By: Victor Davis Hanson
February 6, 2023
One of the strangest things about the American response to Ukraine has been the willingness of the Left and the establishment Right to discount completely that the war is heading toward a rendezvous with ever-deadlier weapons and staggering fatalities—even as we witness increasing nuclear threats from a weakened and adrift Vladimir Putin. They insist that Putin is merely saber-rattling. And he might be. Supposedly, in his diminished and discredited state, Putin would not dare to set off a tactical nuclear weapon (as if diminished and discredited leaders are not more likely to do so).
Proxies Versus Balloons
But while we discount the nuclear dangers of a paranoid Putin reacting to the arming of our proxy Ukraine, the brazen Chinese, in violation of American airspace and international law, sent their recent “weather “ surveillance balloon across the continental United States with impunity. Only after public pressure, media coverage, and the Republican opposition did the Biden Administration, in the 11th hour, finally drop its increasingly incoherent and disingenuous excuses, and agree to shoot the balloon down as it reached the Atlantic shore—its mission completed.
Given the balloon may have more, not less, surveillance capability than satellites may have itself been designed eventually to adopt offensive capability, and may have been intended to gauge the American reaction to incursions, the Biden hesitation and fear to defend U.S. airspace and confront China makes no sense.
Contrast Ukraine: Why discount the dangers of strategic escalation in a third-party proxy war, but exaggerate them to the point of stasis when a belligerent’s spy balloon crosses the U.S. heartland with impunity? Are the borders of Ukraine more sacrosanct and more worthy of our taking existential risks than our own airspace and southern border?
When and How Did Russia Enter Ukraine?
Russia did not just enter Ukraine on February 24, 2022. So where were the voices of outrage in 2014‚ from Joe Biden and others in the highest positions of the Obama Administration when Putin first absorbed Crimea and eastern Ukraine?
Why do the most fervent supporters of blank-check aid to the Zelenskyy government grow indifferent when we ask how Russia in 2014 managed so easily to reclaim vast swaths of Ukraine? Is it because of the 2012 hot-mic conversation between Barack Obama and then Russian Federation President Dmitry Medvedev in Seoul, South Korea, in which Obama promised: “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved, but it’s important for him to give me space. . . . This is my last election . . . After my election, I have more flexibility.”
Obama’s “ flexibility ” on missile defense in eastern Europe was an understatement—given he completely canceled a long-planned major U.S. commitment to Poland and the Czech Republic, a system that might have been of some value during the present conflict with Putin. And certainly, Putin did give Obama the requested reelection “space” by not invading Crimea and eastern Ukraine until 16 months after Obama was reelected in his “last election.” Once he did so, the bargain was apparently sealed, and each party got what it wanted: both space (i.e., temporary good Russian behavior) and flexibility (i.e., canceling an air defense system).
So it was almost surreal how the bipartisan establishment forgot why and how Putin entered and annexed thousands of square miles of Ukraine so easily, and apparently on the correct assumption of an anemic American response. Did James Clapper in 2014 smear Obama as a “Russian asset” as he did Donald Trump in 2017?
In the “Russian collusion” and “Russian disinformation”hoaxes, the purveyors of those hysterias forgot the role of “reset” appeasement in empowering Putin to attack Ukraine in 2014—in the same manner as the Biden Administration’s ignominious retreat from Kabul was the context for Putin’s 2022 attempt on Kyiv. The common denominator in both cases was Moscow’s apparent conclusion that foreign policy under the Obama-Biden continuum was viewed as indifference to Russian aggression.
Who Did Not Arm the Ukrainians?
Why, after 2014, didn’t the Obama Administration arm the Ukrainians to the teeth? The surreal element of the first Trump impeachment was the reality that Trump was impeached for delaying offensive arms shipments (on the understandable and later proven assumption that the Biden family and elements of the Ukraine government were both utterly corrupt).
If Trump was impeached for delaying the offensive arms he approved and eventually sent, what was the proper reaction to Obama-Biden, who vetoed them altogether? And if the fallback argument is that Trump’s delay targeted his 2020 presidential opponent, then we arrive again at the same absurdity. For Joe Biden, by staging the Mar-a-Lago raid to charge Trump with the same “crimes” he knowingly at the time had committed, should then likewise be impeached for targeting his possible future political opponent.
But be clear: there is far more demonstrable evidence that the Biden family was corrupt and leveraging the Ukrainian and Chinese governments than there is of Donald Trump pilfering “nuclear codes” and “nuclear secrets.”
Part of the American people’s bewilderment over the left-wing zeal to send $100 billion in U.S. aid to Ukraine and to damn anyone who asks for clarification of our long-term strategy in ending the war is precisely the contrast between Putin’s lethargy between 2017-2021 and his restless aggression in 2014 and again in 2022, the bookend years to the hated Trump Administration.
Putin moved on all these occasions because of Obama’s refusal to arm Ukraine, his quid pro quos with Putin on missile defense, his rhetorical “red line” in Syria, and his abrupt withdrawal from Iraq that birthed ISIS—in the same manner that Biden scrambled from Afghanistan—promised that America’s response would be muted if Putin’s invasion was “minor,” and offered a safe exit for Zelenskyy.
If we truly seek to navigate an end to Russian aggression, by one means or another, the beginning of our wisdom would entail how exactly we got here in the first place—and require us to learn from our disasters.
Why Are Our Arms Depots Depleted?
If we wish to wonder why Vladimir Putin believed that the Biden Administration’s response to his aggression would be like the Obama-Biden reaction in 2014, then we need only look to the August 2021 American collapse in Afghanistan. That summer, Joe Biden decided to yank precipitously all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, abandoning a $1 billion embassy, a multimillion-dollar refitted airbase, and hundreds of billions of dollars in U.S. military equipment, including 22,174 Humvee vehicles, nearly 1,000 armored vehicles, 64,363 machine guns, and 42,000 pick-up trucks and SUVs 358,530 assault rifles, 126,295 pistols, and nearly 200 artillery units.
Recent reports, denied by the United States, allege that Putin is negotiating with the Taliban to buy some of the abandoned American arsenal to help replenish Russia’s enormous materiel losses in Ukraine. What helped the Soviets win World War II were the American gifts of 400,000 trucks and Jeeps. Over 60,000 American armored vehicles, Humvees, and trucks, now in the hands of the Taliban would be a valuable addition to Putin’s arsenal. The media assures us that poorly equipped Russian soldiers struggle with obsolete guns dating back to the early postwar period, while assuring us that either the Taliban would not sell, or Russians could not use, over a half-million late-model American automatic pistols, assault rifles, and machine guns.
Americans are quite critical of the supposed anemic European response and lack of aid matching the American largess. But, in fact, Biden likely reversed course from his initial remarks about minor incursions and a safe ride out for Zelenskyy, and a prior aversion to sending offensive arms, because the frontline Europeans were terrified of Putin on the move and demanded an American-led NATO joint effort to supply Ukraine.
The belated but increasingly muscular response of the United States to pour aid into Ukraine may stall the Russian advance and even its anticipated spring offensive. But the growing involvement of the United States has raised the issue of deterrence, as China closely watches both the response of Europe and the United States and the ability of revanchist Russia to invade. If Russia were to mobilize and use all its resources—10 times the GDP of Ukraine, 30 times the territory, 3.5 times the population—it would likely require a far greater sacrifice of Ukrainian blood and Western treasure. And the war that may have already cost over 200,000 dead and 300,000 wounded will likely prove the most lethal since the Vietnam War, in which over 3 million soldiers and civilians died on both sides of the conflict.
More importantly, will the zealots, who demand that we empty our arsenals to supply Ukraine, vote in Congress for massive increases in the defense budget to ratchet up arms production to ensure that our depleted stocks of weapons are restored rapidly?
In sum, there would be broader support for Ukraine’s military aid if advocates were transparent on the following 10 issues:
1) The United States will be as firm and deterrent vis à vis China as it is now belatedly with Russia.
2) We will acknowledge that Ukraine is a mess because Vladimir Putin between 2009 and 2016, and again in 2021, concluded that the United States either would not or could not deter his aggression.
3) Just as we attempt to help to protect the sovereign borders of Ukraine, so too must we consider just as sacrosanct our own airspace and our southern border.
4) All those in government and the media who demand more weapons for Ukraine, after the war ends, with the same zeal must demand immediate increased arms production to ensure their own country is as well protected as Ukraine.
5) Just as we deplore Russia interfering in our elections, so too we must cite Ukrainian interference in 2016, as evidenced by the pro-Clinton skullduggery of Alexandra Chalupa, Valeriy Chaly, Serhiy Leshchenko, Oksana Shulyar, and Andrii Telizhenko, along with the Biden family’s financial relations with Burisma and top Ukrainian officials. We expect and prepare for enemies to tamper with our elections, but Ukraine is a supposed friend that nonetheless likely was more involved in 2016 than were the Russians—and yet was never held to account.
6) Unfortunately, we cannot believe any of the predictions emanating from our top intelligence and military leaders about the course of the Ukrainian war, given they were simply wrong about the Afghanistan collapse, wrong both about the initial resiliency of the Ukrainians and later the supposed imminent collapse of the Russians, both biased and wrong about Hunter Biden’s laptop, implicated in the Russian collusion hoax, and once again misled the American people about the time of arrival, the nature, and the purpose of the Chinese balloon, and the various garbled reasons why it was not immediately shot down.
7) Those who feel international negotiations about the status of Crimea and the Ukrainian borderlands are tantamount to surrender, and therefore taboo, must prepare the American people for their envisioned victory of ejecting every Russian from pre-2014 Ukraine, by assessing the dangers of a nuclear exchange, the eventual cost in arms and weapons of $200-500 billion, and a price tag of economic aid to rebuild a ruined Ukraine that will vastly exceed our military aid.
8) Those who advocate Ukraine’s entry into NATO must remind the American people that should Putin then mount a second offensive into Ukraine, American troops, along with those of 29 other NATO nations, would be sent to Ukraine to fight nuclear Russia and its allies.
9) We should apparently accept as regrettable, but tolerable that the war in Ukraine has united China and Russia, ensured they are both patrons for nuclear North Korea and soon-to-be nuclear Iran, and are near to drawing Turkey and India into their orbit—or nearly half the world’s population.
10) Given that China is a more existential threat than Russia, and given that the Chinese danger to the whole of Taiwan is far greater than is the Russian threat to all of Ukraine, we would expect those advocating blank-check support for Ukraine, would, of course, be as adamantly protective of Taiwan, even if the two wars were to become simultaneous. We expect those who demand no limits in weakening Putin’s dictatorship, to harbor even more animus for the far more dangerous totalitarianism of China.