Column: War Crimes

The U.S. and the Ukraine have much in common.  Both countries declared themselves independent of powerful nations that previously occupied and controlled them. They both faced military invasions as a consequence of their claims of independence. They both had numerous inhabitants that were supportive of or indifferent to the invading forces but many more citizens who refused to yield their homes and their independence to invaders. We faced off against Great Britain, a nation with one of the most powerful armed forces on the planet at the time. The Ukrainians have faced off against Russia, a nation with one of the most powerful armed forces on the planet at the current time.

Both fledgling democracies, the U.S. and the Ukraine, had problematic histories. The United States had embraced slavery from its very beginning (see Civil War). The Ukraine had been involved in the Holocaust (see Babi Yar).  England offered to free the enslaved people of North America if they worked against the interests of the upstart colonies. Russia promised to stop leveling Ukrainian cities if its population would stop resisting Russian rule.

The thirteen former British colonies realized they could not survive the British juggernaut alone.  They turned to European power brokers that had no affection for England and asked for money and munitions. In the current war, the Ukrainian leadership has sought assistance from European and American powers not especially fond of Russia and asked for money and war materials. The American colonies/United States got lucky. France was willing to help frustrate the British invasion of the colonies. The Ukraine has been less fortunate: Its people have received substantial moral support but limited military support.

The defeat of the British by American forces depended upon the intervention of the French army and navy. The French did not argue that placing their sea and land forces in direct opposition to British forces would be ‘escalatory.’ The British had no illusions concerning French support for American independence, just as Vladimir Putin can certainly have no illusions about American support for Ukrainian independence. The French knew and America has learned through its unfortunately bloody history that half measures do not end wars: They merely prolong them. As Washington’s colonial and French troops pursued British troops under the command of General Lord Cornwallis at the battle of Yorktown, Virginia, the French fleet maintained a blockade of Chesapeake Bay that frustrated British efforts to supply or reinforce the troops caught on the peninsula. The French enforced a ’no-sail’ zone that crippled the British efforts to defeat Washington’s army. Lord Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown effectively ended the British efforts to defeat the American struggle for independence from England.

In the Ukraine, incursions by Russia have been resisted by the Kyiv government, but there has been no willingness by a foreign power or NATO to step in to halt the Russian aggression. Western allies speaking out against the Russian invasion have repeatedly asserted their unwillingness to confront Russia directly.  In fact, they have even placed explicit limits on how they will confront Russia indirectly. The Polish offer of fighter jets to Ukrainian pilots has been blocked by NATO allies, including the U.S., because it might be construed by Vladimir Putin as confrontational and lead to World War III.

Why shipments of thousands of antitank missiles, surface to air missile, killer drones, and other weapons to the Ukrainian army has not been viewed by Russia as ‘confrontational’ remains unexplained. Why the seizure of Russian bank accounts, houses, yachts, and other assets is not confrontational also remains unexplained. Did we agree in advance of the invasion what measures would not provoke retaliatory strikes by Putin?  Does NATO believe it can anticipate the responses of Vlad the Deranged to measures adopted in a circumscribed effort to maintain the sovereignty of the Ukraine? The mass murderer in the Kremlin established years ago that his attitudes and actions could not be anticipated. There has been no consistent evidence that his behavior serves the interests of the Russian people. His current demand that the Ukrainian people accept him and the power structure in Moscow as their saviors defies logic.

History usually helps us anticipate future military actions or objectives. In this case, we are witnessing a Russian version of the 1939 aggression by Germany. First came the destruction of Poland. Then came the destruction of much of Europe. In 2022, we are witnessing Russia’s destruction of the Ukraine. Then what? Having established that NATO will provide only half measures to targeted nations, will Russia be emboldened to move farther west or north or south? Is our restraint merely informing Putin what he can get away with?

And what happens after the war? Surely it will end in the not very distant future. The Ukraine and other former Soviet bloc nations will probably be absorbed into a rebranded Soviet Union. Will anyone be held responsible for the millions of dead and crippled? I suspect not. Shall we have a national day of mourning and go back to business as usual with the Russian oligarchs and their vast financial empires? Probably, yes. Will Europe continue to rely on Russia for its oil and gas supplies? Undoubtedly it will. Will Europe and the U.S. continue to buy huge shipments of wheat from the devastated Ukraine? Certainly, if it is inexpensive. Will the U.S. still turn to Russia to shuttle astronauts to and from the International Space Station? Shall we turn the page and convince ourselves that Russia and its leaders will be content with the new empire that they have carved out of the nations adjoining them? That depends on how accommodating our national leaders are to the totalitarian despots in Moscow. The real answers to these questions will soon be evident. We should hope those answers do not burden or embarrass future Americans.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.

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