Pawns in the game…

Being that 99% of anyone who reads this blog are Americans, what I’m about to say probably falls into the category of an unpopular opinion. Fortunately, the older I get, the less of a damn I give about holding contrary opinions. That’s what you get in exchange for the perennially sore back and occasional spontaneous additional aches and pains, I guess. It’s probably a more than fair trade. 

In any case, my current unpopular opinion is that although it’s certainly unfortunate, I’m not losing any sleep about the two Americans who were captured in Ukraine and are now being held by the Russians. Before you start with the hate mail, hear me out – American citizens were warned off of traveling to Ukraine. The State Department withdrew its personnel from the country. The U.S. military is not taking an active role in the conflict.

The Americans in question, with full knowledge that they were going to be in an active war zone, beyond the operational reach of U.S. diplomatic and military support, decided to sign up to fight for Ukraine. Their decision, in many ways was heroic. They went where their conscience dictated, despite the personal danger in which it placed them. Doing so, of course, was as much foolish as it was heroic. That’s the catch, you see. Doing the heroic thing, by definition, meant that they accepted an awesomely high degree of personal danger.

Now that these men are in the hands of the Russians, the real weight of their decision has become obvious to them, their family, and those following along at home. I don’t wish these guys any ill, but the reality is they’re third country nationals caught out in someone else’s war. They’re strangers in a strange land. There’s probably a reasonable chance they’ll eventually be exchanged for someone the Russians want to fetch out of a deep dark hole somewhere at some point in the future. Maybe they’ll meet a different, less fortunate fate. For now, though, they’re just another pair of pawns in this new version of a very old game. 

Wartime leadership…

If you haven’t seen it, take a few minutes and watch Ukrainian President Zelensky address members of the US Congress. The man displays more leadership in ten minutes than the Congress has shown in the last ten years.

https://www.cnn.com/videos/world/2022/03/16/volodymyr-zelensky-congress-speech-ukraine-video-newsroom-vpx.cnn

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The United Nations. According to reports, the UN press office has instructed staff not to call the current Russian war against Ukraine a “war” or “conflict.” I’m sure somewhere, somehow the UN manages to do something useful, but I’m equally sure this ain’t it. Having spent the last two decades in the belly of one of the world’s great bureaucracies, I know ass covering when I see it. It’s not surprising from an organization that continues to allow Russia to chair the Security Council while simultaneously committing countless war crimes against clear and obvious civilian targets. It’s not surprising, but it’s damned well disappointing. 

2. Our Arab allies. Leaders of both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have refused phone calls from the President of the United States in recent weeks. These “allies” of ours are quick enough to pick up the receiver whenever the need to re-up an order of military hardware or need a big bad superpower to keep their neighbor in line. When the issue is opening up the spigot and pumping some more oil, tough, we’re met with a deafening silence. If we had any sense as a country it’s the kind of thing we’d remember and exact a price for the next time our allies need spare parts for their fancy American fighter jets.

3. Off ramps. The Twitter space is filled with voices calling for the world to find an “off ramp” for Vlad the Invader. The world, they say, needs to give Vlad a way to back away without smelling like he’s fallen directly through the outhouse floor. I’m sorry. No. Vlad needs to put his tail between his legs and slink back to Moscow having been bled militarily by a country he assumed would roll over and crippled financially by a resolute western alliance. The world will get far better terms once he squeals than if he’s allowed to thump his chest and claim some sort of victory no matter how pyric. Treat him like North Korea’s glorious leaders – put him in a box and mostly ignore him. 

Funding both sides…

Europe gets a metric shit ton of its oil and natural gas from Russia. It’s a simple, unfortunate truth.  No matter how bad the Russian attack on Ukraine gets in the short term, convincing the European Union to embargo their own fuel supply is probably too heavy a lift. That doesn’t mean as spring arrives, they shouldn’t be putting plans in place to cut out Russian oil for next heating season. It’s in their collective best interest to disentangle from Russia as quickly as possible. Either they do it on their own terms or it can be forced on them whenever Vlad the Invader decides to choke off their supply of his own accord.

Sources I’ve seen indicate that only somewhere between 1 and 8% of the petroleum products we consume here in the United States originate in Russia. I’m sure there’s a reason for that wide a variance in the numbers, but the bottom line doesn’t really change – there’s absolutely no reason the US needs to import oil products from Russia. Other, more reliable trading partners – I’m looking at you, Canada and Mexico – would probably be thrilled to pick up the slack.

The game we’re playing now, of airlifting arms and armaments to the Ukrainian resistance while simultaneously providing hard dollars to Russia by way of payments for petroleum, needs to stop. Funding both sides of the war is just plain stupid. Every lever of economic power we can throw to bring pain to the Russian economy is an effort worth making… and more importantly, once we’re off Russian oil we can focus on helping Europe get themselves clean, too. 

If we’re serious about not wanting to get into a shooting war with Russia ourselves, tightening the economic stranglehold we’ve got them in as quickly as possible feels like the last, best option. Otherwise, we’re just giving Putin more time and funding to hold on in hopes that the currently unified world begins to show some cracks at the margins. Our historically short attention span is working against us here, but this is important and it needs to get done.

A needed pause…

I’ve been swallowing news in big gulps since Vlad the Invader sent his wanna-be Red Army across the Ukrainian boarder. Cable, streaming, social media, and blogs, I’ve been trolling all of them for snippets of new and interesting information. 

That’s one of the dangers of being a history guy… and one that’s spent a fair amount of his time concentrating on a combination of general war in Europe and the cold war. Throw in a hefty dollop of defense policy and global strategy and, well, it can be downright hard to tear your eyes away, for fear of missing whatever news happens to break while you’re looking somewhere else.

I won’t deny being keyed up by the flow of information available in the open-source environment. I’ve lost track of the number of “holy shit” moments. It would be entirely too easy to follow the rabbit hole down into something not entirely healthy. 

Knowing that about myself, I’m going to try to step away a bit – even if it’s just for tonight. I’ll be doing my best to stay the hell off Facebook and Twitter and all the other sites and slip into a comfy chair with a good book. It’s 100% an effort to blow out a week’s worth of accumulated gunk from the darker corners of my head. 

Taking a night off from the war is a luxury our friends in Ukraine don’t have. I might be tuning out the news for a few hours, but I’m sure it, and the overall state of this old, beshitted world of ours, won’t be out of my thoughts for very long. 

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Sanctions. There’s a small chorus out there arguing that the fairly dramatic sanctions regime imposed on Russia is only hurting Russian civilians, that it’s somehow “unfair,” or that it’s somehow an escalation of this conflict. I tend to come at it from a much different perspective. Russia’s wholesale invasion of Ukraine is a clear and present threat to the post-World War II free and democratic order in Europe. Under the circumstances, marshalling the full economic might of Western Civilization and arming the Ukrainian resistance with as much material as they can carry feels like the very least America and western Europe can do in response. I can assure you, a President Tharp would be far less ginger in how he approached the whole damned mess.

2. Saber rattling. The nuclear option. Vlad the Invader has put Russia’s nuclear forces on alert. Feels like the good old days of the Cold War when Soviet leaders threatened nuclear apocalypse any time world events didn’t go their way. If you didn’t live through those times, it happened a lot. Like all the time. If we caved in to Russian nuclear threats every time they stomped their feet in a fit of not getting their way, there would still be a wall in Berlin and an Iron Curtain across continental Europe. As the poet said, there are worse things in life than being dead.

3. Propaganda value. I’ve loaded down my social media feeds with images, memes, videos, and commentary on Russia’s war-making over the last week. One thing I’ve refrained and will continue to refrain from doing is posting any of the images of surrendered Russian soldiers. I instinctively recoil every time I’ve ever seen pictures posted of American troops in the hands of the enemy… and seeing what are almost inevitably young conscripts on what must be the absolute worst day of their life being put on display, while it may have a certain propaganda value, doesn’t sit well with me. Better to just march them off to confinement and confirm through the Red Cross that Ukraine is committed to treating its POWs with dignity and in accordance with the Geneva Convention.

At the top of the list…

I’ve been fortunate to go many places and do many things over the years. I’ve managed to scratch out a fair number of “bucket list” items. There’s still a number of things still on the list, of course. If you’re doing it right, it’s the kind of list that probably should be inexhaustible.

There is one item currently standing undisputed at the top of the list. When all this is over, I want to go to Ukraine. It may take me a while to sort the hows and whats, but I want to stand on that ground and look these remarkable people in the eye. I want to tell them that they’re inspiring and absolutely magnificent in the face of the most grave possible danger. They’re patriots and heroes.

I like to think that says something coming from a guy who’d rather not leave the house, let alone cross oceans and continents.

Mother Russia…

Russia rattling its nuclear saber and its foibles being the butt of jokes is honestly just more fuel for the way back machine. If you didn’t listen too carefully to the news over the last few days, I think you could be forgiven for wondering if you woke up sometime in 1985. New faces, new flag, but the same old, worn playbook of threats played out against the backdrop of an economy teetering on the brink of collapse. The only difference this time is in the internet age, the entire world can see the rot and dysfunction in Russia when back then it was largely hidden behind the iron curtain and a wall of silence.

For all his bluster, Mr. Putin can’t hide that his country is a shambles if not an outright sham. Seventy years of Soviet policies followed by 30 years of kleptocracy apparently don’t build up a productive and vibrant system. Who would have guessed, right? I, of course, mean aside from anyone who was alive to watch the Soviet Union collapse under the weight of its misguided and misbegotten policies.

I don’t in any way intend for this to sound triumphant, because I know well enough that even a tired, sick, and old elephant hurts if it happens to fall on you. The takeaway, though, is that we need a full reevaluation of how we think about Russia and Russian power in the future. We should also use this brief period of western democratic ascendency and unity to put as much of our own house in order as we can while it lasts. Putin or no Putin the world is a dangerous place that’s markedly more well ordered when its great democracies aren’t busy bickering among themselves.

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.