Time for the UN's Close-Up
“There are now hundreds of thousands of forces on heightened alert across the Alliance. One hundred thousand US troops in Europe. And around 40,000 troops under direct NATO command, mostly in the eastern part of the Alliance.”
— NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, March 15, 2022
[Given the gravity of the moment, this column is focused entirely on the narrow military and political context. I do hope that attentive readers will indulge and understand why I regard this as necessary. — BL]
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
Courtesy of Deutsche Welle Akademie. Photo: Tobias Hase
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought the world closer to a devastating nuclear exchange than at any time since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. It is a reality that, stripped to the essentials, we will win through only by clear and direct acknowledgment. There are those who, perhaps correctly, claim that this has been 8 years or more in the making, since Russia’s seizing of the Crimea; but for the most part Putin’s naked aggression has taken the world by surprise. The fact that it has may well be the main reason the international response has been as swift and decisive as it has been, and that condemnation has been so universal. This bodes well, but make no mistake: our global civilization for now rests on the whim of a single man who is demonstrably a maniac. We should be nervous.
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield addresses the
UN Security Council. Photo courtesy of Richard Drew/Associated Press
Having proposed “A 12 Step Program to Remove Putin” last month, I note that the first three steps have in effect now been taken by the international alliance led by the revitalized U.S./NATO partnership. These were the most obvious and easiest steps. With the Russian invasion blunted, Ukrainian blood now flows more dramatically, and the next steps necessarily grow more difficult. I think this path remains quite clear as long as the central assumption is embraced by the international community: that Mr. Putin must be removed from power internally.
To be clear, that goal has never meant that the U.S. and our allies should stand passively by in hopes that this occurs. The massive build-up of weapons supplied to the Ukrainian military and citizen militias may not have gone so far as to include shipments of MIG fighters or declaration of a no fly zone. At least, not yet. But that hardly means the build-up has been too slow or too cautious; in fact, just the opposite is true. Both the economic and military responses have been unprecedented. Some may argue that it still has not been enough, but that is either disingenuous or mere partisan sniping. Anyone suggesting that a Trump administration would have prevented Putin’s invasion, or more absurdly responded with greater “strength,” given the man’s history with Putin (and for that matter Zelenskyy) deserves to be laughed off the stage.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses the U.S. Congress.
Photo courtesy of J. Scott Applewhite-Pool/Getty Images
The wisdom of keeping Polish fighter jets and other arrows in the quiver is that they may negate the further escalations that Putin has available, particularly the use of chemical or biological weapons. This has been a carefully orchestrated process; those urging rapid escalation by the U.S. and our NATO allies — outside of the Ukrainians themselves, who hold sole ownership of such license — are wrong. Planning and response are far better controlled within the geographical constraints thus far established. The risk of a wider war is bumper-stickered as “World War III” for a reason: loss of control over the larger field of engagement.
Putin, as we all know and he has reminded us, holds an ultimate card: the threat of mutually assured destruction. The closer that we edge him into the strategic dead end his misjudgment has led him and Russia to, the more dangerous that eventuality becomes: the sudden and near instantaneous annihilation of the civilization that has taken centuries to build, along with the deaths of hundreds of millions if not the literal extinction of our species. He imagines that such a prospect provides him with the leverage he needs to “win” in the end because even if he is defeated he holds this deterrent. Consider that such monumental consequences can indeed be the product of one man’s narcissism and folly. It sounds ridiculous on the face of it. That does not render it false
Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu (second from left) and his top military commander, General Valery Gerasimov, meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin. Courtesy of the New York Times. Photo: Alexei Nikolsky
This blunt truth is being stated and repeated in various ways by top level officials and responsible media commentators on a daily basis. I serve this reminder to highlight the clear end game that we should be, and that I believe our leadership is, pursuing. To refrain: Putin must be removed from within. This is the event that must take place not merely for this unlawful aggression to be peacefully resolved. The stakes are higher than that. For all the differences, the moral clarity is as demonstrable as it was nearly a century ago.
U.S. intelligence has it that Putin already removed some of his top generals and placed at least one close advisor under house arrest. One of the original architects of Russia’s economic transition during the 1990s, and until yesterday the presidential envoy on sustainable development, Anatoly Chubais, resigned his post and left the country. Our news media has reported the death in the field of at least five of his top generals. These developments are positive indicators that Putin is gradually losing an internal war of attrition. A purge and the placement of top-level military commanders in harm’s way is attributable at least in part to the man’s paranoia and incompetence. As Putin’s war continues there will be an increasing number of his military and political inner circle who conclude that removing Putin is the only choice short of going down with him or by his increasingly unsteady hand. If Putin’s Nero Decree moment does arrive, everything depends on there being, individually or as a group, an Albert Speer standing in the way. My “12 Steps” presume an allied strategy rooted in the assumption that this moment is being planned for, though we must prefer that the moment of Putin’s removal arrives sooner than upon the issuance of the launch order.
Smoke rises after shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine.
Photo courtesy of Evgenly Maloletka/Associated Press
The inherent risk of this strategy is that Putin will leap to that moment prematurely. Seeing the writing on the wall, he may not wait for the forces aligned to remove him to come together. But this is the very reason that calls for MIG shipments and no fly zones are not being heeded; not for now. Our leadership, I am supposing, very much understands that Putin must not be given reason to take that leap for as long as possible. These are, together with the sacrifices being made by the Ukrainian people, in essence delaying tactics. Setting aside the growing pressures on his generals and advisors (so-called), Putin himself may come to his own conclusion that his wisest choice is to surrender governing authority and seek asylum. That would be too easy; it is not the man’s psychological profile. But if I were advising Zelenskyy I would propose that be the centerpiece of his negotiating position now that an effective stalemate has been established on the battlefield. Putin’s central position is well known: the Zelenskyy government must surrender itself and the country. The obvious counter: Putin must himself surrender to a war crimes trubunal under the aegis of the World Court and dissolve his government in favor of new elections. Beginning with a demand for a cease fire, even a withdrawal of forces is an insufficiently strong position from which to conceptualize a compromise.
Should Putin deploy chemical and biological weapons in Ukraine, we will see the present limitations lifted, perhaps overnight, and perhaps short of other countermeasures not currently part of the public discussion. But should he resort to this, it would be tantamount to his demanding a wider war. In the meantime, in spite of the horrors being perpetrated on Ukrainian civilians, most especially on their children, the next step (steps 4-6 actually) that I look for is the UN to remove Russia, at least temporarily, from the Security Council and temporarily replace them with Ukraine. The urgency to initiate this action is informed by the very possibility that Putin may resort to such provocative deployments.
This is therefore the UN’s moment, the very purpose for which it was formed: to secure an international system in which peaceful resolution of disputes among nations is the cornerstone. The authority for this does not flow from the UN itself, but from the collective resolve of the member states. Russia under Putin has, for now, negated its otherwise rightful role as a member of the Security Council on both legal and moral grounds.
As the UN arrives at the doorstep of this action, NATO has already been steadily ramping up troop presence all along Russia’s vast western border (step 7). Indeed, in addition to the 140,000 massed according to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s statement of March 15, additional and significant expansion of this commitment was announced at the NATO summit in Brussels on March 23. To regard these developments as anything other than a carefully orchestrated escalation strikes me as impossible. It might be possible, if not clearly advisable, for NATO to accept Norway’s and Sweden’s application for membership so as to extend that massing along the entire northwest frontier.
From left to right, President Harry S Truman, General George Marshall, Paul Hoffman and Averell Harriman in the Oval Office discussing the Marshall Plan, Nov. 29, 1948. Photo courtesy Abbie Rowe/Wikimedia Commons
Meanwhile, what was intended as a lightning strike and rapid takeover of Ukraine has bogged Putin down in a war of attrition, with resulting loss of manpower, degradation of equipment, and a sapping of morale. Beyond damage done to the Russian civilian economy, the impact of sanctions also reduces Putin’s capacity to replenish military hardware and supplies. The existing imbalance of forces will only grow more decisively against Russia over time. Only China could provide meaningful counterweight — that is not to say decisive counterweight — but why would they? Where would be their geopolitical interest in doing so? I fail to see how abandoning their public position of neutrality would serve their own national interest, even if they were to provide some covert economic assistance to Putin for at least some period of time.
These developments appear to be unfolding before our eyes, but are likely to continue over a number of months, which improves the allied strategy’s chances of success. The feasibility of this has been greatly improved by the resistance of Ukraine and Zelenskyy’s surprising leadership. If the death toll is morally unacceptable in absolute terms, relative to a wider war with NATO countries or the nightmare of a nuclear winter, Ukraine is buying the world the time needed to bring about Putin’s removal. The UN, NATO and the World Court are coordinating within their broadly appointed roles. If we are justifiably nervous living in a world that may be greatly damaged or destroyed by a single despot, an equal dose of optimism is justified. The post-war order included tools that are now being used to prevent just such a catastrophe.
Assume this moment will be met, we should bend our minds towards this new post-Putin International order. The recent rise of autocracies is the clearest indicator of the need for fresh reform. We are fortunate indeed that we are only in need of improvement, not a radical reinvention. If Putin’s folly is reduced to a historical episode rather than a cataclysm, we can thank our lucky stars for the system established by that Greatest Generation, and thank ourselves for avoiding the need to rebuild from scratch. Now is the time to consider what this post-Putin environment will require of us.
Once Putin departs, we can assume that the new Ukraine will occupy a position of honor among the family of nations, whatever that might mean in terms of symbolic gestures. But the reality of the suffering of millions has arrived, it is real, and it is a spigot that cannot simply be turned off. Post-Putin, there will be the immediate need for physical restoration and economic revitalization. For a start, a major international program of assistance directed not only at Ukraine but Russia as well, modeled on the Marshall Plan, would be a vast improvement of the post-Cold War approach of the 1990s.
When we achieve that moment, the time will also be ripe for the UN to implement term limits as a matter of international law and as a signatory requirement for member states. We can only hope that this will become a topic worthy of deeper discussion once the immediate moment has been won.