OPINION — In the 1942 Hollywood classic Casablanca, Ingrid Bergman, playing Ilsa Lund famously says, “Play it, Sam.” A little under a year later, the Casablanca Conference was held at the Anfa Hotel in Casablanca. Attending were the leaders of many of the Allied powers including U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

The purpose of the conference was to discuss allied war strategy, but it is most famously remembered for the declaration of “unconditional surrender,” a doctrine which reflected the unity, will, confidence and determination of the Allies. The war was far from certain to be won by the Allies.  The battle of Stalingrad was raging as was combat in the Pacific.  The battle of the Atlantic was far from over and most of Europe was still occupied by Nazi Germany.

The Casablanca Conference was nonetheless a bold meeting with a declaration that reflected the understanding those leaders had that the world was at an historic inflection point and an unequivocal message needed to be sent to the Axis powers.

We are at a similar inflection point in history, but do not yet have a world at war.

On March 24, the leaders of the NATO member states will meet in Brussels for talks on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Biden is then scheduled to attend a European Union summit to discuss further sanctions against Russia and humanitarian aid for Ukraine. This is commendable, but misses the opportunity to send a message as decisive as the message sent in Casablanca in 1943.

Putin has launched a war of conquest against a smaller neutral neighbor. The images from that invasion have horrified the civilized world as has the refugee and displaced persons crisis.  Nearly three million Ukrainians have fled the country and perhaps a larger number have been internally displaced.

Putin’s lackey, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko—often referred to as Europe’s last dictator—has allowed Belarus to be used as a platform from which Putin launched the invasion and Belarus continues to be a primary support base for invasion forces.

The war is not going well. 

Many observers believe an effective stalemate has been reached with Putin no longer having the military forces to achieve the conquest of the Ukraine or achieve his pre-war objectives. Conservative estimates of Russian casualties suggest numbers greater than the U.S. losses in Iraq and Afghanistan combined and Soviet losses in the 10 years of their invasion of Afghanistan. The Ukrainians have fought with skill and determination, but the grim mathematics of war are against them.

There will be no negotiated solution to this conflict. Negotiations are the favored solution in the West, but the reality of Putin’s evil proscribes a negotiated solution short of unconditional surrender by Putin. The few attempts at negotiating limited ceasefires thus far, to allow the evacuation of civilians from cities, have failed. Recent polling in Ukraine shows incredible resolve that they support their President and Commander-in-Chief (91%), that they believe they can defeat the Russians (70%), and that they do not support conceding either the secessionist Donbas regions or Crimea to Russia (79%). 

It is likely the West will continue to supply Ukraine with effective anti-armor and anti-aircraft systems that will certainly inhibit any future Russian attempts to increase their territorial gains.  The effectiveness of these weapons and the skill of Ukrainian defenders has forced the Russian advance on Kyiv to halt and revert to digging earthworks to protect their armored forces.


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So where does military stalemate leave us?  With the conviction Putin seemingly still has of Russia’s victory and his assessment of the fecklessness of the West, the answer to the question may be the use of weapons of mass destruction, particularly chemical weapons, which Putin countenanced for use by his surrogate in Syria, Bashir Al-Assad.

Chemical weapons are particularly useful in urban combat environments like the ones Russian forces now face in several cities across Ukraine. As Ukrainian President Zelenskyy has said, if you want to know what the Russians intend to do, look at what they are accusing others of doing.

The Russians are accusing the US and Ukraine of developing and preparing to use chemical and biological weapons.  Given the accuracy of US intelligence both before and during this now nearly month-long conflict, it may be significant that a growing number of US officials – that one presumes have access to this intelligence – are warning of Russia’s plans to use chemical weapons.  This should be a flashing red light danger signal to the world of the risk of escalation of this conflict.

The use of any form of WMD in Ukraine should be grounds for intervention by a broad international coalition; NATO, Japan, Australia, New Zealand immediately come to mind and many more from across the international community.

A “no fly zone” and western Ukraine safe haven should be immediately declared.  As well as a 21st century declaration of unconditional surrender.  Vladimir Putin and the cabal of Russian leaders that brought about this war are war criminals and need to be brought to justice.  Anything less is evasion and appeasement.

Thursday’s NATO meeting should be the opportunity to lay down a Casablanca Conference marker that sends a message to Putin and all his ilk lurking under their rocks around the world.  They should be told that the free world will no longer ignore, rationalize, or appease them. Be it North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, or even China, the message the West sends to Putin will be heard by the leaders of those countries.

An awakened and determined free world is a powerful force as Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito learned in the 20th Century.  Putin has been relentlessly rebuilding Stalinism in Russia these past twenty or more years. Let us give him the opportunity to witness the collapse of that system for the second time in his life. The West needs a Casablanca moment and expression of determination, will, and confidence. Play it again, Uncle Sam.

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