Putin: Better Think Again!

putinIn a recent interview with Fox’s Chris Wallace, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said Crimea can be written off as a Ukrainian entity, with the possibility of still further Russian intervention in Ukraine until Putin gets a government to his liking.  I’ve always respected Gates, one of the best defense secretaries ever. 

The problem with Putin is that escalating our threats just won’t work.  He has options too.  Just recently there’s been a rumbling that if the West plays rough, then Russia will no longer allow inspections of its nuclear arsenal.  In short, we’d be virtually back to the Cold War.  And if Europe does take meaningful measures–highly unlikely–it can easily limit natural gas supplies Europe depends on.

Tough talk may even provoke Putin to order troops into Kiev to depose its interim government, which he argues resulted from an illegal coup.  We take it for granted we’re dealing with a rational leader, not a Kim Jong Un, but don’t bet on it.  We do know that he served 16-years with The KGB, or secret police, much of it in East Germany with its Stasi repression.  In a post-Soviet era, his thinking is a throwback to Communist conspiracy.

Asked recently what he considered Russia’s greatest catastrophe, he replied, “the break-up of the Soviet Union,” which goes a long way to explaining his designs on Ukraine and desire to reconsolidate its former vast territorial domain under the guise of the Eurasian Customs Union, slated to go into effect next year.  (See my earlier post,  February 28, 2014:  Russia Likely to Intervene in Ukraine.)

Certainly, world criticism never bothered the Soviets when they invaded Hungary in 1956; nor the Putin regime when it invaded Georgia in 2008, occupying two breakaway provinces where they still remain.  It’s bare-chested, black belt Putin fully on display, true to the narcissistic personality disorder with its broad symptoms of enhanced self-regard, arrogance, absence of sympathy for others, and readiness to exploit.  We’ve seen it all before in the Hitler and Mussolini demagogues of modern history.

I don’t think for a moment our president impresses the Kremlin leader, certainly not after turning his back on a cruise missile strike.  So far the White House response has been one of rhetoric rather than any substance.  While I don’t agree with Republican hawks advocating revival of a missile defense system for eastern Europe, I do think this isn’t the time for reducing our troop numbers.  I’d settle for booting Russia out of the G8 rather than just canceling its upcoming June meeting.  As in most things, the bottom line is money.  We must make Putin’s Ukraine strategy costly.

Russia’s economy, by the way, for all the show time glitter of robust health in its $40 billion outlay for the winter olympics at Sochi, continues in disarray, with present growth forecast at just 1%.  Much of Russia’s financial resources depend on gas and oil exports, or as much as 80% by most financial analysts.

For Russia to cut supplies to Europe is a no-starter.  Russia’s future, in fact, looks ominous, with America on a fast track to energy independence and with potential capacity to supply Europe.  Ironically,  securing the Ukraine, a nation $35 billion in the red, is surely the albatross around the neck that should give Putin pause.

Russia ought to worry instead about shoring up its deplorable infrastructure.  When I traveled by bus several years ago from Moscow to Tula, a distance of about 120 miles, I wished I’d had a kidney belt, what with our wheels tumbling in yard wide holes all the way to the nearby Tolstoy homestead (Yasnaya Polyana).

Its oil and gas infrastructure is declining as well and will entail Russia laying out billions to modernize, compounded by worldwide demand for technical prowess at competitive prices.

Putin has seemingly forgotten his Russian comrades–all 144 million.  Just a few days ago, Russia underwent the biggest stock sell off in 5-years, with the ruble tumbing to a record low, requiring the central bank to raise interest rates.

As is, Russia is fast losing its talented young people with emigration increasing 22% in 2012, and with them, its future.  In the last ten years, nearly two million from the middle class have left Russia.   Ukraine, understandably, wants no part of a dismal future with the Russian Federation.

The pity of Russia with its vast resources is that, like many third world nations, its economy is dominated by a kleptomaniac oligarchy lining its pockets at the expense of a long suffering people.   No wonder the exodus.

Will the last one out please get the lights!


Sequel to Russian Incursion: Ukraine’s Likely Fate


What we’re seeing in Ukraine we’ve seen before; namely, Russia’s incursion into Georgia in 2008 when that government attempted to wrest back its secessionist breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  We did nothing then.  We will do little now, simply because we lack leverage.

The Crimea itself,  now fully occupied by Russian troops, poses a strategic necessity for Russia that goes back 240 years.  Adjacent to the Black Sea, it provides Russia with warm water naval outreach to the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East.   Russia is unlikely to hand it back to a belligerent regime.

The scenario could get even worse for Ukraine, since Russian incursion may not stop with seizing the Crimea.  After all, a large swath of Eastern Ukraine is also Russian speaking.  One incident and Putin is likely to seize upon it as pretext for moving troops into this area as well.  Just yesterday, there was a bloody exchange between rival factions in the region.  In short, the dismemberment of Ukraine may already be underway.

But the situation could prove even more sinister:  Russia may decide to depose the Ukraine’s interim government and install a puppet regime loyal to its interests.  It tried to do this in Afghanistan in the 1980s, propping up a Marxist government.  What this would mean for Ukrainians is painful to contemplate–perhaps civil war between the factions or an incipient resistance movement.

I find it ironic, to say the least, that Russia has waged two conflicts to keep Chechnya within the Mother Land, yet has abetted secession efforts in Georgia and, currently, Ukraine.

In all of this, our hands are sadly tied, exacerbated by our own confusion.  The G8 nations of which Russia is a member, could refuse to attend this June’s trade summit scheduled in Sochi. Acting more bravely–don’t hold your breath–it could expel Russia.  This would sting.

But doing so could hurt our own interests as well.  We need Russian cooperation on Syria and Iran, say critics.  I would argue, however, that this is moot discussion, since it assumes Russian cooperation as a verity.  The truth is that Russia continues its efforts to support a ruthless Syrian regime and remains a potential menace to our efforts to curtail Iranian access to nuclear weaponry.  It’s quite evident that Russia, deeply jealous of the West and, especially the U. S., suffers from an immense insecurity complex reflected in a historic penchant for destabilizing Western aims.

Meanwhile, the UN can muster the Security Council, but to what end, since Russia will employ its veto yet again.

In all of this, Russia ironically doesn’t need to invoke troops, since its ultimate weapon to keep Ukraine in line is natural gas, which it enjoys in abundance.  Ukraine needs that gas desperately and presently owes Russian billions in deferred payment.  Putin, additionally, was already supplying the country with natural gas at sharply reduced rates.

As for the EU, it’s a given that it knows the potential seismic effects of a reduced gas supply from Russia to power its own economies, several of which are already floundering.

In all of this, I would draw a parallel with what happened in 1956 in Hungry, when the Soviets invaded to overthrow an insurgent rebel government.  2000 Hungarians and 700 Soviet soldiers died;  13,000 Hungarians were imprisoned; hundreds executed; and 200,000 refugees fled to the West.  Then, as now, the invaders blamed the revolt on western instigation and facist-nazi reactionaries.

The more the free-world protested, the more things stayed the same.  The Russians vetoed the Security Council’s mandate to withdraw and ignored the General Assembly’s majority vote.  Then, as now, the Kremlin called the West’s bluffs.  A few months later, both East and West were working trade deals.

And this is the way things will end for the brave people of Ukraine, despite Western protests and threatened sanctions.  Human rights didn’t keep the world from swarming to Sochi for the Winter Olympics.

The heavy truth is that politics has always operated in a context of power, not morality.  Right now, Russia enjoys the upper hand.


Russia Likely to Intervene in Ukraine


Last week, Ukrainian protestors in Kiev’s Maidan (its central square) were mowed down by security forces of the hated Yanukovych regime.  Undeterred, they advanced into the fusillade. What is life without freedom?

I’ve been thinking a lot about Ukraine, no doubt heightened by media coverage of the continuing unrest in that nation of 46 million.  But it’s more than the headlines.  When I was a young boy growing up in Massachusetts, I played with a friend who had recently arrived in the U.S. from Ukraine with his mother and siblings.  Though young, he had seen vestiges of World War II’s carnage.  While I can’t recall the details, they left me with an impression of a people that had endured considerable suffering.

In Lexington, Kentucky, there exists a vibrant, growing Ukrainian community.  We’ve had a lot of renovation done at our house and one of the primary workers is a Ukrainian affectionately dubbed “Slav” by his fellow workers.  We’ve talked about Ukraine on occasion.  On one occasion I accepted his invite to a bake sale at his Ukrainian church.  The church is doing well and is an anchor in providing a social network for newly arrived Ukrainians, which include many young people. The other day, I was walking back to my car after grocery shopping at Meijer’s, when a car honked. It was Slav. He had just returned from the Ukraine.  

Just maybe Lexington’s best roofing enterprise happens to be Ukrainian. My physician is from the Ukraine.  How can I not think about them?

It’s estimated that some 7 million Ukrainians perished from famine following Stalin’s collectivization of Ukraine’s peasant owned farmlands in 1932-33.  Another 10-million perished in World War II.  What most historians miss is that Ukraine bore the biggest brunt of the Nazi invasion, being a total battleground between German and Soviet armies.  Only 5% of Russian territory was occupied.

Following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine announced its independence.  There was little Russia could do, since the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal was on Ukrainian soil.  In 2009, an agreement was worked out between the negotiating parties, which included the United States.  One of Ukraine’s demands was a guarantee of its sovereignty.  The U. S. granted Ukraine the same assurances guaranteed to non-nuclear signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the signatories of the Final Helsinki Act (1975).

As I write, paramilitary forces in Russian dominated Crimea have seized the local parliament buildings and its airports and Putin has put 150,000 troops on alert.  The Crimea had been added to the Russian Empire under Catherine II.  In 1954, it was restored to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev, an ethnic Ukrainian.

Despite Secretary of State Kerry’s warning to Russia not to interfere, it’s not going to mean much in a way of any meaningful U.S. response, especially with an indecisive president in office who runs from confrontation; has failed to support moderate rebels in Syria, allowing extremist sectarian factions to enter into the fray; has never really signed on to supporting our troops in Iraq or Afghanistan; and is now bent on unilaterally reducing our army to pre-World War II levels.  No one wants war.  But it’s doubtful the EU or U.S. will invoke economic or trade measures either.

What seems a given is that Putin isn’t going to allow Ukraine to cozy-up with the West, culminating in joining the EU and becoming a NATO member.  Putin dreams of reestablishing a political and trade confederation of the former constituencies of the Soviet Union under the auspices of the Eurasian Customs Union (ECU).  Slated to go into full effect in 2015, its prototype presently includes Russia, Belarus, and Kazakstan, with Kyrgyzstan to join soon.  This grand scheme ultimately includes Ukraine, which can only be accomplished by Russian economic pressure and/or military intervention.  Putin’s scheme is to return Russia to its past preeminence, a world competitor on equal footing with the EU, USA, and China.  It’s what Sochi was all about.

Right now, the situation in Ukraine is ominous, given the large Russian majority population in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.  Historians may remember that Hitler used the pretext of a mistreated German minority to invade Poland.

It will only take a spark for history to repeat itself.


One brave poet: Osip Mandelstam

I’ve always hankered after Russian literature since first imbibing Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as a teenager, supplemented by later readings in Chekhov and Pasternak.  For a while, I even took up Russian and can still read the cyrillic script.  On several occasions, I’ve taught Russian literature:  Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Cherry Orchard.  In 1986, I was offered a government stipend for an advanced seminar in Russian literature, though I turned it down because of other interests at the time.

Tolstoy House
Tolstoy House

In 2000, I took a group of students to Russia in the cruel month of January.  We saw where Chekhov composed most of his plays and stories during his short life.  One of my students was allowed to play his piano.  In St. Petersburg, we visited the apartment in which Dostoevsky spent his final years and saw the desk on which he wrote his masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov.  My own big moment came when we traveled 120 miles southwest of Moscow, traversing cratered roads of an unraveling post-Soviet nation, to Tula and nearby Nastaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s lovingly preserved residence.

Osip Mandelstam
Osip Mandelstam

Though the triad of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov spring to mind when we think of Russian literary prowess, the truth is that poetry may be its greatest legacy, beginning with Pushkin and continuing into our modern era with poets like Akhmatova, Pasternak, Brodsky and Mandelstam.  I think it was Mandelstam who said that Russia is the only country that takes poetry seriously enough that you can get killed for it, which is just what happened to Mandelstam in the Stalin purge of 1937.

I started up again about Russian poetry after reading a 2011 GuernicaNadezhda Mandelstam interview with my favorite contemporary American poet, W. S. Merwin, in which Osip Mandelstam’s name came up in connection with the complexities of translation.  Initially exiled, Mandelstam  covertly composed subsequent poetry in his head, repeating his verse to his wife, the remarkable Nadezhda Mandelstam, who committed them to school exercise notebooks and then to memory in the event of police seizures, preserving his legacy following his death in the Gulag in 1938.

She would later write two remarkable books (Against All Hope and Hope Revived) in the late 1960s, detailing the sordid story of Stalinist repression of the arts and her efforts to preserve her husband’s mature legacy.  It was thought that his work was done after 1928 prior to his initial exile to Voronezh, but thanks to Nadezhda, 200 of his exile poems have survived. Today, Mandelstam is largely regarded as Russia’s principal twentieth century poet, though he died at just 47.

Here is his most famous poem, clearly an attack on Joseph Stalin, that began his troubles.  Mandelstam never cowered defending freedom.  At the outset, you should be aware that poetry generally suffers greatly in translation.  In Russian, it packs a wallop with its density of nuance that the average reader would pick-up on immediately.  (See notes.)

We live without feeling the country beneath our feet,
our words are inaudible from ten steps away. (1)
Any conversation, however brief,
gravitates, gratingly, toward the Kremlin’s mountain man. (2)
His greasy fingers are thick as worms, (3)
his words weighty hammers slamming their target. (4)
His cockroach moustache seems to snicker, (5)
and the shafts of his high-topped boots gleam.
Amid a rabble of scrawny-necked chieftains,
he toys with the favors of such homunculi.
One hisses, the other mewls, one groans, the other weeps;
he prowls thunderously among them, showering them with scorn.
Forging decree after decree, like horseshoes,
he pitches one to the belly, another to the forehead,
a third to the eyebrow, a fourth in the eye.
Every execution is a carnival
that fills his broad Ossetian chest with delight.


1.    our words are inaudible from ten steps away:  Need to be judicious in conversation.  Stalin was reputed to use listening devices in the Kremlin to check on colleagues.

2.   mountain man:  allusion to Stalin’s coarse background.

3.   greasy fingers:  It was widely circulated that Stalin employed listening devices to keep tabs on his Kremlin colleagues.

4.   his words weighty hammers:  Stalin had a marked Georgian accent.

5.   cockroach mustache:  obviously refers to Stalin’s landmark mustache.  Derives from a Russian fairy tale in which a cockroach and a cat confront one another.

Mandelstam wasn’t your likely hero.  Frail with a weak-heart and clearly aware of the dangers of the Stalin regime, he nonetheless devoted his art, not only to beauty, but to human freedom.  Somehow I had missed out on him in my Russian pursuits.  Maybe now I can make amends.


Overthrowing the tyranny of custom

I have always cared a great deal about animals.  I don’t know where it comes from, but I remember as a child wanting to take in every stray dog.  In 1996, I adopted a vegetarian diet to align my lifestyle with my conscience.  I wish I had done so much earlier but, for too many years, I had simply subscribed unquestionably to a pervasive culture.

The role of culture, often reinforced by religion, makes for an interesting study, since it may well be the primary instigator of human behavior and, unfortunately, a seminal source for a myriad repertoire of injustice, malice and cruelty practiced by humanity pervasively across the centuries.  As moderns, while we’ve made progress, we’re still on a steep climb.

In India, a land bound by tradition much like other Southeast Asian nations, practices sanctioning discrimination inherent with an age old caste system fell with the birth of an independent India in 1947, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and led by its first prime minister, Jawarharlal Nehru.  There are no more Untouchables, a formidable achievement that hints humanity can often mend its ways.

Earlier, in the United States, slavery was abolished through the courageous intervention of Abraham Lincoln, though it took a civil war, 600,000 deaths, and Lincoln’s own life.  Not long after, in 1867, Tsar Alexander III emancipated Russia’s serfs.

Not long ago, but only in 1920 under the 19th Amendment, did women achieve the right to vote in the United States.  It was as late as 1971 before women could vote in progressive Switzerland in national elections and not until 1991 that they could vote on local issues in all cantons.  At last, conservative Saudi Arabia will allow women to vote, beginning in 2015.  They’re still, however, prohibited from driving cars under penalty of imprisonment and/or flogging.  Disenfranchisement of women extends to many orthodox synagogues and Roman Catholic constituencies as well, barring leadership and voting privileges.  Catholic women cannot become priests, bishops or cardinals, the latter obviously eliminating their inclusion in selecting a pope.

In my lifetime we’ve made considerable inroads against the weight of traditional custom that forbade birth control, abortion and equal employment opportunity.  I grew-up seeing the last vestiges of segregation fall before activist resistance and court decree.  Currently, gays and lesbians are on the threshold of gaining their own civil liberties that include same sex marriage and adoption rights.  Looking back to a little more than a century ago, it seems incredulous that someone like writer Oscar Wilde would be tried in court and sentenced to a multiple year jail term, which ultimately broke the man.

I first became aware of the role of culturally sanctioned wrong doing in preparing to teach Voltaire’s satirical parody of custom in Candide, which I heartily recommend if you haven’t read it.  Slavery, militarism, the abuse of women, the hypocrisy of religion, they all receive their fair share of Voltaire’s scorn.  What really opened my eyes, however, was Voltaire’s taking on the scourge of war that continues to plague mankind, often buttressed with the sanctimonious verbiage of patriotic shibboleths and conferment of divine blessing.  As Voltaire astutely observed in one of his many letters, wars kill and maim far more than all our natural disasters.

As I’ve said, fighting to undo custom is still a steep climb, or hard sell. That’s what makes custom such an insidious threat: “But we’ve always done it this way!”  Like morning oatmeal, we imbibe the prejudices of our parents, who learned them from theirs.  Unquestioning, we adopt the status quo invested by time and institutions. Our brains dulled by habit, we believe what we’re told by our informed guardians: the government and press.  We find fact in the textbooks of our schools, oblivious to their omissions.  We like sameness.  We grow accustomed to our chains.

I give thanks to the avatars that make custom tremble by engendering new ways of thinking rooted in compassion:  the sanctity of animal as well as human life; the right to individuality; the implementing of economic equality; the elimination of political and religious oppression; the accessibility of universal health care; the end of pejorative labeling of the mentally distressed; the right to death with dignity; the healing of a wounded, dying Earth;  the elimination of the scourge of war.

They crowd into my mind:  Gandhi, Nehru, Lincoln, Goldman, Sinclair, Baldwin, Friedan, Sanger, Carson, Singer, Mandela, King, Mill, Voltaire– and so many more–emissaries of Light, their torches lifted high, showing the way to a better world.

I dream most of all of that day when it will truly “be on earth as it is in heaven,” and “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more (Isaiah 2:4 [KJV:  Cambridge ed.]).


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