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Zelensky Has Become More Than a Man
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1. Lawrence Freedman
One of the main reasons why wars can turn out badly, even when they have been launched with confidence, is underestimation of the enemy. The sort of optimism bias that leads to predictions of early victory depends on assumptions of a decadent and witless opponent, ready to capitulate at the first whiff of danger. . . .
Coupled with an underestimation of enemy forces can come an overestimation of one’s own. Putin has by and large done well from his wars. He gained the Presidency in 2000 using the Second Chechen War to demonstrate his leadership qualities. He bloodied Georgia in 2008 to warn it off joining NATO and eliminating the separatist enclaves Russia had already established there. He extracted Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and more recently successfully supported Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war. Yet his most recent military enterprises have not involved substantial ground forces being deployed. In Ukraine the operations, including the annexation of Crimea, were largely run by special forces, along with the militias recruited by the separatists in the Donbas. Only briefly, when the separatists looked like they might be defeated in the summer of 2014 did Putin send in regular forces, who routed the unprepared and still amateurish Ukrainian units. In Syria the Russians provided the airpower but not the infantry. . . .
The most important example of this from yesterday was the battle for Hostomel, an airport close to Kyiv, which the Russian tried to take with heliborne troops. If this airport had been taken quickly then the Russians could fly in troops who could then move quickly into Kyiv. But this was a gamble because without backup they were in an exposed position. The Ukrainians shot down several of the helicopters and then in a fierce battle overwhelmed the Russian forces. It is telling that after months of planning for this whole operation, in which every step has been carefully scripted, that the planners decided to attempt something so high risk on the first day.
One of the aspects of the conflict Freedman discusses is the importance of the Ukrainian resistance. Because the stronger their fighting spirit, the harder it becomes for the West to abandon them:
We now know that the Ukrainians are serious about defending their country and are resilient. They have not been rolled over. A quick fait accompli would have helped Putin a lot. For example, the design and implementation of Western sanctions would have felt very different if it was against the backdrop of Russia apparently walking over Ukraine. It would have provided the opponents of anything too punitive with an argument that while what happened to Ukraine was a tragedy it was a situation about which little could be done, and so expensive gestures were pointless.
Freedman also talks about the fate of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. On Friday night (local time) Zelensky appeared in a video, from Kyiv, insisting that he planned to stay and fight.
He declined an offer of evacuation from the United States. Ukrainian forces held Kyiv into Saturday morning and Zelensky emerged onto the streets of the capital, walking with his countrymen. This is a level of personal bravery that we are utterly unaccustomed to seeing from heads of state.2 Zelensky’s conduct over the last few weeks—which has been utterly extraordinary—has substantially buttressed Ukraine’s resolve. He has become more than a man. More than a leader. He has become a symbol.
What we are witnessing is the emergence of a figure who will become a key part of Ukrainian history for the next century. There will be statues of him all over the country. Ukrainians will name their children after him. This is like watching another country’s Washington or Churchill emerge in real time.
I hope we all appreciate how special this is. And how rare. Because normally when world-historical figures emerge, it’s because they’re bad guys.
But at some point he may have to make a judgment about how his life best serves his country. Is it more important that he stay alive to lead? Even if he has to eventually leave Kyiv? Or would sacrificing himself to the Russians make the symbol even more powerful?
It is hateful to talk this way about a man because it is important to remember that Volodymyr Zelensky is not just a symbol. He’s a real person. He’s 44 years old. He’s married. He has two children, one of whom is not yet 10.
But from here on in, history has its eye on him. This is a tremendous privilege but also an unimaginable burden.
May God protect this man and the Ukrainian people.3
2. Full Stack Economics
“Sanctions” is a more complicated subject than it looks. People tend to think of sanctions as a button to be pushed that automatically hurts the bad guy.
That’s not the right frame.
Instead, think of sanctions like using chemotherapy in the treatment of cancer. Chemo hurts malignant cells; but also hurts healthy cells. The goal of chemo treatment is to kill the cancer before the chemo kills the patient. And sometimes the cancer responds to the chemo. But sometimes it doesn’t.
This is an abstract analogy, but you get the idea. Over at Full Stack Economics, Alan Cole has a more technical explanation:
Normally, voluntary trade is good for both sides of a transaction because they each receive something that’s more valuable to them than what they gave away. This is known as consumer surplus, if you’re buying something you like at a favorable price, or producer surplus, if you’re selling something for a profit.
If you impose sanctions, you are sacrificing some of your own surplus to eliminate your target’s surplus. It’s not necessarily a great deal, but it can be less costly than a military intervention.
The rest of Cole’s piece explains why the new round of NATO sanctions against Putin were not as aggressive as they could have been. Short version: It’s not because we were trying to go easy on Putin; it’s because we’re trying to not take on more pain for ourselves than our political will can handle:
The problem with damaging Russia’s access to the international banking system is that the Russian economy uses that banking system in large part to export energy. And the White House has been very clear: it does not want to harm global energy markets.
“We’ve intentionally scoped our sanctions to deliver severe impact on the Russian economy while minimizing the cost to the U.S. as well as her allies and partners,” said Daleep Singh, a deputy National Security Advisor and deputy director of the National Economic Council in a press conference yesterday. “To be clear, our sanctions are not designed to cause any disruption to the current flow of energy from Russia to the world.”
And this is the catch: the Treasury was required to put a big loophole in what otherwise would have been a very successful financial dragnet. . . .
Western citizens have effectively placed impossible constraints on their governments. They want to respond to the invasion, but they don’t want military intervention, and they aren’t willing to take on the economic pain of a more effective sanctions regime. Working within those impossible constraints, I think the Treasury is doing about as well as can be expected.
Fwiw, I think Biden has made the correct calculation.
No sanctions—not even the hardest of hard-core—are going to depose Putin. Sanctions cannot win the war.
But they can lose the war. Because in order for winning to be even possible, we need two things:
These are absolutely essential preconditions. If you have make sacrifices on the sanctions package in order to hold these together, then so be. Because a more robust sanctions regime which, say, alienates the Germans and saps their resolve—or helps elect a president who believes Putin is a “genius”—would be fatal to NATO’s objectives.
If we can build more NATO consensus and rally the public in this cause, then by all means, keep ratcheting the sanctions up. But also understand that they are one tool in our kit and are cannot solve the problem without the use of other mechanisms in concert.
At some point, soon, we are going to have to put more troops in front-line NATO countries and probably expand NATO, too.
3. Noah Smith
I love Noah Smith, but he had been lulled into a false sense of hope after the Macron-Putin summit. So the war hit him pretty hard and his piece on what he calls the world’s “moment of clarity” should be required reading for those who thought that war between great powers was obsolete:
The law of the jungle has returned, and the strong will dominate the weak if they see fit.
This will have several ripple effects. First, it will dramatically increase the incentives for nuclear proliferation — recall that Ukraine gave up its nukes in 1994 in return for a (worthless) guarantee of security from the Russian Federation. Countries whose territory is menaced by powerful neighbors — Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and so on — will now be thinking very hard about whether to get nukes of their own.
It will also push countries toward great-power alliance blocs, as in the Cold War (when even most of the so-called “non-aligned” countries really chose sides). Countries in Asia — India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and so on — must now be thinking about drawing closer to the United States in case China should decide to follow Putin’s example. And expect alliances to become more militarized — NATO seems likely to put permanent bases in East European countries like Poland and Romania, lest Putin’s appetite continue to grow.
So the post-WW2 moment — a sort of extended after-party for the world to recover from the great catastrophe of the modern age — is now over. Perhaps it was always destined to end once the generation who lived through it passed on.
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Correction, 9:37 a.m.: Because I am an idiot, I originally called him “Lawrence Freed” and not “Freedman.” Text has been changed accordingly. Sorry.
A political aside: There is a faction in American politics which fetishizes the idea of alpha males and “but he fights.” And weirdly enough, that faction seems to be firmly on Russia’s side in this conflict. If that fetish was really about wanting a leader who “fights” then they would be gobsmacked by Zelensky.
Instead, they worship the soft, flabby draft-dodger who tried to blackmail Zelensky.
Watching Zelensky’s conduct over the last few weeks makes Donald Trump’s attempt to use the power of the United States government to blackmail him even more obscene. Trump is not fit to shine Zelensky’s boots. That Trump’s actions were taken not as a private citizen, but as the American head of state should make all of us deeply ashamed.
Also the brave Russians protesting Putin’s war. And even the unfortunate conscripts who have been sent to do Putin’s bidding. The Russians are a great and wonderful people who are, once again, being abused by a tyrant.