Ukraine War: Filling The Walk/Talk Gap With Howitzers And Tanks

Ukraine War: Filling The Walk/Talk Gap With Howitzers And Tanks

NATO leaders and their allies have continued to portray the Russian war on Ukraine as existential for not just Ukraine but for democracy as a whole. In my previous article, I called this war an ideological conflict between totalitarianism and democracy. But by “democracy” I do not mean a specific kind of democracy, but the concept they all stand for and live under, which is a rules-based system of global order. 

Democracies are all different and some are barely democratic at all (clearly anomalies like Hungary make the diversity clear), but despite the all too human contradictions, most are generally based upon the concept of rule of law, in which no person, even the most powerful political leader, is above the law, and there is almost always an opposition that is striving to overturn a partially or fully despotic government. The system these countries impose collectively is a macrocosmic identity; no country is above the rules that the collective whole has set for their behavior.

In totalitarian and authoritarian systems, the rules do not constrain the big and powerful; those countries do what they want within the constraints the other powerful nations singly or in coalitions permit. There are no permanent rules, and for the powerful there is no rule that cannot be broken if one is powerful enough. 

History seems to prove this system breeds totalitarian or authoritarian regimes. Power is the objective, repression and duplicity is the way it is gained. The system that rejects permanent rules thrives on power, and as we know that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Hannah Arendt, the most influential and insightful analyst of the structure of totalitarianism, believed that it was a product of the 20th century, made possible by political dysfunction and modern technology.

 It is a modern version of authoritarianism which flourished in the previous centuries based on the same principles of power, but somewhat less toxic. 

It was the horror of Nazi and (later) Soviet Union atrocities as well as the vision of the nuclear future of modern warfare that compelled the victors of World War 2 to try to establish a rules-based global order. From the history of the post war decade, it is clear that the obstreperous and perniciously aggressive behaviour, Soviet Union against its former allies in the West, brought those Western leaders to the relatively late understanding that its totalitarian nature was incompatible with the postwar future they hoped for. The cold war drove the development of that rules-based system as it also drove the creation and growth of the democracies’ defensive alliance, NATO, and the other such alliances that ‘contained’ the Soviets until they fell apart in the late 1980s. 


It is a modern version of authoritarianism which flourished in the previous centuries based on the same principles of power, but somewhat less toxic.


It is arguable that NATO made mistakes after the Soviet collapse and pushed East too fast or too far. There was, after all, a feeling of optimism and strength that was palpable. We remember the “end of history” feeling that somehow democracy was fated to become first among equals among global systems in the global world order. Even China, veered away from its authoritarian roots and towards a neo-liberal economic system which used the market as a guide to policy. 

But these mistakes, which asserted mistakes inflated by propaganda, clearly would not justify the irresponsible, illegal, and brutal war being waged against Ukraine. The claim the Ukrainians are really Russians with no right to a sovereign state is sheer fantasy, but very dangerous fantasy if left uncontested. 

Possibly the dream of Western leaders after the Soviet collapse of “all Europe free and clear” was just a pipe dream. It sure seems so now, with Putin’s Russia killing thousands of innocent Ukrainian citizens as it slowly tries to grind down the Ukrainian population using methods comparable and probably inherited from the Soviet armies of World War 2. We all wonder now whether that vision was ever realistic possibility?

We will never really know. In 1990, who would have predicted that 10 years later, Gorbachev would be gone, a drunken Yeltsin would have sold out the country to the oligarchs and picked a discredited, obscure ex KGB officer named Putin to be the President.

 Under Putin, the recidivism toward totalitarian came quickly. Within 2-3 years, Putin had taken down the shiny new, but very fragile and creaky, democracy and replaced it with an authoritarian system over which he had total control, and which has grown steadily into a totalitarian system in which all freedom of expression is silenced, all information fully controlled by the state and replete with fake news, and all opposition either in jail, exile, or dead. Putin has run the authoritarian table and entered with fanfare a totalitarian nightmare, which it seems, in his delusions, his kind of nirvana. 

I wrote two weeks ago that the only acceptable end to this war was a victory that clearly stopped Putin and Russia and which no objective person could contest as not being a victory. At the time, that idea put me well out front of NATO leaders whose walk did not yet match their talk of a decisive victory.

 In those two weeks, it looks like these leaders, or most of them at least, came to the realization that they must close the talk/walk gap so as to be very clear and specific about NATO’s aims in the hope that Putin, and more his influential supporters, will understand the seriousness NATO’s intent. It is necessary also but also so that the leaders of the counties that have tried to stay neutral, mostly poorer and developing counties will understand the great damage a prolonged Ukraine-Russia war will do to their economic and political development. It is time the leaders of these countries recognized that the evil of this totalitarian aggression—an overt, totally unjustified attempt to destroy a country—deserves denunciation by all the members of the UN, not abstention which is akin to acceptance. 

Ukraine and its supporters have now made it clear, and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said it publicly a few days ago—their policy is to weaken Russia sufficiently to ensure it cannot ever again undertake such illegal action. As we know, this is not the first time in the 21st century that Russia has been guilty of identical, smaller scale actions, and the first three times got away with it. 

 President Biden led the charge with at least three $80 million arms packages in consecutive weeks. These packages were said to contain more modern and effective anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons. It was the first indication that NATO leaders were in consensus on upping its game on arms shipments, necessary in part because Russia was losing the war in Central Ukraine, terrain less well suited to the Russian army than the more industrialised and strategic East and its heavily mechanized nature. By moving its army away from Kyiv and changing its strategic objectives to securing the East and a land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula, Russia was also putting more pressure on the Ukrainian Army as combat there would better suit the heavy nature of Russian war making. To be able to hold the East, the Ukraine army would need many more tanks and much more heavy artillery, which NATO had been slow to send. Biden raised the US game significantly with a $330 million package which included a large number of new howitzer artillery pieces and of heavy modern tanks. It was a notice to all that we intend to arm the Ukrainians sufficiently well that they can stand up to the Russians and hold the East and Southeast. 

The missing part of NATO strategy, what I call the gap between talking the talk and walking the walk, is now filled in. The talk initially was all about stopping Russia’s naked aggression, of preventing it from undermining the accepted rule that countries cannot change borders, acquire new territory through force. But it was not clear how far the walk would go when the chips were down. NATO leaders seemed generally reluctant to send heavy weaponry and emphasized that NATO would not engage in direct conflict with Russia, implying that it might not go to the brink when the chips were down. 

The last two weeks have clarified that ambiguity and outlined specifically its aims as it supports Ukraine strongly in this war against Russia. NATO will continue the struggle to arm Ukraine and has changed the spectrum of weapons it will supply Ukraine to include a good quantity of heavy weapons which it intends will enable Ukrainian forces to continue their successful and heroic defense of their country. In addition to also joining in sending heavy weapons as well as smaller arms to Ukraine, the European Union is also adding to the effect of sanctions by looking for ways to reduce their imports of Russian gas and oil. Recent reports are upbeat about their ability to reduce those imports and, thus, reduce Russian earnings in foreign currency. There are rumors that Russia may not be able soon to make foreign currency debt payments which would mean a debt default and more reduction in income. 

How to end it becomes the question. Putin seems like a crazed bull; will he fight until his army has lost all will to fight? Given the Russian courage and spirit in World War 2, that seems unlikely very soon. Will the NATO alliance finally tire and reduce aid to Ukraine? Given its existential view of the war, that seems unlikely also. It is time for those countries which have tried to remain ‘neutral’ to come together and working with the UN, try to find a way for the war to end. That would be made more difficult by the outcry I would expect for Russian leaders to face War Crimes charges. I would expect the democracies, led by Ukraine, to insist on accountability for such an overtly evil and costly war. In a perfect world, that would be automatic. But if it were a perfect world there would be no war. 


The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.