It’s Time to Stop Play-Acting

March 28, 2022 Updated: March 30, 2022


If it were an intentional tactic, President Joe Biden would deserve respect for originality in introducing planned incoherence and impenetrable self-contradiction into the arsenal of third parties meddling in a war.

In the past two weeks, he has, to the astonishment of the world and the consternation of his entourage, called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” and said that he “cannot remain in power.” He has prepared U.S. airborne infantry troops in Poland for what they will find when they enter the war theater in Ukraine, and he has promised that any escalation to chemical or biological or, implicitly, nuclear weapons by Russia will be met by a “response in kind.”

Immediately after these portentous utterances, the much overworked White House gaffe-correction and denial squad walked back Biden’s remarks and assured the world that the United States had no intention of achieving regime change in Russia, nor of introducing its own forces into combat in Ukraine, and that it wouldn’t use nuclear or chemical weapons.

These were presumably spontaneous expressions of mood from the U.S. commander-in-chief only intended to rouse moral indignation. Since the world is now accustomed to Biden’s bouts of incomprehensibility, the disconcertion that his indiscretions have provoked is containable, but it illustrates the necessity for the NATO alliance to define its war objectives and to determine the means it is prepared to apply to achieve them.

At various times, administration spokespeople have implied that nothing short of the defeat of Russia and its complete eviction from Ukraine will be satisfactory, and that on the other hand, Russian retention of some of the Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine might be acceptable. But as Biden heroically defends every square inch of NATO territory (none of which has been threatened, and this is a very tiresome and irrelevant recitation), the United States is prepared to obstruct Russia’s war effort ineffectually and to the last extremity of Ukrainian endurance. (The defense of every square inch of NATO territory will be revisited if Russia incites insurrection among the 25 percent Russian minorities of the 3.3 million people in Estonia and Latvia, where their rights have been scrupulously protected.)

If what Substack commentator Christian Whiton well describes as “the Harvard Kennedy School glee club” of Biden advisers (except that it’s completely unsynchronized) could concert on Western alliance objectives and acceptable means, and manfully program Biden to stay on message, the time is right for a decisive NATO move toward a jointly acceptable compromise, far though it would be from the expressed war aims of both sides.

Ukraine has to stop pretending that Russia has no legitimate interest in the Russian minorities in the other former republics of the USSR, which prefer to remain within the mother country. This applies to approximately 8 million people in eastern Ukraine, and doesn’t include those already seized by Putin in Crimea in 2014. This was territory that traditionally belonged to Russia and was only reallocated to Ukraine by the Ukrainian leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, in 1954, and Ukraine’s claim to it is tenuous. The majority of Crimeans appear to wish to remain in Russia.

The West’s purpose in the present Ukraine war isn’t to perpetuate the abandonment of millions of Russians who wish to be in Russia and are now living in contiguity with Russia in neighboring former Soviet republics. While Ukraine is a historic underdog now enduring shameful and unprovoked aggression, that doesn’t confer upon it the right to subjugate a Russian minority that has never been intelligibly consulted on the issue of which nationality it wishes.

“Ukraine for the Ukrainians” would be an acceptable summary of the war aims the West will assist the Ukrainians to achieve. “Russia for the Russians” is an equally legitimate claim. The secession of defined sizeable historic ethnic minorities has been demonstrated as legal and likely to be successful many times in modern Europe, including the secession of Norway from Sweden, of Finland and the Baltic states from Russia, of Slovakia from Czechoslovakia, and of the components of the former Yugoslavia.

Of course, Ukraine possesses the right to secede from the Soviet Union, and a resolution of the present war that accepts that right and the right of the Russian communities of Ukraine that border Russia to remain in Russia would be just and could be represented by both Russia and Ukraine as satisfactory outcomes, however short of their present declared objectives. It would also establish a useful precedent for the resolution of other claims resulting from the dissolution of the Soviet Union (though, again, the numbers and grievances of the Russian minorities in Estonia and Latvia are much less). Ukraine could be an affirmed neutral, provided its revised frontiers were guaranteed by Russia and NATO.

It’s time to tell Ukraine that NATO will support that outcome, and it should advise Russia it’s prepared to supplement considerably the military assistance it’s prepared to give to Ukraine, including a comprehensive anti-aircraft defense system and additional warplanes for the Ukrainian air force. It’s mere hypocrisy for Biden to call for the overthrow of the Russian leader while withholding aircraft and anti-aircraft missiles from Ukraine. If Putin insists on continuing with his puerile threats of nuclear and chemical weapons and intermittent use of hypersonic missiles, he should be advised that the West doesn’t recognize and will oppose his right indefinitely to terrorize the civil population of Ukraine with impunity and will facilitate Ukraine’s ability to strike back at Russia.

NATO’s obligation now is to uphold the right of Ukraine to independence, the right of adjacent Russian communities to be Russian, and if Russia persists in this illegal and barbarous war, to ensure that Ukraine has a much more equal military playing field than the present Russian-operated shooting gallery against the civil population of Ukraine.

It’s time for Biden to stop play-acting. That he was slow out of the starting gate is understandable, given that Gen. Mark Milley, demonstrably the most incompetent chairman of the joint chiefs of staff ever, predicted that Kyiv would fall to the Russians within three days. Biden’s first offer of help to Ukraine was to assist its president to flee the country at once. We have since had a gradual escalation in arms deliveries well in arrears of the success of Ukraine’s fierce defense, and an amateur hour of sham sanctions that don’t start for months and won’t be observed by China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and many other countries, including even Israel.

No one, including Putin, has any idea what outcome NATO is really seeking. All the bunk about the imperative need to defeat and humiliate Russia should stop, since there’s no chance of denying Russia the right to represent Russians nor any justification for objecting to that. In any case, Russia, like China, the United States, England, and a very few other countries, is unconquerable in its homeland.

We must stop dangling intimations of unlimited assistance in front of Ukraine and tell it precisely what we will help them to achieve and raise our assistance appropriately, and stop cowering about offending Putin if we give Ukraine airplanes, even as Biden hurls epithets at him. The nasty and stupid domestic debate between those accusing the neocons of trying to drag America into another unwinnable ground war and those insisting that Russia be humbled and Putin be assassinated or sent to The Hague for trial, must end.

NATO became involved because we wished to avoid another horrible defeat for the West, which would occur if the imperfect liberty of Ukraine were brutally crushed. We also wish for that brave country, which desires to be in the Western world, to achieve that goal. Those are legitimate objectives and are within reach.

After that, we should get back to trying to work out a durable arrangement with Russia, which has much more in common with us than with its sinister current Chinese patrons.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Conrad Black
Conrad Black has been one of Canada’s most prominent financiers for 40 years and was one of the leading newspaper publishers in the world. He’s the author of authoritative biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, and, most recently, “Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other,” which has been republished in updated form. Please follow Conrad Black with Bill Bennett and Victor Davis Hanson on their podcast Scholars and Sense.