Thank you, Mr. President, for reaching out to me via email for my advice regarding Ukraine. I had no idea that you are one of my most loyal blog followers, and I am humbled that you consider me the one person whose insight about foreign policy you value the most.
Here are my recommendations:
- Keep in mind that 2022 is not 1939. The biggest mistake we Americans have made in the past is fighting a current war because of lessons learned from a past one. Putin is a scoundrel, but he is not Hitler, and Russia is not Germany in the 1930s. Both Republicans and Democrats have fought wars based on faulty information and wrong assumptions—Vietnam, Iraq II, and Afghanistan. There is plenty of blame to go around for these failed efforts. Don’t allow yourself to join the club.
- From bad intelligence or sheer ego Putin thought the Ukrainians would welcome the Russian “liberators” with open arms. The “special operation” would be over in weeks if not days, with Zelensky, considered by many to be a lightweight, surrendering. Casualties would be few. Facing Russian armed forces many times larger than the Ukraine army, the Ukraine army would cave, and Zelensky would have no choice but to waive a white flag. Putin concluded correctly that there would not be much anyone could do about it without risking another World War, which he also correctly concluded neither we nor our NATO allies have a stomach for. I do not know if this incursion was contemplated to be the first of many to follow, which would restore the Russian territory to essentially what it was under Peter the Great but suspect that it must at least have been in the back of Putin’s mind. He has let it be known many times that his mission is to “Make Russia Great Again,” whatever that means. It is a fair guess that this was his motive. He has stated publicly that he resents the fact that the West has tried to humiliate Russia, reneged on its promise not to allow European countries on Russian borders to join NATO, and dissed him and his country on numerous occasions. Making Russia great again is how he wants his legacy to read, how he wants to go down with high marks in the Russian history books.
- And what has happened? The war so far has been a near total disaster for Russia. Ukraine not only has been able to hold its own on most of the fighting, but it has also retaken territory that has been occupied by Russia, sunk many Russian ships in the Black Sea including their flagship, and killed thousands of Russian soldiers, perhaps close to a dozen generals, taken out hundreds of Russian tanks, many thousand trucks and heavy artillery. Russian troop morale is reported to be low with desertions increasing.
- Of course, the damage to Ukraine is horrendous. Thousands of apartment houses have been obliterated, and many towns and villages are ghost towns. Russians have bombed schools and hospitals, lined up civilians and executed them, raped Ukrainian women, and committed countless war crimes. Thousands of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers have died. But the country has not broken. And even worse for Putin, the two holdouts, Sweden and Finland, are now poised to join NATO.
- The surprise element that Putin apparently did not count on was the quick NATO, unified response to provide the arms and modern weapons to level the playing field. That part has succeeded beyond expectations so far and has been the “game changer.” Russian casualties are estimated to be many thousands, some sources say over a third of its fighting force. Without bringing in many more forces and weapons, many experts conclude that Russia probably no longer has the power to win a victory over Ukraine using conventional weapons. (Note the qualification: “using conventional weapons.”)
- So, the question that you and others both in the U.S. and NATO are struggling with is this: what to do next. With our help and that of NATO by providing modern weapons, Ukraine has got the Russian army on the ropes. Do you go for the knockout? Do you let an opportunity like this go to waste, to teach Putin a lesson he will have to live with forever? Do you now set an example for other despots and dictators that taking over countries by force is no longer permitted– at least in the developed world? Many advisors say yes, go for it when you have the chance. Give Zelensky whatever additional support he needs and stay the course. It is now our game to lose. Do not let this opportunity slip away. Italy, Germany, and France, however, are urging negotiations and a resolution allowing Russia to keep a portion of the eastern part of the country. They want the war to end sooner rather than later. What should the U.S. do?
- I side with the European members of NATO, Mr. President. The risks are too great if the war continues for an extended period. There are many differences between 1939 and 2022, but the most important one is that the other side has nuclear weapons. Lots of them. They also have chemical and biological weapons. The risk that these weapons could be used is too great not to find a solution to draw this terrible war to a close without getting us into World War III. We must find an offramp to allow Putin to avoid the kind of humiliation that would lead him to respond with the unthinkable. We have got to find a solution that will allow him to save face.
- Remember the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962? If people try to tell you that Khrushchev backed down because he was a wimp and scared of the U.S., remind them that the reason the Soviet ships turned around was because a back-channel deal had been cut for the U.S. to remove our missiles from Turkey and Italy. The bottom line is this: We have got to come up with a deal that will allow Putin to declare “victory” of sorts and bring the war to a close. Ruthless dictators are a lot of things. One of them is not a wimp. If he feels cornered, Putin will fight with all he has. His ego will not let him lose.
- I know that it is not in our power to make this decision. The war is between Ukraine and Russia, not—at least not yet—between the U.S. and NATO allies versus Russia, though it seems to me getting very close to a proxy war. In any event, Zelensky must be part of the solution. But we and our NATO allies are the only reason Ukraine can hold off Russia. Without our support, Ukraine is toast. We have considerable leverage on this one.
- So here is the deal that I think will work: Ukraine agrees to let Putin have a small portion of land in eastern Ukraine which provides the “safe boundary” he says he is looking for. Ukraine agrees not ever to join NATO, and gradually we lift the sanctions. Russia pulls out, and the war is over.I know that the negotiations will be difficult to determine how much land Putin gets to keep. I know it will take time to reach an agreement, but for this war to go on for months longer leaves more dead bodies of innocent civilians and destroyed towns and villages in its wake. And if it appears that there is no offramp for Trump to save face, it risks the use of the unthinkable.
- There will be other issues, of course, war crimes prosecution at the top of the list and the sanctions. And there will be a lot of give and take on the basic framework, but this must happen. If Putin is forced into a corner and uses “unconventional weapons,” this could result in World War III and the end of the world as we know it. As to whether Putin would take a negotiated settlement as a green light to go after the Baltics, I believe is highly unlikely. This venture has been a catastrophe for Russia, and he knows it. The Russian people will figure this out if they haven’t already. Why would he try something like this again?
Get it done, Chief, you can do it!
And thanks again for reading my blog regularly. Your kind comments are always welcomed.
Your good friend and advisor,