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Littwin: What happens to all the unity when/if war in Ukraine takes a hard turn for the worse? 

We applaud the bravery of Ukrainian troops and ordinary citizens, but the truth is, the danger — to Ukraine, and to the world — has every chance of escalating.

In America, as in much of the world, we overwhelmingly root for Ukraine in its fight for survival against Russia. Of course we do, unless we’re Tucker Carlson or J.D. Vance. Ukraine is one of those gutsy underdogs that captures our imagination, gives us a renewed sense of possibility in an uncertain world, offers up heroes like President Zelenskyy, tells stories of tragedy but also stories of (for now) hope, tells more stories of unspeakable carnage but also those of courage and inspiration.

And, maybe most importantly, the war presents an obvious good-vs.-evil showdown, in which good, to this point, is doing surprisingly well.

And so we are basically united — or act as if we are because what else can we do in the face of Russian war crimes, in the face of trapped Ukrainian citizens and of a huge refugee crisis? — as much as any time since 9/11. And it’s not only us. NATO is as united as it has been any time in years. Polls from countries like Finland and Sweden, who have long existed in Russia’s shadows without joining NATO, say both countries are now in favor.

Mike Littwin

But as we watch the war play out on TV — some of us obsessively — we hope against hope that the war in Ukraine doesn’t make its almost inevitable turn for the worse.

Despite the tremendous resistance from Ukraine, Russia still seems to be making progress, as Russia seems to breaking its promise to allow civilians to safely flee camptured cities. 

If we’re lucky — all of us, Ukraine, Russia, the world — we don’t get that far. There could be a truce reached or at least a ceasefire. Vladimir Putin could look for a way out from what has been, for him, a gross miscalculation on so many levels — of Ukraine’s spirited and dogged resistance, of his own (non-nuclear) military might, of how quickly the West came together on massive sanctions that are crippling the Russian economy, of how the world’s leading military minds are mocking him for his military’s unexpected missteps and blunders. 

But it looks as if Putin is doubling down. He is now warning Ukraine that its status as an independent country is at stake. That’s something we’ve known for a while, but it’s the first time Putin has said it so forcefully. 

Meanwhile, there is a movement now to go all in on sanctions, including finding a way to stop the Russians from exporting oil and gas. Colorado’s two Democratic senators, Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, have signed on to a bipartisan effort, even though it would almost certainly mean a rise in the already fast-rising prices at the pump.

It would require America and probably the Saudis to produce more oil and gas to make up for the shortfall, but as Fareed Zakaria argues in a Washington Post column, that would not necessarily add to the greenhouse effect, since it would just replace the Russian gas. 

If we did go that far, that would be an early challenge for the unity front. After all, we’re already losing the climate change war, and Lauren Boebert’s drill-baby-drill dress won’t help. And for that matter Zakaria, in his argument for shutting down Russian gas, also notes that sanctions rarely bring an end to a war. In fact, there’s worry in Washington that if Putin feels truly cornered, he becomes even more dangerous. 

And if there’s not a truce — French President Emmanuel Macron is warning, after his latest talks with Putin, that matters  are only going to get worse —- it looks as if Putin’s strategy now is to make the ugly war uglier, targeting more civilian populations, laughing when the world’s great powers call him a war criminal. Of course he’s a war criminal. The U.S. embassy in Ukraine has already said so, although the State Department has apparently warned off other ambassadors from going that far.

Look, if anyone needed convincing on the war-criminal front — and I doubt anyone, other than a certain former president, does — the assault on Ukraine’s largest nuclear power plant should have settled the matter. We’ve been told that there was, fortunately, no radiation leakage. We’ve also been told that fires broke out around 1,500 feet from the reactors, in the country that already had suffered through Chernobyl. 

We haven’t done more militarily in Ukraine for obvious reasons — because a direct confrontation with Russia could lead to nuclear Armageddon, which we’ve managed to avoid since World War II, but, at times, just barely. Russia now controls the Chernobyl site. And now, after its dangerous and ham-handed assault, it controls the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant that provides electricity to a significant part of Ukraine. We may have a nuclear issue without a nuclear war. 

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That’s why you’re suddenly seeing progress on renewing the nuclear treaty with Iran — another area in which, if there is an agreement, the center isn’t likely to hold.

And even if there is some kind of agreement to stop  the war in Ukraine —  which would mean that Ukraine would certainly need to cede at least part of its contested territory to Russia — Republicans would almost certainly blame Biden for rolling over as we approach the November midterms. That’s politics in America today.

We know — or we should know — that this moment of unity is merely a lull in our hyperpolarized time. We just had Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene to remind us of that fact by their mocking and heckling of Biden during his State of the Union speech. Yes, they’re both shameless attention seekers on the fringes of the Republican Party, but how many Republicans have you seen criticizing them? 

But there are worse outcomes than a resumption of incivility.  Russia seems to be winning in the southern part of the country, where the seaports are. And in Kyiv, as in other large cities, people are fleeing for their lives. In a week’s time, there have been more than a million refugees. In a country of 44 million, there will be millions more.

If Ukraine falls, as American intelligence suggests it will if no truce can be worked out, what happens next? What happens if the noble war is lost and the best-case scenario becomes a Western-supported insurgency, which would probably be effective, but would not provide the same level of intense popular interest.

In what may be the worst-case scenario, Russia decides to keep going. If America and the West wouldn’t put troops on the ground to counter atrocities in Ukraine, Putin might not believe NATO’s warnings that it would protect every inch of soil in any NATO country. 

In a truly depressing tweeted thread from the great Russian chess champion and noted dissident, Garry Kasparov, he thinks there’s every reason for Putin to believe that NATO wouldn’t follow through. After all, as he points out, there’s no NATO rule that says we couldn’t go in to protect Ukraine, which would like to join NATO.

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Kasparov: “Biden & others insist NATO would retaliate should Putin attack Baltic members. Watching Ukraine I’m not sure of that at all, and Putin won’t be either. If the calculation is about nuclear risk, it’s no different over Estonia than Ukraine. Don’t say ‘Putin would never.’”

I’m not going to say “Putin would never,” but I am going to say there’s a more than reasonable chance that Putin, who hasn’t started any nuclear wars so far, won’t start one now. Unless you believe, as some TV pundits would have it, that Putin is now unhinged, then attacking NATO has to be a risk too far. That’s why we won’t agree to a no-fly zone despite the heartbreaking pleas from Ukraine. That’s why we’re not, as Lindsey Graham suggested, going to try to “take out” Putin.

I don’t know what would happen if it came down to Estonia. No one knows. At this point, we have to hope Putin understands, and the world understands, that it’s a question that no one should ever have to answer. 


Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.


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