This week, High Noon with Inez Stepman checks in on Russia’s war against Ukraine. It can be easy to forget, considering how many problems the United States faces at home, but the war has now been raging since February, heading into its sixth month. Stepman talks to the Wall Street Journal’s Jillian Melchior, who has done three on-the-ground reporting trips to the region since February. Stepman and Melchior spoke about how to sort out live-time digital war propaganda from fact, and how our $40 billion is being spent — or whether it’s getting to the intended target at all. We also spoke about what the war is doing to forge a stronger Ukrainian national identity and Europe’s frustrating inability to go to rehab for its addiction to Russian gas.
High Noon is an intellectual download featuring conversations that make possible a free society. The podcast features interesting thinkers from all parts of the political spectrum to discuss the most controversial subjects of the day in a way that hopes to advance our common American future. Hosted by Inez Stepman of Independent Women’s Forum.
Welcome to High Noon where we talk about controversial subjects with interesting people. My guest today is Jillian Melchior. She is an editorial page writer for The Wall Street Journal. She’s been a fellow both with us at IWF and with the Steamboat Institute. Most relevantly for this conversation, she has been doing some awesome in-depth on the ground real old school reporting in Ukraine during this ongoing war.
I thought it was a good time maybe to check back in with the Ukrainian war. It’s been almost six months of fighting at this point. For that reason, I want to welcome Jillian to High Noon.
Jillian Kay Melchior:
Thank you so much for having me.
Like I just said, we now have months of fighting. We have multiple aid packages from the west, both from America and from Europe. I mean, we can discuss and we will discuss whether those have been insufficient or whether they were wise, or whether they actually were helping.
But I feel like this war has been extremely difficult for the average person, myself included, to really follow in terms of who’s winning, what’s going on on the ground, perhaps because this is in many ways the first major war for territory in the digital age. We’re seeing, we chat about this off podcast just now, but it’s almost like we’re seeing World War II propaganda but in live time, all over the internet. At least I know for myself it’s been extremely difficult to try to figure out what the facts are on the ground.
You’ve traveled, I think, at this point is it two or three times to Ukraine?
Jillian Kay Melchior:
Three times. Once before the war, just immediately before the war, and twice since it has broken out.
In this last trip that you took, what did you see? I mean, what is life like during this war in Ukraine? What did you hear and see about the frontlines and how the war is going for Ukrainians?
Jillian Kay Melchior:
I was pretty far removed from the frontlines. There are a lot of journalists out there, particularly photo journalists, that I think have been spectacularly brave going to places like Donbas region, the places that are really facing incessant shelling and a real risk.
Obviously, traveling to a war is not a risk-free thing, but I was in Kiev. There, the major concern is missile strikes. The last trip that I did, I was heading in, you go to the Polish border. There are no flights into Ukraine right now, so it’s about a 10-hour drive. As we were driving toward the city, there had been a series of missile strikes targeting the railway system on the day that I was there. So, you’re driving toward that.
When you get close to Kiev what you see is some of the cities that had been under Russian occupation, some of the places that there had been very heavy fighting around Kiev. So, things like burnt out tanks on the side of the road or buildings that had been completely bombed out or reduced to rubble, bridges that had been shredded or reduced.
It’s quite the contrast because speaking of World War II, I think we heard a lot about the British stiff upper lip. I don’t think I’d really understood that until I’d been in Ukraine during the war. It’s a weird combination. In Kiev, they’re trying to preserve normalcy. It’s almost an act of defiance against the Putin regime. Restaurants are still open, cafes are still open, businesses are coming back. But at the same time, it’s not uncommon to be awoken at two in the morning with an air raid siren. A lot of people are not going to the basement are going to the shelter when the sirens go off.
That was hard for me to understand at first, but just going back to that concept of defiance, I think it’s people clinging to the normality that they can preserve and saying that you’re not going to intimidate us from living our normal lives, to the extent that that is possible.
One of the other interesting reports that you did that really struck me is exactly related to that normalcy. You talked about how the civil society in Ukraine has been repurposed for the war and redirected. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Jillian Kay Melchior:
Yeah. It’s really fascinating. I’m a student of the classics and a student of American history, and one of the things that I really enjoyed reading was “Democracy in America.” Tocqueville was talking about how there is a civil society that needs to flourish in order to preserve freedom and have a democracy. I think that’s something that we’re really seeing happening in Ukraine right now, and it dates back to the revolution that they had.
In 2013, or I guess it would’ve been 2014, 2015 when they ousted Yanukovych and civil society came together for the protests in Maidan. What you saw back then was people taking to the streets, trying to do it in a peaceful way, supporting anti-corruption efforts. I think that really empowered the people of Ukraine to feel like we don’t need to wait on the government. We can organize spontaneously and do it on our own.
You’re seeing that movement come to fruition in the war. When I was in Lviv, which is in western Ukraine, we got a lot of refugees coming out of areas that are very hard hit. One of the things that was surprising to me is as soon as the refugees arrived in relative safety, they were asking, “What can I do to help? What can I do to support the broader defense of my country?”
You saw that in crowdsourcing fundraising for military equipment and military supplies, things like first aid kits out to the soldiers on the frontline. But I also saw moms and little kids going together and weaving these… It’s almost like a net and you tie pieces of fabric around it. But the point is that if you do this enough, it can provide a big camouflage for tanks or soldiers or military equipment. So, it’s really an all-in effort, an all of society effort.
Unfortunately, I think that Ukrainians are rising to the occasion in this way because they know that they are targets. Russia is not abiding by the rules of law, it’s going out of its way to target civilian infrastructure. We’ve seen attacks on schools, on hospitals. Most recently on a mall that killed about 20 people. These are really horrific things. They’re intended to terrorize the Ukrainian population and force them into submission.
I think the civil society that we’re seeing resurge is a good sign for Ukraine as a democracy as a whole, but I also think that it says something about the war effort and how targeted civilians feel.
Speaking of the war effort, where does it stand today? Because I feel like, again, it’s very difficult from a casual observer perspective to figure out where that stands. Obviously, Russia is holding large parts of the east. It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of hope currently to retake those regions in the immediate future. Where does this war go from here? Where do people in Ukraine think the war is going to go? Do they think that the Russians will stay in the east? Do they think they will continue to press west and attempt once again to go to Kiev? I mean, how do they anticipate this war proceeding?
Jillian Kay Melchior:
You know, when I was out there in March, what I saw was, it was around the time that Ukrainian soldiers pushed Russian troops back from Kiev, and that’s something that nobody among the Western or observers really anticipated, that they’d have this formidable defense and be able to push Russia back there. I think back then, there was a lot of hope about if we fight hard enough, if we stand up against the Russians, we can push them back.
This last trip, I think what I saw is not despair but a certain reality check that this is going to go on for a really long time and it’s, right now, almost like a stalemate. I mean, Russia has taken significant territory in Eastern Ukraine, but I think one thing to pay attention to is in the south. It’s taken a lot of territory. It’s trying to create a land bridge to Crimea and has done so successfully at this point. But it’s also trying to control the Black Sea and cut Ukraine off from this.
Now, there are a couple strategic reasons for that. First of all, it allows Russia to basically [inaudible 00:09:18] Ukraine, but it also cuts off Ukraine from the ports. The ports are really important because Ukraine is the breadbasket of Europe, certainly a lot of the world. We’re already seeing the startings of a food crisis in places. Putin knows that when you have a food crisis, when you cut off grain shipments and make the price of food, commodities go up, that creates political instability in a lot of developing countries. And so, he’s trying to use this as diplomatic leverage.
From the Ukrainian perspective, what I see is a lot of the people that I spoke to said that basically because Putin attacked in the way he did on February 24th, because it was a whole country effort, a full invasion in an attempt to seize the capital, they feel like at this point Putin has basically made his intentions clear. He wants to take Ukraine as a whole. And so, they feel like if there are any territorial concessions, if they give up any land, that that gives Putin a chance to pause, to rebuild his army and to make another attempt at that effort.
I think they’re justified in thinking that because… We talk about the full invasion of the war being about five, six months. But this conflict has really been going on since 2014. It’s about eight years. Ukrainians, I guess, were very disappointed in the Western response then that even if you look at the sanctions that were levied at that time, they were pretty weak. You saw that Putin was content for a little bit with Crimea and content with chipping away in the east, but that he, I guess, took this opportunity to rally and mount a broader attack. They feel like if there are any concessions or any sign of weakness now, that the same thing is going to happen. So, it’s an incremental attempt to take the whole of Ukraine. I think that’s why you’re seeing such a hard push.
What I’d be paying attention to in the next couple months is we’ve already seen Ukrainians retake Snake Island. That’s a little tiny, tiny island off the Black Sea coast, but it’s really strategically important. After Russia lost its flagship destroyer, flagship ship, it used this island as a substitute. It’s a place that it could launch missile attacks, that it could basically launch anti-surveillance stuff that cut Ukraine off from seeing what it was doing in the Black Sea. So, it was really important that Ukraine retook that island. It’s a huge geo strategical importance.
But I think with the next place that I’d be paying attention to is around Kherson and around Mykolaiv because I think that if the Ukrainians are able to make gains there and push the Russians back in the south, that’s a really positive sign. Conversely, if Russia is able to move further along with toward Odessa, which is the bright spot that is unoccupied along the Black Sea right now, it’s going to feel emboldened.
The open question right now is where do Putin’s territorial ambitions stop? Do they stop in Ukraine? You got Transnistria, which is a little sliver of Moldova there that already has a Russian presence. I think it’s not outside of the realm of possibility, but if Russia is able to consolidate its gains along the south all the way across to Moldova, then Moldova will be next.
This brings up-
Jillian Kay Melchior:
Yeah, no, this brings up a question about… Because one of the things that you read online and especially right now is that somehow the America and the west are perpetuating this war to the detriment of Ukrainian civilians. At least my interactions, to the extent I have them with friends and stuff, friends of friends over there, it’s been the opposite. The perception in Ukraine is that America is pushing or that the west is pushing them to accept territorial concessions in a ceasefire that, as you just outlined, they don’t believe will last. They don’t believe that giving up parts of the east will satisfy Putin. In fact, it’ll just be a regroup and the war will continue regardless, so they don’t really see the point of that.
I mean, did you hear from anyone in Ukraine about what the west’s role is in this and whether they see the west’s role is sort of pushing them into a ceasefire or the opposite? Because I’ve literally read both, and I don’t know… I only have a couple friends of friends and stuff. That’s hardly representative, and I know you’re not doing polls. You’re going out and talking to people, but you happen to several different cities, you’ve talked to people. Which story is more representative of how Ukrainians feel about the war and about the influence of the west in the war?
Jillian Kay Melchior:
Pretty much universally, what I hear from Ukrainians when I ask about this is that territorial concessions have to be off the table, and they view this war as existential. They think that if there is any sign of weakness, any concessions made, that it is rewarding Putin for his violence, for the brutality that he’s committing against their country, and that it will only encourage more of this. So, it’s a total nonstarter, the discussion of territorial concessions on the Ukrainian part. That’s what I hear from government, that’s what I hear from refugees, that’s what I hear from civilians who remain in their cities.
On the role of the west, what I hear is that basically the Ukrainians don’t view this as just about Ukraine. They view it as about protecting the integrity of borders, they view it as stopping Putin before his territorial ambitions lead him beyond Ukraine to other parts of Europe.
I think the refrain that I hear there is we care enough about this that we’re willing to die for it, we’re willing to fight for it for our freedom and to limit Putin. But the role of the west is to provide the weapons and the support that we don’t have. If you give us what we need to fight, we’ll do it. But on the same hand, I think there’s a lot of fear that the support that they’re getting is too little, that it’s moving too slowly. There’s been a lot promised, not all of that has been delivered.
I think there is frustration. I mean, if you look at neighbors in the region; Romania, how supportive it’s been; Slovakia, how supportive it’s been; Poland, how supportive it’s been. Ukraine is very appreciative of that. On the flip side, you have the United States, which has been supportive but very slow moving. A lot of the weaponry has gotten there much, much more slowly than it should have.
I would argue that we should have started a much more aggressive effort eight years ago when Putin took Crimean and started his initiative in the east. And there’s real frustration with countries like the Germany. The delays have been pretty incredible and there’s a lot of concern that Ukraine will be politically pressured and diplomatically pressured to accept a concession.
Let’s talk about that weaponry because we recently spent $40 billion on aid to Ukraine. And then I read in your article, your recent article in The Wall Street Journal that folks should go and read that Ukrainians are outgunned vis-à-vis the Russians, specifically on missiles. Basically, your article outlines that to make the same… Even if they hit their targets, right? They have a much lower number of missiles. Even if they hit their targets, the Russians are duplicating essentially positions and knowing that Ukrainians have to come much, much closer in order to try to strike those targets. So, it’s more difficult for them to strike the target, to begin with, because they have to get a lot closer and risk a lot more to do it. And then once they strike that, there’s another missile system that is set up to continue.
It really seems like this war has moved, and you hinted at this just a few minutes ago in our conversation when you were talking about the primary threat comes from missile strikes for most of Ukraine that is not in that Eastern and Southern band that’s controlled by Russian troops.
I guess my question is why? What happened? Because there was this huge aid package. I mean $40 billion is more than the GDP of a lot of countries. And so, the question is how can it be that the United States has passed this massive amount of money presumably to aid Ukraine, and how can it be that they are still completely outgunned by the Russian troops in this case?
Jillian Kay Melchior:
Well, I think we got to take a couple of things into consideration on this. First of all, look at the size of the Russian military and how long it’s been investing in missiles and long-range things. I mean, this is a power that was locked in a cold war with the US. It’s a superpower. It’s huge and it has just a lot of weaponry. So, if you want anything that resembles parody, it’s going to take a lot. It’s something that Russia has been investing for years.
Forty billion dollars, it sounds like a lot until you put it in context of something like the COVID bills. It’s really a small investment for how big of a crisis this is and how broad the geopolitical implications of it are. I mean, this is the biggest land war in Europe since World War II, it has huge destabilizing potential, it’s creating a massive refugee crisis. We talked a little bit about the food instability that’s creating that could lead to revolution or political clashes elsewhere in the world. I mean, it’s a really big deal.
Ukraine’s starting from a place where it actually undertook an effort to disarm. I mean, if you look back to the Budapest memorandum when the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine had nuclear weapons that gave them up on a guarantee that Russia, the UK and the US would protect its territorial integrity. I think this is going to be a problem in the future for when we’re trying to get other countries to engage in nuclear disarmament, that Ukraine did this in good faith and now it’s getting attacked and its civilians are being slaughtered.
Just going back to the broader question of what they have in that disparity, I think there are a couple things to look at. First of all, if you’re looking at how much has been promised in aid and how much has been delivered, a lot has been committed. Not all of those things have actually reached the battlefield and that’s been a big problem. For instance, right now, HIMARS. Those are the missile systems that have a pretty long range. In recent weeks, Ukraine has been using them to great effect to target command centers, to target ammunition depots, but they only have four of them on the battlefield. They promised 12 of them in total. But they say they need a hundred of these. It’s like you were saying, we have to look at both the disparity and quantity and the disparity and range.
As far as quantity, what I’m hearing is on the battlefield, Russia has about 10 times the artillery, in some places 20 times as much as Ukraine. That means that it can be engaged in just indiscriminate shelling. When I’m talking to guys on the frontline, what they’re saying is it’s just relentless, it’s day and night. It’s indiscriminate, it’s targeting a lot of civilians, that it creates just horrific casualties that it’s sometimes difficult to evacuate wounded soldiers and civilians, and it’s just coming constantly.
The Ukrainians can’t unleash a barrage like that for a couple reasons. First of all, they are concerned about civilian casualties, but also they just don’t have as much equipment as Russia has to lob across on the Russian side. I think when the range in precision comes in the sophistication of weapons, right now Russia can strike really hard and really far past the frontline. What I mean by that is we saw the recent attack on the city of Vinnytsia. That’s pretty central. That’s very, very far from the frontline, and that’s the one where you saw that horrific photo of the stroller with the little girl in it who was killed.
I think they’re trying to terrorize, the Russians are trying to terrorize civilians all throughout Ukraine through places that were considered safe to create the perception that there is no safe place in Ukraine. But closer to the frontline, what you’re seeing is Ukrainians have to get really, really close to engage and take out Russian targets. That means they have less time to flee because when you set off one of these weapons, it’s pretty easy to figure out where you are. If it’s from a short distance, it’s less time to get away to a safe distance.
What you’re also seeing is that when Russia is striking, it can take out a lot of Ukrainians as they approach the line of engagement. Ukrainians don’t have enough or enough range to do that to the Russians, so when you arrive at the front line where there’s actually confrontation, just more Russians make it there than Ukrainians. Also, that disparity and range means that once Ukrainians make it to the frontline, the Russians can hit behind them and try to block them from escaping if they need to retreat. It can cut them off or attempt to cut them off from supply lines. It really has a profound effect on the battlefield.
What I’m hearing from a lot of Ukrainians is if we have more high rise, if we can strike back further, we can protect more civilians, we can take out more targets and hopefully we can start reversing some of these gains that Russia made particularly in the south.
You know, the refugee crisis that’s coming out of this is now because it has been some number of months. I mean, I’ve honestly been surprised. I thought that like many other refugee crises in the past, you would have people, after some number of months, just settling elsewhere. Just anecdotally, that has not been the case.
My family has a cottage outside of Krakow and we were hosting five refugees from Ukraine. They wanted to go back, and they did as soon as the indiscriminate blanket bombing stopped in the eastern territories and to Kiev as well. They all went home. Grandma wanted to go home. I think an enormous part of this diaspora wants to return, and some of them have already returned just because the, as you say… It seems a lot, almost, it had started as a stalemate. There’s a kind of relatively front now established except that, as you say, there is plenty of missile strikes going over the head of the front. But that’s, again, you said about folks going on about with their lives, it seems like something a lot of Ukrainians are willing to accept to return home.
That being said, the longer this goes on, the more likely it is that kids grow, they go to school, people meet and marry. It seems more likely that Ukraine will suffer a huge population dip not just from, regrettably, people who have been killed but also just from the flood of refugees leaving the country.
You’ve also written about the cost of the war in terms of infrastructure. You said that one in five hospitals is gone. I think in your article you say 14% of the roads are destroyed in the country, and that’s not even counting, of course, the hundreds, thousands of buildings that are collapsed into rubble. I guess I have a two-part question. One is even if they were able to secure some kind of ceasefire or settlement, how does Ukraine rebuild out of this?
The second piece related, I guess, would be… I don’t want to give people the impression… I’m quite… I’m very, actually, very pro-Ukranian in this war, but it wasn’t a perfect country and will remain not a perfect country even by the standards of imperfect democracies. It was an incredibly corrupt system and probably remains that way. One of the things that I want people to understand is you can be a corrupt bastard and still be a patriot. There are levels of brave and just like the [inaudible 00:25:32] is patriotic during World War II.
How does Ukraine potentially, especially having suffered so much devastation, now being much more dependent on foreign aid than they would’ve otherwise been in this war with many fewer people, how do they even avoid a future of being a completely client buffer state, either for… I guess you have to choose, is it buffer state of the west or of Russia. But either way, how do they avoid that kind of future where they have very little control over their own destiny?
Jillian Kay Melchior:
Well, I think when you talk to Ukrainians, and this is also reflected in the bullying, they view their future as European. They want to join NATO at some point because they feel under threat. They want to become a part of the European Union and have candidate status for that.
I think that the more Russia threatens them and slaughters their civilians, the more that affinity and desire. Just the sense that it is a matter of their survival to become part of the west, rather than be subsumed by Russia deepens.
I do think what we’ve seen… You’re right when you talk about Ukraine not being a perfect country, but I think continuing on that theme of civil society, since 2014, since Yanukovych was ousted, you have seen really significant gains, just ordinary Ukrainians getting involved in their government, some of the anti-corruption efforts that have been made there. It’s not perfect but it’s significant progress within an eight-year window.
I think what this war has really done is cement the idea of Ukrainian nationhood. As far as how Ukrainians see themselves and their relationship to the world, they are very, very united. This is for sure a country that, if it can move past the war, will have messy politics. It’s a country that’s going to continue to have its own struggles. I mean, it’s still got that Soviet Union hangover, which has not been good for any of the participants. You’re trying to undo decades of totalitarianism and oppression. But I think Ukrainians have been willing to fight and die for their freedom and they have a clear idea of what they want. I would hope that we arm them enough that if they’re willing to fight and die for it, they at least have a fighting chance.
Speaking of the unification, first of all, there’s nothing that forges national identity like war. Ukraine has a substantial, mostly in the east, a substantial ethnic Russian and Russian speaking minority. The Russians have not treated those cities any differently really than they’ve treated the rest of Ukraine. These are cities that since 2014 at least and probably before that, either wanted independence or they actively wanted to rejoin Russia as a province. There was a lot of pro-Russian sentiment in those particular cities like in Donbas and so on. Do you have any idea, since you talked to the refugees coming over, how the way that Russians have treated the Russian speaking cities of Ukraine has impacted the way that ethnic Russians see those political questions or geopolitical questions?
I would assume that it’s very difficult, that they are not helping themselves, in other words. Even in the territories that they are going to control, there’s a potential for Donbos to look like Chechya where it’s just a decades long, low-level resistance from people who don’t want to be governed by the Russian state.
Jillian Kay Melchior:
Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. I was looking at polling actually before the war, and I think that Mariupol is a really interesting city to look at. Because before the war, if you looked at polling of big cities across Ukraine, this is the city on the Black Sea very far east. It was the one that had the warmest and friendliest feelings toward Russia. That is the city that I think that we have seen Russian war crimes in their most horrific form. This is a place where, I want to say, the estimate was 80 or 90% of buildings have been damaged. It’s a place that… Just the shelling and the human cost of this I think is most profound there.
A lot of media has not been able to get in. The media that has this reporting about bodies laying on the streets for months, families huddled in bomb shelters, just the horror of what happened there. I know some people who are from Mariupol who’ve made it to safety, and I think they’re shocked that Russia would treat them this way. It’s really profound.
When I was there in, I guess, January and February in Kiev, I was talking to people and they’re saying, “Yeah, Russia’s always saying we’re like brothers. Well, we’re like brothers. We’re like Cain and Abel.” That is a sentiment that I’m hearing more and more from people in these Russian speaking communities, that you may claim that you’re my brother, but you’ve murdered me. So, I think we’re seeing a political shift there and a consolidation around Ukrainian identity.
Another thing that really helps is a Russian propaganda point, is that this is in part about language, about discrimination against Russian speakers. But if you go to Kiev, that’s not what you see. There are a lot of people who were, out of patriotic sentiment, trying to brush up on their Ukrainian, but there are still a lot of Russian speakers there and I have never heard of anybody being discriminated against because of their Russian language status. Most Ukrainians are bilingual and think that’s absurd.
Yeah, it’s hard to hear. I mean, 80, 90% destruction is like Warsaw in World War II. I guess that leads me to my next question, which is this is the first kind of old-school war in recent memory, especially in the United States. We’ve been engaged in essentially asymmetrical conflict in multiple places. I don’t want to say that there hasn’t been a major war. There have been plenty of major wars. Obviously, the US was in Iraq and Afghanistan for 20 years, but those wars were fundamentally limited in some way. It is shocking to see once again a European city reduced to 80, 90% destruction.
What does this do to Europe? I have my own sentiments about this war. I can understand someone who would say from an abstract perspective this should be Europe’s problem and not the United States. The United States has huge conflicts on the horizon with China. We are going to have, or I think we already are in a type of cold war with China, and that’s going to take a lot of resources that we may or may not have. Here, I’m not just talking about money, but I’m talking about national unity, patriotism, the actual conviction that our way of life is something that’s worth fighting for and worth preserving.
These are all problems that we have internally. I can understand why someone would say, well, how is this our problem? If EU countries cannot defend against an encroaching Russia, they’ve sold out their interests to Gazprom for decades. Why is it up to the US to clean up this problem? I understand that sentiment. What happens in Europe under this threat?
Jillian Kay Melchior:
Well, I guess I’d raise a couple points on that. I think this has been a huge wake up call for Europe. We’re seeing that reflected in increase in defense spending but also in rethinking of some of the energy policies.
You mentioned Gazprom. Russia can cut off the gas. It can make a lot of Europe pay a lot of money for its energy prices and it can possibly make people’s power go out in the middle of the winter. That’s something that we’re seeing a rethinking about some of these environmental goals and whether they jeopardize national security.
I guess to the broader US point of why we have a national interest in getting involved, it’s indisputable that Europe should have been doing more. I think it was caught sleeping in the wheel with this crisis. At the same time, I do think the United States has an interest in ensuring that authoritarian countries don’t engage in imperialism and in attacks on peaceful nations. I think, for sure, if Russia gets away with this, if it can just take territory by force, we are entering a world of herd, a very dangerous new era.
You speak about China. I think that China will take away the lesson that it can take Taiwan, that it can bully its neighbors beyond Taiwan. And so, I think if we allow this to happen, you end up with a world that’s much more chaotic, much more destabilized and where things are determined not by rule of law and not by diplomacy and international interaction, but done by force, and we’ve seen the cost of that. If you look at the last century, that’s what we had and it didn’t look pretty. It undermine economic interest in the US, it undermine markets but I think it also created a world that’s much less safe.
So, I just think there’s a huge American interest in stopping this unchecked aggression and unprovoked aggression before it spreads and sending a message to people in countries that would do things like this that you won’t get away with it, and that you will face resistance.
Well, I have a specific question about Europe that I wanted to ask a follow-up to something you said, but before I do that I wanted to ask you about what’s the potential… I mean, I understand the argument you just laid out, which is the west response to this has been slow and ineffectual.
Frankly, I think Putin was probably right. If he had done what he did in Georgia or in 2014 even, I think he would’ve probably made the right call in the real politics sense, that the west would’ve put a few more sanctions on Russia and they would’ve largely adjusted to the new status quo. But he really didn’t, I think, anticipate, and there’s a lot of speculation as to why is the kind of resistance that he’s faced in Ukraine from Ukrainians, yes, now heavily supplied by the United States and by the west. But initially, in those initial weeks, without that, does this have the potential, though, to… It has exposed the west as weak, but it’s also exposed Russia not as militarily dominant as many people might have feared that it was. Obviously, Russians have never been great at logistics but this has really highlighted that.
I mean, the amount of resistance that Ukraine has been able to put up against the Russian military, from the perspective of February, this is quite remarkable. Does this make the Chinese have second thoughts that perhaps their own military is not as well prepared as they think it is? That they might face mass resistance, for example, in Taiwan even without the west, even if they correctly calculate that the west has a weak position and is unable to defend its position. I mean, this has not been good for Russia either.
Here, I’m not just talking about sanctions and stuff. They have kind of pulled their pants down in front of the world in terms of their inability to execute. Something that, if you had asked people again in February, can the Russian military take over Ukraine, I think most people would’ve said of course they can, it’ll be over in a matter of weeks. Here we are six months out and there’s a stalemate. What they hold is the Eastern territories that people predicted that they would be able to get after trying for the whole enchilada. So, does this hold a different kind of lesson for China? That in fact what your military is on paper may very well collapse in the face of actual assistance and actual deployment into the field.
Jillian Kay Melchior:
You know, I think Russia and China are two different countries. China is certainly much more technologically advanced, it’s been much more strategic. But I think when you’re talking more broadly about the lessons that China is learning, I think the jury is still out and I think that is why it is so important for Ukraine to win and for the United States and for the west to help it win. Because I think it’s still figuring out what lessons and conclusions to draw from it, and that is going to depend on how successful Putin is.
That said, I do think that there are lessons that the west should already learn from this experience, and one of them is I’d be really shocked if Putin would’ve undertaken this. If we had been arming Ukraine much more aggressively in 2014, we are now doing makeup work. I would argue, if we had provided weapons, then it would’ve been a deterrent. Now it’s defensive. But I think it’s not too late to do this for Taiwan. to arm it so it can defend itself.
You’re already seeing in Taiwan, Ukraine has this thing called the territorial defense where people who are civilians, it’s almost like a national guard program, but they can go on the weekends and get military training and just be ready for conflict. I went in January and February and watched some of them training. It’s been really interesting to see what a significant role they’ve played in this war. Now you’re seeing Taiwan look at that precedent and some people trying to organize their own territorial defense there.
I guess I’d argue, if there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s to arm democracies that want to fight for their freedom and stand up for their freedom before the bad guy attacks, because it’s much more difficult to ward off a bad guy once the war has already begun. There is nothing inevitable about this conflict. I think we should be thinking, as a west, about how we prevent the next one.
To return to the Europe question, which I think is related to what you just said, it seems to me… I wanted to ask you for some specific evidence that Western Europe is in fact changing its energy policy and its military policy to a more serious posture given this conflict because I haven’t… Maybe I just don’t know, but I haven’t seen them. It’s Eastern Europe and Central Europe that’s changing its posture.
I guess there’s two parts to this question. One, is Western Europe moving, for example Germany, moving to a position where they won’t be so actively blasé about depending so heavily on Putin for gas. The second part of that question, if the United States is going to be pivoting towards Asia and ultimately is probably going to have a smaller footprint in Europe or would like to have a smaller footprint in Europe than we have for the last 50 years, are the allies that we should be looking for in that region, should we be just circumventing the major powers of Europe, quote-unquote major powers of Europe, like Germany and France and should we be talking directly and arming directly the Eastern Europe borders?
Countries like Poland, Lithuania, these are countries, as you pointed out, that have responded aggressively both in building their own military and offering aid to Ukraine. I mean, at what point do we give up the ghost on Germany and we start to look east for stronger allies and building them into some actual defensive deterrent threat?
Jillian Kay Melchior:
Well, I don’t think these things are mutually exclusive. I am really encouraged to see this reality check happening in Germany and France, some of these Western European countries. I do think you’re seeing a slight increase in military spending. Could it be more? Yes. Are you dealing with a country that for decades has thought that it doesn’t need to spend money on this? Yes. So, that’s progress.
I think you’re also seeing a rethinking on nuclear energy. You’ve certainly seen with some of the coal plants that they had hoped to consign to extinction, thinking about bringing those back online. I would hope that the United States would look at this and understand the importance of its own energy independence because it’s not just a matter of what you pay at the pumps, it’s a matter of national security, it’s a matter of your being able to bolster and supply these allies when Russia is using natural gas as a weapon.
I think if we’d done more with that, we could arguably be doing more for Europe now. But for sure, I think that we should… You’re already seeing an increase in NATO presence on the border with Ukraine. I was in [inaudible 00:42:53], Poland walking around the middle of downtown and you see a lot of American soldiers there that have been recently deployed. I do think that we should be engaging with those countries and helping create that deterrent, but I don’t think that you can just write off Germany and France, as frustrating as that is. They’re important, and hopefully this is driving them to make better policy decisions.
I want to close with this. You said you’ve been to Ukraine three times, once just before the war and twice since the war has started. Have there been any stories or incidents or conversations that you had that have stuck with you the most as you’ve returned to the United States? I mean, what aspects of your trip do you think that you will continue to remember for, for years to come here?
Jillian Kay Melchior:
A couple of them spring to mind. The one that I really liked and that I was really excited to write about is Ukrainian railway men. Why I was excited to write about them is Ukraine’s railway system is really, really important. You had soldiers that were leaving for the frontline and saying goodbye to their wives and their children one time, and then you had railway men who were going every single day into danger, into the frontline to rescue civilians and bring them back to safety, and then waking up the next day and doing it again.
I loved interviewing those railway men because I thought it was such a good example. They embody the ordinary heroism that I see so much in Ukraine. They are people that have just decided, “You know what, despite the personal risk, I’m going to show up to do my job and sacrifice myself for my countrymen, potentially.” I thought it was really interesting to hear that. Almost the casualness with which they rose to the occasion, that they just decided this is the right thing and there’s nobody else to do it, so I’m going to do it. So, I thought that was really inspiring.
I think the interviews that will haunt me from this, talking to the wives of prisoners of war and just their fear and uncertainty of not knowing where their men are, if their men are okay, and not knowing if there’s any potential to see them again, and knowing that they were captured fighting against an enemy who hates them. I think that’s really fearsome. It was just, honestly, a heartbreaking interview.
Jillian Melchior, thank you so much for coming on High Noon. You can read those stories and Jillian’s other reporting at The Wall Street Journal. I really encourage you to do so. She’s doing the real journalism work of going over and talking to people and directly getting their stories and recording what’s happening in this horrific war and making sure that the news of what happened there does get out to the world. Jillian, thank you for your work and thanks for joining me today.
Thank you to our listeners. High Noon with Inez Stepman is a production of the Independent Women’s Forum. As always, you can send comments and questions to [email protected]. Please help us out by hitting the subscribe button and leaving us a comment or review on Apple Podcast, Acast, Google Play, YouTube, or iwf.org.
Be brave, and we’ll see you next time on High Noon.