The War in Ukraine Is Getting Complicated, and the New York Times Isn’t Ready
A paragraph-by-paragraph rebuttal to the Editorial Board's May 19 editorial
On March 4, 2022, not long after Russia invaded Ukraine, the New York Times Editorial Board ran a piece that lauded President Zelensky, fingered Vladimir Putin as the unequivocal villain, and rightly suggested that the liberation of Ukraine from Russian occupiers was paramount.
“This first phase of resistance is unlikely to last long,” the Board wrote, “making it imperative that the world continue to coalesce around the same message to Ukrainians and Russians alike: No matter how long it takes, Ukraine will be free.”
The Biden Administration, Congressional Democrats, and Americans who understand that the future of democracy is at stake in this struggle have continued to “coalesce around the same message.” The New York Times Editorial Board, alas, has not.
In its piece on May 19, “The War in Ukraine Is Getting Complicated, and America Isn’t Ready,” the Board ran an editorial that would make Neville Chamberlain blush, walking back its initial position on the war and arguing for Putin’s appeasement. “No matter how long it takes,” to the Board, ended at 76 days—about a week longer than the duration of the NBA playoffs.
The editorial was rightly lambasted on social media when it came out two weeks ago. But I’m still furious about it. The Times sees itself as the paper of record, after all, and I felt the need to rebut the piece, paragraph by paragraph, and set the record straight:
The Senate passed a $40 billion emergency aid package for Ukraine on Thursday, but with a small group of isolationist Republicans loudly criticizing the spending and the war entering a new and complicated phase, continued bipartisan support is not guaranteed.
I’m not sure if this is naïveté or willful gaslighting, but from the opening sentence, the piece makes clear that it is operating in an alternate reality from the actual situation in Ukraine—and in the U.S.
Given the aggressor in Ukraine, it is critical to mention that the $40 billion emergency aid package was held up in the Senate for days by a single shady Senator: the traitor Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, whom John McCain once openly accused of “working for Vladimir Putin.” Since that 2017 exchange, McCain has died, and so has the GOP, which has been fully co-opted by MAGA fascists with deep ties to Russia. How can there be bipartisanship with respect to Ukraine when one of the parties is in cahoots with the bad guys—and has been for years?
Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, warned the Senate Armed Services Committee recently that the next few months may be volatile. The conflict between Ukraine and Russia could take “a more unpredictable and potentially escalatory trajectory,” she said, with the increased likelihood that Russia could threaten to use nuclear weapons.
It doesn’t require a high-level security clearance to know that wars are unpredictable. A casual viewer of the History Channel, or any high school student of global history, would arrive at the same conclusion. As for Putin threatening to use nukes: of course he will threaten that. His regular military is complete dogshit, and nuclear missiles are the only cards he has left to play. Is this scary? Yes. But that doesn’t mean we just back off and let him do whatever the fuck he wants.
Would we let Russia invade Paris? London? How about New York? Seriously, if Russian troops were fanned out in Lower Manhattan, would we just let Putin run roughshod because of the threat of nuclear weapons? Of course not. We have to treat Kyiv and Kharkiv and Mariupol the same way. Remember, Ukraine was a nuclear power, too, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The U.S. convinced them to surrender their nukes to Russia. The least we can do is send them the arms they need as quickly as possible.
These are extraordinary costs and serious dangers, and yet there are many questions that President Biden has yet to answer for the American public with regard to the continued involvement of the United States in this conflict.
Biden has been among the more transparent presidents we’ve had. When he could no longer justify U.S. involvement in an endless foreign war, he withdrew our forces from Afghanistan—despite being derided from Republicans for supposed weakness. It took about three weeks after Putin invaded Ukraine for Biden to repair NATO and the Western alliance, which had been badly, almost fatally, damaged after four years of abuse by Donald Trump. For the most part, the President is playing this beautifully. If the Times opinion writers don’t understand how that is, they should spend more time reading their own newspaper.
In March, this board argued that the message from the United States and its allies to Ukrainians and Russians alike must be: No matter how long it takes, Ukraine will be free. Ukraine deserves support against Russia’s unprovoked aggression, and the United States must lead its NATO allies in demonstrating to Vladimir Putin that the Atlantic alliance is willing and able to resist his revanchist ambitions.
Yes, and that was the correct view. Why is the Board having second thoughts now, after so much death, destruction, pillage, and rape? As I pointed out before the invasion, Putin is working quite deliberately from Hitler’s playbook. Appeasing his territorial ambitions did not stop Hitler, and similar tactics will not stop Putin. Almost all of the foreign policy people, and an even higher percentage of Russian dissidents, are saying the same thing: Putin must be stopped, not appeased.
That goal cannot shift, but in the end, it is still not in America’s best interest to plunge into an all-out war with Russia, even if a negotiated peace may require Ukraine to make some hard decisions. And the U.S. aims and strategy in this war have become harder to discern, as the parameters of the mission appear to have changed.
It is unclear to me what has changed these last 76 days, beyond the Board getting bored of the story. Russia invaded a sovereign nation, for no reason beyond Putin’s deluded territorial ambitions. For the war to end, Russia must withdraw from Ukraine, and, as President Biden made clear, Putin must be removed from power. There’s nothing hard to discern about that.
Is the United States, for example, trying to help bring an end to this conflict, through a settlement that would allow for a sovereign Ukraine and some kind of relationship between the United States and Russia? Or is the United States now trying to weaken Russia permanently? Has the administration’s goal shifted to destabilizing Vladimir Putin or having him removed? Does the United States intend to hold Mr. Putin accountable as a war criminal? Or is the goal to try to avoid a wider war — and if so, how does crowing about providing U.S. intelligence to kill Russians and sink one of their ships achieve this?
The civilized world cannot permit a rogue state to invade its neighbor. We did not allow Saddam Hussein to do this in 1991, and after his humiliating defeat in the Gulf War, Saddam stopped trying. We foolishly allowed Putin to annex the Crimea in 2014, and now he’s pulling the same shit again. He won’t stop until he’s stopped. If we don’t stop him in Ukraine, he’ll roll into the Balkans, or Finland, or Poland. The only way to stop the “wider war” is to defeat him decisively now.
Without clarity on these questions, the White House not only risks losing Americans’ interest in supporting Ukrainians — who continue to suffer the loss of lives and livelihoods — but also jeopardizes long-term peace and security on the European continent.
Americans have short attention spans, for sure, and our collective attention is now trained on Uvalde. But the war in Ukraine has done what even the pandemic could not do: it penetrated the Fox News bubble. In the age of smartphones and social media, every atrocity the Russians inflict on the Ukrainians has been and will be shown the world over.
The only person jeopardizing long-term peace and security on the European continent is Vladimir Vladimirovich.
Americans have been galvanized by Ukraine’s suffering, but popular support for a war far from U.S. shores will not continue indefinitely. Inflation is a much bigger issue for American voters than Ukraine, and the disruptions to global food and energy markets are likely to intensify.
And that’s why it’s essential to support Ukraine now—quickly. That’s also why Russian sympathizers like Rand Paul are pulling their delay tactics.
The current moment is a messy one in this conflict, which may explain President Biden and his cabinet’s reluctance to put down clear goal posts. All the more reason, then, for Mr. Biden to make the case to American voters, well before November, that support for Ukraine means support for democratic values and the right of countries to defend themselves against aggression — while peace and security remain the ideal outcome in this war.
Biden’s communications on this have been crystal clear. But sure, let him continue to make the case. It’s an easy one to make. There is no moral ambiguity here. The Ukrainians are the victims. They were attacked for no reason. The Russians are committing war crimes every day. Putin is using Hitler’s playbook, France and Germany are pivoting to Neville Chamberlain mode, and it is up to us, the supposed Leader of the Free World, to save the day for democracy, for honor, and for what’s right.
It is tempting to see Ukraine’s stunning successes against Russia’s aggression as a sign that with sufficient American and European help, Ukraine is close to pushing Russia back to its positions before the invasion. But that is a dangerous assumption.
Russia is a ginormous country, and a sizable chunk of its military is getting its ass kicked in a quagmire. What would Russia do if it was invaded right now? Putin is like the reckless Risk player who put all his armies in one territory; when he loses, he will open himself up to overthrow.
Also: It takes an enormous, well-trained, disciplined fighting force to invade and hold a country, especially one as large as Ukraine. The Russians have sent rapists, drunks, and petty thieves. Their soldiers are laughingstocks. Good luck with that.
A decisive military victory for Ukraine over Russia, in which Ukraine regains all the territory Russia has seized since 2014, is not a realistic goal. Though Russia’s planning and fighting have been surprisingly sloppy, Russia remains too strong, and Mr. Putin has invested too much personal prestige in the invasion to back down.
Why is it not realistic, O Sages of the Editorial Board? Because Putin will be butthurt if he’s humiliated on the global stage? Newsflash: that has already happened.
The United States and NATO are already deeply involved, militarily and economically. Unrealistic expectations could draw them ever deeper into a costly, drawn-out war. Russia, however battered and inept, is still capable of inflicting untold destruction on Ukraine and is still a nuclear superpower with an aggrieved, volatile despot who has shown little inclination toward a negotiated settlement. Ukraine and Russia now “appear further apart than at any other point in the nearly three-month-long war,” as The Times reported.
Why would Ukraine surrender now, when Russia is on the ropes? Because some effete opinion writers in New York would rather write about other stuff?
Recent bellicose statements from Washington — President Biden’s assertion that Mr. Putin “cannot remain in power,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s comment that Russia must be “weakened” and the pledge by the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, that the United States would support Ukraine “until victory is won” — may be rousing proclamations of support, but they do not bring negotiations any closer.
Right, because Biden and Co. know what time it is. Negotiations? For what? “Peace for our time?” Russia’s surest off-ramp is to replace Putin with someone else, have that someone else put all the blame on Vladimir the Puny, and bring the troops back home. There is no relationship with Putin after Ukraine. Washington recognizes this. The brutal economic sanctions on Russia will continue until that psychopathic twerp is gone.
In the end, it is the Ukrainians who must make the hard decisions: They are the ones fighting, dying and losing their homes to Russian aggression, and it is they who must decide what an end to the war might look like. If the conflict does lead to real negotiations, it will be Ukrainian leaders who will have to make the painful territorial decisions that any compromise will demand.
Grandmothers are throwing Molotov cocktails at Russian occupiers. The Ukrainians will never surrender. Like, ever. Like, Taylor Swift will get back together with John Mayer before that happens.
The United States and NATO have demonstrated that they will support the Ukrainian fight with ample firepower and other means. And however the fighting ends, the United States and its allies must be prepared to help Ukraine rebuild.
But as the war continues, Mr. Biden should also make clear to President Volodymyr Zelensky and his people that there is a limit to how far the United States and NATO will go to confront Russia, and limits to the arms, money and political support they can muster. It is imperative that the Ukrainian government’s decisions be based on a realistic assessment of its means and how much more destruction Ukraine can sustain.
Which is why we have to give them as much support as they need, as quickly as possible. Which is why Putin lickspittles like Rand Paul delay aid packages, and why Putin sympathizers like Henry Kissinger push for appeasement.
Confronting this reality may be painful, but it is not appeasement. This is what governments are duty bound to do, not chase after an illusory “win.” Russia will be feeling the pain of isolation and debilitating economic sanctions for years to come, and Mr. Putin will go down in history as a butcher. The challenge now is to shake off the euphoria, stop the taunting and focus on defining and completing the mission. America’s support for Ukraine is a test of its place in the world in the 21st century, and Mr. Biden has an opportunity and an obligation to help define what that will be.
Ah, but it is appeasement. That’s exactly what it is. And yet the Board advocates for a position we know will not work.
After Neville Chamberlain met with Hitler in Munich in 1938, he believed that he had saved the world from horrible war. The Great War had ended 20 years prior, and was still fresh in his mind. No one wanted to go through that awfulness again. A few hectares in the Sudetenland, he reasoned, was a small price to pay for peace.
Chamberlain took Hitler at his word. The British Prime Minister did not know, and could not have known, that the Führer had lied to his face. Because of this mistake, we have the historical example of Munich to show us that appeasement does not work.
Putin is a thief. Putin is a war criminal. And Putin is a liar. There is no negotiating with a man like that. Biden knows this. So does Zelenskyy. It’s only the Times Editorial Board that hasn’t figured it out.
“Since its founding in 1896, the board has, above all, championed what Adolph Ochs called ‘the free exercise of a sound conscience,’ believing that the fearless exchange of information and ideas is the surest means of resisting tyranny and realizing human potential,” it reads on the “About the Editorial Board” page.
Not true. The surest means of resisting tyranny is to resist tyranny.
Photo credit: Ministry of Information official photographer. Neville Chamberlain at Munich, 1938.