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Treat Military Support for Ukraine Like Fight Club
It’s been more than a week since I posted anything. I decided to take a step back and absorb what is going on around the world and try to process it all. As I’m sure you’re finding, it’s not easy. Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Yemen, the list goes on. It’s depressing to think about the fact that at this point in human history, with the technology developed, the knowledge accumulated, so many people continue to be bogus, in the words of the sage Jeff Spicoli.
Obviously Ukraine remains front and center, and it is heartbreaking and infuriating to see the images of devastation and suffering at the hands of Vladimir Putin and the war crimes he is committing. There is no reason to hedge or be deferential at this point, especially since the United States is finally using the terminology.
The shelling of malls, hospitals, theaters, apartment buildings, and other civilian structures aren’t misfires or weapons failures. It is collective punishment, terrorism designed to bring Ukraine to its knees.
Until now, the United States has been reluctant to provide anything more than small arms and weapons like Stingers and Javelins out of concern of crossing a threshold that would cause Putin to go nuclear, literally. I have been sympathetic to that risk-averse posture since Putin has played the “I’m crazy, you never know what I might do” card that an abusive partner does to scare the abused from calling the police or running away.
But like in an abusive relationship (yes, I am speaking from experience, and the parallels are plain to see), at a certain point you have to draw the line. You have to take action that puts the abuser in their place, because if you don’t it continues and escalates.
That’s what’s been happening since 2008. Putin hasn’t paid a price for his abuse of Georgia, Syria, or Ukraine. That’s emboldened him, made him feel more powerful and that he can act with impunity. It’s allowed him to deepen his narrative that he is the aggrieved party and must lash out to protect himself.
The problem is, just like with confronting an abusive partner, there are limited options. Reason does not work. Empirical evidence (like receipts, texts, and emails that show there is no affair) is meaningless. Demonstrating that you are not a threat goes nowhere. At least in the case of an abusive relationship you can flee, get a restraining order, and hope the abuser doesn’t pursue (although there are too many cases where that doesn’t end the danger). Unfortunately, restraining orders don’t work with unhinged dictators.
The international sanctions on Russia are the closest equivalent to a restraining order. They are legal measures designed to isolate and create an incentive to change behavior. So far, there’s been little discernible change in Putin’s behavior.
Sometimes, force is the only meaningful response. The United States was wrong to declare that it would not send troops into Ukraine or enforce a no-fly zone. That doesn’t mean it should have taken those actions. Just as Putin has used strategic ambiguity about nuclear and chemical weapons to scare NATO and the United States from defending Ukraine, the United States should have used strategic ambiguity about whether it would send troops or planes into Ukraine. Would it have been enough to deter Putin? Probably not, but there was nothing to gain by so definitively taking the threat off the table.
A month in, and with the devastation of Ukraine and its citizens continuing, it’s time to get physical.
The United States needs to approach it like Fight Club—do it, but don’t talk about it. Employ stealth tactics and weapons to take out Russian convoys and artillery in Ukraine. There’s a reason the F-35 was developed. Put it to use.
It’s all easier said than done, of course. Keeping military secrets is no small task in the social media era. Certainly, if convoys of Russian tanks start blowing up, Putin is going to suspect something. This isn’t Afghanistan in the 1980s and the United States won’t be able to launder its military support the way it did then. But it’s time to take calculated risks and call Putin’s bluffs. It’s high stakes, for sure.
Putin has shown his hand. He doesn’t have the military might or strategic savvy to defeat Ukraine in a fair fight. So, he’s resorted to his Chechnya and Syria tactics—obscene and indiscriminate violence (war crimes) to pummel an adversary into submission. The world sat back and watched him annex territory and destroy cities for two decades. Enough is enough.
Until now, my thinking has been on the risk-averse side—avoid actions that would cause Putin to escalate into the nuclear or cyber realms. But there isn’t much alternative now. Failure to speak to him on the only terms he understands—strength, force, power—will further embolden him. The moment an abusive partner first hits you and gets away with it opens the door to more abuse. It’s time to push back, but do it quietly, ideally with deniability.
At least launch a defensive humanitarian operation. It is also risky, but necessary. That should be the minimum at this point, and a serious step toward stopping the carnage.
Increased military pushback will give Ukraine and the west more leverage in negotiations to end the conflict. The challenge with talks will be to find a settlement that doesn’t throw Ukraine under the bus and doesn’t give Putin an outcome he can spin as a “win” and use to justify to himself future invasions against say, Georgia or the Baltic states.
It’s all the more necessary to take steps to end the war because what’s happening in Ukraine is not staying in Ukraine. Countries already suffering from food shortages—Ethiopia, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen—are feeling the pinch of the wheat shortage. Plus, the world is already oversaturated with humanitarian crisis and refugees. The international community and aid organizations are already unable to meet the demands of Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Haiti, and too many other places that need help.
Speaking of Afghanistan… You will be shocked, shocked to hear that the Taliban reversed its decision to allow girls high schools to reopen this week. The misogynistic regime decided that girls could attend school only through primary grades.
Is anyone really surprised by this? All eyes are on Ukraine, so you have to assume the Taliban feels it has more freedom of movement right now.
Plus, as Bette Dam argues in her latest book, and Carter Malkasian emphasizes in his review of the book, the west still doesn’t understand and know how to deal with the Taliban. One of the points in the discussion is something that I tried to get across in my reporting in Afghanistan—many Afghans share the views of the Taliban.
This is one of the reasons the west failed in Afghanistan. The Taliban was not an alien entity. It was an outgrowth of the Afghan culture and religion. Yes, it took on an extreme form with extreme punishments, but many of its core values, especially regarding women, are widely shared in the country.
The international community invested hundreds of millions on empowering Afghan women and promoting women’s rights in Afghanistan. Early in my time in Afghanistan, one Afghan woman described it in a way that highlighted why it was likely to fail. She said that women’s rights had been treated as a cause, rather than a pillar of Afghan society.
The United States and other countries were investing in high-profile programs that were educating, supporting, and “empowering” women, but they weren’t addressing the real problem: Afghan men. As long as Afghan men viewed women as property to buy and sell, to control and abuse, teaching women job skills was not going to transform Afghanistan.
I’ve written about this before, and will continue to hammer this point. Far more Afghan men than people have wanted to admit share Taliban views on women. While women and women’s rights advocates are rightfully dismayed at the Taliban’s decision to stop girls’ education after primary school, the problem remains that many Afghan men are on board with the decision.