I had thought before what it meant to be responsible for others. Then came the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. What had been a vague sense that I would at least interpose myself between my students and danger was informed by what a Holocaust survivor named Liviu Librescu did during that shooting — he held his door closed so his students could get out the window, and was shot and killed through the door as a result. I realized that to keep students safe I might have to do more. I decided I was prepared to kill if necessary to keep my students safe. I do not own a gun, but am fully aware I can kill someone in other ways, including stabbing them through the eye with a sharpened pencil. I have twice since in been in lockdowns in classrooms, once for more than 2 hours, each time with one or more sharpened pencils in my hand adjacent to my door.
When Muammar Khadafy was threatening to level the city of Bengazi because folks there opposed his dictatorial rule, I had no trouble with military intervention to prevent the humanitarian slaughter that would have resulted. Some criticized me for that because I am a Quaker, but that gives a sense of how I approach these issues, even outside the context of my classroom (and might I say, my willingness to intervene in other situations and my willingness to use violence if necessary to protect my wife and folks like minor nieces and nephews).
That brings me to the current situation in Ukraine. Let me note that this country through NATO intervened for humanitarian reasons in Kosovo, and I think that was correct.
The Russian military doctrine and practice makes clear their willingness under Putin to violate the rules of war which prohibit targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure to win militarily. We have seen this practiced in Grozny in 2008 and in Syria more recently (think of their air support to Assad in what was done to Aleppo). We are already seeing it in Kharkiv and in Mariupol, and we are beginning to see it elsewhere.
Maya Angelou told us that “When someone tells you who they are, believe them the first time). Putin may have been responsible for killing some of his own people as an excuse decades ago. But if that is not clear, in a nationwide address in Russia in 2005 he told the world that the collapse of the Soviet Union“ was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”. That made clear a key part of his attitude. His more recent remarks dismissing a separate identity in Ukraine from being Russian is another key — and here I note that while separately marked Ukraine was to a degree an establishment authorized by Lenin in 1922, Kyiv as the center of what we can think of as a nation dates back to its existence as a major commercial center as early as the 5th Century of the common era, while Moscow did not even exist until the 11th. What we think of as Russian Orthodoxy started in Kyiv with Prince Vladimir/Volodimir in 988. It is also important to remember that Stalin tried to destroy Ukraine as a separate entity, with enforced starvation that killed millions that is remembered as the Holodomor and forbidding the use of the Ukrainian language and any sense of an independent culture. Nevertheless in 1945 when the UN was established he insisted upon separate membership for Ukraine (and also what is now Belarus). One has to remember that Russia has a cultural memory of having been invaded from multiple directions, each time by people whose religions was different — different forms of Christianity from Sweden, Germany, and France, and Islam from Crimea and Mongolia. It is worth noting that a majority of Ukrainians are NOT Orthodox Christians, but rather Eastern Rite Catholics and that some of Putin’s personal hostility may have religious roots — after all, the President and I believe the Prime Minister of Ukraine are Jewish. Sky News reported today that the Mosque in Mariupol was bombed or hit by artillery, even as it was serving as a refuge for 80 children.
So let me focus in.
To allow Putin relatively free reign to destroy cities in Ukraine because (a) it is not a NATO member, and (b) he has implied he might use nuclear weapons should NOT deter the world from intervening on humanitarian grounds. After all, Putin launched part of his assault from a 3rd country, Belarus. which means he has already widened the war.
The threat is not just to Ukraine. His next target if he can get away with this will not immediately be a NATO country, but rather Moldava, which already has an ethnically Russian portion with 1,500 Russian troops stationed there. Next would be the Baltics, particularly Lithuania, to establish a land bridge to Kaliningrad the way his early action in this conflict have been to attempt to establish a land bridge between Crimea and Russia proper. Even now, he would try to hold on to the coastal areas along the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov and insist on “independence” for ALL of the two povinces in Donbas (even though rebels occupy only a small portion thereof). Putin believes that the West is weak and divided, and he will not be deterred.
Economic sanctions are fine, but take a long time. Europe’s unwillingness to disconnect from Russian energy supplies allows Putin effectively to blackmail countries like Germany. The unwillingness to intervene allows a country to be destroyed, the refugees to places like Poland, Hungary, and Moldava to place serious strains on their economies. His veto in the Security Council and his cutting off honest information from the outside is poisoning the minds of many of his population to a dangerous point.
At some point Western leaders, including Biden, have to recognize that drawing lines beyond which we will not go gives Putin license to do more. IF we say “no American boots on the ground” and refuse to allow for a no-fly zone even to protect humanitarian relief columns we give Putin license to operate with near impunity, to prevent humanitarian aid, to strafe and bomb civilian targets. to starve people.
Let me now that I am as I write this about 4 miles straight line distance from the Pentagon. I lived through the heightened security after 9-11 as I wrote in a piece titled “Living in a Bullseye” (which apparently I can no longer access). I am not one prone to put myself at risk of nuclear annihilation. I also am 75 going on 76, and in 1962 live less than 20 miles from Times Square as we went through the Cuban Missile Crisis, not knowing each night as we went to bed whether or not we would wake up.
I am also aware that Russia’s military doctrine includes the use of tactical (battlefield) nuclear weapons, and that they practice their use.
What is our redline? Obama did not enforce the redline against chemical weapons in Syria.
Is it nukes? Is it biological and chemical? Is it the use of cyber against hospital?
If we do not want to put troops on the ground or planes in the air, should we already beusing our substantial cyber capabilities, perhaps to disable the Russian rail system (and that of Belarus) to prevent them from moving more armor? If they take out electricity and heat and water in Ukrainian cities, should we because that is a war crime cripple their infrastructure?
Or are we going to leave it to Anonymous to do it for us?
Should not ALL the assets of Russian oligarchs and their families be immediately frozen? Should not those family members be kicked out of Western countries, including their luxury apartments aned universities, and sent back to Russia>
Where do we draw the line, or are we willing to watch as nation and culture of more than 40 million people is destroyed?
How do we make clear not only NO MORE but insist on rolling back if we are not willing to risk what that confrontation might be?
I cannot claim to have answers. As a teacher I do not indoctrinate my students. I do try to provide accurate sources of information. I try to have them think more deeply.
Before I was a teacher I spent several decades with computers. I was highly skilled at looking at possibilities of what could go wrong and to try to account for those in my planning, But no war plans ever survive completely after the first encounter with the opponent.
I recognize that there are serious risk inherent in things we MIGHT do. But there are also serious risks in what will occur if we do not act, if we effectively acquiesce by our silence and lack of forceful action.
Might Putin try to blow up the world? If he can blackmail us with that potential threat, then we have already lost much of our freedom. How do we justify that?
I have refrained from writing about all of this for some time. I felt I could no longer remain silent. It is not any one thing that tips me over, although the implied threat to leave the American astronaut on the International Space Station is illustrative of the lack of any limit Putin is prepared to accept upon his actions.
I refused to be bullied as a person. I could therefore get a bloody nose, or far worse. I stand up to bullies, including those bullying not me but also others.
So let me end with a somewhat Quaker parable
A city denizen was out in the countryside and encountered a sturdy Quaker farmer. After ascertaining that the man was a Quaker, he asked the farmer if he believed in turning the other cheek.
“Yes, Friend, I accept that biblical instruction.”
Whereupon the city man struck the farmer on the left cheek. The farmer simply turned his head. Then the city man struck him on the right cheek.
Whereupon the farmer dropped his hoe and started to roll up his sleeves. Now since the farmer was larger and far more physically fit that the city fellow, the later started to worry, and blurted out
“What are you doing? I though you said you believed in following the Biblical command to turn the other cheek?”
“Yes, Friend”, the Quaker farmer replied, “I do. But the Bible is silent on what do when the other cheek is struck and now I am going to chastise Thee for being an obnoxious oaf.”
Make of this parable what you will.
I hope and pray for peace, but sometimes that is not possible.