Saturday, April 30, 2022
THE MIGHT of the modern Russian army was supposed to show the world that President Vladimir Putin had restored his country to greatness after the humiliation of the Soviet collapse. Instead, poor progress and heavy losses in Ukraine have exposed deep flaws within Russia. For those threatened by Mr Putin’s aggression, a diminished army is a relief. Unfortunately, it also leaves a nuclear-armed power with a point to prove.
So far, the invasion of Ukraine has been a disaster for Russia’s armed forces. About 15,000 troops have been killed in two months of fighting, according to Britain’s government. At least 1,600 armoured vehicles have been destroyed, along with dozens of aircraft and the flagship of the Black Sea fleet. The assault on the capital, Kyiv, was a chaotic failure.
Leon Trotsky wrote that “the army is a copy of society and suffers from all its diseases, usually at a higher temperature”. Fighting in the east and the south of Ukraine over the next few weeks will not only determine the course of the war, but it will also determine how much the Russian army can salvage its reputation—and the reputation of the society it embodies.
Russia’s defence budget, of over $250bn at purchasing power, is about three times that of Britain or France, but much of it is squandered or stolen. Mr Putin and his top commanders kept their invasion plans from senior officers, reflecting a crippling lack of trust. Disaffected troops, fed on out-of-date rations, have deserted their vehicles. Units have tortured, raped and murdered only to be honoured by the Kremlin. Russia has failed to win control of the skies or combine air power with tanks, artillery and infantry. Wallowing in corruption, unable to foster initiative or learn from their mistakes, its frustrated generals abandoned advanced military doctrine and fell back on flattening cities and terrorising civilians.
Ukraine’s highly motivated forces are a rebuke to these Russian failings. Despite being less numerous and less well armed, they resisted the invading army by passing decision-making to small, adaptable local units given up-to-the-minute intelligence.
For Mr Putin this is a crushing setback. That is partly because, although he controls a formidable propaganda machine to help drown out his critics, the loss of face threatens his standing at home. It is mostly because the use of military force is central to his strategy for making Russia count in the world.
Russia may be vast, but it is a medium-sized polity that still yearns to be a superpower. Its population ranks between Bangladesh and Mexico, its economy between Brazil and South Korea and its share of global exports between Taiwan and Switzerland. . . . its soft power is ebbing—hastened by its display of incompetence and brutality in Ukraine.
To fill the gap between its power and aspirations—and to resist what he sees as America’s encroachment—Mr Putin has repeatedly turned to the only sphere where Russia can still purport to be world-class: military force. In the past 14 years he has invaded Georgia and Ukraine (twice) and fought in Syria.. . . Mr Putin is a global bully obsessed with his country’s inadequacies. Contrast that with China, which also has ambitions, but has so far been able to get results using its growing economic and diplomatic heft.
Humiliation in Ukraine weakens Russia’s last claim to superpower status. The war may yet drag on, and while it does Russia will not be able to mount big operations elsewhere. . . . Should sanctions remain because Mr Putin is still in power, the task will require even longer. Russian missiles are chock-full of Western components. The flight of talented, outward-looking Russians will weigh on the economy. All the while, the less that Russia can project military power, the less it will be able to disrupt the rest of the world.
That will be welcome. Yet, the invasion of Ukraine also holds lessons that are less comforting. For one thing, it shows that in pursuit of this strategy Mr Putin is willing to take risks that to many others—including many Russians—make no sense. Further decline in Russian power could lead to still more reckless aggression.
Ukraine also shows that in future wars if Russian forces cannot prevail on the battlefield, they will resort to atrocities. A weaker Russian army could be an even more brutal one. For those around the world facing Russian aggression, that is a terrible prospect.
Ultimately, weakness may lead Russia to the last arena where it is still indisputably a superpower: chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. . . . . as Russia’s armed forces run out of conventional options, the temptation to escalate will surely grow.
The message for the wider world is that Mr Putin’s military opportunism in Ukraine must be seen to fail by his own officers and strategists, who may then temper his next headstrong scheme. A stalemate in Donbas would merely set up the next fight and it could be even more threatening than today’s.
Yet, even if Mr Putin is defeated, he will remain dangerous. The message for NATO is that it needs to update its tripwire defence. This rests on the idea that a Russian attempt to take a bite out of, say, the Baltic states may succeed at first, but would trigger a wider war which NATO would eventually win. That defence involves the risk of miscalculation and escalation, which are more fraught than ever if Russia’s conventional forces are weak. Better to have a large forward force that Russia would find hard to defeat from the very start. The best way to be safe from Mr Putin and his rotten army is to deter him from fighting at all.
Friday, April 29, 2022
Thursday, April 28, 2022
People might be confused about how a Republican Party that once worried about government overreach now seeks to control medical care for transgender children and retaliate against a corporation for objecting to a bill targeting LGBTQ students. And why is it that the most ambitious Republicans are spending more time battling nonexistent critical race theory in schools than on health care or inflation?
To explain this, one must acknowledge that the GOP is not a political party anymore. It is a movement dedicated to imposing White Christian nationalism.
The media blandly describes the GOP’s obsessions as “culture wars,” but that suggests there is another side seeking to impose its views on others. In reality, only one side is repudiating pluralistic democracy — White, Christian and mainly rural Americans who are becoming a minority group and want to maintain their political power.
The result is an alarming pattern: Any moment of social progress is soon followed by reactionary panic and claims of victimhood. It’s no mere coincidence that Donald Trump, the leader of the birther movement, succeeded the first African American president. Nor should the anti-critical-race-theory movement surprise anyone given the mass protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020. Understanding this phenomenon is crucial to preserving pluralistic democracy.
Sherrilyn Ifill, former head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, recently recalled the period of protest after Floyd’s murder in an engrossing podcast with former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. The movement, Ifill explained, was the first time many Americans collectively empathized with those who had experienced systemic injustice. But “those who are arrayed in opposition to justice and equality have not lost sight of it,” she said. “What they saw [in the protests] is part of what undergirds the current movement that you’re seeing around the country right now.”
Thus, Ifill argued, the MAGA crowd is frantically maneuvering to halt education “about the truth of the history of racism and white supremacy, of the struggle for justice in this country.” The goal is to stymie the development of children’s empathy and awareness of racial injustice.
[T]he MAGA response is an effort to conserve power and to counteract the sense of a shared fate with Americans who historically have been marginalized. The right now defines itself not with policies but with its angry tone, its malicious labeling and insults (e.g., “groomer,” “woke”), and its targeting of LGBTQ youths and dehumanization of immigrants. Right-wingers’ attempt to cast their opponents as sick, dangerous and — above all — not “real Americans” is as critical to securing power as voter suppression.
The indignation of MAGA personalities when presented with the reality of systematic racism is telling and very much in line with White evangelical Christian views. As Robert P. Jones, the head of the Public Religion Research Institute who has written extensively on the evangelical movement, explained in an interview with Governing:
What we saw in the 20th century was that edifice of white supremacy that got built with the support of white Christian leaders and pastors and churches. Once it was built, the best way to protect it was to make it invisible, to create a kind of theology that was so inward focused that Christianity was only about personal piety. It was disconnected from social justice, politics, the world. It led white Christians to be fairly narcissistic and indifferent to injustice all around them.
[R]arely has [Martin Luther] King’s admonition been more appropriate: “I have watched white churches stand on the sidelines and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, ‘Those are social issues which the gospel has nothing to do with.’ ”
Today, those who argue that America is a White, Christian nation simultaneously insist they are devoid of bigotry. The MAGA crowd is offended by any attempt to identify the ongoing reality of systemic racism . . . . The notion that institutions they refuse to reform perpetuate racism is a sort of moral challenge to their claim to be “colorblind.” Perhaps it is simply self-interested blindness.
[T]he “big lie” has become gospel in White evangelical churches. The New York Times reports: “In the 17 months since the presidential election, pastors at these churches have preached about fraudulent votes and vague claims of election meddling. … For these church leaders, Mr. Trump’s narrative of the 2020 election has become a prominent strain in an apocalyptic vision of the left running amok.”
If anti-critical-race-theory crusades are the response to racial empathy, then laws designed to make voting harder or to subvert elections are the answer to the GOP’s defeat in 2020, which the right still refuses to concede. The election has been transformed into a plot against right-wingers that must be rectified by further marginalizing those outside their movement.
Our political problems are significant, but they are minor compared with the moral confusion that is afflicting the millions of White Christian Americans who consider themselves victims. Left unaddressed, this will smother calls for empathy, tolerance and justice.
While not Native American - the only true Americans - with ancestors who arrived in New England in the 1600, Louisiana a few years after the founding of New Orleans, and Charleston in the early 1700, I reject the claims that I am not a "real American." The irony is that many on the far right arrived in America much later and are the true interlopers.
Wednesday, April 27, 2022
KNOXVILLE, Iowa — In 2020, Donald Trump won this state, and its governor and two U.S. senators are Republicans. Just one of Iowa’s four House representatives is a Democrat, and it has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 2012.
Yet there was President Biden with our one Democratic representative, Cindy Axne, in Menlo (population 345), about 45 miles west of Des Moines, to publicize a policy change about ethanol that could help ease gas prices and expand the rural economy. He was there even though he lost Menlo’s county, Guthrie, to Mr. Trump in 2020 by a whopping 36 percentage points.
In under two years in office, President Biden has done more for places like Guthrie County and other parts of rural America than Mr. Trump ever did. The rural economy is stronger, wages are higher and infrastructure projects are popping up all over.
Mr. Biden and his fellow Democrats are responsible for many of the improvements and for bringing back a sense of stability. For the midterms, they should run on these successes — the American Rescue Plan, the infrastructure bill. And they should run on why they have worked: Democrats should run on Democratic values.
Last week, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and Representative Axne noted that $5 billion from the infrastructure bill will reach Iowa and is targeted to help rural areas. The infrastructure bill is so obviously beneficial to the communities that even Republicans who voted against it are taking credit.
Inflation is a big problem here, as it is everywhere. But Mr. Biden is doing what he can to alleviate its impact. In Menlo, he announced that he was temporarily lifting environmental restrictions on the sale of gasoline with 15 percent ethanol, called E15, to help lower fuel costs and our nation’s dependence on foreign oil.
Furthermore, many places far from cities are facing health care crises, with more than 450 rural hospitals in danger of closing. With funds from the American Rescue Plan, the Biden administration program Emergency Rural Health Care Grants will award up to $43 million to benefit 2.2 million people across 22 states.
It’s not all about what the president has done; some of his success is in what he has undone or cleaned up. Last May, Mr. Biden ended the ill-conceived Farmers to Families Food Box Program, which was intended to get provisions to families. Some families benefited, but it was unfortunately, at the height of the pandemic, a boondoggle. A new supply chain had to get the boxes from farmers to food banks that competed directly with local grocery stores. The program was mismanaged and used for political gain.
It would have been much more cost-efficient to expand SNAP payments, which the Biden administration did. A report from the Department of Agriculture shows that federal food benefits have more than twice the impact on rural communities as they do in urban areas.
It was largely overlooked at the time, but Mr. Trump’s trade wars and tariffs inflicted a lot of damage in some rural areas reliant on food exports — so much so that the government made payouts to farmers of about $46 billion.
And the Biden administration recently said that it intends to provide $1 billion in American Rescue Plan funds to help independent meat producers be more competitive. This will help make our food supply more resilient, addressing problems exposed at the height of the pandemic.
So will what President Biden has done for so many rural Americans improve the electoral fortunes of Democrats in places like Iowa? When it comes to the midterms, the problem is not really about Mr. Biden himself but about long-running trends, and the only way to alter those trends is to change the perception of Democrats on the national level.
This year, much of it will depend on what Democrats do before November, and how they engage. As I said, they should celebrate victories — like the American Rescue Plan, which supported a wave of spending on construction projects and programs across America. Too often, Democrats leave it to Republicans to set the agenda and frame issues, or blame conservative media.
Democrats should be proud of what the party has been and is — the party of Social Security, Medicare and Obamacare, of greater opportunity for more and more Americans — and what it is and what it stands for, and their values: for smart government being part of the solution, not the problem; for health care as a right, not a privilege; for clean water and air and effective climate solutions; for taxation that doesn’t favor the rich; for equal opportunity for all; for life chances and opportunities that aren’t determined by one’s ZIP code, race, gender, faith, sexual orientation or gender identity.
These are Democratic values. They can play everywhere, including in rural America. Run on those.
Tuesday, April 26, 2022
In the terrible winter of 1932–33, brigades of Communist Party activists went house to house in the Ukrainian countryside, looking for food. The brigades were from Moscow, Kyiv, and Kharkiv, as well as villages down the road. They dug up gardens, broke open walls, and used long rods to poke up chimneys, searching for hidden grain. They watched for smoke coming from chimneys, because that might mean a family had hidden flour and was baking bread. They led away farm animals and confiscated tomato seedlings. After they left, Ukrainian peasants, deprived of food, ate rats, frogs, and boiled grass. They gnawed on tree bark and leather. Many resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. Some 4 million died of starvation.
At the time, the activists felt no guilt. Soviet propaganda had repeatedly told them that supposedly wealthy peasants, whom they called kulaks, were saboteurs and enemies—rich, stubborn landowners who were preventing the Soviet proletariat from achieving the utopia that its leaders had promised. The kulaks should be swept away, crushed like parasites or flies.
Years later, the Ukrainian-born Soviet defector Viktor Kravchenko wrote about what it was like to be part of one of those brigades. . . . . He also described how political jargon and euphemisms helped camouflage the reality of what they were doing.
Lev Kopelev, another Soviet writer who as a young man had served in an activist brigade in the countryside (later he spent years in the Gulag), had very similar reflections. He too had found that clichés and ideological language helped him hide what he was doing, even from himself:
I persuaded myself, explained to myself. I mustn’t give in to debilitating pity. We were realizing historical necessity. We were performing our revolutionary duty. We were obtaining grain for the socialist fatherland. For the five-year plan.
There was no need to feel sympathy for the peasants. They did not deserve to exist. Their rural riches would soon be the property of all.
But the kulaks were not rich; they were starving. The countryside was not wealthy; it was a wasteland.
Nine decades have passed since those events took place. The Soviet Union no longer exists. The works of Kopelev, Kravchenko, and Grossman have long been available to Russian readers who want them. . . . Once, we assumed that the mere telling of these stories would make it impossible for anyone to repeat them. But although the same books are theoretically still available, few people buy them. Memorial, the most important historical society in Russia, has been forced to close. Official museums and monuments to the victims remain small and obscure. Instead of declining, the Russian state’s ability to disguise reality from its citizens and to dehumanize its enemies has grown stronger and more powerful than ever.
Nowadays, less violence is required to misinform the public: There have been no mass arrests in Putin’s Russia on the scale used in Stalin’s Russia. Perhaps there don’t need to be, because Russian state-run television, the primary source of information for most Russians, is more entertaining, more sophisticated, more stylish than programs on the crackly radios of Stalin’s era. Social media is far more addictive and absorbing than the badly printed newspapers of that era, too.
The modern Russian state has also set the bar lower. Instead of offering its citizens a vision of utopia, it wants them to be cynical and passive; whether they actually believe what the state tells them is irrelevant. Although Soviet leaders lied, they tried to make their falsehoods seem real. . . . . In Putin’s Russia, politicians and television personalities play a different game, one that we in America know from the political campaigns of Donald Trump. They lie constantly, blatantly, obviously. But if you accuse them of lying, they don’t bother to offer counterarguments. . . . . This constant stream of falsehoods produces not outrage, but apathy. Given so many explanations, how can you know whether anything is ever true? What if nothing is ever true?
[M]odern Russian propaganda has for the past decade focused on enemies. Russians are told very little about what happens in their own towns or cities. As a result, they aren’t forced, as Soviet citizens once were, to confront the gap between reality and fiction. Instead, they are told constantly about places they don’t know and have mostly never seen: America, France and Britain, Sweden and Poland—places filled with degeneracy, hypocrisy, and “Russophobia.”
If anything, the portrayal of America has been worse. U.S. citizens who rarely think about Russia would be stunned to learn how much time Russian state television devotes to the American people, American politics, even American culture wars.
Within the ever-changing drama of anger and fear that unfolds every night on the Russian evening news, Ukraine has long played a special role. In Russian propaganda, Ukraine is a fake country, one without history or legitimacy, a place that is, in the words of Putin himself, nothing more than the “southwest” of Russia, an inalienable part of Russia’s “history, culture and spiritual space.” Worse, Putin says, this fake state has been weaponized by the degenerate, dying Western powers into a hostile “anti-Russia.”
Putin invaded Ukraine in order to turn it into a colony with a puppet regime himself, because he cannot conceive of it ever being anything else. His KGB-influenced imagination does not allow for the possibility of authentic politics, grassroots movements, even public opinion. In Putin’s language, and in the language of most Russian television commentators, the Ukrainians have no agency. They can’t make choices for themselves. They can’t elect a government for themselves. They aren’t even human—they are “Nazis.” And so, like the kulaks before them, they can be eliminated with no remorse.
But while not every use of genocidal hate speech leads to genocide, all genocides have been preceded by genocidal hate speech. The modern Russian propaganda state turned out to be the ideal vehicle both for carrying out mass murder and for hiding it from the public. The gray apparatchiks, FSB operatives, and well-coiffed anchorwomen who organize and conduct the national conversation had for years been preparing their compatriots to feel no pity for Ukraine.
They succeeded. From the first days of the war, it was evident that the Russian military had planned in advance for many civilians, perhaps millions, to be killed, wounded, or displaced from their homes in Ukraine. Other assaults on cities throughout history—Dresden, Coventry, Hiroshima, Nagasaki—took place only after years of terrible conflict. By contrast, systematic bombardment of civilians in Ukraine began only days into an unprovoked invasion. In the first week of the war, Russian missiles and artillery targeted apartment blocks, hospitals, and schools. . . . . In the first three weeks of the war alone, Human Rights Watch documented cases of summary execution, rape, and the mass looting of civilian property. .
Mariupol, a mostly Russian-speaking city the size of Miami, was subjected to almost total devastation. . . . Men, women, and children died of starvation and dehydration. Those who tried to escape were fired upon. Outsiders who tried to bring in supplies were fired upon as well. The bodies of the dead, both Ukrainian civilians and Russian soldiers, lay in the street, unburied, for many days.
The dehumanization of the Ukrainians was completed in early April, when RIA Novosti, a state-run website, published an article arguing that the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine would require the “liquidation” of the Ukrainian leadership, and even the erasure of the very name of Ukraine, because to be Ukrainian was to be a Nazi: “Ukrainianism is an artificial anti-Russian construct, which does not have any civilizational content of its own, and is a subordinate element of a foreign and alien civilization.”
Few feel remorse. Published recordings of telephone calls between Russian soldiers and their families—they are using ordinary SIM cards, so it’s easy to listen to them—are full of contempt for Ukrainians. “I shot the car,” one soldier tells a woman, perhaps his wife or sister, in one of the calls. “Shoot the motherfuckers,” she responds, “as long as it’s not you. Fuck them. Fucking drug addicts and Nazis.”
All of this—the indifference to violence, the amoral nonchalance about mass murder, even the disdain for the lives of Russian soldiers—is familiar to anyone who knows Soviet history (or German history, for that matter). But Russian citizens and Russian soldiers either don’t know that history or don’t care about it.
There was no reckoning after the Ukrainian famine, or the Gulag, or the Great Terror of 1937–38, no moment when the perpetrators expressed formal, institutional regret. Now we have the result.
Monday, April 25, 2022
The robust victory of France’s middle-of-the-road President Emmanuel Macron in Sunday’s election is good news for the Western alliance on behalf of Ukraine and bad news for Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Macron’s reelection is also a triumph for the European Union and a setback for those who would weaken it or break it up.
And the defeat of far-right leader Marine Le Pen dealt an important blow to nationalist forces in Europe focused on limiting immigration and marginalizing immigrants, particularly Muslims. It was thus a victory for democracy as well.
The size of Macron’s margin — projected at 59 percent to Le Pen’s 41 percent — was more comfortable than many of his supporters expected even two weeks ago, when Macron and Le Pen advanced to the decisive round.
It reflected Macron’s success in making the dangers of a Le Pen presidency more salient to key voter groups than their frustrations with inflation, their sense that he is out of touch, and a conviction among progressives that while he promised five years ago to be neither right nor left, he governed more from the center-right.
Macron was especially effective in tying Le Pen to Putin. While Macron’s quest for better relations with Putin brought him criticism from the Russian dictator’s adversaries in the West, Le Pen’s closeness to Putin (and her party’s financial ties to a Russian bank) gave the incumbent a fat target, which he hit squarely during their debate last week. Macron’s insistence that Le Pen’s proposals were racist, divisive or unworkable did the rest.
But Sunday’s good news carried qualifiers and caveats, and Macron used his victory speech to acknowledge the “anger” in a country full of “doubt and division” and pledged to fight for a “more just” nation in which “no one will be left by the wayside.”
Despite the size of Macron’s projected victory, it fell short of his 66- to 34-percent defeat of Le Pen in 2017. Le Pen’s efforts to transform herself from a dangerous far-right zealot to a friend of the French working class bore fruit. . . . Marine Le Pen’s projected vote is more than double the 17.8 percent that her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the predecessor party to his daughter’s, won in the 2002 runoff against then-president Jacques Chirac.
Signs of anger at Macron on the left included relatively low turnout in areas won by leftist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who ran just behind Le Pen in the first round of voting two weeks ago. Faced with a choice between a challenger they saw as a fascist and an incumbent they regarded as a friend of big business and the wealthy, polls found that four Mélenchon voters in 10 either abstained or cast blank ballots.
This points to the major challenge Macron faces in French legislative elections that will be held in two rounds on June 12 and June 19. Many lukewarm Macron voters might express their discontent by opposing National Assembly candidates of the president’s party. The political leaning of the French prime minister, who enjoys considerable power, is determined by who controls the Assembly.
The legislative elections will also be a test of whether the parties accustomed to governing France before Macron’s 2017 breakthrough — the center-right Republicans and the center-left Socialists — can stage a comeback after being crushed in the first presidential round.
None of this, however, should detract from Macron’s extraordinary achievement. A loner who broke with the major parties and, from scratch, built a novel coalition of the center managed to win a decisive reelection in a time of deep discontent and uncertainty. He prevailed in a nation that has not looked kindly on incumbents for decades.
And through his victory, he saved Europe from political catastrophe.
Sunday, April 24, 2022
Florida’s culture-war governor signed a law on Friday canceling the de facto tax benefits in the state for the Walt Disney Company, which spoke out against the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation barring public schools from “encouraging” classroom discussions on gender identity. The message is clear: Pro-business protections are now conditioned upon businesses accepting the governing party’s reactionary leanings. But the intended targets inside the Cinderella Castle may not be the Floridians actually getting hurt by the authoritarian move.
The new law gets rid of Disney’s special improvement district, a catered tax setup established in 1967 which allows the company to run its own fire department and sewer services. Now, the protected area known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District will dissolve in June 2023 — and it appears that the House of Mouse won’t be paying the price.
When the district turns into a pumpkin next year, residents in nearby Orange and Osceola Counties must pitch in for the maintenance of utilities, waste management, and emergency services inside the 25,000-acre theme park attended by over 58 million visitors each year. More importantly, local governments will become responsible for Reedy Creek’s liabilities, including roughly $1 billion in outstanding bonds, which could mean additional debt burdens as high as $2,800 for a family of four in Orange County, according to the local ABC affiliate.
Could it hurt DeSantis? Raising taxes in one of the state’s most populous counties in an election year is typically not a savvy political move, but any immediate blowback will likely be shouldered by the governor’s popularity in the state, according to recent polls. The real remaining question is whether or not the gamble works: Will other companies headquartered in Florida avoid a clash with the nation’s most powerful Republican governor, sticking to signing tepid petitions condemning anti-LGBT legislation? DeSantis intends to find out at the expense of the local taxpayer.
As the war on Big Mouse captures attention across the country, DeSantis signed another bill on Friday that will reshape Floridian politics for the next decade. That legislation warps the state’s districts to favor Republicans’ chances in as many as four new seats and isolates Democratic control in the cities. Though Democrats intend to sue, it may come too late for the August primary.