HOW WILL THIS END?
Back when I was thirteen, I went to see a movie that starred Gregory Peck, PORK CHOP HILL, about the Korean War, which began the same year I entered kindergarten and ended when I was in the third grade.
Peck played an officer who was supposed to lead his platoon to take an insignificant hill where "godless commie" North Koreans were dug in in heavily fortified positions and prepared to fight to the death. Peck would be provided with artillery support and his flanks were to be protected by combat units to his right and left. But, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. The artillery shelled the wrong positions and killed nearly half of Peck's men in the process. The support units on Peck's flanks were ambushed and Peck found himself and his men outmanned and outgunned, holding on by the skin of their teeth. All of this was happening during what every soldier already sensed was the final days of the war. Everyone knew that the Allies on one side and the North Korean and Chinese Communists on the other, were negotiating peace terms in a place called Panmunjom. No soldier wanted to be the last man to die on a hill that had no strategic military value and yet there they were - fighting, bleeding, dying. They had orders not to retreat and they were not going to receive reinforcements. Why? What was the point? The movie's answer to that question resonates with me as I watch the events unfolding in Ukraine.
Pork Chop Hill was a test: How far would the Allies go to protect a tiny corner of South Korea, an insignificant speck of ground? How strong was their will to defend a principle? The Allies knew they had to be prepared to demonstrate that they would go the limit in men and materiel, if necessary. That no price would be too great. The movie ends with reinforcements arriving in time to save Peck and his men because there was finally movement in the talks in Panmunjom. The Communists had become convinced of Western resolve.
Putin is now convinced not only of Ukraine's resolve, but of the West's as well. He knows he cannot win so he is turning the landscape of Ukraine into "Pork Chop Hill," systematically destroying the infrastructure of the country, laying waste to its cities, destroying its monuments, leaving death and deprivation everywhere his troops and tanks have traveled. But, in this scenario Putin's soldiers ironically play the role of Peck's platoon: following impossible orders, shooting and killing -- and being killed in droves -- to allow Putin to demonstrate his resolve. All they will get out of this are a few medals, some promotions and a lifetime of PTSD. Putin has already found his "off ramp" from this war. Ukrainian President Zelensky "gave" it to him when he said he wanted to have a face to face. Putin may not have such a meeting, but he will eventually agree to a truce, and only after he has pounded Ukraine into a pile of rubble. When he has done that he will suddenly come to a "realization" that the world is right; he should stop. He will throw up his hands in "shock" and wonder, "How did things get so far?"
President Zelensky knew from the beginning that a military confrontation with Russia could only end one way, but he also understood that, if he could make the conquest of his country so painful to Putin that any victory would be Pyrrhic at best, Putin might agree to terms that would establish Ukraine's sovereignty once and for all. To achieve that goal Zelensky understood that he - that all Ukrainians - would have to be prepared to die.
At the moment, it seems both leaders are achieving their goals.
Putin will eventually agree to a "compromise" that will have him withdraw his troops, recognize Ukraine's sovereignty and allow the Ukraine to trade openly in the European Union. However, Zelensky will agree that Ukraine will NOT join NATO, and that it will maintain a neutral status and that the majority Russian Donbas region in the east will stay in Russian hands.
Zelensky now enjoys the admiration and support of ther entire world, but after the cameras have gone away, when the trumpets no longer sound, he will spend the rest of his presidency trying to rebuild his country. He will be too busy to engage in international politics ever again and he will now have to fend off political enemies looking to take advantage of the chaos in his country.
The United States will not like this compromise, as it will have been negotiated without its input. (Europe, Russia and Ukraine are already talking on their own.) The world had four years to see how things could play out without the US being centrally involved. The sun still came up and the birds still sang. And what consistency in US foreign policy can anyone count on with our country currently being as divided as it is? Now, that the world knows they can do pretty well on their own, it will be very hard for the US to reclaim its old role as the arbiter of "world order." Anyone who thinks Putin won't chortle at the prospect is kidding themselves.
It is deeply angering to contemplate any scenario in which Putin emerges from this morass relatively unscathed, but the rules of the game that he is playing with the West actually favor him. He has nukes, and the West is unwilling to engage him militarily. Proxy wars are one thing but going the "extra mile" over Chechnya, Crimea or Ukraine? Not bloody likely. As long as that remains true forgive me if I don't hold my breath at the idea that somehow Western moral outrage will be effective against Putin.
Putin's endgame is a return to a multi-polar world where economic, military and political alliances and power are determined by superpowers in the east as well as in the west; where there is a balance and no one country or political entity determines the fate of the entire planet. But whatever that world is that Putin imagines, it won't be a return to the Cold War. China may be a Communist giant but its Marxists are far more comfortable on Wall Street than they are on a farm collective. Viet Nam, India and Kazakhstan are just as likely to swing into one orbit as they are the other and they will be no more afraid of Russian tanks than the Ukrainians.
I hope Putin finds himself facing the wrath of the Russian people when this is over. They now know that Putin is not worthy of the office he holds and, if so, then Putin and all of the other autocrats like him may find that Democracy is not so dead after all and that it does have teeth.
Well, I can dream can't I?