Blessedly out of touch with everything for a week or so, I see that the situation in the east is much improved, freedom-wise. Ukraine is winning. The prez has reversed his defeatist assessment, or his sense of where the wind is blowing, or whatever he uses to set his position, and we are backing the anti-Russian side to the hilt (short of troops), a billion worth of arms, as a reliable source, R. Bruce McColm, former president of the International Republican Institute, the Republican side of the National Endowment for Democracy, tells me. Too, the Euros are with us and I read in the Wall Street Journal that the whole world is helping Ukraine, arms, airplanes, fighters — it’s George Orwell again, the International Brigades!.
Looks somber for the Russian side. If Ukraine wins this fight, or even fights to a draw — some form of neutrality in exchange for leaving them alone and restoration of territories lost since 2014, I would guess — it will be seen as a defeat for masters of the Kremlin, if there are more than one, come to think of it, because it seems another development is that the Russians are losing generals by the dozen — KIA, defect, suicide, stomach ulcers? — and before you know we shall be hearing about a Russian Stauffenberg.
This sort of inattention on our side, the half-baked manner we approached the challenge of helping Ukraine shed its Soviet-era situation and join the Democracies, reminds me of nothing so much as Daisy and Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby.
Whether it is wise in these circumstances to say mean things about Vladimir Putin, I doubt. Ronald Reagan was better at talking to foreign bad guys: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” — and it happened.
There remains the possibility, and I am not trying to be a spoiler, that only some of what we are being told or shown is quite what it sounds or looks like. I must admit to some skepticism regarding the reported — maybe “bandied about” is a better term here, given current standards of news reporting — Russian casualty figures, but let us agree that they surely are heavy, much heavier than the Russian leadership expected.
These casualties, and the destruction of Mariupol which I read about while I was away, and the masses of refugees, are appalling but scarcely surprising to someone with some awareness of Russian war-fighting in history. If we — the U.S. — have been sending arms to Ukraine since at least 2014 in the wake of the Russian land grabs in Crimea and the Donbass, and if we now are rushing in even a fraction of a billion dollars worth more, then what do you expect? The Ukrainians are not slouches; they fight. The Russians reacted with the fury of a wounded bear.
I wonder why the prez, before the fighting began, seemed so sure the Russians would strike first (as they did) and it would be all over and that would be that. It immediately developed that that was not that. However, Mr. Biden was vice-prez when the U.S.-funded buildup began (which included serious training in weapons and tactics by some of America’s best soldiers). Did he think this was all just another pork barrel Washington game? What were our intelligence agencies telling him?
In the administration before his, these same agencies maybe were too busy looking for traitors under American beds to properly brief the then-president on what was developing over there, because by the evidence of his own words, he was caught by a surprise that should not have been one when the fighting began; indeed he applauded the Russian move as a stroke of genius.
Genius, my eye. It was traditional Russian warfare, brutal and disorganized and careless of the distinction between combatant and civilian and uncaring for the lives of the serfs in uniform — regardless of whether those casualty figures are as high as we are told.
This sort of inattention on our side, the half-baked manner we approached the challenge of helping Ukraine shed its Soviet-era situation and join the Democracies, reminds me of nothing so much as Daisy and Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. Impulsive behavior, huge mess, walk away, and do not even feel responsible. When it looks like war is unavoidable, give the nod to Putin to make a little old harmless incursion on the border, and he takes you at your word, reverse course and call him a war criminal.
But then, is this not our way of running foreign policy since Reagan left Washington?
George Kennan, America’s foremost diplomat after John Quincy Adams, was on to something when he advised minding Russian fears of Western encirclement after the demise of the Soviet Union. He counseled against extending NATO to the former Bloc, aka the satellites and the captive nations. Implicitly — correct me if I err — he also meant the European Union should downplay invites to the ever-extending Euro federation.
Kennan knew perfectly well that the U.S., with or without NATO, did not threaten Russia. But he never would have conceived of not factoring into U.S. strategy the nature of the commie-fascist regime in Moscow.
To Kennan, NATO non-expansion and EU non-enlargement represented prudent policy-making. He knew perfectly well the threat to Russia was bogus, but he did not underestimate the uses Moscow would make of policies that could be construed as such by a dictatorial regime.
U.S. policy may have been absent-minded, stupid, reckless, opportunistic, even shot through with corrupt motives, not the least of which is the nefarious “mission creep” that affects all U.S. government. That is still a lame excuse for giving Russia, inadvertently to be sure, reasons to believe it could move safely.
Of course, stupid policy-making is not on the same level as aggression. It is worse, if you want to know, but that is a matter to discuss another time. At any rate, we got into this, and now morality and honor require that we do what we can to help end this to Ukraine’s advantage and without a nuclear apocalypse.
But while we are on the subject of what happened, what surely did not happen is some sinister globalist “neo-con” plot to undo the Putin regime. Neoconservatism was a current of thought in the 1960s and 1970s, concerned mainly with domestic policy and trends in American culture. Later, when its leading lights had for the most part retired, their epigones forgot their classics and were overtaken by hubris. They never grasped how awful their advice was on Iraq; their current cheerleading is alarming but should not distract from a realistic response to Ukraine’s plight, in the fighting short term and the political long term.
Too, and unfortunately, a number of blame-America-firsters with names like Carlson, Mearshimer, Buchanan, Dreher, and McConnell (not the senator, the intellectual) appear to be fixated on the notion that there was a plot to use Ukraine against Russia. The liberals and the neo-cons, to the degree they still exist as such, did not plot anything.
U.S. policy, following a kind of pro-democracy, pro-nation-building template without questioning the where’s and how’s and when’s, backed Ukraine’s democrats, who were all grown up and making their own choices. If anything, the problem was that our hand was not steady, our attention wavered; as too often, we were careless, distracted. But that is a problem of malfunctioning government.
Certainly we should have understood the Ukrainians might be hearing from our side more than what we were in fact telling them on how fast they could “go West.” It remains that Putin and his gang were going to do what they wanted; it is to badly underestimate them to say we, or hubristic intellectuals among us, provoked them. The neos have a lot to answer for; intellectuals always do, as George Orwell knew all too well. His sections on the dishonest press coverage of the Spanish war are models of truth-in-reporting. You still must be careful to distinguish between bad advice and the real enemy.
Ideas must be handled with care when they touch on policy. Vladimir Putin may have bought into the idea that we were using Ukraine to undermine him, or he may have found it useful for his own propaganda to exaggerate the “pro-Western democracy” voices, which he conflated with Ukrainian “drug addicts and Nazis.”
But he would use anything to press his own case, and this is based on his premise that Moscow is the Third Rome and Russia collectively has a messianic destiny.
I had just returned from Idaho and what all this depressing stuff I had been happily avoiding told me is that I should have stayed on the mountain. I could have looked up Ben Stein or Bill Croke; though it would have been impolite to barge in without an invitation. I am a pretty good skier, or more exactly I was, a very long time ago, and I did not realize you can make a hash of your gluteuses, medius and maximus both, while mishandling the newfangled skis now in use.
I should have known. They changed the technology of tennis racquets, too, while I was away from the sport, and it took some getting used to the new ones. I don’t like automatic shifts, either. But at least I did harm only to myself; and there was a whiskey sour waiting at the base as an incentive to figure out how to get the hell down with a sore ass.
More to the point, what came to mind was a 1959 film by Grigory Chukhray, Ballad of a Soldier. It is not the fault of these Russian soldiers. And the beautiful girl in that movie, Shura, was played by a Ukrainian actress, Zhanna Prokhorenko.
That is what it has come to. Maybe the Russians are playing “The Great Gate of Kiev” on the state radio, not that Mussorgsky ever intended it as war music, and meanwhile the brave people of the besieged city are putting sandbags down and singing “Los Cuatros Generales,” battle song of the defense of Madrid.
And it should have been a love story.