Upending the Global Order

“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

– Albert Einstein

A rusted Russian Iron Curtain may be descending on a vulnerable corner of Eastern Europe, lowered by a ruthless dictator trying desperately to undermine Western democracies and restore a lost empire.

And on the fourth day of Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine Sunday, its president, Vladimir Putin, served notice he had put his nuclear defense forces on high alert because of “aggressive statements” by the West.

Escalating a conventional conflict to potential nuclear status is not a good sign.Putin is “potentially putting in play forces that, if there’s a miscalculation, could make things much, much more dangerous,” a senior U.S. defense official told the Associated Press.

Adding to the conflagration, Belarus, which borders Ukraine on the north and has served as a staging area for Russian forces to sweep into Ukraine reportedly plans to join the invasion Monday, a U.S. administration official said Sunday. Belorussian President Alexander Lukashenko is a close Putin ally.
Putin launched an unprovoked multi-pronged conventional land invasion of Ukraine Thursday, obsessed with an attempt to recreate at least part of a bloc of 14 Eastern European “republics” known as the Soviet Union. It dissolved in 1991. What’s left is the Russian Federation.

The offensive that erupted without cause came weeks after Putin repeatedly lied that he had no desire to take over the country of 44 million as he virtually surrounded it with up to 190,000 troops and armored vehicles.

It marked another “day of infamy” in a world overwhelmed with division, diminishing democracies, a deadly pandemic that won’t quit, ridiculous rebellions against masks and     vaccines and inflation that is bound to worsen with the price of oil hitting $100 a barrel.

It’s a war without a reason other than the apparent bitterness and vindictiveness of a leader seemingly gone mad in pursuit of a history whose time and machinations of conquest long ago have been overtaken by an interconnected, globalized and hi-tech world seeking peace through trade, not war.

And this irresponsible “shock and awe” conflict against a 30-year-old democracy exploded about eight years after Russia sliced off Crimea from southern Ukraine and fighting erupted between Russian separatists and Ukrainian defenders in the Donbas region in the eastern part of the country, along the Russian border.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a Jew whose parents and other relatives were swallowed in the Holocaust, begged the West to help his beleaguered country as the Russians swept in, tactics that are a throwback to the bloodiest century in history, of powerful dictators like Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Tito and Milosevic.

It’s heartrending.

And there’s little that can be done to combat the scourge of one tyrant and that person’s state of mind without going to war; months of diplomacy failed. What’s happening in Ukraine at the behest of one man who may be out of control should be a warning and a lesson to Americans about whom they elect to lead them.

“If you my dear world leaders . . . leaders of the free world, don’t help us today; if you do not strongly help Ukraine, then tomorrow war will knock on your doors,” Zelensky said in an address to his battered nation.

The 27-member European Union unleashed major sanctions against Russia, Putin, his foreign minister and his oligarchs after the Ukrainian leader punched in to their virtual meeting the night of the invasion from Kyiv and pleaded for five minutes for help for his besieged nation, The Washington Post reported Sunday. He asked for food, ammunition, fuel and sanctions, it said.

“It was extremely, extremely emotional,” said a European official briefed on the call, the paper reported. “He was essentially saying: ‘Look, we are here dying for European ideals.’”

Europe came through like the cavalry, albeit unarmed but seemingly more united than ever, pledging more than $500 million for weapons and other supplies to Ukraine. About 100,000 people at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate protested the Russian invasion Sunday and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a major jump in defense spending. He wants to double it from last year to $110 billion, the Post reported.

“Putin wants to establish a Russian empire,” Scholz told parliament Sunday.

Whether Putin will be able to follow through on his desires may well depend on the extent of free Europe’s backlash to his disregard of Ukraine’s sovereignty, which so far seems to be unusually severe. Germany in particular, since its reunification in 1990, has developed a rare case of ensuring Russia’s containment.

It generally has been reticent to get involved in other country’s problems.

“For the first time ever, the European Union will finance the purchase and delivery of weapons and other equipment to a country that is under attack,” the Post quoted European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen Sunday. “This is a watershed moment.”

That’s for sure.

But despite Europe’s willingness to rush aid to Ukraine, the absence of a three musketeers-like “all for one, one for all” unity was a glaring omission because the country’s lack of membership in NATO means the alliance cannot help the Ukrainians militarily. Ukraine long has wanted to join NATO.

If Putin hadn’t realized before that his military strike against a democratic state marked a huge error of judgment in underestimating European unity, he probably does now. There’s nothing better in geopolitics than unity of purpose.

Washington reportedly has urged Zelensky to get out of Kyiv and is prepared to extract the president from his wounded country, its cities and civilians mercilessly under attack with missiles, aircraft, artillery and armored vehicles. He has said more than once he’s a target of assassination. The Russians apparently seek to decapitate the Ukrainian leadership in order to install a puppet government.

But Zelensky stubbornly refused to exit, like a captain at the helm ready to go down with his stricken ship. His people branded him a hero.

The Ukrainians, civilians included, bravely have been resisting against tremendous odds, slowing the Russian advance on Kyiv, situated in north-central Ukraine about 140 miles south of the border with pro-Putin Belarus. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said an estimated 368,000 Ukrainians, most of them women and children, have fled to neighboring countries.

In a statement on Twitter, the Ukrainian Embassy in London said America made an “evacuation offer” to Zelensky but that his response was, “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.”

Sounds like some heroes of the American Revolution.

Just the opposite of Trump, who with his wife and young son scooted to the White House bunker to escape demonstrators in the streets of Washington. A profile in cowardice.

Trump and some of his worshipping acolytes like Tucker Carlson at Fox “News” praised Putin for his offensive against Ukraine, with the former president calling him a “genius,” “savvy” and “smart.” If Trump were still in power, rest assured he would shrug off the Russian invasion and would ignore NATO and European Union efforts to save a democracy. He couldn’t stop praising Putin as president.

The length of the war may depend on how long Ukraine can hold out. Can it pull off a semblance of Britain’s darkest hour and survive alone against Russia in the way London did during the Blitz in the face of a Nazi onslaught that included the alarmingly rapid fall of France in 1940?

The United States and its NATO allies have been sending arms and ammunition to Ukraine and troops to other former Soviet bloc countries who are members of the 30-member Western alliance to deter Russia from attacking them. But they have vowed not to send forces to Ukraine.

This isn’t the first war in Europe since the Balkans erupted in flames in the 1990s and the two world wars together killed tens of millions of people. But this is the first major conflict on the heavily scarred continent started by a first-rate nuclear power, a rival of America’s since the end of World War II.

Nearly a year after that horrific war ended in Europe May 8, 1945, Winston Churchill, the wartime British prime minister, declared at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., March 6, 1946 that the Soviet Union had dropped an Iron Curtain over Eastern Europe, spreading communism throughout the region and launching the Cold War.

Churchill chose just the right venue for his speech. Missouri was the home state of then-President Harry S. Truman.

It’s just as well America doesn’t confront Russia militarily. This war between Slavic brothers who read and write in Cyrillic is not a counterinsurgency or a low-level fight against terrorism; Russia is not the Taliban.

A nuclear war between two superpowers would mean game over for all of us.


Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East and was foreign editor of United Press International, served as the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.