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What You Need to Understand About the Road Ahead
We have stepped into a new future. There are only two pathways forward.
1. The Next Steps
We saw last night what I’ve been warning about for weeks: Putin attacking the whole of Ukraine with the clear goal of regime change plus partial annexation.
Events on the ground in Ukraine will evolve, but I find it difficult to see an outcome that does not end in subjugation. The most likely scenario remains that Russia annexes the territories east of the Dnieper and installs a puppet government—complete with a new, pro-Russian constitution—to control what is left of “Ukraine.”
And regardless of what various dupes and villains have been selling for the last few months, this was always the most likely outcome.
There are a number of discrete policy questions right now, but if you zoom all the way out to the 30,000 foot view, there are really only two options on the table for the West:
We accept Russia’s new European order.
Or we overturn it.
That’s it. That’s the choice.
No one in NATO will ever say that they are accepting the Russia’s new European order. Everyone will condemn this or that, and stand with the Ukrainians, and what have you.1
But at the end of the day, either NATO will draw a hard line and reorient itself, or it will try to get back to normal.
And anything that tries to get back to “normal” is acceptance.
So what would overturning the new order entail? It would include, but not be limited to:
Massive, Iran-level sanctions against Russia and Russia client states (which now includes Belarus and will eventually include a Vichy version of Ukraine).
Targeting of all Russian dirty money circulating in the West.
Refusal of entry into NATO territories of Putin-connected oligarchs and their entourages.
Large-scale buildup of military forces by NATO members made possible by dramatically increased defense spending.
Deployment of NATO troops to all member states that border Russia/Ukraine/Belarus.
Forking European energy policy away from Russian oil and gas supplies.
Preparing for the next non-Treaty member crisis, most likely in Georgia.
Preparing for an Article V crisis, most likely in Latvia, Lithuania, or Estonia.
That’s the minimum ante for the attempt to overturn the new Russian order. And it will require a commitment from the NATO states not of months, but of years.
Which is a particular problem because of the place America is in right now.
2. NATO Has a 2024 Problem
That minimum ante is going to be costly, in every sense. It will mean increased defense spending. It will mean economic hardship (sanctions are like chemotherapy: they hurt you, but hopefully hurt the cancer more). And it will require the expenditure of political capital by leaders in member states.
This project cannot succeed without unity of purpose within NATO. And unity of purpose inside NATO cannot be achieved without American leadership.
America is the indispensable party and building this level of international consensus and commitment would be a heavy lift under even the best circumstances.
But we do not have the best circumstances. We have a circumstance in which there is a reasonable chance that the next American president will be a man who called Putin’s invasion of Ukraine “genius.” Who has sided with Putin against the American intelligence apparatus. And who has talked openly about leaving NATO.
So ask yourself this: How is America supposed to convince the other members of NATO to commit fully to this project when they know that 36 months from now it will be a coin-flip as to whether or not Donald Trump will be president?
A country can only be as assertive abroad as it is cohesive at home.
3. An Unreliable Ally
America has not, at least recently, been in the business of rewarding our friends and punishing our enemies. Kind of the other way about, actually. We may tell another country that we’re with them, but that assurance is always situational. We’re with them unless it costs too much. Or unless our interests change. In the last few years one American president attempted to blackmail the president of Ukraine—a NATO partner—and another abandoned thousands of Afghans who had spent two decades fighting along side us.
By contrast, we have mostly been solicitous of Vladimir Putin, with one president looking into his eyes, another hawking a “reset” button, and a third proffering himself to a degree that bordered on the pornographic:
Here is the most realistic realism you will ever hear: The strong do what they can; the weak do what they must.
I say this not to condemn America’s character, but to impress on you the degree of courage it will take other nations to stand firm and oppose Putin, knowing that American support could evaporate at any minute.
In closing, I want to tell you something I hope President Biden will tell the nation soon:
If we choose to oppose the new Russian order, it will be painful for us. It will hurt our economy. There may be cyber attacks impacting our daily lives. It will cost our government money we do not have. Our military will be deployed to places where they will serve as a tripwire against Putin’s aggression.
The job of patriotic, democracy-loving Americans in this scenario will be comparatively easy. In Ukraine, people are literally being called to pick up guns and fight in the streets:
Think about that, for a moment.
This is not a cosplay militia anti-mask rally. This is a democratically-elected president opening his nation’s armories to every man, woman, and child in order to defend against invasion by a military super-power.
Through no virtue of our own, we are being spared such a terribly hard road.
But we have duties nonetheless.
We owe it to the world to accept the coming hardships with grace and determination.
To be patient with our allies and firm in our commitments.
To recognize that we are engaged in a real and ongoing struggle against a real and dangerous enemy.
Most of all, we owe it to the world to once again be a serious people.
For more coverage of Ukraine, Russia, and the war, join us at Bulwark+.
Excepting for the people who are literally on Putin’s side.