Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a dangerous man. It’s not just that Ukraine’s president is the rare leader of a country who is unafraid to admit that he has a working conscience to complement his ever-present green T-shirt.
It’s that he has the gall to insist that other world leaders should have a conscience, too.
And, as we know, it’s not just a one-off for Zelenskyy. He says it every day, via the miracle of modern communication, as the world watches with horror, in real time, the barbarous Russian assault on his country in the largest land war in Europe since World War II. Let’s just say you can stop the voting for the next Nobel Peace Prize.
We don’t need him to tell us that Vladimir Putin is a war criminal. All you have to do is read the papers or turn on, at any time of day or night, your favorite cable TV news outlet for all the evidence you need.
We also don’t need him to tell us that the United Nations is a basically toothless institution when it comes to war criminals and crimes against humanity, particularly those involving the world’s most powerful nations, including, at times, our own. As Zelenskyy gave his speech to the U.N. Security Council, he knew — and we knew — that the fix was already in.
But this is what Zelenskyy came to say: “Are you ready to close the U.N.? Do you think that the time of international law is gone? If your answer is no, then you need to act immediately.”
If you paid attention in high school, you may know there are five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, each of whom has the power to veto any “substantive” resolution. And, of course, one of the five permanent members is Russia — the others being the U.S., China, France and Great Britain.
Russia has explained its invasion by saying that Ukraine is not really a country, and even if it were, it is one that is overrun by Nazis. The latter charge is not your ordinary Big Lie. It’s a Big Chutzpah Lie, given that Zelenskyy is, uh, Jewish.
When Zelenskyy showed the audience a video clip of atrocities committed in Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv that has been heavily damaged, there was nothing more to say except what Putin said, calling it fake news. Where have we heard that before? Check out this New York Times analysis of satellite photos showing bodies we’ve now seen still lying on the streets of Bucha. The images show they were there before the Russians left.
And, let’s face it, to believe Putin you must also belive Ukraine staged the bombings of residential areas in its major cities just to make Putin look bad. Putin already looks bad enough, and the West has many independent journalists on the scene, some who have lost their lives, documenting the war.
So, we know. Of course, we know.
What we don’t know, and haven’t really known from the start, is what to do about Zelenskyy’s plea. Which makes everyone’s conscience ache.
We know the risk of a direct war with Russia, a risk that threatens the entire world. We’ve successfully avoided nuclear Armageddon since the old Soviet days when it first joined the United States as a nuclear power.
We know the history. We know how close we’ve come. We know that, although Russia may have a third-rate economy, with a second-rate army, it still has first-rate nuclear weapons pointed our way.
So, we tried sanctions, going all in (or nearly all in, more on that later), certainly going further than we’ve ever gone before in attempting to cripple the Russian economy. We’re told the sanctions are working, but Putin doesn’t seem to care.
We still see headlines about grabbing some Russian oligarch’s super-yacht, but I doubt that many of us still get any kind of thrill from it. These guys can all afford a replacement yacht.
Biden has done a good job bringing NATO countries together in unanimous condemnation — that was the easy part — and mostly unanimous action in supplying anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons that have allowed courageous Ukranian fighters to embarrass the Russian armed forces. Everyone, including the CIA and especially Putin, thought the Russian attack would be a walk-over.
But, at the same time, the European Union won’t boycott Russian gas and oil because many European countries — and especially Germany, which can basically call the shots — rely on Russian fuel. It looks like they’re now offering to boycott Russian coal, but that apparently doesn’t change the calculus.
And it’s not as easy as America taking several large steps backwards in the fight against global warming by going all in on oil and gas production to make up the difference. It takes special equipment, short on supply at each end, to both export and import natural gas.
And here’s a handy reminder of Germany’s reliance on Russian fuel. Last year, Germany bought more than half its natural gas and one third of its oil from Russia. That gas and oil heats homes, powers cars, keeps factories running. I doubt many Americans would give that up to boycott Russia. It would apparently wreck, at least in the short term, the German economy, which would bring down much of the European economy with it.
We can all agree that it was a huge mistake for Germany to ever become that reliant on Russia for its fuel needs — and now especially when each Euro sent to Russia helps pay for the slaughter in Ukraine.
And then there is the matter of where the line gets drawn in supplying weapons. It has been U.S. policy to supply mostly defensive weapons and certainly not any weapons Ukraine could use to attack Russia itself, which, as everyone must know by now, borders Ukraine. You don’t need long-range missiles to hit Russia. You don’t need long-range bombers either.
It’s a difficult situation. There has been a lot of criticism of Biden blocking Poland from sending Russian-made planes to Ukraine, planes they know how to fly, but it’s not an easy call.
At first, everyone was calling Putin a madman, which is generally how we tend to identify our enemies. I doubt if he’s actually mad. But the former KGB man is definitely a Stalinist who believes that he is under constant threat from the West and his ultimate defense, the nuclear option, is the one that no one can afford for him to use.
And yet every available option seems not good enough.
If we escalate the war, we take the ultimate risk. We’re definitely escalating the rhetoric. Before Zelenskyy’s speech, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the alleged Russian actions in Bucha were a “deliberate campaign to kill, to torture, to rape, to commit atrocities.” And Russia, so far, refuses to sit down for serious negotiations that could lead at least to a truce. And for Ukraine, this is clearly an existential battle. And so, the West will supply more weapons and, very possibly, even more deadly weapons.
Meanwhile, the United Nations will document the atrocities. And Ukraine will document the atrocities. And the U.S. will document the atrocities. And Human Rights Watch will document the atrocities. And a free press — other than Tucker Carlson anyway — will document the atrocities.
And someday there may be a trial — certainly in absentia unless you think we’re going to somehow grab Putin out of the Kremlin — for war crimes in which people would be held responsible for the atrocities.
Meanwhile, the atrocities continue. We’re told, and reliably so, there are so many more yet to be discovered amid the rubble. And, worse, so many more yet to be committed.
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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