Some events seem impossible right up to the minute that they take place. The idea that terrorists might turn airliners into missiles, for example, was relegated to novels until the morning of September 11, 2001.
For decades, a global pandemic unleashing social, economic, and cultural havoc was the basis of science-fiction movie plots. Then the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in the United States.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is another crisis that looked like an unlikely prospect for months but now seems inevitable in retrospect.
Leading up to the war, President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued warning after warning that Russia was preparing to attack its neighbor.
But it felt very unlikely for many. It is the 21st century, after all.
The experts said that Putin did not have enough troops to change the Ukrainian regime and occupy a sovereign nation. They said that U.S. intelligence had failed in the past and could well be wrong again.
They noted that Ukrainian President Zelenskyy was minimizing tensions.
They suggested that Putin, while a risk taker, was hardly the kind of maniac who would launch an invasion.
Putin chose war instead. He followed the logic he had made explicit many times before: that Ukraine is an illegitimate nation-state standing in the way of the “historical unity” of Russians and Ukrainians.
Despite Biden’s continued threat of sanctions, despite French president Macron’s shuttle diplomacy, Putin remained unmoved.
He continued to call democratic Ukraine fascist. He blamed America and the West for leaving him with no alternative to conquest. He said that he would “de-Nazify” a country with a Jewish president—and retaliate against any western nation that interfered.
In launching his war, Putin did exactly what he had shown every indication of preparing to do for some time.
Why, then, was it so difficult for so many experts to take him seriously? Why did so many of us look with incomprehension and disbelief upon his statements and actions in the final days before the beginning of his “special military operation”?
Why were we unable to assimilate into our picture of reality a dictator who would coldly unleash violence on 44 million men, women, and children?
When autocrats resort to violence, citizens of democracies that enjoy the rule of law are often shocked. For us, organized violence is rare. Terrible outcomes are uncommon. We rarely believe what our own elected officials say. Why should we take seriously the ravings of despots?
Well, it’s about time we started doing so. After Ukraine, we know that tyrants mean it when they make audacious claims and demand remarkable concessions.
They are not making empty threats. Many of us are just not listening.
After Ukraine, we cannot ignore Xi Jinping’s threats against Taiwan. After Ukraine, we need to listen to the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has spent decades calling for the end of Israel.
And yet, the same administration that was right about Putin’s intentions in Ukraine lives in la-la land when it comes to a theocracy whose malign behavior in the Middle East aims at the eradication of the Jewish state.
What proof is there that Xi Jinping and Ayatollah Khamenei are any less committed to their diabolical ideologies than Vladimir Putin is?
Why should we be less worried about a Chinese invasion of Taiwan or an Iranian attack on Israel than about Putin’s designs in Ukraine?
When strongmen tell you they are about to sow chaos, don’t close your ears. What they say might strike you as out of this world. It isn’t.
Don’t dismiss the leaders of rogue states. Don’t doubt them. Believe them.