Archive for the ‘Ukraine’ Category

How To Rebuild Ukraine And Who Pays For It?

Monday, April 25th, 2022

What’s past is prologue.
William Shakespeare – The Tempest

In 1870, Germany defeated France in a Battle of Annihilation at Sedan, which led to its ultimate victory in the Franco Prussian War and the creation of the German Empire. In a stick-in-the-eye insult, Kaiser Wilhelm 1 was crowned the first Emperor in the  Hall of Mirrors of Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles. As part of the terms of the subsequent Treaty of Frankfurt am Main, the Germans took Alsace Lorraine and levied massive reparation payments of five billion francs the victors thought would take France at least 20 years to pay. As long as they remained unpaid, German troops would remain in France. The Treaty’s final insult was a German battle parade straight through the Arc de Triomphe, then down the 1.9 kilometer long, 70 meter wide Champs-Élysées, and ending in the  Place de la Concorde, where Parisians had draped all of the statues in black. German troops marching to rhythmic fife and drum. It was humiliation the French never forgot.

With a Herculean effort that amazed Germany, France paid the reparations in three years, and the Germans had to leave. However, the taking of Alsace Lorraine, which sat on the western French border, right next to Germany, just as Ukraine’s Donbas region sits next to Russia, was the debasement that gnawed at France the most.

 

 

 

 

The Germans, with their colossal arrogance of the time, ignored Bismarck’s recommendation to treat the French in Alsace Lorraine lightly and allow them some autonomy. So, hatred grew. And kept growing all the way up to World War 1. It was palpable on both sides, so much so that from 1895 until 1914 each devoted themselves to planning and preparing for that war, which they knew, absolutely knew, would come, the Germans with their Schlieffen Plan, which required the violation of Belgium neutrality and predicted the capture of Paris on Day 39 of the war*, and the French with their Plan 17, which depended** on the Germans violating Belgium neutrality, but had no prediction for the capture of Berlin. Fifteen years planning for the the worst war in history. Not planning to prevent it, but planning to win it, because they both knew it was inevitable. It was the tragic, but natural, gravitational course of things at the turn of the 20th century.

Alsace Lorraine did not cause World War 1, but the hatred it involved was fuel for the massive fire to come.

Ukraine and Russia have also been preparing for war for some time, since 2014 when Ukrainians threw out Putin’s presidential puppet Viktor Yanukovych in the Revolution of Dignity. Following that, an enraged Putin annexed Crimea and sent Russian soldiers in olive drab uniforms without insignia into the Donbas to help Ukrainian separatists “liberate” the area. That was the beginning of the inexorable march to today.

Today, if you can possibly put aside the more than 2,300 Ukrainian civilians that have been mercilessly killed and the 12 million that have been displaced, five million out of the country, you are faced with the physical infrastructure damage the Russians have wrought. There are now cities in Ukraine that look like the worst of those bombed to ruin in World War II.

Last week, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal called on members of the International Monetary Fund for financial assistance, suggesting it will cost at least $600 billion dollars to rebuild the war-torn country following Russia’s invasion.

The prime minister made the appeal Thursday during a ministerial meeting held by the IMF and the World Bank in Washington, D.C., as Russia’s war neared its third month.

Who will pay? And how? And if Russia captures the Donbas, what will happen? History suggests Ukrainians will react just as the French did, preparing with all their might to take it back. Maybe not now, maybe not in the near term, but the French waited 44 years.

Realizing the enormity of the rebuilding task, there are now suggestions being floated. Chief among them is: Taking all the Russian and Oligarch frozen assets in the hands of the west, and using them to pay for reconstruction. This would net a few hundred billions of dollars and would be a nice start.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen seemed open and receptive, but also cautious, to that idea last week. When asked during a press briefing about the potential of using frozen Russian Central Bank funds to support Ukraine, Yellen said, “I wouldn’t want to do so lightly,” adding that it would have to be done in consensus with US allies and partners and might need Congressional approval. That would be an interesting vote, indeed.

On Thursday, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a virtual address to IMF and World Bank leaders that “a special tax on war is needed.” He called for the proceeds of sanctioned property and Russian Central Bank reserves to be used to compensate Ukraine for its losses. He added that frozen Russian assets “have to be used to rebuild Ukraine after the war as well as to pay for the losses caused to other nations.” He said it would take $5 billion per month over the next three months just to keep the Ukrainian economy alive, an economy which the IMF predicts will shrink by 45% this year. It’s easy to see why.

Of course, Russia will strenuously object to this, and, regardless of what happens in the Donbas, Putin, losing all his now frozen assets forever, might be driven to do something even more terrible than he already has. And that, my friends, could drop us right back into 1914 all over again.

I hope at least some of our leaders have studied history.

*The Germans made it to 70 miles from Paris before they had to retreat and dig in. Thus began more than five years of trench warfare with nearly 10 million soldiers and even more civilians killed.

**France had an agreement with England, whereby if Germany violated Belgian neutrality in an attack on France and if France never set foot on Belgian soil, then England would enter the conflict on the side of France, which is exactly what happened. Belgium had been guaranteed perpetual neutrality in the 1839 Treaty of London, signed by the German Confederation, England, France, Belgium, Austria, the Netherlands, and Russia.

How Easy It Is

Thursday, April 14th, 2022

“A large swath of humanity just seems highly suggestible and follows the lead of people they’ve come to admire. That sometimes turns out fine, and sometimes not.” From yesterday’s Letters from the Berkshires.

Recovering from CoVid 19 is difficult in more ways than one.

Although I’m pretty sure this is true for all religions, my Roman Catholic education and upbringing  instilled in me and my peers a desperate need to be constantly productive and to feel bad if we weren’t, because that would be the very definition of LAZY. We were all indoctrinated, brainwashed really, and it has stuck all the way into an eighth decade. Now, sickness has thrown a spanner into the personal productivity assembly line.

I was reminded of that today, as I was fighting the virus and found myself somewhere between productive and lazy, leaning toward lazy, when I picked up a story from the Associated Press (AP) (no byline given) describing the harshly repressive actions taken by Vladimir Putin’s Security Police against even the slightest hint of criticism for his growing-more-barbaric-by-the-day immoral destruction of Ukraine.

It seems now, and the AP story documents this, that most Russians (although we may never know for sure) have swallowed Putin’s Kool Aid to the point where the Russian sociological landscape is beginning to look like that of East Germany’s before the fall of the wall. Neighbor is turning in neighbor for the slightest whiff of disagreement, or even enquiry. This happened fast.

Much of humanity continues to demonstrate how susceptible it is to believing something absent any evidence, any factual confirmation, as long as leaders tell it to them repeatedly. Over and over again we see this everywhere. Look no further than the Big Lie here in the USA. But at least falling for the Big Lie is yet to get people killed (as long as you don’t count the January 6th Insurrection).

Until 23 February, Ukraine and Russia were neighbors with often overlapping histories* covering several centuries. Despite the fighting raging in Eastern Ukraine since 2014, most of the country thrived.  Ukrainians had friends and relatives in Russia and Russians had friends and relatives in Ukraine. They spoke to each other – usually in Russian. But then overnight, Ukrainians became “bestial” Nazis, and now the mission of the Russian state seems to be to exterminate the population, the very definition of genocide. And sadly, most Russians appear to be buying the lie.

I will leave you with this little morsel to digest;

“Why, of course, the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don’t want war, neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a parliament or a Communist dictatorship. The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and for exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

That was Reichsmarschall Herman Göring, second most powerful man in Nazy Germany, a man who knew a thing or two about committing Genocide, answering a question from  Gustave M. Gilbert a psychologist who had access to the prisoners during the Nuremberg trials in 1946. The quote is taken from “Witness To Nuremberg,” (Arcade Publishing, 2002, page 30) by Richard W. Sonnenfeldt, Chief Interpreter for the American prosecution, who was present as interpreter and translated and recorded Göring’s response to Gilbert.

*One part of those overlapping histories, known in Ukraine as the Holodomor, happened when the Georgian Joseph Stalin, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, exterminated millions of Ukrainians by intentional, genocidal starvation in 1932 and 1933. Mr. Putin doesn’t talk about that.

 

Important Items You Might Have Missed This Week

Friday, April 8th, 2022

Let’s ban some books!

During the summer of my 15th year, my father walked into our very Roman Catholic home to find me reading a paperback book on the couch in our living room. “What are you reading, Tommy?” he said. So, I showed him the book I was well into. It was Henry Miller’s The Tropic of Cancer. Whereupon, Dad became somewhat apoplectic, and rushed into the kitchen where my mother was starting to cook supper. “Mary, do you know what your son is reading?” he said. “Of course,” my mother replied. “I gave it to him.”

Tropic of Cancer is an autobiographical novel by Henry Miller, published in France in 1934 and, because of censorship, not published in the United States until 1961. And it is racy, indeed. It is also superbly well-written and compelling as it takes the reader on a tour of Miller’s mind as he lived a hedonistic life in the Paris of his youth.

My mother knew a book would never hurt me. People could and would, but not books. And I’m happy to say she eventually convinced my father of the value of that proposition.

I bring this up, because yesterday Pen America released a deeply researched report, Banned in the USA, addressing what it calls the “Index”* of books banned in the U.S. from 1 July 2021 through 31 March 2022. That’s just nine months.

It may flabbergast you to learn that during those nine months the Index lists 1,586 book bans that have occurred in 86 school districts in 26 states. These districts represent 2,899 schools with a combined enrollment of over 2 million students.

Mom would have disapproved.

I was somewhat disappointed I could not write about the banning of Ray Bradbury’s masterpiece Fahrenheit 451. The irony of writing about banning a book about a society that bans and burns books would have appealed to me. However, that book is not on Pen America’s Index (perhaps the book banners aren’t very well read). The irony will have to wait. Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer didn’t make the Index, either. I guess hedonism from 88 years ago is fine now, or maybe the book is just too old to worry about anymore. But four of Margaret Atwood’s books are on the list, including The Handmaid’s Tale.  That’s a pity.

Some highlights from the Pen America report:

  • These bans have targeted 1,145 unique book titles by 874 different authors, 198 illustrators, and 9 translators, impacting the literary, scholarly, and creative work of 1,081 people altogether.
  • Texas led the country with the most bans at 713; followed by Pennsylvania (456); Florida (204); Oklahoma (43); Kansas (30); and Tennessee (16).
  • Processes aimed to uphold the First Amendment in the context of school book challenges are not being followed. Of bans in the Index, 98% involve departures from best practice guidelines for how school authorities may remove books; most bans and restrictions have occurred without proper written forms, review committees, or transparency. While school boards and administrators do have some discretion over library and instructional materials, there are safeguards and best practices meant to protect students’ First Amendment rights that are being widely abrogated.

Among titles in the index:

  • 467 titles (41%) included protagonists or prominent secondary characters who were people of color;
  • 247 titles (22%) directly address issues of race and racism
  • 379 titles (33%) explicitly address LGBTQ+ themes, or have protagonists or prominent secondary characters who are LGBTQ+
  • 184 titles (16%) are history books or biographies. 107 have explicit or prominent themes related to rights and activism (9%).
  • 42 children’s books were censored, including biographies of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Ruby Bridges, Duke Ellington, Katherine Johnson, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Cesar Chavez, Sonia Sotomayor, Nelson Mandela, and Malala Yousafzai.
  • The majority of the books targeted have been works of fiction, however 28% are non-fiction and include history books, analytical and/or personal essays, and children’s reference and informational works.

*The “Index” of Prohibited Books, Index Librorum Prohibitorum, established in 1557 by Pope Paul IV, was a list of books Roman Catholics were prohibited from reading on pain of excommunication. The books were prohibited because they contained material considered dangerous or contrary to faith, morals, or the teaching of the Church. I’m not sure if Pen America intended this relationship, but I’ll assume the authors did.

What actions are companies doing business in Russia taking in response to Putin’s invasion?

Yesterday, in an important New York Time op-ed, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, the Lester Crown professor of management practice at the Yale School of Management, who has studied corporate social responsibility for 45 years, and Steven Tian, research director at the Yale Chief Executive Leadership Institute, pointed out that in the late 1980s roughly 200 American companies withdrew from South Africa, partly in protest against its apartheid system. These actions helped topple the racist regime.

With that in mind Sonnenfeld, Tian and their Yale team have made a deep dive into how companies doing business in and with Russia are responding to the inhumane invasion of Ukraine. After completing their analysis they have placed businesses in one of five categories based on their response to the war. They say, “Consumers should know whether the companies that make their food, clothes and goods are fully committed to ending Mr. Putin’s atrocities.”

Many of the companies they examine are household names. The 162 companies that have chosen to stay have offered a number of excuses, which I find lack any compelling rationale. Sonnenfeld and Tian urge consumers to pressure by boycott. Personally, I have decided the Acer corporation will not be among the brands I consider for my next computer.

Brief comment

Yesterday’s confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson to replace Justice Stephen Breyer on the Supreme Court was everything I predicted it would be in yesterday’s Letter From The Berkshires, but a putting-a-period-on-it is in order.

Republicans, continuing to display an abysmal lack of grace and dignity, abruptly walked out of the senate chamber immediately following the Vice President’s announcing the vote. The video of them all rushing for the door as Mitt Romney stood in their midst applauding and looking slightly bewildered as they almost ran him down was disgraceful. The spectacle made a mockery of a place where great Americans, many of them Republicans, once stood.

 

To Recapture Its Greatness, America Must Look To Its Past

Wednesday, April 6th, 2022

At the close of World War II, the United States had become by far the dominant world power. How could it not be? Europe had been beaten to a pulp, the same for Russia. Japan had been bombed nearly back to the stone age. China was a nonentity, and India was still a British colony. There was no one else. The U.S. was the last man standing. In addition to the tragically killed and wounded, the worst thing the country had faced was rationing for the war effort. The mainland continental United States was nearly untouched by enemy action during the entire war.

But the physical devastation was so severe in Europe that in May 1947, nearly two years after Victory in Europe Day, Winston Churchill described the continent as “a rubble-heap, a charnel house, a breeding ground of pestilence and hate.”

As the only country with the resources to lead the rebuilding of Europe and Japan after the war, the United States realized its post-war prominence came with colossal responsibility—and opportunity. In perhaps this nation’s greatest contributions to humanity, it poured money, personnel, and other resources into the most massive rebuilding effort in history. This was one of those rare instances where beneficence exquisitely blended with national self-interest. During the years following the war, America devoted itself to European and Japanese recovery in ways that  should still inspire us today.

  • The U.S. developed the four-year European Recovery Program (the Marshall Plan) under the leadership of Army General and Secretary of State George C. Marshall* to rebuild the infrastructure and rehabilitate the economies of 16 western and southern European countries to allow stable conditions to develop and democratic institutions to survive.  This included Germany, and stands in sharp contrast to the humiliating and draconian measures taken by the victors at the Treaty of Versailles following World War I. Stalin wanted similar measures after World War II, but was overruled by the allies who, despite the atrocities committed by Germany, knew it would be folly to repeat the mistakes of Versailles. The Marshall Plan years (1947 – 1951) were the fastest period of growth in European history and led to the Schumann Plan, the Common Market and now the European Union. The Marshall Plan also led directly to the creation of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). During the Marshall Plan, the U.S. contributed $17 billion over the four-year period (more than $200 billion in today’s dollars). The Soviet Union and its allies refused to accept any of the aid from the Marshall Plan, because doing so would allow the U.S. to have a degree of  control over the Soviet economies, and the paranoid Joseph Stalin could never allow that;
  • Similarly, in Japan, General Douglas MacArthur took charge of the Supreme Command of Allied Powers (SCAP) and began the work of reconstruction. SCAP dismantled the Japanese Army and banned former military officers from taking roles of political leadership in the new government. To rebuild the Japanese infrastructure and economy, the U.S. invested nearly $3 billion ($20 billion in today’s dollars) in materials, manpower and humanitarian aid between 1947 and 1952. Today, having abandoned its early 20th century bellicosity, Japan is the third largest economy in the world.
  • After the war, although reconstruction was critical for the future, establishing justice for war criminals was central to that time’s present. As in Nürnberg, Germany, where more than 3,000 Nazis were prosecuted for war crimes during the two years following the war, the Allies brought to trial Japanese wartime leaders by convening war crimes trials in Tokyo and at various tribunals sitting outside Japan. Some 5,000 Japanese were found guilty of war crimes.
  • In 1948, Russia initiated the cold war by inhumanely blockading the three western sectors of Berlin, cutting off 2.5 million people from access to electricity, food, coal and other crucial supplies. Beginning 26 June 1948, two days after the blockade was announced, U.S. and British planes carried out the largest air relief operation in history, transporting some 2.3 million tons of supplies into West Berlin on more than 270,000 flights over 11 months. The awesome magnanimity of the Airlift, which cost America $224 million ($2.6 billion in today’s dollars) saved the lives of an untold number of Berliners.

  • In April, 1945, even before the war ended and 12 days following the death of President Roosevelt, the U.S. hosted more than 500 delegates from 51 countries who conferenced for two months in San Francisco to create the framework for what would become the United Nations. In the middle of the conference the delegates gathered in Cathedral Grove of Muir Wood to pay tribute to the memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

A unified America did all that, and more. It demonstrated the greatness of “the American century,” and was a significant and proud moment in our history.

And now, in 2022, 77 years following the end of World War II, what have we become? There have been majestic moments in our history, notably the 5th decade of the 20th century, when national self-interest trumped political self-interest. Is anything resembling that intelligent altruism possible today in our deeply divided country where partisanship is egged on by grandstanding politicians whose only consideration is their own ambition?

Eventually, please God, soon, the war in Ukraine will end. Unlike in Germany and Japan at the end of World War II, it is highly doubtful we will ever be able to bring to justice Vladimir Putin and the rest of the Russians responsible for the obvious war crimes unveiled in Bucha this week. They will never again be able to visit a western country, but they’ll be safe among what passes for friends.

However, a massive rebuilding will face the world. Ukraine was a beautiful country, the largest in Europe, with magnificent architecture. It will require an enormous investment in time, money, and skilled workers to restore it to its former beauty. Do we here in America have any of the George Marshall-like fortitude to commit ourselves to that effort? We won’t have to stand alone; all of Europe will be there to help. But we will need to lead, as we did in the past. Will our profound national partisanship allow that?

The tragedy in Ukraine offers us a moment for unity. Republicans, who have had to be dragged kicking and screaming to even the idea of supporting the administration’s efforts to help, will have an opportunity to put partisanship aside to show America what they can be capable of.

It is noteworthy that thus far they are being shown up by a Ukrainian President who is demonstrating what love of country and leadership really are.

 

*Marshall may be the most accomplished statesman and wartime leader in American history. He was armed forces Chief of Staff during World War II, a five-star general (one of only five in history), Secretary of State following the war, where he organized the Marshall Plan, Secretary of Defense during the Korean conflict, Time’s Man of the Year—twice, and, in 1953, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Long Recent History Of Russian Brutality

Monday, April 4th, 2022

Hungarian-born Imre Nagy had been a committed communist since shortly after the Russian revolution of 1917. From 1933 to 1941, he served the Soviet NKVD secret police as an informer. During that period, he denounced more than 200 colleagues, who were then purged and arrested.  Fifteen of them were executed. Nagy was no Mother Teresa.

The Soviets installed Nagy as Chairman of Hungary’s Council of Ministers in 1953, and over the next two years, beginning to recognize the repression of which he had long been a part, he tried to reduce the harsher elements of communist rule. The Russians could not tolerate this, and they ousted him in 1955.

On 23 October 1956, the people of Hungary declared independence from the Soviet Union and threw out Russia’s puppet government. They then named the sixty-year-old Nagy Prime Minister. In something akin to a Road to Damascus conversion, the now reformist Nagy took full control of the government, admitted non-communist politicians, dissolved the ÁVH secret police, promised democratic reforms, and unilaterally withdrew Hungary from the Warsaw Pact on 1 November. On 4 November, the Soviets launched a massive invasion, swiftly regained control, and deposed Nagy, who took refuge in the Yugoslavian embassy. Two weeks later, after giving assurances for his safety, the Russians lured Nagy out of the embassy and immediately arrested and deported him to Romania. Two years later, he was tried for treason, found guilty (there’s a surprise), and immediately executed.

In the 66 years since Russia obliterated the freedom dreams of the Hungarian people, the Kremlin has repeatedly demonstrated that its approach to putting down dissent in Hungary was not an anomaly; it was the rule. Since then, it has been swift and brutal in crushing any action it interprets as a threat to its hegemony. The invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 offers another example.

In early 1968, the Russian puppet leader Antonin Novotny was deposed as the head of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, and was replaced by Alexander Dubcek. The Dubcek government ended censorship in early 1968, and this new freedom resulted in a public expression of broad-based support for reform in which government and  Communist Party policies could be debated openly. In April, the Czech Government issued a formal plan for further reforms.

Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet Union’s General Secretary, could not allow this, and on 20 August Warsaw Pact forces invaded and occupied Prague. Over the two days it took to destroy the Prague Spring, the Russians killed 137 Czechoslovakian civilians and seriously wounded 500. The Kremlin justified the use of force in Prague under what would become known as the Brezhnev Doctrine, which stated that Moscow had the right to intervene in any country where a communist government had been threatened. This doctrine also became the primary justification for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the nine-year war it eventually lost after seeing 15,000 of its troops killed and 35,000 wounded. Two million Afghans died during the the war.

As the Soviet Union was collapsing, the people of Chechnya, which the USSR had controlled since 1921, broke away. Russia invaded and began the brutalization of the Chechen people and the destruction of the capital city, Grozny. In 2003, the United Nations called Grozny “the most destroyed city on earth.” The Russians killed between 5,000 and 8,000 civilians in a little over a month.

After the fall of communism in 1989, and with the exception of the Chechnya invasion, the evil Genie was crammed back into its bottle for the next 11 years, during which capitalism and democracy emerged and the oligarchs were born. This ended when Russians elected Stalin doppelganger Vladimir Putin to the presidency in 2000.

As I have written previously, over time it has become more and more easy to mistake Putin for a modern-day Ivan the Terrible. On his watch and at his direction, Russia invaded the former Soviet Republic of Georgia in 2008, tore off a part of the country, and invented the “states” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in the process destroying towns and murdering civilians before withdrawing most of its troops. Next came the Syrian city of Aleppo, which Russia reduced to dust in 2016. There, Russian troops destroyed hospitals and schools, choked off basic supplies, and killed aid workers and hundreds of civilians in just a few days.

Does any of this sound familiar?

And now we have Ukraine, where the world seems amazingly surprised to see Putin’s Russia trying to eliminate an entire country using the same barbaric methods it has employed so often since 1956.

It appears Vladimir Putin sees his mission in life is to recreate Imperial Russia with himself as Tsar. His tactics are not new. As Ukrainian President Zelenskyy says, Putin will throw soldiers at Ukraine “like logs into a train’s furnace.”

The world did nothing to punish the Soviet Union for Hungary, Czechoslovakia, or Afghanistan. It did nothing, absolutely nothing, to punish Putin for Grozny, Georgia or Aleppo.

The Ukrainians are fighting with patriotism, bravery, and incredible determination. Ten million have been displaced. Russian forces have blown to oblivion cities, hospitals (at least five of them), schools and theatres. Just as in Grozny, when Russian troops withdraw they leave the bodies of dead civilians lying in the streets for the world to see. Yesterday we learned about the atrocities in Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, where, after the Russians withdrew, Ukrainians found more than 400 innocent civilians who had been killed, some with their hands tied behind their backs. These are war crimes, and after World War II, we executed German commanders for doing that sort of thing.

Neither the U.S. nor NATO will put a single soldier on the ground or a single plane in the air to overwhelm what appears to be an inferior Russian army. Instead, we send weapons and supplies. I’m of two minds about that, but I understand the argument that joining the fight might make a terrible situation worse, if that’s possible. Moreover, public support for that just isn’t there. Seventy-five percent of Americans are against it.

So, we are reduced to fighting with sanctions as our weapons. To me, that seems like throwing a strawberry at a battleship expecting to sink it. But right now, what do we have except the strawberries?

 

 

 

 

The Saga Continues In You Know Where

Wednesday, March 30th, 2022

Seated in a stately room on two sides of a large table covered with a starched, white tablecloth, looking for all the world like a couple of teams discussing a private equity acquisition, Ukrainian and Russian negotiators are meeting in Turkey to see if there exists anything resembling a face-saving exit ramp for Vladimir Putin, who, more and more, seems to fancy himself the second coming of Ivan The Terrible, the first Tsar of all Russia. Yesterday, the Russian side said it was “drastically” pulling back its troops from Kyiv and Chernihiv  as a demonstration of good will and sincerity by the invaders.  Frankly, I wouldn’t trust those guys (they’re all men) any farther than I could kick Mr. Putin, which I would dearly love to do.

The U.S. and its NATO and European allies are justifiably skeptical. “There is what Russia says and there’s what Russia does,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said. “And what Russia is doing is the continued brutalization of Ukraine and its people and that continues as we speak.” The U.S. Department of Defense has yet to notice much of a pullback.

The recent Ukrainian counter-offensive not only stopped Russian advancement, but also drove back its troops. The invaders are now digging in, demonstrating Russia’s version of 21st century trench warfare.* This puts a period to the utter failure of their remarkably poorly planned and executed blitzkrieg attack. An invasion, a “special military operation,” ( Oh, it was certainly special), that was supposed to last a few days, is now in its second month. On Day 2, in a fit of vainglorious overconfidence, Russian state media accidentally, and rather prematurely, you might say, released, and shortly thereafter retracted, a celebratory victory press release.

After all the killing and destruction, it appears the only things Russia has achieved so far are:

  1. Worldwide condemnation and isolation;
  2. The total destruction of some of the earth’s most beautiful cities;
  3. The evisceration of the Russian economy;
  4. The wanton and callous killing of thousands of Ukrainians and up to an estimated 15,000 Russian soldiers (It took four years for that many American soldiers to be killed in action during the Vietnam War);
  5. The creation of four million refugees;
  6. The first-time-ever, joined at the hip unity and cooperation of NATO, the European Union and the U.S.;
  7. Significantly increased funding by NATO for its defense; and,
  8. The emergence of Ukraine and its heroic President as important players on the World stage.

Other than that, the invasion has been a smashing success for Mr. Putin.

To understand what is driving this insanity and, if you can bear it, peer into the warped mind of Mr. Putin, I recommend reading two long-form essays. The first, The Logic of Vladimir Putin, a New York Times Magazine piece by John Lloyd, written in 2000, the year Putin was first elected President of Russia. The second, another New York Time Magazine article, The Making Of Vladimir Putin, published this week, 22 years after Lloyd’s, by the brilliant Roger Cohen, the Paris Bureau Chief of the Times. Among other things, these two articles prove the truth of Lord Acton’s famous 1887 dictum, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” (If nothing else, the two essays provide solid rationale for term limits in the U.S. Congress and a limit of two terms for presidents).

Reading the two essays makes how we got to where we are actually understandable. I’d go so far as to say Putin is almost a tragic figure in the Shakespearean sense. But that doesn’t change the fact he is has become a walking, talking monster. I’ve always thought it would be nearly impossible for any Russian leader to outdo Stalin in bottom-of-the-soul cruelty, but Mr. Putin is giving it all he has.

Because of Vladimir Putin’s paranoid megalomania, about the only honest thing we can say about how this current lunacy will end is that we have absolutely no idea how it will end.

And so it goes.

*As the great Chad Mitchell Trio put it in 1965, “I want to go back to the days when men were men and start the First World War all over again.” The song, Barry’s Boys, was about Barry Goldwater, but you get the point.

The Picture Of Evil

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2022

It’s a beautiful day here in the Berkshire mountains. A trifle cold — 27 degrees Fahrenheit this morning — but not a cloud in the sky. It’s the second day of Spring. I’m watching a red squirrel doing its best to steal as much seed as it can from the carefully hung, but not carefully hung enough, bird feeder. This provides entertainment for the dog Lancelot (at 80 pounds he’s not Lance-a-little) and irritation for me as I have to constantly let the big guy out to chase, but never catch, the fastest thing on four tiny legs.

In Washington DC, where Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson is about to run the gauntlet in her first day of “questions” at the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Kabuki Theatre confirmation hearing, the cherry blossoms are in full bloom.

I don’t usually spend a morning like this listening to Giuseppe Verdi’s monumentally powerful Requiem Mass, but that is what I’m doing. The Dies Irae, Day of Wrath, in particular. That is pulverizing music that makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. It’s Verdi forcing us to stare into the jaws of death.

I’m listening to Verdi’s Requiem, the Claudio Abbado 1970 version with Luciano Pavarotti doing the tenor, rather than the gloriously triumphant one written by Mozart on his deathbed, or the delicately French Requiem of Gabriel Faure with its sweet and transportive “In Paradisum.” No, it’s the terrifying Verdi today for me.

Why? Because I just read the gut-wrenching, heartbreaking, photo-journalistic Dies Irae of Mstyslav Chernov and Evgeniy Maloletka of the Associated Press, the last two journalists inside the besieged city of Mariupol, Ukraine. They told their story to AP colleague Lori Hinnant. This is how the piece begins:

“The Russians were hunting us down. They had a list of names, including ours, and they were closing in. We were the only international journalists left in the Ukrainian city, and we had been documenting its siege by Russian troops for more than two weeks. We were reporting inside the hospital when gunmen began stalking the corridors. Surgeons gave us white scrubs to wear as camouflage. Suddenly at dawn, a dozen soldiers burst in: ‘Where are the journalists, for fuck’s sake?’ I looked at their armbands, blue for Ukraine, and tried to calculate the odds that they were Russians in disguise. I stepped forward to identify myself. ‘We’re here to get you out,’ they said.”

Chernov and Maloletka did get out, but just barely. Their documentation of the siege of Mariupol, their bravery and devotion to the truth, is beyond heroic. If they had not been there, risking their lives every minute of the day, if they had not magically managed to evade the Russians hunting them, the world would not know the barbaric brutality of what Russia is doing inside a once beautiful city, all to satisfy Vladimir Putin’s ego and insatiable thirst for the good old days of empire. Without them, the world would only know the lies broadcast by Russian media over and over, over and over, over and over, every day.

In the Pantheon of the Wicked, there’s a new room being built in the Russian wing to memorialize Mr. Putin’s barbarism. It’s the room next door to Stalin’s. Although Putin has  miles to go to catch up with Stalin’s intentionally cruel and wanton killing of millions of Ukrainians, he’s not behind for want of trying. This devil in the Saville Row suit is doing his best to match the master. Do refugees count?

Dies Irae, indeed.

 

Thursday Thoughts

Thursday, March 10th, 2022

Is there any hope for Ukraine?

Years ago, when I was a young man starting down life’s bumpy road, I had a difficult decision to make. Should I take the right-hand fork, or the left? So, I went to my mother for advice. I described the issue and the choices. She let me talk, heard me out. Then, after pausing for a moment, she said, “Tommy, pick very carefully the barricade upon which you are prepared to die.”

I made my decision, didn’t look back, and, to quote Robert Frost, “that has made all the difference.” It helps to have a mother a lot smarter than you are.

Right now, we are now witnessing the wanton, senseless, cruel-beyond-imagining death of innocents and innocence in Ukraine. Ukrainian twenty-somethings, all born after their country achieved freedom from Soviet domination in 1992, have no memory of life in the Soviet Union, the USSR. They’ve studied it in school, their parents told them stories, but they haven’t lived it. It’s like a different galaxy, spinning its own way in the cosmic beyond.

Now, they and all Ukrainians who manage to survive this living nightmare, are faced with the prospect of being sucked back into that distant galaxy, which has turned and is now quickly spinning toward them. Their heroic defense, their country’s patriotic self-sacrifice, their refusal to lose, their you-shall-not-pass attitude, all of this inspires awe in the rest of us. But at the same time, one cannot help asking, “Is it worth it?” Is it better to save lives by surrendering, even though by surrendering you lose your country and maybe your soul? The Ukrainians say “No” to that. What do the rest of us say, though?

This problem is made no easier by Russia’s obvious war crimes as its military amps up its indiscriminate shelling and cluster bombing of civilians. Yesterday, they killed three and wounded 17 by bombing a maternity hospital in the city of Mariupol. The Russian government justified this by claiming the hospital was held by “local radical militias.” Wonder what kind of weapons the babies were firing?

I think of that now with profound sadness, as I contemplate the choice facing the U.S., its NATO allies and the European Union. Given that Ukraine will not surrender, do they keep playing the long game by continuing to tighten the screws of economic sanctions on Russia and its oligarchs, hoping  to cause sense to return to formerly (maybe) sensible people and bring an end to the suffering? Or, do they (we) tiptoe toward what might be Armageddon by becoming just a wee bit more militarily involved? Do we do whatever it takes to lickety-split get those Polish MIGS to Ukrainian pilots? Do we take the right-hand fork, or the left?

This is not a Hobson’s Choice.

By the way, Putin has already said he considers economic sanctions, and probably anything else we do, “akin to an act of war.” That is precious, indeed.

Real Earnings Release: Inflation is taking a heavy toll on the middle class and the poor

As the story goes, novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald is supposed to have once said to fellow novelist Ernest Hemingway, “You know, the rich are different from you and me.” Hemingway supposedly replied, “Yes. They’ve got more money.”

This morning, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its monthly report on inflation and Real Average Earnings, which are earnings after inflation is factored in. The news is not good.

Real average earnings for all employees decreased 0.8 percent from January to February 2022, seasonally adjusted. This result stems from essentially no change in average hourly earnings combined with an increase of 0.8 percent in the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers.

Real average hourly earnings decreased 2.6 percent, seasonally adjusted, from February 2021 to February 2022. The change in real average hourly earnings combined with an increase of 0.3 percent in the average workweek resulted in a 2.3 percent decrease in real average weekly earnings over this period.

Now, this announcement hits the middle and lower classes where they live, literally. The rich may have to put off buying the new Bentley, but the average Joe just got a cut in pay of 2.3%.

For the Republican Party, this is the most beautiful political fodder imaginable — they have someone to blame, Joe Biden. It’s all his fault. It’s a simple message, easy to deliver, and it will stick.

Of course, it’s not simple. It’s terribly complicated. We are at the center of a confluence of unfortunate events, global in nature, that have set the entire world back on its heels. This will get worse, especially when the Federal Reserve begins raising interest rates, which is momentary.

I, like most of you I think, fervently wish our elected officials could put their political opportunism and hypocrisy  aside, marshal their collective brains (such as they are), and work together to do what they can to help soften the blow that is gobsmacking so many vulnerable people. Is that too much to ask?

Right, and pigs will soon be seen flying past my great big third floor window.