Ukraine: America’s Bull Run
The Battle of Bull Run- July 21st, 1861- the first big battle of the Civil War.
The Confederates called it Manassas, the name of the nearest town, the Union Bull Run after a nearby stream. Called the picnic battle, history recorded stories of men, women and children riding out in carriages with picnic baskets and opera glasses to watch what most imagined would be a quick little battle that would end the war as fast as it started. Most predicted a swift Union victory only to be horrified when the day ended in bloodshed. The clash between Union and Confederate forces- over 60,000 combined- claimed 1000 lives, almost 3000 wounded and an unexpected Confederate victory. A real war started that day, and a year later in September 1862, Antietam saw 22,717 dead, wounded and missing in the single bloodiest day of the war. Few could have imagined that a nation built on the values of liberty and human rights would devolve into such a devastating conflict. By April of 1865 the war casualties exceeded 620,000.
Is Ukraine America’s modern-day Bull Run? Americans watch the war unfold on social media and the news, untouched by the brutality of invasion, occupation, loss, displacement and utter destruction experienced by Ukrainians as Russia invades. Pundits and politicians predict Putin’s next move and applaud Ukrainian bravery as viewers “eat popcorn” (as one Ukrainian claimed) while Ukrainian leadership begs for US intervention in the skies. It is a horror movie unfolding in real-time, and what will happen next is heavy with possibilities that Americans can’t comprehend in a modern, technologically advanced society where degrees in peace studies and safe spaces are the norm. To Americans, war is a distant problem, evident in the short attention Biden paid to it in the State of the Union address, a speech that forgot to mention the end of the Afghan War defined by a withdrawal that killed 13 military, left behind over a billion dollars of weapons, empowered the Taliban and prompted Putin’s move (October) to build up forces along the Ukrainian border.
How the US has handled Putin is complicated. What some believed deterrence would prevent, others imagined would never actually happen. Hindsight is 20/20. Putin said he was going to invade and he did. And despite months of buildup, the West believed his actions were empty threats. What a miscalculation. Tonight a nuclear plant is on fire reminding the world of Chernobyl. As the West watches the destruction of Ukrainian cities, it faces the real possibility that Putin may trigger a global war as his unwarranted aggression and nuclear threats are undeterred by sanctions. And, sanctions after the fact. The West continues with a policy of deterrence, now of deterring a WWIII since deterrence of invasion failed.
One thing is certain, failure to act has consequences. Posts of Ukrainian flags and images of yellow fields framed by blue skies do nothing to stop Putin, feed babies, heal the injured or protect Ukrainian skies while Ukraine- today -still exists. The US has known about this crisis for months but waited to act. And, today, the US is negotiating the purchase of Iranian oil: “The United States and Iran have nearly completed negotiations on reviving a nuclear accord that could bring more than a million bpd of oil, or about 1% of global supply, back to the market.” What is happening? Talk about miscalculations.
Miscalculations in history are always clear in hindsight. Ukraine gave up its nuclear capacity in 1994 in exchange for an assumption of western protection. As Russia chokes off Ukraine’s access points to the sea and on the eastern front, bombs a nuclear plant, levels key cities and kills civilians, Ukraine’s decision to give up its nuclear weapons will make the history books as a mistake of immeasurable proportions. What a lesson in the flaw of trusting treaties…and western powers.
History is also a wicked judge. Too often the questions of history involve the whys of a generation and the ifs and buts of what could have been done versus what happened. When Truman dropped the A-Bomb to end WWII, most hailed his decision as pragmatic and critical to ending the war in the Pacific. Yet, the leader of the free world started the nuclear age. In the subsequent decades, historians questioned his motives and if his decision was inevitable or avoidable. Time and distance led to new interpretations often reflective of the cultural politics of a given era. The question of inevitability is applied to events across history from the Civil War to the Vietnam conflict. The Holocaust is one of the topics where questions like how come the world did nothing to help the Jews, why did people turn a blind eye and is this the punctuation mark of man’s inhumanity to man shape historical discourse. History will hold the world accountable for watching Ukraine be destroyed. And, it will question why Putin was not stopped. It will also make clear that a war killed the pandemic. Fleeing Ukrainians did not wear masks.
Although appeasement — conventionally defined as the satisfaction of grievances through unilateral concessions, with the aim of avoiding war — was once regarded as an honorable and effective strategy of statecraft, “after the 1938 Munich Conference it came to symbolize naïveté, failed diplomacy, and the politics of cowardice.” Today it is conceptualized in a way that reflects a West that has been at relative peace since WWII. Two generations later, appeasement is understood through a much broader, concession-friendly lens.
To modern scholars, appeasement is understood as a tool to “reduce tensions with one adversary to conserve resources for use against a second, more threatening, adversary; to separate an adversary from potential allies; to redirect an adversary’s hostility toward another target; or to buy time to build up strength for deterrence or defense against the adversary.”
Add China to the Russian cocktail and shake- no wonder the West is watching. Appeasement, deterrence- tomato, ta-mah-toe.
“Appeasement is not always about resolving grievances or creating a lasting peace; it is not always naïve; and it is not always antithetical to balancing. Instead, it can often allow states to balance against a more threatening adversary by diffusing secondary threats, or to facilitate balancing against the primary threat by delaying a conflict.”
Ukraine is the sacrificial lamb of this approach, and the West’s use of appeasement and deterrence has emboldened an adversary and killed a nation. If this is strategy, what a miscalculation. Remember Bull Run.