It is the best of times. It is the worst of times. Right now, today.
The Sochi Winter Olympic Games are going stupendously. Contrary to the fears and warnings of many, there has been no terrorist attack. The Games are not over yet, but the athletes, the crowds and the many reporters increasingly feel safe and secure behind the ring of Russian steel.
The West is coming to learn the value of having a silovik
in charge, at least in a nation that has suffered as much and as recently from invasion, war and revolution as any on this planet. At last internal stability has blessed Russia, after the most brutal century of revolution and war in human history.
With little fear of internal unrest, and no fear of external invasion, Russia is relaxing and becoming a normal country. The timeless art of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Balanchine, so evident in the skating rink, has replaced the grim arts of war and survival. Eastern and classical music mix seamlessly with modern and Western music, as both Russian and foreign skaters perform to each.
There is still rivalry, to be sure, especially on hockey ice. But there is much more. People who once thought the Soviet Union and America would destroy each other—and our species—are watching their sons and daughters fall or rise spectacularly—and peacefully—on the field of sport. They are actually having fun.
Gone are the biased judges and the block voting of the Warsaw Bloc. With the aid of new technology, including superb slow-motion video, judged competition is fairer and better than it has ever been. The contestants have risen to the occasion, with flawless technical performances that force judges to assess intangible and subjective factors like artistry and overall impression. And spectators of all nations heartily cheer the best, whatever their national origins.
So far, the Sochi Olympics has been exactly what every
Olympics should be. It has taught us to admire and respect the best in each other, even as we compete. It has taught us Yanks that the Russians we feared for so many decades are human, just like us.
More important, it has taught us how imperfect we all are as a species. The Bible said it best:
“[T]the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”
How could you not watch the triumph and tragedy at the Games—especially in the half pipe and speed-skating rink, or on the steep slopes with melted and refrozen snow—and not think of that timeless verse? Individually, we are awkward, stupid, slow, ungainly and unreliable creatures, as the Bible says. We succeed best when we work together.
The Games are an inspiring example of global cooperation and peaceful human achievement. They are the best of times.
But outside the ring of steel, things are not going nearly so well. There, in not-so-isolated pockets, we have the worst of times.
The Syrian peace talks have broken down, as everyone expected. Assad continues his brutal plan to go for broke, literally. He wants to break his nation even more so he still can rule it.
If he wins—as looks increasingly likely—he will preside over rubble, a few loyal Alawites and a people too poor, weak, weary, dumb and beaten not to mind being slaves. All his people with independence or initiative are dead, fighting valiantly against him, or refugees. The notion that they are all terrorists is so absurd as not to merit the ink to refute it.
The best of them will eventually find their way to America and become Yanks. They will bring their brutal experience into Yankee politics, just as did rabid anti-Communists like Ayn Rand, less rabid ones like Madeleine Albright, and the once rabid but now more reasonable anti-Castro Cubans. The best of the Syrian refugees, or their descendants, will become Arabic Marco Rubios.
Syrian politics will come unbidden to America and to Europe (especially if Turkey joins it). Syria itself may become a wasteland.
Unfortunately, Syria is not all. Mother Russia’s mother country, Ukraine, is becoming combustible. Peaceful protests are turning violent. The Maidan is in flames.
It doesn’t matter which side started it. What matters is how it ends. Will Russia crush its mother once again, as Stalin did a century ago
? Will the tanks roll on the streets of Kiev as in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the fifties and sixties?
Will Russia repeat its historic pattern of battle, Pyrrhic victory and desultory conquest? Will its neighbors continue to be beaten and sullen, looking for any outside power to help make them strong and happy, no matter how unlikely help may be? Or will Russia learn at last that strong, prosperous and happy neighbors are the best path to secure borders and internal peace and prosperity?
There is only one man who can answer these questions: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. He does not have absolute power in Russia, but the power he has is close enough.
No external power, including us, can force his hand. We Yanks are not going to start another war, even a Cold War, to influence what happens in Syria or in Kiev. We’ve been there and done that, in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve had much sacrifice, little success, and no gratitude.
So we can only reason, argue, and influence what goes on in Ukraine and Syria. We can’t dictate it.
And if the truth be told, we Yanks have no surefire answers, either. What’s happening in Syria and Ukraine is not entirely unique. Similar things are happening in Thailand, Egypt, the Congo, and even sullen Venezuela.
What’s happening in Syria and Ukraine differs only in magnitude and danger. In Syria’s case it’s vastly more horrible, comparable to the self-immolation of Cambodia decades ago. In Ukraine’s case, it’s more dangerous, both to geopolitical stability and to peace and progress within the Slavic community.
But Ukraine’s problem is not so hard to solve. Ukraine has always been the trading crossroads of Eastern Europe
. After a century of agony, it wants to resume its historic role.
Ukraine wants a window to the West. So did Peter the Great. Is that so hard for Putin, Russia’s most effective leader since Peter, to understand?
Ukraine is bound to Russia forever by ties of geography, culture, language, history and commerce. But its people want more than that. They want a future not with Russia or
Europe, but with both.
If Putin and Yanukovych can make clear that they understand and accept that simple point, and if they grant a real and fair amnesty, the protests eventually will subside and, with them, this crisis. The longer they wait, the more protesters and police will get injured and die, and the harder securing civil peace will become.
Syria is a much harder knot to untie, precisely because it has degenerated into not just violence, but utter devastation. Putin must make every effort to keep Ukraine from becoming Syria, and to lance the geopolitical boil of Assad.
Since Mikhail Gorbachev, Russia has made enormous progress under Putin and his predecessors. It has voluntarily abandoned Communism. It has reformed its entire economy with minimal internal discord and almost no violence. It has moderated a globally-feared, aggressive foreign policy and become a respected member of the community of nations. Except for its brief and successful incursion into Georgia, it has kept its hands to itself.
Russia’s people today are freer, richer, and happier then they have ever been in Russia’s long and mostly miserable history. The Cold War’s end and Putin’s long rule have given them peace, stability and order.
Now, with the Sochi Olympics, the New Russia has made its debut. Tens of thousands of visitors have seen it first hand, and hundreds of millions on TV. The so far normal Olympics have given Russia and Putin the global respect they long craved.
But with power and respect comes responsibility. For better or for worse, no other major power has Russia’s influence in Ukraine and Syria, let alone its influence on Iran. For what may be the first time in history, the world looks to Russia not in perplexity or in fear, but for answers.
So, as the Olympics end, the victors take their medals home, and the warm glow fades, all eyes will be on Vladimir Putin.
Will he be the man who once promised a peaceful trading zone from the Atlantic to the Urals? Or will he be Stalin’s successor?
Will he be the silovik
bully whom the West and many Russians fear? Or will he be a twenty-first century leader who solves difficult problems with minimal violence, using his self-evident intelligence, finesse and skill?
Will he lead Syria into a cease-fire and a slow but steady resurrection? Or will he stick by Assad and oversee its conversion into a wasteland of slaves and its neighbors into vast refugee camps?
Will he make Ukraine into the gem of a Slavic commonwealth that it can be? Or will he force it into turmoil, civil war, or even a Soviet-style breakup?
Will he be the Mao who knitted his country together in skillful revolution? Or will he be the aging Mao who destroyed his country’s economy for generations with disastrous caprice like the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap forward?
Will he be a truly modern leader or a throwback to Metternich?
In the immortal verse of Bob Dylan, the answers are blowin’ in the wind.