In the 10 days since Russia unleashed a massive attack on Ukraine, the effects of “power without conscience” have been on full display — the civilian casualties, the destroyed homes and offices, the hospitals moving underground, the masses of people fleeing for the safety of neighboring countries.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion shocked the world. But it was not a surprise. For months, the US government publicly shared intelligence that it was in the works. And for those who had followed the recent history of Putin’s actions, the writing was on the wall for years.
When Olesya Khromeychuk‘s elder brother, Volodymyr, enlisted in the Ukrainian military and fought against the pro-Russian separatists after war broke out in the Donbas region in 2014, he told her, “Little one, don’t you realize this is a European war. It just happened to start in eastern Ukraine.”
As she wrote for CNN Opinion, Khromeychuk’s brother “was killed by shrapnel in 2017 in the Luhansk region on the front. He was fighting against Russian troops that were pretending not to be there. They no longer need to pretend. The Russian president ordered their assault on the whole of Ukraine, targeting the military as well as civilians, including hospitals and ambulances.”
There were plenty of warnings. “This terrifying, world-changing conflict in Ukraine did not start in 2022,” wrote Natalia Antelava. “Nor did it start in 2014. It began a decade and a half ago when Russia invaded Georgia and got away with it.” She recalled interviewing a Ukrainian soldier named Dima in 2015.
Dima was “stoic, determined, calm. He was 23, a software engineer from Kyiv who had only recently decided to leave his job and join the fight. His girlfriend was furious with him, he told me, but fighting was not optional. ‘They think we are fighting to join NATO. But we are only fighting for our values and they happen to be the same as Europe’s values. We are fighting for them too. I wish they realized it,’ he said.”
Liora Rez, whose Jewish ancestors fled Kyiv during World War II, noted that “the United Nations estimates that more than 800,000 refugees have already evacuated Ukraine since the outbreak of war. Many of these refugees are women and children torn apart from their husbands, fathers and brothers who remain in Ukraine, banded in their determination to protect their land and defend their democratic values.”
In 1941, more than 33,000 Jews were shot to death by the invading forces of Nazi Germany at a ravine called Babyn Yar, on the outskirts of Kyiv. Last week, Russian troops attacked a TV transmission tower, striking the area of the Babyn Yar memorial site.
In Tuesday’s State of the Union address, President Joe Biden fiercely condemned the invasion of Ukraine. Putin “thought he could roll into Ukraine and the world would roll over. Instead he met a wall of strength he never imagined,” Biden said. “He met the Ukrainian people.”
“Throughout our history we’ve learned this lesson when dictators do not pay a price for their aggression they cause more chaos. They keep moving. And the costs and the threats to America and the world keep rising.” Yet Biden made clear that NATO countries have no intention of directly intervening in the war to counter the Russians, limiting their response to arming the Ukrainians and imposing heavy sanctions.
“Millions around the world watch, outraged, and ask, ‘Are we just going to let this happen? Is the world allowing a large, powerful country to swallow up a smaller, weaker one?’ And so many people can’t believe the world is allowing it to happen,” wrote CNN’s Marcus Mabry.
During the Cold War, “despite a ‘twilight struggle’ between the superpowers and their many proxy conflicts and close calls, like the Cuban missile crisis, they never allowed confrontation to escalate to a direct conflict, or worse… There was no nuclear war. No WW III. No annihilation of humanity. Yes, millions were oppressed by Soviet communism. But realpolitik is not, strictly speaking, concerned with that. It is a world Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden grew up in.”
Americans need to stand united against the Ukraine invasion, even when its economic consequences might further raise prices at the gas pump, wrote Garry Kasparov and Uriel Epshtein. Polls show that more than four out of every five Americans — Republican and Democrat — support sanctions against Russia. “Anytime Americans agree on something is notable, but it is particularly remarkable given numerous partisan attempts to have us look away, do less and allow Russian leader Vladimir Putin to run roughshod over the Ukrainian people…”
The world’s vote
“The crisis he created presented us with the real-life dangers of unrestrained autocracy, and a very tangible demonstration of the importance of democracy, freedom and self-determination. Rights that are so often seen as lofty, ethereal concepts suddenly became palpable when Putin tried to steal them from the Ukrainian people,” Ghitis wrote.
What’s the goal?
If Vladimir Putin succeeds in bringing Ukraine under Russia’s control, he’ll have to contend with that rule, taking responsibility for whatever comes next.
The likely goal of his invasion is to oust Ukraine’s leadership, according to Alexander B. Downes, author of a recent book which studied regime change, “Catastrophic Success: Why Foreign-Imposed Regime Change Goes Wrong.”
“In Uganda, invading Tanzanian troops overthrew Idi Amin but his successor, a leader in the rebel movement, lasted a mere three months before he was removed,” Downes wrote. “And in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union occupied the country after replacing one Afghan communist with another. Despite killing roughly 1 million people and driving several million more out of the country, the Soviets withdrew in failure ten years later. The mutilated body of their hand-picked ruler (Mohammad Najibullah, himself installed in another regime change in 1986) was hung from a lamppost across from the presidential palace when the Taliban seized Kabul.”
It’s history like that which made people wonder if Putin’s decision to invade was rational. Former CIA station chief Douglas London has spent decades watching Putin, who as a KGB agent also dwelled in the intelligence world. “Has Vladimir Putin gone mad? How else could the Russian President have so recklessly placed the world on the precipice of the unthinkable, with what outside the Kremlin is seen as an unjustified and unwinnable war in Ukraine?”
Concern about the potential for a confrontation between nuclear-armed nations added an ominous note to the world’s anxiety over the invasion, noted Jill Filipovic. “For members of my generation (I’m a geriatric Millennial) and those younger, the threat of nuclear war was a scary relic of bad times past,” she noted.
State of the Union
“Biden offered a rousing close that was nakedly patriotic and proud of America’s role in the world, and reflected a deep belief in the resilience of the American people and the country itself.”
In 1987, a photographer asked Stephen Rosenthal and classmate Ketanji Brown to pose with some props for their high school yearbook. She held a copy of “Winnie the Pooh” and he cradled a teddy bear for the photo, which appeared with captions labeling them as members of the school’s hall of fame. “I want to go into law and eventually have a judicial appointment,” Brown was quoted as saying.
Friends since middle school, the two also attended Harvard College and Harvard Law School together. Now Ketanji Brown Jackson is a federal judge and Biden’s nominee for the Supreme Court seat held by retiring Justice Stephen Breyer. Rosenthal, a lawyer based in Florida, says the President couldn’t have found a better choice.
“Over the past decade, she has shouldered the weighty responsibilities of being a federal judge, with the hard work and consequential decision-making it requires, all without losing her humility and grounded sense of humor.”
Sara Stewart posed the paradox simply: “The best new show about middle America stars New York City’s raunchiest cabaret singer. Anyone have that on your cultural-weirdness bingo card?”
“Bridget Everett is the lead in HBO’s ‘Somebody Somewhere,’ which concluded its short first season Sunday night. Everett plays Sam, a middle-aged woman who’s moved back to her Kansas hometown, Manhattan, to care for her dying sister. (HBO and CNN share a parent company.)
“We meet Sam in the aftermath, sleeping on her late sister’s couch and unsure what to do with the rest of her life.”
Opinion: The disaster we should have seen coming