The Ukrainian crisis rumbles on with fighting, killing and destruction. There is, however, the possibility that talks on Monday may help inch the way towards the beginnings of a solution. Maybe.
In our family, we have an old photograph of our grandfather as a young man. He is standing tall in his new Tsarist Russian army uniform. He smokes a cigarette and the scene features an ashtray on a tall tripod, a potted palm, and a bit of drapery hanging behind him. It is the type of photograph that has been de rigueur for soldiers to send home ever since Mathew Brady took his portraits during the American Civil War.
The unsaid elements of the photograph include the fact the man in the picture had been drafted into the Russian army on that 25-year enlistment plan imposed on young Jewish men. Soon after this photograph was taken, in 1905, the young man absconded from the army, walked to a port in Germany and boarded a ship bound for the US.
He had sussed out the near-certainty the Russian army would be crushed by a rising Japan, on both land and sea, and so he wanted no part of the looming disaster, despite the jaunty uniform in the photograph. In his journey westward, he joined so many millions more — Ukrainians, Russians, Poles, Romanians, Christians and Jews — who all felt the political and economic urgency of a need to find a way out of Tsarist Russia, with its pervasive political and religious repression and grinding poverty for many.
The young man had originally come from somewhere near Odesa, the port city on the Black Sea. Throughout the last half of the 19th century, Odesa had become a cosmopolitan hotbed of radical political, literary and economic thinking among the many communities who lived there: Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, Greeks and many others. While we know little about the young man’s specific political leanings, like many others of that place and time, he had a will for survival — fleeing home, moving to a new continent, then raising a family and working hard to build a small business — until he suddenly died in the midst of the Great Depression.
That unyielding will to survive (and desire to thrive if possible) also underlines the way today’s Ukrainians are resisting a Russian military onslaught that, by Sunday afternoon, had reached the eastern city of Kharkiv, but was not yet entrenched in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. While the capital is on the receiving end of continuing cruise missile bombardments, international reporting also notes Ukrainian forces are making a real fight of it, knocking out significant numbers of Russian military vehicles and inflicting casualties on the invaders.
The stubborn fight by Ukrainians, despite being outgunned and outnumbered, is contributing to a growing tide of international opprobrium directed towards Russia and growing support for Ukraine via a range of international financial, economic and symbolic sanctions being put into place against Russia.
These punishments range from Russia being booted from the Eurovision Song Contest, cancellation of international sports events in or involving Russia, and Vladimir Putin being relieved of his honorary top position in the International Judo Federation, to much more significant ones.
The latter category includes export restrictions on dual-use technology, closing the Nato nations’ airspace to Russian commercial or private planes, cutting off major Russian banks from the international transmission network for financial transactions, and personal financial and travel sanctions on senior individuals such as Putin. Sitting there is a threat of more to come should the invasion continue.
The Ukrainian spirit of resistance, meanwhile, seems to have given some real starch to a somewhat unfamiliar sense of unity among the members of Nato (at least in the post-Cold War era). Even traditionally neutral nations such as Sweden and Finland are reported to be reaching out for joint defence planning conversations with Nato (and even, according to some, considering applying to become members of Nato). Meanwhile, Nato members are redoubling shipments of defence materiel to Ukraine’s beleaguered military — including German pledges of anti-tank rockets and Stinger missiles, in a major break with its long post-World War 2 pattern.
Of course, none of this, or even all of it, is likely to be sufficient to halt, let alone reverse the Russian military advance. Over the long haul, the force differential is simply too great for Ukraine to prevail in either of those outcomes. Eventually, however, if it “wins,” Russia may find itself forced to occupy a resisting nation by using a much larger contingent of military personnel than those now assigned to achieve the Russian equivalent of “shock and awe”, but in Ukraine, rather than the US’s own misadventure in Iraq.
Alternatively, as things begin to bog down, the Russians may opt for some kind of face-saving result via the forceable installation of a quisling-style leadership in Kyiv. But that would be a leadership ruling a devastated, sullen Ukraine, effectively partitioned between an ethnic-Russian portion towards the east and a rump Ukraine with its policies and geopolitical orientation comprehensively dictated from Russia.
It is, of course, also possible that having finally defeated the Ukrainian military, the Russians might even choose to announce a glorious victory, do a volte-face, go home, and then let the Ukrainians sort out the future for themselves as they fight over the wreckage. Almost any of these alternatives will generate a human catastrophe of waves of refugees towards western European nations — something that is already ongoing — plus all the other human disasters that come with war.
All of these questions lead us to contemplate the respective characters of the three most affected presidents and their circumstances in the current crisis and how they are dealing with this crisis. The three are, of course, Vladimir Putin, Volodymyr Zelensky and Joe Biden.
In Biden’s case, a significant moment will come on the evening of Tuesday, 01 March. That is when Biden delivers what will be the most consequential speech of his still-young presidency — the State of the Union Address to a joint sitting of both houses of Congress, as well as a national and international broadcast audience.
In the foreign policy portions of the speech, Biden will need to set out a convincing explanation of how US and allied pressure on Russia is effective, appropriate and measured. In the past weeks of this current crisis, and now that the Russian invasion has begun, Biden has had to labour with the US reaction to this challenge. But this has been together with a whole raft of domestic issues that include the ongoing challenges of Covid-19 and the rising Covid fatigue, as well as a burst of inflation and those politically ultra-sensitive increases in petrol prices.
Beyond everything else, Biden has had his work cut out for him to rebuild Nato unity following the depredations of the Trump era, and to mobilise a willingness of Nato members to work closely together in the current crisis.
As Professor Heather Cox Richardson commented in her widely read newsletter over the weekend, “The right-wing talking point that Biden is weak and inept and therefore emboldened Putin to invade Ukraine is belied by the united front the western world is presenting. After the former president tried to weaken NATO and even discussed withdrawing from the treaty, Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have managed to strengthen the alliance again. They have brought the G7 (the seven wealthiest liberal democracies), the European Union, and other partners and allies behind extraordinary economic sanctions, acting in concert to make those sanctions much stronger than any one country could impose.
“They have managed to get Germany behind stopping the certification of Nord Stream 2, the gas pipeline from Russia to Germany that would have tied Europe more closely to Russia, and in what Marcel Dirsus, a German political scientist and fellow at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University, told the Washington Post was possibly ‘one of the biggest shifts in German foreign policy since World War II,’ Germany is now sending weapons to Ukraine and has agreed to impose economic sanctions. Biden has facilitated this extraordinary international cooperation quietly, letting European leaders take credit for the measures his own administration has advocated. It is a major shift from the U.S.’s previous periods of unilateralism and militarism, and appears to be far more effective.”
Whether Biden’s efforts for a unity of purpose can be maintained over the longer period is a key question, just as is the question of the US citizenry’s own support for increasingly harsh measures against Russia — if that means, for example, that further pain at the petrol pump cannot be warded off. Maintaining such consensus may be the biggest test of Biden’s reputation and capability of being a coalition-building leader across political divides. At least for now, it seems it has been much harder for him to accomplish this within the realm of US domestic politics (given the mutually contradictory Republican posturing on Ukraine, including bizarre support for Putin from ex-president Trump) than with the country’s international partners.
As far as Russian President Putin is concerned, especially in light of this crisis, there is a growing roster of evaluations of the personal characteristics of that particular president, his allegiance to and embrace of some mystical romantic ideas about the role of Russia in the world, the reconstruction of Russia in the quasi-tsarist mould, and the idea Russia has a kind of nationalist-Christian mission to challenge and surmount those permissive, morally weak, Western societies.
Similarly, we are hearing from many experts that the president’s growing isolation as a ruler — exemplified by the bizarre visuals of his solo meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron seated at a vast table in an even more vast room — is exhibiting worrying signs of a dangerous psychological condition that led him to political and military decisions that confused the personal with the national.
The decision to invade Ukraine has now brought Russia to its most isolated international circumstances ever. Most recently, Putin’s public threats over putting nuclear weapons on high alert, in the context of this crisis, has suddenly moved a nuclear power well beyond the ways of talking about nuclear weapons that have been the case for a generation. On Sunday, the former director of National Intelligence James Clapper said bluntly on television that he thought Putin had come unhinged. Bad things can come from that.
And then, of course, there is Ukrainian President Zelensky. His rapid, even astonishing rise from being a popular actor/satirist, to an insurgent presidential candidate, and now his country’s president since 2019, has put him firmly in the crosshairs of international attention and Putin’s deep enmity. While Zelensky has had stumbles in dealing effectively with Ukraine’s endemic political corruption, now entrenched since independence, in the past weeks he appears to have risen to the existential challenge facing his presidency and his nation.
So far, Zelensky’s leadership has rallied his deeply threatened nation facing missiles and convoys of Russian tanks and troops. Similarly, his words, with the actions of his fellow Ukrainians, have been eliciting the world’s sympathy and growing support, so far, at least, without his putting a foot wrong.
His responses to Putin’s taunts that Ukraine’s government comprises drug dealers, neo-Nazis, and worse have been measured and thoughtful, effectively ridiculing Putin’s words virtually without mentioning them. (About the only things the Russians have yet to charge Zelensky’s government with are being cabals of cannibalism, child trafficking, and satanism, similar to those bizarre QAnon charges about Hillary Clinton and her colleagues. But maybe that will come along if the military situation does not go Putin’s way quickly enough.)
On Monday, it is beginning to look like there will actually be talks between representatives of Ukraine and Russia at the Belarus/Ukraine border. At this point, the outcomes from such discussions are impossible to fathom, but just possibly some sanity will make its way into the region and the death and destruction can be halted.
This article originally appeared in the Daily Maverick https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2022-02-27-putin-zelensky-and-biden-in-the-global-spotlight-as-russias-war-on-ukraine-rages-on/
J Brooks Spector is associate Editor at the Daily Maverick and co-presents The Overdrive with Kathy Kaler