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The leader she was meant to be

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She’s clear-eyed and focused — she’s confident she knows what she’s doing and where she’s going. I suspect this quality characterizes most aspects of her life, from her long-term personal goals to her daily work ethic.

She’s a born leader, the type of manager who’s affable and easygoing but focused on doing her work right. People naturally look to her for guidance because she knows what she’s doing and others recognize this quality instinctively. She’s the sort of person you’d want nearby if there was an emergency — she’d take charge and take decisive action without panic or indecision.

If she’d been on the Titanic, she’d undoubtedly have taken charge of a lifeboat, organizing cold and scared passengers and crew into a cohesive group, focused on survival and rescue.

That’s Tierney Ferguson.

I’m not the only one who recognizes Tierney’s talents and natural abilities. Less than three months after starting a job at McDonald’s, General Manager Kayla Planck recognized Tierney’s leadership qualities and promoted her to a management position. When Tierney’s on duty, she’s the boss.

Robin Miguel was wary of Tierney, at first. Robin serves as operations manager and chef for the Soup Kitchen at St. Barnabas, a popular feeding ministry in McMinnville, Oregon. Robin runs a very tight ship — she has high standards and she’s not exactly easy to please. When Tierney started volunteering regularly at the soup kitchen in October 2018, Robin kept a close eye on her. After she’d demonstrated her commitment and reliability, Tierney’s talents were eventually noted by Robin. A serious testament to Tierney’s nature, she was put in charge of the soup kitchen on Robin’s day off. Robin doesn’t assign such responsibility lightly.

Three years ago, Tierney wouldn’t have been given this trust. Three years ago, Tierney was getting high and digging her way to hell.

Paradoxically, it took jail for Tierney to taste freedom.

“I was sentenced to 30 days in the Yamhill County Jail for a failure to appear charge,” said Tierney. “It was weird because no one ever gets 30 days for a low-level charge like that.”

The date was Sept. 11, 2018, a day Tierney will never forget. Even if it ever somehow slipped her mind, the date is tattooed on Tierney’s forearm.

It’s the date Tierney gave up drugs and never looked back.

“That 30-day sentence was a literal godsend,” said Tierney. “The time in jail allowed me to get clean and stay clean.”

The way she describes it, she was almost giddy with relief. She made up her mind, never once doubting her decision. Her suddenly sunny outlook did not go unnoticed by her fellow inmates. “They were mean to me because I was happy,” laughed Tierney. “They were resentful — they wanted me to be miserable like they were.”

Tierney’s childhood was a disturbing blend of religious strictures and sexual abuse. A parental prohibition on “worldly friends” was at least partial motivation for Tierney to run away from home at age 13, the first of many such attempts. A year later, she found comfort in the numbing effects of drugs for the first time.

Dropping out of school in the ninth grade, Tierney earned her G.E.D. in 1998. In 2000, her first son, Justin, was born followed by his brother, Austin, one year later.

In the bizarre way that addicts sometimes experience, Tierney met a man who was an addict but became a father figure for her boys. Hector Martinez was lost in his own addictions but stepped into his role. “Hector accepted my sons as his own,” said Tierney. Clearly, the situation was far from ideal but it hinted at events to come. Tierney got lost in her own addictions to marijuana and methamphetamine in the time that followed.

Tierney gave birth to daughter Emily in 2004 and Izabell in 2006.

In 2014, the family experienced tremendous turmoil when they lost their home. In short order, Hector went to prison and Tierney was forced to surrender her kids to state custody. Her behavior spiraled — she turned to intravenous drug use.

Then came Sept. 11, 2018 and Tierney’s 30-day sentence — or 30-day saving, depending on how you look at it.

“I didn’t see the blessing of having my kids in foster care until I got sober,” Tierney said. “After I cleaned up, I thanked God he’d protected my children from me.”

Today, Tierney is enrolled in classes to become a social worker. “I want to use the nightmare of my own experience to shepherd others,” she said. Among other things, Tierney credits the time she spent volunteering for the Soup Kitchen at St. Barnabas to keeping her focused and occupied, not allowing her time to relapse.

Plus, if you ask me, nobody who has their sobriety date tattooed on their body wants to screw that date up.

Tierney has successfully completed rehabilitation therapy along with the Rethinking Barriers to Employment workshop, a Willamette Workforce Partnership (WWP) program encouraging addicted, homeless or incarcerated women to think “I have something to offer” rather than the self-defeating “nobody wants me anyway, so why try?”

Tierney is working on repairing her relationships with her children and — possibly heading toward the realm of fairy-tale happy endings — Hector. “I give Hector tremendous credit, too,” said Tierney. “He kept me accountable.” It should be noted that Hector used his prison time well — he has more clean time now than Tierney. The two live next door to each other and Hector has become a model father.

What’s the point of telling Tierney’s story? In addition to a remarkable story of redemption, the next time you see a charitable ministry or organization that operates in your area mentioned in the news or on social media, consider the people like Tierney who are able to atone and repair, to find freedom and triumph. Real people find real redemption with the assistance of these ministries. Unfortunately, such organizations are often misunderstood or looked down on by neighbors and townsfolk, because “they’re enabling ‘those people’ by giving handouts” or some such uncharitable — and inaccurate — characterization.

I have lived next door to the Soup Kitchen at St. Barnabas in McMinnville for 25 years. You could probably consider me an expert on the topic of living adjacent to a charity that ministers to people struggling with addiction and mental illness, people down on their luck, homeless people. I can attest that the good such a ministry accomplishes far outweighs any problems it causes.

Granted, I have a longstanding affiliation with the Soup Kitchen at St. Barnabas — at one point, I occupied a non-voting seat on its board and I’ve been associated with the organization in one way or another ever since.

If you have doubts or concerns about charities or ministries in your area, think about Tierney. By any account, Tierney’s story is one of triumph. She stands for countless people who’ve succeeded in exorcising their demons to turn their lives around.

Best of all, Tierney plans to combine the painful experience of her addiction with her talents in leadership to serve her community — my community. I have no doubt Tierney will help change local lives. I have no doubt Tierney will have a quantifiable impact on this community.

I am grateful for talented and focused people like Tierney. And I am thankful for the organizations dedicated to helping Tierney become the effective and dedicated leader she is — the leader she was meant to be.

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(s) courtesy of Rusty Rae © 2022 News-Register, McMinnville, Oregon
 

The definition of an extraordinary woman

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She was confirmed.

You know deep down she deserves confirmation. Ketanji Brown Jackson is, after all, a woman of great professionalism, accomplishment and dignity.

She is a woman of distinction.

You hear that? I said “woman.”

Ketanji Brown Jackson is a woman. An accomplished Black woman. She’s an intellectual without being an academic — a real-life trial judge who belongs on the highest bench in the land.

Was that really the best you could come up with?

When you first started spreading the nonsense — that Ketanji Brown Jackson “doesn’t know what a woman is,” you almost sounded like you believed your own attempt at mockery.

Or maybe you did believe it.

I hope you realize that, yes, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson absolutely knows how to define a woman — she, herself, is a woman of great distinction and accomplishment.

You’re something of a dullard if you didn’t recognize the loaded nature of that question, that it was far less a request for the judge to quote a dictionary definition of “woman” than it was a demand to know how she’d rule on any case involving transgender people. Surely you know it was an absolutely volatile question, posed with no small measure of hostility. Brown Jackson’s refusal to answer was true to her character — she’s likely to rule on cases involving transgender issues in the future.

She kept her composure and didn’t take the bait.

So the woman thing was looking a little skimpy — even to your jaundiced eye, it didn’t look like much but, by golly, the Democrats just love Brown Jackson so there’s gotta be something seriously wrong with her. It doesn’t matter that some of the most esteemed members of our nation’s judiciary — jurists from one side of the political spectrum to the other — are excited to see such a perfect candidate confirmed.

It was also convenient to ignore Brown Jackson’s statements regarding her deep Christian faith.

So you added the child pornography offender sentencing to the clamor, even though every one of Brown Jackson’s sentences were in line with sentences imposed by her colleagues, including conservative judicial appointees.Legal experts agree Brown Jackson’s sentencing was neither out of the ordinary nor inappropriate when examined in context and compared to practices of her peers.

And that was it.

Not a shred of stain beyond two patent absurdities. The irony is Brown Jackson might be the least controversial candidate put forward to that bench in my lifetime. Put another way, she might be the closest thing to a perfect candidate as I’ve ever witnessed.

C’mon, people, this is a historic moment in which we should all take pride.

Let’s celebrate the confirmation of the first Black woman, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

You can bet this erudite and accomplished woman knows exactly how to define “woman” because she’s had a little experience being an extraordinary and consummate example of the very term.

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 (https://matthewmeador.com/).

Photograph © Wikicago via Wiki Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/)
 

A moral failure

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When reports emerge of a teenager doing something reckless, careless or just stupid, my Republican friends are often the first to demand accountability from lazy or absent parents. These conservative friends don’t usually hesitate to decry moral failures when it comes to dysfunctional families and the awful actions of their children. In this, I am in perfect agreement with them. If a family’s sloppy or lazy child-rearing results in hooligans who wreak havoc on others, at least some blame lies on the parents.

Such sentiments often manifest themselves when a child stupidly or carelessly commits vandalism or causes destruction — my conservative friends believe the guilty child’s parents should be held accountable for the actions of their progeny. I agree in principle with this perspective. If you raise an out-of-control child, you might expect some sort of censure or reckoning when your kid misbehaves.

To be clear, I am not disrespecting my conservative friends — on the contrary, I repeat: I am in wholehearted agreement with them on matters of parental responsibility,

But there is one notable exception to this rule.

Whenever a firearm is involved, my right-leaning friends circle the wagons around the sanctity of the gun, cutting the wicked child loose to suffer whatever justice befalls him. The lofty status of the gun means deficient parents are immediately exempt from whatever moral failings they may possess in favor of a purely legal interpretation of their transgressions. All that matters is whether or not the parents broke any laws. Moral concerns vanish as soon as that gun comes out.

Of course, there will be the usual post-event wringing of hands, finger-pointing and deflection but the one absolutely predictable reaction will be a defense of that gun. This knee-jerk response seems utterly counterintuitive to me.

Last week, the parents of school shooter Ethan Crumbley made headlines again. With school shootings mind-numbingly common in recent years, you might be forgiven if you need to be reminded that Ethan Crumbley was the 15-year-old sophomore who killed four students and wounded seven others at Oxford High School in Oxford Township, Michigan on Nov. 30, 2021. Crumbley’s parents are each charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter for failing to secure the gun Crumbley used to kill.

As you might recall, James and Jennifer Crumbley purchased a 9mm Sig Sauer semi-automatic handgun as a Christmas gift for their son, Ethan. The evening he received the gift, the youth posted an Instagram photograph of himself holding the handgun, captioned, “Just got my new beauty today…” The following day, Jennifer Crumbley announced, “mom and son day testing out his new Christmas present.”

The day before the killings, Ethan Crumbley caught the attention of school authorities when he did an internet search for ammunition at school.

The following day, Nov. 30, an Oxford High School teacher discovered a paper on which Ethan Crumbley had scrawled disturbing words and images. The boy had drawn a handgun accompanied by the words, “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me.” He’d also sketched a bullet with the words “blood everywhere” above the image of a person who’d been shot twice and was bleeding. The teacher was sufficiently alarmed to photograph and report the note.

Messages from school officials regarding the ammunition search sent Nov. 29 to Jennifer Crumbley’s voicemail and email were ignored. But Jennifer Crumbley did text her son the following cynical message: “Lol. I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught.”

James and Jennifer Crumbley met with school officials Nov. 30 but resisted the suggestion they take their son home for the rest of the day, requiring he attend counseling. (More details here.)

After Ethan shot up the school an hour-or-so later, the Crumbleys reframed their story, removing any suggestion that the gun was ever intended for Ethan.

The Detroit Free Press reported that a former Crumbley neighbor was concerned enough to lodge an anonymous neglect complaint with Michigan child protective services because the elder Crumbleys often patronized local bars, leaving their son alone with no telephone for long periods of time.

Then a week ago, the senior Crumbleys garnered headlines once again when it was revealed that, among other things, they laughed at their son when he pleaded for psychological help.

They laughed at him.

Well, Ethan’s mother, Jennifer Crumbley, reportedly laughed at her son, anyway. Her husband, James Crumbley, apparently handed the teen some pills and told him to “suck it up.”

Last time I wrote about the Crumbleys, numerous people with conservative perspectives weighed in, defending the elder Crumbleys, pointing out (correctly) that the actions of Ethan are not the actions of his parents.

But why does the indignant demand for parental accountability disappear when the offending child grabs a gun?

What I cannot wrap my head around is this: it seems to me that of all people, gun-rights supporters have the most to gain from making sure families universally handle firearms with restraint and caution. To be sure, many of my conservative friends do exercise disciplined and careful firearms-handling when it comes to gun safety and training their kids. But this shouldn’t be a hit-and-miss exercise, where some families step up while others fail miserably.

While they may or may not meet the definition of a legal failure, the Crumbley family is unquestionably a moral train wreck.

So what do we do? How do we make parents like James and Jennifer Crumbley take firearms ownership seriously, recognizing it as a life-or-death matter, especially when it comes to their kids? Or how do we prevent parents like the Crumbleys from owning firearms if they will not or cannot shoulder such responsibility?

As I’ve stated before, I believe emphatically that ownership of a tool designed to quickly and efficiently kill should be accompanied by maturity, stability, competency and accountability. I do not have a problem with a fundamental right to bear arms as long as we acknowledge this right comes with fundamental responsibilities.

Regardless of your position on firearms, I want to hear your thoughts.

Before you answer, please consider the following:

Guns are here to stay. Firearms are embedded in the U.S. culture — further, there are far too many to eliminate appreciably through regulation. I believe “gun grabs” accomplish little other than angering one side and giving the other a false sense of security. Oh sure, if it was all-encompassing, such an action could theoretically work but that’s not a gun grab. It’s eradication and it’s not going to happen.

School shootings are moral failures, overshadowing any legal failures. But on the legal side, are there realistic laws or regulations — existing or proposed — that would be reasonable, enforceable and actually make a difference? We almost certainly cannot legislate morality. Yes, there are a lot of gun owners who take firearms stewardship as a deadly serious responsibility. But there are a lot of gun owners who don’t. How, then, can we encourage or force the latter to emulate the former?

This should be a common-ground conversation. Every sane and responsible American should find school shootings absolutely unacceptable. Habitual blame-the-other-side “solutions” usually miss at least part of the picture and tend to put the other side immediately on the defensive. How can we work together to fix this?

Posting armed guards at schools is not a good solution. Ditto for armed teachers. If we acknowledge school shootings as the norm and react by turning schools into citadels, then we accept that our children may well witness a bloody shoot-out, even if it is the good guys shooting the bad guys. We should not accept any school shooting as “the cost of doing business.” No child should be forced to witness a brutal killing, regardless of who kills who.

Posting armed guards at schools is not a deterrent. Not for messed-up kids with nothing to lose, anyway. For more, see previous paragraph.

I want to be clear I am not advocating pointless new laws that try — and fail — to hold parents accountable legally while placing unreasonable-and-ineffective restrictions on arms. But I am also not advocating the status quo where the right of a child to live is subordinate to any American’s right to bear the arm(s) of his or her choice.

So I’m asking you: what can we do? I want to hear your thoughts and ideas, even if you disagree with me.

The phrase “school shooting” should be so rare as to be shocking. I’m pretty sure we all agree on this point.

As it stands now, I had to recount the Crumbley shooting, rehashing the details so we don’t confuse it with one of the other 33 school shootings that occurred in 2021. Or with one of the 1,967 other U.S. school shootings recorded since 1970.

Let’s use this fundamental common ground to talk about meaningful solutions.

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.

Photocomposite © Senivpetro via Freepik; Wonderlane via Unsplash
 

The toaster

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In my twenties, I was part of a group of friends who were united by shared tastes and interests, you know, the usual things that make people like each other But one characteristic probably tied us together more than anything: humor. We were a bunch who spent most of our time together laughing. And it wasn’t just timid giggles. These were often those great belly laughs, the sort where we couldn’t stop and we literally had tears streaming from our eyes.

United like we were, in history and humor, it was unsettling when two of our number threw their long-term friendship away over a stupid toaster. You might say, well, that wasn’t a very good friendship in the first place if that’s all it was worth. If you said that, you’d be wrong. The problem was one of principle where each of them believed with religious fervor that they held the moral high ground, thereby giving them license to practice a ridiculous stubbornness the crankiest mule would envy.

Over a stupid five-dollar toaster.

My two bull-headed chums had been good friends forever when they decided to be roommates. It was a platonic friendship and, like I already described, it was a solid relationship, built with a lot of humor and not given to drama or hyperbole. That’s why it was a surprise when they fought over the toaster after one of them eventually decided to move out. There was no issue, circumstances had presented him with an opportunity — the friendship was as good as ever. As good, that is, until each claimed ownership of that sad, crumb-filled, kitchen countertop appliance.

As neither of them was willing to budge, the issue of the toaster became a lofty matter of principle on which they could neither agree nor yield. When the proverbial unstoppable force meets the immovable object, friendships fail and, if I remember correctly, toasters get thrown off high-rise balconies. The toaster no longer mattered — now it was strictly principle.

Ah, yes, principle.

The county in which I live is currently experiencing the second of two bitter recall elections, characterized by abundant animus and vitriol.

In the first, two conservative members of the Newberg School District Board were subject to an aggressive recall campaign by progressives. Look across the country and you’ll see dozens of school districts and school boards wrestling with the same issues as Newberg. None of them are pretty fights.

In the second recall, a Yamhill County commissioner is waiting out the final week of what is arguably the most determined and disciplined recall campaign I have ever witnessed. Again, the issues separating the conservative commissioner from the progressive recall campaigners against her are many of the same issues causing screaming matches and fistfights across the U.S.: masks, vaccines, guns, feel free to add your own.

The issues separating Americans from one another are the same issues at play here in my county. Sadly, I know an alarming number of people who have “lost friends” over these recall elections. And that’s where the toaster comes in.

Is it really worth it to cut friends loose over a school board member? Or a county commissioner? Are we getting so uptight that we now require our friends to support the same school board members? Or county commissioners?

Sure, I get it that larger issues loom behind singular board members, whether they be school boards or boards of commissioners. Toasters, too. When it comes to matters of principle, we’re increasingly making them deal-breakers.

In the climate of polarization permeating American discourse today, it’s more important than ever that we preserve our ability to talk civilly with “them.” In other words, it’s crucial we remain able to have a polite conversation with people who don’t see things exactly as we do.

Make no mistake, we’re losing this ability.

As I’ve declared before and will declare again, some of the best friends of my life have been the people with whom i disagreed the most. Does this mean either of us sacrificed our morals in order to be friends with the other? Of course not. Our friendships were based on everything we had in common, not the few things on which we disagreed.

But, I’ll tell you, as someone who enjoys lively debate, having friends who disagree can make for very entertaining discussions. If you don’t like that sort of thing, there’s no reason you can’t simply do the “we’ll agree to disagree” thing, where you both simply agree to avoid discussing whatever separate you. See? That’s a matter of agreement right there!

It’s not worth throwing friendships away over school boards or county commissioners.

Or toasters.

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 Sara Julie via Unsplash
 

A falling tsar

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The Ukraine situation, fifth observation

“...a shattered visage lies, whose frown, and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command...” —Ozymandius, Percy Shelley

It was a colossal bet. Really, as wagers go, it was the bet of a lifetime. The stakes were high: an empire and a legacy or disgrace. Vladimir Putin had apparently been working up to this gamble for the better part of 40 years. If I was staking my career and my legacy — everything I’d worked for in my adult life — on anything less than an odds-on favorite, I’d spend decades preparing, too.

The problem is Putin didn’t hedge. Like Ozymandius, he dared those who would oppose him to look on his works and despair.

For now, Putin retains his office. But I am convinced his days are numbered — it’s fitting that this month marks the 105th anniversary of the fall of the last tsar. Even if I’m wrong, what Putin has lost already is staggering.

Russia spent decades working to attain a measure of respect in the eyes of the world, particularly the West. Post perestroika, Russia realized strength could be measured in terms other than martial. It soon turned out the stoic communists weren’t immune from neighbor-envy after all as ordinary Russians raced to keep up with the Joneses. The Motherland, itself, felt it needed the luxury car, nice clothes, membership in the country club, all the perks enjoyed in Europe and North America. International respectability lay in economic leverage, most-favored nation trading status, membership in respectable organizations like the Council of Europe.

Russians took to their Big Macs, iPhones, Levis and Pepsi-Cola like they’d never been without. Longtime managers of state-run factories were allowed to privatize their enterprises, giving birth to the infamous Russian oligarchy, often marked by gaudy excess.

Although a level of government oversight remained in place that Americans would find oppressive, the new Russia was never locked down as tight as China. Younger Russians got comfortable surfing the internet, engaging in social media, exploring Europe. This was problematic when Putin clamped down at the onset of his invasion, only too late realizing a good portion of the younger population was aware of events in Ukraine at odds with the government’s version. Putin controlled the television news but he seemed to forget about pervasive social media.

The most powerful monarch remains enthroned only at the pleasure of his people. If the emperor loses favor with his subjects, only a loyal army willing to attack its own people will let his majesty keep his crown.

In the Western mind, we know the people can overthrow the king and we don’t see why the Russians don’t just rise up and oust Putin. But the Russian mind doesn’t see the issue through a Western lens. Russians born in the 1970s and earlier were raised under the Soviet fugue, a totalitarian all-or-nothing system that had the proletariat cowed and obedient, convinced their government wouldn’t hesitate to banish them to the Lubyanka, Siberian hard labor or worse. Before perestroika and glasnost, the militia, the secret police and the Red Army loomed, all-powerful and terrifying. The people would never act en masse against their government.

The other half of the Soviet equation was one we find familiar: the threat of nuclear war. When you live under the atomic cloud, you’re keenly aware of your enemies. Russians could imagine these enemies — the U.S. or NATO — removing their government. But from 100 years of post-revolution mandatory good behavior, Russians do not rise up against their leaders.

The megalomaniacal whims of one man have brought down unspeakable suffering and destruction on Ukraine. When Russian armed forces demonstrated a lackluster willingness and ability to invade this neighboring country, an embarrassed Putin shifted the plan from a blitzkrieg that badly overestimated the army’s readiness, to incessant and widespread artillery attacks, targeting civilian areas. Too late, Putin knows he can’t win this war he started — but he can cause so much destruction and death that he hopes Ukraine will say enough.

The Russian people have it in their power to stop this travesty by rising up in massive numbers, condemning the evil being committed in their name.

The entire world knew what kind of man they had in Putin but Russia had come so far from its grim and grimy Soviet days, the world relaxed and began to welcome the New Russia as one of its own. Putin was treated like a statesman, given the respectful deference shown the head of state of a major player

In just a week, Putin has lost everything he had except his office. He has set his country back decades and put it on the path to a catastrophic recession or worse. Russia will default on its debt, making the 1998 “Russian Flu” crisis look like a little sneeze. Russia’s Most Favored Nation (MFN) trading status is being revoked. The country is being labeled a terrorist state and Putin a war criminal.

Putin lost his gamble.

Like Ozymandius, Putin does not yet understand the transitory nature of hubris.

“...round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.” —Ozymandius, Percy Shelley

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 Don Fontijn via Unsplash
 

Ukraine 301: World War III?

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

The whole thing reads like a soap opera. It’s got intrigue, jealousy, backstabbing, violence. It’s got guns, Nazis, a David and Goliath drama.

The problem is, it’s deadly real.

When Putin says he’s going after Nazis, he’s not entirely lying. While Ukraine is not overrun by National Socialists and boasts a Jewish president, Nazis do play a role in this lopsided war. The Azov Battalion — sometimes called the Azov Detachment or Azov Regiment — is a unit of the National Guard of Ukraine, based in Mariupol. What sets the regiment apart is its professed right-wing extremist ideals use of and neo-Nazi insignia. The regiment was initially formed as a volunteer militia in 2014, seeing its first combat experience recapturing Mariupol from pro-Russian separatists in June of that year. Then, in November, the regiment was incorporated into the National Guard of Ukraine, making its members official soldiers serving in the guard.

Obviously, the racist ideals of the regiment are detestable and officially sanctioning such a unit would be unheard of in the West. But things are different in Eastern Europe.

Anti-Semitism is deeply entrenched in parts of Eastern Europe. It is an ancient hatred, not usually flaunted but it is alive and well. Before people of Eastern European heritage take offense, please know I am not indicting any single group. No part of the world is free from racism and I do not wish this essay to be sidetracked by the racism that lives on the continent. Further, some of the world’s most vibrant Jewish communities had deep roots in Eastern Europe, communities that thrived for hundreds of years. But like any place on Earth, some people are racists.

Nevertheless, the first time I encountered anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, I was startled. It was matter-of-fact, a workaday sort of thing, unhidden, not aggressive but definitely overt. As I began watching for it, I saw an anti-Semitism deep and old, almost a fact of life, a custom passed from father to son. In the U.S., we expect such racism to take an angry form, a Nazis-in-Skokie kind of thing. The anti-Semitism of Eastern Europe is ancient, quiet yet pervasive — it’s different than what we see here.

Although Putin has turned a 200-strong racist regiment into hordes of Nazis, at least his grand lie is based in a bit of truth.

On the theme of going big, current thinking holds that Putin has grandiose plans to create not some new Soviet Union, but the sprawling old Imperial Russian Empire. Like all empires, Imperial Russia’s borders and territories were somewhat liquid, as leaders and wars came and went. But altogether, Imperial Russia was at one point the largest country in the world, extending from the Black Sea to the Bering Straits. If Putin could secure this as his legacy, Russian history would hold him in high esteem, a latter-day Alexander the Great.

But Putin’s big plans are falling apart. And those big plans are falling apart in a big way.

In the last two days, the Red Army has accomplished nothing of note, other than attacking civilians. Oh, yeah, it wiped out Kharkiv’s schools and hospitals. As it stands, hundreds of war crimes have been documented on video. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has launched an investigation. And Russia has embarrassingly little to show for it.

The bizarre moments of black comedy that have peppered this affair continued when a Ukrainian farmer hitched his tractor to Russian Tor-M2 surface-to-air missile system and towed it right on into town. The incident meant little, but it provided a deliciously insulting image against the “might” of the Red Army.

On the other side, in the last two days Ukrainian forces report killing hundreds of Russian troops, destroying dozens of Russian helicopter gunships, retaking the city of Chuhuiv and sinking a Russian warship off Odessa. Exaggerated? Maybe. But maybe not. Even if it’s half true, the Ukrainians are kicking Russian ass.

In total, Ukraine estimates 11,000 Russian soldiers are dead, 1,000 armored vehicles are destroyed along with nearly 300 tanks, 68 helicopters and just under 50 fixed-wing aircraft. Independent observers offer lower estimates but the International Institute for Strategic Studies says “the situation is becoming unsustainable for Russia.”

At least one ranking military commander believes the Red Army might be on its last legs. Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, former First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff and current Chief of the Defence Staff — professional commander of the British Armed Forces — suggested that Putin’s “decimated” force could lose the war in Ukraine. Coming on the heels of Pentagon reports that 95 percent of Russia’s combat power is currently concentrated in Ukraine and a 24-hour period that saw eight Russian warplanes shot down, Radakin said, “Russia is suffering, Russia is an isolated power. It is less powerful than it was ten days ago. Some of the lead elements of Russian forces have been decimated by the Ukrainian response.”

Radakin detailed failure after failure in Russian equipment, maintenance and discipline. He explained that Russia hasn’t operated at the current complex scale since World War II. He pointed to the infamous convoy of hundreds of vehicles and upwards of 15,000 troops, stalled by embarrassing Russian ineptitude, sitting outside Kyiv, a full month behind schedule, according to U.K. intelligence sources.

When asked if a Russian win was inevitable, Radakin didn’t hesitate. “No. I think we’ve seen a Russian invasion that is not going well,” said the admiral. “I think we’re also seeing remarkable resistance by Ukraine, both its armed forces and its people and we’re seeing the unity of the whole globe coming together, applying pressure to Russia.”

On the other hand, one of the world’s top experts on Russian affairs offers a grave warning.

Fiona Hill says we’re in World War III, we just don’t know it yet.

Hill, an academic who’s spent years watching and parsing Russian affairs, asserts that World War III began in 2014 or before. Hill worked as an intelligence analyst under the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Under Donald Trump, she served as deputy assistant to the president and National Security Council (NSC) senior director for European and Russian affairs. Hill’s eventual clashes with Trump are irrelevant to her expertise — there is likely no more qualified expert on Russian affairs than Hill. That’s why Hill’s warning should be taken deadly seriously.

“We’re already in [World War III]. We have been for some time,” Hill told Politico, detailing how the major conflicts of the 2oth Century were entwined. “Many of the things that we’re talking about here have their roots in the carving up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Russian Empire at the end of World War I,” she said. Hill then brought up recent events in Syria, Iraq and Kuwait.

“All of the conflicts that we’re seeing have roots in those earlier conflicts,” said Hill. “We are already in a hot war over Ukraine, which started in 2014. People shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking that we’re just on the brink of something. We’ve been well and truly in it for quite a long period of time.”

I believe Hill is correct, even if Putin has overextended at the moment. In the hindsight 100 years from now, the Ukraine invasion may go down as a prelude to a much larger, much more complicated, much further reaching action.

Even today, the Russians are hinting at a cease-fire, ostensibly for humanitarian purposes. Yeah, right. We’ve all seen horrific videos of the Red Army shelling families during so-called cease-fires — yes families with kids, literally blown to shreds, caught on video, more than once. There’s nothing humanitarian about barbarians needing to regroup. But it sounds good in the world media.

Back in the Soviet Union — oops, I mean Russia — media hasbeen shut down, social media has been cut off, police are brutally cracking down on growing demonstrations as the Russian people discover their government lied about everything and is systemically wiping out Ukrainian civilians, even as they flee.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reacted strongly to Russia’s latest war crimes in a television address today. “A man, a woman and two children. Right on the road... they were just trying to get out of town. To escape,” said Zelensky. “...How many such families have died in Ukraine?”

After stating Ukrainians would neither forgive nor forget, he went on. “We will punish everyone who committed atrocities in this war, on our land. We will find every bastard which shot at our cities, our people... There will be no quiet place on this Earth for you, except for the grave.”

I stand behind my original assertion that the Russian people offer perhaps the best ending to this situation. If they stand up in sufficient numbers — tens of thousands at a time — no oppressive action will stifle the Russian disgust at what’s taking place in their name.

The Russian people are starting to figure out what the world already knows. Their revulsion may yet be the key to blunting Putin’s ego and ending his bloody fool’s errand.

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 Ahmed Zalabany via Unsplash
 

Ukraine 301: Superyachts, Cluster Bombs, a Bruised Ego

meador

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

Vladimir Putin is a disciplined man. His tenure as president of the Russian Federation and his earlier service to the communist government of the former Soviet Union earned him the reputation of a cold and calculating man but no one could say he was undisciplined. In fact, if Putin had one redeeming trait, his habitual discipline imbued him with a certain restraint, even if he did wield his power with rather less reserve than a Western leader with similar authority.

Putin’s biography reads like that of a man possessed of measured zeal tempered by self-control. In Russia, his prowess in judo and sambo — a Russian military combat sport — is the stuff of legend. Putin does hold a black belt, but some Westerners believe his martial arts abilities are heavily exaggerated or even fraudulent altogether.

Putin earned a law degree in 1975 from what is now Saint Petersburg State University. He studied German long enough to master it as a second language.

Right out of law school, Putin went to work for the KGB. He was assigned to counter-intelligence, then transferred to Leningrad where he watched consular staff and tracked foreigners. Putin then spent five years in East Germany, putting his fluency in the language to good use by posing as a translator. Near the end of his East German tenure, Putin was involved in some shady documents removal and destruction as the Berlin Wall fell.

Caught briefly under the umbrella of suspicion permeating both communist governments, Putin returned to Leningrad when the East German government collapsed. In the ensuing turmoil around the fall of Soviet communism, Putin was appointed to the Leningrad mayor’s staff, where his corruption earned him an investigation. This didn’t prevent him from remaining in the government of the newly-renamed St. Petersburg.

In 1998, first president of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, appointed Putin Director of the Federal Security Service (FSB). It was no coincidence that the FSB was the KGB’s replacement organization, handling security and intelligence matters.

One year later, Putin was appointed First Deputy Prime Minister. Several months later, Yeltsin resigned, making Putin acting president of the federation. In this role, Putin deftly smothered corruption allegations against Yeltsin and himself. Putin was then elected president in early 2000.

Putin won his second term in 2004. Both terms were marked by heavy-handed actions including the crushing of the Chechen rebellion. Constitutionally prohibited from a third term, Putin simply arranged for his puppet, Dmitry Medvedev, to serve as president while Medvedev immediately appointed Putin prime minister.

Under allegations of election fraud, Putin again won the presidency in 2012. Not surprisingly, the resulting public demonstrations were met with his trademark heavy hand, and a huge pro-Putin demonstration was staged to “prove” Putin’s popularity. Every stage of Putin’s career was stained by varying degrees of corruption.

In 2014, Putin annexed the Republic of Crimea and City of Sevastopol. That same year, Putin sent military units into Ukraine under similar circumstances as this week. Both actions were part of Putin’s efforts to rein in the autonomous states in “the Russian sphere of influence,” which is a circumspect way of saying “former Soviet territories which have no business joining the E.U. or NATO.”

Vladimir Putin is a disciplined man. He is accustomed to disagreement with his decisions. For a man who wields the power of life and death over millions, Putin is comfortable being the object of everything from indifference to intense hatred. While other men of great power rarely — or never — exercise their might in a manner that costs human lives, Putin has long been familiar with putting his power to effective use. On a small scale, Putin is content choosing whether a man lives or dies but Putin’s proficiency with his chilling strength means he’s equally at ease deciding whether a nation lives or dies.

Vladimir Putin is not accustomed to making colossal blunders. But he made one this week.

As mistakes go, this one was the misstep of a lifetime. It gave Putin generous tastes of two other things to which he is not accustomed: failure and embarrassment.

Putin’s blunder also ended his career, but he doesn’t know it yet. He knows things are different but he hasn’t yet realized his transformation from president to tin-pot dictator. Before last week, we knew he was not trustworthy, that he operated under his own paranoid cold war protocols. But we afforded him the dignity and respect due a head of state. No longer. No legitimate government on the planet will ever recognize or welcome him as a statesman again.

Putin may not realize the severity of his personal fate yet but he’s embarrassed, angry and vengeful.

Since realizing the magnitude of his blunder, every decision Putin has made, every action he’s taken has been done solely to assuage his damaged ego. The growing international sanctions these moves have earned are crippling his country, likely setting it back 20 years.

But at this point, the damage to his beloved Russia is irrelevant when compared to the damage Putin’s ego is inflicting on Ukraine. In a matter of days, Putin was well on his way to reducing Ukraine to a Third World wasteland, just to satisfy his ego.

For the first time in human history, a nuclear power plant was attacked with missiles by an army. According to the U.S. embassy in Kyiv, this attack constitutes a war crime. Without question, there are conventions prohibiting attacking an operating nuclear power plant.

But Putin isn’t particularly concerned about rules and conventions at the moment.

The Russians have bombed countless apartment blocks. They’ve damaged or destroyed dozens of schools. They’ve shelled restaurants, shops, playgrounds — hundreds of civilian structures nowhere near military targets.

The Russians blew up some children playing soccer. They have strung trip-mines throughout cities.

Cruise missiles are being used to take out buildings. Illegal cluster bombs are being used to target civilians.

The Russians are intentionally targeting civilians. Russian soldiers are freely looting shops. Putin is destroying Ukraine.

Over one million people have fled the violence in a diaspora that shows no sign of slowing down.

Rumor has it that in the next few days, hundreds of hired pro-Putin demonstrators will be bused into various locations throughout Ukraine to greet the Russian “liberators” with flowers and cheers. Putin believes it’ll make for a great photo op.

The Russians are also sending in a fake “humanitarian aid” convoy for the cameras — feed the narrative back home that the army is here to stop all the looting — the irony, of course, is the looting is being done by Russian soldiers.

Back in Russia, strictly-controlled state television shows only staged footage of Russian soldiers offering humanitarian aid to pathetic victims. Older Russians, who get most of their news via television, have bought Putin’s lies of neo-Nazis and drug addicts overrunning Ukraine, that this is a humanitarian mission. Putin shut down two independent television stations two days ago. Media coverage is forbidden to use words like “war” or “invasion” or anything that could make Russia look bad.

Fortunately, younger Russians get their news from friends throughout Europe and social media, although Putin banned Facebook earlier today. The younger Russians have roundly rejected Putin’s lies — they know what’s going on in Ukraine and they’re angry and ashamed at their country’s acts.

As for us, the outraged rest of the world, we’re between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Putin brought nukes into the equation as soon as he realized the staggering magnitude of his blunders. Nukes served both as a warning and as a bargaining chip. Surely he wouldn’t launch a preemptive nuclear attack... or would he? Probably not but it’s Putin in a state we’ve never witnessed.

Then, as mentioned above, there’s the first time in history that one nation attacked another’s nuclear power plant. After Russia attacked the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station with rockets, setting it aflame, Russian military personnel eventually seized the facility. The Ukrainian technical staff is being forced to work at gunpoint. Effectively, Putin is holding the largest nuclear power plant in Europe hostage.

The power plant seizure speaks to Putin’s panicked state: he recognized the stakes had changed and he now has less reason to exercise restraint in pursuing his endgame.

Oh, that pesky endgame! Many theoreticians believe Putin is after the former Soviet states. We know he was after Ukraine and NATO breathed a quiet sigh of relief that Ukraine had not yet joined the alliance. But what about Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania? The three former Soviet republics are now members of NATO. Former Warsaw Pact members Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland lie in the “sphere of influence,” too. If Putin makes a move into any NATO signatory, the alliance is treaty-bound to defend its members. If Putin plays either of his nuclear cards as the Russian Army marches into Latvia, how will NATO respond?

Putin won’t go after Poland but Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are likely fair game. As a sign of the times, the Republic of Georgia yesterday asked to fast-track its acceptance into NATO.

Repeatedly, the plaintive cry has come from prominent and ordinary Ukrainians: “Please! Give us a no-fly zone!” It’s a desperate and heartfelt plea and a sensible request. But whoever puts aircraft up over Ukraine effectively places themselves on a war footing with Russia. This is a huge escalation and a massive commitment — if another nuclear-armed nation enforced a no-fly zone, it could potentially lead Putin to start a nuclear war. Everyone, including Ukraine, must consider this factor.

Still, if Putin has his greedy eye on the Baltic States, would it make more sense in terms of time and personnel to stop him right now? If we’re going to have to meet the full terms of defending a NATO signatory later, wouldn’t it give a coalition more flexibility to stop Putin in Ukraine, where we’re not bound to full NATO terms?

At the moment, Putin’s shabby army is capable of inflicting horrific damage but they’re doing it in a shockingly undisciplined and sloppy manner. Up against a coalition with real air power and actual soldiers, the Russian army would retreat, scatter and desert in less than two days.

But all of this is just guesswork, a last-option sort of thing.

So, realistically, what do we do?

We must cut the Russian oil. It’s not the bulk of what we buy, not by a long shot. We get less than 1.3 percent of our oil from Russia, just under 30 million barrels in 2020. Compare that with the 1.3 billion barrels we imported from Canada the same year.

We need to cut ties with everything Russian. From the lowliest vodka to greedy venture capitalists and investors, we need to remove ourselves from everything Russian. All Western companies should pull out of the country — this is a moral issue, it supersedes everything else.

Russia must lose its seat on the U.N. Security Council.

Putin must face charges of war crimes. The actions of Putin’s army are well-documented. Several Western news organizations are identifying, documenting and plotting what appear to be hundreds of violations including use of prohibited weapons and intentionally attacking civilian targets. The news organizations will turn over evidence to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

Putin will almost certainly deny the charges and avoid facing them by remaining out of reach of the ICC — he’ll stay in Russia. Charging Putin will guarantee he never attends a summit, retreat, meeting, reception or banquet ever again. It permanently removes him from the world stage, reducing his effectiveness as Russian leader to almost zero.

In the unlikely event Putin faces the charges, a conviction will secure the same result, plus incarceration

Next, the infamous oligarchs. Nearly all of them were ordinary managers within the communist machine. Under the sudden freedoms and restructuring that began with perestroika and broadened dramatically with the collapse of the Soviet government, many were given “loans” to buy the companies they managed.

Under Putin’s corrupt government, all of them got filthy rich — including Putin. The oligarchs act as Putin’s money launderers and secret bankers. Every one of them need to have their assets seized and/or frozen, not just a dozen or two. There are several hundred of them. Their families must be included in seizures, too — adult children were enriched and often ownership of ostentatious toys is shared.

The point in going after the oligarchs is severalfold. They’re all linked and many are very close to Putin. They routinely affect policy. In theory, the oligarchs could affect a regime change, if they wanted it. Ultimately, if the oligarchs are punished, Putin is punished.

An interesting footnote: Putin’s luxury yacht was moved into the safety of Russian waters two weeks before he invaded Ukraine.

In trying to analyze Putin’s motivations, one of the most common theories is his legacy. Putin is a disciplined man who’s been conscious of his legacy for at least the last half of his career. Now, Putin is trying to secure his legacy as the savior who restored the Russian Empire. But then last week happened.

After last week’s series of mammoth errors, Putin will be fortunate to be remembered as anything other than the corrupt tin-pot dictator he revealed himself to be.

But if we play our cards right, Putin will get his notable legacy — it just won’t be quite as grandiose as he imagined. Still, Putin might be enough of a narcissist to appreciate that a legacy of disgrace is better than no legacy at all.

At any rate, his opinion won’t matter for much longer, not more than two or three years, if he’s lucky.

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 kremlin.ru
 

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