Tag Archives: Vladimir Putin

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How Long Can We Ask Ukraine to be NATO’s Defender?

photo from The New York Times
                               The New York Times

The moral quandary of the West’s position sits in clear view.

As others have noted, the Ukraine war is “asymmetrical.”  Russia is in the privileged position of attacking Ukrainian citizens with little fear of direct retaliation to its forces or equipment staged on their side of the border. Vladimir Putin has essentially used nuclear blackmail to deter the west from engaging in direct military retaliation. Russians are mostly experiencing only modest economic hardships, but nothing equal to the deaths and homelessness of thousands of Ukrainians whose towns in the east have been leveled.

It’s easy for some to say this isn’t our fight. But NATO leaders and individual governments have noted that it is unthinkable to let Russia pull another Crimea by taking the territory of a separate and emerging democracy. Putin, of course, claims he is only occupying what belongs to his pathetically out of date map that included what was once known as “little Russia.”

Everyone following this appalling war understands that NATO member states have contributed to financing and supplying Ukraine with advanced weapons to stave off a full invasion. The usual observation as per our own Secretary of Defense is that we cannot allow Russia to succeed in its continual thirst for more lands to put under its control. That seems self-evident, especially in light of a delusional Putin who recently declared himself the heir to the legacy of Peter the Great.

But the moral quandary of the West’s position sits in clear view.  How long can we ask the Ukrainians to sacrifice their citizens in the interests of NATO’s strategic goals? To be sure, containment is required in order to rein in a leader trying to expand a nation already faltering.  Except for gas and vodka, no one is buying what Russia is selling.

Russia remains one of the physically largest nations in the world. But most of its citizens still find it hard to identify with others in the hinterlands in the far east. They cherish European vitality, even though many seem to lack the national will to function with anything like the norms of a civil society.

We must be on the scene with the Ukrainians. 

ukraine flag graphicIf the idea of “western values” means anything, it should include doing more than supplying weapons with the handicapping proviso that they only be used for defense. I am no military analyst, but if there were justice in this quagmire, Russia should be forced to feel the sting of its mostly unanswered military attacks. They should face retaliation in their own regions which are used to stage assaults on Ukraine.

In addition, and at a minimum, the nearly fifty countries around the world supporting Ukraine must be prepared to strengthen threatened cities like Odesa and other land that may soon be under siege. A true multinational force could function as a peacekeeping presence in areas threatened by Russian attacks. A model for this form of ‘drawing a line in the sand’ might be Berlin after World War II. In 1948 Allied forces helped maintain the free zones of the large city, placing themselves firmly in the way of Soviet goals to move west. Food and household items were often the weapons of choice in the aircraft-centered Berlin airlift. It helped citizens live a semi-normalized life.  If the same approach was used now, the idea of attacking a true multi-national peacekeeping force should be too much even for Putin.

No doubt this would still look like “aggression” to murderous Russian leader, who seems to lack even an elemental understanding of the idea of national sovereignty. As well, authoritarians almost always overestimate their self-importance, usually scouring the empty closets of their history to justify their faded rhetoric of political hegemony. Such an incremental step of western citizens joining Ukrainians as guardians of their own nation might finally call Putin’s bluff.



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Autocrats On Parade

How did this expansive stretch of the world’s geography wither to the point where it is hard to remember that it once contained a culture of innovation?

Educators supposedly talk about “teachable moments.”  We are surely in the midst of one right now, at least if we are paying attention. Two authoritarian leaders—one representing a major power, and one seemingly intent on ruining what remains of a failing nation—are displaying mistakes that inform and shame at the same time.

China, of course, is the major power. But it would be a sobering lesson for President Xi Jinping to fully comprehend the disbelief of his nation’s trading partners over the misguided decision of quarantining cities like Shanghai because of COVID. Almost nothing else so clearly demonstrates the horrors of a totalitarian state than a YouTube video of faceless and white-suited minions ordering apartment dwellers to appear on their sidewalk to be tested. The quarantine in Shanghai has been so restrictive that some are unable to get the basic necessities of life, including food. This is all in support of Xi’s “zero COVID” dictum that was meant to display China’s better discipline in dealing with the pandemic. Yet his misguided policy has turned the idea of public health upside down, making the lockdown something worse than COVID itself. Nothing says “failed government” as quick as a visual display of compulsory submission that resembles nothing so much as a mandatory morning rollcall of prisoners. To say that this policy of process over compassion has gotten bad press in most of the world is an understatement. By any national standard, China has a tiny fraction of active cases. But, of course, there is apparently no one around to tell President Xi he has made a fool of himself and inadvertently helped spread the few cases that exist.  As a reporter from the Australian Broadcasting Company notes, people have been desperate:

But if the wrong-headedness of the Chinese President looks farcical to the rest of the world, the unilateral military actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin are far more troubling and despotic. Putin is still nearly mute head of a long-fading superpower at risk of devolving even further. By now the story of his obsession with the idea of rebuilding a fantasy empire is well known, if also badly out of step with the way the world works in the 21st century. Invading and slaughtering the residents of a sovereign nation is why the global order changed after the Second World War. We have to remind ourselves that the senseless Russian attack is real: a murder spree in plain view of cameras from around the world. Working alone in the tomb of the Kremlin and without a free press, Putin has lulled himself into believing that no one would miss Ukraine if it became a clone of an inert Russia.

But the young democracy has given him more than he bargained for. Ukrainians have what most Russians seem to lack: a sense of personal agency, and of participation in the civil life of a messy democracy. It’s little wonder they were ready to reject being taken over by their moribund neighbor.

No One Wants What Russia Makes

If Russia is not yet a failed state, Putin’s error, along with pushback from most of the world’s democracies, will soon yield that result. Even now Russia’s birth rate is below levels that can sustain it. Many of the young and the nation’s best and brightest have moved to less oppressive countries. And Russia remains a remarkably corrupt and unproductive place, having missed chances to foster tech and progressive innovators like its smaller neighbors of Finland and Sweden. As we all know now, Russia mostly keeps the lights on by falling back on old and sloppy extractive industries like timber, oil and gas. Value-added businesses that make good things are rarer. No one wants Russian cars, appliances, audio components or computers. And many of us are less than happy at the thought of stepping on to a plane maintained by a Russian ground crew. My guess is that even the country’s few remaining and clueless allies may even be rethinking their purchases of those “jack-in-the-box” Russian tanks.

How did this expansive stretch of the world’s geography wither to the point where it can be hard to remember that it was once home to innovative arts and sciences? Instead, the aging residents that have not fled remain mostly silent and too ready to again fall for the fictions of a delusional leader.

I hope we Americans are paying attention.  We have our own embarrassing parades of small-minded thinking that threatens long-held personal freedoms. But we are also at a perfect moment to witness the hubris of autocracy alongside the idealism of relatively new and cruelly-tested Ukrainian state. The twin tyrannies of Xi and Putin should remind us of just how much is at stake when small people with stale ideas seize power they have not earned.