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February 22, 2015
David Warsh, Proprietor



Scarier Than You Think

The confrontation with Russia is becoming more alarming. Kathrin Hille, reporting from Moscow for the Financial Times, describes how cellphone operators are offering free ringtones of patriotic war songs, intended to evoke the defense of Moscow in 1941.

The government-led drive, named Hurray for Victory! comes as Moscow enters the homestretch in an impassioned and increasingly shrill campaign to commemorate the end of the Second World War.

Meanwhile, The New York Times, as part of the rollout of its redesigned magazine, commissioned Sovciet-born Russian novelist Gary Shteyngart to hole up for seven days at the Four Seasons Hotel on 57th Street in Manhattan with the main Russian television networks on three screens. In “‘Out of My Mouth Comes Unimpeachable Manly Truth:’ What I learned from watching a week of Russian TV ‘” Shteyngart concludes,

When you watch the Putin Show, you live in a superpower. You are a rebel in Ukraine bravely leveling the once-state-of-the-art Donetsk airport with Russian-supplied weaponry. You are a Russian-speaking grandmother standing by her destroyed home in Lugansk shouting at the fascist Nazis, much as her mother probably did when the Germans invaded more than 70 years ago. You are a priest sprinkling blessings on a photogenic convoy of Russian humanitarian aid headed for the front line. To suffer and to survive: This must be the meaning of being Russian. It was in the past and will be forever. This is the fantasy being served up each night on Channel 1, on Rossiya 1, on NTV.

And The Wall Street Journal has an essay by Andrew S. Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment, an aide in various capacities in the administrations of presidents CAPITAL George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Weiss writes,

[T]he Ukraine showdown is even scarier than you think: Mr. Putin is making it up as he goes along….  Almost single-handedly, [he] seems to be dragging much of the West into a New Cold War.  He’s winging it, and when things get difficult, he tends to double down.

Weiss describes an “extreme personalization of power” following Putin’s return as president in 2012. As the Ukraine crisis intensified in late 2013 and 2014, Putin narrowed his circle of advisers and placed them on a war-footing, valuing loyalty over worldliness.

Blindsided when events in Kiev spun out of control last February and Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych fled to Moscow, Weiss says, Putin had only himself to blame for having backed a leader who simply panicked when the going got tough.”  So, on the “spur-of-the-moment,” Putin annexed Crimea.

Why on earth would Moscow want to take over a money pit like Crimea at a time of slowing economic growth and plunging oil prices?  On the fly, Kremlin propagandists came up with a mantra that they invoke to this day: the new authorities who replaced Mr. Yanukovych in Kiev were illegitimate because they had staged a coup d’état with Western backing,

Putin followed his invasion – “the most audacious land-grab since World War II” – with a “sham popular referendum” and formal annexation. Then came more “damn-the-consequences, trial-and-error improvisation” to sow unrest in  southeastern Ukraine: seizures of government buildings by Russian-speaking separatists, led by Russian “facilitators.” And after the situation escalated to outright war, Putin sought a ceasefire, obtained it on advantageous terms, and then violated it with an unexpected surge of fighting around Donetsk and Lugansk.

Mr. Putin’s highly personalized, profoundly erratic approach to government tmay be even more dangerous than most Western governments are comfortable admitting.  How can the Ukrainians or dogged western leaders such as Mrs. Merkel possibly search for a diplomatic solution if they are dealing with a leader who is making it all up on the fly?  … Kiev doesn’t know what Mr. Putin wants; even Mr. Putin doesn’t know what he wants.

Notice anything funny about this narrative? Putin is always the impulsive actor, never the one who is acted upon.  He is never reacting to anything that NATO or the Americans do.

There is nothing here about NATO expansion. Nothing about the brief 2008 war with Georgia. Nothing about the continuing controversy about who fired the shots on Kiev’s  Maidan square, nothing about the phone call by US Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland, taped by the Russians at the height of the crisis; nothing about the Russian naval base at Sevastopol on the Black Sea.  Nothing about the sanctions imposed on the Russians since the crisis began. Nothing about the Ukrainian army offensives in the southeast. Nothing about the Ukrainian vote to join NATO that may have triggered the January offensive. Nothing to note that all this is happening on Russia’s doorstep.  Is it any wonder Putin is “doubling down”?

The scariest thing of all is that it may be Putin who has been telling the fundamental truth all along:  NATO expansion in Georgia Ukraine is unacceptable to him and Russia is willing to go to war to rule it out. He’s been improvising, all right, but often in response to probes – Ukrainian, European, US.  For a fuller argument along these lines, see Gordon Hahn’s illuminating commentary on The American Education of Vladimir Putin, by Clifford Gaddy and Fiona Hill, which appears in The Atlantic for February.

Meanwhile, a friend, who knows the territory well, writes,

I think it was Napoleon who said your adversary gets a vote in all battles. Putin is a complex, dangerous, possibly paranoid man. We in the West act in ways consciously or unconsciously that can affect his actions. Could he still be winging it? At times, he could.  I agree with Weiss that Yanukovich surprised, possibly astounded, Putin when he caved. I also think the oil price collapse and ruble meltdown caught him completely unaware. His finance people were not prepared and he fired them. Same for many of his agricultural  folks. Was that winging it or just having to react to tough times? We in the US did not have to fire Bernanke to right the ship in 2009.  There seems to be a purge mentality in Putin that comes from “Soviet man.”

Whoever started it, Putin is now thoroughly buttoned-up in a defensive posture. What’s more dangerous than a Russian bear?  A wounded Russian bear.

.                          xxx

The fracas over the false claims of derring-do in war zones by television personalities Brian Williams, of NBC, and Bill O’Reilly, of Fox News, got me thinking about what real war correspondents and photographers do.  They bear witness.

See these photographs by Max Avdeev, embedded with a band of separatist fighters known as the First Slavyansk Brigade, in Logvinove, published last week by Buzzfeed News.  Remember these are Russian-speaking rebel forces.  (Note the nostalgic USSR flag hanging on the command post in one frame.)

It wouldn’t look much different or any less terrible from the other side. Never mind the not-safe-for-work warning.  This is what the Ukrainian civil war is like.

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