Back in the USSR…

Maybe it’s having spent my formative years in the tail end of the long cold war between the United States and the USSR, but tuning in to the news only to hear nuclear threats spewing from Moscow doesn’t seem particularly alarming. It feels a little like home – the way the world is supposed to be, or the way it was before the Soviet Union up and collapsed and we declared the end of history.

Soviet behavior on the nuclear front was happily predictable. The Russian bear would find itself backed into a corner and then rattle its nuclear saber. It’s the kind of thing that was just expected back there and back then as a standard part of their negotiating posture.

Oh, sure, this time could be different, but it feels a lot like Uncle Vlad is cut from very similar cloth as the old Soviet leaders that came before him. It’s always possible, of course, that he’s just enough of a wild card to let a whopper fly when none of his predecessors were. Desperate men aren’t often known for their smoothly rational behavior.

Even given the nominal risk of global thermonuclear war, I’m firmly of the position that there is absolutely no strategic upside to giving in to nuclear blackmail. It’s not like we haven’t been here before… and given the performance we’ve seen from Russian equipment over the last six months, it feels more than possible that their birds are even more of a danger to their own launch facilities than they are to the targets. 

Chalk one up for Gen X’s trademark indifference, I guess, but I ain’t scared.

Back to the future…

I grew up in the 80s… not so very long ago in geo-political terms. Back there and back then, the Soviet Union was an Evil Empire run by faceless party bosses and apparatchiks in far off, shadowy Moscow. As a cold war kid, having Russia back as the Big Bad feels like the most natural thing in the world. It’s the way things ought to be.

Russia, in the guise of “first among equals” in the USSR, had a long history of intimidating, invading, and occupying its neighbor states if they strayed too far from the edicts issued from Moscow. The old countries of the Warsaw Pact and former Soviet republics, spent half a century or more under the heel of or at least under threat from the Red Army.

My Point? It’s mostly just a way of saying that the ongoing invasion of Ukraine doesn’t represent anything new under the sun. It’s Russia being true to form and returning to old patterns from the 20th century. The difference now is that the Warsaw Pact is long dead and the former Soviet republics have been independent for decades – many joining NATO as they are well aware the threat that an expansionist Russia represents,

Even as the United States and the USSR postured across the German plains, the post World War II global order kept the peace in Europe for the better part of three generations. Since the end of the Second World War, Europe has known an almost unprecedented period of peace. If history is a guide, that’s not necessarily the natural state of things in the region. Today, it seems, we’re closer to a general war in Europe than at any time since 1945… driven almost entirely by one man’s obsession to restore an empire that hasn’t existed in over thirty years.

It seems that we’ve gone back to the future in the worst possible way.

From the old playbook…

Among the many things I’m not, is a foreign policy expert. I have an awareness of issues and a personal opinion, of course, but lack any significant academic knowledge beyond what I’ve picked up from books and the mass media. Growing up at the tail end of the Cold War makes me far more comfortable looking at, and trying to understand events in and around the old Soviet Union, but honestly, I’m far more comfortable talking about the Crimean War than I am any contemporary issues surrounding the Ukraine situation.

In retrospect, maybe we should all have assumed Ukraine would be the flashpoint it seems to have become. In our collective defense, we’ve spent a lot of that time focusing on Korean dictators, the failures of the Trump presidency, its domestic implications, and fighting among ourselves. 

Here we are, threatening sanctions, arming the Ukrainian military, and staring down our old adversary while NATO rushes nominal reinforcements towards Eastern Europe. Sixty years ago, my old man wore our nation’s cloth in Bavaria serving the same function – a forward presence in Europe to deter Russian aggression. For fifty years, the great powers staring at each other across the plains of Europe managed to keep the peace, because the consequences of not keeping that peace were considered catastrophic by both sides.

There’s nothing new under the sun… though as we begin our evacuation of family members and non-essential personnel from Ukraine, I’m left to wonder if the old playbooks will hold up in this brave new world of ours. 

Red menace…

It’s May Day. Maybe I know that because I majored in history or maybe it’s because I was a geeky kid who remembers the last days of the Red menace pretty clearly. In either case, May 1st use to be a big deal. Unionists, hippies, malcontents, communists, and leftists of every stripe flocked to it once upon a time. Military May Day Parade Outside the KremlinMaybe they still do and we just don’t see many news reports about the really radical lefties anymore. Maybe there aren’t enough of the old school radicals left to make it news. Your guess is as good as mine.

Either my happenstance or because my subconscious really runs the show, I ended up wearing a red shirt to work today. Lord knows I’m no socialist and hippies, as a group, tend to make me nervous, but to me May Day is still a Soviet holiday – one that brings back childhood memories of the news covering the USSR parading their latest and greatest hardware through Moscow to Red Square. I was 11 when the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union was lowered from the top of the Kremlin for the last time. Most kids that age probably wouldn’t remember where they were when they saw it happening live on television, but I do.

I’m a good enough historian to know that how we view past events is always flavored by the tenor of the times in which we live. As far as I’m concerned, there is no such thing as truly “objective” history. We always bring our personal biases and backgrounds into the analysis despite trying to avoid it. So here we are on May Day 2013, I’m wearing my red shirt, and I find myself missing the USSR. Sure, they were an oppressive expansionist empire based on an economic system that proved completely unsustainable, but they were at least the kind of enemy you grudgingly respect. Today’s petty thugs and tyrants could learn a lot from giving them a look.