Joshua Treviño, Austin
Putin has declared war on Ukraine. The sun rises upon a new world. The great peace is ended. Now the things our fathers and grandfathers did are the things our children will do.
As I write this, it is nearly 0400hrs in the Ukrainian capital. Sunrise there today will be at 0650hrs. If there is to be a dawn attack, it comes soon. Judging from the scattered reports of shelling in Mariupol plus the phony Donbas “republic” requests for Russian intervention in the putative whole of their territories, it is coming. The whole dreadful wait reminds one of Sir Edward Grey’s famous quote: “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” He uttered it on August 3rd, 1914.
We wait for the curtain to descend and the new era to be born. It is the return of great-power war in Europe, the very specter our grandfathers thought they ended, not petty squabbles in erstwhile Yugoslavia but tanks on the steppe, whole divisions overrunning whole countries. We are transported from the thoughtless idyll in which we grew up, stupidly ungrateful for the privilege of driving from the English Channel to the Black Sea without a single visa shown, without a suspicious glance from an armed gendarme, back into the world chronicled by AJP Taylor and BH Liddell Hart. The long peace was by no means an unalloyed good, to be sure. It facilitated dissolution, decay, and forgetting alongside prosperity and utopian fantasizing. But it had one signal virtue: it was peace.
We have the strange ability to watch this war begin in something like real time. I’ve said this for nearly every war for which I have been alive, and it becomes progressively more true each time. In early 1991 we sat rapt with the rest of the world and watched green streaks over Baghdad on CNN, then a reputable news channel. Three decades later we receive direct reports from individuals on the scene, intermediated only by the chosen social-media platform. Persons in Mariupol speculate that they are under fire from BM-21 Grads. The sixty-year old Soviet-designed rocket-artillery system is tried and true. It is the successor to the old “Stalin’s Organ,” the Katyusha, that wrecked German formations in the previous war. The Russians have always maintained a proficiency with artillery—theirs is a warfighting ethic that doesn’t mind the leveled city block, nor even the leveled city—as they demonstrated the last time they rocketed Mariupol with Grads, in early 2015. The Grads were also the systems used in the mid-2014 indirect-fire destruction of the Ukrainian column at Zelenopillia. When you have rocket artillery, everything looks like a rocket-artillery target.
It isn’t just the human reports that alert us to the probable war underway. The bloodless reporting of the Internet’s vast apparatus also provides its evidence. Google Maps’s traffic-congestion function shows a traffic jam stretching from Belgorod in Belarus to the Ukrainian border—at 0400hrs, no less, direct on the route from a major Russian-armor staging area to Kyiv. Various flight-tracker sites show civil aircraft in Russian airspace abruptly turning away from Ukrainian airspace, and aircraft in Ukrainian airspace executing turns to avoid Russian airspace and, in some obvious cases, leave Ukraine. As I write this, the word arrives of the NOTAM: Ukrainian airspace is now closed to civil aviation.
It seems preposterous to write probable war there, but there is nothing quite yet, at 0400hrs Kyiv time, to indicate that something truly unprecedented and irreversible has occurred. The Russians have shelled Mariupol before. The Russians have menaced Ukraine before. The aviation signals are unusual, but then, the Russians have shot down civilian airliners over Ukraine before. It puts one in the mind of Faulker, from Intruder in the Dust: “[I]t’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances.” It hasn’t happened yet.
But it is happening. As I write this—what a strange thing to type twice, in the very process of composition—we now see reports coming in of border posts overrun in the Isthmus of Perekop. Crimea too, along with the Donbas and pathetically prostrate Belarus, is an avenue of invasion.
There is nothing to be gained by a long essay that is merely a running report of a great tragedy’s unfolding. The sun rises upon a new world, really the old one we thought to put behind, on the European steppe today. The great peace is ended and all the things our fathers and grandfathers did—station great armies abroad, think of civil defense, duck and cover, plan for Atlantic convoys, worry about nuclear stockpiles—are now the things our children must do. Our children will know who to blame: it is us, the generations handed the greatest era of mankind, so that we might squander it. Perhaps my own sons will read this one day and know that at least their father understood.
Or perhaps, God willing, they will read it and laugh at dad’s minor panic on the long-ago evening of 23 February 2022. I doubt it. But being wrong is a well-practiced skill and in cases like this I hope for it.
Someday we will have to have answers to the many questions attached to this moment. Why did we not anticipate and address many of the—frankly, candidly, valid—critiques issued by Vladimir Putin in his war speech of 21 February 2022? Why did we, Americans and the West, not encourage—or, to be blunt, direct—the Ukrainian state to cut its losses and accept a grievous territorial reduction as a preferable alternative to war? Why did we engage in diplomacy that was long on rhetoric and short on material effects? Why did we conduct our policy in a manner that left the Russian regime with few plausible off-ramps? Why did we refuse to even consider a preemptive American or NATO deployment to Ukraine, accepting the resultant crisis and standoff as preferable to actual war? “The terrible ‘ifs’ accumulated,” wrote Churchill, “drawing Europe into a collective disaster no one could foresee and no one wished to see.” But this one was foreseen. It is not the ifs that accumulate now, but the whys.
Dawn approaches in the east. Several hours ago, the Ukrainian president, possibly the last to hold that office, spoke to his nation. It seems fitting to close with a passage from the address.
If we are attacked, if someone attempts to take away our land, our freedom, our lives, the lives of our children, we will defend ourselves. We won’t attack, but we will defend ourselves. By attacking, you will see our faces.
Not our backs, but our faces.
Joshua Treviño is the Chief of Intelligence and Research at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He writes at Armas about culture, events, and strategy, with a particular focus on Texas, Mexico, and China.