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Playing poker with a gangster

Will the United States have any cards up its sleeve should Putin invade Ukraine?

A Ukrainian army chaplain blesses members of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Saturday. Associated Press/Photo by Evgeniy Maloletka

Playing poker with a gangster
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Netflix’s Munich: The Edge of War is about Neville Chamberlain’s infamous appeasement summit with Adolf Hitler before the outbreak of World War II, with Jeremy Irons superbly portraying the feckless British prime minister. As the premier’s plane races down the runway toward Munich, viewers, knowing the consequence of ceding Hitler a chunk of Czechoslovakia, want to shout, “Abort, abort!!!”

The film’s epitaph justifies Chamberlain’s gambit as buying time for Britain to rearm. In reality, Chamberlain sincerely believed he had achieved “peace in our time,” but Hitler played Chamberlain for the fool.

So what cards are available to the United States if Russia invades Ukraine? Some decry U.S. President Joe Biden for being like Chamberlain, weak and outmaneuvered by a far shrewder adversary—in this case, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is often regarded as a geopolitical chess master. Others effectively repeat Chamberlain’s infamous remark, which Irons repeats, dismissing the “quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing.” Why should Americans care about distant Ukraine?

We should care because Ukraine is a nation entitled to self-government without fear of invasion. We should care because Ukraine is a young democracy whose relatively decent government is infinitely superior to Putin’s tyranny. We should care because a Russian conquest could undermine NATO and U.S. influence in Europe to Russia’s advantage. We should care because Russia’s triumph would embolden China and other aggressors. We should care because Russian claims on Ukraine are based on ancient ethnic chauvinism that is poisonous to global stability. We should care because democracy globally is in retreat to the detriment of U.S. interests and human decency. And we should care because Putin, as a gangster who murders, steals, and bullies, should not be appeased. His appetite will only grow.

What should the United States do? Our options are limited. We will not engage Russia militarily over Ukraine: No treaty obligates the United States to do so, our military options on Russia’s border are disadvantageous, neither U.S. nor European public opinion would be united, and a Russian invasion of Ukraine, though execrable, would not directly attack U.S. core interests. It would also impair the United States’ long-delayed pivot to the Pacific to constrain China.

Russia remains economically and politically backward because it chooses its despotic past over a more prosperous future. Putin, like most tyrants, will overreach.

But the United States and its allies do have options. The United States has announced wide-ranging sanctions against Russia, should it invade. Those sanctions would especially target Putin’s kleptocrats who rely on Western banks, investments, and vacation homes for thievery and recreation. Existing sanctions against Russia because of its theft of Crimea and its surrogate war in eastern Ukraine have already hindered Russia’s weak economy. The United States, Britain, and other NATO allies are shipping arms to Ukraine, but arguably too few to make a crucial difference. The United States is helping Ukraine counter Russian cyberattacks. And the United States is identifying alternatives to Russian natural gas for Europe. The United States and Britain have widely publicized Russia’s invasion preparations and the internal disruptions Putin hopes to foment inside Ukraine.

Although disdained by some foreign policy “realists,” the United States ought to offer moral support for Ukraine. Its people are not alone. We sympathize with their plight and, though we cannot fight their war, we stand with them and want to help where possible. Ukraine is long-accustomed to suffering in Russia’s shadow and is stoically resigned to the turmoil ahead. Their example can inspire us.

The United States was even more constrained from action during the Cold War when the former Soviet Union invaded Hungary and Czechoslovakia and later through proxies imposed martial law on Poland. Yet rhetorical and moral solidarity were vitally important for sustaining the spirits of the victims. The Polish people resisted their oppressors nonviolently, and their courage helped bring down the Iron Curtain and break apart the Soviet Union. Tyrannies, which bluster and strut, are never as strong as they seek to appear. Whatever happens, Ukraine will outlast Putin.

Putin, like so many Russian despots before him throughout the centuries, is presented as more clever than all his naive Western counterparts. Maybe. But Russia often grabs what it wants and then chokes on it, as in Eastern Europe and Afghanistan. Russia remains economically and politically backward because it chooses its despotic past over a more prosperous future. Putin, like most tyrants, will overreach.

As Chamberlain, Jeremy Irons confides, “You cannot play poker with a gangster without having some cards up one sleeve.” At Munich, Chamberlain misunderstood the game but did recognize the gangster. May the United States play its cards faithfully. And may we hold to the faith that, though gangsters will strut, it is the God of all nations who will judge and dispose.

Mark Tooley

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence. Prior to joining the IRD in 1994, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. A lifelong United Methodist, he has been active in United Methodist renewal since 1988. He is the author of Taking Back The United Methodist Church, Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century, and The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War. He attends a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Va.

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