Historians of World War II have provided many lessons about the brutality of both aggressors and defenders. Americans tend to think that wartime brutality was a characteristic only of our opponents. Sadly, notions of a “just war” to defend a country have turned into ugly sprees of killing even by our own troops. War is a tragedy for both sides.
Our commanders of land and naval artillery forces as well as bombing missions that targeted large cities had to face the ugliness that their efforts created. Not infrequently, many commanders resigned or had to be hospitalized because they were overcome with the destruction to lives and property of the “innocents.” Their mental states often collapsed as a result. It is not a relief for those on such missions to be told that we are not a particularly cruel people, but because war ultimately becomes a confrontation of“them” or “us”.
Rick Atkinson’s three volume recount of the U.S. effort in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and Western Europe, contains many vivid examples of how our troops were first sickened by the killing of innocents while they tried hard to maintain the dignity of life even for their opponents. In fact, their own commanders often commented that their troops had to learn to “hate” in order to be successful soldiers against such a fierce opponent as the Nazi army. War is not a parlor game. The Bell tolls for thee!
Still, if modern historians are reasonably accurate, nothing the U.S. forces did in Europe compares with the ruthlessness of the Red Army as it advanced from the defeat of the last German offensive at Stalingrad. There are many reports of Red Army savagery against the German citizens as the Russians crossed into Germany, and, in particular, during its last drive toward Berlin. Of course, it can be argued that the German invasion of Poland and Russia was even more ruthless and cruel to the innocents of these countries. The Nazi death camps were an unparalleled human travesty whose memory can never be erased. Did that Nazi savagery justify the behavior of the Red Army? It is impossible to answer such a question.
How then, are we to deal with the discovery in recent days of executed Ukrainians, apparently killed by their Russian military captors, sometimes with shots to the head while the victims were bound? How should we deal with the looting of the homes of Ukrainians by retreating Russian soldiers? Who will punish the Russians for their current savagery or the Russian military for not disciplining their invading troops? Are such cruelties performed on orders from superior officers? Were they in response to the Russian defeats suffered in engagements with active Ukrainian units trying to liberate areas first conquered by the invading army of Russia? Were the perpetrators young, untrained draftees who responded to the deaths of their own comrades by killing innocent civilians?
Drawing a line between cruel military tactics and a policy of trying to limit the casualties of an invading army—even when that army is an aggressor—is a permanent fault line for military strategists. We have history to guide us. There is a long line of historic cruelties that stretches back even to Fifth Century Greece.
Many college students read with horror Thucydides’ graphic account of the Athenian attack on Melos, a small island that seemed sympathetic to Sparta. Athens’ conduct seems to be such a counterweight to the formidable, democratic ideals of Athens that are also carefully studied. The Melian debate portrays the sad fate of a small nation attempting to stay “neutral,” in the Athenian war with Sparta. Melos is sacrificed because the Athenians fear that the Melians could pose a threat if the island were recaptured by the Spartans! Thucydides tells us that all the Melian men were executed and the women and children sold into slavery! This was a tragedy of war with a moral dilemma that has been repeated many times since.
Now, we come to reports of Russian soldiers executing Ukrainian civilians and the glaring, visual evidence of Russian artillery and missiles used relentlessly against the villages, cities and people of Ukraine. The destruction of private homes and public facilities means much rebuilding will remain even if the war ends the killing for now. How should we react to such brutality? Who should pay for this destruction and by what means should repayment be made?
A NECESSARY RESET IN AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY
This is foreground for thinking through a necessary reset of American foreign policy toward Russia. We cannot go back to our prior policy stance that was inconsistent and flawed. Yes, Russia is a nuclear power and the possibility that a Thug like Putin emulates the Nazi Thug Hitler can never be totally dismissed. Hitler died understanding that Germany was losing. According to some historians, he expressed a wish that it be destroyed in a funeral pyre because the Germans had let him down! Yet, realizing that Putin is a Thug and that Russian tactics are vicious in the extreme to innocents caught in their line of fire, should never be an excuse to admit Russian motives are justifiable. We should not accept the Putinesque vision of a re-constitution of the old empire of the USSR. We made that mistake in 2014 and Putin read our “book!” We promised Ukraine that they would be protected if they gave up their nuclear weaponry. We didn’t keep that promise in 2014 when the Russians annexed parts of Ukraine bordering on the Black Sea (Crimea) and which it still holds. Had we acted then, it is likely we would not be seeing Ukrainians murdered and catastrophic property damage inflicted. Being “soft,” or “accepting” of Russian phobic fears of NATO was the wrong answer then. It is not the right answer now.
Thug regimes are much alike. They rule by fear and specialized, directed violence against those who protest. Russia only respects fearful outcomes as a State. We should enact a foreign policy toward Russia that shows strength and continuity. Russia must fear us in order to respect the peace. A Russia without fear of U.S. actions is not a stable element of world order.
We should reflect carefully on how Russia treats its own dissidents—those brave Russians who protest their leaders’ violence and totalitarian governance. The Putin government beats them, jails them, and sentences them in Kangaroo Courts to the Putin Gulag. They resort to murdering leaders of dissent in Russia, as well as Russians who flee to the West. Russia, ruled as it is, can never be our ally in trying to bring calm to the Middle East. We need to immediately cease that delusion as well in our negotiations with Iran. Our efforts to restrain Iran are often based upon Russia as an interlocutor. We fool ourselves with such policies.
One of the great ironies of the Russian invasion are the reported attempts by Finland and Sweden to consider joining NATO. Finland had a tragic military experience with Russia in 1940. The Finns at first successfully resisted the attack by the USSR, again over false claims that Finland would not be neutral toward Russia. Then the Russians inflicted massive casualties to people and property and took over parts of Finland. The similarity to the Ukrainian attack is telling. And, for the Swedes to consider giving up their long-held neutrality bespeaks a real fear that their only credible defense against Russia is to join NATO and acquire strong allies. Finally, the behavior of Germany, which has reversed nearly 20 years of Merkel’s toadying to Russian markets and Russian Oil and Gas, is striking. A pleasant surprise indeed. It needs to be amplified.
The U.S. needs a complete Reset of its foreign policies toward Putin-controlled Russia. We can and must counter their military buildup; their active military stance in Syria; and, we must try to reverse their conquest of former Ukrainian territory along the Black Sea. Finally, we must not be misled by their threats of nuclear war. We must be fully armed and fully ready and we should make the Russians highly aware of our capabilities. The Cold War was won by consistent diligence, supported by both of our political parties. Only Resolve will succeed against totalitarian Thugs.
Russian policies toward the West are now quite clear. This Administration must do an immediate reset of its Foreign Policy. There will be benefits to such a reset—particularly in Asia. We should follow through with a meaningful reset toward China. No longer, can it be “business as usual” in either Putin Russia or Ji Pin’s China. Our policy has to be a deliberate, dedicated stance of supporting our allies, explicitly, and not kowtowing to a “one China policy” that merely placates a totalitarian regime.
A reset also requires the U.S. to formulate a permanent policy with regard to Russian exports to the West. This should apply to all oil and gas imported by the West, but import restrictions to all Russian products must also be implemented. Germany is in an awkward position as is Italy, but we are in a definitive Cold War II with Russia as it is now ruled. We should levy heavy taxation on all Russian petroleum and gas imported into the West, and those tax receipts should be used to rebuild the terrifying damage in Ukraine, to people who have lost family and have lost their homes and businesses. Such policies need not be restricted to Russian Oil and Gas. Sadly, this means that part of the tax revenue so raised will come from Western pockets as it lowers returns from exports to Russia.
A government policy that is clear will motivate citizens to look to the origin of their energy supplies as well as to other Russian exports. Restrictions should stop only when Russia moves away from its current policies. In the meanwhile, there will be meaningful losses of revenue to the Oligarchs and to Putin from depressed prices of oil and gas as well as other Russian exports. We should never agree to pay for such imports in Russian rubles. Forget that approach by the Russians. Just say “No!” If you don’t like payment in Euros or Dollars, find another market!
In similar fashion, the West should provide no insurance to Western firms that wish to invest in Russia. Firms doing that should receive no protection from Western, tax payer supported governments. If shareholders don’t punish an American entity for such risk-taking, that is the business of that entity, but the West should offer no Government sponsored protection from the Russian authorities or their thug mob of Oligarchs. A similar ban on Russian investment in the U.S. should be considered. Why encourage asset diversification that benefits Oligarchs that support Putin? We need to make tough sanctions and then keep them indefinitely until Russia truly changes. The need for a total Reset is now!
The entire West, and particularly the United States, has to realize that Putin’s Russia is a serious enemy. It is an armed nuclear state that claims it is willing to launch aggression against its neighbors on highly profaned grounds. We cannot do better unless we take their threats seriously and respond in kind, now and until Russia throws out its own Thugs.
Russia is likely to experience a revolt only when a dedicated minority realize the pain that Putin causes. That means that the principal beneficiaries of Putin Thuggery have to experience severe pain by losing export markets and being refused status in the West. We should gear that reset in policy to run as long as Russia remains a totalitarian state. It may take several generations, but it is the right policy for now and the foreseeable future.