In the space of just four hours last week two different friends mentioned to me the article “Complications of the Ukraine War” by Christopher Caldwell in Hillsdale College’s monthly newsletter, Imprimis. Complications of the Ukraine War | Imprimis (hillsdale.edu).
I perk up at those kinds of coincidences, and I’d already read the article, which lays out several reasons why Mr. Caldwell believes the United States is significantly responsible for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, due to our past actions, along with our blind encouragement of Ukraine to join NATO.
My friends wondered whether these arguments made a good case for why we should either abandon Ukraine, or at least force them to the peace table.
So I re-read the article, and my response was, and is: No. While a wide-ranging discussion about the causes of this war may be intellectually satisfying, it has little to do with the response required to a murderous invasion.
Let me stipulate that as a conservative Christian I am a huge fan of Hillsdale College and of Imprimis. If you have not yet subscribed, I hope you will. Great, thoughtful information every month.
And while I don’t know Christopher Caldwell, he has incredible academic credentials and is much more in the flow of mainstream conservative thought than I will ever be. Christopher Caldwell – Claremont Review of Books. After reading a few of his articles, I’m sure that we’d agree on most subjects. But not on this one.
Mr. Caldwell’s arguments can be summarized as: 1. Russia has always considered Ukraine to be its buffer to the West, and for decades we’ve known that any steps to disengage Ukraine from Russia’s orbit would be strongly resisted by the Kremlin; and 2. Ukraine was and is a corrupt state in which the U.S. has repeatedly intervened, starting with the “democracy promotion blitz” under Bush at the time of the Iraq war, and most recently with Anthony Blinken’s signing of a “strategic partnership” with Ukraine a year ago.
While it’s hard to argue with either of those statements, what bothers me is that they may now be used as intellectual cover to subvert our commitment to Ukraine, where thousands of people are fighting and dying to defy Vladimir Putin’s forceful invasion of their country.
My point: Actually invading a country, killing tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians and destroying large swaths of a nation’s infrastructure, is an action of a completely different nature than debating economic ties or future alliances, and requires a different response.
In his first paragraph Caldwell dismisses as too-simple the view of the “White House and the networks” that the war was caused by “the evil of Vladimir Putin, who woke up one morning and chose, whether out of sadism or insanity, to wreak unspeakable violence on his neighbors.” I believe this statement is actually closer to the truth than the next several thousand words of Mr. Caldwell’s essay, and better defines how we should respond.
But before leaving the drawing room discussion about those other causes, I note that Mr. Caldwell does not mention in his post-Cold War history of the two nations the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. At that time Ukraine had the world’s third largest arsenal of nuclear warheads, left over from the Soviet Union. Both Russia and Ukraine were in economic collapse. The U.S. brokered an agreement by which Ukraine gave up all those weapons for much needed financial help and for a guarantee to the integrity of its borders by Russia, the U.S., and Great Britain, known as The Budapest Memorandum.
In a recent article Richard Rahn, who was there at the time, wrote:
“In Budapest on Dec. 5, 1994, ‘The United States of America, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland … taking into account the commitment of Ukraine to eliminate all nuclear weapons from its territory… reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine … to respect the Independence and Sovereignty of the existing borders of Ukraine … to refrain from the threat of or use of force against the territorial or political independence of Ukraine.’
“There are a number of other provisions in the memorandum that strengthen and make more operational the above-quoted provisions. It is unambiguously clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin has violated the agreement. The agreement also calls upon the U.S., U.K. and U.N. to provide assistance to Ukraine if it ‘should become a victim of an act of aggression,’ without specifying the limits of that assistance.”
Also see NPR’s “Why Ukraine Gave Up Its Nuclear Weapons”, broadcast three days before Putin’s invasion in February.
One must ask, If Ukraine had not relied on this guarantee and given up its nukes, would Russian troops be killing its citizens on its territory today?
My personal view of the origin of this war begins with my Christian belief in the reality of Evil, and then is informed by the insights of Bill Browder, who has been fighting daily and personally against Vladimir Putin’s brand of Evil for fifteen years. Browder wrote Red Notice, the true story of how the Russian Tax Authorities stole $230 million from their own country and then killed Sergey Magnitsky in prison because he had the courage to come forward with proof of their crime.
In September Mr. Browder spoke at The Atlanta History Center and offered his view that Mr. Putin is the richest man in the world, despite ruining his country’s opportunities for broad and diverse economic growth, through the concentration of economic power in his own hands and those of his oligarch cronies. Browder speculates that Putin’s deal with the oligarchs is “half for you and half for me.” He believes Putin came to realize that this economic model was becoming unsustainable for him personally, and that there might be challengers, so he needed a war to galvanize the people behind him.
A modified version of Mr. Caldwell’s dismissal of Evil, factoring in Mr. Browder’s insights, might therefore read “the evil of Vladimir Putin, who woke up one morning and chose, because he needed a war to fortify his hold on all economic and political power, and had been told by his advisors that Ukraine would be a push over, to wreak unspeakable violence on his neighbors.”
It will be interesting for historians to look back on the many causes of this war, as they always do, but the key point for us today, in the midst of it, is that it was Vladimir Putin who decided to turn it from a non-violent debate about economics and influence which could have been settled with agreements and treaties, into a real war, with devastating death and destruction.
Once Putin crossed the Ukrainian border, it didn’t matter who had said what to whom, or when. Nice to know. Interesting to debate over brandy. But no longer relevant. Putin alone decided to move from discussion to violent force. No amount of intellectual discourse can change or give cover to that decision. Instead, we must deal with it. And that means dealing with Evil.
Back in 2014 I wrote in a post, that Putin is “a thug; he is ex-KGB, has never run a business, and is determined to take what is not his, both domestically and internationally…Putin wants what you have and just takes it under the guise of governmental power, patriotism, or fraud.”
One tiny bright spot in this terrible tragedy is the possible realization by my progressive/woke friends that conflict is not only caused by differences in skin color, economic status, nationality, tribe or religion, as they typically want us to believe. NONE of those factors entered into Putin’s decision to invade his almost-Russian neighbor. Putin’s old school motivation is much simpler: “I want what you have, and I’m going to take it from you.” Like in the old days: Greed, Pride, Territory, Power. Driven by Evil.
On a personal level one fights Evil with prayer, arguments, and right actions. At the level of Russia invading Ukraine, those should still work, but Putin first has to want to listen, and that will only happen by preventing success with his original choice of violence. So we have to push back against his aggression, as Ukraine and the West are now doing.
He must eventually realize that the situation is completely different than it was in February—even were he now to “win”, he has sowed so many seeds of hate in Ukraine that its people will never be his willing subjects, or even his allies. He has actually created the world he tried to prevent—a Ukraine (and Finland and Sweden) more solidly linked to the West than they were on February 23d.
We have to contain Putin’s choice of violence by force, for as long as it takes, no matter the possible original causes. There is no other way to stop cross-border violence. To do otherwise simply encourages even more aggression.
And let me be clear that we have to divorce Putin from the millions of good Russians who hate what he is doing. See another 2014 post on Russia, written as Putin turned darker. One day soon, I hope, Russians and Americans will again be able to work closely together on common goals to improve both our countries, as we did 1995-2010.
And their country has no monopoly on tragic invasions begun by a leader for the wrong reasons—look at our invasion of Iraq—nor on citizens being unable to change tragic events around them—look at any white family in the South who hated segregation, pre-1965.
Sin and Evil are not geographic, racial, economic, gender, or tribal conditions. Sin and Evil are the universal human condition. They must be battled on both the spiritual and the physical planes, everywhere and always.
To give in to Evil, or to explain it away as understandable and reasonable, is to lose the battle. And one does not want to give in to Evil, because there is then only more, and worse.