Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

28 April 2014

Saving Ukraine at the Ballot Box

[For other recent essays on the upcoming Ukrainian elections and their importance, click here. As in spring planting, the seeds of success must be sown early.]

In two recent essays (1 and 2), I have argued that Ukraine’s future—and its remaining whole—depend on next month’s elections. Restraining itself enough to avoid provoking a Russian invasion is just the first of Kiev’s difficult tasks. In addition, Kiev must reform Ukraine’s system of government and elect leaders satisfactory to a dominant majority of its population, especially in the disputed provinces. In so doing, Kiev must calm, not inflame, the fear, hate and resentment that have recently come to dominate Ukrainian politics.

Kiev must do all these things next month, at the ballot box. It must learn democracy by drinking from a fire hose. Or it must postpone the elections for another month or two and somehow hold the country together meanwhile.

These would be hard jobs for the most experienced and skilled politicians in any society. They are Herculean tasks. Nelson Mandela would struggle with them.

But Kiev has no choice. It must take them on and handle them successfully if it wishes to secure a promising future as a nation. The international community can help with money, advice and appropriate resolutions in international authorities, on an emergency basis.

The alternatives are war, partition, civil strife, or a long, slow decay into Brezhnevian stagnation and economic misery. After all they have suffered and how hard they have struggled so far, Ukrainians deserve better. But they are going to have to work as if possessed, and to do so more cleverly than ever before, in order actually to achieve something better.

The major steps Kiev has to take are obvious to anyone born and raised in a democratic society. First and foremost, it must marginalize, if not purge, Ukraine’s extremists, including both neo-Nazis and their dangerous Russophile counterparts. In the case of violent Russophiles, Kiev must proceed cautiously and non-violently, in order to avoid baiting the Russian bear menacing just over the border.

Pandering to those who want to punish, hobble or disadvantage any ethnic group will be a death sentence for Ukraine. It will produce only conflict, partition and misery. Cooler heads must prevail, even if that requires draconian detention of extremists.

No Hitler, Stalin or Assad must be given a chance to rise in Ukraine. The recent death of the über-bully Muzichkovo, whom this article (in Spanish) recently described, was a good start. No one but his family (if any) should miss him.

Second, ethnic Ukrainian pols must “move toward the center” and promote moderate, even-handed policies that intelligent and moderate Russophiles can support. Kiev has to build a new Ukraine for all the people whom it wishes to govern, including the large Russian-speaking minorities in Donetsk, Luhansk and Odessa, among other provinces.

To do this, Kiev must restore Russian to its former status as an official language of Ukraine. Any pol who wants to win an election decisively is going to have to promise to do so sincerely. But the step should actually be taken only after the elections, immediately after the new government is formed, as part of the process of constitutional reform. Then it will be a sign, symbol and portent of permanent, real reform.

Third, Ukrainian patriots are going to have to be smart about how they run the elections and whom they propose as candidates. In order to win, they must run a single good, moderate candidate for each office. They must not split the moderate vote. If they do so, they will lose, and so will Ukraine. This is Politics 1A.

While there cannot—and should not—be any restrictions on who can run for office, Ukrainians leaders must select the best of their lot in every electoral region, put all their resources, media and financial aid behind that single person, and discourage all others from running. In stable democracies, this is the chief function of political parties: selecting the best single candidate from a pool of promising wannabes. It is generally understood that splitting the vote for a particular point of view will cause that point of view to lose.

So Ukrainian patriots are going to have to do the near-impossible; they are going to have to build effective political parties, or something like them, in a single month. They are going to have to move toward the center, no matter how much it hurts. And they are going to have to put forward a single good, moderate, balanced candidate for each office, who has relevant experience and diplomatic skill, and who can win.

Again, there is no other choice. Pro-Russian parties will get good advice from Moscow, which knows from recent experience how to win elections. Grizzled, old ex-Communists will know how political parties work and how to use them. Relatively inexperienced Ukrainian patriots will have to learn quickly, with help from international friends, especially Poland.

Finally, Kiev must use the elections as a first step in plenary constitutional reform. The elections themselves cannot redraft Ukraine’s constitution. That’s a complex, months-long task, which only a skilled and moderate representative assembly can perform. But Kiev must give voters throughout Ukraine a clear and simple choice among: (1) a strong central government; (2) a federal system with relatively autonomous provinces; and (3) independence for particular provinces like Donetsk, Luhansk and Odessa that may want it. And both Kiev and the constitutional assembly (most likely the national parliament or a select committee of it) must honor the results of the election—including any vote for independence—in redrafting or revising Ukraine’s constitution.

As an abstract matter, these steps seem obvious. As a practical matter, they will be devilishly hard to take. But Ukraine’s future, especially its future as a multi-ethnic society, depends on how soon and how well Kiev takes them. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink, and a thirsty Ukraine will be easy prey for the Russian bear.

As if all this were not hard enough, there’s yet more more step that Kiev must take to build a strong, stable, and prosperous Ukrainian nation. It must exorcise the ghost of Gumilyov and forge a new national mind set.

Lev Nikolaevich Gumilyov (Лев Никола́евич Гумилёв, 1912 - 1992) was a Soviet historical philosopher. According to my Russian colleagues, he propounded a theory of history based on ethnicity. He believed that different ethnic groups think differently: ethnic Russians this way, Jews that way, and Cossacks a third.

Whether he based this view on culture or genetics is unclear. But genetics had a strong influence on this thinking. He justified many of his views with oversimplified caricatures of evolution. Whatever its precise origin, ethnic determinism was the essence of Gumilyov’s grasp of peoples, cultures, and nations.

Gumilyov’s ideas can never build a stable, modern, multi-ethic society. His thinking probably influenced Stalin’s brutal deportation of native ethnic groups all over the Eurasian land mass. It also may have influenced Stalin’s near-genocide of Ukraine during the Soviet Union’s forced collectivization and run-up to history’s most brutal war.

These points may be speculation, but one thing is absolutely clear. This influential Russian thinker could never have written, as Thomas Jefferson did, that “all men are created equal.” Nor could he, as Genghis Khan did, have listened carefully, for several days, to a Jew and Christian disputing theology before him, and then have concluded by decreeing complete religious freedom throughout one of the greatest (and for its time, most advanced) empires in human history.

Perhaps Gumilyov’s influence is one reason why Stalin so stringently suppressed the Mongol Empire’s chronicles. The notion of basic equality of diverse ethnic groups—and of the ability of every person to learn, grow and improve—was absolutely foreign to the tyrannical nightmare that Stalin imposed upon Russia’s people and the vassals in what Russians now know as their “near-abroad.”

If Kiev and Ukrainian patriots want a modern, successful nation, they are going to have to exorcise the ghost of this twisted, unscientific thinker. Doing so will not be easy. For Gumilyov’s influence, with overtones of Russian ethnic superiority, is responsible for much of the misery that Russia has imposed (and is still imposing) on its neighbors and, as a consequence, on itself.

There is not much daylight between Gumilyov’s twisted historical philosophy and the Nazis’. Both flowed from a sense of grievance and strong undercurrents of narcissistic ethnic superiority, differing only on who is the ethnic top dog.

Culture is hardy and difficult to change. And Gumilyov’s nonsense is part of Russian culture, if not Slavic culture more generally. But Kiev must begin the process of its extirpation as soon as possible, with the first step of restoring Russian as an official language of Ukraine.

Language is a means of communicating, not a badge of racial superiority. And downgrading a major means of communicating—let alone one that works well throughout much of Eurasia—is plain stupid. Just ask the Malaysians, who now regret forsaking English and forcing students and citizens into exclusive use of a local language spoken only there and in Indonesia.

Footnote 1: I hope this word doesn’t sound condescending. I certainly don’t mean it to. But readers must understand that building an effective democracy is not an easy task, nor a quick one.

Next year we will celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, the fount of Anglo-American democracy. That document arose from a revolt of the Barons against King John. So the Brits and we Yanks have a bit of a head start.

Footnote 2: I first heard Gumilyov’s name during my Fulbright Fellowship in Moscow, in one of the late-night, vodka-fueled bull sessions that had become fashionable among Russian academics during the Soviet era and continued for years afterward. It was the first such session to which I had been invited, and I felt honored, as the sole Yank, to attend.

So I tried to be diplomatic and restrained. I gently poked holes in Gumilyov’s reasoning, and I think I quoted Jefferson. But I felt, deep down, that Gumilyov’s philosophy was not only utter rubbish, but dangerous. I still do.

People don’t think differently because of their genes or ethnic origins. Anyone of normal intelligence can be thought to think clearly. That’s what education is for. Today I regret not expressing myself more forcefully.


26 April 2014

Kiev’s Difficult Task

[For some thoughts on how Kiev should organize next month’s elections, click here.]

There is only one way the crisis in Ukraine ends well for Kiev. That way is self-restraint.

Kiev must ignore the provocations of Russia and Russian Ukrainians and focus laser-like on the most important task at hand: making a success of the elections, now scheduled for just a month away.

Ukrainian nationalists don’t need to fight. They need to organize and work like men and women possessed. They have a month to set up credible nationwide elections, despite the losses of key government buildings in Eastern Ukraine.

If they fight, they will lose, for Russia’s force in the East is overwhelming. So their chief goal must be to give Russia no pretext for invading. That means isolating and containing the Russian occupiers of government buildings, not trying to evict them, at least not forcefully.

Perhaps the occupied buildings contain electoral equipment and voter registration rolls. So what? Kiev may have to get new ballots and equipment elsewhere and organize and create new registration rolls from scratch. It’s a difficult task, but a doable one, given a month. And it’s a whole lot better than turning Ukraine into Syria.

Kiev must organize the elections with the same kind of single-minded but peaceful purpose with which we Yanks organized the Berlin Airlift. First, it must register eligible voters and organize voting precincts. Second, it must invite in (and protect) enough neutral, foreign monitors to prove to the world that the elections are free and fair. Third, it must win those elections, especially in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Military aims, if any, should be entirely subordinate to these goals. Why? Because if Kiev loses the elections, or if an invasion and/or civil war makes the elections impossible, Kiev will lose. It will lose Donetsk and Luhansk and perhaps much more. Starting a bloody Chechnya-style civil war to punish Russia will be little consolation for partition.

So the elections are everything. They, not the occupied buildings or checkpoints, are the real prize.

Let John McCain and other Western strongmen rant. McCain may be an honorable man and a Yankee war hero. But his heroism came out of being a prisoner of war. (He acted honorably and refused to be let go before his fellow prisoners.)

Besides that, he was a fighter pilot and has been a consistent advocate for a strong “defense.” But his credentials as a military strategist, let alone a military-political thinker, are not well established, to put it mildly. He lost the 2008 election to Barack Obama in part for singing, albeit in jest, “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.”

No twenty-first century leader should make light of war like that. Even Putin doesn’t.

Does this means that Kiev and the West should expect the best and not prepare for the worst? Of course not. But the preparations must be low-key and not take Kiev’s eye off the ball: the elections.

I have already suggested, twice (1 and 2), how shoulder-fired anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, stockpiled just across the Ukrainian border in Poland, could counterbalance the threat of Putin’s border-kissing tanks by threatening to make any invasion extremely costly. But like nuclear weapons, such a stockpile will be successful only if never used. McCain and his hawkish colleagues can serve best by helping to make credible the threat of arming Kiev with punishing weapons.

This is not time for idle threats or bluster, let alone “red lines.” The elections must be held. They must meet reasonable international standards. And Kiev must win.

That is the only way this crisis ends peacefully and well for Kiev. And that is the only way Ukraine stays whole, or as whole as it can be after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Organizing Ukraine’s Elections

Why are Putin and Russia supporting Eastern Ukrainian separatists by having self-evidently well-trained and well-disciplined paramilitary groups take over provincial and city government buildings and establish unathorized checkpoints?

Isn’t that a key question? Before you can deal or even bargain sensibly with the Kremlin, shouldn’t you try to understand its motives?

Many Western commentators think the Kremlin is purposely destabilizing Ukraine in order to make it weak. There is precedent for that. Three-quarters of a century ago, Stalin robbed, starved and trampled Ukraine in his forced collectivization and the run-up to Russia’s Great Patriotic War (known to us Yanks as World War II). What Stalin did to Ukraine was close to genocide.

But what were the results? Ukraine fell easy prey to the Nazi blitzkrieg. Despite Ukraine’s having been Russia’s mother country, most Ukrainians hated the Soviet Union, Russia, Russians and Communism. (Ukraine had far fewer ethnic Russians and far fewer intermarriages in those days.) Many Ukrainians fought tragically, and to no avail, on the side of the Nazis, as the lesser of two evils. Their doing so has vestiges today, in Ukraine’s neo-Nazi extremists.

Stalin’s policy of pounding neighbors into abject weakness was hardly a stunning success. So I don’t believe for a moment that the Kremlin’s goal is destabilization, if only because Putin is far less brutal and far smarter than Stalin. Destabilization is a means to an end. But what’s the end?

In my view, only four possible answers make sense. First and most likely, the Kremlin wants to effect “regime change” in Donetsk and Luhansk and absorb them as it did Crimea. Maybe Odessa, too.

Second, but less likely, the Kremlin sincerely sees what happened on the Maidan as a putsch by extremists organized by the West. So it is now doing what it thinks is tit for tat in Eastern Ukraine.

Having no real understanding of democracy and bottom-up movements, except for their catastrophic Bolshevik Revolution, Russian leaders have hardly been original, or even remotely clever, in “managing” the Baltics and Eastern Europe during the Cold War, in playing energy blackmail in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, and now in trying to intimidate Kiev. The smartest thing they have done in a century is letting their vassal states go (by dissolving the Soviet Union) and trying to build a peaceful, more loosely affiliated commonwealth, with ties of common interest in economics and security.

Now Putin is having seller’s remorse. Apparently he wants the vassal states back, or at least the Russian-speaking parts of them, as vassals again, not as independent and friendly neighbors.

But annexing territories with foreign majorities is no easy thing to do peacefully. Putin may ken democracy little, but he is familiar with intercultural conflict, what Russians call “the nationalities problem.” And he has no solution to the unsolvable problem of peacefully annexing foreign-majority cultures against their will. So he apes what he thinks the West has been doing. Is it possible he is starting to believe his own propaganda?

Third, the Putin and the Kremlin may have some dim understanding of popular movements and may be trying to jump-start one among Russophiles in Donetsk and Luhansk. Having trained in the KGB, Putin is doing so in the only way he knows: from the top down, using trained and experienced often-secret operatives, including paramilitary groups.

There is a big problem with this approach. Russian speakers are a minority in Donetsk and Luhansk, and perhaps also in Odessa. Apparently, to put it mildly, Putin hasn’t thought through what to do about the recalcitrant majority.

And so we come to the last of the four possibilities, which jumps out of order in probability. Putin wants to influence or thwart the upcoming elections and convince the world, including ethnic Russians everywhere, that a majority of the people of Donetsk, Luhansk (and maybe even Odessa) love Russia and want to join it. If, as is likely, he can’t make the elections come out his way, he wants to destabilize and delegitimize them.

That’s precisely why all Ukrainian patriots should be thinking, planning, organizing and acting, in every waking moment for the next month, how best to make the elections legitimate and effective. There are three key issues.

1. Getting the ballot right. Remember how the Russians organized their “referendum” in Crimea? In essence, the ballot had only two choices: (1) become independent or (2) join Russia. Crimeans couldn’t vote to stay part of Ukraine.

That kind of “election” was reminiscent of the moment, now close to a century ago, when the Devil captured Russia’s history. Stalin stuffed the ballot box, “defeated” the talented General Kirov, and had him shot the next day.

Crimea’s slanted election wasn’t nearly as consequential as that disastrous moment in Russian history because demographics foreordained the outcome. Ethnic Russians are nearly a two-thirds majority throughout Crimea and close to three quarters in Sevastopol, the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. So no harm, no foul. Crimea probably would have voted as it did even in a fair election.

But in Donetsk, Luhansk, and perhaps Odessa, the demographics are not so self-evidently decisive. Ethnic Russians are a minority there. So a real election is both possible and necessary.

It is unlikely, if the election is fair, that a majority would vote to join Russia. But a majority might vote to secede from Ukraine and establish an independent, neutral state, if there are credible guarantees that it would remain neutral and independent. It all depends on how free and fair are the elections and what choices are given the voters. Isn’t that what democracy is all about?

So Ukraine can’t do what happened in Crimea. It can’t offer voters a false choice. It must offer them a real choice.

In my view, the ballot should have, in addition to the names of candidates for office, three broad choices for a general form of government. The first should be a centralized form of government, ruled from Kiev. The second should be a federal system in which Kiev controls foreign policy, trade, monetary policy, and national defense, and the provinces (including Donetsk, Luhansk and Odessa) control everything else. The third choice would give each province the chance to become an independent nation, perhaps oriented toward (but not absorbed by) Russia.

A fourth choice is also possible: joining Russia, province by province. But I think that the self-evident duress of Russia’s border-kissing tanks and troops makes such a choice unwise. Even in the unlikely event that annexation drew a majority of voters in any province, Russophobes in Ukraine (and worldwide) would argue that the majority had voted only to avoid an invasion.

So Russia’s military blackmail already has de-legitimized any “choice” to join Russia. The best that Russophiles in Ukraine can now hope to win in a truly free election is province-by-province independence—an outcome consistent with vast intermarriage among, and intertwining of, the national cultures of Ukraine’s Eastern provinces.

Only by offering real choices like these to every voter can the election resolve peacefully the question that Russia’s tanks and troops are now trying to decide by duress: what do the Eastern provinces really want to do? And by offering such real alternatives, Kiev can undermine attempts to boycott the elections. Real choices refute claims of illegitimacy.

2. Getting out the vote. That brings us to the most important electoral task of all: making sure that as many people who can vote do, especially in the disputed provinces.

The Kremlin may try to organize election boycotts by Russophiles in order to de-legitimize the elections. But that didn’t work out so well for the Sunnis in Iraq, the Islamists in Egypt, or the Taliban in Afghanistan, did it? Elections are Von Clausewitz standing on his head: they are the moral equivalent of war, but without bloodshed. Even if the Kremlin loses, it would do far better to wage a good electoral campaign—as it has done several times in Russia itself—than to turn Eastern Ukraine into Syria.

There’s not much Kiev can do about boycotts except try to persuade citizens not to join them. Kiev might pay people to vote. The payments would provide a small income supplement in a turbulent, dangerous and insecure time for all Ukrainians. But there should be no punitive measures for not voting; they would only de-legitimatize the elections.

Russia and its partisans may try to stop voting by persuasion, intimidation, and disruption. Indeed, this may be one purpose of taking over local government buildings and setting up illegal checkpoints.

But this is the Internet age. Ukrainians should be able to vote from anywhere, even abroad, by mail, over the Internet and with mobile phones. Kiev should arrange everything about the elections to make it as easy to vote as possible.

Ukraine’s leaders should devote all their thinking and acting for the next month to that end. Russian paramilitary groups may block the roads and take over local government buildings where local records, including voter registration rolls, reside. But Ukraine’s leaders can make an end run around the occupied buildings and checkpoints with voting by mail, over the Internet, or with mobile phones. There is no need for military assaults or war: the analogy to the Berlin Airlift is a good one here.

3. Insuring legitimacy. The other side of the coin of making it easy to vote is avoiding fraud, ballot-box stuffing and double-counting. That task involves three steps.

First, every vote should be recorded on paper before being counted, to aid investigation in case of a later dispute. Electronic voting records should be printed out before being counted, whether by machine or by hand.

Second, every voting record (whether electronic or on paper) should have a unique identification number which is given to the voter immediately after voting, but which is otherwise kept secret to insure secret ballots. In the case of electronic records, the number should be encrypted with a private key known only to top election officials. If disputes or questions arise, these numbers can be used to investigate after the fact.

Finally, every voting place, including electronic voting operations, should be supervised by a group of observers with representatives of every political party and faction, especially including both Russophobes and Russofiles in Donetsk, Luhansk and Odessa.

* * *
What happens in Ukraine’s elections next month is of vital interest not just to Ukrainians and Russians (and to the ethnic Tatars who are terrified bystanders), but to the whole world. Our whole species is on trial.

Can a peaceful majority build a democracy despite the threats and intimidation of a powerful neighbor and great internal distrust? If it can, the future of our entire species—not just Ukraine—will be a lot brighter and safer.


18 April 2014

Understanding Vladimir Putin

[For a recent post on how more accurate weapons can confine the scope of future conflicts—preferably not in Ukraine—click here.]

“Dictatorship of the proletariat”
People as property
Stalin and Mao
Why China is different
A new species of autocrat?
Putin’s speech on Crimea
Conclusion: exploiting Putin’s “flaw”


To say that Vladimir Putin is a riddle would be an understatement of Obamanian proportions. No one in the West even claims to understand him. The brighter and more transparent a Western leader is, the more he or she sees Putin as an enigma. Angela Merkel, Putin’s closest friend in the West, recently threw up her hands.

Why is that? Except for Fidel Castro (now retired) and Robert Mugabe (still dictating), no incumbent leader in the world has held the reigns of power as long as Putin has, let alone in a major power like Russia. For all of its faults, China has term limits just like us Yanks: two terms for its top leaders. The only difference is that China’s two terms are five years each instead of four like ours, to match China’s five-year plans.

So except for pathological societies like Cuba, North Korea, and Zimbabwe—and except for Russia—the whole world has term limits. Regular rotation of leaders, i.e., routine “regime change,” seems a good thing worldwide. It avoids ossification, discourages autocracy, allows a society to renew itself periodically, and makes room for new, younger leadership with new ideas. Term limits are much more important to good government than “democracy,” whatever that word may mean in a world of increasingly busy people and increasingly pervasive mass media.

Russia stands alone among Earth’s major powers, and nearly alone among the Earth’s nations, in having no effective term limits. First as Prime Minister and then as President of Russia, Putin has been Russia’s supreme leader since December 1999, when Boris Yeltsin appointed him.

That’s over fourteen years: more than half again as long as any Yankee president can serve, and even longer than FDR’s unprecedented and never-repeated thirteen years in office. It’s almost half as long again as any supreme Chinese leader can serve.

Russians don’t seem to mind. They like Putin. He continues to poll in the high sixties and low seventies of Russian voter approval—a level that any Western pol could only view with envy. And his recent exploit in grabbing Crimea, virtually bloodlessly, is hardly going to hurt his popularity inside Russia.

So Vladimir Putin, it seems, is going nowhere. He likes being Russia’s supreme leader, and Russians like him. You would think the rest of the world—or at least its leaders—would have gotten to know him by now. But not so much.

In order to understand a man, you have to understand his environment. That’s the purpose of this essay.

“Dictatorship of the Proletariat”

Ever since I first read Karl Marx’ verbal invention, “dictatorship of the proletariat,” I found it bizarre in the extreme. It’s a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron.

How so? Well, “dictatorship” is a form of autocracy. It’s rule by a single person, so far always a man. Ancient Rome invented the term “dictator,” which it used for a military leader appointed to rule by fiat temporarily during a time of national emergency—something akin to our modern notion of martial law. The current notion of permanent dictatorship is a modern invention.

But “proletariat” is a fancy term for a whole class of people: those who labor for a living. In modern productive consumer societies that class comprises tens or hundreds of millions of people.

So “dictatorship” means rule by a single man, and the “proletariat” encompasses tens of millions. Therefore the ambiguous preposition “of” becomes awfully important. Does it mean “over,” or does it mean “by”? Is the working class to be governed by a single dictator, such as Stalin? Or is it to govern itself (and everyone else) with the single-mindedness of an individual dictator?

If “of” really means “over,” you get Louis XIV by another name. And since hereditary monarchy doesn’t seem like the best way to pick a leader for the modern working class, you have a big question: how do all those laborers pick their dictator? If “of” really means “by,” you have another essential conundrum: what if all those working people don’t agree? How do they decide on anything? How do they “dictate” collectively?

So Marx’ term “dictatorship of the proletariat” raises far more questions than it answers. As a mere matter of linguistics and common sense, the onion gets stinkier and stinkier as you peel its layers.

It gets stinkier still when you think of consequences. Once the dictator settles into the stirrups, how do you get him off the horse? Mostly, you don’t.

In its Soviet guise, Russia suffered Stalin, his paranoia, his inept wartime rule and his Terror from the time of Lenin’s death in 1924 to Stalin’s own in 1953. That’s 29 years. After unifying China with his own Communist revolution, Mao ruled China absolutely from the founding of the PRC on October 1, 1949, until his death on September 9, 1976. That’s nearly 27 years.

So if the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is any guide, and if Stalin and Mao are good models, we’d all better get used to Putin. He’s an active and vibrant 61-year-old, and he could be with us for another fifteen years.

How likely is that? Well, Russia has thrown off Communism on its own initiative—a feat in which Putin himself was a principal actor. But unlike China, Russia had it for 74 years, from 1917 to 1991. That’s almost four generations, long enough for the bizarre notion of “dictatorship of the proletariat” to become part of Russian culture. No wonder we all saw the hammer and sickle flying again, not just in Crimea, but recently in Red Square.

People as property

Before you dismiss the notion that dictatorship over the proletariat is still part of Russian culture, consider the question of people as property. We Yanks are quite familiar with the concept. It was the essence of our own original sin of slavery.

But as horrible as slavery was here, we had nothing on Russia. Today the descendants of our slaves comprise about one-eighth of our population. And our slave era lasted about two and a half centuries, from the first importation of slaves into British colonies in 1619 until the emancipation proclamation in 1863.

Russia’s people-as-property culture lasted much longer. It began during the middle of the last millennium and didn’t stop until Russia abolished serfdom in 1861, just about the same time we freed our slaves. It was also much more deeply rooted in Russia’s culture than slavery in ours, in two respects.

First, Russia subjugated the vast majority of its people. Its peasants and workers were “souls” (души), who came with the land and were part of the owner’s property. Second, unlike our own slaves, who were imported and belonged to a different race and multiple foreign cultures, Russia’s serfs were Russians in every respect except education, wealth and power. Russian culture didn’t even have the pretext of presumed racial superiority to justify their subjugation—a fact that Lev Tolstoy noted in his late-life egalitarian tract “I can’t shut up!” (Не могу молчать).

So the absolutism and even the bestiality of Stalin’s rule were hardly departures from Russia’s culture. They were continuations of it and in its mainstream. Ordinary people, in their status as property, passed from the Tsar and the noble landowners to an all-powerful State.

As it turned out, the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” was a diabolically clever deception. Ordinary people thought “of” meant “by.” But that simply couldn’t be. Russia had (and still has) no established cultural mechanism for ordinary people to decide anything, let alone to rule. So “of” really meant “over,” and the General Secretary (an innocuous title that Stalin assumed to consolidate his absolute power) became a new Tsar.

Mere linguistic analysis of Marx’ self-contradictory phrase could have predicted all of this. But a knowledge of Russia’s history and culture were and are even better guides.

When Putin tells us that the West doesn’t understand Russia’s penchant for authoritarian rule, he knows whereof he speaks. Russians and Russia confuse us by sharing the same Caucasian race as our Yankee majority (for a short while yet), but having a completely different history and culture. Despite their deceptive racial characteristics, Russians are in fact, far more foreign to us than, for example, our own African-Americans, free now for seven generations, or the native peoples of the Americas, who were conquered, decimated, deported and marginalized but never made property.

Stalin and Mao

Now we can understand why Stalin and Mao ruled so long and so disastrously. They called themselves differently—“General Secretary” and “Chairman”—but they were, in facts, successors to the Tsar and Emperor, respectively. They had changed their titles, but their cultures, practices and types of government had not changed much.

If you doubt this, I would cite just two facts. Stalin’s forced industrialization of Russia involved tens of millions of imprisonments, executions, deportations, and condemnations to forced labor. Even the Pharaohs, in building the Pyramids, never coerced on such a vast scale.

As for Mao, the evidence of his imperial status is more personal. His own physician, in his autobiography, recounted how he treated Mao for syphilis and gently chided Mao for giving a dose of it to a loyal female cadre. Mao replied that the young lady should be honored to have been inoculated with syphilis by the Chairman. The tides of history and Communist atheism had ostensibly erased the Emperor’s claim to divine status, but the practical result of absolute rule was much the same.

Why China is different

Yet China had a cultural peculiarity that made all the difference: the Mandarins. With their strict entrance examinations, their high level of literacy, and their administrative skill, this wide social stratum from Imperial China morphed easily into the Communist Party’s technocracy of today.

Again, names and appearances are deceptive. China’s Communist Party today has eighty million members—more people than the entire populations of many of the world’s nations. Externally, it looks like a closed ruling clique. Internally, it is a technocratic meritocracy much like the Mandarins’, in which good leaders rise to the top in a decades-long struggle of ambition and talent, despite corruption and favor.

More than that. China’s is a term-limited bureaucratic state, in which top leaders serve an “apprenticeship” for at least five years on the seven-member committee (once nine-member) that makes all key national decisions. Not only is this a stable, rational, predictable structure, in which experience gets handed down in the best possible way, by working together. It is also a government based on collective decision making, in a way that copies and may exceed the benefits of our or England’s Executive Cabinet.

So there is nothing is the least surprising about China leaving Russia in the dust economically and organizationally. Stark differences in history and culture foreordained this result. China always had a huge class of highly educated and skilled administrators. In Russia’s traditional culture, the vast majority of people were soldiers or peasants and, not too long ago, others’ property. You don’t throw off a culture like that in just a couple of generations, let alone the single generation since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

A new species of autocrat?

So who and what is Putin? Is he a modern Tsar like Stalin? Is he an emperor of Russia as Mao was the last of China? Or is he something else?

Stalin was rotten from the moment he first got his hands on real power. If he hadn’t been one already, he became a monster when he beat General Kirov for leadership, by stuffing the ballot boxes, and then had him executed the next day. The Terror and gulags followed as night the day, for the simple reason that Russia had no tradition or culture of holding its leaders accountable.

Putin is not like that. He’s been elected three times now, in what appear to have been the freest, fairest elections that Russia has ever known. His first thoughts as leader were to establish a peaceful free-trade zone from the Atlantic to the Urals and to ameliorate poverty in Russia. Almost single-handedly, he abolished Communism in Russia, and he changed the name of Leningrad back to “St. Petersburg” to prove the point. Early in his rule, he held a national telethon over all of Russia’s eleven time zones, explaining to his people what he was doing and why.

I don’t mean to whitewash Putin. He’s certainly an authoritarian. Unexplained and unprosecuted murders of journalists—good and courageous journalists!—have occurred on his watch. So have prosecutions and imprisonments of political rivals, even relatively harmless ones like the blogger Navalny. Putin’s deep contacts in the “special services” and the vagueness and flexibility of many Russian laws make it hard not to assign him some blame for all this. So do the tradition and culture of “telephone justice,” in which (during the Communist era) political commissars used to instruct judges by telephone how cases before them should come out.

So we should never mistake Putin for just another Western pol. He’s nothing of the kind. But he’s also no Stalin. If he kills or imprisons at all (and the jury is still out on his direct involvement), he does so at retail and at small scale, whereas Stalin did it wholesale and on a gigantic scale.

Control for Putin seems a means to an end, not an end in itself, as it appears to have been for the paranoid Stalin. For all the shock it caused to Kiev and the West, his virtually bloodless annexation of Crimea was a political masterstroke: decisive, clever, quick and successful, if a bit nineteenth century. In his lamentations about the Soviet Union’s fall, Putin seems far less concerned with Russia’s alleged imperial ambitions, let alone the resurrection of Communism, than with the plight of Russian people. As he put it, many of them went to sleep in the Soviet Union and woke up the next day in multiple countries not their own.

Several years ago, Putin stopped Russians from electing regional governors and began appointing them. He did so by decree. The West saw a power grab by a new self-appointed Tsar.

More careful observers, including me, saw an attempt to wrest local power from criminal mafias and from remnants of the Communist Party, including local and industrial bosses with even less experience and understanding of democracy than Putin himself. The jury is still out on whether this appointive regime will be better for the regions than spastically unpredictable incipient local democracy. The jury is also still out on whether and when Putin will establish more democratic means of electing local leaders.

Putin’s speech on Crimea

An important window into Putin’s character was his recent speech on the annexation of Crimea. I wish every decision-maker in the West and China could watch it, in the original Russian, complete with idioms and nuances of Russian speech, plus synchronized facial expressions and gestures, as I did.

It simply doesn’t come across well in translation. It suffers especially when Western, non-Russian speakers pull excerpts out of context to illustrate things that most surprised or dismayed them, or to make “news” of portions they found most sensational.

In retrospect, there are three things about that speech that Western leaders need to know.

First, it was as carefully crafted a speech as any given by the best Western leaders. It attempted to explain, historically and logically, why Russia was annexing Crimea, with special emphasis on peculiar Russian interests. It covered all the bases—historical, cultural, legal, and practical—in depth and in a rational sequence. It was the speech of a rational man explaining his actions, not a monster like Stalin or Hitler. “Might makes right” was not even remotely among its themes.

Second, Putin made some valid points, which few Western reporters even noticed, let alone emphasized. He complained of an alleged “double standard,” under which we Yanks intervened militarily in Bosnia, with an extensive and deadly bombing campaign, to protect the lives and rights of Bosnian Muslims.

Putin likened the Bosnian Muslims to Russians in Crimea. His analogy was not without force, although he ignored the fact that Bosnian Muslims were being slaughtered, while Russians in Crimea merely faced the risk of potential political marginalization. The analogy was plausible, but annexation seemed an overreaction under the circumstances.

Putin also noted that Crimea had had a referendum and had voted overwhelmingly to join Russia. He neglected to note that the referendum had been hastily and sloppily conducted, and had offered no option to stay in Ukraine.

Even if weak, these were legitimate rational arguments. The certainly differentiated Russia’s annexation of Crimea, with its lack of bloodshed and clear and decisive majority of ethnic Russians, from the bloody but necessary beatback of Serbs in Bosnia, let alone a bloody military conquest of a foreign culture.

Putin also noted something seldom considered in the West. Russia is a major power whose strategic national interests the West (and every power) must consider and respect. This point would seem to be as self-evident as the vital strategic interest that Russia has in Crimea and its Black Sea Fleet.

The third point that non-Russian speaking Westerners should know about Putin’s speed relates to shrugs. Shrugs are not quite as common in Russia as they are in France, but they are a hardy and sometimes endearing aspect of Russian culture. They express irony, mild disapproval or reproach, or sometimes bemusement. They are indicative and expressive, but seldom hostile.

There were many shrugs in Putin’s speech. With them, Putin commented on things that made little sense to him or to the Russian part of his audience. Some of the shrugs were directed toward us Yanks, whom Putin invariably described as “our American partners,” not as enemies or rivals.

All in all, this was a speech of Russia’s “Great Communicator,” in full command of his language, his material, the Russian leaders before him, and his international and global audience. Every leader who wants to know and understand Putin should read it, at least in translation, from beginning to end, not just the “juicy parts.”

That task alone would convince readers that Putin is no Stalin or Hitler. Rather, he is a modern leader in complete rapport with his own culture and striving diligently, and sometimes bemusedly, to fit that culture into a larger context.

Conclusion: exploiting Putin’s “flaw”

If Putin has a dangerous flaw, it’s his own brains. Even when he speaks to the assembled Duma, Russian judiciary and other Russian leaders, he’s most likely the smartest guy in the room. Russia probably hasn’t had a leader this smart in over a century.

It’s not just his native intelligence, which is high. It’s also his political and social experience. As a high operative in the KGB, he had unlimited access to information about foreigners, as well as secret information about Russia, while most of his peers were gorging themselves during their formative years on a steady diet of useless Soviet propaganda.

Putin’s formal education was not unusual for a Russian leader. But he’s a bit like Harry Truman, who did also did not excel in formal education. Truman had read every book in the public library of his hometown of Independence, Missouri. He had been a superb auto-didact. Those who underestimated Truman’s brains, knowledge, experience or memory lived to regret doing so. The same may be true of Putin.

Yet when Putin steps across Russia’s borders—whether physically, electronically or figuratively—he’s no longer the smartest person in the room. He’s with his peers. He’s like the high-school valedictorian who goes away to college and suddenly finds, to his delight and dismay, that there are lots of other smart people just like him.

In my view, Putin knows this. Part of being smart is recognizing when others are as smart or even smarter than you.

We have every evidence that Putin understands. He helped us with our war in Afghanistan, allowing overflights by our Air Force and even paying their air-traffic-controller fees. He did so despite the obvious political liabilities of helping us in Afghanistan just decades after our Stingers had driven the Soviet Union out.

He has cooperated assiduously with us in our common fight against terrorists. He is helping us make peace in our prolonged Little Cold War with Iran, and at the same time reduce nuclear proliferation. He has cooperated in making Russia a part of global economy and WTO, although his understanding of markets is tenuous as best, in part because Russia’s traditional culture has little basis in markets.

When Putin hears good ideas, he’s quick to seize on them. The speed with which he took up the idea of ridding Syria of chemical weapons astonished many.

Now Putin is coming to understand that having paramilitary forces capture buildings in Eastern Ukraine is not going to change its politics, at least in Russia’s favor. Only a full-blown, peaceful electoral campaign will. That’s apparently why Putin agreed so readily to contain and remove the paramilitary forces. He’s smart enough to see, as we ourselves have, that there’s no military “solution” to the “nationalities problem” in Ukraine—at least none that can bear the light of day in the twenty-first century.

Ukrainians, Russians, Tatars, and other ethnic groups are going to have to get along. That requires a political solution and no other. Any military conflict, no matter how slight or brief, would just make the job harder.

Putin has to be ashamed of what Russia, with Iran’s aid, has done to Syria. He does not want that to happen to Ukraine. He has to know that any real solution will have to start with this May’s elections.

Putin personally is a fierce competitor. He competes vigorously in flying and (when his sore back doesn’t prevent) judo and skiing. Now that he knows there’s no military solution in Ukraine, the next step in international competition is obvious: can Russian-annexed Crimea treat ethnic Ukrainians and Tatars there better than Kiev treats ethnic Russians and Tatars in Eastern Ukraine? That’s the kind of peaceful competition both sides can enthusiastically support.

To switch metaphors, the West and Russia are going to have to play the parts of ardent suitors, bestowing gifts on the blushing maiden without thought of self, except for the future blessings of peace, prosperity and security. Ukraine is going to have to play the part of the sought-after beauty, enjoying the blandishments of both suitors, without favor. What better role for the once and future economic crossroads of Eastern Europe?

As for Neo-Nazis, they do exist inside Ukraine. But the notion that they formed (or stole) the heart of the Maidan revolution, or that we Yanks knowingly and willingly support them, is (to quote Mark Twain on reports of his premature death) greatly exaggerated.

Putin is a smart and practical man. Sooner or later, he will understand that he’s been played, by Assad, who claims everyone opposing him is a terrorist, and by Yanukovych, who claims everyone opposing him is a Nazi, anarchist, or hooligan.

Sooner or later, Putin will understand that the local spooks on whom he naturally relies (as an ex-KGB agent) have divided loyalties. Sooner or later, he will remember that we Yanks and his Russians fought on the same side in World War II, and that neither of our two cultures has much love for fascism.

We can help speed his process of awakening by opening our intelligence files to Putin. Insofar as we know it, we can give him hard evidence of what is happening in Ukraine, and of initiatives in Ukraine itself toward even-handed government and autonomy for the provinces. We can work with him toward a common end of peace, harmony and security.

But to do that, we must first convince him that our aim is not to stymie, “contain” or defeat Russia, as long as its motives are benign. Our aim must be to serve genuinely as the “American partners” that Putin and his colleagues continue to call us, despite their rising doubt and disappointment in recent years.

One promising option is to make Ukraine neutral, like Switzerland. Already it’s practically neutral from a military standpoint: it gave up its nuclear arsenal, and it doesn’t have much of a conventional army. All we have to do is convince Putin that Ukraine will never become a NATO member, even if it joins the EU, but will remain a neutral bridge between Europea and Russia, as has been its traditional role.

With military alliances set aside, Russia and the West can compete to see which parts of Ukraine, over which they each have influence, they can bring into modernity, peace and prosperity quickest. That’s a productive, peaceful competition that Putin, the consummate competitor, ought to enjoy.


10 April 2014

Lack of Imagination V: Accurate Weapons

[For a short comment on keeping Ukraine (what’s left of it) whole, click here.]

[Note: This essay was previously, and erroneously, numbered “Lack of Imagination IV”. The earlier essay with that same number has a boldface link below.]

Rejecting the absurdity of “total war”
What weapons are “accurate”?
Are nuclear weapons “accurate”?
Individual Responsibility
Modern accurate weapons Conclusion: Japan, a closing circle


This is the fifth in an series of occasional essays on today’s lack of imagination in America. Earlier essays focused on small, remotely piloted aircraft (which we now have), making the Chevy Volt work (which it now most certainly does), marketing the many advantages of electric cars (which their makers are slowly exploiting), and using non-lethal advanced technologies to promote democracy in troubled nations.

An unfortunate aspect of our species is that we often get too comfortable with things that really threaten us, like global warming and nuclear weapons. At the same time, we shy away from novelties like solar PV energy and electric cars, without really thinking our prejudices through.

So it is with accurate weapons, such as snipers, drones, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons, and ninjas.

There has been a lot of hand-wringing about these weapons lately, and lots of fear. But are these averse reactions justified? Or are they hasty and ill-considered responses to things that disturb the seductive stability of established routine? Let’s analyze.

Rejecting the absurdity of “total war”

The first thing we must do is define what “accurate” means.

Most people think a weapon is accurate if it hits its target. But that definition is not very helpful.

The target might be an individual. Or it might be a building, or a (in the case of nuclear missile) an entire city.

In the latter two cases, the weapon might kill a lot of people and destroy a lot of things that the user of the weapon has no intention of harming. So a rational definition of “accurate” has to include some sense of what we now euphemistically call “collateral damage”—hurting people and things that are in some sense “innocent” and whose destruction meets no reasonable military objective.

If we adopt such a definition, then right away have to abandon the last century’s insane notion of “total war.” That notion made it “fair” in war to firebomb Dresden and Tokyo, or to nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki—to name just the terrible things we Yanks did.

At the time, it seemed right and proper to kill hundreds and thousands of people and destroy tens of thousands of homes and buildings that had nothing directly to do with the war effort. This was one of the bad ideas that made our last century among the worst in human history.

We Yanks didn’t invent the concept of “total war.” A German named Fregattenkapitän Peter Strasser did. Perhaps surprisingly, he was not a Nazi. He was a Zeppelin commander in the First World War. He used his idea to justify bombing civilian targets in London—a justification that later carried over to Nazis’ V-2 raids on London and the Yankee-perpetrated horrors enumerated above.

The concept did have a certain seductive, simplistic logic. War is a nasty fight between two nations or groups of people. In a modern, specialized society, doesn’t every citizen aid the war effort?

Of course soldiers and arms makers aid it directly. But what about the farmer who grows the food they eat and the janitor who cleans their toilets, thereby giving them more time to fight, grow food or make weapons? Aren’t all members of an enemy society helping the war effort to some extent and therefore “guilty” and legitimate targets? And won’t incapacitating or eliminating them cut down the enemy’s ability to fight? Won’t terrorizing the entire population blunt its collective will?

As our species’ weapons became more and more powerful, this logic met its reductio ad absurdum. In the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, it very nearly resulted in the total destruction of the Soviet Union and the United States, and perhaps the extinction our entire species, which many experts had predicted as a result of total nuclear war. Sometimes bare “logic” leads to absurd results if you don’t think carefully about probable consequences.

Today, in the nuclear age, we don’t think much of total war because it means species self-extinction, or something very close. We realize that we are all of the same human species and can profit from trade and friendly relations. In the wars that still threaten, we are not trying to defeat a space-alien species that wants to exterminate us and take over our planet, as in the Hollywood movie “Independence Day.” Instead, we are battling other humans just like us, often for things we all want.

The sole exception in our twenty-first century is Syria. Bashar al-Assad seems to be offering his non-Alawite subjects a choice among serfdom, expulsion and extermination. His shelling and bombing cities, including women, children, doctors and other innocents in them, is random and extreme enough to recall the last century’s “total war.” In fact, it’s beginning to resemble genocide of the non-Alawite majority—so much so that many jurists expect to see Assad tried for genocide.

So the goal of war today is not to exterminate an enemy—let alone our entire species. Today we call that “genocide” and consider it the worst possible crime against our human species. Instead, our goal is to make our enemy stop doing things we don’t like and start doing things we do. Today’s goal is to change behavior, the very goal of diplomacy.

So we have come around from the absurd logic of an obscure World War I German Zeppelin commander to the better idea of another German, Von Clausewitz, who said that war is a continuation of politics by other means.

What weapons are “accurate”?

The absurd notion of “total war” leads inevitably to atrocities. In the Nuclear Age, it could lead to a radioactive planet and species self-extinction. Once we recognize these facts, we can begin to analyze what makes weapons “accurate.”

If war is a means of achieving a political objective, and not extinguishing an enemy as Rome did Carthage, then an important conclusion appears right away. The means of making war must fit the objective while minimizing unintended consequences. “Collateral damage“ is not a social good, whether for the combatants or for humanity.

The Powell Doctrine is but a corollary: overwhelming force, if used proportionately to achieve limited objectives, can do so with minimal collateral damage. Putin used that very approach in annexing Crimea, virtually bloodlessly.

So our definition of “accurate” for weapons should run something like this:
“A weapon is ‘accurate’ if it’s capable of being used to achieve a reasonable political objective with a reasonable minimum of collateral damage.”
In simple terms, a weapon is accurate if it mostly gets the bad guys, or changes their behavior, and leaves others alone. In the simplest possible terms, an accurate weapon is one that achieves a political objective with minimal unintended consequences.

Are nuclear weapons “accurate”?

If we accept this definition, we come to some conclusions that may, at first, seem counterintuitive. Nuclear weapons are accurate, but only if they are never used. Used at the end of World War II, they massacred over 200,000 mostly innocent people, although they did bring a brutal war to an earlier end than expert observers thought possible otherwise.

But unused, as deterrents to attack and invasion (as they have been since World War II), nuclear weapons have produced a minor miracle. They have turned off wars of imperialism between major powers fighting each other on their own territory, as if by some celestial switch. They have given us the Pax Atomica, which will be 70 years old next year.

But if nuclear weapons are ever used again, they will be the ultimate in inaccuracy. They will kill hundreds of thousands or millions of mostly innocent people, destroy whole cities or regions, and render the land radioactive and uninhabitable for victor and vanquished alike. Far from changing behavior, they will invite retaliation in kind, resulting in a risk of species self-extinction (in the case of big powers like the US and USSR) or mutual annihilation in the case of small ones like Israel and Iran.

We’ve been there and done that. We nearly extinguished our own species in October 1962. But for the cool and sober judgment and action of two Russians and one American, we might have.

Now our task as a species is to walk back from the disastrous concept of “total war” that made the last century such a miserable one and develop more accurate weapons that change behavior without multiplying self-imposed human misery. How do we do that?

Individual Responsibility

Before diving into the details of modern weapons and their accuracy, we first have to explore an even more vital social question: who’s responsible for bad behavior that needs changing?

It goes without saying that, in nearly every case, leaders are. But social norms and customs—including universal respect for sovereign immunity—have made most leaders completely immune from responsibility for their bad acts. Much of the agony of history repeating itself derives from this simple fact. People, including leaders, don’t change bad behavior unless there’s a price for it.

In the Age of Monarchy, from which we are just about two centuries removed, the monarchs and nobles lived in a different world from the ordinary people who fought and died for them. When taken prisoner by an enemy, they were given the best medical care, food, and housing, plus gentle treatment befitting their royal or noble status. Except when kept as hostages, they were often returned to their homes in a high-level prisoner exchange.

It was the ordinary people, whose lot was only to follow their leaders, who not only did the bulk of the suffering and dying during the war. It was also they who suffered the consequences, while the king and nobles went back to their opulent castles and plotted new adventures, chastened only in the abstract and by their waste of gold and men.

That simple fact was what made the victorious Allies’ decision to punish Germany collectively after its loss in World War I so unfair, stupid and disastrous. The common people of any vanquished nation already suffered mightily, in the very nature of things. Now the Allies wanted to add national reparations, trade sanctions, and trade isolation to their woes, resulting in the Weimar Hyperinflation, the worst in modern history. It was heaping insult upon injury upon injury upon the German people.

We all know the consequences: the rise of Hitler and Nazism, the most terrible war of aggression in human history, the Holocaust, and the premature deaths of some 50 million people.

All that changed after World War II, with the Nuremberg Trials. The whole point of the Trials was to hold the leaders, not the German people, responsible for the pathological behavior with which Nazis had prosecuted the war and perpetrated the Holocaust.

In so doing, the Trials did little more than better Germans themslves had tried to do. Leaders of the German army, including several from old, noble families, had tried to kill Hitler and his key staff several times. The attempts culminated in the nearly-successful 1944 bombing chronicled in the American film “Valkyrie.”

The bomb in the briefcase would have been an extremely accurate weapon, but it missed its target and Hitler survived. Germans themselves had not balked at trying to assassinate a leader who had brought such misery upon their people, let alone their neighbors and national minorities.

Modern accurate weapons

With this background, we can begin to answer the question “what weapons are ‘accurate’ in the twenty-first century”? As we do so, we must keep in mind two basic principles.

First, accurate weapons don’t kill innocent people. At least they try to avoid killing large numbers of innocent people as did the Zeppelin and V-2 attacks on London, the fire-bombing of Dresden and Tokyo, and the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Second, the aim of accurate weapons is to change political behavior, which mostly means changing the behavior of leaders. Sometime this goal requires killing them. Sometimes it means making their undesirable acts costly, to themselves or to people they care about, if only as pawns.

With these principles in mind, we can analyze some modern candidates for accurate weapons. In a few cases, we can do so against the background of recent events.
At first glance, it may seem strange to speak of a sniper as a “weapon.” A sniper is, after all, a human being: a skilled and highly trained shooter with a definite target.

But all of our examples of modern, accurate weapons have one thing in common: flexible and accurate aiming. The rounds or missiles they release all remain under the control of human operators until let fly.

In the case of drones and shoulder-fired missiles, there’s the possibility of further, automated guidance after release. But in every case a human being aims the device and selects the target. The only difference is that, in the case of drones, the aiming and selection are done remotely, through electronic media.

Why do we still rely on human agency? Despite all our much-vaunted advances in “artificial intelligence,” we don’t yet trust even our best computers or software to replace the human mind and human judgment in aiming weapons, let alone selecting targets to minimize “collateral damage.”

So a sniper has the potential to be a supremely accurate weapon because: (1) he has good aim (2) he can select—or reject—targets with human judgment, and (3) he can consider unanticipated circumstances and possible undesirable consequences, in real time, in choosing targets and deciding whether to fire. In theory at least, a sniper can kill the bad guys and harm no one else.

Recent events on the Maidan tested this theory. Snipers apparently authorized by Ukraine’s now-deposed government killed up to 80 people protesting in a public square. (Some of those killed were police.)

Were these “weapons” accurate? It doesn’t seems so. The self-evident political objective was to intimidate and crush the Maidan uprising. Instead, the sniper murders had precisely the opposite effect. Those killed became martyrs to the revolution, virtually regardless of who and what they were, and the revolution gained strength, although perhaps becoming more peaceful.

It’s not hard to understand why the sniper murders on the Maidan were such a dismal military failure. The snipers were firing at medium-to-long range. They were firing at moving, active people in a crowd.

It was cold on the Maidan, and people were wearing head covering, both to keep warm and to conceal their identities from government forces. So even if the snipers had names and photographs of targets, it would have been impossible, in most cases, for them to aim accurately. Most probably, they just aimed at big, active, strong-looking men who seemed dangerous from a distance.

In other words, the killings were essentially random, like most soldiers’ massacres of civilians throughout human history. Despite the potential of sniper fire to be an accurate weapon, in this case it was nothing of the kind. We Yanks, recalling the Boston Massacre that sparked our own American Revolution, could have told Yanukovych how counterproductive that sort of mayhem would be.

The moral of this story is not that snipers cannot be accurate weapons, but that they must be used properly. You can’t tell brains, political skill, or leadership from a dark silhouette.

So even if the Maidan snipers killed replaceable brawn in an attempt to intimidate, their aim was grossly wrong. This lesson says nothing about a sniper trained and instructed to eliminate a specific, identified person—a leader—responsible for bad acts.
The last two years have seen much hand-wringing about the use of drones. In my view, nearly all of it has been misguided, some of it seriously so.

Although perhaps scary in their remote control, drones bring war down to human scale and away from the last century’s “total war.” Which would you rather be: an innocent homeowner living in a house next to a modern drone target, or an innocent citizen in Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, or Nagasaki during their bombardment by American air or nuclear power? I’d take my chances with the drone, thank you, and enjoy an incomparably larger statistical chance of surviving.

I don’t mean to make light of the real problems of command and control. Picking targets—especially in the twilight zone of terrorists living and working among civilians—is fraught with legal, moral, practical and political problems. Identifying even good targets unambiguously through remote electronic video is hard.

But in the end, these problems aren’t much different for drones than for snipers on the Maidan, or for the leaders who authorized or ordered their action. In either case picking the wrong targets—whether by misguided design, haste or mis-identification—can produce more opposition than it neutralizes.

This lesson is not one for the Maidan snipers’ leaders alone. Our President and our military are rapidly learning to make the tradeoffs among: (1) effective elimination of real or suspected terrorists, (2) creating new opposition by injuring and killing innocents, and (3) providing the enemy with an easy propaganda pitch asserting “collateral damage,” whether or not real.

The point is that the proper use of drones requires complete understanding of the situation on the ground, including not just target selection and identification, but likely local and political reaction. It requires, in short, precisely the sort of complete analysis that the Maidan snipers (or their leaders) self-evidently failed to make. But even in the worst case, it’s a whole lot better than wiping out a big city or a large part of one.

There’s yet another reason why drones have the potential to change the nature of human conflict. Like nuclear weapons, they are much better suited to defense than offense.

It’s possible, in theory, to think of a fleet of drones spearheading an invasion. The fleet might, for example, soften up the enemy with a modern analogue of shelling or bombardment.

But at least at present, it’s hard to see how such a tactic would work in practice. Drones carry a much more limited number of weapons than manned fighters, let alone bombers. Their payload-to-price ratio doesn’t really compare. And at least at present, they are far less agile and able to evade counterfire than their manned counterparts. Their remote control also makes it harder for their operators to analyze an entire situation and take advantage of opportunities or avoid danger in a fluid conflict.

But defense is another matter entirely. Drones can fly low, float behind buildings, hills or other barriers, and unleash anti-tank or anti-aircraft missile unseen. Because they are unmanned, they can take risks that manned aircraft or defensive tanks might not take. And they are far more mobile than defensive tanks or other ground vehicles.

Furthermore, with an aerial view of a battlefield, plus whatever signal intelligence advanced electronics can provide, drones can identify enemy leaders and their vehicles from their movements and signals. They can then confuse or stop an enemy by disabling or eliminating its key leaders, selectively and in real time.

This is essentially what drones already do with terrorists. They eliminate the “high-value” targets, the leaders, with limited risk to innocents. In this sense, and used carefully in this way, they can be very accurate weapons.

Far from tempting rash leaders to war, properly designed and configured drones can make invasive war very costly, just as shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons did to the Soviets in Afghanistan. Drones have the potential to increase the costs of aggression, with far less risk than nuclear weapons pose, and therefore to make aggression less likely.
    Shoulder-fired anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons
This brings us to what may be the most accurate light weapons in our species’ arsenal today: shoulder-fired weapons capable of taking out an aircraft or tank. The model is the so-called “Stinger” that reversed the Soviets’ invasion of Afghanistan.

Much more than drones, these are essentially defensive weapons. They are specifically designed to track and hit aircraft and tanks, using their heat signatures, metallic properties, or other physical characteristics. Aimed at people or buildings, their high technology confers no special advantage. It would be hard to imagine an offensive use of these weapons, except perhaps against leaders in a motorcade, and then only if the vehicles were heavy enough to mimic a plane or tank.

But in defense, these weapons are superb, especially against aggressors and tyrants. During the last century, tanks and later aircraft became aggressors’ and tyrants’ weapons of choice. They can decimate foot soldiers and terrorize populations, just as they are doing in Syria today. But shoulder-fired weapons, if effective, can neutralize aircraft and tanks and make an invasion relying on them costly, just as they did in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan.

The main reason why these weapons have not yet been used against Assad is the risk that terrorists might capture them and use them to shoot down civilian and friendly military aircraft. But new technology can reduce that risk, perhaps to the vanishing point.

Present technology can limit these weapons to use in a specified geographic area. Or it can cause them to self-destruct harmlessly, after a time period too short to allow transportation for terrorism. Any competent engineer can think of a half-dozen ways to limit geographic use, and several to make these weapons time-limited.

Would these technologies rely on hackable software? Not at all. All circuits and their algorithms would be hardware-coded in silicon or cadmium telluride. That is, they would be built into the mechanical structure of integrated circuits, which would be designed so that any attempt to modify or reverse-engineer them would destroy them.

No terrorist could produce a modified design, because doing so would require an advanced semiconductor-chip fabrication plant, costing at least a billion dollars and requiring such advanced technology as sub-micron clean rooms. Terrorists could not build or modify such devices for the same reason that they couldn’t have lobbed the chemical-weapons shells that the Russians absurdly accused them of using: they simply don’t have the necessary technology or technological infrastructure. Nor do most of their present and likely future allies.

Used as defensive weapons, and proof against use for terrorism, these weapons could bring Assad (or any tyrant or aggressor) to the bargaining table or into the defendant’s dock in two ways. First, they could neutralize the apparent advantages of aircraft and tanks by destroying them. Second, by killing the people who operate them, these weapons would make running an aircraft or tank an undesirable job.

The fear of immolation in a flaming metal coffin was a key reason for the massive surrender of Saddam’s supposedly “elite” troops in Gulf I. These weapons could duplicate the phenomenon in any act of aggression or tyranny. It might take, for example, no more than ten to twenty downed planes to ground Assad’s air force permanently.

Far from creating fear of despotism, these portable and easily concealable small arms could become powerful defenders of freedom. They might make conventional mechanized invasion obsolete. They are rebels’ weapons, not tyrants’.
And so we come full circle, to another type of human being trained as an accurate weapon: the ninja. “Ninja” is a Japanese word for a highly trained assassin. The term derives from Japan’s feudal period, when there were few firearms and assassination required stealth and consummate skill.

In broad outline there’s not much difference between snipers and ninjas. Snipers kill at medium or long range, ninjas at close range. Accordingly, snipers have an easier time escaping from or being extracted after completing their mission. The Navy Seals who killed bin Laden were ninjas, and their loss of one of their two helicopters shows how risky their missions can be.

As reported in our press and discussed in an earlier post, we Yanks have a whole regiment of ninjas. We trained them for use primarily on the battlefield, or in fluid areas of insurgency like Taliban-infiltrated parts of Afghanistan. In those contexts, our ninjas carried out many missions, sometimes nightly, killing designated bad guys more accurately than drones, and with less collateral damage. Their killing bin Laden was a special mission—one of their few outside the battlefield/insurgency context.

Ninjas are perhaps the most accurate weapon we have. They killed bin Laden with only a single reported casualty: a woman in bin Laden’s compound was injured, not killed.

Not only that. The ninjas provided unambiguous and convincing proof of bin Laden’s death and left the buildings and their contents standing, so they could extract computers and media with invaluable intelligence. The ninjas’ training and human minds made possible maximum benefit with minimal unintended consequences, of which the helicopter’s loss and the single injury were the sole reported examples. The bin Laden mission was the height of “accuracy” as defined here.

Conclusion: Japan, a closing circle

Japan’s history reveals deep irony that bears careful study. That nation first developed the concept of ninjas: highly trained assassins whose skill and care kept most conflict confined to leaders within the elite clans. These experts in assassination spared the general population the agony of war. While ordinary people were no more valued in medieval Japan than in medieval Europe, Japan’s custom of using ninjas rather than waging full-scale war spared them much needless suffering.

It was therefore cruelly ironic that Japan, of all nations, is the only one to have suffered so horribly from the most inaccurate weapons we humans have ever devised. Japan has memorialized that irony in its Peace Museum in Hiroshima, which every person who aspires to leadership anywhere should visit.

I don’t mean to idealize Japan’s Tokugawa Period, in which ninjas played an important role. During his long reign, Emperor Tokugawa forbade all innovation as socially destabilizing. He left Japan an isolated, stagnant and weaker nation, ready prey to Admiral Perry’s Black Ships. Japan today is stronger because it innovates; it no longer suppresses the universal human impulse to explore, invent and create.

But the notion of ninjas as accurate weapons with minimal unintended consequences still makes sense. It makes special sense after the alternative—“total war” with nuclear weapons—nearly extinguished our species in October 1962.

The horribly bloody last century was the consequence of our fatal attraction to inaccurate weapons, to destruction for the sake of seemingly godlike power. But a god with brains and finesse would pick his or her targets carefully, not destroy a whole nation or city just to punish a few. As we begin to apply the seminal notion of individual responsibility more broadly in politics and on the shifting battlefields of modern conflict, we will find much greater uses for accurate weapons like ninjas, snipers and the mechanical devices analyzed above.

Keeping Ukraine Whole

Apropos of accurate weapons, a vital point needs making. Sometimes the most accurate weapon is no weapon at all.

That’s precisely the case in Eastern Ukraine right now. Heavily armed men have occupied government buildings and police stations in several cities in Eastern Ukraine. The government in Kiev has given them an ultimatum and warned them to leave, but its deadline has passed. The armed occupiers are still there.

Western commentators say all this makes the government in Kiev look weak. They’re wrong. It makes the government in Kiev look smart.

Some Western commentators have called the armed building occupiers “thugs.” Oddly, that’s precisely what Putin and Yanukovych call the Maidan protestors. How’d that name-calling work out for them?

Let’s try to use words precisely. These are no thugs. As their neat and orderly camouflage uniforms, heavy personal arms and trim forms attest, they are highly trained, well prepared and disciplined military troops.

No doubt under strict orders, they have shown self-restraint. So far, they have caused only one casualty. A single Ukrainian has been killed, and reports don’t say precisely how or by whom.

The occupiers’ orders are secret but plain. They are not to start a war, but to inveigle their political opponents into starting one. Then Putin will have the pretext he seeks to march his estimated 40,000 troops across the border and annex, at very least, the Eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetz and Luhansk—those closest to Russia.

So far, the Kiev government has been smart enough not to take the bait.

So what happens next? A long waiting game of political cat and mouse. This is Von Clausewitz standing on his head: the avoidance of war by political means.

An election is coming up in May. According to The Economist, non-Russians enjoy a a majority throughout Eastern Ukraine, including the provinces of Donetz and Luhansk, which have the highest proportions of Russians of any Ukrainian provinces besides Crimea. So if voters vote their ethnicity alone, Kiev will likely win.

But things are not quite that simple. Ukrainians and Russians have lived side by side in this region for most of a century. They have intermarried. So have other ethnic groups, including Tatars. Right now, all of them are in shock, timorously waiting to see whether war will erupt and whether the horrible history of nearly a century ago will repeat itself.

Ethnicity alone will not determine who wins this political conflict. The winner will be the side that attracts that largest number of voters, including Russian speakers. For that reason alone—if not just for common sense—Kiev should immediately restore Russian to its former status as an official language of Ukraine.

Remember the Berlin Airlift? Soviet postwar territory had surrounded the city, except for a small transit corridor. On Stalin’s orders, Soviet troops suddenly cut that corridor off, in effect laying siege to Berlin. We Yanks supplied the hard-pressed Berliners—an entire city—by air, flying one huge cargo plane into Templehof Air Base every few minutes.

The Soviets could easily have shot our planes down. But doing so would have started World War III. So they let the planes fly, and Berlin stayed free. John F. Kennedy flew into Belin, to a hero’s welcome, and declared “Ich bin ein Berliner!” That was smart.

The problem in Eastern Ukraine is just the obverse of Berlin. There the Soviets tried to isolate the once and future German capital, and we Yanks kept it supplied and connected with air power. Now the Russians or their proxies have captured key government buildings and are trying to isolate them, and with them the governments of Donetz and Luhansk.

But buildings are not government. This is the age of cell phones and the Internet. Ukraine’s government is people, relationships and legal legitimacy, not cement and stone. It can—and it must—isolate the captured buildings and render them irrelevant, at least until this crisis is over. It must isolate them the same way the human body isolates and encapsulates an abscess. The cure will come later.

Kiev must do so firmly, but without violence, and with sensitivity and compassion toward all citizens of Eastern Ukraine, especially Russian speakers.

If ethnic Russians want to demonstrate in front of the captured buildings, let them. If Russia pays Russian-leaning demonstrators to show up and make noise, as has been reported, let it. The more people Russia pays, the healthier Eastern Ukraine’s economy becomes: poor and starving people make revolutions, not paid ones.

Peaceful Russian demonstrators surrounding the occupied buildings also can help guarantee non-violence. The disciplined troops inside are unlikely to open fire and risk hitting their own civilian supporters.

Kiev should lay siege, but a completely peaceful and non-violent one. It can turn off water, electricity, gas, and central heating. It can block the sewage lines. In can, in short, let the occupiers stew in their own juices. It should offer them amnesty if, at any time, they lay down their weapons and accept peaceful deportation to Russia.

Then Kiev should plan for the elections in May. The most important task before it, by far, is to organize for those elections. Time is short. It must: (1) field a list of local candidates who can appeal to all ethnic groups; (2) prepare a program for local autonomy (aka “federalism”) that will appeal to Russian and Ukrainian speakers alike; and (3) organize, with international help, a national electoral infrastructure that will be resistant to fraud, improper influence and duress.

No rational voter is going to choose a rump army, however disciplined, as their elected representatives. The Russian occupiers of buildings are a piece of anti-Russian propaganda that no Kievan political strategist could ever hope to create.

The prize is not the occupied buildings, but the elections in May. Kiev should keep its eyes on the prize and not let itself be distracted or inveigled into provocation. In this particular case, the most accurate weapon is politics, and no real weapon at all.

The West, of course, can help, but discreetly. The most important help it can give is immediate financial assistance, at least enough to stabilize Ukraine’s economy and keep people free from want and fear, at least through May. The second most important help it can give is expert advice and assistance in organizing fair and free elections and local government. To avoid giving Russia an opening for propaganda, independent election monitors should come from places other than the US and Europe, such as Australia, India and Japan.

Footnote: As noted in earlier posts, The Economist (March 1st through 7th, page 22) has published a helpful demographic map of ethnic proportions in all of Ukraine’s regions, except for Odessa. The facts stated in this comment derive from that map.