To the Barricades?

Vladimir Putin: A Man’s Man?

We have been enemies with Russia for a century now. What happens sometimes during these long sieges of enmity, we lose sight of who we are and who the Russians are. We have gone from the benign presidency of Obama to what looks to us like a would-be Tsar, the narcissistic Trumpf. Russia, in the meantime, traveled a much longer route: From Communism where there was some attempt to help the common people, to the kleptocracy under Yeltsin, to the quasi-dictatorship of Vladimir Putin, former KGB Chieftain. And this Putin had the nerve to try to influence our election!

There is no doubt that Russia under Putin is an amalgam of discipline and targeted cruelty. Enemies of Putin, such as  journalist Anna Politkovskaya, were ruthlessly murdered; and friends of Putin shared in the billionaires’ bounty of their leader. Do we want Russia to become a democracy like ours? Like ours under Trumpf?

According to Russian novelist Mikhail Shishkin:

To call people to the barricades in Russia is beautiful, but senseless…. We lived through all this already in the early ’90s. All revolutions take place in the same way—the best people rise up to fight for honor and dignity, and they die. On their corpses, thieves and bandits come to power, and everything comes full circle. The same thing happened during the Orange Revolution in Kiev. The same thing is happening right before our eyes in the Arab world. Apparently, in Russia a new generation has grown up who want to experience the barricades. All right. They will experience them. And they will be disappointed.

There is, to my mind, very little difference between Trumpf and Putin—except the difference in the two cultures. Trumpf would do the same things as Putin if he could. There still seem to be checks and balances in the United States, but for how long?



What’s Happening in Ukraine?

April 2015 Status Map

April 2015 Status Map from New York Review of Books

Americans are confused about the struggle between Russia and the Ukraine. Generally, we think of plucky little Ukraine holding Big Bad Putin at bay. Anyhow, that’s how Europe and the U.S. prefer to see it.

In reality, both Ukraine and Russia are the bad guys, or, as Jorge Luis Borges said about the Falklands conflict between Britain and Argentina, “it’s like two bald men fighting over a comb.” We know Vladimir Putin is a not nice guy who wants to undo Mikhail Gorbachev’s dissolution of the USSR back in1989-1990, which was not a popular move to the man in the street in Moscow or Petersburg. But then, the new government of Ukraine was essentially composed of industrial magnates and common thugs. (But then, so is Russia.)

Ukraine has already lost Crimea, which was a Russian-speaking area. (Not that Russian and Ukrainian are that far removed from one another, but, hey, we’re talking pretexts here!) Let’s compare the above map with a linguistic map of Ukraine ca. 2001:

Is It About Language?

So Is It About Language?

It’s pretty clear that, aside from Crimea, the main Russian-speaking areas are in the Lugansk and Donetsk Oblasts (provinces) of Ukraine, only part of which the freedom-loving thugs of the Russian stripe have conquered after all this time. That’s not a very impressive performance, considering that Russian Spetsnas (спецназ) special forces are mingled with the rebel freedom fighters, and they have access to the latest Russian military technology.

Both sides have been fighting to what looks like a draw. If Putin wins, he’ll get the the two Russian-speaking oblasts to add to the Crimea. Although the eastern rebels have “On to Kiev!” slogans written on their tanks, neither Europe nor the U.S. want to see Ukraine snuffed out. And Germany’s Angela Merkel has hinted that she doesn’t want to see Mariupol in the Donetsk Oblast occupied. (Putin has shelled Mariupol, but has not tried to take it over.)

If Ukraine’s Poroshenko (or whichever magnate replaces him) wins, Russia will just take their winnings and go away. Of course, since Russia supplies Ukraine with natural gas for heating, they also hope not to be frozen out during a bad winter.

I don’t even know how I would want the conflict to end. Perhaps Putin and Poroshenko could fight it out in their underwear, with the loser getting a painful “Dutch rub.”

Putin’s Kleptocracy

Something New from Mother Russia

Something New from Mother Russia

I know that some people think of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin as the reincarnation of Stalin. Others on the right idolize him because, well, he persecutes gays. The truth is actually to be found elsewhere.

He definitely is a bad dude. Instead of killing people by the millions in Siberian gulags, he uses very targeted assassinations to eliminate some of his more outspoken enemies. In November 1998, soon after he took over the KGB, he had opposition Duma Deputy Galina Starovoitova murdered for her pro-democracy advocacy. As soon as Yeltsin named him Prime Minister a year later, he initiated a bombing campaign in Chechnya which led to hundreds of civilian deaths.

One outspoken critic of the Chechen war was Anna Politkovskaya, whose dispatches on the conflict I have read (and recommend: they are published under the name of A Small Corner of Hell). She paid dearly for her upstanding journalism: She was shot by KGB operatives at the door of her apartment in October 2006.

For a considerably longer list of his targets, click here.

What makes Putin radically different from his Communist forebears is that he is an oligarch in personal control of billions of rubles worth of assets, alone or with a small number of co-conspirators with whom he feels comfortable. There is an excellent review by Anne Applebaum in the December 18, 2014 issue of The New York Review of Books which is a review of Karen Dawisha’s Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?

No fool, Putin knew that Communism was on the skids while he was still a KGB officer in Dresden, East Germany, and he prepared for the demise of the Soviet empire by beginning to gather people whom he could trust. In St. Petersburg in 1991, he entered in numerous “legally flawed contracts” in which he exported millions of dollars worth of commodities in return for food that never seems to have been delivered. He was in on the rise to power of Bank Rossiya, which he used for his financial and criminal deals. Putin-controlled entities include Ozero Dacha Consumer Cooperative; St. Petersburg Real Estate Holding Company (SPAG), which was involved in Russian and Colombian drug money laundering; the construction company Twentieth Trust; and probably biggest of all—Gazprom.

It is as if an American president controlled Morgan Stanley, Exxon, Cargill, and numerous other massive corporations which combined to do whatever legal or illegal he or she wished to accomplish.

And yet Putin’s popularity is still high among Russian voters at this time. He pays careful attention to cultural and foreign policy choices that are in tune with the Russian man in the street. This includes his support of the Russian Orthodox Church and its hierarchy, and his ham-fisted attempts to support the Russian population of industrialized East Ukraine.


If Only This Were True!



ST. PETERSBURG (The Borowitz Report)—Hopes for a positive G20 summit crumbled today as President Obama blurted to Russia’s Vladimir Putin at a joint press appearance, “Everyone here thinks you’re a jackass.”

The press corps appeared stunned by the uncharacteristic outburst from Mr. Obama, who then unleashed a ten-minute tirade at the stone-faced Russian President.

“Look, I’m not just talking about Snowden and Syria,” Mr. Obama said. “What about Pussy Riot? What about your anti-gay laws? Total jackass moves, my friend.”

As Mr. Putin narrowed his eyes in frosty silence, Mr. Obama seemed to warm to his topic.

“If you think I’m the only one who feels this way, you’re kidding yourself,” Mr. Obama said, jabbing his finger in the direction of the Russian President’s face. “Ask Angela Merkel. Ask David Cameron. Ask the Turkish guy. Every last one of them thinks you’re a dick.”

Shortly after Mr. Obama’s volcanic performance, Mr. Putin released a terse official statement, reading, “I should be afraid of this skinny man? I wrestle bears.”

After one day of meetings, the G20 nations voted unanimously on a resolution that said maybe everyone should just go home.—The Borowitz Report