Editor’s note: Jeffrey Owens is a Jeffersonville native, a 1995 graduate of Miami Trace High School and 2000 graduate of Ohio University. As a lifelong history buff, Owens published “Victory In Europe; A People’s History of the Second World War”, a more than 700-page analysis of World War II in Europe in 2015. Since 2015, Owens has hosted more than a dozen educational symposiums on a variety of military history topics at the Grove City Library. He is a resident of New Holland.
“Open war is upon you, whether you would risk it or not,” J.R.R. Tolkien.
As Russia’s missiles, bombers, tanks and soldiers penetrated Ukraine’s sovereign borders from multiple directions on February 24, 2022 in a full-scale invasion, Putin was not merely seeking domination of Ukraine, but was going to war with the western world. Through not only his own words but also via scores of his state-funded propagandists, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was launched with three openly declared goals; destroy Ukrainian statehood, exploit the resulting chaos and panic in the western world to dismantle NATO, replace the post-Cold War “unipolar” world order led by the United States with a “multi-polar” world order led by Russia and its allies.
Although Putin’s original plan of sacking Kyiv within days and turning Ukraine into a Russian dominated puppet state, similar to Belarus, melted away before the heroism of Ukraine’s determined defenders, his goals never changed. Western resolve to defend Ukraine through donations of weapons and training of soldiers on paper seems impressive, but in reality, has proven both maddeningly slow and cautious, resulting in the prolongation and stagnation of the war. The slow walking of weapons, halfhearted economic sanctions, refusing to allow Ukraine to use NATO armaments on military targets in Russia and vague commitments of supporting Ukraine for “as long as it takes” reeked of timidity, and in dealing with the gangster world of Russia, timidity is lethal.
Each new weapon system fielded in Ukraine arrived months after its need was clearly identified on the battlefield and were only introduced after months of open public debate over fears of “escalation” from Russia. This cautionary approach allowed Russia to stabilize its 1,000-kilometer front spanning from the Russian border to the Dnipro River even after two spectacular Ukrainian counter-offensives in fall of 2022. Failing to capitalize on these Ukrainian successes, the west hesitated for months to even agree on training Ukrainian soldiers on NATO tanks and fretted far longer on transferring long range strike capabilities or air power to Ukraine. This hesitancy allowed Russia both the time and space to construct a virtually impregnable thirty-kilometer-deep defensive network across occupied Ukraine, making its liberation all the more costly.
In the face of horrendous losses in both men and materiel throughout the war, Putin multiple times was forced to change his strategy, but never his goals, for historically the lethality of weakness in Russia applies even to its dictator. When pushed to the brink by the Ukrainian military armed with ever increasing amounts of NATO weaponry, Putin released convicts to fight, declared a partial mobilization of citizenry, began mobilizing non-resident migrant workers into the army and aimed billions of dollars’ worth of precision missiles against civilian infrastructure. Then he established alliances with two other heavily sanctioned rogue states, Iran and North Korea. First was Iran for its drone technology which were primarily to be used to drain Ukraine of its air defense capabilities and second was North Korea to supplant Russia’s dwindling stocks of artillery shells.
Both were rewarded not only with loads of cash but also a combination of missile, satellite and possibly nuclear technology; creating a previously unconscionable axis of evil of three dangerous, militaristic, pariah states, who unlike their western counterparts do not fear escalation, but thrive one it. The concept of such an alliance is horrifying and potentially far worse than the original Cold War. United by a common cause to upend the world order, the axis of evil could easily lead the world into a vortex of instability not seen since the Second World War, and yield a reality dominated by intimidation, force and nuclear proliferation.
A glimpse into that world was revealed on October 7 when Iran-backed Hamas launched a brutal invasion of Israel from the Gaza strip. Upon overwhelming Israel’s “Iron Dome” anti-missile system with thousands of rockets, a brigade sized detachment of 1,500 terrorists invaded Israel from both land, sea and air, murdering over 1,200 people while kidnapping 246. Hamas did so to disrupt the impending U.S. supported normalization of relations agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, to force the Israeli-Palestinian conflict back into the headlines, and to create a permanent state of war to erode and eventually erase Israel’s statehood.
Hamas’s attack was shocking, purposefully brutal, and its violence was designed to force Israel’s hand to respond fiercely. Hamas terrorists burned civilians alive, raped hundreds of women and paraded many with blood-soaked pants in front of cameras, dragged dead and broken bodies of civilians through streets, and hijacked individual’s social media accounts to live stream their own murders to their contact lists. Although the governing body of Gaza since 2007, Palestinian civilians were expendable pawns in Hamas’s strategy of intentionally luring Israel into a war, which would kill thousands of them. These mass-deaths, actually caused by Hamas who intentionally constructed their military bases in, around and under civilian infrastructure, would be broadcasted to turn world-opinion against Israel.
Hamas which received $100 million annually from Iran however is just one player in Iran’s multi-faceted “axis of resistance” against both Israel and the United States; made up of scores of militant Islamic militias spread across the Middle East. The “axis” is comprised of, among others, both Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, The Lion’s Den in the West Bank, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthi militants in Yemen, multiple groups operating in Iraq and the Assad government in Syria.
Iran had long called for the destruction of Israel, and in October 2022, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard, Major General Hossein Salami had laid out plans for a massive ground attack from multiple angles by its many proxy militias surrounding Israel as the best way to overwhelm its defenses. By October 2023 with its coffers overflowing from the sale of massive amounts of drones and armaments to Russia, Iran greenlighted Hamas’s October 7 attack, an immediately began stoking the flames of resistance throughout its “axis” who have collectively launched hundreds of rocket attacks against both Israeli and U.S. forces while Houthi rebels blocked maritime trade routes through the Red Sea.
The Hamas attack was welcomed in Russia, as the war in Gaza and subsequent deployment of U.S. naval forces to the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf drew attention off of their invasion of Ukraine, which never relented for a moment. Playing politics Putin condemned Israel’s attacks on Gaza along with the high civilian death toll, even while killing tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians, which earned him a hero’s welcome amongst many Arab populations. The central actor in the global crisis is however without question Russia, and story behind its war against Ukraine goes back to the fall of the Soviet Union and far beyond.
The sudden end of the Cold War in 1991 yielded two divergent world views of its rival factions. For a brief window in the 1990’s Russia and the United States appeared to no longer be opponents. Russia pressed headfirst into capitalism, attracting considerable western investments while democracy saturated the former Soviet imperial nations of Eastern Europe. The adversarial drama of the Cold War quickly faded into a distant memory, at least in the west.
Neoconservatism developed in the 1990’s and grew to dominate United States foreign policy in the early 2000’s. Among its foundational principles was that Russia was no longer a rival and that the United States could and should assume the role of global hegemon and use its economic and military prowess to export democracy and prosperity globally. As a result, an entire generation of Americans grew up knowing next to nothing about Russia as a global power; whose world views were dominated by the spread of democracy, an explosion of economic growth and opportunities, as well as 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda, Taliban and ISIS.
Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin viewed with contempt the global position of the United States and quickly derailed Russia from its western trajectory and put it down the path of autocratic rule and a culture inundated with memory politics and revanchism. Putin reviled the loss of much of Russia’s empire through the collapse of the Soviet Union along with Russia’s considerable reduction of influence in global matters. He deeply resented NATO unilaterally taking action against Serbia in the 1990’s and the United States invading Iraq in 2003, both of which were not only important allies of Russia but also the fact that the Kremlin was by and large ignored in both scenarios.
Putin’s world view quickly developed into Russia’s foreign policy, which was rooted in the determination that the Kremlin must assert itself to survive. Among his priorities was establishing dominion over what he perceived to be Russia’s sphere of influence which included Russia’s former imperial lands. Grozny was razed to the ground during the Chechen war and Georgia was bludgeoned into submission from its brief pursuit of NATO membership. Ukraine was attacked in 2014 in response to the Maidan revolution through the illegal seizure of Crimea and near simultaneous invasion of its eastern Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts in support of non-existent “separatists.”
Putin simultaneously stretched his tentacles around the globe, including considerable involvement in the Syrian Civil War in support of Assad which resulted in the carpet bombing of entire cities and the use of chemical weapons on civilians. With each corresponding action, Putin was not only testing the resolve of the west to oppose him, but also developing his confidence. Due overwhelmingly to world inaction he became convinced that he could single handedly undo Russia’s loss in the Cold War by directly challenging the world order.
With a GDP roughly equivalent to that of Italy, Russia on paper had little hope of destabilizing not to mention dominating the NATO alliance whose collective GDP’s and defense budgets outpaced Russia’s by nearly ten-fold. Putin crafted his whole strategy around the belief that NATO was weak and had no will to actually fight. After a series of foreign policy successes in getting the western world to either not respond or even back down to his blatant aggressions over the previous decade, Putin believed he had a historic opportunity in February 2022 to simultaneously reassert Russian domination over Ukraine with little to no consequence and humiliate the west.
The trump card in Putin’s deck was the Budapest Memorandum, a U.N. Chartered nuclear non-proliferation agreement from 1994 in which Ukraine, a former Soviet state and victim of 300 years of Russian imperialism, voluntarily surrendered its Soviet nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and long-range bombers. Ukraine did so in exchange for security assurances and a guarantee of its sovereignty from the agreement’s three signatories; Russia, Great Britain and the United States.
While Putin had long “withdrawn” Russia’s signature from the agreement, a full-scale invasion of the very nation whom the United States had guaranteed its sovereignty to was a direct challenge to the resolve of the United States to uphold its agreements and prove its reliability as a security partner. Intimidating the United States through threats of a wider conflict or veiled hints of nuclear attacks into staying out of the war while Russia dismantled a nation the U.S. had sworn to protect could prove the ultimate undoing of all U.S. security agreements.
If Russia’s goals of simultaneously taking down Ukraine, NATO and the “unipolar” world order seems outlandish, imagine for a moment the dark and disturbing world in which Ukraine was abandoned by the west. Fearing for their lives, President Zelensky and his Cabinet flees the country. In-spite of their best efforts, the armed forces run out of ammunition and begins to collapse while Europe becomes saturated with tens of millions of Ukrainian refugees with no hope of ever returning home. Defiant city after city is razed to the ground while execution pits, torture chambers, gang rapes and show trials become a daily reality for those Ukrainians languishing under the Russian heel.
Once Ukrainian sovereignty is erased, the Kremlin activates the three battalions of Russian soldiers they illegally kept in the breakaway territory of Transnistria, who seize power in Moldova. Meanwhile Belarus, whose territory was shamefully used by Russia for their invasion of northern Ukraine, again plays host to Russian legions who occupy the Belarussian-Polish border. NATO overnight shares a 2,400-kilometer border with Russia, stretching from the northern tip of Estonia to the southern end of Bulgaria, while the Black Sea is transformed into a Russian lake.
An arrogant Putin, emboldened by his victory in which threats alone intimidated the west into abandoning their own security commitments to Ukraine, begins dictating his terms of compliance to NATO. These demands include rolling NATO borders back to 1991, the removal of all NATO weaponry from Eastern Europe and Russia being granted “veto” power over any future nations wishing to join the alliance.
Eastern European NATO partners call for support from Western Europe and the United States, but it is quickly realized that there are not nearly enough arms and supplies to fortify the entire border. Panic ensues, not only from the full-blown genocide going on right across the border in Ukraine, but also from uncertainty, as Putin amplifies the betrayal of the United States in failing to defend Ukraine as it had promised to do. Far Right leaning Hungary and Slovakia withdraw from NATO in favor of non-aggression pacts with Russia. This leaves Romania and Bulgaria in southeastern Europe severed from Poland and Germany to the north and NATO begins unraveling, with each country seeking the best deal for its own survival.
Those who opt to hold out, perhaps the Baltic States, find themselves cut off by Russian “separatists,” who are actually plain-clothed Russian soldiers, advancing out of Kaliningrad who block the highways and overtaking the rail lines. This leaves the Baltics un-defendable, except by sea, while Putin threatens retaliation against anyone who attacks his supporters. An “escalation” cautious west excuses away every Russian incursion onto NATO territory until it is too late. Barely without firing a shot beyond Ukraine, Russia delivers a deathblow to NATO, and a tremendous moral defeat upon the United States, not militarily but through fear. The “unipolar” world order led by the U.S. stands on quicksand as its security alliances around the globe are called into question while Russia is victorious, emboldened, and almost endlessly powerful with all of the human and natural resources of their newly dominated states at its disposal.
This is not mere conjecture but is rooted in deep historical parallels with the events of 1938 which brought about the Second World War in Europe. In both cases a crisis was manufactured by an aggressor wielding three basic guidelines; demand the maximum, issue threats and ultimatums to achieve them, and never given an inch in “negotiations,” as there will always be a democracy willing to sacrifice something or someone for peace. In the end, the aggressor walks away with something that wasn’t theirs before.
Born out of the First World War from lands formerly of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Czechoslovakia was a young but growing democracy surrounded by authoritarian rule. Hitler’s growing confidence resulting from bulking nearly every term of the Treaty of Versailles without consequence while absorbing Austria in the Reich yielded a situation in which he surrounded Czechoslovakia on three sides.
The historical correlations are uncanny. Hitler denied the right of Czechoslovakia to exist and insisted that German speakers in the Sudetenland were oppressed by the Czechoslovak government and must be “reunited” with Germany. Among many problems with such a statement is that the Sudetenland had never been part of Germany, but rather Austria. France guaranteed Czechoslovakia’s sovereignty in a post First World War security agreement, but this proved more of a formality, as once Hitler whipped up the Sudeten crisis, neither France nor Britain had any will to fight. At the Munich conference, Hitler brow-beat his western adversaries into pushing Czechoslovakia into ceding the Sudeten territory to him, which was to supposedly guarantee “peace in our time.”
The treason of the western democracies left Czechoslovakia a rump state which quickly dissolved and was gobbled up by Hitler. In the aftermath of the west selling out their own security guarantee to a strong democratic partner, Eastern Europe fell into chaos. Poland was surrounded on three sides by a vastly expanded Germany, while Hungary, Romania, and Croatia all joined Hitler’s alliance, as none were even interested in any Western European “guarantees.”
Fast forward to 2014. Ukraine throws out the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in a homegrown Maidan Revolution which deeply angers Putin. While tyrannical, he accused Ukraine of tyranny. While genocidal, he charges Ukraine with genocide of “Russian speakers” in the Donbas. Russia immediately seizes Crimea and invades eastern Ukraine to crush the Revolution. Putin repeatedly denies Ukraine’s right to exist and creates wicked distortions of history. In these fantasies Ukraine was stolen from Russia by a western backed coup, its lands were historically Russian, its people were brainwashed Russians tricked into believing that Ukrainian history, culture and language were real, and that its leaders were foreign Nazis who posed an existential threat to Russia.
Although the United States guaranteed Ukraine’s sovergnty in 1994, the Budapest Memorandum was signed during that brief hay-day of the early 90’s in which America forgot who Russia was and naively believed that it was no longer a threat. Its true name is Muscovy, the kingdom founded on present day Moscow which began expanding under Ivan the Terrible. In the early 18th Century, Tsar Peter the First stole from history the name of Rus, renaming his kingdom Russia. Rus was a thriving early Medieval Eastern European region spanning modern day Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic States, which ultimately was destroyed by the Mongol invasion. Peter’s identity theft of Rus, centuries down the road, was done so to create an ancient history for Muscovy which it had no claim over.
Muscovy across centuries grew through the bloodthirsty imperial practice of effacement, which allowed a single kingdom to become the largest country on earth. Through effacement thousands of cultures were destroyed and or enslaved, Russians repopulated the conquered territories; each of which over time simply became “Russia.” Anyone observing Russian tactics in occupied Eastern Ukraine dating back to 2014 would see that nothing had changed in Russian imperialism since Ivan the Terrible and witness effacement in all its horror.
In 2022 however after twenty years of wars in the aftermath of 9/11 and three decades of America barely paying attention to Russia, most were caught completely off guard by Russia’s full-scale invasion. Few knew how to respond to the first conventional war in Europe in over 80 years, to the complex web of Putin’s “red lines” which were not to be crossed, or the blatant threats of nuclear retaliation.
The one single factor that separates the hypothetical dismantling of NATO described above, and reality, is Ukrainian resistance. President Zelensky stayed in country while Ukrainian armed forces pulled off incredible victories, driving the Russians out of half of the territory they stole in the early months of the war. Never fearing “escalation” for a moment, Ukraine sent attack helicopters against Russian oil depots in Belgorod Russia, Ukrainian homemade anti-ship Neptune missiles sank the flag ship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, while Ukrainian drones time and again penetrated Russian air defenses to strike military targets hundreds of miles away in Moscow.
Ukrainians proved fantastically innovative by incorporating to great effect and with relative ease and minimal training advanced NATO weaponry into their arsenals. HIMARS rockets destroyed Russian ammunition stockpiles in the summer of 2022, anti-radar AG-88 HARM missiles, hotwired to operate with Ukrainian MIG’s took down a significant number of Russian anti-aircraft radars in occupied Ukraine, while an air launched Storm Shadow cruise missile leveled the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet.
As Russia’s war has expanded into the Middle East via Iran, Ukraine’s western supporters have allowed themselves to become divided into debates over which war to fund, versus seeing the situation as it is, which is a single conflict to upend the world order. Tackling Iran’s “axis of resistance” is a far more complex issue than supporting a Ukrainian victory. The “axis” is made up of scores of militias spread out across many countries, and even if 10,000 of their militants are killed, this has zero affect on Iran, as these are proxy forces. By contrast, NATO weapons in Ukraine are killing Russians and degrading their military prowess daily, and it is Russia’s war against Ukraine and the free-worlds subsequent lack of imposing any real consequences on Russia which has and is driving the global crisis.
Now, nearly two years into the full-scale invasion, there is a growing movement mostly concentrated in the U.S. Far Right for abandoning Ukraine in the belief that this will pressure Kyiv into cutting some sort of deal with Moscow to end the war. Such a stance takes for granted Ukrainians incredible heroism in the face of insurmountable odds and relegates their courage to a liability. It ignores the fact the Ukraine is literally holding back the entire Axis of Evil in Ukraine; Russia and vicariously both Iran and North Korea. It subtly turns the blame for the continuation of the war on Ukraine’s determination for freedom and away from Russian aggression.
When U.S. Senator J.D. Vance stated that “What is in America’s best interest is to accept that Ukraine is going to have to cede some territory to the Russians and we need to bring this war to a close,” he is parroting Russian propaganda nearly to a fault. In reality, Ukrainian security is European security which in turn is U.S. security, and what is in America’s best interest is to maintain our alliances with our democratic partners and fiercely oppose Russian imperialism. Refusing to learn from history, Mr. Vance would willingly turn Ukraine into the same rump state that Britain and France did to Czechoslovakia in 1938, by bullying Ukraine through the withholding of arms to surrender its territorial integrity to Russia for “peace.”
Among scores of problems with Mr. Vance’s statement is that Russia, the aggressor, has made it abundantly clear that there will be no peace in Ukraine until they have accomplished their goals, and one simply needs to scroll to the opening paragraph to review those objectives. Destroy Ukrainian statehood, exploit the chaos to dismantle NATO, upend the “unipolar” world order; absolutely none of which have anything to do with incorporating 20% of Ukrainian territory into Russia or would be accomplished through freezing the lines and ending the war.
Withholding arms to Ukraine simply makes Russia’s goals easier to attain, and Russia knows it. This is exactly why Russian propagandists are publicly celebrating U.S. Republicans, such as Mr. Vance, who are blocking aid to Ukraine in Congress. Instead of guaranteeing Ukraine’s sovereignty, as the U.S. promised to do, these lawmakers instead are guaranteeing its destruction.
Russia is in it for the long game and has adjusted its economy onto a complete war footing. Meanwhile many Americans view of war in general has been tainted over the last thirty years by spectacular quick victories over countries like Iraq. Americans have forgotten how long and bloody state-on-state conventional wars are, how incredibly much ammunition it takes to fight them, how individual battles can drag on for months, and how victories are often determined through attrition.
Americans who oppose aid to Ukraine are proving Putin right, bringing Russia’s goals closer to fulfillment and are allowing the war to further expand. While Ukrainian resistance has held Russian imperialism at bay for nearly two years, the dismantling of NATO described earlier could still happen in lockstep if Ukraine is cut off from aid and the Russian border is brought right up to that of NATO.
In cutting off Ukraine, Russia’s war against Ukraine continues while the Axis of Evil grows from continuous sales of arms to Russia. Russia’s threats eventually control NATO, without even having to actually invade, while their militant and heavily reinforced partners Iran and North Korea assert dominance over their respective spheres of influence. The United States is then forced to assume equal footing in global power to the Axis of Evil, creating the very “multi-polar” world order Russia sought out to establish on February 24, 2022.
Ukraine has long accepted that they are in an existential war of national survival and is behaving accordingly. The United States however is far from realizing that Russia’s war is just as much an attack on the world order as it is against Ukraine, and until the U.S. comes to terms with this reality, we are at great risk of losing our global power to a network of terrorism.