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Early Lessons from Ukraine

Volodymyr Zelensky has shown what impact one brave man can have on history


No one can know what the situation in the Ukraine will be when this piece first appears on doorsteps and newsstands. So let’s focus on what we have learned so far.

Profoundly Unserious

Nothing better captures the profound lack of seriousness of the United States today than climate envoy John Kerry fretting in the lead-up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine that Putin might forget his climate change undertakings. As if Putin, whose whole economy depends on fossil fuels, ever cared about climate change.

Indeed, the West’s obsession with eliminating fossil fuels set the stage for Putin. When Joe Biden was sworn in as president, the United States was on the verge of energy self-sufficiency. His first day in office, he nixed the Keystone Pipeline and banned oil exploration and fracking on federal lands. Those actions were symbolic of what environmentalist Michael Shellenberger labels a “delusional ideology” that the need for fossil fuels (and perfectly clean nuclear energy as well) can be simply wished away, and “green” replacements will magically appear, despite all the well-known limitations of renewables: unreliability; high prices; lack of storage batteries to retain the energy generated; the environmental damage cause by wind turbines; and the huge land use requirements of solar.

The ridiculousness of that approach became clear when, in the face of rising oil prices, President Biden was left imploring OPEC countries to ramp up production. How are oil and natural gas extracted by other countries somehow less injurious, except that they cost Americans more?

Today, even in the midst of Russia’s launch of the largest land battle in Europe since World War II, the United States is still buying 600,000 barrels of oil from Russia daily, and the Russian energy sector remains unsanctioned, providing Russia with one of its few remaining sources of income to finance its war machine. European Union sanctions have also left Russia’s energy sector alone.

In his State of the Union address, President Biden said not a word about reversing his war on American oil and gas production, and press secretary Jen Psaki has repeatedly and forcefully pushed back on the idea that increased American energy production is relevant to the current crisis. Meanwhile, Biden is rushing to concluding a disastrous deal with Iran in part to bring more Iranian oil into the market.

Lenin’s prediction that capitalists would sell communists the rope to hang them has come true. Biden reversed the Trump administration’s ban on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline direct from Russian to Germany (and bypassing Ukraine), to keep Germans from freezing. Germany today receives one-third of its energy from Russian, including 47 percent of its natural gas. Between 2015 and 2025, Germany will spend $586 billion dollars on green energy production. And still its energy costs 50 percent more than that of nuclear-friendly France and produces eight times more carbon emissions per unit.

If an American and Western energy policy that played directly into his hands were not enough amusement for Putin, he must have had a laugh at the months of American efforts to enlist China to persuade him to back off by sharing intelligence reports of the Russian buildup — intelligence reports that China promptly turned around and gave to Russia.

And surely President Biden’s threats that Putin would become an international pariah must have left him quaking. A reminder of President Obama’s response to Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea. He accused Putin of violating “truths that had seemed self-evident in the 21st century — i.e., that the borders of Europe cannot redrawn by force, that international law matters....” But then Obama contented himself with sanctioning a handful of Russian nationals, sending a few fighter planes to Poland and Lithuania, and refusing Ukrainian requests for military support.

Weakness Provokes

The late former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld was fond of saying “weakness is provocative.” That is a lesson that cannot be repeated often enough.

Winston Churchill dubbed World War II “the unnecessary war,” in which tens of millions lost their lives, because Britain and her allies failed to rebuild their militaries after World War I. Had Neville Chamberlain not capitulated to Hitler’s demands at Munich, in part because of Britain’s military weakness, it is quite likely Germany’s generals would have overthrown Hitler.

A young Osama bin Laden took careful note of the rapid American evacuation of Beirut, after 241 Marines were killed in a suicide attack on their barracks in 1983: “Where was this false courage of yours when the explosion in Beirut took place?” he mocked the US in his 1996 declaration of war.

And after the suicide bombing of the USS Cole in Aden harbor in 2000, in which 17 American sailors were killed, bin Laden commissioned a reenactment of the attack, which proved a great recruiting tool, less than a year before 9/11. When the Clinton administration failed to respond, he composed a poem to be read at his son’s wedding pronouncing American might a “huge illusion.”

Similarly, the frenzied US retreat from Afghanistan and its hasty and ill-planned execution, in which billions of dollars’ worth of high-tech weaponry and thousands of those who had worked most closely with allied forces were simply left behind, could only have given Putin the sense of an America in retreat. It also emboldened Iran by reinforcing the lesson of the Obama years that nothing could convince the US to invest military resources in the Middle East, even at the cost of a nuclear Iran. And China could hardly be blamed if it concluded that the realization of its longtime dream of capturing Taiwan will meet little American opposition.

More recently, the participation of the US and the entire world in the Beijing Olympics, despite China’s imprisonment of a million Muslim Uighurs in reeducation camps and exploiting them for slave labor, alerted despots around the globe that the world does not really give a fig about the lives or deaths of those out of its direct line of vision, just as the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, after enactment of the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws, let Hitler know of how little moment the Jews were in Western eyes.

The Mirroring Fallacy

Even some of the brightest and best informed analysts were caught flat-footed by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. David Goldman, one of the sharpest observers around, predicted confidently, just a few days before the invasion, that Putin would not invade because there was nothing in Ukraine worth taking. True, it has some gas reserves. But Russia has ten times more, and does not even have the infrastructure to transport what it does have. Ukraine is blessed with fertile farmland. But Russia is already the world’s largest wheat exporter.

Goldman was guilty of the mirroring fallacy. Having adjudged Putin to be a rational calculator, he projected the Russian leader’s calculations within the framework of his own goals and values, not Putin’s. The 2005 speech Putin gave decrying the dissolution of the former Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” and his frequent references to Peter the Great — who, inter alia, greatly expanded the Russian Empire, through war — as his hero and role model, simply did not register.

Similarly, Hitler fully laid out his plan for ridding the world of Jews in Mein Kampf, but no world leader treated his ambitions seriously. Nor has the lesson of Hitler enunciated by Menachem Begin — when someone expresses the desire to exterminate you and your people, take him seriously — been absorbed to this day.

The Iranian leadership repeatedly broadcasts its goal of wiping Israel off the map. And in their theological framework, that makes sense. Formerly Islamic land under Jewish control constitutes a direct affront to Al-lah. Even the triggering of a nuclear Armageddon, in the context of Shiite theology, may be a means of bringing the 13th Hidden Imam. “A feature, not a bug,” as Bernard Lewis once put it.

Sadly, however, Westerners from Barack Obama on down, with little interest in theology, cannot grasp this. They size up their negotiating partners as rational men, speaking coherently, and cannot believe that Iran really contemplates firing nuclear weapons at Israel. And that is why Israel will ultimately have to confront Iran on its own, or nearly so.

Courage Counts

The manly virtues — chief among them physical courage — are not much in favor these days. Masculinity has been defined as inherently “toxic.”

But Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has shown what impact one brave man can have on history. Like Jewish kings of old, he stands at the head of his fellow Ukrainian citizens, refusing to leave Kiev. The American government offered to get him out, and he responded bluntly, “We don’t need a ride. We need ammunition.”

Had he taken the proffered ride, no would have blamed him, and he would have had any number of plausible explanations for doing so, not the least of which would be to avoid having the national leader fall into enemy hands. Yet he elected to remain in the Ukrainian capital, even knowing that should Kiev fall to the Russians, his head will be the first on the chopping block.

And that courage to willingly give up his life and never see his wife and children again has not only galvanized his own fellow citizens but moved crucial world leaders in ways once thought impossible. Friday, February 25, he entered a special meeting of the European Union by Zoom, and began, “This is maybe the last time that you will see me alive.”

The impact of his appearance was electric. Until that moment, the leaders had not been able to proceed beyond a gradual ratcheting up of sanctions. But then, the last holdouts — Germany, Austria, Italy, and Cyprus — switched course, and moved with such rapidity that the White House had to scramble to keep up with the pace of its European counterparts.

The new German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, overnight reversed his country’s decades-long avoidance of carrying anything near its weight, as the continent’s richest nation, in Europe’s defense. Last year, its spending on the military was barely over 1.5 percent of GDP, billions of dollars below the NATO target of 2 percent. Scholz not only committed to spend 2 percent of GDP every year from now on, but to an immediate $110 billion one-time defense allocation.

No less surprising was his announcement of a reversal of Germany’s heralded “green” energy policy, with a promise to quickly build two liquefied natural gas terminals and to consider extending the lives of domestic coal and nuclear plants.

Nor was Germany the only nation to turn on a dime. Switzerland, long a safe haven for Russian capital, pledged to freeze Russian assets. The UK promised to close loopholes through which foreign corporations hold assets in UK shell companies. Finland reversed its policy against sending arms to war zones to aid the Ukrainians, and Sweden expressed a desire to join NATO.

The power of Zelensky’s example on Ukrainians has been no less transformative. He was born in a grim, Russian-speaking industrial city in Ukraine, and became a highly successful comedian, popular in Russia and Ukraine. Only after he made a small donation to the Ukrainian army, in the wake of Moscow’s 2014 invasion of historically Russian-speaking areas of eastern Ukraine, did he move his production company from Russia to Kiev and begin working to fully perfect his Ukrainian.

Still only 44 years old, and a relative outsider, even if he were not Jewish, Zelensky’s willingness to die for Ukraine, is, in the words of Atlantic’s Francis Foer, “the most stirring validation of the cause.”

Ukraine has long been considered the most corrupt nation in Europe, with a huge gap between the codes of behavior that apply to the average citizen and the elite. For the president to join, contrary to all expectations, in the fate of the people, has clarified “the terms of the conflict through his example” and inspired Ukrainians to rally to the defense of their country.

In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy makes a sustained argument for contingency in human history, for the recognition that all the calculations of generals, all the weighing of forces and battle plans, may turn on the personal bravery of one lone corporal at the flank.

Today, Zelensky is that corporal. His fellow Jew Bernard-Henri Levy writes in Tablet: “On his sleepless, happy face, full of confidence despite the torment, in the humor he has not parted with despite the rain of missiles, there is something of the legendary figures of the Warsaw Ghetto.... The free world, which is also at stake in the battle for Kyiv, and the Europe of principles have found a new, young, and magnificent founding father.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 902. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com)

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