To Defend Civilization, Defeat Russia

Ukraine needs any weapon its troops can learn to use, including tanks, to hold the line on the international order and the world’s safety.

A Ukrainian tank sits under covering in the Kharkiv district of Ukraine
A Ukrainian tank sits under covering in the Kharkiv district of Ukraine (Spencer Platt / Getty)

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Some NATO nations are wavering about sending tanks and other advanced weapons to Ukraine. I understand fears of escalation, but if Russia wins in Ukraine, the world will lose.

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

No Other Choice

I don’t often find myself agreeing with Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina conservative who long ago rebranded himself as Donald Trump’s faithful valet and No. 1 fan. Last week, however, Graham lashed out in frustration at the dithering in Europe and America over sending more weapons to Ukraine. “I am tired of the shit show surrounding who is going to send tanks and when they’re gonna send them,” he said during a press conference in Kyiv, flanked by Democratic Senators Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. “World order is at stake. [Vladimir] Putin is trying to rewrite the map of Europe by force of arms.”

Graham is right. Germany, for example, has been reluctant to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine; the Germans, for their part, would likely prefer to see the United States send American tanks first. But everyone in the West should be sending anything the Ukrainians can learn to use, because a lot more than mere order is at stake, and order, by itself, is not enough. As Rousseau wrote, “Tranquility is found also in dungeons,” but that does not make dungeons desirable places to live. Global civilization itself is on the line: the world built after the defeat of the Axis, in which, for all of our faults as nations and peoples, we strive to live in peace and cooperation—and, at the least, to not butcher one another. If Russia’s campaign of terror and other likely war crimes erases Ukraine, it will be a defeat of the first order for every institution of international life, be it the United Nations or the international postal union.

I suspect that many people in Europe and the United States are having a hard time getting their arms around the magnitude of this threat. We are all afflicted by normalcy bias, our inherent resistance to accept that large changes can upend our lives. I struggled with this in the early stages of the war; I thought Ukraine would probably lose quickly, and then when the Russians were repulsed by the heroic Ukrainian defenses, I hoped (in vain) that the fighting would fizzle out, that Putin would try to conserve what was left of his shattered military, and that the world’s institutions, damaged by yet another act of Russian barbarism, would somehow continue to limp along.

We’re long past such possibilities. Putin has made clear that he will soak the ground of East-Central Europe with blood—both of Ukrainians and of his own hapless mobiks, the recently mobilized draftees he’s sending into the military meat grinder—if that’s what it takes to subjugate Kyiv and end the Kremlin’s unexpected and ongoing humiliation. At this point, the fight in Ukraine is not about borders or flags but about what kind of world we’ve built over the past century, and whether that world can sustain itself in the face of limitless brutality. As the Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said in Davos last week: “We don’t know when the war ends, but Ukraine has to win. I don’t see another choice.”

Neither do I, and it’s past time to send Ukraine even more and better weapons. (Or, as my colleague David Frum tweeted last June: “If there’s anything that Ukraine can use in any NATO warehouse from Vancouver to Vilnius, that’s a scandal. Empty every inventory.”) I say all this despite my concerns about escalation to a wider European and even global war. I still oppose direct U.S. and NATO intervention in this fight, and I have taken my share of criticism for that reticence. I do not fear that such measures will instantly provoke World War III. Rather, I reject proposals that I think could increase the odds of an accident or a miscalculation that could bring the superpowers into a nuclear standoff that none of them wants. (Putin, for all his bluster, has no interest in living out his last days eating dry rations in a dark fallout shelter, but that does not mean he is competent at assessing risks.)

Americans and their allies must face how far a Russian victory would extend beyond Ukraine. In a recent discussion with my old friend Andrew Michta (a scholar of European affairs who is now dean at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, in Germany), he referred to the conflict in Ukraine as a “system-transforming” war, as Russian aggression dissolves the last illusions of a stable European order that were perhaps too quickly embraced in the immediate post–Cold War euphoria. Andrew has always been less sanguine about the post–World War II international order than old-school institutionalists like me, but he has a point: The pessimists after 1991 were right about Russia and its inability to live in peace with its neighbors. If Ukraine loses, dictators elsewhere will draw the lesson that the West has lost its will to defend its friends—and itself.

If Russia finally captures Ukraine by mass murder, torture, and nuclear threats, then everything the world has gained since the defeat of the Axis in 1945 and the end of the Cold War in 1991 will be in mortal peril. Putin will prove to himself and to every dictator on the planet that nothing has changed since Hitler, that lawless nations can achieve their aims by using force at will, by killing and raping innocent people and then literally grinding their ashes into the dirt. This is no longer about Russia’s neo-imperial dreams or Ukraine’s borders: This is a fight for the future of the international system and the safety of us all.


Today’s News

  1. The first victims of Saturday night’s shooting at a Monterey Park, California, dance hall have been identified. Eleven people were killed and 10 others injured, and the gunman was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot.
  2. President Joe Biden plans to name Jeffrey Zients, his administration’s former COVID-19-response coordinator, as the next White House chief of staff.   
  3. The FDA is considering a change to how COVID-19 vaccines are updated. The simpler process would more closely resemble annual flu-shot updates, according to documents the organization posted online.


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Evening Read

Broken magnifying glass on top of a string of computer code
Paul Spella / The Atlantic; Ted S. Warren / Getty; Shutterstock

A Grim New Low for Internet Sleuthing

By Megan Garber

On November 13, 2022, four students from the University of Idaho—Ethan Chapin, Kaylee Goncalves, Xana Kernodle, and Madison Mogen—were found dead in the house that the latter three rented near campus. Each had been stabbed, seemingly in bed. Two other students lived in the house, and were apparently in their rooms that night; they were unharmed.

From the public’s standpoint, the case had few leads at first: an unknown assailant, an unknown motive. Law-enforcement officials in the college town of Moscow, Idaho, initially offered the public little information about the evidence they were gathering in their investigation. Into that void came a frenzy of public speculation—and, soon enough, public accusation. The familiar alchemy set in: The real crime, as the weeks dragged on, became a “true crime”; the murders, as people discussed them and analyzed them and competed to solve them, became a grim form of interactive entertainment.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

Harrison Ford in The Fugitive
Harrison Ford in "The Fugitive" (Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy)

Read. “Woman in Labor,” a poem by Daria Serenko.

“Yesterday a woman began giving birth directly on the Red Square with an assault rifle pressed to her temple.”

Watch. Return to a blockbuster that was among the last of its kind. The Fugitive, available to stream on multiple platforms, is the perfect popcorn movie.

Play our daily crossword.


I had to do some traveling this weekend, and although I usually connect to airline Wi-Fi and annoy people with random thoughts on Twitter, flying is also a way to catch up on old movies. For some reason, this time out I put on the 1974 classic The Longest Yard, with Burt Reynolds playing a dissolute former football star who ends up in a Florida jail. He is cornered by a sadistic warden (played with genial smarm by the great Eddie Albert) who blackmails him into coaching the prison football team. Reynolds instead suggests tuning up the team of guards by having them play a pickup team composed of inmates, which goes about the way you’d expect. I seemed to recall liking it as a kid, and I wanted to see it again as an adult. (Do not confuse this one with a far-inferior 2005 remake starring Adam Sandler.)

I don’t like sports, and I’m not sure why I thought I would enjoy the movie, but I did, and the reason is that The Longest Yard isn’t really a football movie. It’s a prison movie built around the game between the inmates and guards, a kind of lighthearted Shawshank Redemption about bad men who, for one moment, get a chance to be the good guys. There’s even a murder of an innocent man, as there was in Shawshank, and a similar, if far less dramatic, moment of getting even with the creepy warden. And yes, it includes a message about sportsmanship, as the inmates earn the grudging respect of the guards at the end. Finally, long before it was a joke on The Simpsons, the movie actually gets a laugh by hitting a guy in the groin with a football. Twice.

— Tom

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.