This weekend, I listened to CNN tough guy Jim Acosta use his entire broadcast to ask a series of guests why the United States was not doing more to support Ukraine on the battlefield, including a no-fly zone.
Democrat tough guys Leon Panetta (Obama-era CIA chief and Defense Secretary) and James Clapper (Obama-era NSA chief who ran the metadata spying operation on US citizens) said that a no-fly zone “should not be taken off the table”.
Yesterday, tough guy Sen. Joe Manchin said that a no-fly zone “should not be taken off the table.” Hmm. What a novel choice of words.
Also yesterday, tough guy Adm. Jim Stavridis (Obama-era NATO head and current Vice Chair of the Carlyle Group) said “not yet” to a US-imposed no-fly zone, but that the US should provide Ukraine with everything necessary “to create their own no-fly zone”. Whatever that means.
Actually, of course, it means that we should get frontline NATO member Poland to engage militarily in the war by sending fighters to Ukraine and then “backfill” Poland with new fighters. “Backfill” is a favorite word of tough guys these days.
Four days ago, Fox News tough guy Sean Hannity said that NATO should bomb the Russian tank column near Kyiv, but not “take credit” for the attack because then Putin “wouldn’t know who to retaliate against”. I am not making this up.
Two days ago, noted Republican tough guy and five-time draft deferment recipient Donald Trump told bizarro golfer tough guy John Daly that he promised Putin that he would “hit Moscow” if he invaded Ukraine. These are separate comments from Trump’s “joke” to donors that the US could trick Russia into thinking that repainted F-22s could be Chinese bombers. I am not making this up, either.
Yesterday, tough guy Sen. Lindsey Graham called for the assassination of Putin, and tough guy Gov. Ron DeSantis called Putin “an authoritarian gas station attendant with old nukes.” Old nukes. No prob.
But, hey, a no-fly zone and NATO military escalation polls well!
Just be sure that you make clear you are opposed to those dreaded “boots on the ground”. No, no, can’t have that. And why should we, when we can have a videogame war of drone strikes and bloodless no-fly zones? Anything less would be “appeasement”, because Putin “only understands strength”.
Using NATO to escalate a shooting war with Russia – either directly through a no-fly zone or indirectly through a Polish cut-out and NATO “backfill” – is not strength.
NATO involvement in Ukraine is a tough-sounding policy designed for domestic political consumption that makes it harder to win this war.
NATO involvement in Ukraine is the only thing that can save Putin over the long slog of Ukrainian occupation and the forced closing of the Russian economy.
NATO involvement in Ukraine is the only thing that allows Putin to mobilize Russian public opinion for a wider conflict.
NATO involvement in Ukraine weakens the alliance and puts Poland and the Baltics more at risk.
NATO involvement in Ukraine works directly against US interests, short-term and long-term.
NATO involvement in Ukraine is what can turn this regional tragedy into a global disaster.
Russia is a strategic enemy of the United States. (China is a strategic adversary, Russia is a strategic enemy. There’s a difference.) The United States is at war with Russia – a Cold War that does not ever need to become a Hot War – and we win by demilitarizing and dePutinizing Russia, to turn their avowed reason for invading Ukraine on its head.
Escalating the military conflict in Ukraine through NATO instruments is exactly what Putin hopes we will do. It is exactly the path for failure in our war goals – to demilitarize and dePutinize Russia – as it is exactly the path by which Putin cements domestic political support for his regime.
Like all effective political art, the message is crystal-clear: murderous Uncle Sam and his NATO suitcase of horrors have knocked on the wrong door this time! Is the cartoon bullshit? Of course it’s bullshit! So what? This IS the mainstream, state-sponsored narrative reality in Russia today, and there are no avenues for the US to change that narrative reality in the short-term. Worse, going through that Ukraine door to fight that bear makes the narrative reality that much stronger, that much more difficult to replace with a narrative reality that is hostile to Putin and Russia’s permanent war-footing.
What is that alternative narrative reality?
- It is the resolve and bravery of the Ukrainian people as they fight the invader and tell their story in a way that captures the heart and mind of anyone who sees it.
- It is the imagery of wanton civilian destruction and the obvious lie it gives to the Kremlin’s pretext for war.
- It is the constant drain of occupation, where every quisling mayor the Russians prop up will be met with 10,000 small acts of resistance and derision.
- But most of all, it is the absence of a NATO attacker, coupled with the enormous pain of a bloodless closing of the Russian economy.
Putin’s promise of a return to Soviet glory days is widely shared and very popular within Russia precisely because it is presented as a costless birthright of the Russian people. Russia can be a Great Power AND you can be rich! That’s the promise. That’s the beating heart of the militarization and Putinization of Russia.
Well, screw that.
You want to make a play for the old Soviet borders? Fine, you get the old Soviet economy.
Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.
The United States can win this war without risking a nuclear exchange and without endangering our actual NATO allies if we fight it on the battlefields where we have enormous advantages – economics and narrative. On the economic battlefield we continue to weaponize the US dollar and the global payments system. We impoverish the Russian state and the Russian people. Yes, the Russian people, too, not just the oligarchs or Putin’s ‘inner circle’. On the narrative battlefield, we deprive Putin of the power source he craves the most: a visibly combative NATO. We make Putin a liar and we divide the Russian people. You know, like Putin has been trying to do to us.
Is there a bright line on the military battlefield? Yes, the borders of our actual NATO allies. That’s it. Not an inch more, but also not an inch less. Do I think that NATO expansion was a strategic mistake for the United States? Yes, I do. Doesn’t matter now. Water under the bridge. Any Russian aggression in, say, Latvia must be met immediately with overwhelming force. And not just in that Latvian theater. Cross the bright line of NATO borders, and everything short of first nuclear use is fair game.
This is old-fashioned realism for the modern age of network economies and media systems. We play the long game. We win.
And all those tough guys here at home, appropriating the narratives of Ukrainian resolve and resistance for their own political purposes?
Well, screw that, too.