Victor Davis Hanson
The Ukraine mess is daily looking more like the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939, a meat grinder that took 500,000 lives. That three-year conflict became a savage proxy war and prelude for the belligerents of World War II.
The Ukraine battlefield is proving a similar laboratory of death. New lethal weaponry and tactics are introduced, modified—and always improved—from drones to guided missiles to internet-fed artillery.
Likewise, a similar pre-global war lineup of the eventual adversaries is emerging in preview of a much larger, much scarier war to come.
The first mission of Ukraine, the aggrieved victim of a peremptory Russian attack, was simple survival.
But now that it has been armed to the teeth and its soldiers proved far more capable and heroic than Putin’s once-feared Russia, Kyiv now seeks to push back Russians to their 2014 Ukrainian acquired borders.
Next President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has announced that the third stage will be to eject every Russian from 2013 Ukraine. He promises to reabsorb both the Crimea and the Donbas.
That is an ambitious goal that might require preemptive attacks inside Russia and on the Black Sea.
To accomplish the last two missions, Zelenskyy needs a blank check of support from a United States that can neither control its own borders nor maintain its critical infrastructure and is $33 trillion in debt.
Americans are not only to supply the money and arms to fuel Zelenskyy’s counteroffensives, but to sign onto a dangerous anti-Russian agenda that is not necessarily synonymous with one that is in the best interests of the United States.
As far as Russia goes, Vladimir Putin knows his attack was a costly mistake. It was predicated on the assumption that an appeasing, doddering Biden and a U.S. military humiliated in Afghanistan would always remain passive.
Yet Putin still believes that his blunder will not have been a fatal one if he can still destroy much of Eastern Ukraine, institutionalize what he gained in 2014, fracture NATO, propagandize the war as an existential cause of saving Mother Russia from a corrupt West, and reconfigure a new alliance with China, Iran, North Korea, and perhaps Turkey and India.
As far as the United States goes, the Biden Administration sees America’s interest as largely defined by a proxy war to defang Russia. To paraphrase, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, America will pour limitless arms into Ukraine to so weaken Russia that it will have to stay within its current borders.
Washington blithely dismisses all of Putin’s existential threats as empty nuclear saber-rattling—on the Pentagon’s assurance that wounded, cornered, and growling tigers can always be assumed to remain predictably docile.
Biden, whose family influence-peddled with Kyiv for a decade, has radically reversed his initial course. No longer is Biden offering a free ride out of Dodge for Zelenskyy or dismissing any worry over a “minor” Russian invasion.
Biden instead now sees saving Ukraine and punishing Russia as his one shot at a redeeming accomplishment for an otherwise failed administration.
The once-pacifist American Left has embraced Ukraine as its “I told you so” proof that Vladimir Putin was really the monster that it could not find guilty in its various Russian collusion concoctions and laptop disinformation hoaxes.
The NATO nations are acting uncharacteristically defiant given the war is on their borders. They rightly fear a victorious Putin would be vengeful and not satiated.
Yet their “you go first” shipment of hodgepodge weapons to Ukraine, as well as their embarrassment over their past suicidal energy polices and slow-motion disarmament, remind us that Europeans in NATO before the war could not keep the Russians out, the Americans in, or the Germans down.
China believes it can be the real winner of the war. Its rivals and enemies are weakened the longer the war continues. The West is depleting its arsenals. It is tiring of the cost. Rival Russia is bleeding, selling Beijing cheap oil and begging for its weapons.
Neither Europe nor America, China believes, will want to repeat another proxy war—say, one over Taiwan—against a nuclear power with far more leverage over the West and far greater wherewithal on the battlefield.
Iran is selling drones to Russia. Tehran expects a desperate Putin to sell it all the enriched uranium it needs, prevent a preemptive strike on Tehran, and end Moscow’s Syrian wink-and-nod policy with Israel.
India, like Turkey, likes newfound cheap Russian oil. It feels a proximate Russia and China are better entertained than a distant and provocative, but increasingly internally divided and weakened, United States.
Turkey is suddenly booming with cheap oil and a big arms appetite from Russia. It feels rich and illiberal China and Russia both fear Turkey’s export of Islamism and seem better allies than the loud-talking but declining West.
North Korea sees only positives in Western distraction in Ukraine. It counts that its nuclear recklessness is seen as a valuable irritant by both Russia and China.
The longer this preview war goes on, the surer will follow the nightmarish main attraction.
43 thoughts on “The Ukraine War’s Prelude to What?”
There are two wars here. A shooting war and a propaganda war. Mr. Hanson is a top military historian. But not immune to the propaganda. The most glaring omission in this article is any mention of the Nordstream pipeline bombing. It is likewise absent from Fox News and as would be expected all other Western media. Only the U.S. had the means and motive to destroy the critical energy infrastructure of NATO ally Germany. Both Joe Biden and Victoria Nuland announced the intention of the U.S. to ‘stop’ Nordstream. Despite weak denials from the White House, there is no sensible explanation that points to any other country as the suspect. This international terrorism, an act of war against a NATO ally ought to have triggered Article 5 of the NATO treaty. Though it was never expected that the aggression would come from one NATO member toward another. The silence of all of the heads of NATO nations as well as the U.S. Congress on the bombings is deafening. What did Congress and Olaf Scholz know about the operation and when did they know it. The Biden Regime has put the lie to the constantly repeated tropes of alleged ‘unprovoked aggression’ of Russia. The West and the press also conveniently ignore agreed terms of German re-unification and the Minsk agreements, that Ukraine would not be enticed to join NATO. Also forgotten is the U.S. led removal of a pro-Russian government in Ukraine and its’ replacement with a U.S. puppet. And ethnic cleansing of Russians in Donbass.
In all honesty, the reason everyone is keeping mum about Nord Stream may be that the 3 investigating nations can’t reach a solid conclusion yet and everyone is scared stiff of the consequences no matter who the culprit is.
You are absolutely correct, James.
Your view of history and what that history might mean seem based on a World view that things don’t change. You can only support your speculation by egregious selection of your ‘facts ‘.
The U.S. hands are anything but clean in Ukraine since at least 2014. Joe Biden and his son are personally involved in Ukraine corruption. Ukraine is notorious as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. The great vaunted war hero Zelensky is personally mired in Ukraine’s corruption. Ukraine never had any chance to defeat Russia by military force. It was suicidal for Zelensky to respond to Russia’s demands with force rather than at the negotiating table. After one year or war, half of Ukraine’s forces are dead and the remaining half will certainly not last another year. Zelensky gambled that he could drag NATO or the U.S. into WW3. The only correct decision that the Biden Regime has made in two years has been to keep U.S. forces out of the conflict. Biden would require an act of war by Congress and probably knows that he would be unlikely to get that. This war was provoked by the U.S. and is being conducted to prevent cheap Russian gas from being sold in Europe. The pipeline bombing act speaks far louder than any of feeble Joe Biden’s hollow words. Or his childish insults directed at Putin. He’s no Corn-Pop. As in WW1, the world has been swept up in jingoism and war fever. A collective amnesia that war with another nuclear power can only end in Armageddon. These are the wages of governments and a ‘free’ press lying directly to the faces of their own citizens. Adults ought to have more sense and must wake up if we are to survive this era of insanity.
Again, absolutely correct.
The only place I’ve seen these arguments made is in the Russian news and from Russians on Quora. Where are you getting your information from (sincere question)? What makes you so adamant that Victor, whose position on Ukraine I would think you would at least see as “mostly right”, has bought the blue pill? Where are you getting your red pill, so we can read and see the issue clearly?
With no intent to offend you, your comment seems akin to McCarthyite-like red-baiting. A person makes statements, which I believe are entirely accurate, and this is how your respond? If you are interested in the subject and want to educate yourself, start with the late Professor Stephen Cohen’s book titled, “War With Russia …” (Don’t buy the book with a similar title.) Mr. White’s views have nothing to do with juvenile “red or blue pills” or, hysterically, Quora. He has the intellectual rigor to see beyond Western propaganda. That said, there is an avalanche of non-Russian Western sources that speak to Mr. White’s points, including Mr. Cohen. Most have been red-baited with McCarthyite libel like, I believe, you attempted here. It’s disgusting. My apologies if I am incorrect.
No prob! This is a long-standing argument that involves refusal to cite sources. (Hence the overblown rhetoric using conspiracy theorist language)I have no problem with drawing from the sources you recommend.
Don’t forget that Turkey is reeling from a massive earthquake and its aftershock, putting it at the mercy of foreign aid. Its destabilized neighbor, Syria, has been hit even worse. The CCP is reeling from a wave of Covid deaths and economic crisis and Xi proved he was no Deng Xiaoping when the protesters showed up. India has been in the Russian orbit since the Cold War and will still take years to forgive the US over Pakistan. On the other hand, India and China are headed for a collision over territory and political and economic competition. If the future is bleak for the US, it is just as bleak for our frenemies and enemies.
Managing adversity & fatalities is a function of 2 variables. Relative material prosperity and political system. The objective realities strongly tell us that an affluent democracy is the most difficult environment to manage. Therefore i take no solace in the prospect of being the “one eyed man in the land of the blind ” The sooner that a peace plan or a cease fire based on a 2 state solution is negotiated the better for everyone. The USA, NATO, Russia & Ukraine. Except the CCP.
By “2 state solution,” do you mean a partition of Ukraine into 2 or more separate countries like Israel and Palestine?
I don’t think Russia is as in dire straights as you describe. In my albeit stupid opinion, it seems that they have been very methodical and measured. For instance, there is still a “Keeeeve” aka Kiev for Biden to safely visit. I may be wrong, but doesn’t Russia have a 1st world air force, yet for some reason they have not used it in total? Wouldn’t a beaten down and under-strain Putin use all means outside of nuclear to flatten Ukraine? Or like Sherman, does Putin know that taking a capitol means nothing compared to leaving that capital with no army left to fight for it?
I think that Ukraine has just enough of an airforce and anti-aircraft capacity that Russia can’t achieve the air superiority it would need to level Kyiv etc. I think we’re also seeing that corruption and graft have gutted Russia’s airforce as much as the rest of its military. Also, I don’t want to talk past each other, but the rape, massacre and pillage certainly isn’t holding back. Are we including that in this comment or are we focusing only on traditional military actions?
Good possible assessment regarding Russian air power. However, I think it best to leave the “rape” and “massacre” comments alone, as I have seen multiple instances of Azov battalion activities and atrocities as well. War is hell, is it not? That’s why we should be pursuing peace.
Um…. No possible equivalence between the two in terms of scale, brutality, official sanction, and verification by outside authorities. No equivalence at all.
Ukraine has almost no air force left. Its fighters were Soviet-era. It did little to add to that fighter force after its liberation from the USSR. It’s anti-aircraft potential may keep Russian jets from flying, but why fly jets, when much less expensive drones, Iskander missiles and Kalib cruise missiles, etc. can do the job?
My apologies, but your comment about Ukraine’s air force shows you are not up to speed on Ukraine, its air potential, etc. The fact that Russia has eliminated most Soviet-era tanks, aircraft and other armor and fighting vehicles is widely discussed in non-Russian Western media. It is why the West is now supplying its own armored vehicles and tanks to Ukraine in its proxy war against Russia.
Oh I keep up Glenn, and you’re the one doing the baiting. Now, cite your source or go home.
I’m more of the Boris Johnson persuasion (see, for example, his reasoned appeal in this morning’s (Feb. 23, 2023) WSJ. Would love to hear your critique of Boris Johnson’s argument.
Mr. Gibbs, if you refer to the article with Boris Johnson and Lindsey Graham, I would suggest instead any youtube video or podcast from John J. Mearshiemer, Col. Douglas MacGregor, Jeffrey Sachs or Scott Ritter. Johnson and Graham completely ignore the legitimate Russian interests that have long been abused by the U.S. and NATO. The U.S. sent the CIA to destabilize the former pro-Russian government in Ukraine and installed a puppet in 2014. Russia offered to join NATO and was refused. The purpose of the Ukraine war is to prevent Russia from selling cheap gas in Europe. The U.S. and NATO have over 100 nuclear warheads in Europe pointed directly at Russia only. The U.S. would not permit equivalent missile silos in Cuba, let alone Mexico or Canada. Escalating the Ukraine war risks nuclear annihilation of the planet. That is what Boris Johnson and Lindsey Graham are willing to risk, and for nothing of any value or importance to the U.S. For Russia, it is rationally recognized as a matter of survival. That is existential. A country doesn’t issue ultimatums to another nuclear powered country, without being suicidal or just lacking any common sense.
Thanks for citing sources so we can take in the expanded form of your argument and the broader supporting data.
Mearsheimer, Macgregor, and Sachs are heavy hitters (UofChicago, Trump admin, Columbia) and Sach’s work for the UN helps balance Macgregor’s Bucchananism. Ritter has been out of it since Desert Storm and is a convicted pedophile.
All the fellows on this list are staunch “no foriegn wars” and “No MIC” types, so they’re going to be cynical about ANY foreign war from the start. Sachs is also a crony of the CCP (Putin’s Ally) and Bucchananists, like Macgregor, never met a Jew they liked or a fascist they didn’t.
Nonetheless, if you’re already reading mainstream supporters of the US support for Ukraine, this list seems like it would provide better balance than Tucker and Bannon.
John, I second that.
China snd the U.S. have a symbiotic relationship. One cannot survive without the other, economically speaking. The rise of China as a world power is directly tied to its economic growth and success over the past 30 years. And they owe that success primarily to the U.S. Why would they risk mortally wounding the goose that laid the golden egg? China has already suffered economically from Covid-related trade and supply chain disruptions. What further damage would a heightened military conflict involving the U.S. do?
I think VDH’s theory that China is exhausting the U.S. and depleting it’s arsenals so they won’t have the will or the means to prevent them from taking Taiwan is correct. Besides, China could weaken America and bring it to its knees without risking military involvement. They own most of our debt and could pull the rug out from under the U.S. dollar at any time. There’s more than one way to skin a cat.
There is an old saying in the banking business. When you owe the bank $10,000, they are your banker. When you owe the bank a billion dollars, they are your partner. The ability of holders of debt to bring down anyone is not a given by any stretch. What you are forgetting is that the debt is, of course, a liability, but for the Chinese and Japanese, for example, it’s an asset. These governments would have to take write-downs of epic proportions if they refuse to roll the debt over. And this, in turn, would likely have a significant adverse effect on these countries both financially and economically.
The other thing that you are also losing sight of is, in my opinion, something that seems to have disappeared from economics conversations these days. A weak currency has the effect of making US-made products (goods and services) in world markets more competitive. That’s why the Chinese keep the value of the RMB down. A weak dollar and any improvement in US productivity would likely be of benefit to US exporters and would make Chinese goods more expensive (imports). The problem is that increasing the cost of Chinese goods short-term is not politically palatable, but it would certainly help to reduce the reliance on Chinese imports over the medium to long term. There is nothing magical about a strong currency, just ask the Chinese. It’s more ego than economics.
Your guess is as good as mine. Probably better. I see this war having similar miltarty and (I hope I am dead wrong) political circumstances as Desert Storm. The parallel is the end point; a terrific success in achieving military objectives and an utter disaster in the political sphere. Desert Storm basically created a political vacuum in Iraq that only served interests hostile to the West. If the military goal of neutering Russia is successful I cannot imagine the racial, religious and ethnic demons that could spring to life. And a xenophobic, siege mentality population that has always been distrustful of the West who also possess the largest nuclear arsenal in the world in extremis. What could possibly go wrong?
This is what happens when Leftists are in power. They do not understand international politics, because they do not understand human nature. It is a dire mistake to let them at the levers of power.
We should have never helped Ukraine. It is not our war, and we have no vested interest. When Crimea occurred in 2014, no one, no press, no democrats, no one complained. Yet, we continued to push and push to get Ukraine into NATO, EU,or both. We promised Putin in the 90s that we would not push Ukraine into NATO. Putin warned the world it would be an existential threat. yet we pushed, and we poked. This was is our (U.S. and the West) fault. This policy of Biden and the Military Industrial Complex is wrong, and needs to stop . (And I am no Putin fan. we would never accept China troops in Mexico at our border. We must realize that Putin feels the same about NATO troops in Ukraine.)
Blame America First?
Yes, the Ukrainian forces have been brave and stoic, but receiving new and advanced weapons effectively on the battlefield is not an automatic change in capability. What’s the US and NATO plan if the superior number of Russian forces breaks through the Ukrainian lines and marches on Kiev?
Do we put US and NATO war planes in the air over Ukraine? Insert US and NATO special forces?
Victor is right, this is similar to Spain in the 1930’s and China is counting on the West to be obsessed with Europe as China creates their own Greater East Asia Prosperity Sphere.
The Russian Federation doesn’t have the man-power for a breakthrough: see the latest Institute For the Study of War modeling.
Everyone tells us that China is a mighty power, has a huge navy, and could easily take Taiwan. Stop the oil tankers going to China and its economy and government will crumble inside 30 days. China’s navy is extremely limited and they are not blue water sailors. Taiwan is 7 or 8 hours from the mainland by military landing craft and they don’t have even enough of them to start an invasion. As for Russia, they, the Chinese, and the Ukrainians are aging so fast as populations and their birth rates so far below replacement that by the end of this century Russia and the Ukraine will become little more than memories and China will be lucky to be a third of its size in population, most of it old people. One might call this Russia-Ukraine war assisted suicide with the US doing the assisting.
It appears to me that Biden’s exceptionally large ego may now be driving the war in hopes that his legacy will show how he punished Russia to make up of for his failed Administration. America is playing with FIRE and leading the free world down a dismal path. As the months go by, the balance of power in the world is becoming more out of wack inviting opportunist nations to increase their status on the world stage while America depletes her war stock piles and fuel reserves.
I don’t know. If that’s Biden’s goal, why didn’t he play up the war in the State of the Union and why is he notoriously slow-walking promised aid? He’s also been a lifelong non-interventionist. I would speculate (key word SPECULATE) That his aides shoved him off to Kyiv to counter the recent press about his feet dragging with promised aid.
Agree entirely Mr. Bowers. We are risking nuclear annihilation to only to save face for feeble Joe Biden and the other obsequious NATO heads of state. NATO all fell in behind the U.S. on our idiotic Ukraine meddling and foreign policy. The Biden Regime has hit the trifecta of isolating the U.S. in the tri-polar world we live in while antagonizing both of the other two world powers and bringing them closer together. The best part is that we have no actual strategy in the proxy war we are now fighting with Russia. Only DEFSEC Lloyd Austin’s vague notion of ‘weakening Russia.’ The Powell Doctrine states that a list of questions all have to be answered affirmatively before military action is taken by the United States:
Is a vital national security interest threatened? NO.
Do we have a clear attainable objective? NONE
Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed? Apparently not.
Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted? Definitely not.
Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement? NONE.
Have the consequences of our action been fully considered? Not in the least.
Is the action supported by the American people? less then 50% and falling.
Do we have genuine broad international support? NO Despite Biden’s brag that he has united the world against Russia. Only Europe is on board and they have no choice.
Ok. But isn’t the counter argument that we will be facing nuclear annihilation again when Putin consolidates Ukraine and Belarus and invades Poland? Putin and other members of the Russian government have again and again asserted their “divine right” to all the lands of the former Soviet Union and old Imperial Russia. As long as Putin and those who think like him are in control of a Russian Federation with sufficient resources, they will seek to re-take “Holy and Indivisible Rus” no matter what we do.
spot on… unfortunately…
Mind reading isn’t a thing. You have no idea what Putin thinks.
Agree that no one is a mind reader. We do, however have the texts of speeches this week given by both Biden and Putin. Of course, Biden’s speech was written by a speechwriter and edited by his handlers. Putin probably got at least some feedback on his speech from people on his team. Putin’s speech has been translated into English. Comparing the two, one leader articulates his plans and the reasons for them in clear, rational terms. The other hurls personal insults and attempts to appeal to an emotional response in his audience. One speech appeals to reason, the other to theatrics. It is not possible to read the mind of either speaker. But their words are now a matter of public record and can be evaluated for content by anyone willing to read them.
Welcome to the Left’s/Obama’s Viet Nam “quagmire”, as facilitated by a morally, mentally, and ethically vacant Joe Biden et al. Susan Rice and the rest of the Obama 3.0 puppetmasters in the WH and State Dept didn’t account for the determined venality of the Biden crime cabal, and could not control it ultimately. The result?: the Ukrainian quagmire – including a very reluctant NATO – and unending and escalating conflict with a world power (with nukes) led by another mentally incompetent and lethal tyrant. WELCOME TO THE WORLD OF THE LEFTIST UTOPIAN HEGEMONY – compliments of every single democrat/Marxist/leftist/Communist you know and have ever met.
Reluctant NATO? Tell that to England, the Baltics and Poland! Sweden and Fortress Finland don’t seem to think NATO is weak. The reluctant ones are Hungary and Turkey and they have internal political reasons to grandstand (illiberal democracy and all that). France and Germany are only tepid to the degree that they’re trying to protect their economies and weapons stashes in case this business goes south. The Germans are also doing things on the diplomatic front -not all aid comes in the form of guns. Other non-NATO countries are chipping in too, don’t forget. Did we mention the UN resolutions?
Certainly a NATO reawakening after the drawdown and disarmament post Cold War period_1991.
The organization has every right to a defensible boarder while the US included materially provides UKR security by contract.
A discount of the Cold War is on sale right along side that of the Second World Wars(WWII.)
Apparently another genocidal sociopath gets way in over his head on a historically familiar and grand scale.
Do you know who Joe Biden reminds me of? Mr. Magoo!