Ukraine Stands, Fights, and Wins

A lesson for the rest of us about dealing with extremism

Ukrainian flag waving in front of a cloudy sky
Ukrainian flag waving after the Ukrainian army liberated the town of Balakliya (Metin Aktas / Anadolu Agency / Getty)

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The war in Ukraine is far from over, but the Ukrainians have inflicted an immense loss on the Russians. There is a lesson here for all of us about how to deal with extremism in any form.

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

Contain and Defeat

Last weekend was full of grief and glory. Queen Elizabeth II died, and like many Americans, I felt the pang of loss. The Queen, a seemingly eternal part of our world, was a stalwart ally of the United States, and a model of dignity and duty. But while focusing on the mourning and pageantry, we might have lost track of another potentially world-changing story in Ukraine.

The Ukrainians, using a combination of clever strategy, military fortitude, and Western weapons, have routed the Russians from a series of positions around Kharkiv. These were not merely defeats; the Russians were abandoning their posts and leaving behind their equipment even before the Ukrainians could reach them. Apparently, Russian soldiers do not want to die for President Vladimir Putin’s pathetic dream of reestablishing a state that had already perished before some of them were even born.

This is an immense humiliation for the Russians and for Putin personally, and Russian pundits are already yelling at one another in panic on state television. The Russian state’s newspaper of record, Rossiskaya Gazeta, is, as the analyst Mark Galeotti noted, stammering and contradicting itself trying to wave away yet another Russian military disaster.

So what happens next? In some quarters, we might expect calls for the Ukrainians to negotiate. But to what end? As my Atlantic colleague Anne Applebaum wrote, there’s nothing to discuss. Putin “has put the destruction of Ukraine at the very center of his foreign and domestic policies, and at the heart of what he wants his legacy to be.” Negotiation, from the first day of the war, was impossible. The only answer was to stand and fight, which the Ukrainians have done with valor and tenacity.

There is a lesson for all of us here as we face the global attack on democracy. Americans, generally, are the products of a legalistic, free-market, democratic society, so we prize negotiation and dealmaking. We think almost any problem is amenable to rational discussion and good-faith exchanges. Each side gives something and gets something. But what if the person across the table has no interest in compromise?

Yesterday was the 21st anniversary of 9/11. I recall how the attack generated debates about how we might have avoided such hostility, how we should have understood that we were paying the price for our policies, how we didn’t hear the voices warning us.

Policies have consequences, but I never believed in such recriminations. Subsequent terrorist incidents over the years, to my mind, proved that we were being attacked for reasons we could not control. There was never a chance of averting violence from al-Qaeda, or from the lost and pathetic men engaging in mindless slaughter in places such as London, Madrid, Paris, and Brussels. (The Tsarnaev brothers, who attacked my beloved city of Boston, were poster boys for nihilism masquerading as a cause. These supposed Muslim warriors were, in reality, a young man described by a friend as “a normal pothead” and his narcissistic older brother, a would-be boxer who was an early suspect in a triple homicide before the Boston Marathon bombing.) Over the years, we learned the lesson that compromise was impossible, and that we would just have to fight groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State and their assorted cast of violent losers.

We then made the same mistake after the January 6 riot at the Capitol. Republicans and others engaged in hand-wringing about how the insurrectionists were expressing “legitimate” grievances. Once again, we were told that we should have been paying more attention to the voices of the unheard—as if somehow, we could have accommodated and satisfied those of our fellow citizens whose minimal demand was the suspension of the Constitution (to say nothing of those who wanted to see the execution of senior elected officials of the United States government).

Extremism, however, defeats compromise and dealmaking. There was nothing Ukraine could have done, short of immediate surrender, that would have stopped Putin’s invasion. The profusion of violent jihadists, particularly in Europe, is a complex social phenomenon that cannot be reduced to a reaction against U.S. policy. The rioters at the Capitol wanted to nullify an election and hang the vice president of the United States. Sometimes, there’s nothing left on the table to discuss.

Last week, my colleague Pete Wehner—a man of greater faith and patience than I could ever hope to be—wrote this in The Atlantic:

But even though we shouldn’t give up on individuals, I can’t escape concluding that the time for mollifying grievances is over. In our political endeavors, the task is now to contain and defeat the MAGA movement, shifting away from a model of psychological amelioration and toward a model of political confrontation.

Contain and defeat. If we really are to be partisans of democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and basic decency, then this is a painful truth. Policy has its limits. Negotiations must be grounded in not only good faith but reality, and not lies or myths.

The demands of extremists are meant to be impossible to fulfill: America must convert to Islam, Ukraine must accept Moscow’s rule, the election must be overturned and Mike Pence hanged. People issuing such demands are not interested in discussion or compromise; indeed, they’d be disappointed if they got what they wanted, because their anger sustains them and gives meaning to their lives. When faced with such movements and their demands, there is only one response: Contain and defeat.


Today’s News
  1. Ukrainian troops reclaimed further territory from Russian forces in the northeast and south of the country, reportedly including most of the Kharkiv region.
  2. In Edinburgh, an estimated 20,000 people waited in line to pay their final respects to Queen Elizabeth II, who will lie at rest in St. Giles’ Cathedral until Tuesday afternoon.
  3. Amtrak announced temporary cuts to three long-distance passenger routes in response to a potential strike by freight-rail workers.


Evening Read
A football pennant with the text "Loser."
(Paul Spella / The Atlantic; Shutterstock)

There’s Nothing Quite Like the Wrath of Losing Your Fantasy League

By Jacob Stern

At first, Damon DuBois’s fantasy-football league kept the punishment for the last-place finisher fairly tame. The loser would have to let the champion select their team name for the following year, take care of the housekeeping at the next draft, or, at worst, sport an I suck at fantasy football license plate all off-season. Nothing crazy.

But by the final weeks of each season, league members already eliminated from playoff contention were checking out. DuBois wanted to raise the stakes. So about five years ago, he put the question to the group: What would be a good last-place punishment? And before long, an answer emerged: cheese shoes. “One of our league mates, he just started saying it, and we were like, Dude, what?!” DuBois told me. “And he was like, Yeah! Let’s just dump a bunch of cheese in our shoes!

Read the full article.

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Many of you know of my love for vintage television. The other night, I dozed through some classics and woke to find myself looking at the big-eyed, bobbing puppets of Thunderbirds, the British series filmed in Supermarionation—a puppeting technique pioneered by the legendary Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. This beloved show was remade as a live-action movie, but it doesn’t work without the weird puppetry. Indeed, I hope MeTV or some other network brings back Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, a 1967 Supermarionation show by the same team that was better, and weirder, than Thunderbirds and had a great theme. (Captain Scarlet is part of a secret army fighting creepy alien invaders called Mysterons, and he’s indestructible, because … look, it’s a puppet show; it doesn’t have to make sense.)

I saw a loving and nostalgic stage tribute to Thunderbirds in London back in the 1990s, but Supermarionation never got the treatment (and, in a demented way, the respect) it deserved until it was brought back by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the provocateurs behind South Park, in their movie Team America: World Police. It’s hilarious. But be warned: Team America nearly got an NC-17 rating until it was edited, and it is not even remotely a family movie.


Kelli María Korducki and Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.