Russia and China
16 February 2024
Murdered at age forty-seven by Vladimir Putin.
13 February 2024
Russia and Eurasian-ism
As we approach the ten year mark on the entire Ukraine War and the two year mark on the Russian invasion of metropolitan Ukraine two recent articles, one in The New Yorker and one in The New York Review of Books rise above most and need as much exposure as I can help deliver. I read the January 29th article "Ukraine's Democracy in Darkness" by Masha Gessen first. They* paint a very dark portrait of Ukraine in the winter of our Congressional chaos and general anxiety about our democracy and the ravings of Donald J. Trump. I recommend the article for the facts about the Ukraine military situation and the state of Ukrainian morale as the major victim of Putin and his ideology of Eurasionism. It is Darkness, indeed, but you need to know about it and deploy your own energies toward getting Putin and Trump and their epigones out of public life and into prisons where they, too, can adopt any pronouns they wish.
The other pertinent article is "Russian Exceptionalism" by Gary Saul Morson, dated February 22, 2024. He is a "Slavicist," not necessarily or politically a Slavophile, although one might expect that his career studying and teaching about Dostoevsky and Tolstoy (both not Westernizers) gives him access to the "mind of Russia" that most of us do not have. The article explains in passing some of the facts of the de-sovietization that occurred during the 1990's after the break-up of the USSR. President Clinton's response was unfortunate, but he was over-whelmed by the intelligence seekers and the capitalist promoters and make-a-buck exploiters who poured into Russia, little prepared for understanding the wide gaps between western politics and cultures and Marxist-Leninism and Stalinism in Russia, baked in for seventy years, using a recipe of traditions fundamentally the obverse of most western mores and expectations!
Morson mainly concentrates, though, on the replacement of long-term historical Slavophilism, the somewhat amorphous, feudal, theocratic ideology that arose in opposition to Peter the Great's (1682-1725) forceful turning toward the west and some of the science and technology not yet prospering in Russia at the end of the 17th century and early 18th. One of the rude awakenings Peter ordered was the removal of courtiers' and military officers' traditional beards. But, it was much, much more than this. Russia turned west fundamentally under Tsar and Emperor Peter Romanov.
I have written about the Slavophile v. Westernizer theme in Russian history here at Iron Mountain and in my doctoral thesis. It is interesting to me how perfectly true to form I and many, many others had given up giving due credit to the Slavophile doctrines that formed what we thought was an irrational, fanciful, fanatic, and racist collection of orthodoxy-laden fables about the Russian culture, particularly the Russian Orthodox Church Third Rome ideology. In fact, Slavophilism was an imperfect name for the anti-liberal western notions of culture and government, but it fit well with the Tsars' diplomacy with slavic-tongued countries in Europe, like Serbia, as a prime example. The better term is (especially for our age) "Eurasianism," which Professor Morson describes in very interesting detail. Russia is a paradigmatic Eurasian country, much more than Turkey or Iran.
Morson explains, if anyone can, the ideas of the notable present-day theoretician and proponent of Eurasianism, Lev Gumilëv, who imagines that the Tatar Yoke—240 years of Russian servitude to the Mongol Golden Horde (1240-1480)—was actually a blessing that preserved the Russian culture from inroads of the satanic renaissance and enlightenment liberal thinking of the west and its divisive individualism. Gumilëv's ideal is the "ethnos," the Russian culture to which all must submit their souls. Peter the Great was surrounded by people like this and mostly prevailed. It helps to be six feet eight inches tall and occasionally plagued with startling epilepsy. However, it also helps to be a murderous thug like Vladimir Putin, looking forever for an ideology that is simple and fictively resilient enough to mold to his own purposes.
I think that US Americans have had an almost similar experience with the Emersonian theme of American rugged individualism, designed to blur out old country ties and traditions, as well later, of Manifest Destiny sentiments theological and commercial.
Morson reveals the Eurasianist idea that Ukraine is a paradoxical nation, a steppe people already partly begun their westernization well over a thousand years ago by Scandinavian "Varangians" (eastward-interested Vikings) and Greek traders and monks (Saints Cyril and Methodius for two). Through population growth the Kievan state then became parent of European Muscovy which became cis-Uralic Russia, then in the 18th and 19th centuries trans-Uralic, conquering Siberia and all the way to the Pacific. "Russia" is a name they acquired from Kievan Rus, now Ukraine. In Gumilëv's Eurasianism and despite cultural and linguistic affinities, Ukraine has "treasonously betrayed its proper role as part of the Russian world." Historical and contemporary facts are of little interest to them.
When Putin is dead there will be many like him who believe fervently in the exceptionalism of Russia. It is an exceptional nation covering 11% of the dry land of our planet, 17 million square miles, compared to ~6% covered by the US. When we are rid of him we are not rid of Eurasianism and the fantasies woven into it. I believe the solution is to give that loaf to Hollywood and firmly establish its real fictional provenance.
Not to go unnoticed, Alicia Menendez, subbing brilliantly for Nicolle Wallace on "Deadline White House" on MSNBC Monday, began her second hour with a harrowing description of Trump's continued anti-NATO remarks, telling Putin that, "when he is President again, if a NATO member does not 'pay their dues'— which in reality means did not spend 2% of their GDP on their own military for any reason— he would not defend them under Article 5 of the NATO Treaty or care if Putin did "whatever in hell he wanted to do to them." Folks, this is an unacceptable outrage! Trump strains against reality to continue to build his America First ideology of disinvolvement isolationism, which (by the way) he builds as a highway to the Emerald City of his "I am really a KING" narcissism.
It is no wonder the NATO Europeans and Canada (not to mention the rest of the world) all wonder anxiously what he would really do were he to re-occupy the White House. He really has outdone himself this time. He is a walking world-wide catastrophe, and were he to win the 2024 Presidential Election, (or pretend to win), he becomes a global, probably nuclear disaster. He must be brought to justice.
Russia & China
6 November 2023
Howard W. French, Columbia University Journalism Professor, has a multi-book NYRB review entitled online as "China's Foreclosed Possibilities," which clarified for me what has happened there since my formal studies of China many years ago. I am referring this article to you without much commentary, mainly because I think it is practical and useful to Americans getting little help from the usual media. There are lots of pundits out there with axes to grind about Xi and Deng and Mao and the interstitial leaders and what they have done to China and what China has done to the world in response. French's article helps with sorting out the axe grinders.
If ever there were a country sui generis it would be China. Great Britain at times like the 19th century was. China is ancient and in the 19th century, by comparison, barely a functioning country with compradores selling out to foreign profiteers acting on the advice of their national governments ... or the national governments themselves. But China goes back "several millennia," traditionally thought of internally as being composed of the four main peoples, the Han, the Mongols, the Tibetan (very controversial), and the Uyghurs (very, very controversial).
If there is just one key indicator of the political viability of contemporary China it is that although it has been tied by and soon exceeded by India in terms of population, China is the 2nd largest country in the world (between the Russian Federation and the United States), and China has the 2nd largest economy, BUT its GDP per capita is six times smaller than the US, ranking 72nd (between Mexico and Thailand) in the world with US ranking 8th. Clearly and deeply in the 2nd tier. Clearly, Xi has done little to advance what the more capitalist Deng achieved, and the pressure in China to advance is being diverted by the much easier and much less effective build up of its military.
Russia & China
1 September 2023
Putin's Global War
By now just about everyone understands that American historical scholarship concerning Russia must be considered to be part of the US understanding of and stance on Russia, if not literally part of US foreign policy. Inscrutable and multifarious as an open society can be to authoritarian regimes, every serious voice must be taken into account, parced, and considered for its intended impact, as when a professor says or writes something that the US State Department may not (yet) have come to agree upon. In the case of Michael Kimmage, Professor of History at Catholic University in Washington, DC, and for two years 2014-16 holder of the Russia/Ukraine portfolio on the Policy Planning Staff at the Department os State, the matters of his authenticiy and credibility take on special meaning inside the Kremlin and other capitals.
There are several points made by Kimmage in his "How Russia Globalized the War in Ukraine" presented today by the respected journal Foreign Affairs. Some of his points are well understood already by the media, namely, that the Ukraine War is not just a one-off adventure by President Putin, but obviously part of much larger view of things, of Russian policy. You will not surprised by what you read of that in his article.
Food—grain, mainly—is very prominent in Kimmage's description of Putin's strategy. Today's news reports that conversations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about grain exports from Russia—to selected nations Putin wishes to recruit on a long term basis— have broken down (again). Notice as you read that Putin's food policy has a back side. When grain is not allowed through the Dardanelles Strait, Putin cannot be successful in recruiting his anti-US bloc of nations. Turkey is a member of NATO, remember.
Kimmage also promotes in his article the idea that Putin is in Ukraine for the long haul, that in fact it was intended to be a short invasion and long occupation, but which we all know did not secure the goals and has become less of a chess piece than a quagmire for Putin. Kimmage writes:
... the U.S. government correctly anticipated Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late 2021, acting decisively to complicate the Kremlin’s plans. Washington should now understand that Moscow is geared up for a long war over the future of both Ukraine and the international order and that it will use global levers of power and influence to hurt Ukraine and the West.
Almost all of the pundits and scholars agree that Putin cannot prolong the Ukraine War, because it is revealing his military as inept (yet ruthless) and unable to succeed as long as NATO supplies Ukraine's side in the war. The question is whether Kimmage's statement is meant as a message to the Kremlin from the Biden Administration that we are prepared for a long war. Obviously, it is also a message to London, Berlin, Paris, Warsaw, and Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn on the Baltic.
It strikes me that the article is deliberately obtuse, given the credentials Kimmage once had in at State. Obtuse may mean there's a hidden idea smuggled into the text. The last sentence may be that, since President Biden has already asserted we are in it for the duration.
Here is Kimmage's article.
Russia & China
7 August 2023
One of the things that intrigued me when I began my studies of Russia was that I was embarking on the study of a civilization (or set of civilizations) that by familiar standards control 11% of the Earth's land, which itself is but 29% of the planet. As nations go, Russia is huge. Another intriguing feature of such a study is that the evolution of society in Russia has taken only similar, but not the same pathways, this being due to various kinds of isolation from what I am going to dare to say is "mainstream processes of western and central Europe", or even evolutions like that of China, of India, of south-eastern Asia, of Saharan Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. Of course, North and South America were populated for upwards of 20,000 years, but 1500 forward then invaded by Europeans and launched off into nearly European pathways, including genocides and slavery.
In the last essay, "Rabble and Deplorables," I took a stab at characterizing some broad scale features of societies, and never got down to the huge problem of how individuals evolve after gestation. Clearly Russians are born the same ways we in the west are born, but genealogical profiles are probably significantly different from American, since Russian society was from 1240 to 1480 Russia itself in vassalage to the Mongol Golden Horde and its later fragments, and only slowly begins "modernization" after 1800, and in earnest even later considering that 80% of Russians were enserfed until 1861, after which serfs had to pay "redeption dues" to their former owners and many were still doing so when WWI broke out.
How individuals evolve is a matter of what they are, where they are, with whom they are most in contact during the formative parts of their lives, and all the details about those What, Where, When, and with Whom influences. Then, crucially how it works out is dependent on semi-random sequences across time and between different environments, such that, for instance, the death of a parent at age three has the potential for much different consequences than were it to happen at age 8 or age 13. Considering perhaps 100 very familiar kinds of traumatic events—corporal punishment, no punishments, disease, being bullied intensely, being unloved or on the contrary smothered with fawning affection, etc.—how a child develops is a very intricate process, and cultures have found only inconsistent ways to make these processes more predictable by laws, religions, customs of parenthood, etc. In other words, what we have now are very optional social psychologies.
It has not gone all that well for Russians in Russia. Large numbers of Russians have been brutally traumatized. It is my personal observation that they continue to brutalize one another in petty disagreements and hierarchical situations like store owner v. slow clerk. What we are trying to do is predict Russia for our own and generally the world's safety. What we learn is that in the Russian post-emancipation period,—say, simultaneously with Reconstruction and conquering the west in America—Russia was experiencing a brutal crime wave. A New Yorker Magazine piece about Dostoevsky's exploitation of this situation gives us a laboratory of sorts to imagine that society. One key point made by the author, Jennifer Wilson, writes of Dostoyevsky
He was wary of any system that held individuals responsible for the failures of society. In a country, as in a family, guilt was a collective inheritance.
There in simple words is a cultural difference worthy of note, surely projected beyond their own borders. Wilson's article makes plain there is a foreshadowing parallelism of the Karamazovs to the Russians in general during this tumultuous period. The young men and women of the Russian "sixties" are as volatile as the Americans of the nineteen sixties and what follows in Russia is chaotic, the period of the pre-history of the Revolution of 1905 and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
Russia & China
17 July 2023
In his famous essay on Tolstoy, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin—meditating on Archilochus’s gnomic line “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”—envisaged two types of thinker. Hedgehogs, like Hegel, build systems offering “a single, universal organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance.” By contrast, foxes, like Shakespeare, recognize the variety of experiences that do not form a whole and demand a multitude of perspectives. Berlin recognized both impulses in Tolstoy, who grasped for systems only to shatter them with his relentless skepticism.
(I cannot let pass the mention of Shakespearian "variety of experiences" mode of thinking, as our "multiple working hypotheses" mode is the very same thing.)
This article (and the Leo Tolstoy portrait by Yann Kebbi) is from The New York Review of Books of June 22, 2023, by Gary Saul Morson, "Death and the Hedgehog." Tolstoy in Russian means "thick" as in the tol'sty zhurnali, the thick journals of 19th century philosophy and political commentary. Morson's essay, nevertheless, is erudite, but very readable and thoughtful and well worth your time, especially now as not just we—the "Class of 1958"—but in fact all of us, face the "early arrival" of the grim reaper and extinction.
In Tolstoy's 1886 novel The Death of Ivan Ilych" Morson writes: "[Ivan Ilych] ... is so unaccustomed to the thought of his own death that “he simply did not and could not grasp it ....” Earlier he reiterated the insight that "All civilized life ...consists of 'curtains' designed to shield us from our own mortality." And, it is so personalized that we believe ourselves to not be part of the whole of humanity "those milliards of other ... cattle of some sort—not real people."
Death is incomprehensible we conclude, and then we fancy a lights-out "experience," a deepest sleep, but continuation of our soul, our consciousness, all very common thoughts without any basis in fact, except of course, that endless generations before us have imagined the same thing. We have their mummies and graves as proof. And we hide en masse from the contemplations that Tolstoy and others, hedgehogs or foxes, have attempted. Tolstoy and my Chinese History professor both saw in peasants the true nature of humanity ... "...what they meant by 'God' was not the church's God?" Is this not burying the problem, the "cattle problem," disguised? We must come to the realization that it will be each of us.
Admittedly thoughts of passing on are difficult; these thoughts might jinx the process we imagine, and then we change channels or wander into the kitchen for some chips or one last cookie. It occurs, however, that a well-educated generation such as ours may convince our succeeding generations that we, given our age, may have important hedgehog or fox-like insights on death they have been afraid to consider at all, hopefully then to see how to terminate their feckless fucking around and step up the pace of creating solutions to extinction. We are not cattle, nor are we lemmings, so why must we fear expressing the facts about the ultimate taboo subject, Death! Isn't it finally time to stop coddling ourselves, crippling our brains, creating a self-fulfilling prophesy!
In the last part of Anna Karenina ... Levin, the novel’s hero, endures “fearful moments of horror.” Work, achievement, any human purpose: all seem utterly pointless since death annihilates everything. Even one’s descendants—and the whole human race, for that matter—will disappear in an instant compared to eternity. With that characteristic Russian dissatisfaction with practical compromise, Levin insists that if meaning is vulnerable to time and change, a truly thinking person like himself cannot consent to continue living: “Without knowing what I am and why I am here, life’s impossible; and that I can’t know, so I can’t live.”
Not only are we not cattle, we are not that sort of Russian, and we must remobilize humanity to save our planet. My dear frogs, the sea around Florida is already half way to a boil!
metaphysics and Russia & China
27 June 2023
Out of Order
In the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, Mark Leonard wrote an interesting article titled "China Is Ready for a World of Disorder: America Is Not". This article confirmed something brewing here at Iron Mountain for many months, actually years! It is something like a tsunami of alternative reality rushing in and overwhelming everything. Removing order produces disorder, which we fear will become unavoidable chaos ... even if we escape to Mars.
Leonard's piece begs the question of what constitutes "order," or at best asks us to conceive of the world being constantly arranged and then "abruptly" rearranged on a chess board according to various concepts, such as existed after WWI in which the West "imposed" a Cordon Sanitaire of "less important" countries along the western borders of Bolshevik Russia, clearly the same kind of thinking that went into the construction of the Maginot Line, not to blame all Frenchmen for wielding tepid IQs. And then the Cold War from, say 1946 to 1991, as a variant on grouping into alliances, taking a position and holding it, while on some Iron Mountain, organizing one's economy to support such an enterprise.
But there are also overarching matters of order, such as religion, patriarchy, democracy, rule of law, all of these currently under assault and already questioned, if not already significantly less in force. And sovereignty, property, privacy, logic, truth and evidence are all affected, seemingly diminished. The question is how much of this can be withstood by various kinds of cultures. Is there not a sense abroad in the world these days that order must be more agile and flexible? And what does this mean for asserting rules of behavior for kids, cultures, nations?
Noticable in the United States these days is the polarization of the traditional political parties, such that the Republicans of the President Lincoln and then the Eisenhower varieties have been vanquished by the clot of politicians who, having read the handwriting on the wall, correctly translating "mene, mene, tekel, upharsin" (Daniel 5:5-31) (you have been weighed, judged, and found wanting) not into slaveholder drawl, but modern English as: "in this system of democracy we are fucked." This realization, formerly drifting around in the background, manipulated by manipulating democracy itself, generates a flood of ideas, raw, half-baked, and blackened beyond recognition, but served up by "suddenly" ubiquitous media led by of all the worst possible things, a 100% well-heeled narcissistic, functionally amoral, demagogue, sowing falsity and disorder as a substitute for rationality, a narcotic for loyalty. Americans are now beginning to understand disorder like nothing else since the Civil War five generation earlier. Maybe Leonard is correct that America is not ready.
We could pursue all the ragged threads of disorder dialogue across America or the UK or anywhere else. China is full of massive growing pains creating contradictions within traditional forms of society, government, and personal, individual understandings of what is going on. President Xi Jin-ping knows his task is to guide, perhaps wrench, the 1.4 billion Chinese out of their hard-fought and sorrowful but stable understandings into a new world where almost nothing of the old is still completely true.
Russia is, or until last Friday, a culture of proud people kept in order by the dictates of one man who understands the base and basic motives of human beings at the brink of fulfillment or fatal tragedy, playing them as safer the more ignorant they are kept, and being played that way because they hope for stale miracles to bring them up to contemporary snuff. But pursing the idea of order v. disorder requires that we step back to see what is really going on in the hearts and minds.
As the sciences probe into the construction of the universe, the climate and weather, the causes of cancer, the best way to run an economy, the more complicated and less accessible to the laity it becomes. Education traditonally lags reality by the best part of a generation. Moreover, even the common and colloquial language in large-scale cultures is rapidly redefining, censuring or promoting new perspectives on "reality" as we knew it last year. Pronouns are politicized to reflect scientific and political understandings of what our species is and should be seen as.
People are becoming tongue-tied for lack of a efficacious vocabulary. People like Rachel make fools of themselves telling the story of the Russian billionaire oligarch, Prigozhin, as a "doofus" clown, when in reality, in the social strata of Russia, Prigozhin's family outranks Putin's significantly. But, in practical reality these thuggish political leaders in Slavic East Europe and beyond all the way to the Pacific are absolutely ruthless men whose existence is tolerated because they are common enough that we have designated a place and valence for them in the "ordered" world.
If you watch stand-up comedy on Prime, Netflix, or any others of the entertainment feeds, you will "notice" (like a kick in the gut) how explicit comedians have become to elicit laughter. It is the laughter of that brink between safe and vulgar, ordered and disorderly. The subject matter is mostly sex and family and mental health, because these are the parts of cultures that are barely ordered, but usually reserved to be private. So much trouble emanates from them that, finally, it is the comedians, like the court jesters and "fools" of yore that release some of the tension. Now though, all of this is released into the common imagination and not localized within the king's court. What this means is that the order for humanity spoken of in Genesis is well past broken and in its idealistic but sweaty, fecal reality is screaming for redefinition to reorganize mankind's societal permissions structures.
Disorder is common. We are never all on the same page, or if so, it's often in different books. Imagine hunter-gathering societies at the whim of climate and weather and natural processes like plate tectonics, volcanism, disease, fire, predators, and human rivals. Some, most, we think, organized themselves around physically stronger members, mentally stronger members, and various metaphorical principles based on family and inheritance. You will notice that this is an ordering designed to capture and deploy strength and prowess where needed most often, each element has its own pace, such that the slow pace of family and inheritance succeeds on the quite imperfect resolution of memory, big deeds remembered, small mistakes forgotten, and imagination's curiosity contained by the accepted vocabulary.
Artificial Intelligence is the threat we all imagine it could be. If religion tells us we are the lords and masters of all we behold, then AI is our rival, perhaps our enemy, yet each of us knows we like Google's weather report when we ask her each morning. And each us wants a car we or the AI can drive. And some of us know that everything written here, now, this time, is but a terribly incomplete outline, like snow fallen on an invisible man out front on the lawn, but we know that AI can put it together "avoiding" biases and category errors and superstitions and political dogmas, and that it could reorganize the world, creating order given the vocabulary we give it and that it understands from our histories. AI will attain sentience, despite what some experts tell you.
Leonard has written an open question to Presidents and Prime Ministers and to all of us who vote and donate and bear arms. We need to understand that the tsunami of communication has, indeed, overwhelmed us and shaken the underpinnings of society in such a way that, were the pace of change to continue, we might drown in our own confused disorientation. The pace since 1875 has been accellerating continuously, and it will continue, perhaps leap ahead bewilderingly with AI. We have understood this much, so we are not helpless, but vigilance is not our strong suit.
Russia & China
25 June 2023
The original "June Days" (June 23-26, 1848) in France were violent and bloodied Paris to the point of regret. Yevgeny Prigozhin's rebellion against the Kremlin (June 22-24, 2023) was essentially bloodless, but is an important inflection point in Russian History. It marks the end of the illusion that Vladimir Putin has complete control of everything in Russia. Prigozhin may have fatally wounded Putin. We will not know for a while.
For the West it is important to understand that this event most closely resembles a mob boss (Putin) and his consigliere (Minister of Defense, Shoigu) and his immediate subordinate (Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Gerasimov) being called out by a Capo and his army, (Prigozhin and the Wagner Group), and for the time being, as the meaning of the event spreads out among literally everyone, getting away with the words implied by the movement of 25,000 convicted criminal soldiers toward Moscow.
Putin created Prigozhin; they are by no means of understanding equals, but Prigozhin is not just the creator of a massive and, apparently, well-trained private army (not just a militia), he is a cog in the foreign policy of the Russian State and Putin's international politics. Wagner Group is currently in the Central African Republic holding hostage its President, and more importantly in Syria assisting, one might say propping up, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. It was Wagner Group that arranged the plebecite in Crimea, and likely some are still there "observing" the natives. Putin does not know how to get these bits under his own or other reliable control, so Prigozhin may be in Belarus in "exile," but it was not President Lukashenko's idea and probably not Putin's.
I imagine that Prigozhin has a safe house in Belarus. I also imagine that Putin has virtually complete control of Lukashenko and a squad of defenestration and poisoning experts headed toward Prigozhin right now. So, I imagine that Prigozhin will be dispatched quickly, and Putin will achieve control of Wagner Group by the usual methods, killings and money. Still, on a Sunday in June Putin is off-balance and looking over his shoulders. And Prigozhin may escape, may topple Lukashenko, may die a horrible death. We do not know, but watch that space!
Speculation about how Putin will try to recover and repair the illusion that he is all-knowing and all-powerful could go several directions. The West has told him that ramping up the conflict in Ukraine or the West is off his table, that the response of NATO and especially its nuclear powers would be definitive.
Speculation that Putin will liberalize somewhat, given that utter violent authoritarianism, as modeled by Prigozhin, has "failed" is a Western dream induced by wishful thinking, and in any case would be a temporary expediency.
Speculation that Putin will be kidnapped by one or many of his retinue has to be balanced against the fact that former members of the KGB now in and out of FSB, but close enough to react to protect Putin is real. Still, the issue swiftly becomes the BIG picture at this point. Shoigu and Gerasimov were grievously wounded by Prigozhin, too, perhaps they will be "sacrificed" to save Putin's rear end. If that happens it will stir up the ladder-climbing pot of wannabe acolytes and apostates, stimulating those who have grievances to settle with Putin or anyone around him.
The crack in the Kremlin wall is both narrow and wide depending on who you notice is peering through it. David Remnick on Jen Psaki's MSNBC show about an hour ago thinks that the damage to Putin is great. That means that, if Putin thinks so as well, that the situation is more volatile than the West wants it to be. Putin is formerly Lt. Colonel Putin, not especially brilliant, but tenacious, vicious, and by now pleased with himself beyond all reasonable measures. He might blow up Europe's biggest nuclear power plant, for instance. That would prompt Biden and NATO to respond.
Russia & China
23 June 2023
It was Monday, 12 March 1990. I remember distinctly a colleague-friend, "Evans," bursting into my office in the Admin Building at the University, his hair on fire, "Brett! Can you believe this! Lithuania just [yesterday] declared independence! What is happening? W-T-F! How can this be? Bush looks very surprised!" (or words to that effect). This was somewhere in the middle of many burstings into my office by Evans as Mikhail Gorbachëv struggled to hold the Soviet regime together, seams popping here and there.
As usual, foreign news details were reduced to sound bites as Americans sat at home trying half-heartedly to understand the Reagan administration's tax cut response to the ruinous Carter Era inflation, caused by the petroleum price chaos. Then, as the Berlin Wall came down, George H.W. Bush, once Director of CIA, now President appeared to be totally disoriented by the speed with which the Soviet Union collapsed, the failure of the coup against Gorbachev, the rise of the none-too-sober Boris Yeltsin, but mostly the supposed end of the Cold War. Both of us were amazed for most of that year as Soviet troops in Vilnius failed to convince the Lithuanians that they had made really big mistake.
I had been to the Soviet Union in December 1989, first Leningrad, then Moscow for New Years, staying with Russians in their homes with my American friend Anya. Russia was not "closed" for the holidays, but there was a food shortage, particularly of edible meat, even for well-placed people like our Leningrad hosts. It was embarrassing for them—for a moment—but silently understood as the basic truth about the USSR.
Back home, I sat at my desk wondering if these events would kill enrollments in Russian iHistory courses. Yes, and they are now only slowly recovering. (!) Mostly I wondered why something like a Marshall Plan was not being discussed, offered, mounted, brought to a nearly prostrate Russia. Those of you who have been reading Iron Mountain for a while will begin to sense the overarching problem that Bush had, whether it was explicitly conscious with him or Brent Scowcroft or not—probably not—it doubtless rocked "their world" and everything in it. Oops! Now what do we do without a cold war to run?
New Yorker Magazine, issue of June 19th, 2023 has a remarkable book review article by journalist Keith Gessen, titled online as "How Russia Went From Ally To Adversary", reviewing Vladislav Zubok's book "Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union," from Yale. This article is well worth your time ... so I will keep my comments as short as I can stand.
The basic thesis of the the book is predicated in this paragraph from the review article;
After the Soviet collapse, Western advisers, investment bankers, democracy promoters, and just plain con men flooded the region. The advice on offer was, in retrospect, contradictory. On the one hand, Western officials urged the former Communist states to build democracy; on the other, they made many kinds of aid contingent on the implementation of free-market reforms, known at the time as “shock therapy.” But the reason the reforms had to be administered brutally and all at once—why they had to be a shock—was that they were by their nature unpopular. They involved putting people out of work, devaluing their savings, and selling key industries to foreigners. The political systems that emerged in Eastern Europe bore the scars of this initial contradiction.
The Marshall Plan after WWII, on the other hand, took Europe as it actually existed, understanding that "unpopular" was to be avoided and, therefore, so was lecturing to recent enemies. The Marshall Plan also had to deal with masses of con men in and out of European governments, but this time little was done AND models of the wrong kind were set.
You would think that GHW Bush and his administration would naturally reconsider the efficacy of their intelligence vis-a-vis Russia, given its "abrupt" collapse, and understand that Russia was a hollowed out nation with barely enough food, but plenty of ego, and lots of flakey advisors. There is no evidence they did. Embarrassment must be covered up, but was there something else, too?
In 1997 I was back in Moscow and then in Saint Petersburg as terrified Russian acquaintances asked me about how safe Russian banks were! Me?! For a while, they were collapsing daily wiping out life savings and pushing the people toward any government that would give them some guarantees. Bush & Co. "never" thought of a Marshall Plan much less offered one, and so here we are. Putin stepped in with his own Plan, of course! Oligarchs came out of the woodwork and the kleptocracy shifted into high gear. Much of this is OUR failure!
As Gessen says at the end of his description of fecklessness on a gargantuan scale: "Ultimately, the West chose the West." And who are we to disagree? Well, we have read The Report from Iron Mountain, sir! Once you build a military-industrial complex, that's what you have until it destroys you!
Russia & China
17 June 2023
Recently in the War & Peace section I wrote that in the aftermath of the war in Ukraine we need to "domesticate, to gentle" Russia. I was referring to the leadership and a relatively small cohort of ultra-nationalists, whose ethos is anathema to world peace. I do not wish to apologize for the words, I only wish I had correctly and specifically targeted the top part of that iceberg, the political part we hear and see on television.
The vast majority of Russians, and Chinese, too, are people almost just like us. Russians and Chinese like pop music as much as we do, and so here are some links to a collection of The Voice videos that show in quite a nice way that they are real people, full of life and joy and probably much better at than you might have thought.
𝅘𝅥𝅮 Russian Voice Girls 𝅘𝅥𝅮
Unfortunately, the Chinese have taken down their Voice program videos, but YouTube still has one of my favorites. This piece is world famous from the haydays of The Voice in China:
I have decided to include the iconic song of Leonard Cohen sung by Mennell Ibtissim, French-Syrian, singing in English, French, and Arabic. Please do not skip this one. But first, the contrast from 1987 to 2017 in Russian pop:
Russia & China
14 May 2023
Cracks or Chasms
This YouTube presentation: Battle for Survival, is analysis and evidence quite different from what we were getting at the beginning of this year, which were dead-of-winter estimates of what plans Putin and the Russian military might be implementing for the Spring of 2023. Now, we hear and see, the principal winter activity was a pains-taking inventory of what deployable arms they still might have. You would need that for planning, of course, but the news was not good. The Spring offensive, if any, has bogged down into a stalemate, as Ukraine also licks its own wounds.
The surprisingly important factor in Russian arms now is the Wagner Group (PMC Wagner)—the Private Military Company (business), a mercenary organization under the putative command of President Vladimir Putin, useful for applying military force without exposing the formal Russian Army and government to domestic or foreign opprobrium (in cynical theory).
The Wagner Group was founded and is directed by ultranationalist Yevgeny (Eugene) Prigozhin, a very important oligarch close to Putin. Apparently the unmarked soldiers of 2014 that overtook Crimea were PMC Wagner troops, likewise in the Lukhansk (Donbas) area of eastern Ukraine the same year. There are other mercenary groups in modern Russia, apparently because the funding is easier in the privacy of a klepocracy where oligarchs are nimble with funds and sufficiently well-placed to acquire troops from state prisons.
Prigozhin has in the past two weeks gone off the reservation, it seems, criticizing the Russian Army as cowards fleeing the field of battle and even claiming that PMC Wagner is running out of ammo because of using their supply to shoot escaping Russian soldiers. (hmmm) Whereas, some think that Putin was witholding ammo from PMC Wagner. Prigozhin's strange comments are sufficiently bizarre to suggest there is something else going on.
On the one hand Prigozhin's power nominally stems from his close association with Putin, so why would his comments seem to be glancing criticism of Putin? On another hand, Prigozhin is sufficiently well-placed to see the kleptocratic rot at the upper echelons of the Russian military, and could be goading Putin to do something about it, or goading Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and General Valery Gerasimov (commander of Russia's Ukraine operations) to do something about the rot or about Putin. This imbroglio suggests there will be upheavals in the Russian central government this year, any combination or sequence of which will be dangerous for all of us and potentially the beginning of the end of Russia as Mikhail Gorbachëv knew it. At last!
But that is a hollow cheer. If as the Radio Times reporter alluded, the nation of Russia breaks down into its constitutent parts, what are these parts? As someone else reported recently, the administrative pieces of the Russian puzzle are not necessarily representative of the populations or economies contained in Russia, they are holdovers from Soviet days. It has been many years since I studied Russian economic or ethnological geography, but with over 100 distinct ethnic groups in Russia, the economic map pales into a mere score of significant enterprise types.
Russia & China
17 February 2023
As we approach the 24th of February, the first anniversary of the current Russian War against Ukraine, everyone of us who are concerned about it at all are mulling over what could be in store in 2023 for Ukraine, Russia, and the NATO allies and, moveover, the rest of the world that thinks about democracy and sovereignty. I have been mulling for months, looking for solid stuff to base an opinion on, but there's very little meat and mostly cabbage in this soup.
President Zelenskiy has come to Congress and gone, but gone also to the UK, and seems to be possessed of a firm resolve that I cannot call optimism, but much more powerful than mere pluck or even situational courage. The Ukraine armed forces are winning or holding off Putin-inspired forays in the east, contesting every meter of land. New arms are headed their way from the West!
On Thursday evening Lawrence O'Donnell spoke with a Russian economics expert (whose name I missed and is not yet online) about the social and economic consequences to Russia now that it can be candidly and truthfully said, "Russia has already lost." I would say that O'Donnell's report is much less pessimistic than Carnegie's probably more circumspect "Does a Record Budget Deficit Herald the Collapse of the Russian Economy." Likewise the Washington Post article by Francesca Ebel and Mary Ilyshina "Russians abandon wartime Russia in historic exodus," which exodus O'Donnell's guest expert says is far, far more than the one million announced all over the media. (California "lost" 500k citizens between April 2020 and July 2022, but you could not prove it on any of our freeways.)
O'Donnell's theme and his expert's opinions were that Russia, in what is admittedly a milder winter than expected, is not hurting our NATO allies as they hoped by depriving them of Russian oil and gas. And, at the same time the winter has paused some of the Russian offense, but the expected spring offensive, for which they needed a long hard wintertime to prepare for, is not happening either. The real test will be in the coming spring and the question of whether Putin will see he has irrecoverably lost and throw a nuke at Kyiv as he begins a ragged retreat. He is fully capable of that. Former Pentagon people have said that if Putin uses a nuclear weapon, the Russian navy and much of the army will cease to exist by conventional but overwhelming means, leaving open a western nuke if necessary, i.e., if Putin nukes Warsaw or Berlin or London or Bremerton/Seattle.
No one knows anything for sure, and it has been that way since late summer, when we all realized that the Ukrainians are real and resolved. February 24th may be a day that Putin takes advantage of. Or, you know, it may be a day Putin's more and more vocal detractors take advantage of. Even if he is deposed, we have no public knowledge of who might actually do it, or of which among them will take over the Kremlin. It is not even clear what the odds are of a deposing or assassination. Personally, I think that it is no better than 50-50. Russia has lost her most progressive and probably too many of their most productive citizens. The idea bandied around in the media is that these are the sorts of people who will not return. The Ukrainians who escaped into Poland and the rest of the world, on the other hand, are very likely to return to the bombed out homes they once had.
For those of you who watched Lawrence O'Donnell on Thursday, please understand that a news-analysis host with his experience and moxie has a motivation to report the news to suit his understanding of the importance of supporting Ukraine "as long as it takes." The GOP-Fascist-MAGA-rants are, unfortunately, heard around the world, and so MSNBC is doing its bit to counter their anti-establishment, anti-liberal democratic rhetoric. And, perhaps, Lawrence knows that their frothings are having an effect.
Russia & China
N.B. -- I am okay, but weathering disappointing behavior from new neigbors in my favorite virtual world, all of which has had my imagination sort of tied up. It turns out that the bitterness so obviously fueling the trouble across America and elsewhere is in the virtual worlds, too. BTW, It's only been ten days since my last essay. I guess, too, I may be gathering my metabolism for the coming debacle for DJT in the courts.
3 January 2023
The essay "Year-end Reflections on Who We Are" immediately begged for the essay "Who They Are," since the pronoun "we" buckles under the weight of both East and West. It is astonishing that this is so, but if it were not, if language alone could reconcile world views and find peace, we probably would have said it by now. We are a species about 300,000 years old and just in the last few seconds of our first day on earth we have begun to put bones and DNA and science and imagination together to construct a a family tree that, complete with some humor amongst the scientists, will be revised probably very soon (as this one was 11 years old last month).
Humans began to exhibit behavioral modernity about 160k to 70k years ago, per Wikipedia, this Wiki being an amazing collection of information about us! My feeling is toward the smaller number, but truthfully, we did not all arrive at the same time or all go to art school at Lascaux. Choosing the more recent date might actually level the playing field in a manner of speaking. Of course it does not explain what the early evolvers were doing for 90 thousand years! Migrating as clans and tribes all over the planet, meeting other homo-like species, for much of it, we think.
Actually, the question is what were any of us doing for the fifty thousand years from the later dawn of behavioral modernity to the end of the Ice Age twelve thousand years ago, then of course, what about the ages since the ice age to Gilgamesh at 2800 BCE, after which, perhaps, we began hoping, then pretending we were not still savages. The Gilgamesh epic is possibly a story of that long threshold era. When the most recent cycle of glaciation that ended around 10,000 BCE began, it was probably before homo sapiens had established itself securely in Africa, say 100,000 years ago.
When you add up the archeology and anthropology, when you see the modern coastlines after the great melting of the Ice Age and the great floods—everywhere!—your best bet for explaining what our ancestors did would not be mainly genetic in the sense of limited or enhanced mental abilities, or immunity to diseases, but very much social ... or anti-social, given though that ferocity might have genetic underpinnings. We have to account for the Mongols somehow.
That is when the recently nomadic tribes began congealing into the Slavic State of Kiev, first along the north-to-south Dnepr River and along the "east--west" steppe (prairies), then incorporating the tribes along the Don River (the Donbas today). They coexisted with the Zaparozhian Cossacks (west bank of the Dnepr) and the Don Cossacks. They and their grand and g-g-grand children spread out northward into the forests carrying with them the tools of civilization: weapons, organizational skills based on patriarchy, agriculture, and from about 800 CE, Christianity, when Greek Orthodox missionaries, Kyril and Methodius, arrived. The Kievan State evolved, Christianized slowly, and then began to lose control of the wide-spread fiefdoms created by its succeeding generations.
In 1236 and 1240 the Mongols defeated Kievan Rus, which included Kiev itself and most of the fiefdoms south of the west-to-east headwaters of the Volga down to the great steppe, the Mongol's highway west. Central power was almost non-existent, and what there was shifted around into these boondocks. So "Appanage Rus" (the period of consolidation of fiefdoms, laying the path toward feudalism) evolved from 1240 CE, fortresses and towns, kreml-princedoms, the which under the violent and random pressure of providing tribute to the Golden Horde down on the lower Volga, eventually coalesced around the kreml-princedom on the Moskva River, because by then, by genetics and parenting, the Muscovite princes had grown a big appetite for riches and power—not unlike the folk along the Atlantic coast and the Mediterranean, now nearly a millennium beyond and bereft of its Roman legions and their protection.
The great city of Kiev had been in political and economic decline for a century, so it was sorely wounded by the Mongol Horde as it rampaged west to the foothills around Vienna. Later, and for two hundred and forty years, the annual forays into the kreml-states by detachments from the Horde were vicious, but did not destroy many and then any. In 1480 the Grand Prince of Muscovy led an army of foray-weary Russians, as they began to call themselves, against the Horde. It was a stand-off, which favored and quickly was interpreted as independence from tributary status for Muscovy, Suzdal, Tver, and the other dozen or so states in north central European Rus.
In 1480 Richard III of England would be five years from losing his horse and life at Bosworth, ending the Wars of the Roses. Louis XI ruled France. Ferdinand and Isabella were on their thrones in 1479 in what was becoming Spain, with the Moors being defeated in Seville in 1492. Germany did not exist except as a melange of principalities, bishoprics, margravates. Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony were organized places that would form Germany in 1870 along with the shrapnel-states. Italy would also unite in 1870.
At this point, 1480, in Muscovy there were options. Ivan III, "the Great," of Muscovy had had the "yarlik," the office of tribute collector for the Mongols, for years. With it came trickles and then through politics and/or inter-fief warfare a form of hegemony. With this vague power he was able to assemble that army that "defeated" the Mongols. A slow process of securing the Muscovite State followed to the year 1547, when Ivan IV, The Terrible, declared himself Tsar (Caesar) of Rus or Russia. At this point the behavior of one man became hugely important. In fit of rage, Ivan murdered his son Dmitri. The loss of his heir led to the Time of Troubles, Boris Gudonov, jaqueries (rural uprisings), and consolidation of the feudal order across the land. Taxation fell on the peasantry to festoon the monarchy and provide for its wars, all the while the nobility of the country squandered their power in various forms of deliberative, but advisory government, eventually resulting in the Orthodox Church and the Tsar Emperor creating an absolute monarchy, stretching in 1500 to the Ural Mountains, in 1600 to the Ob River, and to the Pacific Ocean by 1689, which is when Pyotr Veliki (1689-1725), Peter "The Great," arrived on the scene, setting up the situation which evolved along a pathway we recognize three centuries later as the unresolved paradox of the Russian people.
I have written about this many times. The struggle began in earnest with Peter the Great. It is called the Westernizers v. the Slavophiles. In some respects it was a struggle between forwardness and backwardness, but that exaggerates both directions. The West was no angel, did not have a monopoly on science or the arts, but was clearly ahead (and still is) way ahead in medicine and public health and governance and economics. The Slavophiles had their version of Orthodox Christianity which provided the solace and social connectedness that a civilization needs, but it was tailored to a country completely bound up in the slavery of serfdom and the indifferent profligacy of the educated and wealthy, not to mention the arrogance and shamelessness of the emperor and the aristocracy. In a way Russia was doing what the West had done 500 years earlier and struggled out of. The story is very complicated, made more so by scientists like Lomonosov, Mendeleev, Sechenov, Pavlov, writers like Turgenev, Dostoevesky, Tolstoy, music composers like Chaikovsky, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and on into the Soviet period of engineers like Tsiolkovsky and all the men and women who put the first human being into space.
The whole of it was corroded by the suppression of millions of peasants in a cynical program of feudal vassalage in which the populace gained almost no experience in self-government even after Alexander II emancipated them by promising their owners, the Russian Orthodox Church and the gentry, redemption payments from each peasant or worker. Yes, there were industrial serfs in Russia, serving an industrial system forced onto the country by the necessity of remaining at "par" with the West. Then came the Bolsheviks.
Seventy years of conscripted or terminated lives is the greatness that the post-Soviet leaders herald as the greatness of Russia. Well, Stalin is estimated to have been responsible for the death of 50 million, Krushshev of ten million through starvation. When I went to the Soviet Union in 1990, there was nothing to buy but linens and trickets in Leningrad and Moscow, much less in lesser cities. Clancy's "Jack Ryan" uses the expression by the hardline Russophiles "we were the monsters of the world and everyone, even the Americans, were afraid of us."
Who are the Russians today that face us in the world? Americans should understand them so much better this year than when the Soviet Union collapsed thirty years ago. They are as unprepared as the Germans were to govern themselves after WWI. They have fallen prey to lies and exaggerations and omission of dreadful truths, yet ... they are people yearning to be respected and for whom others will find easy empathy. They are bright and industrious, but lack the essential self-respect that the residents of Potemkin villages must have had. Putin's Russia is unsustainable.
We are human beings, a few thousand years, perhaps as many as 200 human generations, downstream from the threshold moments of becoming less savage and then almost not savage at all. Putin's war on Ukraine, though, is pure Russian savagery, harkening to the imagery of Russians getting respect any way they can. It is not that the huge land expanse of Russia is ungovernable; but it is difficult. There are enough democrats in Russia to run a smaller version, with help from the West. Getting the hardliners and their dream of military might confronting a squirming world out of the picture could be accomplished, but it will take a leader willing to bring the Orthodox Church into the modern era (or else) and to nurture a liberal socialism and capitalism in Russia as the replacement for the kleptocracy they have now. Russians are willing to give up lies in exchange for respect. The West needs to get very smart very fast to bring this about.
Index: Russia & China
23 November 2022
Russia's World View
As Americans in their own country and while visiting or working in other countries celebrate Thanksgiving Day and settle down for a festive meal of turkey, ham, mashed potatos, green bean casserole, and so forth, gravy, pumpkin pie, one thought is likely to dominate the Grace being said before the meal, before (hopefully) the odd uncle says something annoying, and that thought is how lucky we are to have this holiday where we forget all the trouble we have caused, the lands and resources taken by our forebears and by us, the disrespect that is paid to minorities of all kinds, and the looming instability of the world, that nightmare of our bad husbandry of our planet that manifests in so many different ways, all very human and with which we have dealt before, but maybe not at this level and magnitude. We need this day more often as the tumult of broken things and promises begins to drive out sanity.
Being who I am and what I do, I find myself fixed on our problems and those of other countries, hoping that solutions will emerge that provide options for leaders of all kinds, not just national political, but local and faith-based, economic and social, to team up to avoid what seems might well be an inevitable day of apocalyptic reckoning. There is much to do, and there many who do not want to do anything to upset the status quo lest human error creates a more dangerous situation yet for us or others. Already there is a great famine abroad with a generation of a billion children struggling to grow up and become useful human beings without the necessary nutrition. There will be hell to pay for this.
Chief among my interests is Russia and the Russians. Carnegie Politika has two essays in a row now that look for answers about where Russia thinks it is going with Putin leading and why they think so. Of course that means they also think of not being led by Putin, but for the time being that is extremely hypothetical. As the Muscovite state grew stronger and the Tatar Horde weaker, as the beginnings of national feelings emerged and grew, one of the salient features was the doctrine of Russia being the Third Rome — Rome itself pillaged and reduced to corruption and protesting factions, the Eastern Byzantine Church and Empire falling to the Turks — Moscow's Tsars saw that being the successor conscience of the world would profit them in many ways, not least of which, of course, that God would approve, they thought. I hear the revival of the Third Rome theme and orchestra in the essays from Carnegie.
Russians, since Pyotr Veliki, Peter the Great, have struggled to understand themselves as countrymen of a backward place because of that awful fate, which the Mongols visited upon them for two and half centuries, and could have done the same for central Europe, too, but by chance did not. Europe was wrestling with new ideas and new economics, new politics, and, to be sure, with scant attention to the Russian Bear and her not quite ready for prime-time culture. Russians, though, are very ready to advance themselves, but it never seems to happen without something like 70 years of mayhem and the murder of 50 millions and their leaders. I know Russians in Russia. They are people like us, deserving, they think as they organize themselves, of a fair chance at life, and perhaps liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But they know that they have not committed to the struggle of organizing themselves—not deeply— in all these years. Russia is the place of the Potemkin Village, a facade, an illusion grabbed for lest it disappear entirely, behind which the vast majority see a chance at life, and maybe natural rights and liberty, some found in stolen moments or abroad, and pursue happiness within the fog of increasingly hollow fables and propaganda.
Putin runs a country based fundamentally on extractive industry, not to say they have not done remarkable things in science and engineering, in the arts as well, all for which they are rightfully proud. Russians, though, seem to be trapped in the dynamics of tribe in a way that the west is mostly not. One way to think about it is to imagine what being fed gruel feels like while others in plain view in the West are eating Eggs Benedict and steak. They know they must sacrifice to finally throw off the Mongol Yoke, but how long, it has been centuries since, and more to the point, not quite four (4) forty-year generations since 80+% of the population was emancipated from abject serfdom. Which is my cue to remind you that the HQ of Moscow's Third Rome owned millions of human serfs.
The dynamics of tribes and clans are an elemental belief and confidence in patriarchal power, often brutal power done to impress the unwary. Might and brutality are counterpoint to Nutcrackers and perfect dreams of lake-born swans. The latter are hopes and the former a pervasive and well-regarded reality for many. Sobriety is a problem; it is the beta male answer to a system, culture, and civilization that so far refuses to individualize what is necessary to improve itself. We know a lot about that—recently—while glorifying broken systems in our own countries. Think of that sheepish feeling of being conned and accepting the con as the lesser threat to one's chances at life itself, let alone a chance at liberty and happiness. You cannot say this to a Russian's face, much less to an American's. But it needs to be said—to both.
Category: Russia & China
15 November 2022
Russia's War With NATO and Ukraine
One of the things Iron Mountain does is to draw your attention to interesting pieces of information and analysis. Today it is a long article in The New Yorker Magazine by Joshua Yaffa "Arming Ukraine" dated October 24th, but shown online as October 17th with a similar but longer title, as you can see.
The reason I am showing you this article is because it seems to be a very thoughtful, unbiased, and well-assembled description of what has happened so far. There are some very interesting nuances explained, and one gets from them that the Russian invasion was probably inevitable, despite Nina Khrushcheva's assertion the Putin was incensed and baited by Biden to go beyond posturing into an actual war. The other things that stick out are the number of real players from NATO and, more importantly, the secretiveness that the decidedly underdog Ukraine had to employ to achieve any kind of advantage of their own, especially during the time when arms supply and resupply was just talk.
Category: Russia & China
1 November 2022
The Winter War: 2.0
Everyone has an opinion about Russia and the war in Ukraine. It may not be their own opinion, since many things about Russia and Ukraine are unfamiliar to people around the world, so they borrow or assume the thoughts of others. Recently in Quora someone asked a questio very much like this: "Putin will fall soon, but shouldn't we be worried about war hawks taking power after him?"
One answer came from Sweden, from an obviously intelligent person, an engineer of some sort, who I will leave anonymous for this essay.
I’m going to stick my neck out now.
I’m going to say that this will play out exactly as it did in 1917.
Within a few months, probably this year, the current leadership will somehow be made to step down over their complete failure and incompetence.
The next leadership will be one of hawks. They will try to double down on the war, since they have delusions of competence.
This will not make any difference whatsoever. The Russian state is impotent to wage a war; the incompetence runs too deep and nothing that can be done in less than a decade can fix this. Their hands are just as tied as Putin’s, by the lack of manpower and industrial base in Russia, Ukraine’s friends all over the world, and the conundrum posed by how any escalation will only lead to Russia losing faster.
Then, there will be a new October Revolution. A different faction will come to power, carried on the back of unrest in Russia. Like in 1917, they will win the day by promising an end to the war, no matter what the cost is. At this point, the Russian people will be so sick of the war that they will agree to just about anything.
The wildcard here is nuclear weapons. If the hawk faction uses them, they will lose the war so fast that maybe the war will end before their opposition has time to organise.
It’s just one guy’s guess. It’s a forecast worth exactly what you paid for it. But that’s what I guess will happen.
I found it to be very interesting. People like things to follow models. They like that History rhymes. I am sure I am like that, too, but please notice in the Swedish explanation he uses the expression "will somehow be made to step down," which to my mind says he does not want to predict a blood-bath or he does not know how historical events actually work. Like a person listening to a concert, they are not yet aware of woodwinds, but of course know the strings and percussion. The rhyming motif is reasonable when you take into account that the historical players, the caste, may also "believe" in rhyming, and so in that case they do seek models.
The important ideas central to this prediction are the Hawks (Yastrebniki) in the Kremlin. They are real, and I agree they will take over from Putin even as Putin begins to cater to and then to emulate them. The idea of the Hawks over-estimating their prowess is probably correct as well. The idea of using nukes foreshortening the war is, as the word implies, somewhat illusory. It could. It could also embroil NATO and that could extend the war physically and temporally. The counter-culture in Russia, that group that may or may not unseat the Hawks is problematic. Russia is far from homogenious, so how a tired, despondent, and supine population overturns an armed junta remains a mystery to me, but I will allow it in my kit bag of ideas, provisionally.
By chance, within hours of reading the Swede's ideas, I happened on a clip of an interview with Professor Nina Khrushcheva, who not surprisingly has a contrarian view of the Ukraine War. It was interesting to me because she said that President Biden's startling transparency with our national intelligence estimates, lured or dared Putin into the war that he actually meant to not get embroiled in. Hmmm! History is full of real petulence, but does the petulance of one man count that dramatically? Clearly, yes, if he is surrounded by and represents a common emotion. Both Trump and Putin do, which means that separating Putin from the Hawks may be a mistake. If it is a mistake, then the Swedish dominos may not fall in the order he predicted.
Clearly enough, Zelenskiy and his government want to recapture all the territory that Russia has stolen from them, and, of course, the people Putin has forcibly removed to "sorting camps" in Russia. And, as you know from western news sources, Putin seems ready to conclude the war at the current status quo. Interestingly, the Winter War 1.0 was fought against Finland in 1939-1940 and was a draw or a Finnish victory, since the USSR did not achieve its aims. The coming Ukraine winter war 2.0 will test NATO and Ukraine and Russia strenuously. NATO will shiver and learn to wear two sweaters in their homes. Ukrainians will survive, but will be weaker in the Spring of 2023. Russian determination will dissipate over the winter and as spring approaches, either the Hawks will remove Putin or it—the war—will go on until Russia is totally humilitated, which is what the important result was in 1940. Historians believe that Hitler made up his mind to invade the Soviet Union based in no small measure on their weakness displayed against the Finns. Does this create a model for Xi in China?
Category: Russia & China
19 October 2022
Solving the Ukraine War
Facile is a word I rarely use introducing an opinion piece. It means "(especially of a theory or argument) appearing neat and comprehensive only by ignoring the true complexities of an issue; superficial." (Google) Strangely, it means "effortless and successful" in sports. Vladimir Frolov, "an expert on interkesnational relations," per Carnegie's Politika, (I think I have seen his name before, but it could have the Russian, General Vladimir Frolov, who was killed earlier this year at Mariupol), wrote this piece for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Strategic Procrastination: What’s Russia’s Game With Nuclear Signaling?
While you read this piece, notice the facile assumptions Frolov makes, such as: ending the war as quickly as possible. This is obviously true, but there are unmentioned conditions. I am sure Russia wants to stop losing, of course, so they are battering Ukraine from the air right now mercilessly, oblivious of the fact this is unlikely to end the "operation" quickly. For one, the bogus "annexations" cannot be allowed to normalize. Ukraine forces are pushing the Russians out of the eastern area, and they will continue to do so, and are urged to do so by the US and some of NATO. So, as fraught with death and destruction for Ukraine as it is, the Russians want out sooner than the Ukraine does. Russia understands that Ukraine will not negotiate the eastern "annexations" and will be able to secure the south with much shorter and more efficient logistics. Ukraine knows that Russia will make crucial mistakes while they are busy bombing elementary schools and power plants. So much for the pace of the war.
I am offering this warning: the Frolov piece is full of half-truths and outright "misunderstandings." It may be a litmus test of western opinion. It is definitely a signal that Carnegie is tiring of the war and its resolve is waning.
The bone to really gnaw upon is: the Kremlin must convince Zelenskiy's western supporters to force him to come to the negotiation table. Frolov thinks, apparently, that Putin is not the single policy person in the Kremlin, but that he could be swayed by others, perhaps General Sergei Shoigu or others in the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation or among his FSB retinue. We do the same thing: "Washington now sees Russia as very weak," meaning that President Biden might be among those with this opinion. BTW, "weakened" is a better word for it. In any case, this is not news at all, the Ukraine war has always had its propaganda theater, and it is directed at Putin's domestic audience and ours as well.
But the reason to gnaw on this idea of forcing Zelenskiy to the table by "convincing" western supporters is very clever and facile. We are not talking about diplomacy here at all. The essential questions are which supporters and how? The answers are not singular. NATO and, especially, the US are now targets of this push to get Ukraine to the negotiation table. The winter issue for European NATO countries is energy. For the US the issue is resolve in the face of inflation and, for some, choosing a winner. The strategy the Kremlin (!) has adopted is working the US through the Republican Party, which has already signalled a willingness to reconsider the "endless" support that President Biden has "unilaterally" extended. As the Republican Party is really the Trump Fascist Party the threat of abandoning Ukraine in favor of the Putin-Trump axis is real, but it will not happen all at once. The November election results will dictate the pace of weakening the US resolve. It is clear that the US resolve is the backbone of NATO resolve.
So, the known intervening variables are the election and the prosecution of Trump and his retinue. The longer it takes for DoJ to charge and convict Trump, Meadows, Giuliani, et al, the more US/NATO resolve can be chipped away. Everyone I hear on cable news is saying that AG Merrick Garland has all he needs right now—except for a self-imposed tradition that DoJ should respect the "political sanctity" of the November election. There is nothing holy or sacrosanct about this election. It is the fulcrum of history as we know it.
If three states go rogue and abandon the principle of free and fair elections, how are the other 47 states to interact with them at the national level? Hold our noses? We have done that before and it has never, ever worked to solve the problem. Dixiecrats were withholding the vote from Black citizens. Now that they are Trumpist, White "Christian Dominionists" they are ready to do it again.
All the world is ultimately just one very complicated thing with an amazing network of interacting parts and ideas. Putin's invasion of Ukraine cannot be allowed to stand. He will help himself to the US democracy as part of his plan. It is as obvious as anyting you have ever seen.
Finally, Frolov's editors and sponsors are rattling Russia's nukes. Why begin this article with a photo of what is probably a Russian nuclear weapon carrying submarine? Why? My answer is that they wish to add the terror of nuclear war to their argument that Ukraine must come to the table now. The nuclear debate is never over. Carnegie should understand that, so what made them use it against us?
I do not know. I suspect they have been debating the whole war internally, and finally the doves have the upper hand.
Archv: Russia & China
3 October 2022
Russia Against the World of Satanist America
Ever since the 24th of February I have been reviewing my thoughts about the military history of Russia and the Soviet Union. Way back, there were military actions by Muscovy and surrounding principalities against each other and the Khanate of the Golden Horde, the most famous and nearly the last of which was basically a display of forces, but little actual fighting, which eventuated in the retreat of the Tatars down to the lower Volga area where they camped out and raided for another couple centuries. Then there were wars with Sweden over the Baltic region and down the Dniepr River.
There were battles with the Lithuanians and the Polish-Lithuanian forces around the Time of Troubles and later, then against the Ottoman Empire over their sphere of interest on the north shore of the Black Sea, Crimea and the Dobrujia, where the Danube River empties into the Black Sea on the south coast of Moldova or Ukraine depending on what year.
The modern (the useful) history of Russia's wars begins with the invasion by Napoleon Bonapart and all the armies already conquered by the French. The main feature of Russian defenses then was the legendary winter weather and the overextended French logistics. The most important point of the Napoleonic War was how long it took Russia to mobilize, and perhaps, secondly, how utterly "unsophisticated" and savagely barbaric its army was despite the amazing parades and drill routines each Tsar required. Being an officer in the Russian Army was well-regarded. Being an illiterate soldier, not so much.
The Crimean War was the mid-19th century military engagement Russia had against the Ottomans and France, Britain, and some others. It was caused by Tsar Nicholas's overweening interest in the plight of Christians in Palestine. Russia lost the war, and until WWI that was it, almost.
The Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05 over Manchuria was a logistical nightmare for Russia's Army and a humbling defeat for its Navy. Russia was humiliated, which contributed to the Russian Revolution of 1905 and raised the "consciousness" of the rank and file politically ... somewhat.
I was taught that one of the reasons the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo in 1914 ended up as a huge protracted war was the fact that Russia knew that mobilization would be a lengthy process and could not be delayed. So to avoid being ambushed Russia decided for war before anyone else, and the long time it took for Tsar Nicholas II to mobilize his army, the Germans, Austrians, and Ottoman Turks and the French and Brits (Russia's allies) realized they now had to mobilize as well. They had time to reconsider, re-reconsider, train, posture, and say things they could not easily take back. The Allies and the Central Powers were at one another's throats when finally Russia, now mobilized, (and not easily de-mobilized), confronted the Germans in what used to be Poland and the Ottomans again on the Black Sea coast.
We all know that the Russian front was riddled with mutinies and mass desertions, and then Russia's Tsarist Empire collapsed in 1917, the effect being a humiliating loss of territory, the Bolshevik October Revolution and ensuing Civil War, Whites against Reds, with Leon Trotsky as the animated political leader of the Red Army, and with Allied nations engaged hopefully against the Reds, very annoyed that Russia was no longer creating an eastern front that the Central Powers had to defend against. In the end, The Great War, disposed of the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Russian Empire.
Then Herr Hitler arrived, the Poles were invaded in 1939 and Russia was briefly "protected" by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and both carved up Poland and the Baltics, and then during the so-called Phoney War in the west, Russia began to invade neighboring Finland, which did not go well for Russia, due to uncertain leadership caused by the Great Purges of the late 1930's.
And then Hitler decided to abrogate the Pact with Russia and invaded, and Stalin's armies retreated in the south and and east and held on for 900 Days around Leningrad. The USSR won the Battle of Stalingrad by February 1943, with the help of weather and interior lines of communications and logistic. Stalin then committed his armor to the Battle of Kursk in the largest battle between tanks ever, won, and then rolled slowly west into and defeating Hitler's Third Reich, as Allied forces pushed in from the west.
Russia conducted a proxy war in Korea, along with the Chinese against the UN forces led by the US. It conducted another proxy war in Vietnam, and it both cases the US forces were statemated, some say defeated. In 1979 the Soviet Union committed to a war in Afghanistan and ten years later withdrew having accomplished almost nothing but loss of Russian and Afghan lives. This war was again poorly led and created the unrest in the country and within the Communist Party that resulted in the demise of the USSR itself.
Since then Russia has fought Chechens to a bloody standstill, Georgia for bits of territory, assisted Syria, and in 2014 and 2022 invaded Ukraine on the pretext of relieving it of its fascists. The 2022 invasion was "planned" to last about 10 days and is now eight months long, the scorecard favoring the Ukrainians, but who are badly battered and war weary.
One should conclude that Russia's great moments were driving Napoleon and then Hitler out of their territory. Russian defenses caved in slowly and inexorably until the enemy's supply lines got so long that they were untenable given the weather and other enemies of the Germans and their allies. Military strategists say the Russians and Soviets had favorable interior lines of communication and logistics, although they may not have had the best armaments, they were adequate and produced in mass quantities. Their armed forces were massive, but blunt and brutal. So, part of their success was due to the mass-psychology among the troops and the abject fear they created where they went.
Russia's most famous and successful strategies have been obvious: take advantage of Russia's vast size and bad winter weather, and that means hold on long enough to bring that feature into play. Brutality is the other constant. Russians have decided to use whatever psychological advantages they can muster or induce. Certainly Ukraine has seen this, but so far has not been cowed by it. If Putin uses nukes, the psychology of it may work in Russia's favor or exactly the reverse. Putin does not know which, and his aching desire to be the second country to use nukes makes it a toss up. He knows that the west will respond, but he does not know how, where, and when. So he is reduced to terrifying words for now.
Vladimir Putin is less sure of his leadership position now than in mid-February of this year. He does not know how to win—or even how to lose—this war. He is foaming at the mouth in public to convince his public that he will press forward, so they must help as Russian patriots. His retinue includes critics and they are not that certain he will opt for nukes or even "the win." There are many in and out of Putin's system who think using nukes is the way to win. He calls the US a Satanist monster because he needs to shore up the country's red-necks, rubes, and Orthodox believers who need to think he is defending them.
I know that the use of nuclear weapons by Russia will mean the end of Russia as we now know it. It will revert to type: bellicosity, chaos, and then collapse, partly because the west will use nuclear weapons against it. A measured nuclear response by NATO would not be a tit-for-tat. It would be short of massive, but very hard to recover from. If you have not yet stood in Red Square and rubbernecked St. Basil's and the Kremlin, there is a roughly 30% chance you may have missed your last chance this century. I think in a last gasp fit of anger at having lost the war Putin will nuke Odesa and thereby commit suicide.
In the north, east, and south, the easterly and southeasterly winds prevail, in the west – northwesterly and westerly, while in the southwest – southerly and southeasterly.
Archv: Russia & China
14 September 22
What To Expect from Russia
On Monday (9/12), retired Admiral Stavridis was one of the panelists on "Deadline White House" with Nicolle Wallace (MSNBC) discussing the amazing counter-offensive carried out by the Ukraine military in the eastern reaches near the city of Kharkiv, the 2nd largest city in Ukraine. There was handclapping and wringing in equal measures. The motto Stavridis put on it was: as we understand Putin and his power structure his response could very well be "If I cannot TAKE it, then we will BREAK it." What Stavridis probably meant is: given the great difficulty of bringing the Russian Federation onto a real war footing, including conscription, reorganizing major industries, etc., Putin will "likely" choose to just bomb and shell the hell out of anything his forces can touch inside Ukraine, rendering that nation into rubble, after which he can say there really is no Ukraine remaining. It will take them generations to recover, and if they cause us "more trouble," we will trounce them again. Clearly an off-ramp statement and strategy that will work in the coming winter and as long as they can sustain it.
When you unpack the whole discussion carefully it resolves down to quite a few known unknowns, that is, we know of the disposition of power in Russia, even many of the prominent representatives of the various groups and factions. Putin is but one piece of a interlocking and yet fractured polity. The government is essentially a mafia, of which Russians have had significant small and larger scale experience since the time of Brezhnev, Gorbachev, and especially the wily Boris Yeltsin. They, the public, used to blame mafios behavior on the Gruziya, the Georgians. As a mafia Putin's government is in some ways capable of rapid response and in other, more important ways, locked into paralytic relationships or lack functional relationships among factions representing various degrees of nationalism, orthodoxy, westerism, pride, prejudice, and eventually the personalies of iconic (or self-designated) individuals. Among all of these the most dangerous (as we see it in the West) are the Hard-Line Nationalists who seek to restore the appearance of national prowess and international importance. Some of these are Stalinists, communists, and unrepentent to their last breath.
So, tremendous pressure is being put on Putin now. State television has even broken its regime of pure Putinism, and this past weekend Vladimir came under indirect but strong criticism. The question many have is whether in a mafia the capo can be replaced without dissolving all the sinews and ties that bind the thing together. Assume that 150 people, most former KGB, some significant fraction now FSB are the knights around King Vladimir's round table. Which of them will dare to replace Putin with themselves. Assume that there are those who have thought about it. The replacement of Putin for insufficient victories in Ukraine would be a (1) simple coup (arrest and/or assassination) or (2) a coup d'etat involving removal of many of seats and relationships at and radiating from the round table, or (3) a larger nearly simultaneous event including a revolution affecting military and industrial cities or (4) a revolution complete with European and Siberian chaos, which would raise the question of sectional or regionalist variations in response to what happens in Moscow.
The French Revolution begun in 1789 was a Paris affair. Bordovians, Brestians, Lyonaise, etc. were outposts at best. The American Revolution was less a matter of cities, since the Brits held Boston and New York, and Philadelphia for a while. In Russia there are two cities: St. Petersburg and Moscow. It has been this way since Peter the Great. Have you ever heard of these European-Russian cities: Nizhni-Novgorod (3), Kazan (4), Samara (5), Rostov-on-Don (6)? Did you realize that number 3 overall (Europe and Asia) is Novosibirsk, 4 Yekaterinburg, 7th Chelyabinsk, 8th Omsk, all of which are in Siberia—Asia. Magnitogorsk and Tyumen, both important cities do not make the top 10 list. Khabarovsk and Vladivostok are eight time zones away. I think that what happens in St. Petersburg and Moscow is determinative, but not completely unaffected by the rest of Russia. A coup, a coup d'etat--revoution, will be managed in Moscow, even when St. Petersburg is Putin's "hometown" (which is dubious).
Or, you know, Putin could come to his (our) senses. This is very doubtful. He is not a genius of any kind. He is a stone-cold-killer, Cold War espionage agent, and fairly good blackmailer and bully. I think Stavridis is very close to the truth, except that some at the round table will not favor the rubblization of Ukraine, even though it has a favorable emotional quotient for the hardline Nationalists.
Perhaps needless to say, Putin also risks pissing off Europe with his war and our sanctions on his heating oil and gas policies. Sooner or later NATO will realize that they are fairly deep into a war with Russia. Putin should avoid prompting this kind of realization, because if any of the NATO countries' trigger finger twitches, the game changes drastically and Russia is doomed. It is not a paper tiger, not even a paper wolf, it is hopelesslessly corrupted by the implications of the mafios idea at the center of all things in contemporary and the previous century's history.
Then there is China, which is not supporting Putin at this time with arms or munitions, but which is slowly and inexorably permiating the Russian Far East. You have to believe that Putin knows what kind of a slippery relationship he has with President Xi. A really stupid move in Moscow by ultra-nationalists could set off a chain of events that will reorganize planetary politics for a long time.
also: Russia and China
17 August 22
Almost since February 24th of this year when the war began, pundits and pols and interested civilians, Ukrainian and Euros of various stripes and Americans, of course, have been debating the options Ukraine has in the war Vladimir Putin has beset them with. Nearly everyone in all three groups have changed their minds and stance since mid-March. Recently, as various mostly contradictory reports from the western economies have suggested that the war has gone on long enough, there have been suggestions that Ukraine give up the Donbas and Luhansk territories and call it a day, with an "appropriate" tissue of promises from Putin to desist permanently.
That brings up the point that Russia cannot be trusted to abide by any treaty or truce that is not underlined by obvious and perhaps mortal defeat in the field. Russia itself is beset with the constricting self-propaganda that keeps conservatives dreaming of the good ol' days under Stalin, when you knew exactly that the West was lurking under every shrub, waiting to enslave the whole population and murder those who resisted. A good part of the population is westernized now, though. Westernization began with Peter the Great at the end of the 17th century, and conservative forces have kept its growth to that minimum they cannot ever control. Russophile and slavophile propaganda appeals especially to those who have experienced too much change and are no longer able to deal with western values and western godlessness. So, yes, the Russian Orthodox Church is a key player on that side. Trusting Russia means isolating and silencing a huge part of the Russian population.
An oped piece in the New York Times by Max Boot this morning discusses Ukraine's immediate options. Boot and the Ukrainians call it the "thousand bee sting" strategy. It is one form of asymetric warfare. I urge you to read it, because it is the core principle under which US and NATO long term support of Ukraine is predicated. Boot makes the case for it clearly and cogently. I think you might easily imagine that Ukraine can actually win this way.
It all depends on what happens in Russia as its economy comes closer to imploding. You know that Russia is doing everything it can to get around the sanctions. There are plenty of willing countries to buy Russia bonds (for a while) and buy their exports, too. It is reported that some Euros have lifted some sanctions. It is obviously tiresome and with autumn a month away and then winter, fragile Germans do not want to freeze. The new Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, now almost nine months in, has maintained some of the Merkel agenda, but as with most transfers of power, there are politics at play that leave the discussion ground soft and spongey. All of this is said to underline that there are many different time lines probing out toward disparate conclusions. Will Russia go belly up before the Germans reset their thermostats? The problem with all proxy and one-theater wars is that the audience can be as spoiled as it can get away with.
So, the Ukraine's options under discussion are who, and under what circumstances, is to declare that enough is enough. Zelenskii's position (and mine, as if ...) is that Russia must be removed from all of the territory of Ukraine, including the Crimea. This idea posits some sort of Russian internal collapse, which is not impossible, in fact not improbable, but timing is everything. I have written on Twitter in friendly response to former Ambassador McFaul's comments that fast-tracking Ukraine into NATO would be a sufficient and tempting reward to Ukraine to give up Donbas and Luhansk, which would also be predicated on the belief that Russia would later make another mistake, thus allowing Ukraine and NATO to defeat them once and for all. Other theories are not quite as rosy, but in my reading, the idea of Putin nuking Kyiv is seldom, almost never, mentioned these days.
Fundamentally, who is to make the call is Ukraine and Zelenskii. The US will not tire of sending supplies, but the others may. So, making the call is going to be in an environment of visible support and waning support. The 2022 Congressional Elections will tell a few tales, but are not expected to be salient in the Ukraine situation. Hopefully Russia will have collapsed before the 2024 elections!
also at: Russia & China
19 July 22
Contours of Putin's Thinking
Tatiana Stanovaya is a Moscow born reporter and analyst followed by several well-known American Russia experts. In today's New York Times she has an opinion piece that is definitely worth the time to read, "Putin Thinks He's Winning". The article is not exactly tongue-in-cheek, but nevertheless is clearly skeptical.
Putin's matryoshka plans are a) secure and annex the Lukhansk and Donetsk regions to Russia, b) get the elite of Ukraine to remove President Zelensky and install a more friendly regime in Kiev (aka Kyiv), and c) create a new world order in which Russia is one of the poles of attraction. Clearly, to western eyes, only the first of these is remotely possible in reality.
My first take, after checking out Ms. Stanovaya, was the photo of a very jowly Vladimir Putin. Putting on that much weight at age 70 is not good. It is a good sign for the west; he probably will not last long enough to accomplish anything at all. His mentality shows distinct signs of atherosclerosis, mainly confusion. If you think of how much Russia is spending on this war and wonder how he could have more productively used that money to rehab his industrial "base," you see my point. The "base" is a figment devoted to arms and extraction of raw materials from rapidly warming and soon impossible Siberia. His decision to not invest in diversifying the Russian economy reminds me of the problem Ramada had opening a resort east of Austin, Texas. They could not find enough locally qualified people to run such a place.
Tatiana's grim conclusion is that as Putin and his entourage finally understand that it is all impossible, there's no telling what his state of mind will be and whether the nukes will be ready for a suicidal attack on NATO, including trans-Atlantic NATO. My grim conclusion, hinted by Ms. Stanovaya, is that the west, always troubled by attention span problems, will have tired of and despaired of doing only 80% - 90% of what is actually required and leave President Zelenskiy in the lurch. It will happen slowly and our press will not cover it. There is one cure for this, however.
If Putin gets the Iranians involved, we "understand" the issues better, having mucked about in Tehran for decades, learning almost nothing. We have learned that Iran is a monopole in international affairs with a range of influence over the entire Middle East. Their equipment in Russian hands, deployed over Ukraine will be very close to intolerable. Of course, Putin's wooing of Tehran is a clear step toward that WWIII we have all been wondering about.
Is Putin winning? His military is inept, expensive, poorly led, uncertain in the ranks, and inching today across eastern Ukraine. Yes, at the moment he has time on his side, but the harried US administration may bring some of the skeptical countries into line sufficiently to draw that sanctions noose tight enough to get Putin & Co. ejected from the Kremlin. I could go on, because I am not holding my breath.
see also: Russia & Cnina
23 June 22
We Cannot Let Ukraine Lose
Exactly four months ago sometime today, subtracting time zone hours appropriate to one's place in the world, the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. Of course, eight years earlier they invaded the Donbas and Lukhansk areas and are still pitted against the Ukrainians there, too. Americans, and probably French, Brits, Irish, Danes, Norse, Italians, Spanish, all have lost some of their surprise at Russia's malevolent cheek and have lost some of their interest as the side-effects of massive sanctions against Russia and her petroleum assets are being felt in the world economy. Perversely in the US. gun violence and the slaughter of school children and progress in the search for evidence against former President Trump's attempt to overturn the 2020 election have both diverted attention from Ukraine as well.
We urgently need to pull our attention back to Ukraine, because — well — things are looking sort of dire now. So Peter Zeihan's piece again How Russia Will Die is as good as any other 23 minute piece to jar us back. Early on he says Ukraine is destined to lose, and so my title is obviously in disagreement for the strategic reasons Zeihan enumerates, the first one of which is that we must bleed Russia pale in Ukraine. I decided to link to this video again to give you the benefit of seeing how Zeihan's late March ideas hold up three months later. Although he is not part of the national security establishment (so far as I can tell), he seems to know his stuff. If you prefer something new, try this site run by CNN. Be sure to read about Kaliningrad, which I wrote about four months ago, and which hit the news yesterday when Lithuania decided to halt the resupply of Kaliningrad from Russia through its territory.
Interestly, and somewhat to the side, Julia Ioffe, of Puck news service mentioned yesterday that "many" of those Russians who fled their homeland the first week of the war ... are now returning, presumably because of homesickness and similar reasons common to people who flee in a hurry and without much preparation. Also, perhaps they believe this will be a long war, and possibly that it will end like Peter Zeihan says it must. Also, Russians love Russia at the least as strongly as Texans love Texas.
archived in: Russia & China
5 May 22
What is Wrong With Russia
There is a brilliant review article in the New York Review of Books of May 12, 2022, by Gary Saul Morson, Professor of Arts and Humanities and Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Northwestern University, "What Solzhenitsyn Understood." Writing about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, even with a great deal of experience in the Russian language and Russian literature is a challenging bit of work, since Solzhenitsyn is a complex character who understood himself to not fit into any neat categories, and told us so from Russia and Vermont. In that way I see him as a key to the frustratingly obscure, deceptively not parallel, possibly traumatic, "character of Russians."
Morson chose to end his discussion, which in ways about the historical logic of 1917's February and October revolutions, with this quotation from Solzhenitsyn's novel, March 1917:
What could the daily political fever change for the better in the true life of men? What kind of principles could it offer that would bring us out of our emotional sufferings, our emotional evil? Was the essence of our life really political? ... How could you remake the world if you couldn't figure out your own soul?While that sinks in, notice that Morson ends with questions rather than conclusions. Notice also the striking phrase "our emotional evil."
The reason I am thinking about this review article is because I think it is obviously germane to Russia's war against Ukraine, but also instructive for Americans in this fulcrum year in which I hope they can find their souls and save at least the obvious shambles of their democracy.
Solzhenitsyn is, if either, a Slavophile rather than a Westernizer. He is imbued with the religious umbra of Russian Orthodoxy, which is not to say he, as an author or a teenager, was an acolyte. He is imbued with the peneumbra effect of being a member of Holy Russia's "holy people." Russia of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries was an empire, so having captured non-Slavic peoples and brought them under their governance, not every man and women in the empire was Slavic ... or holy. But, as Putin sees it, if you are Slavic, you might be evil, like any other person, but "glorious" and "holy" and, therefore, "superior" nevertheless. If this sounds "racist," it is. It is the pro- side of racism, the exaltation of "my race" for its deeds and character, its uniqueness, its "destiny." As Morson points out, Leo Tol'stoy's "pacifist nationalism" was along parallel lines, but a bit less consistent than Solzhenitsyn's (..um..) "naive integrity," to recall my stab weeks ago at the principle organizing the Russian-everyman's personality ...and soul. Russians would substitute "pure" maybe "innocent" for "naive," but I think it does not fit well among people who are proud of having forcibly assembled a huge empire ... and done very little positive with it.
I don't want to lose track of the problems that the US faces this year, especially when we can assume that Putin's Russia will continue to spark division among our citizens and play on their "emotional evils." As Lawrence O'Donnell said on Wednesday evening opening his Last Word news and analysis program on MSNBC—not mincing words at all—about the Republican Party's overwhelming desire to run the clock backward to a time when America was run by White Men while all others were relegated to second class compartments on the manifest destiny train to nothing less than "planetary hegemony." Clearly, the Senate and the Electoral College do not represent democracy in the US, and just as clearly, we now know, the Supreme Court is, and has been with only brief interludes with reality, a star-chamber of hermeneuticists, backward looking anti-pragmatists, unconcerned in fact with the tribulations and evils in American reality.
It is no wonder that the Nostradamus-mongers see an inevitable collision between Holy Russia and Exceptionalist America. Both cultures, societies, nations see themselves as inherently, historically, and organically destined to be glorious. Morsun quotes from Solzhenitsyn's August 1914 novel as his character Sasha questions Tol'stoy himself ...
You say ... that evil does not come from an evil nature ... but out of ignorance ... But ... it isn't at all like that, Lev Nikolaevich [Tol'stoy], it just isn't so! Evil refuses to know the truth ... Evil people usually know better than anybody else just what they are doing. And go on doing it.JB
(Russia & China)
Today is May Day
May First used to be International Workers (of the World Unite) Day, celebrated by the Soviet Union and communists of the Second International and others. Very few still do, but as we know Vladimir Putin has a thing about anniversaries and important dates in history. So, it might behoove us to keep a weather eye out and open today in his direction.
I ran across this interesting half-hour summary of the world situation: mainly Russian and Europe, but a little of China. "How Russia Will Die". (Quirky URL for copy & paste, if needed, just below.)
I have never heard of Peter Zeihan, but then again we are a full+ generation apart, so that is why I looked him up. He talks fast and glib, which is common for his generation, but tolerable. I have listed, below, a number of the things I would take up with him over a couple beers. But, overall, I think this is worth a watch by all of my readers.
Still, with its faults, Zeiman has condensed into a short view some of the many aspects of Russian civilization, which as his title suggests, is not healthy, and is certainly unsustainable in the mid-term.
(War & Peace, Russia & China)
25 April 22
The Most Dangerous He's Ever Been
In an entirely different context I read a book review this morning that described the author as a person who was adept at boiling frogs. You know that old saying that, if the heat is brought up slowly, a frog in a pot of water will not leap out, but will boil to death. Being me and having watched Vladimir Putin myself from afar and well past the peak of my career, and now having watched the two videos I am recommending to you today, I think now that Putin is a frog boiler. He is KGB-careful to do things—deadly things—in relatively small steps, relatively quietly, over long periods, with a distant goal always in mind. We are his frogs! Putin's eternal enemy is the US and its allies, but first, centrally, and clearly the United States and its people.
As Mikhail Khodorkovsky says in this short video, the west has been inattentive to the rising heat around us, remarkably unable to respond responsibly to it. Putin does it this way, but he is nearly 70 now will have less time to carry out his mission, but then along comes Trump, Covid, and a welter of smaller events and persons to convince Mr. Putin the time is now right to fulfill his destiny and to sculpt his legacy.
I think it is essential that we begin to understand, Mr. Khodorkovsky that Putin is an absolute dictator and the "oligarchs" (literally "the few") are not government and have almost zero power in government. They are good at making money by managing large swaths of the Russian economy for their own benefit, and Putin allows them to be "his agents" because he needs a functioning economy, at least in certain areas.
The longer video, (which, if you must, you can watch in shorter pieces) is the NPR interview with Julia Ioffe, who is an exceedingly bright, thorough, and convincing expert on Russia. She knows the people in Russia on the ground and knows which to trust to guide her own thoughts about Putin and Russian government.
Julia uses the term siloviki several times. You will probably hear about them more as the west's sanctions on Russia's economy tighten and begin to erode and destroy Russian hopes to be a "force" in the world again. US Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, understands this perfectly well, and gives me heart that our frog will not boil to death this time around.
(Russia & China)
26 March 22
The Pope and The Patriarch
I read several Catholic news media to get a better idea of what Catholics under the unusually Christian teachings and ministry of Pope Francis think about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Boston Pilot, for instance, has taken an unsurprising "accommodationist" approach to the Russian Orthodox Patriarch and his flock, and even to the Russian people, but not the government, they say. The Vatican newspaper says very little about the March 2022 "meeting" between them, and seemed to think that their "understandings" of the 2014 Donbas affair were operable still. Most of what I read were platitudinous signs of failed ecclesiastical diplomacy.
Perhaps I should disclose that my mother was an old world Roman Catholic from an eastern European country. My father was Yankee Methodist. They raised me to be a Protestant Episcopalian, which after Confirmation and in the fullness of time I rejected entirely despite being slightly spiritual in nature. I have studied religions generally and, like Ronald Reagan's perspicuous son, have come up to now not wanting to study any but the Tao and Zen. Like Ron I am not afraid of religious mythology and write what I need to.
As you can see and easily understand from this Reuters piece last week, although Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis discussed the war in Ukraine, they did not get very far. The reason for that is not that Pope Francis was inept; it was that Patriarch Kirill supports the war (!!!) because of "the decadence of the west," presumably in full flower in Kyiv and the whole blooming country of Ukraine. This theme energizes Vlad Putin as well, as it has for generations of Russians since "Westernizers" became a major part of Russian society. So, if you find it at least unusual that a "man of God" would still in the 21st century see WAR as a cure for his moral issues with us, then please understand that Patriarch Kirill is not actually in the 21st century—and is very unlikely to ever be.
When I was in the Soviet Union I managed to see the celebration of an Orthodox rite commemorating I know not what in the Saint Nicholas of the Sea Cathedral in Leningrad. I saw the Metropolitan (the diocesan archbishop of Leningrad Region) surrounded by lesser priests pass through the crowd and disappear behind the iconostasis, that is, the screen that separates the place where the people stand (no pews) from the sanctuary where the rites actually take place. I mention this, especially, to underline the point that in the Orthodox Church there is a detachment in formal services that is not normal in western Christian religions. Remember that the Orthodox Church owned millions of serfs prior to the 1861 Emancipation and during the period afterward (all the way to the Great War) as the serf/peasants paid off their redemption dues. I also visited a large and famous church in Moscow on that trip and observed again the total lack of commoner participation in the proceedings, and also the Red Army people ordered to be there as a semi-quiet disruptive force, which belied the much more important truth that the Orthodox Church in Russia was at least "accommodating" to the Soviet regime, partly because they had no choice, but also because they had something then and now the Kremlin and Lubyanka wanted—the content of interesting confessions.
After very nearly 70 years of Bolshevik and Stalinist rule in Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church is now thoroughly in the manger with the government. Putin is Orthodox in this perverse sense. It is true that the final settlement of the Ukraine War will involve Patriarch Kirill, but not as a facilitator, but as an obstacle. Pope Francis needs to open his eyes, as do the curia surrounding him, and the various centers of western Catholicism, France, Italy, Boston, Baltimore, etc.
The Russian Orthodox Church has yet to have a thorough "reformation." despite the reforms of Patriarch Nikon in 1652 through 1666, in which the liturgy was altered, giving rise to stubborn Orthodox who became known as "Old Believers." Russian Orthodoxy is rigid and at every important juncture in the social and political life of the nation it is for itself as a nexus of power. The babushki don't care; faith is not an intellectual journey among them. I have only a few ideas what will happen when Russia finally has a modern liberal political revolution, but it is quite clear that Kirill and Co. will not be for it. My hope is that the Russian Church survives just long enough to give solace to those who need it, and that it will slowly disintegrate into quiet sects over the course of a century.
(Russia & China, War & Peace)
20 March 22
The End of a Super Power
This 2021 video by Deutsche Welle (DW) is an interesting overview of what Vladimir Putin called "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century." It is a statement easily dismissed in the West under the category of "consider the source." However, if you hear the undertone of this documentary you will hear the reason Putin said that. From my point of view it is extremely important, vital even, that the people of the western-style democracies understand the reality and complexity of the Russian situation. BOTH President George Herbert Walker Bush and President Bill Clinton dropped the ball continuously in a collapse of intelligence and opportunity and responsibility, from which it is going to be very difficult to recover. Hold that thought.
(Russia & China)
20 March 22
This video of an interview by Marc Perelman, host of the news program France 24, is very revealing about Vladimir Putin and may answer questions we have about Putin's motivation and state of mind.
(Russia & China)
10 March 22
Multiple Working Hypotheses
One of the reasons the geologists' method of thinking —as well as the thinking in many other disciplines in the sciences and humanities as well as the law— is not widely taught or known is because the Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses is seen as leading to the overturn of hallowed concepts of civilization. Obviously, MMWH would challenge scriptures of all kinds, and actually did and generated interminable wars in Europe and jihads and might-makes-right hordes. It is true there were matriarchies in history, maybe there are elements of matriarchy in some cultures right now. I would begin with Icelandic culture and examine it very carefully for contradictory signs. But we all know that patriarchy is the rule almost everywhere, which provides us with a classic example of secular "mind control" that results from the Method of Single Working Hypotheses, which is what dictators use to thrive. One of my very oldest and best friends taught MMWH to me as we were both in graduate school fifty year ago. He was taught by his population genetics professor. I was converted and have tried to "live" MMWH ever since.
The linked article does remind us that MMWH is not the whole story of rational, responsible, human cognition. As a practical matter each practitioner will have favorite hypotheses. Gravity is real, whatever it is. The problem is what is it? There are many answers, currently none of them account for everything we associate with gravity. The field of communications practice known as propaganda abhors MMWH, and propagandists have come up with ways to get around the "natural MMWH" that almost everyone has and uses at least part of the time each day and in each epoch of their lives.
Last evening on MSNBC'S news show The Last Word the host of that program demonstrated—angrily, I thought—the very opposite of MMWH, interrupting and lecturing invited guests whose opinions differed substantially from the opinions he and the management of the show believed would "clarify" the very issue of our day:
This is the complex problem facing President Biden of the US and the leaders of all nations. Buried in that question are many hypotheses that must be enuniciated, understood, weighed and arrayed in a way that provides at least the sense that it has been thought through competently. Since everyone's life is at stake, we should be given clear and convincing EVIDENCE that the decision to engage further or not was reached in every dimension of human reality.
It is completely obvious that Russia can obliterate the country of Ukraine. Ukrainians believe that they will fight back to the very end. The end is defined as the termination of ~40 million lives. The US and NATO and EU and the UN and all but half a dozen countries, notably including 2.8 billions in India and China, believe in their guts, hearts, and minds that the "to the end" scenario/hypothesis is unacceptable. Apparently it is acceptable, probably as a "lesser evil," to the Last Word host. We wish him the best of happiness and security in his retirement. His m.o. has crossed the line once again. He had already insulted Julia Ioffe in the same way and now both Lt.Col. Vindman and another person whose expertise and experiences go far beyond his own. Ciao bella, Lawrence!
(Russia & China and Today's Isms)
9 March 22
Last evening on The Last Word Lawrence O'Donnell mentioned, not quite in passing, a statement made by an unidentifed Russian, in some vaguely referenced venue in Russia as saying:
In fact, as reported by The Moscow Times the statement was made on February 28th on state television by their news anchor—Dmitry Kiselyov. It is extremely unlikely that Kiselyov decided to say this by himself or phrase it in just that way. It is directly from Putin his own fiesty self, as I am sure Lawrence understood it to be.
It obviously is more rattling of nuclear sabres. It is a special kind of Russian nihilism, which Putin knows is fairly unfamiliar and jarring in the west and quite the opposite in Russia, but certainly not comforting there or anywhere else on the planet, all of which raises the question of why McDonnell chose to add this statement to the waning moments of his show and why with such deliberate vagueness?
Clearly, to me at least, it is because Lawrence is understandably frightened about Putin actually using nuclear weapons. He hints at it all the time. I am pretty sure the whole world understands the threat Putin poses already. I and many others have questioned the sophistry and dissembling being carried out by NATO regarding getting into so-called "direct" combat with Russia. So far the most faint-hearted voice in NATO is the prominent voice, and so who can gainsay a small country hoping to avoid being nuked into real oblivion by Putin? Most of us are clear about that, especially those who feel like their survival stores are secure and their cellars comfy. Most of us, though, are not equipped to deal with any kind of nuclear holocaust, so Putin has again waxed and put his personal seal to the nuclear blackmail note he publishes every so often.
My criticism of Lawrence is this: if he is going to pass along important bits of Putin propaganda, the importance of it demands that it be inspected by experts on his show, especially the wide-open question of exactly how nihilistic the Russians themselves are. I think we know that Putin is definitel NOT a nihilist. His ego is much too fat for that.
It occurs to me, though, that the invisible Putin avatar out there in the snowstorm is beginning to take shape. Putin may well have been calculating the wisdom of nuking Kyiv all along as part of his fall-back Plan D. He does not know what the NATO or the separate US response might be to that level of brute force. To me that is the main question: what would the west, the EU, NATO, or any part of those do if Kyiv were nuked? It is hard to discuss such a thing, much less in public, without giving the enemy an advantage we do not want them to have. Which takes us right back to the shrewdly nihilistic statement that begs everyone to understand that if Russia is destroyed her submarines will attempt to destroy the rest of the world more or less automatically. I think, nevertheless, that someone other than President Biden must say something tantalizing about using nukes on Ukraine.
(Russia & China and War & Peace)
7 March 22
Thomas Friedman's Take
Thomas Friedman is a long-time opinion columnist at the New York Times. I read him regularly, not exclusively, of course, but he is a wise writer. This, his latest piece,
is fairly long, so I will not be. Suffice it to say that weaving Xi's China into the stew we are ALL in is brilliant, if "slightly" incomplete.
There is always the possibility that Vladimir Putin, even a completely "sane in the Russian tradition" Putin might finally decide he does not want any of us to live in a world where Russia is a naked bear in a white birch forest bordering a mosquito invested bog, a country with little to say about the future, its major contributions to culture all in the past. Friedman sees and states this contingency. So have I. I truly think, if Putin pushes his krasnaya knopka , it will not launch doomsday. The enablers around him want to live and want Russia to live, even if he does not.
What worries me more today is whether the West has reasonable "war aims." Too often even unconditonal surrender has loopholes and deliberate concessions. Russia needs a thorough fixing, and Vladimir Putin needs to be detained indefinitely.
(Russia & China)
5 March 22
What If You're Wrong!
Apparently there are more of us calling for a military intervention in Putin's War in Ukraine than Lawrence O'Donnell can stand. He spent another fifteen expensive minutes man-splaining the 20th century doctrine of mutual assured destruction to his audience. There are several things that must be said at a meta-level about this.
First, there are some things that I, in my redoubt, can say that a national/international news host cannot. His words are filtered through his understanding of what MSNBC regards as free-speech and what both he and his bosses believe is in the national interests, or to put it more baldly, what is not in the national interest. I think Mr. O'Donnell might understand that I am constrained—in the same way—but less contrained, because I am less "official" than he.
Second, argumentum ad hominem, even skillfully done is a multi-edged device. The latest slur against an argument you do not like is calling it "magical thinking." This came up in his diatribe about shooting down Russian aircraft over Ukraine or destroying Russian SAM sites in Belarus or Ukraine, or decimating stalled convoys on the road to Kyiv. I chose to think of my message as addressed to Americans and other thinking westerners, and to Russians in the streets and even those in the Kremlin, who could see the implied concepts and fill in the blanks for themselves. It is always a good idea to stimulate thinking toward obvious conclusions, and much better than laying down the law to one's audience.
Third, Mr. O'Donnell and the talking head he brought into the show completely ignore the fact that as (a leading) member of NATO we have already accepted, in a principle more compelling even than the 20th c. doctrine of mutually assured destruction, that we will be obliged (legally and morally bound) to shoot at Russians if any one of the 30 active members of NATO is attacked. Why did Mr. O'Donnell leave this part out? In my essay I put that in bold face type so my readers would not miss it. I also underlined it today, so he has no excuse, not even that it scares the hell out of him.
Here is the document. The North Atlantic Treaty. You have it now to read. It is one of those ideas that really have more substance than the words that were hashed out and put on paper. Moreover, news show hosts (actors in SAG-AFTRA) do not have the expertise to discuss it, and their guests are likely to say something the host or we do not want them to say. Collective security is the binding principle, AND it relies on an even more central concept, that is, that all of the signatories regardless of population, territorial size, or current politics are equal under the principles stated within the treaty.
It is clear that since the days of Stalin and Brezhnev and on into the era of Putin the western democracies have allowed themselves to be blackmailed by and held hostage to the threat of utter nuclear destruction at the hand of Russian armed forces. Russia likes to rattle its nukes as it does something outrageous against people about whom it cares little: kulak Ukrainians, bread-basket Ukrainians, Finns, Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Moldovan-Bessarabians, Lithuanians, Tajiks, Kyrgiz, Afghans, Kazakhs, Georgians, Syrians, Georgians, Chechens, Ingush, Chechens, Abkazians, Nagorno-Karabaks, Donbass Ukrainians, and Crimean Ukrainians, Kazakhs, and now again all Ukrainians. This is international bullying and must be treated the way one deals with bullies anywhere. You call their bluff, and if necessary, you beat the shit out of them. In the case of nuclear bullying, you proceed, you move forward carefully, step by step, calling them out, calling their bluff, backing them down, until they lay down their arms and surrender. It takes courage, intelligence, but mostly continuous diligent attention to minute details.
So, what if you're wrong? Well, Rope-a-Dope obviously does not work! If it did we would not be where we are right now.
(Russia & China)
4 March 22
Lawrence O'Donnell, whose careers have given him extraordinary access to the machinery of government and culture, whose lifespan begins nearly twelve years after mine was already underway, whose education at Harvard included writing for the Harvard Lampoon, whose later writing included working with Aaron Sorkin, the cast, and crew of The West Wing, that widely acclaimed television series, lit up the dark sky last night with this monologue on
I watch Lawrence's show almost every weekday night because it is a bracing and savvy analysis of the news important to me and millions of others whose focus is on the direction our American government is taking with respect to internal and international issues. As you have just seen and heard, Lawrence is not above taking deft liberties with rhetoric and he has, in my experience, been a master of omission. He frequently appeals to common sense feelings about whatever he is talking about, as if these examples were objective fact, which of course they are not. I usually forgive him his pulpit and orator skills.
The Thursday monologue concluded with a brief discussion about the insanity of nuclear war and general agreement among the three men that Ukraine cannot have NATO airpower in its skies to stop and repel the brutal attack of Russia, because that would lead to WWIII—no explanation of why, except the notion that Putin is raving mad. (His former Ministor of Foreign Affairs, Lavrov's predecessor, asserted Putin is not "medically insane.") And yet, the final statement by one of the discussants, (and I apologize for not catching his name) was what happens next, if Putin shoots across the red lines on the map at a NATO country.
At that moment the entire edifice of Cold War Calculus dissolved before our eyes and echos in the rubble across the country of Ukraine. The man said, "... well in that case, we have to take the risk." Article Five of the NATO pact, as everyone knows, describes the obligation of all members of NATO to come to the aid of any single or plural member(s) attacked. Three of the thirty members of NATO have nuclear weapons. Let this quietly sink in a moment.
Yes, we have already resolved in writing to take the nuclear risk of fighting Russia. Is it, though, that we will only honor our treaty commitments, and put on blinders to the rest, regardless of the existential horrors being perpetrated on the Ukrainian people and the very margins and paragraphs of our hallowed documents and principles. So what is it that constitutes our "principles?" The sanctity of life, is one. The courage only of paper convictions? The famine of compassion? The paucity of resolve? The comfort of subterfuge!
The population of Lithuania in 2020 was 2.74 million persons, Latvia was 1.9 million, and Estonia 1.37 million. Ukraine's population is 44 million. The sanctity of life is not measured in population statistics, you say? The NATO calculus is that they will RISK a shooting war with Russia for violating the sovereign integrity of the Baltic countries the total population of which is about 6 million, but not for Ukraine which is listed as an "aspiring" NATO nation with over SEVEN times more people. That is not right.
The logic is, as I wrote in the previous essay, "reckless caution." It is reckless mainly because it ignores the nature of the event, the bullying of a smaller, weaker nation. Bullies depend on people and countries shrinking from their principles, parcing documents to find cover, insulting the intelligence of their citizens. Lawrence grew up in Boston and works in New York City, while I grew up somewhat less than three crow miles from the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. He spoke to us about duck-and-cover drills in school. I am, in some measure what I am because of exactly that utterly implausible response by the Arlington County School Board to the doctrine of "mutually assured destruction." I am a combat veteran of the Vietnam War. My doctorate is in modern Russian and Soviet History. I have faced, as millions of service men and women have, death in war. You get to a point like that made in the last episode of The Good Place that you have found in your resolve a peace of mind, and so I am giving you, again, the best sense of this I have.
We must declare a no-fly zone over Ukraine and two days later arm it with multinational DEFENSIVE air cover, and then DO IT. To do less is to hand Vladimir Putin cover for outrageous ruthless murder of any people he chooses. Putin does not believe we will. He thinks we will hide in our treaties. He will rattle sabers, but is very unlikely to use nukes, because he knows in his marrow, if he does, he will wake up the next day dead and Russia destroyed across eleven time zones, that in the end—however badly we are damaged—the west will prevail and will govern Russia—with compassion— until the last of his kind are exterminated.JB
(Russia & China)
3 March 22
Katrina / "Kate"
I was hoping that Nicolle Wallace would post the remarkable interview with Katrina done by NBC correspondent Cal Perry on March 2 from Lviv. Kate had spent the last five years in Seattle, so she was fully able to express her sorrows and fears in English. She was in Lviv running from the horror in Kharkiv, where her boyfriend had just been killed in the bombing. She was pretty sure she has PTSD already. She is definitely shell-shocked. She cried at the end of the interview and gave us all good advice: cherish life and the sky. I hope with all my own strength she survives ...!
That interview and a million other things about the reportage done by the western press—and huge kudos to MSNBC, especially Nicolle—make this very much a different sort of war. It feels so immediate and horrible, and most of us are brought to feel immense empathy and pride in the Ukrainians. Perhaps my parents thought the war correspondents of WWII and the newsreels in theaters made that horrible time new and different as well, but now we have in our living rooms bleeding and suffering people just like ourselves and the rubble of their homes and cities and amazing analyses by the likes of former Ambassador Michael McFaul and Dr. Evelyn Farkas, Dep. Asst. Secretary of Defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia.
All of this, the human misery being ladled out every hour, the prospect of this genocide, the determined symbolic destruction of the international world order and Putin's contempt of the ideal of democracy for all people, leads me to the inescapable conclusion that we, NATO nations, are not doing enough! Not nearly enough, not even if and when we pay $10/gal. for gas. See how trivial this level of armchair engagement quickly appears! We in NATO must do more, risk more, push back, rather than just waiting them out. History will find us wanting, undeserving of any praise for reckless caution. There come times when the larger picture is the point of it all. Putin's War is not a side-show skermish. It is the provocation of our times. We must end this war swiftly and Putin as well. As Igor Novikov says on his sweatshirt: "OCCUPY MARS"! Humanity has a destiny to fulfill!
America, the world's most powerful super-power, is now leading by example and de facto wealth and strength. But please remember that the United States would have evolved to be a British Commonwealth nation or less were it not for the actual hands-on assistance given to us by the French during our Revolutionary War. The last and decisive battle, at Yorktown, would have gone to the Red Coats had not the French fleet blockaded resupply of British troops. Ten years later, France was the most powerful country in Europe. So big countries do not have to bluff. They can dive in. But, yes, of course, George III did not have nukes. George was also demented, unlike Putin who is merely a narcissistic sociopath.
I am miserable sitting in my living room watching and listening to the fearful say we cannot help Ukraine on the ground or in the air because it will lead to WWIII. It could, but I doubt it. I think we should simply state now, in advance, that we—NATO—now believe (as LtCol Vindman said on the news Wednesday) that the only war aim left to Putin at this point is to flatten cities, murder Ukrainians (and Russians), then declare a fait accompli victory and return home. I am sure this was Putin's Plan D: of ruining Ukraine and setting it back a generation, leaving a smoldering mess where once was the faltering light of a democracy embarrassing to Putin, then a light shining steady, even now glowing more brightly in the embers.
Accordingly, then we also declare that we, NATO, will immediately provide "defensive" air power to Ukaine, to suppress the Russian army goal of trashing Ukraine. Putin will then say that is the red line we should not cross. Remember, it was HE who crossed the red line, and we should make sure Putin understands that the whole world knows it. Trapped, hoist by his own petard, he will threaten the weakest of the Baltics, probably Latvia, maybe Estonia, but Lithuania would be his first choice, since Lithuania was the very first captive nation to secede from the USSR. He might choose Moldova as a place few understand or have ever heard of before last week. He could nuke some meadow not too near Kishinev (Chisinau) and make his point. Nukes are nukes, though, so NATO's response will be strong, but maybe not nuclear. Red Square would be an appropriate place for a non-ballistic "cruise" missile demonstration.
An important fact is that Russia's armed forces are not acquitting themselves very well during this first week. His generals know in their marrow that there will be come-uppances for this, enough to make them think outside the box—vne korobki. His technology is up to high standards, but Putin has to be wondering about the men and women in his army and navy, specifically if he could hit the cities and military bases he believes are in his nuclear cross-hairs. If pushed to the edge without an off-ramp, he might demonstrate his resolve in a launch against Warsaw or Vilnius, but not so fast against Berlin, Paris, London, Washington or New York. He knows that the US by itself alone has an overwhelming retaliatory strike (second strike) capability that would end the existence of the Russian nation. I doubt he would test the theory he had on February 1st that the US is a disorganized mess, riven by Trumpists. He just does not understand democracy at all. We always argue. And we do eventually prosecute crooked ex-Presidents.
None of us want to sacrifice one or more US or Canadian or European cities to Putin's obsessions, but I am pretty sure (based on the outcome of previous mistaken-analysis events) his security forces will not launch a nuclear war. Our ABM capability might destroy 85% of all incoming, but we stand to lose one or more of our top ten cities. But listen, he stands to lose everything, all of them, none spared, gone! He is not stupid, and his former Foreign Minister said tonight on the news that he is not actually "medically insane."
If it comes to war, our war aims with Russia are complete dismemberment of the country. President Xi Jin-ping in Beijing would be very interested in what this would mean in detail on the ground. Then, finally, we will begin massive conversion of each of the economies to consumer orientation, no military at all. Think post-WWII Japan. So Putin will know this and will have to factor in everything that means if NATO covers Ukraine with planes and helicopters. He will have the option of war with NATO, war will mean carving up the Russian colossus into manageable pieces, if not also nuclear destruction.
The west has ample expertise to run all of Russia right now.
(Russia & China)
1 March 22
Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelenskyy
Igor Novikov, former advisor to Ukrainian President Zelenskyy spoke with Nicolle Wallace yesterday on Deadline Whitehouse about how things were going in Kyiv and in the country generally. We have all had numerous conversations in our families and among friends and associates about what will be the fate of Ukraine and ... of Russia itself. The feeling of admiration for Ukraine is almost universal, with exceptions from the far, far right and Trump. For me admiration is chastened by my knowledge of what could be that fate, and mixed with that is my hope that this war—Putin's War—will double back on itself and overturn Putin, his oligarchs, the generals, the entire Russian dictatorship.
Igor says some things that Americans and western Europeans need to hear about, the fighting, the destruction, the death of sisters and brothers-in-law, of babies born in subways, and of Ukraine's standing alone, at the last "bare-handed" against brutality and uncivilized people like Putin. Listen to Igor carefully when he describes Zelenskyy and his chief of staff as PEOPLE not politicians. He says something very, very poignantly true. Watch and listen to the end of the piece for the sense of humor that Igor Novikov musters amid the uncertainties of war. This is priceless!!!
(Russia & China)
25 February 22
In the Netflix mini-series "Inventing Anna" Julia Garner plays Anna Sorokin, who in reality and in the mini-series was a Russian emigre to Germany with her parents and then by herself to New York City. In Manhattan she took the name Anna Delvey and posed as a trust-fund brat with big business ideas. Her passport said Anna Sorokin which girded the trust-fund story. In other words, the mini-series is based on the real life and crimes of Anna Sorokin/Delvey with the main names not changed, which is a little unusual, to be sure, but which contributes to the gigantic con the 25 year old woman pulled, or nearly pulled, or never came close to pulling off—depending on how well you understood the story and whether you were personally (in reality or as mini-series audience) involved or not.
One of the things that gave some hidden authenicity to the whole story and setting is the vague references to Russia and to the idea of a con being hatched by the off-spring of what might have been a defecting Russian oligarch. The term "defecting" is politely inaccurate. The one case I sort of understand was told to me by someone who knew of an oligarch who was given the opportunity to give up his operation and escape Russia with what money had been acquired so far (and already banked abroad) after seriously bungling a relationship with one or more senior oligarchs. That story, too, has several fungible chapters.
In New York City reality some very successful people in finance and fashion and hospitality and real estate were coaxed into believing the Anna Delvey con, revealing the shallows of business ethos in the Big Apple. This made for good emplotment in the mini-series, of course.
Oligarchs in Russia in post 1991 Russia acquired the property of the former Soviet Union by conniving with friends and interim government officials and functionaries, because they were smart enough to see that with a certain large amount of chutzpah they could gain control of whole factories, then whole industries, simply by being smart and courageous thieves. Think of drug dealer mob bosses taking over disoriented and weaker mobs almost by sheer bravado, and perhaps killing off one or two impediments to make a point.
When Vladimir Putin found that his employment in the KGB was gone—because the KGB was gone and western eyes were all over the agencies archives—he retreated to his home town, Saint Petersburg. He quickly heard and saw what was going on and realized that with proper courage and audacity and connections to the interim de facto and then the de jure government of Boris Yelstin he could get himself into the game. He maneuvered into a position to "certify" the accomplishments of the thieves and in so doing and by playing one off against another or underlings off against the boss hold them all hostage and let them make themselves fabulously rich. His powers of persuasion and extortion and occasional lessons in KGB literal sang froid discipline proved invaluable. Many of us believe that Putin was very much motivated by anguished disgust at the collapse of the Soviet Union, and that he vowed to himself to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
When news people and analysts on television use the term "kleptocracy" when speaking about today's Russia, they do really mean that the whole governing structure is based on continuous theft of the country's profit margins, continuously exacting pounds of flesh across the whole economy—a bit like the tribute paid to the Mongol Khanates or the Redemption Dues paid by the commoners after the emancipation. The Russian government is literally a den of thieves, with window dressings like the State Duma ("parliament"). It is literally, a coalition of mobsters who have expropriated to themselves the true property of the Soviet people, now Russian citizens.
If you watched American television news this week you may have seen the Duma endorsing President Putin's use of the Russian military next door in Ukraine—obviously a formality. You also might have seen Putin's real "government" of oligarchs assembled to be informed about how well the revanche of Ukraine was going.
In the first 36-48 hours it has not been going as first imagined, although Vlad Putin of course would not say so. The Russian population came out into the streets in very strong numbers in Saint Petersburg and Moscow—all very much in the face of harsh warnings against any public demonstrations—and that alone was one of the reasons for hauling the somewhat skeptical-looking oligarchs together. Keep an eye on this feature of Putin's war.
Other evidence is that the Russian Army push toward Kiev (once again KEE-iv, kee-EV in Russian) seems to have changed gears and is moving more slowly, which suggests (among us optimists) that Putin is reaching for somewhat lesser objectives than he first imagined would be his for the taking.
Regime change is the goal. Putin thinks he will replace Ukraine President Zelensky's government with one he can control in minute detail. There is a possibility that western sanctions will pinch enough that the oligarchs will come to the conclusion that Vlad has gone over the edge (as his speeches this week clearly demonstrate) and they will put him where Anna ended up, in prison. Personally, I think it is time for Gospodin Putin to briefly experience myocardial infarction. One shoud never trust stress. Regime change!
(Russia & China)
20 FEB 22
The Russian Mind
I have already mentioned, in passing, the discourse between people in 19th c. Russia who became known as Slavophiles and the less friendly discourse with people who were during the same period known as Westernizers. The germs and sparks of these "schools" of thought did not arise suddenly in the early half of the 19th c., but had long histories going back to the ancient days when people of Muscovy and before that the Kievan state became self-consciously aware of themselves as a group among many groups creating their own civilizations. This knowledge was not at the level of epiphany, but rather of slow prudent caution.
So, at the time of Grand Prince Ivan III, "The Great," (reigned from 1462 to 1505) who got credit in his own time for throwing off the Tatar Yoke (of nearly two and a half centuries—1240-1480), the nascent feudal system helped to raise local armies that would coalesce sufficiently to drive the Khanate of the Golden Horde's successors—the Khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan—out of Muscovy and its allied princedoms. Thanks to the uniting effect of the anti-Mongol sentiment and ultimately throwing off the Yoke, Muscovites, Suzdalians, people of Tver, Kostroma, and a dozen more princedoms came to think of themselves as "Russians" and to create a unique feudalism that idealized the peasant commune or mir (which, interestingly, meant "world" to peasants and which is that "world" in the given name Vladimir ("Lord of the World"). So, by the middle of the 19th c. that peasant commune feudalism that provided regressive organization to society would encompass a vast majority of Russian human beings.
Emancipation of the serfs and the abolition of feudalism by the Tsar Emperor Alexander II, in 1861, on paper freed eighty percent of the population of Russia. You history buffs will remember that western Europe had been throwing off feudalism for a hundred years as an organizing principle of civilization, the French Revolution of 1789-1799, give or take, doing so the hard and bloody way, the growing bourgeoisie (commercial, urban middle-class) being strongly in favor of any modernization that would net them political power. This perspective should help to understand that Russia was far behind the west already in modernizing, not to mention that Russia missed the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Counter Reformation, and very few Russians experienced the Enlightenment. It might help, too, to understand that about a quarter of all Russian serfs at the time of emancipation were owned by the Russian Orthodox Church—the edifice long understood in Russia as Moscow--The Third Rome.
Accordingly, Russian feudalism is the de facto ambiance of Slavophile civilization. Slavophile voices were not entirely against modernization, but they were very much inured to feudalism. As the industrial revolution became "a thing" in the west, and a few huge factories were built in Russia, they were operated by industrial serfs! So, despite the horrible social structure, Slavophiles thought the west with its corrupt Roman Catholicism and its chaos of Protestant sects and religions and its profane literature and cynical statecraft, and its dramatically burgeoning secularism was outright Evil. They abhorred the idea of modeling Russia in any way on the western European countries and ideologies.
Although the Slavophiles were gone (or doomed) by the Emancipation, do not ignore how strong were the sinews of the ancien regime and, even now, how persistent the echos of their concept of civilization have been. Not only was the climate perverse and extreme, so was the condition of society, running from Faberge eggs to cycles of widespread famine. Vladimir Putin is heir to these echos, his security chiefs are its acolytes, and the people of Russia are still so unsure of what in the west is seen as their inherent Liberty to rule themselves. Russia is modernizing along western lines, but also with important Slavophile mores, and without Liberty as the animating feature. In January of 1991, before the December dissolution of the USSR, I spoke with Russians in their churches and homes, and there was fear in them, as if some basic floor which kept their heads above water was dissolving beneath them. Thirty years later, of course, they have seen much and done their best to survive in a dog-eat-dog world of private personal responsibility for their own livelihoods. Given all this, what are some pivotal features of the Russian mind?
Whatever they are they are not universal, but salient enough to be notable. For instance, sons in families are treated very adoringly. To put it bluntly, many are spoiled. Most find a way to live, but it is not what they were led to expect. The spoils of childhood are unavailable, so I think this leads directly to Russia's huge alcoholism problem. This continues to feed the insecurity of responsibility for their own livelihoods. I can almost hear the denial in the old peasant mantra: "We are theirs, but the land is ours."
Russia is a very, very patriarchal society. The Head of the Russian Orthodox Church is the Patriarch, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Rus. This does not stand out in Russia as a emblem of how to organize a religion; it is merely understood as the norm for all of society.
Pussy Riot is an emblem of the west, adored and slightly feared, but understood as an important and necessary step toward the west, to disavow if necessary, but a way to learn about Liberty. Stalin knew that western popular enthusiasms like rock & roll, erotica, jazz, would easily "rot" the souls of Russians who are unprepared for all of the responsibilities of Liberty. To call this feature of the Russian mind "innocence" is wrong, but "inexperience" does not get closer to it either. Putin and the historical legion of leaders preceding him have counted on the general populace to have this sort of semi-naive dignity.
Finally, I think it is important to say that the Russians (I know and have met) are a people who extend honor to a person automatically. They respect one's humanity, and of course, they look closely to see how you have managed that humanity, including how honest you are, for they know all too well how bad things can get and how deformed a person's outlook can be. I think the according of honor and dignity is a deficit in the west, something that often gets erased by the travails of early experience and learning how to deal with Liberty.
(Russia and China)
18 FEB 22
Russia: What It Is
Russia with a population almost exactly one hundred million souls more than California had a GNP ($1.527 trillion) just a little more than half that of California ($2.447 trillion) three years ago, before the world-wide pandemic. Russia has eleven time zones, California one. Russia is over forty times larger than California. Russia is the largest sovereign country in the world. The California Republic gave up its sovereignty to be part of the United States in 1849. These unfair comparisons are not really meant to embarrass Russia, but they still do. I am pretty sure that Russians today in Moscow and Saint Petersburg are slightly amazed and disbelieving that such a place as California exists in reality. They do remember the Watts riots and that Reagan was Governor once.
A significant part of Russia is above the Arctic Circle, Arctic Russia has a very long coast on the various named seas of the Arctic Ocean. The route over the top of Russia is completely open roughly 30-45 days per year, with specialized vessels. Global warming should open that up more, but who knows really? Much of the arctic mainland region is tundra, basically treeless, frozen, inhospitable.
Below Arctic northern coast of Russia is the "taiga" the boreal (northern) forest. The permafrost under the taiga is perhaps the greatest of all threats to the world from Russia because permafrost when it melts during Global Climate Change will release millenniums-worth, huge, amounts of methane, a superstar greenhouse gas.
Russia is the third largest producer of petroleum and natural gas after Saudia Arabia and the United States. Russian petroleum and natural gas comes mostly from West Siberia, the lands southeast of the Ural Mountains centered roughly on the city of Tyumen (pop. 650,000).
The Extreme North of Russia
The dark blue arctic and sub-arctic area is populated by native tribes like the Yakuts near Lake Baikal. It is swampy when not frozen solid, home to football-sized mosquitos. It is thinly developed by ethnic Russians. In the east there are notable stations of the gulag archipelago. But most of them are in the lighter blue area, which does contain some Russian industry, and both forest products and extraction industries. The salmon colored area is the economic zone of the Russian state where most of the population lives and works at what they do to be half the economic size of California. Most of Russian agriculture is in the western half of this sector.
So that leads us to the big question: besides the trans-Siberian railroad and military stuff what other than natural gas and petroleum and lumber and matrioshka dolls does Russia produce? Well to drop the glib for a moment, they have major heavy manufacturing centers producing airplanes, civil and military, tanks, for holding liquids and for shooting at enemies, space rockets, and at least one modernizing "city".
Thirty years after the demise of the Soviet Union the Russians are still trying (half-heartedly) to create a true market economy. Officially it is a hybrid command/demand economy, with command running 85% of the value and investing very little in the demand part for citizens. The economy is exceptionally difficult given the endemic corruption of government that permeates everything. Russians buy food grown in Russia and Scandinavia and central Europe. They buy clothing made in China, Europe, North America, and Russia. Their automobiles are more easily repaired than European, Japanese, Korean cars. Status cars are German, except for big limousines for high government officials in Moscow, which are Russian, $300k by NAMI, Central Scientific Research Automobile and Automotive Engines Institute, so not exactly private enterprise.
The prospects for the rest of this century, in which most of the important industrial countries will be converting to non-petroleum, non-natural gas for their energy needs ... are obvious. The demand for their main product will slowly and then rapidly dwindle, and the period in which they should be taking the profits and financing a consumer goods economy with regular repurchase cycle characteristics is now. Instead, Putin is threatening a war in Ukraine, which if he survives it economically will be replayed in Moldova, Romania, Poland, and the Baltic countries, and none of this will solve the economic stagnation created by Putin's dictatorial disposition of national resources. It must be that Putin believes he can canibalize the free-market consumer economies of his intended satellites. Russia is screwed, again, and most Russians know it, but are politically helpless against the KGB-trained Putin and his "oligarchs."
Russians are like us, though. They are a handsome people, mostly well-educated given individual differences like every other place in the world, proud of being the biggest country in the world, proud of their cosmonauts and space technology, proud of their survival and defeat of terrible enemies, especial the Germans. The population is not only declining, but like Japan, the age distribution is working against maintaining the modest gains they have made in these thirty year past the Soviet period. I agree with former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul when he says he loves Russia. At its best it is very lovely, historic, grand, a relief for those who would otherwise equate Russia with Enemy. But, there are social problems: alcoholism, drugs, little and medium-sized mafias, and very little energy for the kind of eternal vigilance necessary to keep a nation free of autocrats of any stripe.
In 1991 and for a few years after the fall, western industrialists and finance people thought to help Boris Yeltsin begin the conversion of the national central command economy, but they all met with stubborn prideful and corrupt resistance. President Clinton did very little to help, being involved in his own corruption. It is a damned shame!
(Russia and China)
9 FEB 22
An Inconvenient Leader
Ukraine is a riddle swaddled in banana peels. It is a big country, 233,031 sqmi.—smaller than Texas, 268,597 sqmi., but larger than France (210,016) but two thirds the French population 67.39m to Ukraine's 44.13m. Ukraine reminds me of places where politicians are plentiful, but hemmed in by their corruption and the corruption of others, squeezed to the surface by chance accidents of history and ego. I have a lost friend in Lviv way to the west, virtually Poland. Ukrainians are good people in the same way that Icelandic people are, bordering on unique, but not really.
The Carnegie Moscow Center is an organization that analyzes Russia and the general area. I read some of their analyses and respect the general tone of their remarks. They might be labeled Eisenhower Republicans in their world outlook, which of course is not bad at all in 2022. I have excerpted the paragraph, below, to kick off today's essay.
Moscow, meanwhile, would like to see an end to Ukraine’s protracted drift toward the West and the advent of an if not openly pro-Russian leader, à la Medvedchuk or Boyko, then at least a moderate politician, à la Razumkov. Then the Kremlin would spare no expense to buy their loyalty.
(Russian & China)
As Donald J. Trump and Co. continue to vocally out themselves as conspirators to overthrow the 2020 election, they continue filling the brains of their restive and White grievance-trance base with chaotic nonsense, "the better to confuse you with, my dear." The very same thing happens in Mother Russia only in slightly different alleyways and inner-sancta within the Kremlin, Lubyanka, and other pastel agency offices. There are tipping points, however, for nearly everything that grows and seems to thrive.
The Soviet Union dissolved formally on December 26, 1991, so just over thirty years ago (already!). It existed for just under seventy years. So, by that metric thirty years after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was 1947, the aftermath of WWII in which Russians were in the process of erecting a replacement for the post-WWI cordon sanitaire, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau's arrogant brain-child to protect western Europe from Bolshevism, this time also on its western flank but instead to protect Russia from the manifestly corrupt and decadent and NATO-infested West.
It should not surprise you to learn that Slavophile Russians consider Russia to be a separate civilization apart and distinct from metropolitan Europe and certainly the British Empire, (such as it is these days), as well as the North American Colossus. The Russian Orthodox Church referred to its territory as Holy Russia. That may have been going a bit too far1, but the valence it created (and still to some extent creates) sets up a mood and paranoia that is unmistakable.
There are Westernizer Russians too, of course, and their evolution is obviously more robust and a thorn in Slavophiles' sides. The debate between Slavophiles and Westernizers goes back to the 1500's when Russia was trying to come to grips with the awful distortion of their historical evolution that was caused by the Tatar Yoke imposed by the Mongols for two and half centuries. It is part shame and paranoia on the Slavophile side and part envy and modern progressivism on the Westernizer side.
So, that is background for the enigmatic mind of Vladimir Putin, Lieutenant Colonel KGB for sixteen years, ending in Dresden. He "resigned" from KGB as it was "disestablished" (and many of its files rifled through by western intelligence agents), and went into politics in his home town of Leningrad, which became Saint Petersburg just about at the same time. So from 1991 to 1996 he was there, getting the drift of things and skills and two legs up from Mayor Anatoly Sobchak2, but moved to Moscow to become an administrator for President Boris Yeltsin. After a brief tour as director of the FSB (which replaced the KGB) he became Prime Minister in 1999, then acting President at the very beginning of 2000 when Yeltsin resigned, then elected to the Presidency, re-elected in 2004. He had consolidated his position so that when he was denied re-re-election he went back to being Prime Minister in 2008-2012, became President again in 2012 and re-elected in 2018. He amended the constitution this time so he could possibly be President until 2036. It is a remarkable ascent to power and must have occurred under circumstances available to high ranking employees of KGB/FSB. Russia's standard of living and image, self- and international-, improved remarkably. Russia became a petro-state during these years as Putin's friends, cronies, and ultimately oligarchs cleared away the impedements to a natural gas national cartel, the product of which was sold to customers that became opportunity-cost hostage-subscribers like Germany and other parts of the middle and eastern Europe.
All of which brings us to the second phase of the Russian attempt at re-acquisition of the ethnicities and nations once a constituent part of the Soviet Union and, in particular, Putin's option to start WWIII over Ukraine, certainly the most Russian-like part of the Soviet Empire. We have seen that Vlad Putin is horrified by the notion that Ukraine might petition for membership in NATO at some point. But, for him, personally, it is an affront to the memory of the Soviet Union and before it the Russian Empire. For his closest advisors the horror seems to be less nostalgia and more QAnon.
The NYTimes reports startling news about what some of them believe about the West. This the very same sort of thing that the radical right in the US is using to disorient and confuse "the base" about reality. It means in Russia exactly this: paranoia and unstable minds in charge of nuclear weapons!
The question is, of course, how much of those bizarre ideas of supposed western depravity are getting through to Putin and wearing away on his mind, his remorseless logic and his love of country? Will he sacrifice tens of thousands of Russians in a limited war in Ukraine and untold millions if control slips out of his hands and WWIII begins. Does he know neither he nor Russia will survive it?
Another article in the NYTimes, searching for reasoning behind Putin's dangerous dance on the border of Ukraine, focuses more tightly on the historical "injustice" perpetrated on Mother Russia by malign forces. I am sure Putin chuckles at the British Commonwealth in its present state of shedding royalty here and there. Empires come and go. The Dutch East Indies Company was once the richest, most powerful, secular, human organization ever imagined and carried out. The British East India Company became the British Empire for a couple hundred years!
In other words, though, Putin's grievance over the facts of modern history—his bent nose—may be the lesser worry than his bent ear. Absurdist, QAnon-style fabulism is more than slightly addictive and being rules- and logic-free it is usually fairly agile over time. Putin could well become an addict of his close security advisors' nonsense propaganda without even knowing it. That would be trouble for the world.
It occurred to me that if Putin under pressure from the security chiefs sees no way out of the Ukraine adventure, but it fails in any of the many possible ways, invasion or not, that an alert and powerful and clear-eyed Putin might be able in the aftermath to unseat the three security chiefs whispering bad things in his ear about the West. So there is a silver lining for those of you used to finding one. Personally, I only hope that someone in command of his or her senses tells Putin he's being manipulated into a disaster before there is war.
1 The Russian Orthodox Church owned about half of the 24 million serfs emancipated by Tsar Alexander II in 1861, some thousands of whom were unable to pay off their redemption dues even as WWI began in 1914. The population of Russia in 1861 was 67 million, but by 1900 still 85% were extremely poor peasants.
2 We stayed for a week with Sobchak's retired personal secretary and her husband in December 1990. She told us nothing, of course! Well, except indirectly that the Soviet Union was teetering on the edge of the abyss.
(Russia and China)
Slouching Toward Kyiv
I love Fiona Hill, the ex-Brit who is the smartest Russian expert in almost any room. She has a guest essay in the NYTimes today: "Putin Has the U.S. Right Where He Wants It". I would not call this essay "negotiating with ourselves" in the terms used by former Ambassador to Russia Dr.Michael McFaul a few days ago (and which I quoted in the essay just before this one). I think Fiona Hill has not said everything she knows and thinks about this. I think that "where he wants us" is very possibly a Putin misunderstanding and miscalculation. Nevertheless, he intends to get as much out of this exact situation as he possibly can with the least amount of damage to himself ... and Russia maybe.
I am not discounting the allusions Hill makes to our profound national and international weaknesses. I think the sum of them is daunting, indeed! But, on the other hand, Putin has been dreaming and obsessng about this for decades. What I am saying is that Putin is cunning and patient, but he is also not a genius, nor is he infallible or omniscient or bullet-proof. One part of him knows this situation he has engineered could easily blow up in his face, or it could actually and easily turn into WWIII, and Russia would for all of his intents and purposes cease to exist. He might have the satisfaction of seeing the US decimated (losing 10% of itself), and President Xi wouldn't be averse to that, but for the fallout over Beijing and a probable warning shot across his bow.
NATO to Putin is a mousetrap, which, if he puts his nose where it does not belong, could slam down on him and break his neck. So the operative idea is "where it does not belong," and, that is the essence of the debate. Clearly Putin does not believe one iota of the idea that democratic countries are happier and more progressive and exciting countries. He believes they are just the opposite, a posture that tells us he has the rose-colored glasses of autocracy on, and so some things, as Richard Attenborough could have told him, are invisible to him and the oligarchs, whose loyalty, btw, is surer in peaceful times.
Fifth columnist Tucker Carlson and Co. have been extending their First Amendment rights to the breaking point. The moment this goes to DEFCON 2 (like during the Cuban Missile Crisis and Operation Desert Storm), they will be shut down. So, yes, it is that serious. If I were Biden I would not do this lightly ... or ask Kamala to do it!
We have looked into this yawning abyss before, my friends. It looks awful down there. We have turned away in lassitude and horror before, and it cost us dearly in the beginning, the middle, and in the end. I am confident that we can turn Putin around or, if it comes to it, remove him from his throne in the Kremlin, but it's not going to be a walk in the park, but it is going to change everything. You and your family should be getting ready for that!
(Russia and China)
The Cusp of War in Europe
By now the words, yesterday 21 January, of US Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman (ret.) on Deadline White House to Nicolle Wallace with former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul are echoing around the world.
WE ARE ON THE CUSP OF A EUROPEAN WAR ON THE SCALE OF WWII.
A minute or two later he refined his statement to say that Putin's invasion of Ukraine is all but inevitable, that the war will be devastating to the Ukraine military (and everyone else there too, of course). He thinks there is very little we, Biden, Blinken, or Congress, can do to avert the decision Putin seems to be ready to make.
Vindman, remember, an emigre from Ukraine as a three year old child, was fired by Trump from the National Security Council, for revealing the bullying telephone call by Trump to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, asking Zelensky to announce an investigation into the "corrupt" activities of Joe Biden's son in Ukraine in exchange for releasing the military aid already approved by Congress.
McFaul agreed that as a matter of immediate capacity Vindman is correct. Putin has over 100,000 troops poised on the border. As a matter of intent, however, McFaul said he has "no idea" what Putin will do, that even Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov probably does not know. He said Putin likes to keep everyone guessing and, as McFaul mused, "negotiating with ourselves," meaning domestically and with NATO showing the whole world our hesitancy and weaknesses. I think Putin is likely to over-estimate our weaknesses (and already has, given his preparations), but will also under-estimate our strengths.
For weaknesses in the US I have to mention the Trumpist opposition to everything. It will create noise and might erupt as insubordination in the Army, were ours to be used. In the UK you have P.M. Boris Johnson who makes Trump look organized and sane, whose hold on power is tenuous (which might be a good thing). In France, President Macron is hoping to succeed Angela Merkel as the leader of Europe and has got his foot in that door when it is not in his mouth fairly often, so I rate him pliable, but not the sort to ask first for assistance. In Germany the new Chancellor is Olaf Scholz, since the 2nd week of December 2021, in other words, has the levers of power in his hands, but has not yet tweaked them. In Poland Andrezej Duda is in his sixth year as President. The total population of Poland is just short of the population of California and its armed forces are rate in the range around 25th in the world. The President of Lithuania, population just short of three million (about the size of Chicago), is Gitanas Nauseda, an economist. Lithuania is a vocal critic of China and Russia, but with little but its alliances to back up the rhetoric. Alar Karis is the President of Estonia, pop. 1.3 million, and has been in office since last October.
For strengths I would say that the US military is the strongest in the world, rested for nearly six months, and probably well led. UK has a substantial armed force and navy. France is the #2 power in western Europe. Germany still has issues to resolve, but its defense force could protect Poland after Lithuania and Estonia go down the tube. Lithuania once was the largest country west of the Ural Mountains and had all of Belarus and most of Ukraine under its suzerainty, so its strength is now mostly psychological. Estonia on the other hand, is one of the more internet-technologically advanced countries in the world, mainly because it is about the size of the City of San Diego. I would not discount their skill at interfering with Russian hackers.
Vindman and McFaul agree in some measure that the US's and NATO's visibly "detached" stance and reliance on a policy of "we will react with painful sanctions against Russia" may have contributed to Putin's presumed perception that the West is weak. The situation is not purely about weakness, however. The Lithuanians, Poles, UK, and Estonia are all providing armaments to Ukraine in addition to the bulk being provided by the US. In other words there is no doubt who is on which side of the confrontation Putin has engineered. In summary, UK, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland are all in NATO with the US. For the record NATO is a "mutual defense" pact, which in fact means that all those nations are obliged to come to the defense of any one of them.
Meanwhile Putin just recently sent Russian troops into Kazakstan to quell anti-regime riots. Which can be taken to mean that Putin is reasserting a tighter hegemony over a former Soviet Republic and strategically protecting his eastern flanks should he decide to invade Ukraine. He has also re-established a tightened form of hegemony over Ukraine's neighbor to the north Belarus, also a former Soviet Republic. Do you see a pattern here?
Lithuania is the northern neighbor of Belarus, (with Poland to the west), so the opportunity for Putin to lash out at a very small (but avid) NATO member using Belarus a proxy, is now a fact of this situation.
I think Putin would like something a bit more than just a cordon sanitaire between Russia and the West. He wants, at a minimum, the industrial region of eastern Ukraine, the so-called Donbas (the basin of the Don River ... famous once for the Don Cossacks) and will occupy Kyiv until eastern Ukraine is ceded to him. He may want Odessa, too. In any case, it would be better now for Ukraine to move its national defense and other key government sectors to Lviv in the western part of the country.
I also think it is time that Biden and Blinken and DoD rattle a couple of sabres. It would be a very good time to do one of those "maintenance and upgrading" routines that raise eyebrows, but not (necessarily) the DEFCON status. It is also time to stop making "conciliatory" off-hand comments like "I don't think Ukraine would like to be in NATO for quite a while, years, maybe."
The other part of this situation is that Volodymyr Zelensky, whose former job was a well appreciated stand-up comedian, is not at all powerful anywhere in Ukraine. Corruption is still rampant among the commercial and political interests throughout the country. Ukraine is not the ideal damzel in distress for a full-blown war. You can be sure Vladimir Putin understands the minute details of this. Having said that, our overall policy must be containment of and purposeful competition against authoritarian regimes. Put it this way: Putin cannot have Ukraine.
And, ... both McFaul and Vindman believe we must now deliberately foreshadow and then enunciate a broad new international policy that provides Putin, Xi, and the Iranians, to name only the top three, with realistic but firm boundaries and for our friends the confidence that the last vestiges of Trump have been eliminated from US policy. (Daunting with Trumpists mimicking the Bolsheviks, I think.)
Look back over the past months and forward, too, for signs that Russia has nailed down the last issue it might have with President Xi's China. If that happens, the war is imminent, if not already under way. May the furies work in our favor!
(Russia and China)
Lord of the East
When my daughter and I were in the magnificent art gallery in the Winter Palace on the Neva River in St. Petersburg, Russia, the galleries also known as The State Hermitage Museum, aside from the vast collection of work available nowhere else, it was crowded. Our troop of Aussies, Canadians, US, and UK were vastly outnumbered by very large groups, hordes really, of Chinese tourists. I imagine it was a ratio of 10::1, Chinese to everyone else who was not Russian. For me it was a profound revelation. For them it was and continues to be a profound shift in Chinese - Russian international relations.
I have a cynical side, skeptical, and supported by doctoral study of both countries, mostly Russia, but modern China as well. For those of you interested in the possible outcomes of Vladimir Putin's once and future invasion of Ukraine, the Carnegie Moscow Center has this pretty good essay about the current relationship between China and Russia, which I hope you click on and read.
The article tries to elucidate the principles according to which the two countries maneuver their relationships. "They are not opportunistic, are free of ideologization, involve comprehensive consideration of the partner’s interests and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, they are self-sufficient.” These principles are from a joint statement adopted by the Chinese and Russian leaders Xi Jinping and Vladimir (Lord of the world) Putin during their virtual summit on June 28, 2021.
As principles they are unusual in diplomatic history. "Not opportunistic" probably means that one party will not take advantage of the other during crises. Totally impossible for each of them. "Not ideological" means that China does not know what is guiding Putin and the Oligarchs beyond sheer kleptocratic thievery of a Russophile nature, or that Putun does not believe in Chinese Communism, if he believes in Communism at all—which he does—Soviet-Leninist Communism. "No interference" is a trip wire, allowing the signatories to react, perhaps only complain, when interference happens. And "self-sufficient" is anyone's guess. Perhaps it means that their relations are to be understood at face value, not as tactics according to some overarching plan.
The title of this essay is the translation of the name of Russia's luke-warm-water seaport in the far east, Vladivostok (pop. 600,000), which is nearly 4,000 miles from Moscow, about 1050 miles from Beijing, while Beijing is 4,560 miles from Moscow. Another important far east Russian city is Khabarovsk (pop.600,000) on the Amur River, which, a very few miles downstream, is the river that separates Heilongjian province of China from Russia. Heilongjian is China's northernmost province. Vladivostok is about 22% Chinese. The border west of Khabarovsk is very porous, and there are constant disputes about Chinese peasants and merchants owning land and buildings along the frontier inside Russia. It has already happened and Russia, Putin's Russia, has not won every dispute, despite it being about "Russian" land.
A few things in addition those enunciated in the Carnegie article need to be said about the relations between these two large countries. The first thing is that China's border with Russia begins only where Mongolia's border ends. In the west the border is with Kazakhstan, which is nominally independent, but closely associated with Russia. All that being the case, Russia is much weaker in the east than the west where Ukraine is and is a tempting morsel to save from NATO. Everyone involved knows this fact right down to the smallest granularity. It is at that very fine granularity that China is slowly subverting Russia, and Russia knows it, but can do nothing about it without really annoying Beijing with such creeping trivia. Putin has also to wonder whether China believes that Ukraine drains Russian armed forces that might otherwise be on the TransSiberian Railway at a moment's notice, which is another way of saying that China, being closer to the far eastern territories of Russia, has decidedly shorter supply lines than the Russians. Those of us old enough to remember the McArthur Debacle on the Yalu River between China and North Korea know that when the Chinese army moves it is a tsunami, sort of like their display of waving flags at the Beijing Olympics last time.
The two countries do not trust one another, but they both understand that the real adversary is the United States and her allies in NATO and the British Commonwealth. So it suits Putin and Xi to dance while the US regains—or loses—its national integrity. I think that kleptocrats abhor frozen assets, especially when every piece of historical evidence points to the fact that nations—even the US ... or especially the US—retrieve themselves in the face of foreign hostilities. Putin may believe he has sufficient leverage through the far-right media in the US to prevent this, but it certainly is not a strong belief, so the sabres rattle and rattle on.
SIDEBAR— When Stalin was asked to have the USSR join the United Nations, he insisted that Belorussia, Ukraine, as nations deserving of such, be granted their own vote in the UN along with Russia itself. Belorus really was not, but ever since the Mongols subjugated Russia from 1240 to 1480 Ukraine has been a separate culture and finally a separate nation, clearly enunciated by Stalin himself.
(Russia and China)
Some facts are immutable, some are perspectival, some are interpretations of data, and so on through a welter of ways to look at and consider people, things, and events. The question for China now is how does the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) think. So, for example, the one-child policy in China created some immutable facts and some perspectival ones. From the perspective of the great mass of Chinese couples in their family-creating years, the one-child policy meant—according to bottom-line ancient tradition ultimately based on property rights and sheer defensive and labor power—that females were less desired than males as single children, and so perhaps millions of female children did not survive gestation or their actual birthdays. All of that must have had devastating personal consequences for millions of China's citizens. It is amazing that the policy lasted as long as it did.
As Nobelist Paul Krugman puts it in his interesting article "Is China in Big Trouble?" in last Saturday's New York Times: "... [because of the 1980-2015 one-child policy] ... the working-age population peaked a few years ago and is now shrinking...." He provides a graph showing the modest decline at the 2021 year mark (as I interpret the curve) in the range of 985,000,000 persons in the labor force. To answer the PSC's question directly: the PSC members believe that lifting the one-child policy will eventually enlarge the Chinese work force. In 2016 they allowed two children, if one parent was an only child, and in June 2021 the policy is three children. Rights groups decry all of these measures.
In the United States, immigration policy, is a tool for dealing with birth-rate and work-force facts like this. Allowing more immigrants into the country expands the work force. The question raised by the "Replacing Us Fanatics" (RUFians) is whether expanding the US work force is necessary, or whether it would be better to keep the labor supply slightly lower than the demand to keep wages and benefits up and to keep pathways to advancement open. So, you see that at least some kinds of actual immutable facts have reasonable-sounding responses which show that while the fact may be immutable, there are possible responses.
Unfortunately for the RUFians and their kindred, it is very, very difficult for them to predict the exactly correct margin to create high demand for labor in an economy also mananged to achieve around 3.5% GDP growth, that is, averaged out among dozens of economic sectors, and without a pandemic. And, of course, such attempts rarely take into account the problem of work force preparedness, owing in some measure to the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Such is the complexity of human affairs ... and probably everything in the universe!
China is unlikely, I think, to import labor or hire it out abroad, like we do. To complicate matters the PSC has to deal with another issue created by the population curve, namely that the savings rate of Chinese workers is very high—because the people understand at some level that providing for advanced education and for retirement must be a personal high priority, given that the government's policies on population are so variable. The result is, of course, every yuan, (the unit of the Chinese currency or renmimbi), saved is a yuan not spent on consumer goods, which the managers of the Chinese economy and the PSC understand to be necessary to generate and sustain growth.
So! Another immutability cascades and slaloms through traditions and ECON 101. Believing that even though there is an immutable fact at the heart of the problem, how can the PSC cajole the population to buy more flat screen televisions and electric bicycles and fashionable clothing? Marketing is one way, and marketing requires at a minimum a good set of capitalistic entrepreneurial skills, the likes of which amount to admissions that their brand of communism, particularly the stage-wise progression through certain undesirable bourgeois stages must be recalibrated, which in turn means that PSC has to counter growing skepticism about the edifice itself. Admittedly, the embourgoisement of China is thin gruel easily cut off whenever the PSC wants. Clever footwork is nevertheless necessary, and it leaves tracks.
Another way to convince savings-minded citizens to part with their yuan is to convince them that its buying power will be declining, markedly at times. The same holds for all economies, including the non-exceptional American economy. The way to accomplish this is to inflate the currency by the usual means, excessive borrowing, excessive printing, and outright declarations of inflationary policy, which ploy would not go over well in the US, but could be attempted in the rough and tumble of Chinese politics. I think inflation, despite its obvious hazards, will be end up being the default plan of the PSC.
But inflating one's own currency has huge effects on international trade, balances of payments, and geopolitics. (Paul Krugman did not discuss this, and I don't know why.) Clearly, whatever palliative response the PSC takes to ease the labor v. growth problem is going to create more whack-a-mole politics in China and reduce whatever the favorable national and international notions about the Chinese economy may be. The dark side of Whack-a-Mole is the rise of PSC bellicosity. Tempers are fraying and casting about for the next Mole is frustrating, so typically authoritarian governments start looking abroad for other Moles out of which to make attention-grabbing mountains! So the labor v. growth problem stemming from the single-child policy, evidenced by the fact of a declining work force, may turn out to be already an international problem and not restricted to the South China Sea.
I have so far avoided writing about the real estate bubble that Krugman and others are worried about. It is clear that the investments the PSC makes in living quarters—which go empty because of high purchase and rental prices and unsynchronized development, such that entire cities of dwellings now exist without residents because there is not any work to justify them being there—are analogous to the fundamental thesis of The Report from Iron Mountain, i.e., an expenditure that does not feed forward into the economy, or in other words a big, big waste of current resources, a mammoth mistake. In this Chinese situation, a housing bubble, the popping of which may dislocate many sectors of the economy and—despite experts more or less agreeing it will not—become an international debacle. It very well might.
(China and Russia)
5/1/11Russia and China On May Day 2011
Today is May Day, the First of May, the day the communist parties around the world used to celebrate their imminent victory over the cruel forces of capitalism, which were, of course, fated anyway for inevitable destruction. For a generation born since the crumbling demise of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1991 or any group of "China Watchers" aghast at the wanton destruction and upheaval of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolutions of Mao Tse-tung (now Mao Zedong after the revolution in transliteration) May Day is virtually unknown and, accordingly, widely unheralded. But if you were sitting in class in 1975 or even the spring of 1990, and you were asked to put $100 down on the country you thought would by 2011 be the stronger by virtually every measure, you probably would have not chosen China. You would have lost the $100, which would be worth about $72 or less.
Russia and China were both communist countries, and now neither is. Russia is a kleptocratic morass of corruption and self-loathing. It is the onion peeled back two or three layers to reveal that Russians are what you see from the outside, seemingly incapable of democratic values, strongly antipathetic to social stratification despite the evidence to the contrary in their neighborhoods. They are green with envy of neighbors, nations, and the world, complaining in privacy that no one gets ahead in Russia without cheating. Russias historical experience has been one in which democratic values were never inculcated, but rather despised as weak and frivolous. The iconic modern Russian is a drunk male or a very pretty, lusty, and deceptive female. The population is declining in Russia proper, even with in-migration of people from the former Union Republics in the south. To put it in tabloid terms, Russia is headed nowhere.
China is huge and in terms of population ungovernable in terms that most Americans understand. A while back the Chinese Communist Party determined that the lesson of the Soviet Union was that Marx's theory of socio-economic evolution stagewise from mercantilism, through industrialization, thru commercialism and consumer economies to a pre-communist and then fully communist utopia had to be realized stage by stage. The leaders set out to find China's natural capital—an easy pic ... the people themselves—and exploit it to realize the stages that must evolve. China is a political oligarchy running a state capitalist nation. Or, you could say that China is a committee dictatorship cynically wooing its population into submission by managing a consumerist economy. Certainly China understands that Chinese workers can produce a profit margin four or five times that of any capitalist country by playing the consumerist game through international trade. The Chinese population will probably level off at about 1.5 billions thanks (and no thanks) to very strict social programs designed to utterly change Chinese family-making traditions, a process that happens naturally, but perhaps too tardily to keep China's window of opportunity open long enough to accomplish a sustained take off as a modern economy. Mao did not understand the window, nor the means to pry it open. The current leadership group does. China is headed upward by virtually every measure we use in the U.S. to measure progress.
Two articles appeared today in national newspapers that are instructive and persuasive. Ann-Sylvaine Chassany and Jason Corcoran write in the Washington Post about the endless, self-defeating, corruption of modern Russia, which with its demographic problems and economic distortions cannot seem to rise above its past and show an honest face to investors so as to accomplish its transformation into a viable economy. As I read this article I could not help but think of the men and women I met in Russia whose aspirations are eroded from below by the endemic, paralytic envy complex and by the greed, distrust, and corruption of their leaders. There are good people in Russia, but they are weak and the system seems determined to keep them that way.
The China article is by New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, who writes about China and East Asia quite a bit. The surprise in his perspective is that he ignores the comparison of China with Russia, and instead stings us with a comparison to the United States, a comparison that suggests that Americans have been resting on their "laurels" for much too long.
I personally think, without proof, but with some experience of life in general and the politics of Russian and China particularly, that the Chinese Communist Party will evolve into a socialist organization no more ideologically toxic than the sort of socialism you saw in Sweden years ago. The prospects for democracy are dim, though, and if I am right at the national level a long way away. As for Russia, so much depends on Vladimir Putin and his ego that I cannot guess. I hope that he gets tired of being the biggest frog in a stagnant pond. If he does not, the pond will shrink, the oxygen in its waters will vanish and Russia will slowly become a place where almost anything can happen, mostly unpleasant for its inhabitants and the rest of the world as well.
12/2/10The Russian Devolution
One of the things that the State Department WikiLeaks this past weekend has produced is a bottom line ... or at least a sighting of the bottom line of our diplomacy. The revelations show that our diplomats are not, as sometimes it appears, so sucked into the party line on "getting along" with some other country that they cannot see the forest and the trees. The revelations about modern Russia are classic and provide new information for some of us about the leadership, Putin particularly.
Here is a good article about diplomacy in Russia, as published today in the New York Times. You should read the whole thing. It is four pages, so I will be brief in my comments.
Briefly, the Russian revolution of 1991 shows the classical outlines of a state (that is, the government and the social infrastructure of governance) predicated for centuries (including most of the 20th century) on exploitation of powerless people. The Tsars and Emperors of Russia did it, codifying it in serfdom. The Soviets did it, wrapping it in the mumbo-jumbo of Leninism and Stalinism. But, now, in the aftermath of a not-so-valiant attempt by Boris Yeltsin to establish a rule of law in Russia, we can see that not only was there no preparation for such a feat of social engineering, but that in fact the root metaphor of government is theft. Russia is a congeries of rackets with dons as evil as any in the Sicilian Mafia running the facade as if going through the motions of statecraft would make it seem more legitimate and civil and honest. But it is not. Russia is a crime happening every day through six time zones, amounting to very little more than the attempts of more-or-less honest people to survive among rampant theft of their native land's productive resources, their personal bequest to the future, and their civil rights and honor.
Those of you who are trained in political science and history will recognize that all governments tend toward theft, and that Russia is merely a classic case of the revealed truth of government.
11/29/10Drunk with Power
James Carroll's essay this Monday morning in the Boston Globe is both elliptical and not. He does not actually come out and say that Republicans like Kyl (R-AZ) are drunk with new-found power, but he almost does. I think what he says is that nuclear materials and policies are both being treated as if there were no hazard in being drunk and stupid.
I do not know whether the American public, juiced up as it is on the emotions of racism, anarchy, disregard for the law, anti-government mantras with drum beats for social services, can see through the behaviors of the GOP as cutting into the fabric of national security or not. I suppose not, because I have very little faith that the infrastructure of democracy is healthy and providing the public with truth and reason.
John Kyl must be dealt with. I am not talking about physical harm to the man, but I am talking about making of him an example of the sort that will give the reasonable (but timorous) members of his party the cajones to stand up for Americans and pass this nuclear arms treaty with Russia. Denying Obama any semblance of success is a good policy for the GOP to have, since they are no good at governance themselves, obstructionism is the perfect answer while they lack the intelligence to see that it will backfire on them in the mid- and long-terms. But, there is "obstructionism" and then there is irresponsibility to the nation and the planet. We know that nuclear war is still possible with Iran arming itself, with Pakistan holding several dozen weapons, with India and Israel both armed, with China fully prepared for intercontinental mayhem (and perhaps their client state North Korea ready to lob disaster down upon the industrious folk of South Korea.) Russia, however, is where the trouble now lies because we have an infrastructure of control fraying at the edges, a population full of restive and non-stakeholding nationalities, and a military brought to the edge of desperation by forces larger than Putin and Medvedev can control.
Senator Kyl, back away from this position you have taken and we will let you continue your awful and silly work in other areas. If you do not back down, we will do it for you.
Just a note on Paul Krugman's column today in the NYT to help with perspective. China is the 2nd largest economy in the world. It will soon enough be the world's largest economy and it is a "command economy" organized and run by a group of people who are accountable only to themselves at the top of a pyramid of power. Anything and everything in China of any importance is owned and operated by the government, and everything you read about "privatization" of industries in China is either completely false (because there is not a shred of truth to it) or it is misleading because CEOs of Chinese enterprises are outranked and secondary to Party officials, who are ubiquitous. You probably missed this little article in the New York Review of Books, wherein the author debunks one after another of the modern press-generated and market-hopeful voices that have declared China to be emerging as a capitalist society.
Folks, it just is not, and the Chinese Communist Party is not about to commit suicide. They are playing the West for all they are worth until that point when they do have the largest economy, playing by rules that maximize this window on modernization, including the monetary policies that are fleecing Western capital and building a very dangerous commercial empire that will begin to take on political agendas ... ask Japan!
Krugman is right. We need to dispel the mythology of Chinese "coming around" to capitalism and understand that politically they are doing no such thing. State and command capitalism are not free- (or even well-regulated-) Western-style capitalism. Not even close. Congress, especially needs to get a grip and understand that the likes of Walmart are going to be plumping for caution when in fact caution plays right into the hands of people who are going to dominate the 21st century.
If you need a reason to slow down your purchase of things you don't absolutely need that are made in China—clothing, home furnishings, electronics—this is your best reason to do so. Some one has to put on the brakes, and Congress will understand that only when it is too late.
11/7/09Mikhail Gorbachev on 1989
Unabashedly I tell people that my two favorite Russians are Peter the Great and Mikhail Gorbachev. I own a signed copy of Perestroika and was able to decipher the Old Church Slavonic inscriptions on Peter's sarcophagus in the Petro-Pavlovskaya Krepost (The Peter and Paul Fortress) across the River Neva from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Of the two Peter has the best press, but that is an artifact of writing histories and biographies. The nation that Peter moved kicking and screaming onto a path that led to modernization was large and balky, but by no means as confounded by ideology and skepticism and fear as the Soviet Union in what were to become its last years.
Americans usually have a biased view of Mikhail Gorbachev, seeing him as a Communist through and through ... and never examining what that could possibly mean in the face of the perestroika he began in 1985. Americans had been trained to (and most still maintain) a very fearful distaste for Marxism and particularly Leninism and certainly Stalinism during the Cold War. The USSR was huge, aggressive, armed to the teeth, and frequently made utterances about the decline and destruction of capitalist society, partly from internal rot and sometimes with a little shove from Moscow.
In an interview by Katerina Vanden Heuvel, of The Nation and her husband with Mikhail Gorbachev, the former head of state of the USSR reveals what he thinks brought about the end of the USSR and what Reagan or, indeed, America had to do with it. This is a very important interview. American Liberals should commit some of Gorbachev's comments to memory.
Lest The Nation should make this interview unavailable, I am committing it to the archives for posterity.
Gorbachev on 1989
It is very important to give Mr. Gorbachev credit for the courage and intellectual vigor of his position and remarks. Too often Americans dismiss even well-meant criticism as being grounded in alien and essentially false ideologies. We do that internally ... more lately than at virtually any time, save the Civil War and Reconstruction. The form of Marxism upon which Gorbachev rested his case in Perestroika went back to the ethical roots of Marxism, a deep and abiding conclusion that not only are capitalist economies and the states that are created to defend them more than just likely to abuse the human spirit and enslave working people to false ideologies and prophets, they are just as hermetically sealed off from other perspectives as was the Soviet Union in the days of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. In other words, Gorbachev represents not just a political revolution, but an intellectual one of unimaginable importance.
Having said that, Gorbachev was a product of his times and only recently, I my view, has he come around to the understanding that his famous statement that Russian history books were false and must be rewritten was the beginning of the end. He preferred to believe (and act) as if the Soviet state was more "inevitable" than clearly it was. So, in fact, Gorbachev in the 1990s, during the Yeltsin years, often expressed surprise at what had happened. In this interview, though, I see major evolution in his thinking and a new understanding of the history ... without the accompanying belief that anything was inevitable ... a new and very unMarxist point of view.