By Ray Hunkins, columnist
“The policy and practice of the Russian Government has always been to push forward its encroachments as fast and as far as the apathy or want of firmness of other Governments would allow it to go, but always to stop and retire when it met with decided resistance and then to wait for the next favorable opportunity.” – Lord Palmerston (1784-1865), former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom*
Lord Palmerston (“Pam” to his friends and admirers) was prescient.
“What’s past is prologue,” William Shakespeare wrote in his play “The Tempest.” If our nation’s educators only appreciated that history sets the context for the future, perhaps we would have leaders who discerned the mistakes of the past and avoided repeating them.
Sadly, Obama and now Biden have repeated past mistakes with regard to Russia. What mistakes? The ones Pam warned about. Apathy in the face of Russian aggression and failing to be firm when confronting Russian threats and atrocities.
The recent Russian invasion of Ukraine and the horrible images it has evoked are on our minds and TV screens. Pam suggested that an expansive and belligerent Russia is a fact of history, a truism not recognized by the Obama and now, Biden administrations.
Ukraine has often been in the Russian crosshairs. It seems, as Pam warned, that the aggressive Russian bear hibernates, only to emerge from its lair to feast on its neighbors. It has taken bites out of Ukraine almost at will.
From the Crimean War (1853-1856) to the invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014 (then a part of Ukraine), Western powers have faced the Bear in Eastern Europe. Famously, Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote his poem, Charge of the Light Brigade, about a failed British military action against the Russians during the Crimean War.
From 1917 until 1920, Russian Bolsheviks under Lenin sought to exert sovereignty over Ukraine by military force. One and one-half million Ukrainians died and hundreds of thousands were left homeless.
In the 1930s, Stalin’s Russia committed genocide on the Ukrainian people by a purposeful policy of starvation resulting in what is known as “The Great Famine.”
More recently, in 2014, Russia invaded and then annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine while simultaneously fomenting conflict as a precursor to taking control in Ukraine’s Donbas region. In reaction to this Russian aggression, there were condemnations, resolutions and sanctions, far and wide, none of which changed Russian behavior nor anything on the ground.
Russia’s 2014 aggression was the commencement of the present conflict. With its uncontested success in Crimea, Russia had proven that it could take Ukrainian territory by force without serious repercussions. After 2014, The Bear more or less hibernated until it launched its effort to devour Ukraine in the winter of 2022.
Thankfully, the Ukrainians have been taught their history. The lessons learned have led to an innate and justified distrust of Russia, and for good reason.
Former KGB Colonel and now Russian President Vladimir Putin is a ruthless dictator, known to murder opponents and operate outside even the rules of war. He may be pathologic but he is not mad. His actions in the invasion of Ukraine are immoral but rational, based on his knowledge of his antagonists, recent history and his calculation of likely reaction to his aggression.
Putin calculated that his chief antagonist, the United States, under the leadership of President Biden, was risk averse and likely not to be an impediment on his design for Ukrainian domination.
In this, he was guided by recent experience in the invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014. That experience was that President Obama and his Vice President, Joe Biden, would huff and puff, threaten sanctions and condemnation, but in the end would not risk conflict with Russia by kinetically opposing Russia’s objectives.
With regard to the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Putin likely surmised that the U.S. under Biden might even draw a “red line,” but he knew that a red line had been ignored before (in Syria, regarding the use of chemical weapons) and likely would be again if Biden even mustered the effort to draw one.
Putin calculated that Ukraine would be no match for his superior (he thought) combined arms and that the U.S. and NATO would dither while his overwhelming legions forced capitulation in a matter of days, presenting the United States and NATO with a fait accompli. He calculated that Ukrainian leadership would be forced to surrender in the face of the onslaught. These were serious, perhaps fatal, miscalculations. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Milley joined Putin and made the same miscalculation.
Despite Ukrainian pleas, U.S. officials chose to delay serious armament of Ukraine and serious sanctions against Russia until after the invasion had begun. The stated position of the U.S. was that it didn’t want to “provoke” an invasion by imposing sanctions.
Putin’s expectation of his antagonist’s reaction was entirely accurate.
But, instead of capitulation, Putin has experienced fierce and skilled resistance by Ukrainian defense forces and inspired, almost Churchillian, leadership by an improbable hero, 5-foot, 7-inch, 44-year-old former comedian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The Ukrainian President, busy rallying his people and the world, seems to be everything our president is not: young, vigorous, calming, wise and above all, courageous.
The United States is supplying arms to Ukraine, but more and better arms are needed according to Ukrainian officials. There was an unseemly public debate about supplying Ukraine with Polish MIG-29 aircraft.
The U.S. said no, it would be provocative, then said maybe, then, after Poland delivered the planes to a U.S. base in Germany for delivery to Ukrainian pilots, said no again. The Administration’s stated reason: it would be “escalatory,” but in any event Ukraine didn’t need them and could put other armaments to better use. Reportedly, the final decision, “NO,” was made by President Biden.
The MIG–29s should be delivered to the Ukrainians…. yesterday. If there must be a debate, it should be in private. The decision about what is needed should be made by those shedding the blood.
Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously stated, “You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish you had at a later time.”
You also go to war with the leadership and national security apparatus you have – with the president, the secretary of defense, the chairman of the joint chiefs, the national security advisor and the cabinet. In 2022, that’s a problem.
There has been no shuffling of the deck with the national security team. It is the same group that mismanaged the withdrawal from Afghanistan last August; the same group that blundered strategically and tactically in abandoning Bagram Air Base, that abandoned billions of dollars in military equipment now in the hands of the Taliban and likely, our adversaries, including the Russians.
This group includes Gen. Milley, the woke chairman of the joint chiefs, who a few weeks ago estimated the Russians would take the Ukrainian capitol within 72 hours of a full-scale Russian invasion.
It is this group that decided to discharge military service members who did not want to be vaccinated against COVID-19 but insists that our military be subjected to mandatory training for diversity, equity and inclusion. Meanwhile, Russia threatens nuclear war.
It is this group that supervises the military academies where five cadets at the U.S. Military Academy overdosed on fentanyl-laced cocaine while on “spring break” in Florida last week and cadets from the U.S. Air Force Academy are picked up early each Sunday morning by a van to be transported to worship service in Denver at a witch’s coven.
I could go on, but you get the idea: by any reasonable standard of measurement, this group is incompetent.
Sadly, one must conclude, metaphorically, that this ain’t the army to go to war with. More accurately, this isn’t the group of leaders with which we should go to war.
Regardless of how strongly we feel about the barbaric rape of Ukraine we are witnessing, about the war crimes and the atrocities, the refugees, the carnage, Congress and opinion leaders should not be clamoring for choosing any course of action that needs skill and wisdom to achieve.
Don’t make this group take risks or attempt complex maneuvers, military or diplomatic. This group of leaders is mistake-prone and ideologically driven.
We should insist on more and better arms for the brave Ukrainian defenders. Expedite the shipments and take care of the refugees. Put the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle into effect. Give Ukraine what it thinks it needs, hope for the best and pray for an acceptable outcome. That’s all we can safely do. Is it enough? Time will tell.
If all of that is done well, it is worthy, can be accomplished and, given the skill and bravery of the Ukrainian armed forces, may be decisive. Hopefully it is within the skill set of the national security team we have.
But under no circumstances should the loyal opposition or anyone else insist that this group take action that involves more than nominal risk. The president doesn’t want to take any significant risk and in recognizing his limitations, he may just be rising to the occasion and exhibiting a degree of wisdom.
I’m confident that if we get through this, better days are ahead.
*Many thanks to my high school friend, Boyd Ratchye of St. Paul, Minnesota, who brought his hero, “Pam” to my attention.
Ray Hunkins is a retired attorney and rancher, U.S. Marine, and the Republican nominee for governor of Wyoming in 2006