had ever heard of Montenegro, far less formed views about their supposed aggressiveness, before that meeting?...
Throughout his presidency, Trump hinted and blustered about withdrawing from NATO, which would fulfill Putin’s dearest wish. When his aides objected that this might be harmful politically, Trump conceded the point, as Carol Leonnig and Phil Rucker report, saying “Yeah, the second term. We’ll do it in the second term.”…
In 2016, Trump suggested that Russian ownership of Crimea be recognized, and again repeated a factoid that seems likely to have come directly from Putin. “The people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were,” he told ABC News. The GOP platform was changed to omit endorsing arms for Ukraine. Asked about his view of Putin’s intentions, he huffed, “He’s not going into Ukraine, OK, just so you understand. He’s not gonna go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down. You can put it down. You can take it anywhere you want.”
Speaking of Carlson, the popular Fox News host—now being dubbed “Tuckyo Rose”—has been repeating Russian propaganda. Most recently, it’s the claim that NATO was somehow running nefarious secret bioweapons labs in Ukraine. An NBC reporter dug into the origins of this story, and it’s exactly what we have come to expect from Carlson: right-wing conspiracies, by way of Russian disinformation.
Pyrra Technologies, a cybersecurity and threat intelligence company, said the first mention of biolabs came on the far-right social network Gab on Feb. 14, 10 days before the invasion. The user included an awkwardly worded graphic, titled “Exclusive US biolabs in Ukraine, and they are financed at the expense of the US Department of Defense.”…
Boosted by far-right influencers on the day of the invasion, an anonymous QAnon Twitter account titled @WarClandestine pushed the “biolabs” theory to new heights, using the same “US biolabs” graphic initially included on the Gab post that went largely unshared the week before….
The biolab conspiracy theory has taken over as the prevailing narrative on pro-Trump and QAnon websites like The Great Awakening and Patriots.Win….
Russian and Chinese officials have also boosted the theory. On Tuesday, China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry began pushing the conspiracy theory, asking for a “full account” of Ukraine’s “biological military activities at home and abroad.”
By Wednesday, almost two weeks after the invasion, the conspiracy theory had reached Carlson, who led his show claiming that the “Biden administration was funding secret biolabs in Ukraine.”
On Thursday, Russia requested a meeting at the UN Security Council about “military biological activities” in the US.
No wonder Russian propaganda networks are under orders to feature Carlson.
If this is a global battle between liberalism and authoritarianism, it also has a domestic component, and the brutality of Putin’s invasion combined with its failure—a peculiar mix of cruelty and weakness—is uniquely discrediting to the nationalist-populist creed. I don’t think anybody did a better job than David Frum of summing it up the dilemma of the nationalist conservatives: “Everything they wanted to perceive as decadent and weak has proven strong and brave; everything they wanted to represent as fearsome and powerful has revealed itself as brutal and stupid.”
The nationalists can’t even claim to be acting in defense of religion: many American denominations are persecuted in Russia, and in the last week a Russian Orthodox priest was reportedly arrested after preaching a sermon opposing the invasion of Ukraine.
There are also, of course, some voices on the far left who are so addicted to denouncing “American imperialism” that they just can’t bring themselves to criticize Russian imperialism. As Josh Kraushaar observes, “within both parties, the Russian attack looks like it’s marginalizing some of the more extreme voices on the right and the left.” I wouldn’t put it in terms of extremes. Rather, I would say that this war is invigorating liberals of all kinds, reminding us what we stand for, and reminding us how many of us there are—and how few people are willing to stand up for the naked evil of authoritarianism when it is revealed.
This World War Z is a reminder that the liberal international order is still strong and living—and that dictatorship is a zombie creed, still moving but dead inside, waiting to be banished back to its crypt.