Saturday, March 12, 2022
WHEN VLADIMIR PUTIN ordered the invasion of Ukraine, he dreamed of restoring the glory of the Russian empire. He has ended up restoring the terror of Josef Stalin. That is not only because he has unleashed the most violent act of unprovoked aggression in Europe since 1939, but also because, as a result, he is turning himself into a dictator at home—a 21st-century Stalin, resorting as never before to lies, violence and paranoia.
To understand the scale of Mr Putin’s lies, consider how the war was planned. Russia’s president thought Ukraine would rapidly collapse, so he did not prepare his people for the invasion or his soldiers for their mission—indeed, he assured the elites that it would not happen. After two terrible weeks on the battlefield, he is still denying that he is waging what may become Europe’s biggest war since 1945. To sustain this all-encompassing lie, he has shut down almost the entire independent media, threatened journalists with up to 15 years in jail if they do not parrot official falsehoods, and had anti-war protesters arrested in their thousands. By insisting that his military “operation” is de-Nazifying Ukraine, state television is re-Stalinising Russia.
To grasp Mr Putin’s appetite for violence, look at how the war is being fought. Having failed to win a quick victory, Russia is trying to sow panic by starving Ukrainian cities and pounding them blindly. On March 9th it hit a maternity hospital in Mariupol. If Mr Putin is committing war crimes against the fellow Slavs he eulogised in his writings, he is ready to inflict slaughter at home.
And to gauge Mr Putin’s paranoia, imagine how the war ends. Russia has more firepower than Ukraine. It is still making progress, especially in the south. It may yet capture the capital, Kyiv. And yet, even if the war drags on for months, it is hard to see Mr Putin as the victor.
Suppose that Russia manages to impose a new government. Ukrainians are now united against the invader. Mr Putin’s puppet could not rule without an occupation, but Russia does not have the money or the troops to garrison even half of Ukraine.
If, as the Kremlin may have started to signal, Mr Putin will not impose a puppet government—because he cannot—then he will have to compromise with Ukraine in peace talks. Yet he will struggle to enforce any such agreement. After all, what will he do if post-war Ukraine resumes its Westward drift: invade?
The truth is sinking in that, by attacking Ukraine, Mr Putin has committed a catastrophic error. He has wrecked the reputation of Russia’s supposedly formidable armed forces, which have proved tactically inept against a smaller, worse-armed but motivated opponent. Russia has lost mountains of equipment and endured thousands of casualties, almost as many in two weeks as America has suffered in Iraq since it invaded in 2003.
Mr Putin has brought ruinous sanctions on his country. The central bank does not have access to the hard currency it needs to support the banking system and stabilise the rouble. Brands that stand for openness, including IKEA and Coca-Cola, have closed their doors. Some goods are being rationed. Western exporters are withholding vital components, leading to factory stoppages.
And, as Stalin did, Mr Putin is destroying the bourgeoisie, the great motor of Russia’s modernisation. Instead of being sent to the gulag, they are fleeing to cities like Istanbul, in Turkey, and Yerevan, in Armenia. Those who choose to stay are being muzzled by restrictions on free speech and free association. They will be battered by high inflation and economic dislocation. In just two weeks, they have lost their country.
Stalin presided over a growing economy. However murderously, he drew on a real ideology. Even as he committed outrages, he consolidated the Soviet empire. After being attacked by Nazi Germany, he was saved by the unbelievable sacrifice of his country, which did more than any other to win the war.
Mr Putin has none of those advantages. Not only is he failing to win a war of choice while impoverishing his people: his regime lacks an ideological core. “Putinism”, such as it is, blends nationalism and orthodox religion for a television audience. Russia’s regions, stretched across 11 time zones, are already muttering about this being Moscow’s war.
As the scale of Mr Putin’s failure becomes clear, Russia will enter the most dangerous moment in this conflict. Factions in the regime will turn on each other in a spiral of blame. Mr Putin, fearful of a coup, will trust nobody and may have to fight for power. He may also try to change the course of the war by terrifying his Ukrainian foes and driving off their Western backers with chemical weapons, or even a nuclear strike.
As the world looks on, it should set out to limit the danger ahead. It must puncture Mr Putin’s lies by fostering the truth. . . . NATO can help temper Mr Putin’s violence—in Ukraine, at least—by continuing to arm the government of Volodymyr Zelensky and supporting him if he decides that the time has come to enter serious negotiations. It can also increase pressure on Mr Putin by pushing ahead faster and deeper with energy sanctions, though at a cost to the world economy.
And the West can try to contain Mr Putin’s paranoia. NATO should state that it will not shoot at Russian forces, so long as they do not attack first. It must not give Mr Putin a reason to draw Russia into a wider war by a declaring no-fly zone that would need enforcing militarily. However much the West would like a new regime in Moscow, it must state that it will not directly engineer one. Liberation is a task for the Russian people.
As Russia sinks, the contrast with the president next door is glaring. Mr Putin is isolated and morally dead; Mr Zelensky is a brave Everyman who has rallied his people and the world. He is Mr Putin’s antithesis—and perhaps his nemesis. Think what Russia might become once freed from its 21st-century Stalin.
Friday, March 11, 2022
Just a few weeks ago many influential figures on the U.S. right loved, just loved Vladimir Putin. In fact, some of them still can’t quit him. For example, Tucker Carlson, while he has grudgingly backed off from full-on Putin support, is still blaming America for the war and promoting Russian disinformation about U.S.-funded bioweapons labs.
For the most part, however, America’s Putin lovers are having a moment of truth. It’s not so much that Putin stands revealed as a tyrant willing to kill large numbers of innocent people — they knew or should have known that already. The problem is that the strongman they admired — whom Donald Trump praised as “savvy” and a “genius” just before he invaded Ukraine — is turning out to be remarkably weak. And that’s not an accident. Russia is facing disaster precisely because it is ruled by a man who accepts no criticism and brooks no dissent.
On the military side, a war Russia clearly envisioned as a blitzkrieg that would overrun Ukraine in days has yet to capture any of the country’s top 10 cities — although long-range bombardment is turning those cities into rubble. On the economic side, Putin’s attempt to insulate himself from potential Western sanctions has been a debacle, with everything indicating that Russia will have a depression-level slump. To see why this matters, you need to understand the sources of the right’s infatuation with a brutal dictator, an infatuation that began even before Trump’s rise.
Just last year Senator Ted Cruz contrasted footage of a shaven-headed Russian soldier with a U.S. Army recruiting ad to mock our “woke, emasculated” military.
Finally, many on the right simply like the idea of authoritarian rule. Just a few days ago Trump, who has dialed back his praise for Putin, chose instead to express admiration for North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Kim’s generals and aides, he noted, “cowered” when the dictator spoke, adding that “I want my people to act like that.”
But we’re now relearning an old lesson: Sometimes, what looks like strength is actually a source of weakness.
Whatever eventually happens in the war, it’s clear that Russia’s military was far less formidable than it appeared on paper. . . . . These weaknesses might have been apparent to Putin before the war if investigative journalists or independent watchdogs within his government had been in a position to assess the country’s true military readiness. But such things aren’t possible in Putin’s Russia.
The invaders were also clearly shocked by Ukraine’s resistance — both by its resolve and by its competence. Realistic intelligence assessments might have warned Russia that this might happen; but would you want to have been the official standing up and saying, “Mr. President, I’m afraid we may be underestimating the Ukrainians”?
On the economic side, I have to admit that both the West’s willingness to impose sanctions and the effectiveness of those sanctions have surprised just about everyone, myself included.
Still, economic officials and independent experts in Russia should have warned Putin in advance that “Fortress Russia” was a deeply flawed idea.
It also shouldn’t have required deep analysis to realize that Russia’s economy is deeply dependent on imports of capital goods and other essential industrial inputs.
But again, would you have wanted to be the diplomat telling Putin that the West isn’t as decadent as he thinks, the banker telling him that his vaunted “war chest” will be useless in a crisis, the economist telling him that Russia needs imports?
The point is that the case for an open society — a society that allows dissent and criticism — goes beyond truth and morality. Open societies are also, by and large, more effective than closed-off autocracies. . . . . Nobody can tell the strongman that he’s wrong or urge him to think twice before making a disastrous decision.
Which brings me back to America’s erstwhile Putin admirers. I’d like to think that they’ll take Russia’s Ukraine debacle as an object lesson and rethink their own hostility to democracy. OK, I don’t really expect that to happen. But we can always hope.
LONDON — Aglaia woke in the early hours to find that war had begun.
Her friend was packing to leave the country, so she rushed to her parents’ house and implored them to do the same.
Her relatives are among tens of thousands of people estimated to have escaped the increasingly hard-line oppression meted out by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime as he tries to crush any opposition to his struggling invasion. She asked not to be identified by her last name for fear of reprisals by Russia's state security services if she ever returns home.
[S]ome fear a new “Iron Curtain” may be closing as Putin leaves his country deeply isolated both culturally and economically from a scornful world.
“We were very scared,” said Aglaia, a student and activist who managed to get a rare plane ticket Thursday with her family to the Armenian capital, Yerevan, one of the few nearby places where Russian flights aren’t banned. “We just had this feeling of deep, deep sadness — but also mixed with anger.”
Younger liberals, like Aglaia, describe a country closing in on itself as the regime wields Orwellian totalitarian tactics so brutal that they outstrip anything seen during Putin’s two decades in power.
More than 150 Russian journalists have fled the country, according to the Russian investigative news website Agentsvo.
More than 13,500 protesters who have dared to take to the streets have been arrested, according to the independent human rights group OVD-Info. Social media video shows riot police beating demonstrators and dragging them along the ground.
Meanwhile, the Russian economy is tanking. . . . “This is the grimmest it has been since Putin came to power 23 years ago,” said Jonathan Eyal, an associate director at the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank.
“Companies are withdrawing not because they have to, but because there is a feeling that there will be a stain on their corporate reputation,” he said. “Once you are into that bandwagon effect, it is very difficult to reverse.”
Because the Kremlin hasn’t released official figures, it’s also difficult to know just how many Russians have fled. But from Helsinki and Tbilisi to Istanbul, there are reports of Russian influxes on planes and trains.
But actually getting out is easier said than done.
Dozens of countries in North America and Europe have closed their airspace to Russian aircraft. And the state carrier, Aeroflot, has stopped all international flights, a decision industry analysts say would prevent the seizing of planes leased from Western companies under international sanctions.
On the ground, tickets for the twice-daily, 3½-hour train to Helsinki topped 9,000 euros (about $9,800) last week. The cars have been so packed that its operator, Finland’s VR Group, has introduced a third daily service.
“Putin destroyed the lives of three countries — not just Ukraine but also Russia and Belarus, as well,” she said. “It is very important to segregate Putin’s regime and supporters from people who live in Russia. We’ve never wanted this to happen, and we’re strongly against it. But unfortunately they’re doing everything to shut us up.”
Although Putin has denied plans to introduce martial law, rumors alone were enough to prompt Aglaia and her family to make the painful decision to leave. They were also worried they would be targeted for their previous protests against Putin.
The BBC News article also looks at the flight of Russians out of Russia:
At Vaalimaa, Finland's border crossing with Russia - 120 miles east of Helsinki - buses and cars stop for passport and customs checks. These aren't Ukrainians, they're Russians, and although the flow isn't heavy, it is constant.
Some people are anxious to get out of Russia because there has been a persistent rumour that President Vladimir Putin's government might soon introduce martial law to deal with demonstrations against the invasion of Ukraine.
With flights to Europe halted, the only way out of the country is by car - crossing this border - or by train.
We spoke to one young Russian woman who was leaving for the West - one of the lucky ones who had an EU visa before the sanctions were announced. She was in despair at what has been happening.
She said most Russians don't want this war, but they risk going to jail if they try to stand up to Putin.
In Finland, there's immense sympathy for people like her - just as there is for Ukraine and its inhabitants. This sympathy, and the fear that Russia might lash out at other neighbours such as Finland itself, is changing attitudes to Finland's traditional leanings toward neutrality.
According to the latest opinion polls, a growing majority of Finns believe that it's time for their country to join Nato and access the protection that membership of the alliance would bring.
Back in Helsinki, the train from St Petersburg is pulling in, carrying hundreds more people anxious to flee Russia. Most trains are fully booked, with ticket prices soaring.
The amount of money passengers leaving Russia can bring is limited. The rouble is in a state of collapse; the Russian economy is threatened by sanctions and the withdrawal of many large Western companies. Russia's government is desperate to avoid a run on the banks.
Another woman who has left Russia, this time for Istanbul, told us by phone she had been terrified of a return to life as it was under the Soviet Union.
"I'm 30, I haven't seen the worst... the repressions, the secret police," she said. "I had a very clear fear that if I'm not going to fly out right now, I will not be able to fly out ever."
"On the one hand, it seems this is the moment to get out. On the other, there is a legitimate fear that you will not be able to see your friends and family for God knows how long, if ever."
It is sad that Putin is harming his own country's citizens but its obvious he doesn't care. All that matters are his delusions of granduer. He makes the rule of the tsar seem beneficent.
Thursday, March 10, 2022
Posting will be light today as the husband and I head to Key West for the first time in two years. In 2020 we left Key West on March 17, 2020, just as the restaurants and bars were being closed down in Florida statewide. Had we know about the "Don't Say Gay" Bill in Florida when we booked back in September, 2021, we might have considered a different destination. Today we are on a crack of dawn flight and hopefully will land in Key West a little after 11:00 am. As usual, we have a house sitter arranged to tend to the house. Posting will likely be daily and will provide a glimpse of our experiences and activities. Definitely on the schedule is brunch at Lattitudes, tea dance at La Te Da on Sunday's and this year we will also catch the caberet show at La Te Da. Given the ongoing events in the world, there will be my political/current events commentary.
Wednesday, March 09, 2022
If you’re hoping that the instability that Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine has wreaked on global markets and geopolitics has peaked, your hope is in vain. We haven’t seen anything yet. Wait until Putin fully grasps that his only choices left in Ukraine are how to lose — early and small and a little humiliated or late and big and deeply humiliated.
I can’t even wrap my mind around what kind of financial and political shocks will radiate from Russia — this country that is the world’s third-largest oil producer and possesses some 6,000 nuclear warheads — when it loses a war of choice that was spearheaded by one man, who can never afford to admit defeat.
Why not? Because Putin surely knows that “the Russian national tradition is unforgiving of military setbacks,” observed Leon Aron, a Russia expert at the American Enterprise Institute, who is writing a book about Putin’s road to Ukraine.
“Virtually every major defeat has resulted in radical change,” added Aron, writing in The Washington Post. “The Crimean War (1853-1856) precipitated Emperor Alexander II’s liberal revolution from above. The Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) brought about the First Russian Revolution. The catastrophe of World War I resulted in Emperor Nicholas II’s abdication and the Bolshevik Revolution. And the war in Afghanistan became a key factor in Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms.” Also, retreating from Cuba contributed significantly to Nikita Khrushchev’s removal two years later.
In the coming weeks it will become more and more obvious that our biggest problem with Putin in Ukraine is that he will refuse to lose early and small, and the only other outcome is that he will lose big and late. But because this is solely his war and he cannot admit defeat, he could keep doubling down in Ukraine until … until he contemplates using a nuclear weapon.
Why do I say that defeat in Ukraine is Putin’s only option, that only the timing and size is in question? Because the easy, low-cost invasion he envisioned and the welcome party from Ukrainians he imagined were total fantasies — and everything flows from that.
Putin completely underestimated Ukraine’s will to be independent and become part of the West. He completely underestimated the will of many Ukrainians to fight, even if it meant dying, for those two goals. He completely overestimated his own armed forces. He completely underestimated President Biden’s ability to galvanize a global economic and military coalition to enable Ukrainians to stand and fight and to devastate Russia at home — the most effective U.S. coalition-building effort since George H.W. Bush made Saddam Hussein pay for his folly of seizing Kuwait. And he completely underestimated the ability of companies and individuals all over the world to participate in, and amplify, economic sanctions on Russia — far beyond anything governments initiated or mandated.
When you get that many things wrong as a leader, your best option is to lose early and small. In Putin’s case that would mean withdrawing his forces from Ukraine immediately; offering a face-saving lie to justify his “special military operation,” like claiming it successfully protected Russians living in Ukraine; and promising to help Russians’ brethren rebuild. But the inescapable humiliation would surely be intolerable for this man obsessed with restoring the dignity and unity of what he sees as the Russian motherland.
Incidentally, the way things are going on the ground in Ukraine right now, it is not out of the realm of possibility that Putin could actually lose early and big. I would not bet on it, but with every passing day that more and more Russian soldiers are killed in Ukraine, who knows what happens to the fighting spirit of the conscripts in the Russian Army being asked to fight a deadly urban war against fellow Slavs for a cause that was never really explained to them.
[F]or Putin to “win” militarily on the ground his army will need to subdue every major city in Ukraine. That includes the capital, Kyiv — after probably weeks of urban warfare and massive civilian casualties. In short, it can be done only by Putin and his generals perpetrating war crimes not seen in Europe since Hitler. It will make Putin’s Russia a permanent international pariah.
Moreover, how would Putin maintain control of another country — Ukraine — that has roughly one-third the population of Russia, with many residents hostile to Moscow?
There is simply no pathway that I see for Putin to win in Ukraine in any sustainable way because it simply is not the country he thought it was — a country just waiting for a quick decapitation of its “Nazi” leadership so that it could gently fall back into the bosom of Mother Russia.
So either he cuts his losses now and eats crow — and hopefully for him escapes enough sanctions to revive the Russian economy and hold onto power — or faces a forever war against Ukraine and much of the world, which will slowly sap Russia’s strength and collapse its infrastructure.
As he seems hellbent on the latter, I am terrified. Because there is only one thing worse than a strong Russia under Putin — and that’s a weak, humiliated, disorderly Russia that could fracture or be in a prolonged internal leadership turmoil, with different factions wrestling for power and with all of those nuclear warheads, cybercriminals and oil and gas wells lying around.
Putin’s Russia is not too big to fail. It is, however, too big to fail in a way that won’t shake the whole rest of the world.
Be very afraid. Also, the fact that Trump said Putin's self-chosen war was "genius" underscores Trump's stupidity and unfitness to ever hold any office ever again.
Republicans’ undiminished backing of former president Donald Trump (Russia’s most effective propagandist) — and their acquittal of him for extorting the current international hero, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, by withholding military aid — must weigh heavily on them. Desperate not only to show they really are tough on Russian leader Vladimir Putin, but also that President Biden is weak, they somewhat comically keep complaining that Biden is not doing “enough” to aid Ukraine.
When the first tranche of sanctions against Russia came out, Republicans insisted this was insufficient — only to have both the European Union and the Biden administration layer on, day after day, the most crippling sanctions against a country of this size in history. Then the cry went up to knock Russia off SWIFT, the international bank-messaging system. Biden did one better, cutting off Russia’s central bank.
Despite Republicans’ whining, the tightly coordinated E.U. and U.S. sanctions are bringing Russia’s economy to its knees. The ruble hits a new low practically every day, having lost as of Monday more than 80 percent of its value against the dollar. As the Financial Times reported, “Moscow’s equity markets are suspended, trading in many Russian companies listed abroad is halted, and bonds are almost impossible to trade.” Things are so awful, Russians are now pouring out of the country, and oligarchs are grumbling. (“Russians are fleeing the country as sanctions lead to closed borders, food rationing and the actual threat of a banking system collapse within days,” Forbes reports.)
Then, the Republicans — who just days ago were decrying rising fuel prices — decided that cutting off Russian oil imports would be the telltale sign we really were getting tough on Russia. Yet as former auto industry czar Steven Rattner explains: “That would be a noble — but utterly meaningless — gesture. In 2020, only 0.4% of our crude oil came from Russia (and our imports of oil constituted just 1% of Russia’s oil exports).”
At least for now, the European Union cannot align with the United States on a Russian oil import ban. There simply isn’t excess capacity to make up for the amount of oil and natural gas that Europe imports from Russia.
Republicans also insist we are not doing enough to arm Ukraine. Really? While we are still figuring out how to get fighter planes into Ukrainian hands, “In less than a week, the United States and NATO have pushed more than 17,000 antitank weapons, including Javelin missiles, over the borders of Poland and Romania, unloading them from giant military cargo planes so they can make the trip by land to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, and other major cities,” the New York Times reports. U.S. teams are also helping “to interfere with Russia’s digital attacks and communications.”
And the extent and speed of intelligence sharing is jaw-dropping. “In Washington and Germany,” the Times reports, “intelligence officials race to merge satellite photographs with electronic intercepts of Russian military units, strip them of hints of how they were gathered, and beam them to Ukrainian military units within an hour or two.”
Might it be that Biden is doing everything humanly possible short of starting World War III to help Ukraine, and Republicans have no real basis for complaint?
Most Republicans, certainly the right-wing pundits in their media bubble, find it impossible even in times of war to put aside any perceived partisan advantage. In a war critical for the defense of democracy, they’ll keep on searching for something to criticize. So don’t expect the disingenuous whining to stop.
Once again I find myself embarrassed for ever having been a Republican both because of the GOP's behavior in the instant crisis and because the party is pursuing the same anti-gay agenda that Putin utilized to gain the support of Christian extremists in Russia. Do these Republicans never look in the mirror and realize they are looking at the biggest domestic problem with America today?
Tuesday, March 08, 2022
In deciding to invade Ukraine, Vladimir Putin clearly misjudged everything. He had an exaggerated view of his own nation’s military might; my description last week of Russia as a Potemkin superpower, with far less strength than meets the eye, looks even truer now. He vastly underrated Ukrainian morale and military prowess, and failed to anticipate the resolve of democratic governments — especially, although not only, the Biden administration, which, in case you haven’t noticed, has done a remarkable job on everything from arming Ukraine to rallying the West around financial sanctions.
I can’t add anything to the discussion of the war itself, although I will note that much of the commentary I’ve been reading says that Russian forces are regrouping and will resume large-scale advances in a day or two — and has been saying that, day after day, for more than a week.
What I think I can add, however, is some analysis of the effects of sanctions, and in particular an answer to one question I keep being asked: Can China, by offering itself as an alternative trading partner, bail out Putin’s economy?
No, it can’t.
Let’s talk first about the impact of those sanctions.
One thing the West conspicuously hasn’t done is try to block Russian sales of oil and gas — the country’s principal exports. Oh, the United States might ban imports of Russian oil, but this would be a symbolic gesture: Oil is traded on a global market, so this would just reshuffle trade a bit . . . .
The West has, however, largely cut off Russia’s access to the world banking system, which is a very big deal. Russian exporters may be able to get their stuff out of the country, but it’s now hard for them to get paid. Probably even more important, it’s hard for Russia to pay for imports — sorry, but you can’t carry out modern international trade with briefcases full of $100 bills. In fact, even Russian trade that remains legally permitted seems to be drying up as Western companies that fear further restrictions and a political backlash engage in “self-sanctioning.”
How much does this matter? The Russian elite can live without Prada handbags, but Western pharmaceuticals are another matter. In any case, consumer goods are only about a third of Russia’s imports. The rest are capital goods, intermediate goods — that is, components used in the production of other goods — and raw materials. These are things Russia needs to keep its economy running, and their absence may cause important sectors to grind to a halt.
But can China provide Putin with an economic lifeline? I’d say no, for four reasons.
First, China, despite being an economic powerhouse, isn’t in a position to supply some things Russia needs, like spare parts for Western-made airplanes and high-end semiconductor chips.
Second, while China itself isn’t joining in the sanctions, it is deeply integrated into the world economy. This means that Chinese banks and other businesses, like Western corporations, may engage in self-sanctioning. . . . for fear of a backlash from consumers and regulators in more important markets.
Third, China and Russia are very far apart geographically. Yes, they share a border. But most of Russia’s economy is west of the Urals, while most of China’s is near its east coast. Beijing is 3,500 miles from Moscow, and the only practical way to move stuff across that vast expanse is via a handful of train lines that are already overstressed.
Finally, a point I don’t think gets enough emphasis is the extreme difference in economic power between Russia and China.
Some politicians are warning about a possible “arc of autocracy” reminiscent of the World War II Axis — and given the atrocities underway, that’s not an outlandish comparison. But the partners in any such arc would be wildly unequal.
Putin may dream of restoring Soviet-era greatness, but China’s economy, which was roughly the same size as Russia’s 30 years ago, is now 10 times as large.
So if you try to imagine the creation of some neofascist alliance — and again, that no longer sounds like extreme language — it would be one in which Russia would be very much the junior partner, indeed very nearly a Chinese client state. Presumably that’s not what Putin, with his imperial dreams, has in mind.
China, then, can’t insulate Russia from the consequences of the Ukraine invasion. It’s true that the economic squeeze on Russia would be even tighter if China joined the democratic world in punishing aggression. But that squeeze is looking very severe even without Chinese participation. Russia is going to pay a very high price, in money as well as blood, for Putin’s megalomania.
Let's hope this analysis is spot on.
Monday, March 07, 2022
The outpouring of admiration for President Volodymyr Zelensky and the bravery of the Ukrainian people is rooted in healthy impulses. In overwhelming numbers, Americans recognize authentic virtue when we see it and understand that this struggle really is about freedom, democracy and justice.
But beneath our appreciation for a nobly embattled foreign leader lurks a form of avoidance, a wish that we might redeem our own democracy vicariously without facing up to our division, polarization and decay. We come together behind Zelensky partly because we can unite on little else.
At our most optimistic, we might imagine that Vladimir Putin’s aggression has, at long last, unleashed a come-to-democracy moment.
This is already underway in Europe, where leaders of nationalist parties who once heaped praise on Putin are fleeing him in embarrassment. In France, the National Rally Party of far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has ordered its organizers to throw away 1.2 million pamphlets that featured Le Pen shaking hands with Putin. With French voting starting April 10, she doesn’t have a lot of time for her Putin cleansing operation.
In the United States, we can be grateful that Ukraine’s cause draws support across the political spectrum. Witness the applause when President Biden denounced Putin and embraced Zelensky and the Ukrainian people in his State of the Union speech.
But Zelensky should not be used as a source of cheap grace. We cannot ignore the shadows that have fallen across American democracy, cast largely by the power of an increasingly antidemocratic far right in the Republican Party.
Republicans have been very slow in coming to terms with the depth of Putinization that Donald Trump bred in their party. The former president will now forever be remembered as the man whose initial reaction to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was to call it an act of “genius.”
I suppose it’s a good sign that former vice president Mike Pence — very, very belatedly — now says “there is no room in this party for apologists for Putin.” But Republicans largely sidestep Trump and ignore the many ways he undermined Zelensky while in office. Their preferred path, reflected in the reply of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) to Biden’s State of the Union address, is to blame Putin’s aggression on Biden’s “weakness on the world stage” . . .
Reynolds’s speech reflected a central current in the GOP — to get on the right side of popular sentiment in favor of Ukraine without cutting ties to Trump, and without giving Biden any credit for his work in corralling a broad global coalition against Russia’s imperial adventure.
Couldn’t Republicans shelve their reflexive hostility toward Biden for at least the initial spell of the Ukraine crisis? This is what Democrats did after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But we now seem incapable of recognizing common ground, even where it exists.
And until Putin discredited himself entirely with his Ukraine aggression, the Russian leader had successfully weaponized social divisions among Western democracies to make their politics even more dysfunctional. He built a following by casting himself as a foe of permissiveness, feminism, LGBTQ activists, secularists and diversity advocates. The more he aggravated feelings around these issues — in alliance with politicians who had an interest in driving wedges — the weaker he made the democracies.
With his criminal assault on Ukraine, Putin has reminded the world of where nationalist authoritarianism can lead and how costly a smash-mouth brand of politics that accentuates and exaggerates our differences can be. At the same time, the courage shown by Zelensky and his fellow Ukrainians in standing up to brutality should give heart to all defenders of democracy and self-rule.
But Zelensky can’t save anyone else’s democracy. We have to do this ourselves. Perhaps this terrible episode will help us recognize that our shared commitment to democracy runs a lot deeper than we thought. We need to come together to fight for it — starting at home.
Sunday, March 06, 2022
Americans rarely pay much attention to international events. Busy lives leave little time for distant events with unfamiliar protagonists.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine has become a rare exception, its butchery in plain view via saturation coverage for anyone with a video screen. But Americans may not yet have absorbed this disturbing reality: The American president who left office just 14 months ago sided with the butcher.
That's right: In the struggle now uniting the free world against an autocrat's lawless aggression, America's most recent ex-President sided with the autocrat.
It's not just that Donald Trump recently hailed the "genius" of Putin's strike against Ukraine. Since his political career began, Trump has backed Putin in ways connected directly to the Russian's quest to subjugate that country.
For years, relations between Russia and the celebrity real estate executive were lubricated by money. There was the development financing Trump's sons boasted about, the Palm Beach mansion he sold to a Russian oligarch for $95 million four years after buying it for $41 million, the Manhattan project in association with a mob-linked Russian émigré.
He sought to place a Trump Tower in Moscow even as he ran for president. In 2013, when he staged a beauty pageant there, Trump asked on Twitter: "Will (Putin) become my new best friend?"
Putin seized Crimea from Ukraine the following year. Protests in Kyiv had forced a Kremlin ally to quit the presidency. The ousted president, who fled to Russia, had been advised by an American political consultant. That consultant, Paul Manafort, subsequently became Trump's 2016 campaign manager.
Candidate Trump spoke forgivingly about Russia's violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. He mused about lifting sanctions to smooth relations with Putin. "The people of Crimea, from what I've heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were," Trump told ABC News in July 2016. That had been Putin's justification for the invasion.
His administration implemented some new sanctions on Russia at the insistence of national security officials and Congress. Trump himself objected.
"In almost every case, the sanctions were imposed with Trump complaining about it and saying we were being too hard," his former national security adviser John Bolton said on Newsmax recently.
Russia menaced Ukraine throughout Trump's term. He strengthened Putin's hand in several ways. Trump cast doubt on America's decades-old commitment to defending European partners in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Aides feared he might try to withdraw from NATO if he won a second term.
He fomented discord at home, advancing Putin's objective of sapping American resolve. . . . Trump shielded Russia from opprobrium. Echoing Russian propaganda, he led fellow Republicans in smearing Ukraine by falsely suggesting that Kyiv rather than Moscow had interfered in the 2016 US presidential election.
"This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves," Fiona Hill, who had directed Russia policy on Trump's National Security Council, told a congressional impeachment inquiry in 2019.
Republicans protecting Trump cast the impeachment as Democratic partisanship. But it traced back to Trump's alignment with Russia against its vulnerable neighbor.
Things haven't worked out as either Trump or Putin wanted. Trump lost his reelection bid. Biden, who defeated him, now leads the global effort to stop Putin's aggression.
Instead of splintering under military and economic pressure, NATO and the European Union have pulled together in support of Ukraine. Within the US, the two normally brawling political parties have joined to condemn Russian savagery.
Republican senators who voted to acquit Trump of those impeachment charges applauded as Biden excoriated the Russian leader in last week's State of the Union address. A Republican-sponsored "Putin Accountability Act" in Congress seeks to sanction, among others, the Russian oligarch who more than doubled Trump's money on that Palm Beach mansion.
The former President remains the leading candidate for the Republican Party's nomination in 2024. But the longer the bloodshed in Ukraine goes on, the bigger a liability Putin will become.
Trump and those around him had wanted the controversy to go away. His former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, . . . "Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?" Pompeo shouted at National Public Radio's Mary Louise Kelly.
They may not have cared then. Unfortunately for Trump, they care now.
We cannot forget Trump's role in emboldening Putin.