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Six Early Thoughts on Russia's Invasion of Ukraine

Six Early Thoughts on Russia's Invasion of Ukraine

Friday, 25 February, 2022 - 05:45

Here are a few early thoughts on the Russian invasion of Ukraine:

As always, be skeptical of the information you see (and, if you’re on social media, amplify). Some will be wrong because it’s deliberate misinformation. Some will be wrong because reporting during military action is always difficult. Remember that things can be reported by legitimate news outlets and good journalists that just turn out to be wrong. (One of the ways you can identify a legitimate news outlet is that it will correct mistakes as rapidly as possible, but mistakes are still inevitable.)

Be wary of anyone who is certain about how all of this will turn out, whether in the short run or the long run. No one knows today whether this invasion will be a great success or total disaster for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Nor should anyone be certain about what President Joe Biden and US allies could’ve done differently to achieve a different outcome. One thing this non-expert is confident about: US pundits tend to massively overestimate American influence on international events.

A bit of relevant history: Journalist James Fallows reminds us that this is hardly the first time NATO has failed to deter aggression from Moscow. Fallows cites the Soviet attacks on Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, when their puppet governments appeared unable to stop liberalization movements; he could’ve added the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the suppression of Solidarity in 1981. This is clearly different, since Russia is attacking a neighboring independent democracy. But, as Fallows notes, none of the US presidents at the time had any intention of a direct military response, although Jimmy Carter (for example) struck back in 1979 with a boycott of the upcoming Moscow Olympics, a grain embargo and support for a sharp increase in defense spending.

Fallows makes the further point that “in none of those other cases, as best I know, did US have prominent apologists for USSR action, comparable to Trump / Carlson these days.” True, and worth noting. But also worth pointing out that the bulk of Republican responses have been harshly critical of Putin. The US may be more united than it seems. And NATO appears to be about as solidly united as it has ever been, while a broad group of world leaders have joined in support of Ukraine and in opposition to Putin.

One significant disadvantage for the US during this crisis: a State Department that has been hollowed out for some time, especially during Donald Trump’s presidency. Biden shares some responsibility, as he has been slow to nominate ambassadors, while the Senate has been slow to confirm non-controversial nominees when Biden has acted. There’s also no nominee at the Treasury Department for undersecretary for international affairs; Biden did send the Senate a choice for deputy undersecretary/designated assistant secretary for international finance in early August, but that nominee has been waiting for a final vote since November, as has the nominee for assistant secretary for financial markets. Of course, people are designated to do those jobs in the interim, but they don’t have the clout that a Senate-confirmed presidential selection would. And there’s simply nothing that can be done rapidly to make up for lost experience in the permanent civil service.

On the plus side: It’s a nice time to have what appears to be a smoothly functioning White House, and an experienced president who by all accounts has strong relationships with US allies. It doesn’t guarantee good decisions, let alone good outcomes, but it’s still a lot better than the alternative.


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