Posts Tagged ‘Russia’

Ukraine, Day Six. Which Way To The Exit?

Tuesday, March 1st, 2022

In May, 1944, Jean-Paul Sartre’s one-act play No Exit premiered at Paris’s Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier. It tells the story of three people in Hell and how they deal with that particular calamity. It is a play about the “devouring” gaze of the other and how that restricts one’s freedom. I thought of No Exit and one of its famous lines as I watched from afar Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s all out attempt to devour a sovereign country, its people, and its leadership. The line that came to mind was, “Life begins on the other side of despair.”

For Sartre and his followers, life may have begun on the other side of despair, but for Ukraine, life began on the other side of Russia.

Today’s Ukraine was born with independence from the Soviet Union on 24 August 1991. Since then, Ukrainians have been building a nation state with all the mistakes that come with it. Ukraine is still a developing democracy going through birthing pains, just as America did. Think about where the U.S. was after just thirty years of independence. For Ukraine, democracy will be a generational thing, just like America’s was.

In case you haven’t noticed this last week, Ukrainians are optimistic. They have what the eminent Russian and Ukrainian scholar Uri Ra’anan called in his writings a “national personality” based on optimism. They’ve always thought: Life begins on the other side of Russia.

Now, Ukrainians are doing what no one thought possible. They are fighting off Putin with bravery, skill, and determination. And they’re holding their own — at least for now. Not a lot of countries would have been as committed to freedom and democracy as Ukraine is demonstrating it is right now.

Yesterday, Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy signed an application for his country to join the European Union, and today the EU moved Ukraine to Candidate status, a necessary part of the vetting process for new members. European Union membership will take time; there are many steps. One hopes the EU will move as swiftly as possible in its consideration, which, if it leads to approval would be another rigidly straight and upright middle finger offered to Vladimir Putin.

After submitting Ukraine’s application for membership, Zelenskyy addressed the European Parliament from his headquarters in Kyiv explaining in vivid terms how his country is fighting for “its very survival.” After he spoke, the EU Parliament’s President Roberta Metsola delivered a hard-hitting and on-point speech highlighting Europe’s unity in the face of Russian aggression and laying out four Principles to guide Europe’s future, all aimed at isolating and crippling the momentarily underperforming Bear to the east. The Principles were easy to say, but will certainly be monumentally difficult to carry out.  She said:

  1. “Europe can no longer remain reliant on Kremlin gas.”
  2. “Europe can no longer welcome (Russian) Oligarchs’ cash and pretend there are no strings attached.”
  3. “Investment in our defense must match our rhetoric.”
  4. “We must fight the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign. Tech companies must take their responsibilities seriously. There is no being neutral between the fire and the fire brigade.”

In addition to Ukraine’s unanticipated, heroic, and, for the moment, successful, resistance, a unified and strong European Union must have been a complete surprise to Putin. After all, in 2008 he invaded Georgia and in 2014 it was Crimea, both with barely a ripple of response, except for some rhetorical hand-wringing and wimpy economic sanctions, and both for the same strategic and political reasons he gave for the current invasion in his rambling, wrong-headed, televised speech to the Russian people last Monday, 21 February. He maintains these former cogs in the Soviet Union’s wheel, Ukraine, Crimea and Georgia, historically belong to Russia and are integral to maintaining  its “sphere of influence.”

“Russia perceives itself as entitled to a historical sphere of influence, the so-called ‘near-abroad’, and doesn’t allow anyone else to infringe on it,” said Nicoló Fasola, an expert in Russian military strategy at the University of Birmingham in Britain.

“Russia is always anxious about foreign penetration – not only in terms of military involvement and political engagement but also in cultural terms,” Fasola told FRANCE 24 on the first day of the invasion.

Whatever his reasons, it appears being stymied by an army one-fifth the size of his has thrown a demonic, electrical  switch in Putin’s brain. Yesterday’s illegal and inhumane cluster bombs, leveling neighborhoods, a shopping center and a school in Kharkiv, demonstrate he will do whatever it takes to achieve his goals regardless of consequences from the West. The indiscriminate and wanton killing of innocents is now part of the strategy going forward.

Realizing what an unhinged Putin could now unleash, European and American leaders are searching for ways to accomplish two contradictory objectives:

  1. How to end the bloodshed, avoid a Third World War and guarantee an independent, European-based, Ukrainian democracy, while,
  2. Providing some kind of minimally face-saving off-ramp for the Moscow megalomaniac who is quickly on his way to becoming a bona fide war criminal,

In his Art of War, Sun Tzu called the second objective, “Giving the enemy the Golden Bridge upon which to retreat.”

Does Vladimir Putin deserve any kind of Golden Bridge? If not, how does this end?

Which way to the exit?



Ukraine, Still Standing Against All Odds

Monday, February 28th, 2022

Frustrated by his inability to conquer the people of Ukraine thus far, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin reportedly resorted today to carpet bombing and cluster munitions in Kharkiv in the east of the country. Russian forces have been attacking Kharkiv since he gave the order for the invasion, but have been repeatedly repulsed.

Carpet bombing of cities, towns, villages, or other areas containing a concentration of civilians is considered a war crime as of Article 51 of the 1977 Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions. Cluster munitions were banned by the Convention on Cluster Munitions in 2008. After ratification by 130 countries, including Russia, the Convention became International law in 2010.

A shopping center in Kharkiv and a school in Okhtyrka were destroyed indiscriminately, leaving dozens killed and hundreds wounded at the shopping center and three dead at the school.

According to reporters for the Daily Mail, the bombs were fired using the Bm-21 Grad Rocket system, which is a multiple launch weapon. If carpet bombing and/or cluster munitions were used on Ukraine’s civilian population Vladimir Putin has committed a war crime, and, according to ABC News, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court at the Hague says he plans to open an investigation “as rapidly as possible” into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine.

Nearly the entire world is united in opposition to Putin’s monstrous invasion. It seems the Russian Federation President has done the one thing all observers thought impossible: He has united Europe, North America and Australia as never before. The economic sanctions leveled over the weekend, which I feared would be no more than a slap on the wrist, have turned out to be a kick in the gut and a punch to the side of the head. The Russian stock market was ordered to remain closed today, the value of the Rubel dropped by more than 30%, and there were long lines at ATMs.

Putin’s only ally appears to be Alexander Lukashenko, President of Belarus, which sits on Ukraine’s northern border. In the invasion, a third of Russia’s forces attacked from Belarus, and today Belarussian forces joined the Russians in bombing and attacking Kharkiv. Lapdog Luka continues in power because of his fawning willingness to serve his lord and master, Vlad the Invader. One hopes he will also pay a heavy price for the devastation he is helping to wreak on the innocent citizens of innocent Ukraine.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., Republicans (most of whom were their own kind of lapdog to Putin’s good friend and admirer, Donald Trump) have been keen to say how awful the whole situation is, and, by the way, it never would have happened on their watch, and isn’t it terrible that Joe Biden is rolling over for European leaders. Some have excoriated him, because he is letting Europe have too much of the credit for the world’s response. He’s not America First enough. These Republicans, of course, are the same people who voted to deny Ukraine the weapons so necessary for its defense. Those would be the Javelins that are now destroying so many Russian tanks and armored vehicles. Like the ever-expanding universe, there seems to be no limit to opportunistic hypocrisy.

And what can we say about Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelensky, Ukraine’s President? This is a man who was trivialized and mocked by many after his election in 2019. This is a man who had to suffer the indignity of being on the other end of the line for Donald Trump’s “perfect call.” This is a man who, more than anyone else, has shamed Europe into uniting to combat Putin’s horrific, criminal, and inhumane invasion. A man, no, a leader, who leads by example in the face of near certain death if he is captured.

A man who has now become the George Washington of his country.

And My Guitar Gently Weeps

Friday, February 25th, 2022

I look at the world and I notice it’s turning
While my guitar gently weeps
With every mistake we must surely be learning
Still my guitar gently weeps.
-George Harrison

If the great George Harrison were alive today, his guitar would be weeping over the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s troops have blitzed their way to the major cities and, as of this morning, have encircled and shelled Ukraine’s capital Kyiv. Resistance has been strong. Reports suggest the invasion isn’t going as smoothly as Putin imagined it would. Ukrainian troops are fighting valiantly, as did so many in Hitler’s way in 1939, but, as with those long ago heroic defenders, they fight alone and their cause is hopeless. True, they will make Putin pay a high cost in Russian blood, but it seems inevitable that Kyiv will fall. Putin will decapitate the government, assassinate the leaders he can find, install a puppet regime, declare Ukraine restored to its rightful place in the arms of Mother Russia, and that will be that.

Russian heavy troop presence will remain, and a “leader” like lapdog Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko will sit at the head of government. Maybe Putin’s friend Viktor Yanukovych, thrown out in 2014’s Revolution of Dignity will return. It’ll be easy to reach him; he’s been living in Moscow ever since. That will be irony, indeed.

It certainly seems Putin has outfoxed America and the rest of NATO and the European Union.

How can I say that?

First, as I reminded readers yesterday, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright noted in a New York Times Guest Essay that Putin is a planner and plays the strategic long game. Right now, it’s becoming obvious that the current invasion has been in the planning for more than eight years, perhaps going all the way back to the early 21st century when he first took power. Since then, everything he has done has been geared toward a return of Imperial Russia. Remember, as far back as 2005, he called  the breakup of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

Second, in keeping with that, I urge you to read a brilliant column in today’s Washington Post by Sebastian Mallaby, the Paul A. Volcker senior fellow for international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations and a contributing columnist. Mallaby’s point is that by forcing Russians to sacrifice since prior to 2014’s invasion of Crimea, Putin has built up a tremendous economic reserve, much like the Bible’s Joseph in ancient Egypt preparing for seven years of famine. In contrast, Mallaby describes how the West has sacrificed nothing in response.

Perhaps a couple of excerpts would help:

1. As Matthew C. Klein observes in the Overshoot newsletter, Russia has used the past eight years to reduce its vulnerability to sanctions. The Russian people have accepted a drop in living standards, cutting their consumption of imports by more than a quarter. Russian businesses have paid off overseas creditors, reducing their foreign debt by one-third. The Russian state has tightened its belt, allowing it to build up its reserves of gold and foreign currency.

2. By embracing these sacrifices, Russia has fortified itself against the West’s economic weapons. The central bank has a $630 billion rainy-day fund. Even if sanctions blocked 100 percent of Russian exports for an entire year, the country could continue to import at its current pace and have foreign-exchange reserves left over. President Biden’s initial response to Putin’s incursions was to bar U.S. investors from buying Russian bonds. But Russia has no need to borrow from Americans.

So, as a good friend suggested to me yesterday, is our big song and dance about levelling crippling sanctions in unity with NATO and the European Union nothing more than Kabuki Theatre? Have we dug into the armory of our considerable weapons and unleashed a pack of snarling paper tigers? In the march to the takeover of Ukraine, will Vlad the Invader stare into the eyes of our paper tigers and then simply shrug and move on?

This is all so very sad.

My guitar gently weeps.

War And Death In Ukraine – And Sanctions

Thursday, February 24th, 2022

So, here we are.

Last night, moments after a threatening and vitriol-laden speech by Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, the massive army he had assembled on the north, east and south of Ukraine’s sovereign borders began the full-out invasion all had been expecting. And innocent people began to die.

This afternoon, after conferring with the other 29 NATO countries, as well as the G-7, President Biden ordered profound economic sanctions intended to cripple the Russian economy. Today, even before the President announced those new sanctions, Russia’s stock market had dropped 45%. Will it matter?

For four years, Putin had a subservient partner in Donald Trump, but when Trump lost to Joe Biden Putin had to reevaluate his strategy. It appears 2021 was devoted to that reevaluation, and in 2022 he began revealing his true self.

On Monday of this week, the cover came off and the world got to see the real Vladimir Putin, the one former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates saw 16 years ago: “When I looked into his eyes I saw a stone cold killer.”

In a rambling, paranoid, seemingly-off-the-cuff, one-hour monologue filled with revisionist history, Putin laid out his case for the invasion of Ukraine. In the view of the Russian Federation President, Ukraine is part of Russia; always was, always will be, and wishing something else won’t make it so. He intends to return Ukraine to the bosom of Mother Russia, where it has always belonged. Same with the rest of the former Soviet Union. He blamed the unfortunate circumstance of Ukraine’s independence on mistakes made by Lenin following the 1917 revolution. He made it seem as if being part of Russia would be the best thing ever to happen to Ukraine. Of course, during his rant he conveniently forgot to mention anything about the millions of Ukrainians Stalin starved with cavalier cruelty during the famine of 1932-33. Thirteen percent of the population wiped out by another megalomaniac.

I know it’s asking a lot, but if you haven’t read his speech, you really should. It’s reminiscent of Hitler’s harangues prior to the annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938, which was the first step on the path to World War II. In a speech at the Sportpalast in Berlin prior to annexation, Hitler claimed that the Sudetenland was “the last territorial demand I have to make in Europe.” Sound familiar?

Putin has bent to his will the Russian Duma, the armed forces, Russia’s police, and what passes for a “news media.” However, the ultimate success of his invasion of Ukraine rests on his ability to continue to persuade the Russian people that Ukraine belongs to Russia and is vital for the country’s security.

It won’t be all smooth sledding for Mr. Putin. Last night, more than 1,000 anti-war protesters descended on Moscow’s Red Square demanding the troops leave Ukkraine. Russian police immediately began arresting them.  Mr. Putin will brook no protest. Which is one reason why Alexei Navalny is about to enjoy another 15 years of penal servitude. Putin failed to kill Navalny, so prison will have to do.

And what about those sanctions? Obviously, Putin has been planning this invasion for quite some time. As I’ve written before, he knows it would be foolish to move against a NATO country and risk the invocation of Article Five. But Ukraine is not a NATO country, so, in his mind, he can do pretty much what he wants. He doesn’t have to stand for any kind of legitimate re-election, so he can afford to play the long game. As Madeleine Albright wrote in a guest essay in this morning’s New York Times, “Mr. Putin is a planner.” She had first met him in early 2000, and was the first senior official in the Clinton administration to do so. Following that meeting she wrote in her notes, “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.”

As a “planner” he must have taken full consideration of what the West can do to him economically. His apparent response? Sanctions? Shmanctions! They’re worth it for Ukraine, Europe’s second largest country (after Russia).

I am afraid this will not end well for anyone, least of all Russia. But Putin has gone all in. Given his history and his recent behavior, do you see him changing course anytime soon?

Neither do I.

Quo Vadis, Ukraine?

Monday, February 14th, 2022

A few years ago, a television interviewer asked former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates his impression of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Gates said, “I looked into his eyes and saw a stone cold killer.”

Today, that stone cold killer has more than 134,000 Russian troops and all the military hardware that goes with them massed on three sides of Ukraine’s borders, effectively putting the country in a straightjacket. For all practical purposes, the country’s capital, Kyiv, is encircled.

No one knows how this will turn out, but one thing can be said right now: This is an even bigger game of political chicken than the Cuban Missile Crisis of 60 years ago, which brought Russia and the U.S. to the brink of catastrophe. If a diplomatic solution isn’t found that gives Putin a face-saving off-ramp, Russia, Ukraine and all 30 NATO countries, including the U.S., could easily find themselves in another World War.

Article Five of the NATO Treaty begins, “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all…” Ukraine is not a member of NATO, and guaranteeing it never becomes one seems to be one of Putin’s major demands.

Only a fool would want to go to war against 30 NATO countries, and Vladimir Putin has never demonstrated he’s anybody’s fool. His build-up of troops has been precise and methodical. Keeping that kind of approach, it is entirely conceivable that without ever firing a single shot in a NATO country, Russia invades Ukraine, captures Kyiv, takes total control of the country, installs a provisional government, along with a puppet “president,” announces stability has returned to the area, withdraws most of its forces, and leaves Ukraine in much the same position it was prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union, which Putin has always maintained was the worst thing ever to happen to Russia. As far back as 2005, he called it “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

But once an invasion begins, anything can happen. Poland, Romania. Slovakia and Hungary, NATO members all, sit on Ukraine’s immediate western border, and Latvia and Lithuania lie on the border of Belarus, just to the north of Ukraine, where Russia is conducting “war games” right now.

What can the U.S. and the rest of NATO do about this? As the Biden administration has said repeatedly, no American troops will fight alongside Ukrainians. Instead, it and its NATO allies will levy the severest economic sanctions possible. Our weapons will be….economics.

Now, does anyone really believe that if Russia annexes Ukraine (much like it annexed Crimea in 2014), the threat of the severest sanctions will deter it? It’s just a guess here, but it seems likely to me that Putin will find sanctions well worth it in return for the entire country of Ukraine.

This is tremendously sad to me. I have immediate family who spent a lot of time in both Ukraine and Russia and who wrote an award-winning Doctoral Dissertation on Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004. I have learned that Ukrainians are courageous people who always seem to come up with the short end of the stick, but who persevere, nonetheless. They’ve always been somebody’s pawn, and today is no different. Many Americans probably never knew Ukraine existed until Donald Trump decided to mess with its national security by denying it essential, congressionally-approved and appropriated military equipment to defend itself against just this kind of exigency, all for his immoral personal gain.

Perhaps if the world had taken stronger action in 2014 when Russia took Crimea we might be in a better position now. But things have gone too far, right to the edge of the cliff, and it doesn’t appear anyone is willing to build a hammer big enough to deter what is more and more looking inevitable. The Ukrainians are determined to defend themselves to the last breath, but they’ll need a lot more than determination.

If Ukraine falls, it will change the face of Europe and  increase significantly the reach and power of Putin’s Russia in ways all of us will regret for a long time.

I fear this will not end well.