The most interesting and useful observations on crime and punishment don’t arise in the midst of watching a murder. And so, while the world has no choice but to continue to attempt to respond in real time to the horror of a new war in Europe, we also know that the significance of what is unfolding will settle slowly over time, and that it’s reasonable to be suspicious of those who claim to see clearly the contours of the new world in which we now find ourselves. But suitable organizing structures have yet to reveal themselves, so with these caveats in mind, I offer six reflections at the end of the first day of the new Russo-Ukrainian war.
First and foremost, today is a very sad day. A massive war of choice launched by a nuclear power against one of its largest neighbors—a country of over 40 million with which it shares elements of history, culture, and family. The victims of this war are human beings who are like human beings anywhere: they want to live a normal, free life; enjoy family and friends and community; learn; work; and, each in their own way, find meaning in the world. This war is a massive, man-made, and unnecessary tragedy in a world that does not want for unavoidable suffering and destruction.
Second, U.S. President Joe Biden and his administration were right. Events have unfolded as U.S. intelligence suggested they might. A moment of humble reflection is in order for all those who poo-pooed the U.S. and allied warnings, who pointed to Russian denials as if they were credible, and who assumed that because an invasion of Ukraine was not consistent with Russia’s strategic interests, Russian President Vladimir Putin would only threaten but not act. And Biden was right about European and other allies, too. Everyone is onside. The unity—which arises both from Putin’s perfidy and out of the tireless diplomacy from the world’s democracies in recent weeks—is truly impressive.
Third, the energy that has been devoted to geopolitical kibitzing and debates about deterrence must now shift to what may become a truly horrific humanitarian emergency situation. In two separate conversations in the past twenty-four hours, I’ve heard people wonder whether Kyiv will become a Ukrainian Aleppo. Even if that bone-chilling comparison is not apt (and I pray that it is not), the international community must prepare to assist potentially millions of refugees and internally displaced persons, as well as to help deal with civilians who may be maimed by war. Putin does not appear to be concerned about the costs of his reckless violence, but the United States and its allies must work to mitigate the suffering. In addition to NATO reinforcements to the eastern flank, humanitarian organizations and supplies must also surge to areas around Ukraine to prepare for new arrivals. The EU has helpful experience in this regard.
Fourth, grand diplomacy—the kind that was offered in earnest and repeatedly by the EU, France, Germany, the UK, the United States, and others in recent weeks—is, for the immediate future, dead. However, there may very soon be an urgent need for a different, more technical kind of diplomacy aimed at reducing the risk of an inadvertent escalation that could arise out of an interaction between Russian forces invading (or occupying) Ukraine and NATO forces protecting eastern-flank countries. Putin has complained for years about NATO being too close, and assuming he accomplishes his military objectives, it will be he himself who has put large numbers of his forces beyond Russia’s borders in close proximity to NATO troops. There is experience to draw from, including protocols from the Cold War aimed at averting unintended encounters, and, more recently, the protocols negotiated when Russian forces went into Syria and the United States and Russia both sought to avert accidental air encounters there.
Fifth, whenever the bombs and guns fall quiet, we will have to reckon with a new era. As noted at the outset, it’s hard to say with confidence today what that new world will look like and what opportunities for reconstruction might be found in the ashes of the old order, but this week will likely be seen in years to come as the most consequential one in European security since at least 1989.
Putin’s speech on February 21 was a dark diatribe that was notable not only for the way it seethed with loathing and derision for Ukraine and its people but also because it departed from the usual Russian invectives on international security that expertly contort international law and the UN Charter to rationalize cynical behavior. Putin’s speech wasn’t just a perverse retelling of history—it was a direct challenge to the basis for the international system as it exists. Even if Putin’s false historical narrative were true, it would not invalidate the international legal fact of Ukrainian sovereignty. It would not justify his aggressive war.
Putin wasn’t just dismissing Ukraine’s right to exist. He was dismissing important features of sovereignty as a building block of the international system as we know it. As Biden said in his speech on Thursday afternoon, Putin presented “a sinister vision for the future of our world.” As the United States and its allies think about their national and collective security strategies going forward, they will have to adapt them to the reality that Russia is now an overtly adversarial nuclear power with an isolated and paranoid leader and is exhibiting many of the behaviors associated with so-called rogue states.
Sixth, this is a snuffing out, for now, of what had been a stubbornly persistent hope for what the relationship between Russia, its European neighbors, and the world community could be. Every U.S. president since George H. W. Bush has sought a more constructive, genuine partnership with Russia. Each has been disappointed, and yet each has lived to see his successor try again. And, in contrast to Putin’s historical allegations about U.S. and Western intentions in the 1990s, a generation of Americans and Europeans—diplomats, civil societies, and academics—found purpose in trying to both build bridges that would knit together the fabric torn asunder by decades of the Cold War and support for the Russian people’s right to a secure, prosperous, and democratic future.
Those who have held fast to this hope, despite the disappointments, have at times been called delusional or naïve. And the events of recent years provide ample evidence to support such an accusation. But that hope is a deeply moral one—one that holds the people of Russia with proper respect, as people, free and equal in dignity and rights. It is a hope that we shouldn’t concede to Putin, but rather be prepared to rekindle when we can. Let the courage of thousands of Russians, who Thursday night took to the streets at immense personal risk to protest Putin’s war of choice, be an inspiration to believe in that hope again in time.
But for tonight, and in the days to come, think of the people of Ukraine, who are enduring a grotesque and violent chapter in their generation-long struggle to build the kind of democracy that can protect their rights and their futures—the kind of democracy that all people deserve.