Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

Goodbye Gorby

September 3, 2022

Mikhail Gorbachev was the most consequential personage of the 20th century’s latter half. And in a good way.

Now that is really saying something. The 21st century’s biggest personages (so far) are big not in good ways at all.

Just look at this verbiage from one report of Gorbachev’s death* — “vision of humane communism liberated millions, bridled the global arms race and knocked down walls dividing East and West . . . systematically dismantle[d] the machinery of repression . . . freed political prisoners, lifted the Iron Curtain, liberated the arts and pulled Red Army troops out of foreign conflicts . . . forged disarmament treaties . . . removed the shackles from a society deeply scarred by dictatorships.”

And on the seventh day he rested.

But he was thrown out of power, and when he ran again for president in 1996, he got one percent of the vote. Gosh that tells us something.

What made Gorbachev’s story so extraordinary is that it went completely against the grain of the society and system that had produced him. It’s in the nature of human life to travel along the tracks on which you find yourself. Gorbachev had the insight to see where those tracks were leading, and he rerouted the entire railroad.

He was made leader following a succession of wretched characters, because by then the system had so run out of steam that it couldn’t see how to do anything else. With a dead ideology no one any longer believed in. Gorbachev was the one who said the emperor had no clothes. When Ronald Reagan, in Berlin, intoned, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” he did (in effect). He went to the UN and said the Cold War was over — and that the West had won.

What a vast blessing for humanity. And it was not inevitable. Nothing ever really is, my own study of history suggests. Individuals and their choices and actions make history, and Gorbachev was a singular exemplar. Absent Gorbachev, a far uglier story would have likely ensued.

But he was a giant among Lilliputians, evidenced by that 1% presidential vote, and his vision was eclipsed with him — a vast tragedy for humanity. What ultimately did follow was a reversion to form; indeed, with a vengeance. His successor Putin restoring, doubling down, the evil Gorbachev tried to end. As though there is some malevolent force operating that not even so protean a figure as he could truly defeat. Yet Russia getting a Putin was not inevitable either. It was a choice.

* By Carol J. Williams in the los Angeles Times.

The Last Rose of Shanghai

August 13, 2022

Shanghai, 1940. The Japanese have ravaged through much of China; they’re in Shanghai, but don’t (yet) control its international settlement. Wherein a top nightclub is owned and operated by Aiyi — a 20-year-old girl — of course impossibly beautiful too.


This is Weina Dai Randel’s 2021 novel, The Last Rose of Shanghai.

Aiyi, we learn, is a daughter of one of China’s richest and most powerful families. They were, at least, until the Japs arrived, confiscating most of their assets. (We’re not supposed to say “Japs,” but in this context that’s being if anything gentle.)

Somehow Aiyi scraped together the financing to buy the club. For a teenaged girl doing that, I suspended disbelief. Not for the first time in this tumultuous melodrama.

Comes now Ernest Reismann, a 19-year-old Jewish refugee from Berlin. (Should be “Ernst?” But never mind.) Also impossibly handsome; arriving in Shanghai penniless. Desperately seeking a job, any job, without success; Shanghai is awash with refugees. But a sequence of chance encounters finally lands him a gig playing piano in Aiyi’s club. Turns out he’s fantastic — soon famous. Why hadn’t he looked for a pianist job in the first place? Well, never mind.

Of course Ernest and Aiyi fall in love. But she’s engaged to her cousin Cheng, a long-arranged family match. She doesn’t exactly hate Cheng, who isn’t exactly hateful — but never mind.

Meantime, the Japs are an increasingly looming menace. Shanghai’s elites party on regardless. I’m saying to myself: Aiyi, blow off your stifling insufferable family, blow off Cheng, sell the club for what you can still get (a goodly sum, apparently) and skedaddle with Ernest.

Happily ever after? Would have been a different (less interesting) book. We do know Aiyi will survive and prosper; we actually first meet her in 1980 as a billionaire, in Shanghai. Albeit missing a foot.

But back to 1940 . . . now 1941 . . . things get darker. A monster Jap officer (wrongly) thinks Ernest shot a soldier and threatens to seize Aiyi’s club if she doesn’t turn him in. He’s now tinkling the keys in a different club (as if the Japs couldn’t find him there).

At last he asks her to flee with him to Hong Kong three days hence. And she agrees! But meantime the Japs return to her club and shoot it up. She barely escapes unhurt. The club is closed by Jap order. Get the frick outta there NOW, I’m saying.

But Aiyi tells herself her involvement with “the foreigner” is the source of all her troubles. She changes her mind about leaving with him.

Aiiiyiiii . . . .

This is not even halfway through the novel. I’m shaking my head trying to imagine the next half. Well, I’ve written enough spoilers already.

But the book does conform to Robinson’s Iron Law of Capital Punishment in fiction and other arts. Writers and artistes may hold right-thinking enlightened views opposing the death penalty. Yet something deep in the human psyche insists that sometimes justice demands the ultimate punishment. And when fictional villains cross a certain line of heinousness, capital punishment becomes mandatory. So too here, with that nasty Jap officer. Once he’d wantonly killed a second major character, I knew he wouldn’t get out of the novel alive.

Alas, his comeuppance was not especially gruesome — just shooting. Though the novel does note his face blown off.

Cry, The Beloved Country: South Africa

July 23, 2022

The story was too good to be true. South Africa’s white-minority “apartheid” regime, oppressing the Black majority, was long decried. Then F.W. de Klerk, a reasonable man, came to power. Nelson Mandela, leader of the Blacks’ African National Congress (ANC) was released after 27 years in prison. A great day for optimists when he marched out free, heading a parade. He and de Klerk negotiated a peaceful transition to democratic rule. Millions of Blacks voted, for the first time ever, in 1994, making Mandela president. Who proved a saintly visionary, striving to heal the nation’s wounds and uplift everyone.

Then, like George Washington (and unlike too many African leaders), Mandela retired.

Followed by Thabo Mbeki. No Mandela. Mbeki’s chief claim to fame was his denial that HIV causes AIDS, and concomitant promotion of quack remedies. The resulting death toll horrendous.

Next: Jacob Zuma.

I was flabbergasted they actually elected so obvious a rotter. (That was before America elected Trump.)

South Africa has an indirect system, with the president effectively chosen by ANC insiders. They knowingly picked so totally corrupt a man believing it would mean party time for them.

Like Mbeki, Zuma too had a crackpot health theory. In his case it was a quack notion for why his profligate sex life entailed no STD danger.

Zuma had a golden opportunity to confound expectations and become a hero, merely by being a halfway responsible president. But such opportunities are never taken. Power never makes bad men better (as I wrote awaiting Trump’s inauguration).

And so the grifters hoping to exploit a Zuma regime were duly rewarded. It was open season on the public treasury. So egregious that a new term was coined: state capture.

Zuma’s chief partners in crime were the Gupta brothers, an Indian-born trio of manipulators, to whom he gave free reign in looting public coffers. While the long-suffering Black population, yearning for better lives with their beloved ANC in power, would have to wait longer. Zuma did nothing for them; only for himself and his cronies. South Africa is a mess. Yet the ANC continued winning elections.

After two stinking Zuma terms, in 2018 Cyril Ramaphosa became president. A long-time ANC operator who also had gotten rich thanks to the post-1994 dispensation. But compared to Zuma, Ramaphosa was a saint who somewhat credibly promised to turn a page. Yet he won only by a hairsbreadth — over an ex-wife of Zuma. The ANC’s predatory pro-corruption wing being still very powerful.

A commission investigating state capture, headed by the chief justice, recently issued a blockbuster report detailing the rot under Zuma. Two Guptas, having skedaddled to Dubai, have been arrested there, awaiting extradition. Meantime, in 2021, an order to jail Zuma pending trial for corruption provoked gigantic riots, with hundreds killed and immense property damage that South Africa’s limping economy could ill afford.

But while Ramaphosa is indeed a vast improvement over his predecessor, his halting clean-up efforts leave many observers disappointed and frustrated. A second term for him is in doubt, given the powerful forces within the ANC still arrayed against him. And the ANC may not win its customary majority in the next election. A leading opposition party is the Economic Freedom Fighters, perhaps more accurately labeled the “Rabble Rousers” or “Economic Sanity Fighters.” While the Democratic Alliance, the moderate, middle-of-the-road, responsible opposition party struggles. Typical.

Back to Zuma. I understand greed; and friendship; sort of; but when it comes to Zuma and the Guptas it blows fuses in my brain. Okay, they were pals; “blood brothers” even, I don’t know. But Zuma had huge power independent of them. What hold did they have over him? To give them the run of the country for their own rapacious benefit? Prostituting himself to them?

Philosophers (like Epicurus) have taught that wealth, power, and fame are snares, quests that actually disserve true happiness. But “greed” is an overworked word. It’s a human universal; everyone would rather have more than less. Riches give you nice houses, food, travel, cars; sex. But there’s a point of diminishing returns. Yet what’s less understood about the rich is how wealth is a way to keep score. You want more money not to buy more stuff but to run up your score, which puffs up your ego.

But was Zuma really benefiting himself? He did get wealth and power, but earned not fame but infamy. In what kind of cramped, stunted mentality could his wealth — so obviously ill-gotten, indeed gotten by sacrificing everything for which anyone would actually admire someone — compensate for that sacrifice?

I don’t get it. I must be a fool.

The Bong Bong Problem

July 15, 2022

Ferdinand Marcos, elected president of the Philippines in 1965, became a vicious kleptocratic dictator ruling by violence and torture. Overthrown in 1986.

Now his son, Ferdinand Junior, known as “Bong Bong,” has been elected president. His infamous 92-year-old mother Imelda Marcos (she of the great shoe collection) preened at the inauguration.

It was a two-to-one landslide over the runner-up (seemingly a good sober candidate). I don’t know if Bong Bong is a chip off the old block, but the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and the auguries aren’t encouraging. It’s not that Philippine voters have forgotten the Marcos nightmare. They actually seem to have romanticized the memory into some halcyon dreamscape (according to polls reported in The Economist).

Bong Bong succeeds Rodrigo Duterte, another charming character (not) whose signature policy was combating drugs by murdering anyone accused of involvement. Many thousands — many of them innocent — were killed. Duterte’s daughter has just been elected vice president. Oh, and Duterte also warred against press freedom, a lead Bong Bong seems to be following.

Why do people vote for such creeps?

Like Boris Johnson, who’s finally been forced out as Britain’s prime minister (blaming everyone but himself), after much of his government quit, no longer able to stomach his parade of misdeeds and lies. Johnson was a thoroughly irresponsible chancer from the get-go; his leadership the degradation of a once-proud nation. At least the denouement shows Britain’s Conservative Party still puts some value on truth over lies. (Whereas our Republicans have put a huge lie at their core.)

Johnson’s signature policy was Brexit — Britain exiting the European Union — via a 2016 referendum. His campaigning for it vaulted him to power. A big problem ensued. Brexit portended a hard customs border between Ireland (in the EU) and Northern Ireland. Johnson swore he wouldn’t permit that — until he did, agreeing a deal putting the customs border in the Irish Sea. Hardly a solution, which he then sought to violate anyway.

The Brexit referendum itself was a stupendously boneheaded voter blunder, obvious at the time. A mindless anti-establishment lashing out, against the EU and EU-loving elites. Also venting hostility toward immigration.* It’s become increasingly clear how much Brexit impoverishes Britain — especially those lower socioeconomic echelons who voted for it.

And so it goes.

Yeats wrote the epigraph for our times — “the center cannot hold . . . the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” In France’s recent parliamentary election, President Macron’s responsible, reasonable, centrist party lost to the extremes — LePen’s populists with a witch’s brew of Brexit-like policies, and an alliance headed by Mélenchon, always called a “left-wing firebrand.” Firebrands start fires.

Colombia has elected a leftist radical president over a right-wing asshole, after sensible moderate candidates were eliminated in the first round. An all too familiar story, lately seen too in Peru, then Chile.

And how many countries get suckered into electing “strongmen” whose chief strength is crushing democracy? Ortega; Maduro; Erdogan; Putin; Lukashenko; Orban; Modi; Sisi; Bukele. Brazil’s Bolsonaro will try to pull a Trump when he loses this year’s election. Mexico’s Lopez Obrador is not too authoritarian, mainly just a feckless jerk, whom his people love as though sainted. Sri Lanka did see off the Rajapaksas, only to bring them back; plunging the country into total chaos and upchucking them again. Even in Italy the center seems to have collapsed.

The late 20th century saw a great expansion of democracy. Since then a great rollback. Dictators have upped their game, but in large part it’s voters collaborating.

Humans evolved to thrive in social groups, instilling us with good detection instincts for liars and creeps. But somehow those instincts often fail when it comes to politics. As in America, in 2016. We did manage to reverse that act of political insanity — temporarily at least. Now we’re learning more about Trump’s despicable coup attempt, to overthrow our democracy based on a giant lie, all of which his party whitewashes and defends. You’d think that would destroy its legitimacy. But no, it’s poised to win control of Congress in November’s elections!

And so it goes. Voters — you gotta love ’em.

* Somewhat ironically, Britain’s front rank politicians now include the names Rishi Sunak, Sajid Javid, Priti Patel, Nadhim Zahawi, Kwasi Kwarteng, and Sadiq Khan.

“Servant of the People” on Netflix

June 29, 2022

Scrolling through Netflix, we stumbled on Servant of the People. A 2015 Ukrainian TV comedy series (with English subtitles).*

Vasya is a young high school history teacher, whose private profanity-laden rant about the country’s corrupt dysfunctional politics is surreptitiously videotaped by a student. Posted online, it goes viral. And Vasya suddenly finds himself elected president!

It’s a slick production, reasonably laugh-inducing, fast-paced, a bit confusing in places. We watched it because this was a bizarre case of life imitating art. The show’s impresario — who played Vasya — was of course Volodymyr Zelensky. It catapulted him into the presidency in real life.

Recent times have seen democratic elections producing some very bad choices. Ukraine’s, however oddball, turned out otherwise. Indeed, the choice of Zelensky has proven to be an inspired one. It’s hard to imagine a more heroic leader for this moment, so effectively rallying his people and the world to Ukraine’s embattled cause. Things might be very different with a Ukrainian president more like the others over the last three decades — the sort that Vasya flayed in his videotaped philippic.

I’ve always been a history buff, finding truth often stranger than fiction. Recent times have epitomized that. American politics has gone in a flabbergasting direction. I often wish for a more “normal” world. One less interesting.

Russia’s Ukraine crime is of course ghastly, but less visible to many is its dire global impact, coming on top of the pandemic. We do know about $5 gas, a direct consequence of the war’s disrupting energy markets. Perversely, higher gas and oil prices reward Russia, a major seller of those commodities, defraying its war cost and offsetting the bite of sanctions. While hurting consumers world wide. Then there are food price hikes and shortages due to supply blockages in two of the world’s key granaries, Russia and Ukraine. The combined energy and food impacts are ravaging living standards all over, knocking back into poverty millions who had climbed out of it, while wrecking many countries’ budgets and finances, and sparking waves of mass civil unrest.

When I root for the deaths of Russian soldiers, I stop and remind myself they are human beings — victims too, really. But then I remind myself I want them killed to stop their killing. With this runaway trolley, yes, I would push the Russian soldier to his death.

* My 1990s Russia trips equipped me to recognize some related Ukrainian words: spasibo (thanks), pozholousta (please), dobray utra (good morning). I noted that “emperor” was imperator — the Latin word that titled Roman rulers.

Ukraine: Half Measures and the Nuclear Threat

June 17, 2022

As a PSC staff lawyer, I got frustrated when an administrative law judge couldn’t make up his mind on a ruling. “It should be me up there!” I told myself. So I applied for the job and got it. I think I was a pretty good decider.

So too in life. Not one to agonize over decisions, I’ve become convinced that generally, more deliberation doesn’t make them better. And when I decide on something, I’m all in. No half measures.

America and Europe are helping Ukraine fight Russia — with a strength of commitment perhaps unexpected. Yet they’re far from doing all they can. France’s Macron says Russia should not be “humiliated.” Germany’s Scholz heralded an “historic turning point” in foreign policy, promising heavy weapons, but still agonizes in public, and Germany seems to be dragging its feet. President Biden has been at pains to say we’re not fighting Russia, nor seeking regime change.

Well, why not?

In hindsight, as soon as a Russian invasion was looming, we should have put U.S. troops and weapons into Ukraine. Following Vegetius’s ancient dictum, if you wish for peace, prepare for war. Of course Putin would have gone ballistic. But what would he have done — any worse than what he did do? While the prospect of a direct confrontation with U.S. forces might have persuaded him to back off altogether.

Now there’s fear of escalation to nuclear war. Putin threatened that. It seems to have worked, intimidating us as to what help we will or won’t give Ukraine.

So Biden ruled out a no-fly zone, and anything else that might be seen as America fighting Russia. Yet that’s certainly how Putin saw it from the start. Thus limiting ourselves to half measures, to avoid provoking Russia, seems silly squeamishness. Russia already acts maximally provoked.

And if we fear Ukraine’s success might cause Russia to go nuclear, then why help Ukraine at all? What exactly is the strategic aim? A stalemated war that drags on for years?

The Economist recently analyzed the nuclear aspect. Noting numerous ways in which what once seemed an absolute taboo on nuclear weapons use has eroded. Putin’s threat the latest and most serious breech of that taboo. As if just talking about it makes it actually more thinkable.

But two points should be borne in mind. First, Russia’s military operates under the doctrine that nuclear weapons are only a last resort against an existential threat. Ukraine clearly does not qualify, so it’s doubtful they’d permit Putin to use nukes there. And secondly, even Putin should be deterred by the unforeseeable and likely grave repercussions. Too risky even for him. His threats should be seen as bluffs.

Meantime, The Economist says those arguing for a quick accommodation with Russia to end the war “could not be more wrong.” That would not make Europe safer, it would make Russia (and other bad actors) more dangerous. Must we repeat the lessons of appeasement in 1938-39? Allowing Putin to get away with his military aggressions before 2022 surely encouraged him to up the ante in Ukraine. There are plenty of other places an emboldened Russia could invade.

Hitler, Stalin, Mao . . . Putin . . .

June 8, 2022

Hitler, Stalin, Mao. The Big Three. Greatest monsters of the 20th Century. Or GOAT? Well, Genghis Khan; Tamerlane; Ivan the Terrible; and others. But such figures lacked the scope to kill at modern industrial scale. And anyway, they’re too far back to be vivid to us like our “Big Three.”

And now Putin. Quite the achievement, breaking into those rarefied ranks.

But nobody sets out to become an historic villain. No, the ego soaks up adulation. Being treated like a god, and actually considering yourself one. Stalin’s mind is opaque to me, don’t know if he really saw himself on some epic mission (“building Communism”) or simply loved cruelty. But Hitler and Mao definitely had the grandiosity thing. Messianic to the max, believing themselves achieving Great Things, and sustained by mass idolatry.

Where does Putin fit in? A totally cynical Stalin-like self-aggrandizing opportunist? Partly, to be sure. But he also does have the messianic syndrome. Himself a victim of his own propaganda, apparently believing his murderous destruction of Ukraine fulfills some God-ordained historical destiny. Though one doubts he actually believes in God. He believes totally in himself. It comes to the same thing.

Is he a “madman,” as often said? The word can hardly fit such extreme psychological phenomenology. His success (thus far) bespeaks a certain rationality in what he’s doing. He may yet ultimately win in Ukraine, or win enough ground to claim victory, simply by refusing to quit. Some Western voices (the “peace” camp; Kissinger, Macron, others) urge giving Putin a face-saving “off-ramp.” Others (the “justice” camp) say that would only encourage him and other such villains; they must be crushed.

And rationality and morality are two different things. Though perhaps we can say such a total moral disregard necessarily bespeaks a kind of insanity. Yet of course Putin would deem his actions of the highest morality — reasoning so perverted, it too could be considered insane. Monsters never see themselves as monsters.

Stalin ruled by terror, but like with Hitler and Mao, Putin’s horror show is bolstered by a population cheering its support. Or at least much if not most of Russia’s citizenry. What are they thinking? Critical thinking it’s not. Of course they’re marinated in pervasive propaganda, painting Putin’s alternate reality (heroically fighting to “denazify” Ukraine), with all other information sources blocked. Still, it defies sense. When it’s obvious other information is stifled, and all you see is what the regime spoon-feeds you, how much brainpower does it take to realize something’s wrong with this picture? That you’re being played for fools. Worse, made complicit in atrocity.

Hitler, Stalin, Mao — so 20th Century. Now we’re in a new century, and its big monster is Putin. So far. But this century is young, with much history to unfold.

And when that history is written, with all the wisdom of hindsight, it may turn out that Putin was not, after all, the monster who damaged human civilization the most. Trump is not done yet.

Ode to Joy

May 24, 2022

My wife and I visited the Benelux countries — our much anticipated first foreign trip in 2-1/2 years. My biggest takeaway impression: a civilization whose main business is living the good life. What we strove two million years to achieve. The soundtrack playing in my head was Beethoven’s rhapsodic Ode to Joy — the European Union’s anthem.

Bastogne War Memorial

Seeing all those people out enjoying themselves, relaxing in cafes, and so forth, I realized that some experienced, as children, the Nazi occupation. We visited Luxembourg’s American military cemetery, and Bastogne’s war memorial and museum, both monuments to the horrific Battle of the Bulge in late 1944, the Germans’ last great effort to turn back the invading allies, with 76,890 U.S. casualties.

These sites evoked strong emotions. Mindful that both our fathers took part in that American effort to save civilization. And mindful that now, not so far away, dark history is repeating, Russia’s Ukraine invasion replicating so much of the Nazi nightmare. Both wars insane.

Amsterdam is a bicycle city. Sidewalks divided between bike and pedestrian lanes, and one quickly learns that’s an inviolate border. Those bikers go fast. And the streets are lined with bicycle parking areas, filled with bikes as far as the eye can see.

Our second day there we saw the Van Gogh Museum. I realized to what a degree bodily sensations were shaping my experience. The day before, we’d visited the zoo, a lot of walking; and then I’d taken a long solo walk after. My legs were sore, with lower back discomfort too. At 74 my stamina is waning. There was also a dull shoulder ache, don’t know where that came from. Meantime, the night before, I’d taken a sleeping pill — I’ve found that doing that just once on long trips combats jet lag. But it does leave me a bit woolly-headed in the morning. So at breakfast I had a coffee (very rare for me), thinking the caffeine would be salutary. Also two glasses of juice. Yet around 10 o’clock I was feeling awfully thirsty. Looking ahead, having had a big breakfast, I knew I’d eat no lunch, but decided I’d have a coke. And for the next couple hours, almost obsessively looked forward to it. Furthermore, I was much overdue for pooping. So — all that going on bodily dominated my brain activity.

When we finally got to the museum cafe, and I could sit down, that first sip of cold coke was sublime. And I was glad my wife wanted to remain there a while and write.

As to Van Gogh, I was struck less by the art than by the human story. Here was a poor schlub who enjoyed zero success, recognition, or happiness in his short life. I wondered how he’d feel if he could see this solemn temple honoring him! Posthumously, his paintings might well have been forgotten as junk; their artistic merit not actually so obvious. Perhaps it was the psychodrama of cutting off his ear that made the difference. A brilliant career move.

Outside a Brussels bookstore. No, they did not have mine!

In Brussels, our daughter popped over from London and met us for dinner. Only two hours by train! She’s living there now, wrapping up a Masters at University College London, and starting a nice job at an NGO in education development. Plus a boyfriend moving in. I’m in awe at how splendidly she’s doing (forgive the immodesty). And that my wife and I created this person.

The next day we three hiked to the Magritte Museum. Belgium’s Rene Magritte (1898-1967) was a leading surrealist painter. I’ve always found his works enigmatically compelling; in my own surrealist days (early ’70s), I copied one (“Collective Invention”) in hommage, and it still hangs above my desk.

The museum visit was also especially a pilgrimage for me because I so remembered my first date with my wife-to-be. Walking her back from the lunch, I was still undecided whether this young thing possessed sufficient substance. Then she asked me my favorite artist.

“Collective Invention”

“Magritte,” I replied. Haughtily saying to myself, “This callow little girl won’t know what I’m talking about.”

But she did. Knew all about Magritte.

And then I said to myself: “Ooooohhhhh . . . .”

Cue: Ode to Joy.

Ukraine: The War for Civilization

April 5, 2022

This is huge. Our most fundamental values are on the line. Russia must lose, and be seen to lose. No plausible pretense of victory. No ambiguity.

Ukraine is heroically bearing the brunt of the fight for us. And pretty effectively so far. Putin has a powerful tank army, but tank technology has been outstripped by tank-killing technology. Russian casualties are horrendous. Still, their military resources remain immense, amply capable of continuing destruction and slaughter. We’re just learning the extent of Russia’s outright mass murder of Ukrainian civilians.

Meantime a big chunk of Ukraine’s army is much endangered by Russian encirclement in the east near the Donbas conflict region. Russia might still wind up expanding those separatist-controlled territories, and taking Mariupol to create a land bridge to Crimea. Putin could call that a victory, albeit at ghastly cost.

We must prevent that. Doing so would be a seminal triumph for peace and democracy, boding well for the whole future of civilization. Otherwise we’re back to an ugly past with brutal wars of conquest like this the norm.

We’d thought that was finally behind us. True, we’d seen Russia’s prior villainies in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, Donbas, Crimea. And Russia is not the only transgressor. But the Ukraine atrocity differs, in scale if nothing else; not dismissible as a one-off aberration. Mariupol was a city of 430,000, reduced to a terrorized remnant of maybe 100,000 struggling to survive in rubble.

So the stakes are exceedingly high. The West has risen to the challenge more strongly, with more unity, than might have been expected. Germany in particular has done a sharp U-turn, ending its longtime policy of smooging Russia.

And yet our response is still insufficient. Which The Economist calls “a reprehensible failure of strategic vision.” This fight should be given, militarily, everything we’ve got. We spent trillions building the strongest military ever — what for, if not this? But we’re squeamishly splitting hairs over what might provoke Putin. How ridiculous. His claims of provocation, to justify this war, were already a sham. And for him, this was always really a war against the West, America, the EU, and NATO. So what if we help Ukraine with less restraint?

Yet we agonize, rule out sending troops, or a no-fly zone; send anti-tank weapons but not tanks; and cavilled even at facilitating Poland’s giving Ukraine jets. And while we’ve provided lots of drones, they’re not actually our best drones, Alexander Vindman said in his latest zoom briefing. Oddly enough, the really lethal drones are a Turkish product, that Turkey is going all-out to manufacture for Ukraine.

Turkey and Poland are no poster boys for democracy. But they have reasons to hate the Russians.

I’ve written how the Putinist Russian ideology traduces human values. The Economist too recently gave a scary picture of this crazed blood-soaked cultural messianism.* Too many Russian people bray with it — eerily evocative of Nazi Germany. And for all its self-worship as against the “decadent” West, Russia and its regime are gigantically corrupt. Covering that up, says Alexei Navalny, requires quite a lot of ideology.

Which would be fed by even a partial success in Ukraine. Whereas failure would likely, eventually, move Russia “to solve its problems by reform at home rather than adventures abroad,” opines The Economist. Making this an historic opportunity to lance one of the great boils afflicting the neck of civilization. And while the risks of escalating conflict may be real, the risks to the world of a Russian success are also very real, and worth taking some risks to prevent.


Ukraine versus Russia versus the West

March 17, 2022

Issues are not usually black and white but shades of grey; not good versus evil. Not so with Russia’s Ukraine atrocity. There’s talk of the International Criminal Court investigating war crimes. Investigating? “War crimes?” The entire thing is a crime. What’s to investigate?

Putin labels it a “special military operation,” and any Russian calling it “invasion” or “war” is subject to arrest. Yet paradoxically he purports to justify doing what he denies doing on the lie that Ukraine is run by crazed Nazis. Saying it’s not a legitimate country, traditionally belonging to “Great Russia.”

That’s the real gravamen, supplying at least a pretense of appealing to human aspiration. Claiming Russian civilization’s inherent natural greatness, its consequent proper world historical status, and its strong traditional values as against the alleged corruption, decadence, and weakness of the West.

Which has supposedly humiliated Russia. This “humiliation” trope is a powerful driver in human psychology. We see it too in Muslim attitudes toward the West. And in China, carrying a big chip of truculent nationalism on its shoulder, to redress past humiliation. Though Mao harmed China far more than the West ever did. Xi Jinping’s talk of “The Chinese Dream” doesn’t mirror “The American Dream” of individual human fulfillment; Xi’s is about swaggering on the global stage. Just like Putin’s Russian greatness dream.

Russia’s “humiliation” was the loss of the cold war, of empire as the Soviet Union broke apart (many nations freed, including Ukraine), and the economic travails of the transition out of communism (which was never going to be easy). Blaming it all on a supposedly craven West rather than any failings in Russia’s national character and its inglorious record. In fact we tried to help them overcome that legacy and build back better. Though I felt we could have done more. But Putin took Russia down a different road. And if Russia was humiliated, it had only itself to blame.

Just as with “The Chinese Dream,” what is conspicuously missing from the “Russian Greatness” trope is any nod to real human values, serving people’s wellbeing not just as parts of a collective but as individuals. As with Ukraine’s resistance to Russia — they have something truly worth fighting for. What Russian Greatness ideology aims to provide instead is (at best) a form of pride, puffing people up (even if their lives are crap) as part of something (supposedly) great.

Strength is a key element, also psychologically potent. Even if not exactly believing might makes right, people are attracted by strength per se contrasted against weakness. That’s what Putin is selling. It even attracts some in the Western right devoid of actual principles, fools like Fox’s *ucker Carlson, and of course Trump. But what is the strength used for? Surely it’s a perverse sort of pride in strength when used for bombing cities and slaughtering innocents. No “greatness” there.

At least communism as an ideology purported to offer a path (however mistaken) to better lives for individual people. Putin’s Russian Greatness idea doesn’t even try.

And of course calling the West corrupt is a cruel joke. Russia itself being endemically shot through with corruption. Putin hardly pretends to battle it, kleptocracy an organizing principle of his regime. (In China too corruption is a deeply entrenched way of life.) While in fact the West is the least corrupt civilization ever — because of rule of law, which Russia lacks. A nation where people inconvenient to the regime are simply murdered calls the West “corrupt?”

Its permissiveness Putin calls decadence. This too points up the difference in mindset. We are indeed permissive — to allow as many people as possible to flourish and enjoy their lives in their own individual ways.

The “traditional values” that Russia is said to stand for are antithetical to that, repressing people, imposing upon them not values they themselves choose but rather values chosen by others (often based on totally false scripture). And Russia today is among the most repressive nations on Earth — become one big prison. Crushing, not serving, human values.

At the heart of this difference between our values (and Ukraine’s) and Russia’s (and China’s) is democracy. Nothing more fundamental, giving everyone a voice, elevating their individual human dignity. If Putin really believed Ukrainians are blood-bound brethren, he might simply have asked them. But he knew the answer. They see Russia for what it is, and voted against that — and continue doing so, with Stingers and Javelins and Molotov cocktails.

In his Wednesday speech to Congress, Ukraine’s President Zelensky proposed creating a “Union of Responsible Countries,” to combat evils like Russia’s. I’ve written similarly of a league of democracies, to do what the United Nations was conceived to do but cannot (blocked mainly by Russian and Chinese vetoes). Such a league would have the moral authority to fill that void and promote true human values throughout the world.

I attended two zoom briefings by Alexander Vindman. The National Security Council official fired by Trump for testifying truthfully in the first impeachment; now working on Ukraine issues. The big take-away is that Russia can’t win. Regarding a no-fly zone, Vindman thought it wouldn’t mean WWIII, questioning whether Russia would take the huge risks of shooting at NATO aircraft. But anyway, he said the West seems to be giving Ukraine enough weaponry to defend its skies itself. Though the fear is that Russia, otherwise stymied, would escalate to chemical or even nuclear weapons.

Ukraine should agree to whatever it takes (short of ceding territory) to give Putin a fig leaf to claim victory and withdraw. And once Russian troops are out, Ukraine should ignore that agreement. It owes Russia no good faith on anything agreed under criminal duress.

Especially after Russia violated its own 1993 commitment to honor Ukraine’s borders in exchange for giving up its nukes. If Russia remonstrates, the answer should be . . . .