The Stakes in Ukraine Have Not Changed

The war is still about freedom.

Ukrainian soldiers rest by a car; a shirtless man wearing a rosary stares at the camera while exhaling smoke.
Ukrainian soldiers resting in the Donbas region on August 10 (Bulent KILIC / AFP / Getty)

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As we’re fire-hosed by news of Donald Trump’s antics and stories of the GOP’s slide into antidemocratic madness, Americans must remember what’s at stake in an actual military confrontation between freedom and dictatorship in Europe.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

The Long Haul

The war against democracy, as I’ve said many times, is being fought on multiple fronts around the world, and nowhere with more ferocity than in Ukraine. The former National Security Council staffer Alex Vindman is in Ukraine today, and as the conflict there drags on, he said this morning that he’s worried about the world developing Ukraine fatigue. Although I understand his concern, I don’t think that’s happening—at least not yet. But it’s time to remind ourselves what the stakes are in Ukraine for the United States and its allies.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine isn’t merely a “war” in which two sides have something in dispute and are using military force to get their way. The Prussian high priest of military thought, Carl von Clausewitz, described war as “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will,” but the Russian attack isn’t one of Clausewitz’s 19th-century conflicts. The attempt to destroy Ukraine is more like the Nazi campaigns of conquest in World War II—or, if you’d like a more futuristic analogy, it is like the war waged against Earth by aliens in the classic 1996 movie Independence Day. When the American president tries to surrender to the invaders and asks them what they want humans to do to secure a truce, they answer with one word: “Die.”

It’s not a perfect analogy. Vladimir Putin, in the first weeks of the war, would have accepted a tidy and rapid surrender. Indeed, his initial goals did not include obliterating Ukrainian cities and civilians, because he long ago convinced himself that Ukrainians are indistinguishable from Russians. He may have imagined that after a quick strike against Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would flee—or be killed by his own military—and that Ukrainian children would carpet the streets with flowers to welcome the conquering Russians.

Instead, Ukraine, with Western help, fought back and handed the Russian military one humiliating defeat after another. The Russian version of shock and awe turned into shock and dismay in Moscow, and Putin—whose vanity and ego are now deeply invested in this war—changed Russian war aims from quick conquest to a campaign of death and destruction as punishment for Ukrainian insolence.

So where do things on the battlefield stand now?

There are three things to bear in mind as you read the news from Ukraine:

  1. The Russians are not interested in a settlement.
  2. The Russians are running out of men and materiel, and the war is getting closer to the lives of people in Russia who thought it would never touch them.
  3. The Ukrainians are taking terrible losses, but they could outlast the Russians with Western help.

The first point, that the Russians are not interested in a settlement, is key to understanding why the U.S. and its Western partners have to commit to the war with money and material support for the long haul. Putin is about to turn 70, which is not young, especially by Russian standards, but this war will last as long as he draws breath. His aims, no matter what he says in public, will always remain the maximum goal of subjugating all of Ukraine.

Second, Putin thought he could pull off a quick victory while Russians, especially in big cities such as Moscow and Leningrad St. Petersburg, went about their lives. But the Russian military has proved to be far more fragile than Western experts predicted. (Among those getting it wrong: me.) After losing some of his best forces, Putin is now fighting the war with more kids from the glubinka, the Russian boondocks, many of them ethnic non-Russians.

There are even reports that Putin is trying to recruit in jails by offering Russian prisoners a commutation in exchange for fighting in Ukraine. The heinous acts–and likely war crimes–we’ve already seen in Ukraine will seem like a warm-up if the Russian high command lets a bunch of convicted criminals in army uniforms loose on the battlefield with rifles and grenades. But this, in a country that once prided itself on the might of its armed forces, is a sign of desperation.

Finally, the war is now a slog and will remain one. America and other nations have, for months, been carefully threading a needle, providing aid to Ukraine but resisting moves (such as no-fly zones) that could provoke a direct confrontation between Moscow and the West. This is a wise policy, and Joe Biden, in my view, has done a masterful job of helping Ukraine stay in the fight. We should continue to do so, with more and better weapons as fast as we can deliver them.

The long term favors the Ukrainians, 40 million people who are fighting for their existence as a nation. The Russians are heedlessly throwing bodies and weapons into the fight, making it “a foot race between Western patience on the Ukrainian side versus Putin’s terrible burn rate of killed-in-action and equipment,” as Admiral James Stavridis told me in an email earlier today. Stavridis, the former supreme allied commander of NATO, thinks time is on Kyiv’s side: “I would rather have Zelensky’s hand of cards than Putin’s.”

In the near future, however, the Russians can still bring crushing amounts of power to bear on Ukraine: They want to claim Ukrainian territory, even if they have to reduce cities to piles of rubble and corpses before they plant their boots on them.

This war is about freedom and democracy. Americans may become weary of the news and the depressing images, but we will never be as weary as the Ukrainians, who will need the West’s support for a long time to come.


Today’s News
  1. Water shortages along the Colorado River reached a threshold that requires unprecedented cuts in water for other states.
  2. The FDA decided to allow hearing aids to be sold over the counter.
  3. The federal magistrate judge who approved the Mar-a-Lago search warrant is holding a hearing Thursday about requests to unseal the investigators’ probable-cause affidavit. (The Justice Department argues that this affidavit should stay sealed to protect witnesses and keep proceedings confidential.)

  • Brooklyn, Everywhere: Xochitl Gonzalez asks: Would we defend Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses if it were published today?

Evening Read
overlapping reversed engraved images of John Donne, one in black and one in white, with halos surrounded by cupids and ornamental border on red background
(Illustration by Paul Spella. Source: Bettmann / Getty; Heritage Images / Getty.)

The Unlovable, Irresistible John Donne

By James Parker

If you were a gentleman in Elizabethan London, a gentleman of more or less regular means and habits, your typical day went something like this: You rose at 4 a.m., you wrote 14 letters and a 30-page treatise on the nonexistence of purgatory, you fought a duel, you composed a sonnet, you went to watch a Jesuit get publicly disemboweled, you invented a scientific instrument, you composed another sonnet, you attended the premiere of As You Like It, you romanced someone else’s wife, and then you caught the bubonic plague and died.

They packed a lot in, the Elizabethans, is my point. Maybe posterity, considering our own age, will judge that we are packing a lot in, with the fascism and the COVID and the melting glaciers. Maybe. But there was a peculiar paradoxical ugly-beautiful density to life as the Elizabethans lived it.

Read the full article.

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Read. Dark Princess, W. E. B. Du Bois’s forgotten romance novel, is a reminder of how the romance genre can open our mind to fantastic possibilities.

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The Russian war in Ukraine is not only killing people and destroying cities; it is shattering friendships and tearing apart families in Ukraine and Russia. The Russian director Andrei Loshak has created a documentary you should watch titled Broken Ties, which shows discussions among friends and families about the war. Nothing penetrates the bubble around some Russians, not even the fear in the voices of their own children or the body bags coming back from the war zone.

If you think that the inability of millions of people to accept reality about the 2020 presidential election is a terrifying part of the political landscape in the United States, you will be shocked by the level of denial at work among ordinary Russians about a war that their own loved ones are experiencing in real time.

— Tom

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.