The United States supports the Ukrainian resistance to pure Russian aggression. Public opinion in the United States strongly supports military aid to Ukraine.
Starting point: Russia’s population is 144 million, Ukraine’s is 40 million. That is an overwhelming strategic advantage.
Ukraine has a just claim of betrayal by the U.S. and England, who gave “security assurances” to Ukraine in 1994 as it gave up its nuclear weapons. In the Budapest Memorandum the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Russian Federation committed to the “… independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine … [and] … to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.” U.S. State Department lawyers say that assurances are not guarantees, but that provides small comfort to Ukraine.
At the outset of the Russian invasion, President Joe Biden announced that no American troops would set foot on Ukrainian soil. That was a clear message to the American people that Biden would not engage in a “forever war” such as Afghanistan which cost 2,461 American lives. It was also a message to Putin: If you hang in there long enough, you’re going to get Ukraine, or at least as much of it as the Russian Bear can digest.
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In 2014, Russia seized Crimea in clear violation of the Budapest Memorandum, which gave it direct frontage on the Black Sea, a geopolitical asset that Russia has always coveted. From a predator’s perspective, a Russian move into the eastern portion of Ukraine, known as Donbas, seems logical because that area shares Russian culture and language. From there Russia can take over the rest of southeast Ukraine, including Mariupol, which sits on the Sea of Azov, an important Black Sea port. That gives Russia a land bridge to Crimea, and allows it to extend further west, to Odessa, Ukraine’s major seaport. This gives Russia control of the Black Sea and a stranglehold on Ukraine.
There appears to be little the United States and NATO can do to stop that Russian progression. The policy of the United States and NATO nations appears to be a concession to the Russian Bear, but only one bite at a time.
Time is on Russia’s side. It can wear down the Ukraine resistance.
Russia’s most numerous asset is its people. Russia fights wars by throwing troops into the fray, and after they go down, replacing them with more troops. Russia fought Germany for over four years in World War II and defeated Germany. But Russia did it by taking casualties at a rate of about ten to one more than the Germans suffered. Russian casualties in Ukraine in two months appear to exceed the number of American casualties in the twenty years our troops were in Afghanistan.
In World War II, commentators estimate that about 24,000,000 Russians lost their lives either by direct military action or through starvation from Stalin’s policies. The Russian military sustained about 8,500,000 killed. By comparison, Germany suffered about 5,600,000 killed. But here is the real point. Germany suffered 5,600,000 deaths fighting Russia, the United States, England, France and Canada. Russia was on the winning side, yet sustained more killed in action than the Germans, Americans, English, French and Canadians combined.
Russia has previously imposed starvation upon Ukraine. In 1932-33, Josef Stalin caused the Great Famine of 1932-33, which took anywhere from 3.5 million to 10 million innocent lives. It is known as the “Holodomor,” a term derived from the Ukrainian words for “killed by starvation”. Its purpose was to force collectivism (communism) upon Ukrainian farms and population.
But history raises the question: If Russia can take Ukraine, what is to stop it from taking more? And if it does, what do we do about it?
In 2003, 25 members of the United Nations, including the Russian Federation, signed a joint statement saying, “In the former Soviet Union millions of men, women and children fell victims to the cruel actions and policies of the totalitarian regime … which became a national tragedy for the Ukrainian people.” In 2003, the leader of the Russian Federation was Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.
On August 12, 2000, the Russian submarine Kursk sank near the Arctic Circle, relatively close to the Russian mainland. American naval vessels could pick up sounds from the sunken submarine, including banging from sailors trapped within. The U.S. Navy offered assistance, as did some European countries. Putin declined. Putin let those sailors die.
Putin’s ruthlessness surprises us all, but it should not. In 2013, Sergei Khrushchev, son of the former Russian Premier (the one who told America in 1969 “we will bury you”) called Putin, the leader of his native country, “…a thug, criminal, thief, soul of the KGB.”
The U.S. and NATO have imposed substantial sanctions on Russia, but the real impact of sanctions comes months and years later. Bombs have an immediate effect. Sanctions have limitations. Russia, with its allies including China, can evade many sanctions. There is no way to evade a bomb that is dropped on a Ukrainian city, or a missile which explodes in an apartment building. Bombs are today. Sanctions are tomorrow.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy continues to plead for more aid. The U.S. and other countries have provided aid, but in increments, in reaction to acts of Russian aggression. Considering Russia’s population advantages, it is going to take a lot of aid to make it a fair fight. The Ukrainian freedom fighters and Zelenskyy deserve credit for defending their homeland with courage and honor.
To the extent that we can discern a foreign policy of the U.S. and NATO, it is that Russia can wage war in the Ukraine, as long as it does not wage war in a NATO country such as Poland or the Baltic Republics. But history raises the question: If Russia can take Ukraine, what is to stop it from taking more? And if it does, what do we do about it?
God Bless Ukraine and its people.
Jim McErlane is a Chester County lawyer, Malvern resident, and U.S. Navy veteran.