December of 2023, and a cloud has appeared in the neocon sky: the Russians are advancing towards Kiev, and the few Ukrainian soldiers left can only destroy bridges to slow them down or send drones against Moscow banks to destroy their pension plans. As Russian troops pass through villages, old women throw rocks. Two teenagers emptied cans of light-blue and then yellow paint onto a passing tank; the video, of course, has made the evening news from New York to Tokyo, and much commentary exalts the never-give-up pluck of Ukrainians. There are rumors of a putsch in Kiev, however, and to add insult to injury, extra Marines have had to surround the American Embassy because crowds are showing up, the quiet ones desperate to get American visas, but the noisy ones — and they are legion — to bang on pots and pans to protest the U.S. getting them into this mess. Media reports dutifully call them “victims of Putin’s disinformation.”
Something must be done. The neocons have spent 100 billion taxpayer dollars and all America’s political capital on the Ukraine War. But neocons do not do defeat. A meeting with the president is called to turn this hiccup into victory.
It is evening in Washington now, and Victoria Nuland, Jake Sullivan, and Tony Blinken file into the Oval Office and sit down on parallel sofas. Nuland has brought a jar of cookies and puts it on the coffee table. The President turns on a television, which shows the line of heavily-dressed people, some with sleeping children, sitting outside the embassy, waiting to be permitted entrance. The protesters have disappeared.
“Well!” he says with relief, plopping down in an armchair. “That doesn’t look so bad. Those protesters must have shrunk away, embarrassed after all we’ve done for them.”
Nobody mentions that it’s two a.m. in Kiev.
“So what have you got for me?” says Biden, adding with a wave at the silent TV, “Don’t get discouraged by this. Freedom always wins out. Hey, I was thinking: what if we blow up another Russian pipeline? You know, send them a message: ‘This is unacceptable.’”
Blinken: “Really, what we need, first and foremost, sir, is to create a new reality.”
Sullivan sighs. “Tony, can we please not get into reality? Reality exists. It’s like air; you don’t change it or invent it.”
Beside him on the sofa, Nuland jabs Blinken in the ribs.
“We think, sir, the situation calls for a stronger” — he glances at Sullivan — “calibration. If we send in troops now, we can probably — no, surely — hold the Russians well short of Kiev.”
“American boys in harm’s way? No. I’ve said that from the get-go: we will not enter the war. No way.”
“Then we are looking at the Russians in Maidan Square within a week, sir,” says Sullivan.
Biden: “Freedom will out, you just have to have faith.”
Sullivan: “We all love freedom, sir, but think of a Russian flag pulled up a flagpole in Maidan. The visuals are going to be terrible.”
This gets Biden’s attention. “Oh. Yeah. The visuals.” He takes his water glass from the table and sips. “We sure got hung out to dry by visuals in Baghdad. You see those crowds running alongside the transport plane?”
“You mean –” begins Blinken.
“Yes sir,” says Sullivan, with a poisoned look at Blinken.
Finally, Nuland speaks up; until now, she has been eating cookies. “That’s why, Mr. President, in view of the visuals, we must move in American troops.”
Biden: “You really think so, Victoria? I’ve said a hundred times, no more troops in Kabul. That’s a bad place to –”
Nuland interrupts him. “Yes, but ‘no more troops’? What is ‘no more troops’? That’s a very ambiguous phrase, Mr. President. I mean, ‘no more troops’ for what? It’s just a question of how you frame those troops.”
Biden nods uncertainly. “Framing. Framing — yeah, that’s important.”
Nuland: “We’re not ‘intervening in Ukraine’ or ‘taking over the war from Ukraine.’ We just say our troops are defending Kiev — first our embassy, which is under siege, then the city, for example at the request of the mayor.”
“Or just those people waiting outside the embassy,” adds Blinken on an inspiration. “Those people depend on us and us alone not to be put up against the embassy wall and shot by Putin’s men.”
Biden: “Yeah, ya gotta defend freedom.”
Nuland: “We can call it ‘a limited military operation.’”
“Madam Acting Deputy Secretary,” says Sullivan, using her full title, “that sounds way too much like ‘Special Military Operation.’”
“So what?” says Biden, puzzled.
Nuland: “Ah. Point taken. We can call it –”
Biden: “I know! We’ll call it ‘Operation Defending Freedom.’”
Nuland: “Excellent, Mr. President! Wonderful!” She offers him a cookie from the jar. “Here you go. Fresh out of the Kagan oven: oatmeal-raisin.”
Blinken frowns uncomfortably. “The E.U. will raise hell, though. They will absolutely not go in for –”
“Oh, fuck the E.U.. They’re such a lot of wussies.”
“Yeah, ya gotta defend freedom,” Biden mushes around his cookie. “But what’s the plan then, Victoria? You send in our boys, they defend, ah, ah, Kiev. Fine. Doable. What then? Negotiate Ukraine’s surrender? No. Freedom never surrenders.”
“Absolutely not. Nobody’s going to surrender,” Nuland says patiently. “The point is to get our uniforms into the country. But we tell everyone that the troops are only there to defend the local population while Ukraine negotiates peace with Russia. ‘Defend’ — that’s the key word. Defend, defend, defend. Nobody can argue with defense, not if the other guy’s attacking.”
“Yeah, ya gotta defend freedom,” says Biden. “Can I get another cookie? Jeepers, they’re good.” He ate another. “And when the negotiations end, our boys’ll leave?”
Nuland smiles. “In theory, yes.”
“And in fact?”
“In fact they are there for ‘Ukraine, Chapter Two: America comes to the rescue.’”
Sullivan: “That’s the part that — I don’t know….”
“Do you have another way of getting at the Russians?” Nuland asks sharply. “You’re the one who’s been itching to go head-to-head with the Chinese for the past year, though I don’t know why. You don’t seriously believe that a China-Russia alliance can be beaten, do you? Between them and the African continent that’s swaying their way, they’ve got control over two-thirds of the world’s population and resources. Where’s your classical political theory?”
“I’m a lawyer,” Sullivan says lamely.
“And I have a B.A. in Russian Studies. Now, either we take out Russia before we take on China, or we kick back, open the cookie jar, and accept China as the new Big Man on Campus. Are you here for that? I can’t believe you’re that kind of fool, Jake.”
“That was uncalled for.”
“I’m a little lost here, Victoria,” says Biden. He holds up his half-eaten cookie, “Maybe it’s because of these great cookies, I don’t know. Is this, like, I don’t know, some kind of plan?”
“Yes. We ring Kiev with troops, the Russian army stops a hundred miles away, and the locals every day pelt their soldiers with everything from tomatoes to pitchforks. Great visuals there. Meanwhile, in the peace negotiations, Zelensky — if we keep him — tells Lavrov to his astonishment that his demands haven’t changed: get out of Crimea and the new Russian territories. In exchange, we’ll give you a sweetheart ten-year deal on your naval base in Sevastopol. The Russians can’t believe it. They renew their attack, but this time they’re up against Americans.”
“Russians attacking our boys?” cries Biden.
“Right! See, Jake? The President gets it right from the start: Russians attacking our boys! Members of Congress will fall all over each other to give you permission to fight back. Then we take out a few of their ships in the Black Sea, declare a no-fly zone and take out a few of their planes, they retaliate, and, voilà! Now we’re at war with Russia.”
Biden frowns. “War with Russia? I don’t know if the American people will accept that.”
Nuland bites into another cookie, muttering something that sounds like “Fuck them too.” When she’s ready, she says, “No, Americans will not accept a war with Russia, of course not. That’s why we tell them we’re at war with Putin.”
Blinken grabs a cookie and stuffs it whole into his mouth.
Sullivan says sourly, “Oh sure, Victoria: explain to us how we’re at war with Putin without being at war with Russia.”
“Easy. We take a page from Putin’s playbook: Operation Defending Freedom’s objective is limited — limited to pushing Putin out of Ukraine. Russia? We won’t shoot so much as a spitball at Russian territory.”
Sullivan: “Right. Limited, like ‘Special Military Operation.”
“But ‘Operation Defending Freedom’ sounds so much better, doesn’t it?” Nuland says. “The key point is, we’re doing it like Vietnam: in stages. First we’re there to protect our people at the embassy, then Kiev, then we’re there only as long as the negotiations continue, then we’re outraged over Russian retaliation, and then all we want to do is push that monster Putin out of Ukraine — but not attack Russia itself. Absolutely not: we have no bone to pick with poor ordinary oppressed Russians, who if they want to rise up and overthrow him, we’ll be there to help. Like the President says, ‘You gotta defend freedom.’”
Biden: “Damn right. Freedom’s gotta be defended again and again. Still…going to war with Russia. Man, there’s a pain in the butt if I ever saw one.” He looks around, grinning. “Get it? Who ever saw a pain in the butt, right?”
The other three dutifully laugh.
Blinken: “You just have to think of it this way, sir: end of the day, this is like the Gulf War, pushing Iraq out of Kuwait. When a dictatorship invades its neighbor, we free nations of the world must band together to throw out the invaders. With a little finagling, I’ll bet I can even get the Europeans on board with that one.”
“Just twist their fucking arms off, Tony,” Nuland mutters.
“Yeah, the Gulf War. That went pretty well, didn’t it?” Biden says. “Wait…didn’t it?”
“Splendidly, Mr. President,” Nuland assures him. “And best of all, we probably don’t even need our troops to reach the eastern border of Ukraine. We inflict a few bad defeats on the Russian army — the Ukrainians have proven what a bunch of pushovers they are — and Putin will be discredited and removed in a coup, and by Election Day next year their new Boris Yeltsin will be taking dictation from us. You’ll walk all over Donald Trump –again.” She snatches another cookie out of the jar, shooting Sullivan a sharp glance. “And then we take on China.”
Blinken applauds. “Either that, or the Russian elite will be at each other’s throats. The country will be in total disarray, and the army will collapse into civil war.”
“I’m happy either way,” Nuland says, snapping off another bite of oatmeal-raisin. “All the same, Jake, how are your people doing with the first-strike project? It’s always good to have that in our back pocket.”
Sullivan shrugs. “I have umpteen staffs across a dozen agencies working on it; Defense is doing the same. Right now, best they can give me is a 75 percent chance of success. It’s those new Borei-class subs that have everybody pulling their hair: use jet propulsion instead of propellers; whales can’t hear ’em coming. I told them I want 85 percent sure before I even mention to the President about going first strike.”
Biden has dozed off and now awakens with a start. “Yeah, a first strike. That’s what I was saying. Hey, you don’t think Putin would do something nuclear about all this, do you?” he asks Nuland.
“Fuck Putin. He doesn’t make reality. We make it. Sometimes, like in Ukraine, it just needs a little tweaking, that’s all. But all that notwithstanding” — she turns to Sullivan — “75 percent, heck, that’s not bad.”
Biden grins. “What a great team I have. C’mon, guys, take a few cookies on your way. Jill made ’em specially for this meeting — buck us up a little.” He looks around uncertainly. “We have finished, haven’t we?”
Nuland: “More than finished, sir.”
Blinken: “Reality has been righted.”
Sullivan: “Ukrainian freedom will be defended at any cost.”
Biden: “Yeah, freedom. That’s something ya gotta defend.”