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Through the fog of war, some things can become clear.
We know who the “good guys” were during World War II. The Allies were engaged in a “just war,” even if the nations themselves were not always just. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, the world knew who was in the wrong.
Other conflicts had more gray. Whatever criticisms exist about the 2003 Iraq War, there is no credible argument that Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime occupied some moral high ground. Korea and Afghanistan, each with the United Nation’s imprimatur, shaded to the good side. The war between North and South Vietnam was complicated, to say the least.
But now we have the first quintessential “good guy, bad guy” conflict of the 21st century. And nations are making clear where they stand.
Vladimir Putin’s regime is on the “bad” side of history, joined by his lackeys in Belarus. Both nations voted against a U.N. resolution condemning Russia’s invasion this week.
Also on the “no” side? North Korea and Syria.
The fault lines are showing.
Earlier this week, 141 nations stood with Ukraine in the U.N. Essentially all of Europe, East Asia’s democracies, and most of the American continents voted “yes” on the resolution. Africa was a mixed bag with many countries there abstaining from the vote, but the Arabian Peninsula was fairly pro-Ukraine.
Two rising world powers — India and China — officially abstained from the vote. So too did Iran and Pakistan. All of these nations have strong relations with Moscow, whether because of affinity or convenience. Reports indicate that China’s Xi Jinping asked Putin to hold off on invading until the Olympics were over.
The situation in Ukraine is changing hourly. The “fog of war” obscures the facts on the ground.
But, like real fog, once you gain altitude and take a broader view, things can come into focus. And we’re witnessing a realignment of the world order.
There are two lessons most countries will learn from Russia’s invasion. The first is that, to resist strong, aggressive neighbors, you should align yourself with a defensive pact. Putin has not yet challenged NATO directly because of the near-certain doom that would follow that course of action.
The popularity of joining NATO has surged in both Finland and Sweden, Russia’s nordic neighbors, despite decades of pseudo-neutrality. There is safety in numbers.
The second lesson is that nuclear weapons are the ultimate trump card in international affairs. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991, the world recoiled. After that, a coalition sprung forth to restore Kuwaiti sovereignty.
The dynamic is remarkably similar to today. The difference is that Russia remains a nuclear power, which prevents Ukraine’s supporters from acting directly. Mutually Assured Destruction remains a real threat.
Ukraine had nukes after the fall of the Soviet Union. They gave them up as part of the Budapest Memorandum, where several world powers — including Russia — promised to respect their territorial integrity. The words on paper did not bother Putin. But nuclear weapons might have.
Other nations are watching. Kim Jong Un will likely feel emboldened in North Korea, believing his weapons of mass destruction will permit him to remain a dictator with impunity from external threats. In the months ahead, we may hear near-nuclear powers — Iran and Syria — are stepping up their efforts to obtain these horrific weapons.
They have all watched the world’s outrage in response to Russia’s actions and the incredibly severe sanctions eviscerating the ruble. But they have also seen that no western nation is willing to risk nuclear war.
North Korea, Syria and Iran all stand with Russia on the wrong side of this historical moment. As the fog of war lifts in Ukraine, hopefully we will see the challenges ahead of us with clear eyes. The solutions remain opaque.
To borrow President Joe Biden’s closing from his State of the Union, as Lent begins, may God bless us all.