NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate provides the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, March 16th, 2022

Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine is the stress test of an epoch for Earth’s democracies

One year ago, I hailed the Biden Administration’s renew­al and exten­sion of the New START treaty with the Russ­ian Federation’s Vladimir Putin. This treaty was the back­bone of diplo­mat­ic efforts under­tak­en thir­ty-five years ago to pro­tect our nation and the world against a new strate­gic nuclear arms race. The New START treaty exten­sion locked in crit­i­cal strate­gic nuclear weapons force reduc­tions achieved with its ini­tial sign­ing between U.S. Pres­i­dent Clin­ton and Russ­ian Pres­i­dent Yeltsin in 1994, dur­ing the ear­li­est days of the post-Cold War era.

In that piece, I wrote:

But we should nev­er take our future secu­ri­ty for grant­ed when thou­sands of nuclear war­heads are deployed right here in Wash­ing­ton State and are top tar­gets of Russ­ian strate­gic nuclear forces… Extend­ing New START ensures we will have ver­i­fi­able lim­its on the main­stay of Russ­ian nuclear weapons that can reach the U.S. home­land for the next five years… The Russ­ian Fed­er­a­tion has the capac­i­ty to deploy many more than 1,550 war­heads on its mod­ern­ized ICBMs and SLBMs, as well as heavy bombers, but is con­strained from doing so by New START.

Each morn­ing since the inva­sion began, I have thought about all of the lives and dreams that have been shat­tered by this vile act of aggression.

Thir­ty years ago, the Russ­ian Repub­lic and Ukrain­ian Repub­lic joined with the oth­er thir­teen republics of the Union of Sovi­et Social­ist Republics (USSR) and for­mal­ly dis­man­tled the Sovi­et Union. Fif­teen republics became inde­pen­dent nations and called them­selves a “Com­mon­wealth of Inde­pen­dent States (CIS).”

In April 1992, I pre­pared a brief­ing for U.S. Gov­ern­ment offi­cials and senior exec­u­tives at my com­pa­ny on “Coop­er­a­tive Sci­ence and Tech­nol­o­gy Pro­grams with the CIS: Why and How They Need to Work.”

In June and July 1992, I trav­eled to Moscow, Rus­sia, for the first time. For the next sev­en years, I would make more than six­ty trips to Moscow and oth­er Russ­ian cities, work­ing to build ties with the for­mer Sovi­et states so that we would nev­er again return to an era where nuclear war threat­ened to destroy the world.

Dur­ing the 1980s, I was a defense intel­li­gence ana­lyst respon­si­ble for assess­ing Sovi­et nuclear threats to the Unit­ed States and NATO allies.

In Decem­ber 1991, the world changed with the col­lapse of the Sovi­et Union. Just months lat­er, there I was, fly­ing into Rus­sia and prepar­ing to work on behalf of the U.S. Gov­ern­ment imple­ment­ing coop­er­a­tive threat reduc­tion programs:

  • Man­ag­ing teams of U.S.-Russian sci­en­tists and engi­neers to destroy nuclear weapons as required under the Inter­me­di­ate Nuclear Forces (INF) and Strate­gic Arms Reduc­tion Treaties (START);
  • Build­ing seis­mic mon­i­tor­ing sta­tions in Siberia and north­ern Ukraine to mon­i­tor com­pli­ance with the Com­pre­hen­sive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and Nuclear Non-Pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty; and
  • Cre­at­ing rela­tion­ships with Russ­ian and Ukrain­ian col­leagues to put our coun­tries’ col­lec­tive futures on a new path beyond the Cold War.

Eurasi­a’s next thir­ty years will be shaped by how democ­ra­cies con­tend with Vladimir Putin’s con­tin­ued reign and his plans to make Ukraine a pup­pet state.

Last month, Vladimir Putin launched an unpro­voked, large-scale attack on Ukrain­ian fam­i­lies, destroy­ing lives and com­mu­ni­ties with deep per­son­al and cul­tur­al ties to fam­i­ly, friends, and col­leagues in the Russ­ian Fed­er­a­tion, among Euro­pean nations, and in the Unit­ed States and Israel. Putin’s inva­sion is also leav­ing Europe and the world more exposed to the risk of a nuclear cat­a­stro­phe.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy

Ukrain­ian Pres­i­dent Volodymyr Zelen­skyy at his desk (Pho­to cour­tesy of the Ukrain­ian government)

Dur­ing the past eigh­teen years, Putin has peri­od­i­cal­ly unleashed his fury on Ukraini­ans in the Crimea, against Geor­gians, and on Rus­sians who have opposed his dic­ta­to­r­i­al rule.

But with this inva­sion of Ukraine, Putin’s New World Dis­or­der is now ful­ly exposed.

The demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly elect­ed leader of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelen­skyy, is at cen­ter stage. Pres­i­dent Zelen­skyy has held his nation and peo­ple togeth­er by stay­ing in Kyiv, com­mu­ni­cat­ing with his peo­ple every day, and exhort­ing the glob­al com­mu­ni­ty to send assis­tance to his people.

His lead­er­ship is defy­ing Putin’s ambitions.

By deploy­ing every ele­ment of lead­er­ship, pow­er, and diplo­ma­cy, Ukraine’s Pres­i­dent has allowed his peo­ple, the Euro­pean Union, NATO mem­bers, and the Unit­ed States to con­sid­er the sce­nario – how­ev­er unlike­ly – that nev­er crossed Putin’s mind: That Ukraine may deny Putin his vic­to­ry.

Demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly elect­ed gov­ern­ments and our notions of secu­ri­ty, sta­bil­i­ty, and diplo­ma­cy in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry now must endure a stress test of unknown length. But a col­lec­tive, con­cert­ed strat­e­gy to stran­gle Russia’s econ­o­my and force Russ­ian elites and aris­to­crats to stay house-bound in Rus­sia just might cre­ate a reverse stress test.

An aligned Euro­pean Union, Orga­ni­za­tion of Secu­ri­ty and Coop­er­a­tion in Europe, NATO, and Unit­ed Nations, with every orga­ni­za­tion using their respec­tive levers of diplo­mat­ic, eco­nom­ic, polit­i­cal, social, and mil­i­tary influ­ence and actions.

This is the very sce­nario Putin dismissed.

Putin’s war assumed that four key lead­ers were too weak and too dis­tract­ed at home to mount a col­lec­tive response to his inva­sion of Ukraine:

  • Joe Biden was mired in low approval rat­ings and con­tend­ing with the U.S. mass media’s con­stant “sky is falling” mantra about inflation;
  • British Prime Min­is­ter Boris Johnson’s polling num­bers were low­er than Biden’s and calls for his res­ig­na­tion kept surfacing.
  • Olaf Sholz, the new Ger­man Chan­cel­lor, had bare­ly formed a gov­ern­ing coali­tion and led a nation that depends on Rus­sia sup­ply­ing forty per­cent of its oil and gas.
  • And then there was Ukrain­ian Pres­i­dent Volodymyr Zelen­skyy: the demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly elect­ed leader and for­mer come­di­an who had spurned Putin and still man­aged to win a con­test­ed pres­i­den­tial election.

The peo­ple of Ukraine – and yes, the peo­ple of Rus­sia – will won­der for the rest of their lives what made Putin attack anoth­er Slav­ic nation.

Try­ing to pre­dict Putin’s next move is impossible.

What is pos­si­ble? Prepar­ing our col­lec­tive next moves. Help­ing Ukraini­ans know that they are not fight­ing alone, and that their peo­ple now flee­ing to Euro­pean nations and Amer­i­can cities will be kept safe for the duration.

Remind­ing each oth­er that diplo­mat­ic efforts must per­sist if we are to reduce the risks of esca­la­tion. And in the midst of this ter­ri­ble moment, we must hold onto the essen­tial and unique pow­er of demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­ern­ments: we have the pow­er of the peo­ple stand­ing with us.

Putin does not.

It is the pow­er of the Ukrain­ian peo­ple that gives their Pres­i­dent the courage to call on the rest of the world to come to the aid of his nation, as he did again this morn­ing when he spoke to an extra­or­di­nary gath­er­ing of Con­gress.

We all must find the sta­mi­na to stand up for Ukraine for as long as it takes.

And if Putin decides to bend and nego­ti­ate a with­draw­al of is forces, then we must use our pow­er to ensure that the Russ­ian peo­ple do not break.

This is our stress test of a life­time. Let’s fig­ure out how to sur­vive it together.

Edi­tor’s Note: Gael Tar­leton is an NPI Advi­so­ry Coun­cilmem­ber who served on NPI’s Board of Direc­tors for over ten years. She served the peo­ple of King Coun­ty and Wash­ing­ton State as a port com­mis­sion­er and state rep­re­sen­ta­tive from 2008–2021. She now works for May­or Bruce Har­rell as Inter­im Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Rela­tions Direc­tor. The views expressed here are her own, and not those of the City of Seat­tle. Gael ded­i­cates this arti­cle to Bill, Vik­tor, Andrei, Valeriy, Oles, and two gen­er­als, all Ukraini­ans and Ukrain­ian emi­gres who worked with her in Rus­sia and Ukraine in the 1990s. She hopes they and their fam­i­lies are safe.

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