For the moment, let’s put nomenclature aside. History will be the ultimate arbiter of whether what’s happening now is or isn’t “World War Three”. For argument’s sake, let’s say it isn’t “World War Three” – not yet. But World War Three could absolutely happen and, in theory, it would be a clear escalation beyond the present situation. But, what is the present situation? “War” is now a relative term. Putin will punish you with fifteen years of brutality if you refer to his war as a “war” – either in protest or in print. Does that mean it’s not a war? We, I hope, would disagree with Putin. It’s not up to him (especially him!) to decide what’s “war” and what isn’t. What can we call what Putin is doing to Ukraine’s people and cities if NOT “war”?
Just because Putin hasn’t declared war doesn’t mean he’s not waging it. Ask Ukraine. Ask the people living at Pearl Harbor, HI the morning of December 7, 1941 as they slept soundly in their beds – unaware that Japan (whether we knew it or not, whether we liked it or not) had declared war on the United States and therefore on THEM. They were going to receive the tip of Japan’s spear. Japan finally made their war declaration official two hours after the attack. But, if you lived in Pearl Harbor – if you were dead or injured in the attack – you already knew all about it. Too bad the rest of the country was still sleeping.
We hold it as gospel truth that he who declares war is that war’s villain. That’s swell if you’re a diplomat with clear lines draw in the sand. It sucks if you’re a civilian stuck on the wrong side of those lines when hostilities break out. If we stripped out all the “diplomacy” from this moment, we’d find ourselves telling the Ukrainians that we can’t rush to their defense the way we really, really want to because , if we did, it would “start a war”. As the Ukrainians keep shouting at us “The war’s already started!”
Putin committing war crimes live on social media apparently isn’t enough for us to turn his “special operation” (or whatever he wants to call it) into an official “war”. I wonder – as a thought experiment – is there really no “indecency” line in the “behavior sand” that Putin could cross that would trigger us beyond more warnings? Please understand – I think Joe Biden has handled this shit storm fantastically. He walked into his presidency charged with fixing everything Donald Trump and the GOP broke (which was close to everything). A potential World War Three wasn’t necessarily on his Bingo card, but, surely he understood that the only reason Trump ever became POTUS is because Russia MADE HIM POTUS. Now, I know, even if Joe Biden knew this for a fact, without the Department of Justice saying it – or putting Trump on trial for it – Biden can’t say such things out loud. If there are no coincidences, then it can’t be a coincidence that Putin pulled the trigger on his war machine at about the same time that his “deep cover” intel asset – Donald Trump – was about to be outed.
At the very least, Putin had to see that every day he waited now to try and get the “Greater Russia” band back together again, was going to make it exponentially harder to ever pull off. Biden moved rapidly to reassure our allies that our house was being sanitized, rid of Trumpists and Trumpism. We cannot reclaim our position as leader of the free world through words alone. Actions were going to be the required proof.
Biden not only cobbled together international consensus, he’s continued to build upon it. What most of the world (minus China) is now doing to Russia’s economy is unprecedented. It’s the equivalent of a neutron bomb going off. The physical structures may remain standing but everything inside of them will be obliterated. The reason Putin and his oligarch pals keep THEIR money outside of Russia (and Russian banks) is because they own them – and they know how crooked they are. The oligarchs who own Russian banks wouldn’t bank there themselves if their lives – or their fortunes – depended on it. Russians cut off from international banking – and from all other currencies but the ruble – are going to find themselves back in the economic stone age.
That ain’t no way to be an oligarch.
Despite the fact that Putin made them all – and can (threaten to) unmake them – after a certain point, survival instinct takes over and so does the plotting. There must be a Von Stauffenberg or two on the Russian General Staff – professional soldiers who cannot bear to see fellow soldiers (even if they’re just lowly conscripts) getting fed into a meat grinder because Putin doesn’t know what he’s doing. Under the best of circumstances, NATO would crush Russia. Now that we’ve seen the Russian army in action, maybe “crush” is too mild. Putin has now committed 60 – 70% of his army to this folly; he won’t emerge with 60 – 70% of his army. Were NATO to formally go to war with Russia, Putin would be completely out of position to repulse NATO.
Thus, it’s reasoned, he would go nuclear and voila! “World War Three” would be upon us – and we’d be perceived as the villains for provoking Putin.
But, what if we put the artifice that this isn’t a war aside? What if we stop worrying about what we call this tragedy? If Russia launches a chemical weapon on Ukraine, will that be the game changer? Will that make us decide it’s time to join the fight? If so, then we’ve invented a hierarchy of awfulness and somewhere in that hierarchy is an imaginary line that we will always dare people to cross. And then dare them to cross the next one… and the next.
Putin has no boundaries. He laughs at our lines in the sand. I agree with those who say you can’t tell the Putin’s of the world what we won’t do because then they know how far they CAN push the envelope. So long as they don’t do X, we won’t do Y. But everything up to X? They’re doing it!
Let’s look at this from Putin’s point of view. He’s not new to committing war crimes. He doesn’t even think of them as crimes regardless of the fact that Russia has signed the treaties that say Russia DOES think of them as crimes. Putin’s not a soldier by trade and training, he’s a spy. Deception, lying and betrayal are all on his tool belt. So’s greed, megalomania and male inadequacy. Putin has already done more than enough to win himself a “Holiday in The Hague”. If captured alive, Putin knows, he’ll end up in the docket and then either in prison or at the end of a rope.
Yet, Putin doesn’t fear the West or The Hague nearly as much as he fears those around him. He knows a Von Stauffenberg lurks – but from where? Inside whose heart? Putin really and truly has nothing to lose now. His leadership style doesn’t include taking one for his people. No, his way is to get the Russian people to take one for him.
Donald Trump is already applauding Putin’s “genius”.
We would not be “starting” World War Three, should Putin react and to something we did, World War Three is already a going concern. And Putin’s already triggered. He WILL use biological weapons and nuclear weapons, no provocation needed. We can’t punish Putin any more than we’re already threatening to punish him. It’s just more bad icing on an already rotten cake.
World War Three began long before Russia made Donald Trump POTUS. It began the day that Putin made MAKING Trump POTUS not just a “neat idea” but doctrine in Russian thinking. We know now that Putin did, in fact, have a “plan” that he committed to – its goal, keep Hillary Clinton OUT of the White House or, better yet, actively PUT Donald Trump INTO it. The Russian plan worked both ways, aided significantly by the fact that Putin also had corrupted the entire GOP; they knew “Putin pays Trump” but deliberately did nothing about it.
Did I mention Putin was a professional spy whose tradecraft involves compromising people with all sorts of kompromat?
Doing nothing is never as “free” as it advertises itself. Doing nothing always costs something. Often, doing nothing is the most expensive choice of all. After a certain point, we will have to stop indulging Putin’s madness and, if only so we can live with ourselves, take this fight to him. The only question will be what line in the sand do we point at, knowing that line is really no different from the line Trump crossed on the day he announced “Mexicans are rapists”.
The nations that coalesced into “The Allies” in WWII did nothing (except issue stern warnings) after Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936, annexed Austria in 1938 (and then the Sudetenland part of Czechoslovakia the same year with the rest of Europe’s tacit approval) and then occupied Bohemia and Moravia-Silesia and demanded the return of Danzig to German control. It wasn’t until AFTER Germany invaded Poland (under the pretense of a false flag operation) that the Allies formally declared the war Germany had been waging against them the whole time. Just because the Allies didn’t call what Germany was doing “war” didn’t mean Hitler wasn’t achieving the same goals a full scale war would have gotten him.
Putin is working from the same playbook. You push until the other side finally pushes back – if they ever do. And if they don’t? Then you continue to wage a one-sided war that you are always winning.
How many dead Ukrainians will be “too many”? Is the use of a chemical weapon a worse or more punishment-worthy war crime than bombing hospitals? Than shooting civilians while they flee? Is it just the scale that using a nuclear weapon presents that justifies us going to war over it (rather than over lesser atrocities?) Our lines in the sand seem kinda arbitrary.
Stalin is credited with saying that the death of one person is a tragedy while the death of millions is merely a statistic. The way we choose to wage war – when we decide to wage it – flips Stalin’s calculation on its head. We won’t go to war over human tragedy, but statistics? We are so there.