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Never Again?

“Both the fighters and the ordinary civilians, they kept looking up at the western sky. . . They were looking for the American warplanes that they felt sure were coming to help them.  All that week, when people realized I was an American journalist, they would grab at my jacket:  ‘When are the Americans coming?  They told us they were coming.'”

“There was all this shooting going on, people were in despair, and they knew the end was coming, and all of a sudden, this cheer goes up.  And it spreads.  Even over the gunfire, you could hear this cheering.  I finally asked someone what was going on, and they said, ‘the Americans have arrived at last, they are on the outskirts, but they’re coming this way.’  So this rumor had started. . . Well, this was a very difficult thing to hear.”

Timothy Foote, a Time-Life journalist, as quoted in Scott Anderson’s The Quiet Americans p. 451-2, describing Budapest in 1956.

Perhaps history does not repeat itself exactly, but sometimes it comes hauntingly close.

If tyrants could be stopped by the number of reports of the spotting and siezing of oligarchs’ yachts, Putin would be six feet under by now.

If wars were won by talking about how strong and comprehensive sanctions are and how unified NATO is, white flags would be flying from the Kremlin.

But wars driven by expansionist ideology and dreams of an empire are not deterred or beaten by sanctions.  And, besides, Germany and several other European nations are still paying Russia for substantial parts of their oil supplies, and two countries representing 2.8 billion people are not imposing sanctions.

Every former and would-be general doing commentary on the war is enthusiastically exclaiming their astonishment at just how bad the Russian army is performing.

The Russians could have the crummiest army on earth, but they nonetheless flattening Ukraine and commit atrocities against the Ukrainian people.  Putin is willing to sacrifice Russian soldiers–kids, really–and he is willing to level Ukraine in order to achieve his objectives.  And his objective is the obliteration of Ukraine and the re-creation of a Russian empire of some sort.  If not today, tomorrow.

And the “free world” i.e. the U.S. and Europe, is apparently and sadly willing to allow Ukraine to be leveled, destroyed.  Because Russia has nuclear weapons and the West does not want to risk “World War III.”

When the U.S. and NATO stated unequivocally that they would not engage in a war defending Ukraine, they guaranteed that Putin would advance.  They gave him a bright green light.  Seizing yachts, imposing sanctions, expressing astonishment at how bad the Russian army is, will not defeat Russia.  Only force will.

If history teaches anything, it teaches that tyrants who are not confronted and stopped keep going.  Putin’s own history illustrates this:  Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea, Syria.  Moreover, Putin has made his intentions clear. He has stated that the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century was the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and that he intends to re-create the Russian empire.

Three primary reasons given for the U.S. and the rest of NATO and other democratic nations not getting directly involved in the fight against Russia, not imposing a no-fly zone, and not  supplying some types of military equipment are: 1) Russia has nuclear arms; 2) Ukraine is not a NATO member;  3) Fear of escalation.

Putin has escalated.  And, if he is losing or is at a stalemate, he will not accept defeat unless defeat is delivered 100% and he is facing clear power to inflict additional damage.  If he is not reaching his objectives, his miserably performing army will just indiscrimanetly bomb Ukraine.

If Putin withdraws from a region, it is for the purpose of regrouping and trying another approach. As his soldiers are demonstrating, they do not comply with today’s rules of war, and they commit atrocities as they retreat.

If Ukraine compromises anything as a result of Putin’s aggression, it will not be a resolution.  It will be a lull until Putin tries again. Any concession is a reward and encouragement, even if the costs to Russia are disproportionately high.  Putin’s disregard for the welfare of his soldiers and the average Russian is abundantly evident.

The U.S. and its NATO allies have repeatedly stated that NATO will not tolerate and will respond militarily if Russia attacks and/or encroaches on a NATO nation in any manner. So, when Putin encroaches or attacks one of the Baltic countries, or Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, or Romania, we can assume NATO, including the U.S., will respond militarily.

Which raises the question: Will Russia have rid itself of its nuclear weapons by then? Doubtful. So, we can assume NATO will no longer let that reason for not defending Ukraine deter it from not defending NATO nations. Whatever risk there is of engaging with Russia and possibly having a nuclear war, NATO, including the U.S., will take it.

If that is the case, why not take the risk now and save the second largest country in Europe, sparing 44 million people from more death and destruction? Why wait until after Ukraine is destroyed, more are displaced, and tens of thousands are dead or injured?

How different would the Cold War and the last half of the 20th century have been if the U.S. and its allies had not done the Berlin Airlift out of fear of encountering the Russian airforce?

True, the Airlift ended before Russia conducted an underground nuclear explosion. But the U.S. and its allies knew that Soviets were on the cusp of having an atomic bomb at the time of the Airlift.  And, with or without an atomic bomb, the war that could have resulted if the AirLift had resulted in a direct confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union would have been a broad and deadly one.

One thing that was different between the time of the Berlin Airlift and today was the cohesiveness of the American public, the confidence that the U.S. had in itself coming out of WWII, and the commitment to leading and protecting the “free world.”

Like today, the American people were “tired of war.”  Unlike today, they still were willing to do what was necessary to stand up to evil. So, the U.S. and NATO are being deterred by the fact that Russia has nuclear weapons.  Does that mean that any country with nuclear weapons can act without risking being challenged militarily?  That gives carte blanche to North Korea, Pakistan, India, and China.  It also encourages every country to acquire nuclear weapons.

Shouldn’t the deterrence work the other way around?  Shouldn’t the “free world” be using its strength to deter unjustified aggression and wonton destruction?  Dictatorial aggressors do not stop of their own free will; they are stopped when someone stands up to them and stops them. Someone at a family get-together recently asked “Doesn’t ‘Never Again’ mean anything?”

It was a rhetorical question. But after Cambodia, after Sudan, after Rwanda, after Bosnia, after Syria, after China and the Uyghurs, and now during Ukraine, the answer is loud and clear.

About the Author
Alan Edelstein made Aliyah in 2011 and lives in Jerusalem. He was the founding partner of a well-respected California government affairs firm and was involved in California government and politics as a lobbyist and consultant for 30 years. He blogs at www.edelsteinrandomthoughts.com. He can be reached at ae@edelsteinstrategies.com
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