Thugs, Missiles and the Beefcake Czar

(There are currently two important events unfolding, the downing of the airliner by Russian supported thugs and the Israeli invasion of Gaza.  The first is far more important to the US, and I simply cannot think and write rationally about Gaza at this moment.  I keep thinking about the German liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto, which is an outrageous analogy, though there are some disgusting and disturbing similarities.)

 

 

While the details are still lacking because of the inability of the inspectors to enter the crash area fully, it has become clear that the plane was shot down by Russian supported Ukrainian separatists using Russian supplied equipment.  It is also clear that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin bears great responsibility for the deaths of almost three hundred innocents and is seemingly unwilling to take any action whatsoever to reign in his terrorists, who are now reported to have bragged about their crime.  (I want to say that any person anywhere found wearing a mask and carrying an assault rifle should be immediately shot, but then I would be descending to their level.)

The Beefcake Czar

The Beefcake Czar

 

What is the problem with the Russians, who are presenting an increasingly good impersonation of an uncivilized and barbarous country that happens to possess nuclear weapons?  Why is this society so addicted to autocratic government and content to live in the nineteenth century?  With the possible exception of the Stalin era I have only a superficial knowledge of Russian history, but it is still possible to suggest some answers, some of which are probably wrong (and any Russian historian reading this will likely groan).

 

Unlike Europe, Russia inherited virtually nothing from classical antiquity but the eastern version of Christianity, and their model civilization was the Byzantine Empire, a thoroughly autocratic society in which church and state were completely fused.  The post-classical West on the other hand began its evolution with a church that for all its later efforts to dominate secular rulers was distinctly separate, having developed its own governing structure parallel to that of the Roman Empire.  That structure also provided barbarian Europe with some measure of administrative competency, which was completely absent from the infant Russian state. Europe also inherited a sizable body of literature and art produced by a high civilization, and the remains of the Empire included a long-lasting network of roads and other useful infrastructure.

 

Further, the Roman Empire had laid the foundation of a common European culture, which was not significantly disturbed by outside forces, and Europe’s wars were mostly among European societies.  The Norsemen could be absorbed, and the Arabs could be repulsed.  Earlier Russian history is characterized by constant assault and domination by steppe barbarians, inimical to settled and urban society and not easily repulsed.  Warfare in feudal Europe revolved around horsemen, but they were only the elite component of armies, and the evolving weaponry of infantry helped drive innovation and societies sophisticated enough to produce the necessary new military technologies.  There were foot soldiers in the east, but the armies were overwhelmingly mounted, and the technology of mounted warfare had been pretty much perfected.  And who can live centuries in the shadow of the Mongols and not be brutalized to some degree?

Russian role model

Russian role model

In the West feudalism helped limit the power of the monarch and produce some tradition of resistance, and although absolutist kings appear in the early modern period, that tradition spurred the emergence of deliberative bodies that could and in some places did prevent and undermine the absolute authority of the king.  In Kievan Rus’, Muscovy and other states that ultimately became Russia the boyar was a sort of parallel to the medieval knight and they might form a deliberative body, a Duma, but their power gradually eroded in the face of the growing authority of the Czar.  Why this happens is not clear to me, but the result is that by the modern period the Czar is the absolute, unchallengeable ruler, his authority, like that of the Byzantine emperor, derived from god.  In the West the growth of trade and industry produced a third powerful player and a challenge to the existing power centers of church and state, while in Russia commerce remained subservient to the authority of the church-supported state, perhaps because the absolutism of the Czar was already so advanced.

 

Russian culture seems also to support a xenophobia more deeply rooted than in the west, perhaps because of the absence of the classical influences embodied in the literature of Europe and perhaps because of the constant assaults from the steppe.  Whatever the cause, this made modern Russia suspicious and hostile to the ideas and innovations coming from western Europe, and despite a Peter or a Catherine Russia lagged in its development, retaining a rural population that essentially remained in the conditions of the early middle ages.

 

And when Russia finally began to see some change in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the cataclysm of World War I and the incredibly bizarre, virtually chance triumph of the Bolsheviks doomed the country to another three-quarters of a century of an absolutism that put the Czars to shame.  By the time the Soviet state collapsed the complete absence of any developed institutions or tradition of democratic rule led the state to its present more or less absolute ruler, Vladimir Putin, the Beefcake Czar, who unsurprisingly emerged from the security apparatus of the previous regime.  Well, he is certainly the most buff man to ever rule Russia.

 

Putin role model

Putin role model

Putin role model

Putin role model

Who knows what the fate of Russia will be?  Putin plays to the broad masses, who seem to yearn for another Stalin, and caters to their crude nationalism and traditional phobias, and this has a price.  The educated and highly skilled are fleeing to the West, and the corruption, malfeasance and capriciousness inherent in his rule discourages increasingly necessary foreign investment.  The country survives on the selling off of its immense natural resources, a sign of the economic primitivism associated with developing countries. Meanwhile he squanders badly needed resources on patriotic cosmetic projects like the Winter Olympics and the upcoming World Cup.  And if Europe is dependent on Russian gas, Russia is increasingly dependent on Chinese markets.

 

Russia is also becoming a pariah because of its illiberal policies and creeping expansionism, and Putin has now grandly exacerbated this development with the barbaric act of his Ukrainian/Russian thugs and his refusal thus far to do anything about it.  He is playing the same laughable propaganda game the Soviet rulers did, and the entire world is perfectly well aware of his complicity in the destruction of the Malaysian airliner. The guy is a thug, a clever one, but a thug nevertheless.

Men with small johnsons

Men with small johnsons

 

What to do now?  Obama has begun attacking Russian assets in foreign countries and moving towards excluding Russia from the financial mechanisms of the global economy, which would be a disastrous blow.  I would suggest even more immediate pressures, recalling the American ambassador and giving Putin, say, forty-eight hours to deal with the terrorists and open up the crash site or face a ban on Russian air traffic to the US and whatever European countries that can be persuaded to follow.  I might even threaten to prohibit American carriers from flying into Russia, but this is extremely unlikely, since one then runs up against corporate interests, which would certainly be loath to surrender profits simply because an airliner was shot out of the sky.  Already the Europeans and the all-important Germans are dragging their feet because of the natural gas issue and business interests with the Russians.

 

Well, it is all disgusting and harkens back to the less attractive aspects of the last century, but it sure makes for interesting news.

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If You Had the Luck of Ukraine, You’d Wish you Were Russian Instead

In 1938 Adolf Hitler prepared to send troops into the Sudentenland, the western predominantly German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia, on the grounds that the ethnic Germans there were being mistreated.  At the infamous meeting in Munich, to which the Czechs were not invited, France and Britain agreed to German annexation of the area, easing Europe a bit further down the road to war, which broke out a year later when the western powers refused accept the same justification for Hitler’s claim on Danzig and the Polish Corridor.  Vladimir Putin, czar of the reborn Russian empire, has now done the same in Ukraine, occupying the Crimea and threatening the Russian-speaking areas of eastern Ukraine.  Unlike Hitler, however, he did not wait for permission from the west.

the Black Earth

the Black Earth

 

 

The history of Ukraine is to a large extent the history of Russia, and both groups trace their origins to the Kievan Rus’, the first great Slavic state, which took shape in the late ninth century.  Ironically, the initial ruling elite was not Slavic but Scandinavian, the Varangians, a Viking group that had settled the region via the great rivers from the north.  They quickly disappeared into the Slavic majority, but it was under their leadership that Kievan Rus’ was established, and under the Rurik dynasty it became in the tenth and eleventh centuries easily the most powerful state in Europe, controlling territory from the Baltic to the Black Sea.  The state began to disintegrate in the twelfth century, and in the thirteenth the Mongols showed up, devastating the land and destroying Kiev itself in 1240.  Kievan Rus’ fragmented into separate principalities, the most powerful of which was the kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia, which in the fourteenth century fell under the control of the grand Duchy of Lithuania and the kingdom of Poland.  This complicated matters inasmuch as the new rulers were Catholics, and in 1596 they introduced the Uniate Church, which employed eastern rituals but was under the Pope, thus creating a sectarian divide.

Where it all began

Where it all began

The southern area, along the Black Sea, became the Crimean Khanate, ruled by the Crimean Tatars, descendants of the Mongols.  At the same time a principality on the northeastern periphery of Kievan Rus’, Vladimir-Suzdal, grew into the Grand Duchy of Moscow, which would become Russia.  And there was of course the growing power of the Cossacks on the Dnieper and the Don, leading to the emergence of the Cossack Hetmanate, which dominated much of southern Ukraine.

 

 

In the seventeenth century the Ukraine experienced its own Thirty Years War, when from 1657-1686 the Poles, Russians, Cossacks and Turks (and a dash of Tatars) fought for control of the area.  The result was the “Eternal Peace,” which gave the land west of the Dnieper to Poland and the land east to Russia.   This divided the Cossacks, who nevertheless remained a powerful force in Ukraine, and in the early eighteenth century they joined Poland and Sweden in a war against Russia.  They were crushed, and the Hetmanate was abolished by Catherine the Great in 1764.  The last Hetman, Kirill Razumovsky, declared Ukraine a sovereign state in 1763, the first to do so.  When Poland was partitioned at the end of the eighteenth century, Russia and Austria divided Ukrainian territory west of the Dnieper.  The Crimean Khanate was annexed by Russia in 1783.

 

 

A relatively backward agricultural area, Ukraine was of little concern to St. Petersburg and Vienna in the nineteenth century.  The western half, Galicia, enjoyed a greater degree of freedom under the Hapsburgs, producing a nationalist movement, while the eastern half suffered under a program of Russification, which attempted to eradicate Ukrainian culture and literature and even language.  Ukrainians fought on both sides in World War I, and the entire nation was swept into the chaos and violence following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.  In the period 1917-1921 several Ukrainian “states” came and went, and while the bulk of the territory became the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922, parts of the west went to Poland, Belarus and the new republic of Moldava.

 

 

Then came suffering not seen since the days of the Mongols.  Some million and a half Ukrainians died during the Russian Civil War and the War with Poland, and an unknown number followed them into the grave during the famine of 1921.  During the twenties the Soviet government actually encouraged a revival of Ukrainian culture and language, but that changed with the triumph of Stalin at the end of the decade.  As a result of the forced collectivisation millions died of starvation in the early thirties, and during the purges more than a half million people were murdered, eliminating 80% of the Ukrainian cultural elite.  In the wake of this horror many Ukrainians in the west welcomed the Nazis as liberators, but German atrocities turned most to the unpleasant course of supporting the USSR, and during the war Ukraine actually regained territory previously ceded to others.

 

 

To the destruction caused by the war was added the deaths of tens of thousands during the famine of 1946-1947 and the deportation of hundreds of thousands prior to Stalin’s death in 1953.  Familiar with Ukraine and interested in establishing better relations, in 1954 Khrushchev transferred the Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, thus establishing the circumstances for the present crisis.  During the post-war period Ukraine enjoyed tremendous economic growth and influence, producing many prominent figures, including Leonid Brezhnev.

 

 

On 24 August 1991 Ukraine declared itself to be an independent democratic state, freeing itself from foreign control for essentially the first time in almost a millennium, and in December Ukraine, Belarus and Russia formally dissolved the USSR.  The Ukrainian economy suffered massively during the wild days of the nineties, but by 2000 real economic growth had been established.  Unfortunately, as with virtually all the former members of the Soviet Empire democracy did not come easy, and increasing fraud, corruption, concentration of power and the plundering of the national wealth led to the Orange Revolution in 2004.  Viktor Yanukovych, winner of rigged elections, was thrown out by Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko.  Two years later Yanukovych was back in power only to be replaced by Tymoshenko the following year.  In 2010 Yanukovych was elected president in a questionable election and had Tymoshenko thrown in prison.

Ukrainian military

Ukrainian military

the stooge

the stooge

Ukrainian Evita

Ukrainian Evita

Corruption was rampant under Yanukovych, who established a kleptocracy supported by the country’s oligarchs and became a puppet of Vladimir Putin, who, as is perfectly clear, wanted Ukraine in the new Russian empire.  This led to the current revolution and Yanukovych’s flight to Russia.  Having lost his stooge, Putin stirred up trouble among the majority Russians in the Crimea and sent in troops (with no insignia) to “protect” them and the Russian naval base leased from Ukraine.  This was a blatant violation of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, signed by Ukraine, the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom, which guaranteed the territorial integrity of the Ukrainian state.

 

 

Vladimir Putin in not just the latest autocrat of all the Russias, he also a thug, nurtured in the bosom of the KGB.  Knowing that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was terrified of dogs, he deliberately had his large dog present when they met for the first time in Moscow.  He may be the most buff ruler of Russia in centuries, but he is a thug, with a Mussolini-like propensity to bare his chest.  But then, he is the ruler of Russia, a country filled with a greater than average number of vulgar and cruel people.  He is also a liar and a hypocrite, but what national leader is not?  He constantly touts national sovereignty (“stay out of Syria”) and then promptly invades Ukraine.  Of course US protests about violating sovereignty also ring a bit hollow, since we do it constantly, especially in Pakistan, and give unqualified support to a state, Israel, which seems to have no concept of national sovereignty beyond its own.

macho czar

macho czar

So what can the west do?  Western leaders are of course “closely monitoring” the situation, expressing “grave concerns” and calling for calm, all while wondering what the hell they can do.  Who actually controls the Crimea is hardly a major security interest for the west (good luck with all those Tatars, Vlad!) and places like Germany are far more concerned about Russian natural gas supplies, but from the beginning of time major powers have been concerned about losing face.  And there is substance to the notion that if aggression is not countered, the aggressor will seek more.

 

 

Still, we hardly want an actual war with the Russians, despite the fact that their military is a shadow of its former self.  It is mighty risky policy to get into a shooting contest with someone who has nuclear weapons, and if Hungary was not worth getting nuked for in 1956, the Crimea certainly is not in 2014.  Of course there is John “Why Are We Not Still in Vietnam” McCain advocating activating NATO junior partner status for Ukraine and Georgia, failing completely to understand that this is exactly the sort of thing that drives paranoid dictators over the edge.  Look at the virtual wall of American bases encircling Iran, and one gets a better idea of why they are belligerent.

 

 

On the other hand, Barack “Everything Is Secret” Obama has hardly been inspiring in his relatively placid response to the crisis.  It certainly does not take an expert in foreign affairs to see the only options available and to begin to implement them.  Immediately pump money into Ukraine to stabilize the economy and provide relief if Putin turns off the gas.  Ratchet up the diplomatic and economic pressure on Russia.  Prince Vlad probably does not care that much about world opinion, despite the big Olympic splash, but his country is a relative economic wimp and might have serious trouble enduring major sanctions, although his people are well accustomed to enjoying a low standard of living.  Throw Russia of the G8, freeze her foreign assets, place a travel ban on her leaders and surround the country with a fence of economic sanctions.  The problem here of course is those trading with Russia are likely to be far more concerned with the money to be made trading with Russia than who controls the Crimea.

 

 

And how did this crisis take the US by such surprise?  We are able to monitor every phone call on the planet – to little apparent end – yet our intelligence agencies could not catch troops and equipment being slipped into the Crimean peninsula?  Once the revolution against Yanukovych began last year did no one in the government consider what might happen if he fell from power?  Is that not basic foreign policy planning?  Are we not supposed to mistrust characters like Putin and expect the unexpected?  And this in a country where the Pentagon is rumored to have gamed wars against zombies?  Perhaps the President and Congress were too busy raising money?  I’ll bet there are contingency plans to invade the Russian Commonwealth if they injure Israeli interests.

 

 

Well, too bad there is a nuclear component.   A naval battle in the Black Sea would be very cool.  Where is the Wehrmacht when you need them?