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Posts published in “Day: March 5, 2022”

Ukraine 201: The Politics of Lunacy

meador

A highly simplified crash course on the situation in Ukraine, second analysis

A lot happened in a few short days. It seems the wrath of the West can manifest itself in much harsher terms than Russian President Vladimir Putin imagined. When the Free World gets together and synchronizes its efforts, things start happening with dizzying speed and staggering levels of punishment. It was a splendid example of economic might overwhelming a system that knows only physical force.

The ruble is now worth less than a U.S. penny, its lowest value ever.

The Russian stock market was hammered to the point it remains shuttered for now. Nearly one trillion dollars in assets are frozen. Almost all of Russia’s international commerce is halted or hobbled.

The bulk of the world’s airspace is closed to Russian aviation, both commercial and private.

For the first time, Germany broke 1940s-era policy to permit German-manufactured or designed weaponry to be delivered to a conflict zone. Because the ban applied to German partnerships, France and Holland are now able to supply Ukraine with German-tagged armaments, too.

Switzerland relaxed its sacrosanct neutrality and froze Russian assets held by its banks.

Petroleum giants BP and Shell dumped sizable stakes in Russian oil ventures.

The BBC declared a culture war on Russia, stopping all content licensing to Russian customers. Likewise, Warner Bros, Sony Pictures and The Walt Disney Company froze the release of films in Russia. Musical artists canceled scheduled appearances in the country.

Sports authorities disqualified Russian teams and athletes.

Boeing suspended parts, maintenance and technical support for Russian airlines. Airbus suspended support to Russian clients. Numerous Boeing and Airbus contractors similarly removed themselves from Russian service.

Apple and other companies halted Russian sales operations.

Washington State’s governor directed state agencies to cut ties with Russian entities.

The Oregon Liquor & Cannabis Commission removed Russian vodka and other spirits from liquor store shelves.

And much more.

Overnight, the Russian economy was largely ruined. Foreign commerce, culture and travel dried up. Russia lost the respect and credibility it commanded — the respect and credibility Putin craved.

We saw notable social adjustments, too. Nations turned their backs on Russia. Bickering conservative and progressive Americans found common ground, a noble cause around which all could rally.

The entire world witnessed the transformation of a television comedian into a head of state, a man of conviction and unbelievable courage. People from across the globe gave generously to support President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his heroically struggling nation.

None of this was necessary.

As Putin schemed to deny the resource-rich Ukraine E.U. and NATO memberships, thereby keeping it in the Russian sphere of influence, the disingenuous old Soviet KGB man rejected persuasive or diplomatic solutions in favor of what he liked best: force. Badly misjudging global reaction and bungling nearly every step he took as the world pilloried him, Putin made perhaps the worst oversight of the entire affair: He forgot to leave himself an exit ramp. Putin had no way to reverse course without looking like an incompetent fool.

By all accounts, Vladimir Putin is a cold fish. He’s been described as icy, emotionless, spiritually dead. But on a less repulsive note, everyone knew Putin was at least predictable.

Only now, after committing the most catastrophic blunder of his life, he’s not.

Suddenly, the icy man gets emotional — he makes deranged statements to justify regime change in Ukraine. Among other oddities, Putin said he needed to denazify Ukraine — the democratically elected Zelenskyy is a Jew who lost family in the Holocaust. Putin’s bizarre statements and actions raised questions to his stability. But many of us remember the bald-faced lies the Soviet government used to release routinely, so we wonder. Is he nuts? Is he faking it? Is he throwing a fit?

Make no mistake, Putin’s tantrums in no way lessen his determination. On the contrary, his anger and seeming instability make him more inclined to act dramatically. This is why the U.S. and E.U. have been very careful responding to Moscow’s unchecked belligerence.

At some point, the man might discover he’s got nothing to lose — a horrifying thought, considering Putin’s got the ability to reduce the Earth to a ball of radioactive ash.

The unbalanced Putin’s verbal attacks on Ukraine became actual military attacks. Having not earned the malevolence of an invasion, uncertainty and unease spread among Ukrainians. But Putin’s missteps and gaffes continued as the vaunted Russian army’s performance proved less than stellar. Plagued by logistic and seeming personnel-readiness and discipline issues, the army’s numerous errors and failures banished Putin’s visions of blitzkrieg.

This farce embarrassed him, a feeling Putin fears and abhors.

But the juggernaut is yet to come. Historically, the Russian order of battle uses sheer numbers to overwhelm an enemy. Flaws in Russian equipment and training are eventually offset by sheer force — quantity smothers quality, over and over again.

To accompany those numbers, the battlefield specialty at which the Russians excel is artillery. For over one hundred years, Russian soldiers have been masters of the mortar and the field gun. The real action has barely begun.

Tuesday evening, a Russian cruise missile wiped out a major government building in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city.

The unsettling air of menace continued to be broken by moments of black comedy, courtesy of bad planning, low morale and general incompetence.

On Sunday, the world watched a massive Russian convoy snake toward Kyiv, eventually growing to over 65 kilometers in length. But even a potentially terrifying 45-miles worth of matériel and munitions bearing down on civilian targets is vulnerable to Putin’s self-imposed bad luck. The convoy ran out of fuel, costing it many hours in delays on its journey to Kyiv.

Ukraine has begged the U.S. and E.U. to enforce a no-fly zone over its airspace. When reporters ask about the no-fly zone, U.S. officials immediately pivot to the arms-supply chain, stating (correctly) the importance of maintaining this flow of matériel. They usually try to avoid pointing out that such a move would put the U.S. and E.U. on a war footing with Russia, a dangerous escalation.

Ukraine’s military commanders and tacticians have likely determined that, with a no-fly zone and the existing weapons supply chain in place, Ukraine actually stands a fighting chance against Russian forces, toe-to-toe.

Putin, as you might imagine, isn’t pleased.

While Putin may be experiencing a level of frustration he hasn’t felt since he was a child, he remains unaffected by sweeping public opinion, a trait unheard of in a political leader. The entire world hates him and he doesn’t care. But whether he knows it or not, Putin is saddled with the Achilles’ heel of a king: he may be a feared leader but he remains so only at the pleasure of his people.

Maybe the Russian people need to be reminded their name is on this mess, too. A free nation is under attack at this very moment, in the name of the Russian people. Everything else considered, the one remaining action that stands a chance of ending this madness is for the Russian people to stand up in sufficient numbers and cry, “Enough!”

In the Soviet era, the Russian masses were firmly controlled. But now? Not so much. In the old days, the KGB or the militsiya would arrest whoever dared raise displeasure. But in this non-Soviet Russia, things are different. Putin might well arrest 50 or even 500 protesters. But if the disgruntled show up in numbers like 5,000 or 50,000, no one will be able to stop them or prevent their message from being heard around the globe.

Like I said in my previous column, the Russian people are no longer willing to be seen as Europe’s backward-yet-belligerent bumpkin-bullies, a role to which Putin is subjecting them, yet again.

Putin will set siege to a nation that didn’t ask for it, using the overwhelming force of his army and his “surgical” armaments. After the cities of Kharkiv and Mariupol were shelled Monday night, the Russian government warned Ukrainians of impending artillery and missile strikes.

But even as Moscow promises surgical strikes, the Russian military arrives with a decidedly sloppy precision — shelling schools, apartment blocks, restaurants. Occasionally, they hit a government target. Even the sacred Holocaust memorial at Babyn Yar was hit today, killing at least five.

The Russian people deserve better than the lurching leadership it currently possesses — leadership that attacks first, tries diplomacy later.

It’s time for the Russian people to step up and condemn the addled, narcissistic, delusional schoolyard bully who claims to lead them. It’s time for the Russian people to remind the world — and themselves — that they are a noble and heroic people, worthy of a noble and heroic leader.

The people of Ukraine and, indeed, the entire world would be deeply grateful.

Matthew Meador is a former food and wine writer, senior editor and a rare moderate Republican who now writes political commentary. Previously, Matt was an award-winning graphic artist who often put his skills to use during election seasons. Matt has served in various capacities on political campaigns, for pollsters and for elected officials. Contact him at matthewmeador.com.

Photograph © 2022 Dovile Ramoskaite via Unsplash
 

Ukraine 201: The Occidental Bully

meador

A highly simplified crash course on the situation in Ukraine

First, let’s get one thing straight: it’s Kyiv and, yes, it’s that Kiev. But it’s pronounced KĒĒ-ĕv rather than the Russianized kēē-ĚV. For what are probably obvious reasons, use of the Russianized pronunciation (and spelling) is strongly discouraged these days. Just hit the first syllable rather than the second and you should be good to go.

While we’re on the topic of Ukrainian cities, Lviv is the Lvov you might be familiar with, which came from the Polish Lwów and was once even the German Lemburg. Why does this matter? Because it’s important to understand that Eastern Europe is built from inextricably interwoven histories that are complicated, messy and impossibly nuanced. Without detailed academic study — and maybe not even then — it’s impossible to gain a full understanding of the region’s centuries-old disagreements, jealousies, entanglements, rivalries and bitternesses.

The spelling and pronunciations of Ukrainian cities offer a glimpse of the complicated nature of Eastern European history and politics. Let’s start with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s perspective.

Putin claims Russia and Ukraine share a historic unity — he’s not entirely incorrect. The two nations do share some history but that history will differ, depending on who you ask. Putin will tell you Ukraine was created by Bolshevik Russia when Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev set Russian land aside for to form several disparate but Soviet states in an effort to woo “the most zealous nationalists” across the Soviet Union — an exercise in forced unity at the expense of the historic romanticized idea of Russia. To Putin, Ukraine is an inseparable part of the motherland. Putin’s unhinged rhetoric — de-Nazification, genocide, demilitarization — is bizarre but clearly brands the Ukrainian government and leadership as illegitimate.

Thus, the immediate goal in Ukraine is regime change, the installation of a vassal leader who will effectively return Ukraine to the Russian fold.

Putin will see this action through — he will not back down in the face of unexpected resistance, mounting casualties and overwhelming public opinion. Further, as he is made a global pariah like the Dear Leader of the hermit kingdom, he won’t change his mind. Putin may have serious regrets later, but not today.

When we consider the not-insignificant sanctions levied against Russia and certain Russian citizens, we should be cognizant of a couple factors. First, some of the pain the sanctions will inflict will take time to be felt. Second, the coterie of Russian oligarchs on which the sanctions are hung are largely possessed of the same ideological determination as Comrade Putin — when you’re a true believer, you’ll suck it up and bear the burden for the cause.

Ah, yes, the cause. What’s the larger goal? What the hell is Putin thinking?

Now we have to understand Putin the man and Putin the product of the Soviet Bloc.

At first glance, Putin envisions a sort of Soviet Union 2.0, albeit without the communism and its accompanying ponderous, self-defeating bureaucracy of failure. No, this is empire revival to the core. Part yearning for glories past, part pining for unquestioned might, part legacy-building, Putin is known for taking off his shirt and preening. Now he’s preening in a massive and dangerous way but this speaks to all the major factors making Putin Putin: his KGB career, his lifetime schooling in Soviet thought, his very domineering Russianness.

For the Western mind reared in Western ways, it’s difficult to quantify the Eastern European brain. While we Westerners place great value in fair play, the old Soviet Bloc mindset placed the penultimate value in winning at any cost. Do Russians know they cheat? Of course, they know! It’s built into the old Eastern Bloc mentality which will take a generation or more to shed. They know they cheat and when they win, they pat themselves on the back for cheating better than anyone else, thus rightfully earning their prize.

Russians will never admit being anything less than the best but, in truth, Russia has historically lagged behind the west in nearly all areas: culture, academia, technology, style, everything. And Old Russia was a jealous and covetous land. Now, this is not to say Russia didn’t produce some exceptional music, art and innovation, even beating the free world once in a while. But for what they lacked, they usually turned their envious eyes westward — if they couldn’t do it themselves, they’d steal it. The win is everything in the Eastern Bloc mind.

Putin knows he’ll never be able to recreate the U.S.S.R. of the cold war — and he has no desire to restore the communist police state the world knew. His people first tasted Western-style freedom, then embraced their peculiar 20-years-behind version of it enthusiastically. The aforementioned Russian oligarchs are a product of that early perestroika and they’re currently firmly behind Putin. We’ll come back to all this in a moment — the Russian people might be key.

No, Putin wants the states of the historic Soviet sphere of influence to back Russian leadership without question, a pro-Russia federation of states rivaling the power of the old Soviet Union — and commanding the accompanying respect and glory. The last thing he can accept is Ukrainian membership in the E.U. or NATO. If either were to occur, he’s lost Ukraine forever. To Putin, keeping Ukraine is a moral imperative.

Put another way, keeping Ukraine is worth starting a war.

But Putin underestimated the will and ability of the Ukrainian armed forces and citizenry. Even Western intelligence missed the mark on this one. Instead, Russian losses have been surprisingly large and now, the Ukrainian people are united behind their Churchillian leader, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. They’re determined like never before to defend their motherland to the death — they’re fighting for something more precious to them than life itself. Putin’s misjudgment has now guaranteed an endless guerrilla war after he “wins.”

Likewise, Putin failed to see the rallying cry his invasion would sound around the globe. He mistakenly (if understandably) banked on the fractured nature of public opinion in North America and assorted domestic distractions in Europe. What Putin didn’t see coming was the unity his move to war would immediately inspire: NATO and the free world are united like they haven’t been in decades, bound by shared outrage over Putin’s outrageous invasion.

But neither the determination of the Ukrainians nor the outrage of the West will change Putin’s mind. Even if he could be swayed, he stands to lose serious face if he backs down now. No, he will see this through.

Make no mistake, Putin will win his war whether that’s today or next week. He has massed overwhelming resources on the Ukrainian frontier — he can act as he wishes, to a point. Even in war, he can’t be seen exterminating a civilian population and he has, so far, exercised some restraint. But he will eventually take Kyiv and thus, the country.

Sanctions, economic penalties, Ukrainian resistance and world outrage will not change Putin’s mind but one thing probably will: massive unrest and dissatisfaction at home. If the Russian people rose up in outrage at their leader’s actions, Putin would have a problem.

The Russian government put its jackboot down — it forbade the Russian press from using terms like “war,” “invasion” and pretty much anything that could make Russia look bad. But while the Russian government can muzzle its domestic press for the moment, it will not be able to control a populace devoted to its no-longer-Soviet way of life — an angry populace embarrassed by the belligerent chest-thumping of its leader. Russians are tired of being looked at like Europe’s backward hicks and bumpkin bullies.

So what now?

At the end of the third day of the conflict, the U.N. confirmed the deaths of 240 Ukrainian civilians. Reportedly, Russian deaths are substantially higher. Yesterday, near Kyiv, Ukrainian forces wiped out a Chechen special forces unit that included a column of 56 heavy tanks. The show’s not over yet.

For the first time ever, NATO activated its Response Force. The activation puts NATO members on notice that they may be asked to provide military support to the NATO mission. In terms of stopping a war, the activation means little.

Speaking of NATO, would a NATO membership at this late hour change anything? Probably not, although it likely would’ve served as a strong deterrent last week. NATO membership comes with certain expectations — Ukraine had been working toward meeting NATO criteria but had not yet reached minimum standards. Membership requires ratification by the 30 member nations for approval.

What about the E.U.? At least three former E.U. member leaders — Poland, Estonia and Sweden — think it should happen immediately. They say embracing Ukraine as a full member of the E.U. would constitute “...a bold, courageous and meaningful political statement.” But would it muster the military power of Western Europe?

Donald Trump, much to his credit, roundly condemned Russia’s attack when he took the podium at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida on Friday evening. Trump — self-avowed bosom buddy of Vladimir Putin — didn’t hold back when he spoke. “The Russian attack on Ukraine is appalling. It’s an outrage and an atrocity that should never have been allowed to occur,” he said. “It never would have occurred. We are praying for the proud people of Ukraine. God bless them all.”

Trump managed to get in a couple of shots at President Biden, but that would’ve been weird if he’d left those out.

Mitt Romney summed it up beautifully. “That’s what we’re seeing — a small, evil, feral-eyed man who is trying to shape the world in the image where, once again, Russia would be an empire.,” Romney said.

Putin put his nuclear “deterrent forces” on alert Sunday morning — but with luck, this was done with the intent to use it as a bargaining point in upcoming negotiations.

For the moment, pretty much everyone is behind Ukraine, in spirit and otherwise. Let’s hope it’s enough. Let’s hope the Russian people stand up and decry their despot of a leader.

Matthew Meador is a former food and wine writer, senior editor and a rare moderate Republican who now writes political commentary. Previously, Matt was an award-winning graphic artist who often put his skills to use during election seasons. Matt has served in various capacities on political campaigns, for pollsters and for elected officials. Contact him at matthewmeador.com.

Photograph © 2022 Kevin Schmid via Unsplash