Through Russian Eyes

Russian Troops in Ukraine

If you were old enough in 1962 to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, you will recall that feeling of dread about the world possibly ending in a nuclear holocaust—within mere days. That showdown between Kennedy and Khrushchev was all because Russia had supplied Cuba with missiles to be pointed at targets in the United States.

Today, I had the unique experience of seeing the war in Ukraine through Russian eyes. I am a member of the European History Meetup Group which gets together several times a year at the Will & Ariel Durant Branch Library in Hollywood. According to Bronislav Meyler, the Ukrainian-born moderator of the group:

Let’s kick off our next program with a discussion about Russia/Ukraine historic relationship. The program will try to focus on the last thirty years of relations between the two states. Historical perspective will not be excluded just for the simple fact that the two nations shared (and still share) almost one thousand years of common history.

The fact that this meeting was held almost in the center of the Russian community in Los Angeles brought a number of Russian-Americans to attend. It is interesting to see how Russians think of the NATO threat. They view the nearness of NATO in the Baltic Republics of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia; Poland; Slovakia; Hungary; Bulgaria; Romania; and Turkey much the same way we viewed the threat of Russian missiles less than a hundred miles from the United States.

Where the Russians view NATO as a monolithic threat, I see them as a relatively disunited group that would have insuperable difficulties agreeing on where to eat lunch. But the threat of Ukraine, which has been tied in historically and culturally with Russia since the 17th century, possibly joining NATO was for Putin possibly the straw that broke the camel’s back.

It is always valuable to see the other side’s point of view.

So I Goofed

Putin at Kremlin 2022 Victory Day Parade (Reuters)

I had thought that Vladimir Putin was going to make a major announcement at today’s Victory Day celebration in Moscow. In fact, other than making a number of the usual comments regarding the United States and NATO, Putin did not make any major announcements. He did not declare victory. He did not declare war. He did not brandish his nukes.

He is still keeping tight control over Russian media. By now, most of his people know that he his fighting Ukrainian Neo-Nazis that have threatened Russian security (by not wanting to be invaded?).

In a way, all he is doing is doubling down on his mistakes. Is he waiting for an elite Spetsnaz team to assassinate Zelensky? Does he think he could win by converting all of Ukraine to microscopic rubble?

At some point, I still suspect that Vlady will reap the whirlwind. But when or how is not something I can venture to guess.

Victory Day?

Gosh, I Hope No One Throws a Firecracker at Them

Monday, May 9, is the anniversary of Russia’s winning the Great Patriotic War—or, as we know it, World War Two. The news media have been speculating for weeks that Vladimir Putin will make some sort of announcement of victory tomorrow. Or, he just might decide to declare war on the “Neo-Nazis” that have been depriving his troops of anything approaching victory.

There will, of course, be a big military parade. But does Putin have enough working tanks and armored personnel carriers to impress the crowds on Red Square? I am eager to see what that madman plans to do for an encore.

I have young friends who for the first time in their lives are afraid of a nuclear confrontation. There may be one, but only on a small scale because it would cause widespread outrage around the world (but not in Russia). Perhaps Putin has more to fear than my young friends. His Ukraine invasion made the Rodina (Motherland) look not only bad, but downright cheesy. It would be no surprise if the FSB replaced Putin with a new stooge and put Vlady in a psychiatric nursing home “for his benefit.”

That’s the way things are done in Russia.

A Gas Station with Nuclear Weapons

Was this the same Russia that manhandled the Nazi menace at Stalingrad, Kursk, and all the way back to Berlin? Stalin was no more a sweetheart than Vladimir Putin, but I feel that—after some initial losses—he made better wartime decisions.

In an interview with Salon.Com, Colin Clarke had the following assessment of the war in Ukraine:

One of the big stories I see, in terms of international relations and diplomacy and statecraft, is the concept of great power competition. With that language we are thinking about the United States, China and Russia. The war in Ukraine shows us that Russia does not belong in that conversation anymore. Russia is not a great power, it’s essentially a gas station with nuclear weapons. The Russian military has performed so poorly, far worse than anyone could have expected, including many defense planners in the United States, who built the Russians up to be 10 feet tall.

We must never forget, however, all those nuclear weapons. Granted that most of their ICBMs may be pretty dodgy, but even one or two direct hits on a major U.S. population center would be truly horrifying. Living in Southern California as I do, I am sure that L.A. would probably be one of major targets of the Russian nuclear warheads.

Doubling Down

Russian Troops in Ukraine

The term comes from the card game Blackjack when a player doubles the bid in exchange for one more card to be drawn. Politically, it means to become more tenacious, zealous, or resolute in a position or undertaking, particularly if it is risky. It seems to be ever more common, as if everyone is deathly afraid of backing down, even if the road ahead is full of traps.

I have made a number of mistakes in my life, but I have rarely been persistent in my errors. True, I might have become a soulless millionaire instead of a mere survivor. But, in my book, surviving is a good thing.

For people like Vladimir Putin or Donald J. Trump, surrender is never an option. Trump may well wind up in prison, and it is entirely possible for Putin to be forcibly escorted out of the Kremlin. But for the time being, they will remain resolute as if they were immortal and all-powerful—which they aren’t.

To Whom Is Putin Answerable?

Did you ever wonder what happened to the old Soviet KGP? Apparently, it went the way of the Cheka, the NKVD, the OGPU, and the MGB. It just changed its name to the FSB (ФСБ in Cyrillic) or Federal Security Service and it continues its usual depredations on the Russian people.

Do you remember what happened to Nikita Khrushchev after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962? He was sent to do gardening in the Ukraine and replaced by Brezhnev and Kosygin. I do believe that Vladimir Putin is risking the same sort of coup by the FSB and other Russian state security services—all because he squandered Russian resources in a madcap attempt to take over Ukraine.

Putin comes from the Russian state security services. He was a top officer in the KGB and spent time heading up security in East Germany. So he knows that the main threat to his rule over Russia is not the voters, not the oligarchs, not even the military, but actually the Federal Security Service (or Федеральная служба безопасности Российской Федерации) and its allied agencies. They made Putin, and they can just as easily unmake him.

Consider the following actions which make Russia look bad in the eyes of the world, and particularly in the eyes of the FSB:

  • Putin assumed the invasion would be met by welcoming Ukrainians bearing candy and flowers, and not stinger missiles and Molotov Cocktails.
  • After three weeks, the ground invasion has stalled.
  • Some 5,000 Russian soldiers are dead—twice the number of American deaths in 20 years fighting in Afghanistan.
  • The Russians are unable to supply their advance units with gasoline, food, trucks, tanks, or ammunition.
  • Putin has reportedly asked China for help in quelling the Ukrainians.
  • There are rumors of Putin employing mercenaries from Syria and elsewhere to shore up the depleted ground forces.

In the end, Ukraine may fall to the Russians, but only at an exorbitant cost.

Putin: Required Background Reading

If you really want to understand what Vladimir Putin is doing to Ukraine, you should read about what he did in Chechnya shortly after he attained power. Anna Politkovskaya was a brilliant Russian journalist who was unafraid of speaking truth to power. She wrote a number of criticisms of Putin that were so to the point that he had her murdered in front of her apartment in 2006.

Oh, there was a murder trial, to be sure. And Putin, in true Caligula fashion, tsk-tsked at the crime. (You can read his lying words here in a post I wrote eight years ago.) Several people were sentenced, but they were no doubt thugs who had outlived their usefulness to the Motherland and were disposed of to protect the presidente.

Anyhow, this is the book I recommend you read. It is called A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya. I doubt that it is still in print, but you can likely find it in a good library or order it on the Internet from a used book site like Abebooks.Com or Addall.Com. What Putin is doing to Ukraine now is what he did to Chechnya in the First and Second Chechen Wars.

If you are hoping that the bloodletting will end soon, don’t bet on it. When things don’t go his way, Mr. Vladimir thinks nothing of widespread rapine and destruction and certainly doesn’t care what YOU may think.

I was thinking of adding a picture of Putin, but you surely know by now what that ugly mother looks like. I would rather honor Anna Politkovskaya because she was brilliant, brave, and fearless. Not to mention beautiful.

Flying Mercator

Patrick Smith’s Ask the Pilot blog raises some interesting issues regarding the effects of the war in Ukraine on global aviation:

THE RUSSIAN invasion of Ukraine is impacting commercial aviation on multiple fronts — as wars tend to do. It remains to be seen how long the effects last, or how deeply they’ll be felt. Will NATO countries join the fight? Will tourists shy away from European destinations in general? Even in a best case scenario, this is the last thing the airline industry needs, just as the coronavirus pandemic appears to be winding down.

For starters, Russia has closed off its airspace to foreign carriers. The big issue here isn’t so much the cancellation of flights to and from Russian cities, but rather those routes overflying Russian territory, especially the country’s northern areas, including Siberia. Russia is a gigantic piece of land, and hundreds of long-haul flights overfly these regions weekly on routes connecting Europe and North America with Asia.

This might not make sense if you’re looking at a flat map or atlas; you need a globe to better visualize it. The shortest distance from the U.S. to India, for example, goes more or less due north, up over Siberia and down through the very heart of Russia. A flight from the U.K., France or Germany headed to Japan, China or Korea, similarly relies on Russian airspace.

United Airlines has suspended its flights to Delhi, but on the whole it’s the Asian and European airlines who are feeling the pain. Most flights between the U.S. and Pacific Rim cities can be re-routed without much trouble. This isn’t so for flights between Asia and Europe. Alternate routings are possible — down through the Gulf, across India and such — but they’re substantially longer, in some cases requiring a stopover. Not only does this increase fuel costs, it wreaks havoc with logistics, crew staffing and scheduling. Longer travel times mean that passengers can no longer make onward connections, and so on. It’s a very expensive problem, with disruptions rippling through an airline’s operation.

It seems that airlines will be reduced to plotting flights using Mercator projection maps, being deprived of the right to fly over Russian airspace. That means longer, more roundabout flights and greater expense of fuel. Read Patrick’s full post for more info.

Of Sunflowers and Patriotism

I feel humbled by the patriotism of the Ukrainian people in the face of a Russian invasion. This came home to me when I saw a viral video on YouTube of a Russian grandmother in a knit hat confronting a Russian soldier. She offers him a handful of sunflower seeds to stuff in his pockets, so that when he is felled by Ukrainian bullets, from his body will spring sunflowers, which are the national flowers of the Ukraine.

The video is not of particularly good quality, but it makes its point clearly:

Several years ago, Martine and I went to a Ukrainian church festival at the Cathedral of Saint Vladimir in East Hollywood. We were the only non-Ukrainians there, but we were made to feel welcome. Songs were sung and patriotic poems were recited. We didn’t understand a word of them, but we were impressed by the people in attendance—and the food that was served.

I hope that somehow the Ukraine comes out of this mess in one piece, and that Vladimir Putin is punished for his cruelty. Ours is not a world where justice normally prevails, but, if anyone does, the Ukrainian people deserve a break for display unity and goodness in an otherwise damaged world.

Putin Screws the Pooch

I cannot help but think that Vladimir Putin has made a serious misstep in his assumptions regarding Ukraine’s willingness to abide by his thuggish behavior. The Russians made the same assumptions that Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney made when we invaded Iraq in 2003: We were not in fact welcomed with flowers and candy, and, moreover, we are still there.

Ukraine has been an independent republic for some 33 years, and their independence as an idea has taken root among the Ukrainian people. Also, I don’t think the Russian army will be 100% behind committing atrocities against fellow Slavs who are also Orthodox Christians.

My guess is that Putin has also underestimated the will of the United States in opposing him after dealing with the likes of Donald J. Trump for four years. Biden may not be a genius, but compared to the Lardfather, he has a four-digit IQ.