Some events seem impossible right up to the minute that they take place. The idea that terrorists might turn airliners into missiles was relegated to novels until the morning of September 11, 2001. The global financial system seemed impregnable before Lehman Brothers collapsed on September 15, 2008. For many people, the chances that a reality-TV star would become the first president without any experience in government or the military seemed less than zero until 2:29 a.m. on November 9, 2016. For decades, a pandemic that would kill 6 million people worldwide in two years and unleash long-lasting social, economic, and cultural havoc was the basis of science-fiction movie plots. Then the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in the United States.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is another crisis that looked like an unlikely prospect for months but now seems inevitable in retrospect. In the run-up to the war, President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued warning after warning that Russia was preparing to attack its neighbor. Not everyone agreed. The notion that Russia would launch the largest military offensive in Europe since the end of World War II seemed fantastic, unreal. Tank columns seizing territory? That’s anachronistic, the skeptics said. The bombing of population centers? This is the 21st century. We know better. Vladimir Putin is a risk-taker. He’s not a maniac.
The experts said that Putin did not have enough troops to change the Ukrainian regime and occupy a sovereign nation. They said that U.S. intelligence had failed in the past and could well be wrong again. They noted that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky was minimizing tensions between his country and Russia. They observed that most Ukrainians did not act as if war was imminent. They cited Putin’s record of opportunism, of “gray-zone” tactics, of cyberattacks, propaganda, and disinformation as evidence that he would pull back from a full-scale offensive. “Why Putin Won’t Invade Ukraine,” read the headline of a representative article published on the website of the Atlantic Council on February 16. The piece listed all the reasons an invasion would be bad for Putin. The author proposed a scenario that “suits Putin’s interests far better than an uncertain military adventure, which is why he will choose it.”
Putin chose war instead. He chose to follow the logic he had set out in a 5,000-word essay published in July 2021. Its title was “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” It’s where Putin made his ghoulish case that the borders of Ukraine are illegitimate. Where he asserted that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people.” Where he admonished readers that the Ukrainian nation-state exists at Russia’s pleasure.
Putin never wavered from these arguments. Throughout the buildup of Russian forces on Ukraine’s borders, despite Biden’s threat of sanctions and French president Emmanuel Macron’s shuttle diplomacy, Putin continued to say that Ukrainian nationhood was a fiction. He called Ukraine’s democratic government fascist. He blamed America and the West for leaving him no other option than conquest. “The so-called Western bloc, formed by the United States in its own image and likeness, all of it is an ‘empire of lies,’” he said during his February 24 speech announcing the “special military operation” against Ukraine. He would “de-Nazify” a country with a Jewish president. He would retaliate if the “empire of lies” got in his way.
In launching his war, Putin did exactly what he had shown every indication of preparing to do for some time. Why, then, was it so difficult for so many experts to take him seriously? Why did so many people, including this writer, look with incomprehension and disbelief upon his statements and actions in the final days before the beginning of operations? Why were we unable to assimilate into our picture of reality a dictator who would coldly unleash premeditated hell on 44 million men, women, and children?
“In the face of unfathomable evil,” wrote the late Charles Krauthammer, “decent people are psychologically disarmed.” And when autocrats resort to violence, citizens of democracies that enjoy the rule of law are shocked. That’s not how we resolve disputes. For us, organized violence is rare. Terrible outcomes are uncommon. We seldom believe what our own elected officials say, anyway. Don’t expect us to take seriously the ravings of despots.
But it’s about time we started doing so. After Ukraine, there is no excuse for downplaying or ignoring authoritarian rhetoric and malevolent deeds. After Ukraine, we know that tyrants mean it when they make audacious claims and demand remarkable concessions. Putin acted just as he said he would. Many of us wouldn’t listen. Many of us didn’t want to.
After Ukraine, we need to take a second look at documents such as Xi Jinping’s address last year marking the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party. In his speech, China’s ruler said that “resolving the Taiwan question and realizing China’s complete reunification is a historic mission and an unshakeable commitment of the Communist Party of China.” He added that “no one should underestimate the resolve, the will, and the ability of the Chinese people to defend their national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
In November 2021, Chinese state media reported that Xi had told President Biden, “Should the separatist forces for ‘Taiwan independence’ provoke us, force our hands, or even cross the red line, we will be compelled to take resolute measures.” Should other parties enter the conflict, Xi went on, well, “whoever plays with fire gets burnt.”
After Ukraine, we need to listen to the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has spent decades calling for the end of Israel. Last May, for example, Khamenei gave a lesson in Jew-hatred and anti-Zionism when he said that Iran has no greater enemy than Israel and that “the fight against this despotic regime is the fight against oppression and the fight against terrorism. And this is a public duty to fight against this regime.”
Even as President Biden punished Russia for its actions, however, he was relying on Russia as the intermediary in nuclear talks with an Iranian government that poses an existential threat to Israel. Even as Biden rallied the world in support of Ukrainian freedom, his intermediaries prepared to lift sanctions on the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism. The same administration that turned out to be right about Vladimir Putin’s program in Ukraine lives in la-la land when it comes to the stated intentions of a theocracy whose malign behavior in the Middle East aims at regional hegemony and the eradication of the Jewish state.
What proof is there that Xi Jinping and Ayatollah Khamenei are any less committed to their diabolical ideologies than Vladimir Putin is? Why should we be less worried about a Chinese invasion of Taiwan or an Iranian attack on Israel than about Putin’s designs in Ukraine? When strongmen tell you they are about to sow chaos, don’t close your ears. What they say might sound unlikely. It might strike you as out of this world. It isn’t. Don’t dismiss the leaders of rogue states. Don’t doubt them. Believe them.
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