In my last couple of columns, I tried to outline the roots of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Now, three months on, some important lessons have become clear in the wreckage and ruin. All of us here in Eastern Oregon, the nation and the world should consider them if we wish to see a more peaceful future.
One thing we have all had to relearn is that peace and prosperity are not permanent. President Woodrow Wilson promised the great war would be the war to end all wars, that the world would be made safe for democracy. Both of those promises proved false, the victims of despair and revenge.
In a second world war just 20 years later, President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill outlined in their Atlantic Charter some principles of a lasting peace: self-determination for nations victimized by Nazism, armaments reduction and lowering of trade barriers. The Soviet Union, which allied with the U.S. and Britain to defeat Nazi Germany, refused to cooperate and imposed repressive Communist governments on all the states it had liberated from the Nazis.
Then, in 1989, when Soviet reformer Mikhail Gorbachev informed the leaders of those states that they were free to choose their own futures, the world rejoiced again. I recall thinking that surely, Europe’s peaceful, prosperous future was guaranteed. Now that old impulse to dominate smaller neighbors has revived, zombie-like, in Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. This reminds us that eternal vigilance really is the price of liberty.
We have also learned the unthinkable is now thinkable again. In August 1945, the United States dropped two atom bombs on Japan, in hopes of ending the long and bloody Pacific War. The aftermath of that bombing horrified the world. Nonetheless, other nations sought to acquire nuclear weapons, as a kind of insurance policy. Because he had the bomb, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev believed President John F. Kennedy would not respond when the Soviet Union put missiles on Cuba 60 years ago this October. Kennedy called Khrushchev’s bluff when he ordered a naval blockade to intercept Soviet ships carrying missiles and installation equipment.
Khrushchev knew Kennedy meant business, but, as he wrote later, he came to realize how outrageous it was that he and Kennedy had at their disposal the power to destroy millions of lives in a matter of minutes. Undoubtedly, this played a part in Khrushchev’s decision to remove the missiles. Soviet and U.S. leadership for years afterward observed a tacit agreement that neither would risk using nuclear weapons again. This agreement held until just a few weeks ago, when Putin threatened NATO nations with nuclear retaliation if they interfered with his army’s rape and plunder of Ukraine.
A third takeaway reminds us that in a globalized world, the shock of a regional war will reverberate far beyond the battlefields. As Europe’s breadbasket, Ukraine exports about ⅓ of the world’s wheat and sunflower oil. The Russian invasion has taken a devastating toll on Ukrainian agriculture. Russians have confiscated equipment, torn through and/or laid mines in valuable farmland and blockaded export routes in the Black Sea. This virtually guarantees hardship and hunger for nations like Egypt, which rely on Ukrainian exports. In 2011, a drought in Ukraine caused the price of bread to skyrocket in Cairo, bringing people into the streets in protests that eventually chased Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from power. We can expect more instability and unrest worldwide in the coming months.
The most important lesson of this terrible event is that dictatorship can be ruinous. Volodymyr Zelenskyy won his campaign for the Ukrainian presidency in a free and fair election. He listened to Ukrainians, who forcefully expressed their desire to become affiliated with the European Union in the Maidan protests of 2013-14. When Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine a few weeks ago Zelenskyy stood up and embodied Ukraine’s determination not to submit to Russian domination, moving around the country livestreaming defiance and encouragement. By contrast, Putin has rigged every Russian election since at least 2007, relentlessly promoting his party while denying others the right to campaign, and imprisoning or murdering outspoken critics of his regime. He has no checks on his power and listens only to those who cheerlead his every decision. Thus he was able to launch a senseless war on demonstrably false pretenses.
This war has inflicted horrific death and destruction on Ukraine. Many young Russian soldiers have died fighting what their leader told them was Nazism, but which turned out to be ordinary people who could speak to them in Russian as well as Ukrainian. Russian citizens have seen the stable lives they have built since the end of communism — good jobs, improved living conditions, access to more than the basics and ability to travel — obliterated. The Russian brand may never recover from this debacle, and the well-being of millions worldwide is in jeopardy. All this came to pass because one man could make disastrous decisions with no accountability.
A lot of people in this country seem oddly untroubled by attempts to restrict voting, lock in one party’s electoral wins and reinstall a president who lost an election fair and square. They would do well to contemplate the lessons of Putin’s war and reflect on what can befall a nation when its leader and his party do away with all opposition and operate without fetters and with impunity.