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Apres Ski Wrap
Events are careening down the slope faster than I can follow
This weekend I’ve been skiing with my son in Vermont, so this is going to be a relatively brief wrap up of the week. It’s also going to be an incomplete one, as by the time you read this events will likely have overtaken whatever I may write here—indeed, they already may have done so before I wrote it. I may simply have missed that fact because I’m not glued to the news, and therefore let myself get out over my skis.
I’m referring, of course, to Russia’s war against Ukraine and the global reaction thereto. I wrote twice this week about that war, first, on Tuesday, at The Week, immediately after Russian troops moved into Donetsk and Luhansk. I argued then that it was still Putin’s move, that there was very little that the U.S. or our European allies could do to affect what that next move might be. By Friday, on this Substack, I was arguing that we shouldn’t assume that Putin truly knew what he was doing when he launched his war. He might have correctly understood that time was not on his side, and acted on that basis without seriously calculating the potential risks and costs of action itself.
Since then, the images of ordinary Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion, and of the Ukrainian president standing with his people, sharing their risk and their burden of fighting off the invader, has galvanized a significant escalation in the Western response. Turkey has closed the Bosphorus and Dardanelles to Russian and Ukrainian ships; Germany has agreed to send weapons to Ukraine and to increase their defense spending by over 40%; a number of Russian banks have been removed from SWIFT and countries in North America and Europe declared their intention to limit the Russian central bank’s access to reserves held in their countries, an action that may not be legal under international law, and that could potentially wreak quick havoc with Russia’s economy.
The practical impact of these actions remains to be seen. The sanctions could still have large loopholes; China is not a participant, and transactions in the energy market, which account for most of Russia’s exports, will likely be exempt. Those are the kinds of questions I had a week or two ago. Now, I can’t help worrying about something else—namely, what happens if they are effective, if the Russian battlefield position deteriorates rapidly rather than stabilizing. It’s pleasant to think that the result would be the bloodless removal of Putin from power and the installation of a new regime seeking a more constructive relationship with the West, but I find that prospect wildly implausible. It’s far easier to construct alarming scenarios of where Russian failure leads than pleasant ones. Which means that even as the immediate focus is going to be on further bolstering Ukraine’s ability to defend itself, the most crucial new question is going to be what kind of off-ramp the U.S. and our European allies can provide to keep Russia from going down one of those nightmare paths.
Just as no other country could substitute for Ukrainian resistance, though, it’s likely that Ukraine will play a key role in making sure their own battlefield achievements become a basis for peace. President Zelensky has already earned himself a place in the history books by rallying first his country and then the rest of Europe. He may yet have the chance to earn a loftier place at the negotiating table that he has agreed to come to without preconditions.
My only other piece On Here this week was a proposal to revamp America’s holiday calendar. Back on Monday, that seemed like the kind of perennial that might be fun to talk about. I look forward to that being the case again—as they say, speedily in our day.