Events in Ukraine are not our war
I was reminded by a Paul Kengor article in the March 29 American Spectator, "Russians Know Death Unlike Any Other People," of something I have tried to communicate to many people about getting involved in the Ukraine war — namely, that the Russians and Ukrainians know about real suffering that we Americans have never endured. The closest we've even come to it was only in the South at the end of our Civil War.
This is important if we are to understand the mindset of the belligerents in Ukraine. They know centuries of invasion, genocidal destruction, and invasion from both the East and the West. They will endure far more suffering during this war than the U.S. and anyone in the West are willing to.
As much as we want to empathize with Ukraine, we simply cannot comprehend the lengths to which they or the Russians will go to win this war. We can logically try to understand this, but we will never comprehend it at the deep emotional level they do. It would be like one of Bill Gates's kids trying to understand what real poverty and daily hunger are like. They can see it, but they'll never know what it really feels like physically, emotionally, or generationally.
Both the Ukrainians and the Russians are extremely xenophobic — the exact opposite of Americans, who are typically open to other cultures. Both countries have suffered tens of millions of casualties before, during, and after WWII, and these deaths are still in the living memory of many people today. By contrast, the U.S. suffered about 400 thousand casualties in WWII — a large number, for sure, but not in comparison to the total losses in Eastern Europe. A great book about the Ukrainian suffering is Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder.
Image: The Red Army advances against the Nazis in Ukraine, 1943. Public domain.
My point here is that this is a war of Eastern European (and former Soviet) countries with whom we are not allied. They see the world very differently from the way we see it and will prosecute the war in very different ways from how we would. Neither is a real democracy, and both are controlled by corrupt oligarchic governments. They have long histories of immense suffering and war that both terrify and motivate them to fight today.
This is not our war, even though we are already involved via sanctions on Russia and military aid to Ukraine. Does anyone believe that Putin doesn't see these U.S. moves as acts of war? You better believe he does. So far, he has restrained himself from responding because active conflict with the U.S. or NATO is not what he wants. Nor does he want it to escalate to a global or even nuclear contest. Rather than accusing him of madness, we should see that he is still making rational decisions and, from the Russian perspective, prosecuting a war the way they always have, and for the reasons they always have.
No-fly zones, free aircraft, and other truly significant support from the U.S. and the West can only make matters worse and lead to a larger conflict that nobody wants, except maybe for Ukraine. Putin may be able to ignore the support we're providing currently, but there is no telling how long his patience will last. According to reports, he's firing generals and Russian casualties are high.
With our unclear and weak response so far, we've given both countries more reason than ever to distrust the U.S. and the West. From their perspectives, we're on the fence, acting like typical weak democracies, and justifying why many Eastern Europeans tend to like strong dictators.