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

10 February 2015

Stopping Putin


Have Russians become the new Nazis?

The very question resounds with irony. In their Soviet guise, Russians were by far the worst victims of Nazi German aggression. They lost one in seven of their entire population. The Siege of Leningrad alone was the greatest wartime catastrophe to befall any city since ancient Rome’s annihilation of Carthage.

And yes, it is true, not propaganda, that neo-Nazi Ukrainian death squads have been active in Odessa and Eastern Ukraine. People with clear and well-documented neo-Nazi tendencies hold high positions in Ukraine.

But what was the essence of German Nazism? Extreme tribalism, pure and simple. Nazis supposed German “Aryans” to be the “master race.” All others, especially Jews, were subhuman, to be used as slaves for Aryans’ pleasure or benefit, or disposed of at will, often in the most brutal ways imaginable.

Today something similar is happening to ethnic Ukrainians from Eastern Ukraine. Some 490,000 of them have reportedly been displaced westward. Meanwhile, some 430,000 civilians of Russian descent have fled eastward, into Mother Russia. What’s left in Donyestsk and Luhansk—-and perhaps soon in Debaltseve—are the most hardened, virulent Russian partisans, Russian spooks, undercover Russian troops, and remaining ordinary people too old, weak or poor to flee.

This is ethnic cleansing, pure and simple. Its goals are as obvious as they are inhumane: to create a new “reality on the ground,” in which ethnic Russian partisans in the separatist parts of Eastern Ukraine constitute an artificial majority, who can then secede from Kiev and join Russia.

Now that most ethnic Ukrainians have fled, Russians could “win” even an honest plebiscite and secede, at least in the so-called “separatist areas.” Then the fate of Crimea will follow as night follows day.

But there’s a vital difference. Putin “took” Crimea, which was already a Russian-majority region, without a drop of blood shed. If it goes, Eastern Ukraine will go with unspeakable blood, death, displacement, exile and suffering.

Isn’t this Bosnia redux? A Russian mother professes pride that her son was wounded fighting Kiev’s forces. Why, a reporters asks. “Because we are Russian,” she answers.

Tribalism, pure and simple. In the twenty-first century. In the Nuclear Age. On the part of one of only two nations with world-destroying arsenals of nuclear weapons.

Many enigmas surround Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. But one thing is now absolutely clear. He does not give a damn about ordinary people.

For him, they are pawns on a chessboard. Their loves, families, blood, flight, suffering and death mean nothing to him. In this respect, Putin has become Stalin redux: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic.”

Syria’s abysmal condition should have been ample proof of this point. Without Russia’s staunch financial and military support, Bashar Al-Assad could never have turned that once-thriving nation into a barren killing field salted with rubble, now a playground for the most brutal Islamic extremists.

But Syria was and is muddled. It’s not clear how much of the extreme tribalism came from Russia and how much from the Ayatollah’s tribal Shiite Iran, the Alawite-Sunni divide in Syria itself, or the millennial Sunni-Shiite schism. It’s also unclear whether moderation on Assad’s part, or “regime change” by Russia toward a more moderate leader, could have avoided the rise of IS. Perhaps Russian tribalism took a back seat to Shiite tribalism and a legitimate fear of Sunni terrorism.

Yet in Ukraine there is no doubt. Russian tribalism is the primary motivator of the increasingly dirty and brutal war. Putin himself has repeatedly denounced the Soviet Union’s dissolution as if it had been the old Russian Empire, which, in a sense, it was. His actions and his words both point to a “reconstruction” process, with ethnic Russians in charge.

Ethnic cleansing and territorial conquest are anathema in our new century. Or at least they should be.

So Putin must be stopped. But how?

To say this is a difficult problem requiring cleverness and finesse would be Obamanian understatement. Chancellor Merkel is right: giving Kiev advanced weapons might only escalate the conflict.

Uncontrolled escalation would be disastrous. When Putin warned and joked that his troops could be in Kiev in two weeks, he was probably just reporting the advice of his own military intelligence. And that intelligence was probably about right.

Lest we Yanks be tempted by John McCain’s and Lindsey Graham’s puerile fantasies of Yankee omnipotence, we ought to recall our own experience in Gulf I, our most successful major conflict since World War II. There our buildup of forces in peaceful, secure Saudi Arabia took five months. By that time, all of Ukraine could be thoroughly occupied and locked down, a new Russian province.

So fantasies of direct Yankee or NATO intervention or east-versus-west Armageddon are just that: fantasies. No rational person wants to go down that road, even without the nuclear risk.

But could accurate weapons, judiciously applied, slow down the ethnic cleansing, retard the Russian and Russian-partisan onslaught in Eastern Ukraine, and push the culprits to the bargaining table? We won’t know unless and until we try.

Any effort to supply arms must observe four conditions with absolutely fidelity. First, the weapons must be accurate in the sense discussed in two previous essays (1 and 2). Second, they must be used for defensive purposes only: against tanks and planes making incursions into Ukrainian-held or neutral territory or attacking civilians.

Third—and this is most important—all advanced weapons must at all times be under the strict control of elite, disciplined troops commanded in real time by civilian leadership in Kiev. None of these weapons can, under any circumstances, fall into the hands of neo-Nazi units or former Svoboda partisans. Kiev, NATO and weapons suppliers must make absolutely extraordinary effort to insure that these conditions are met.

A year ago, Kiev had no Ukrainian-loyal military force at all, let alone an elite one. So how could this be done? Most probably, the elite forces would have to come from a neighbor, perhaps Poland.

Finally, these weapons and the elite forces that handle them must remain, in real time, under the strategic command of friendly foreign forces with geopolitics in mind. The forces handling them should be and remain peacemakers, not partisans. As for language, Polish and Ukrainian are both Slavic tongues; like Spanish and Portuguese, they are close enough that Polish and Ukrainian troops could communicate with some difficulty.

However well commanded and well disciplined, any supply of accurate weapons and elite troops to handle them can mount nothing more than a holding action. The real action is and will remain where it always has been: in politics, including sanctions.

Russians are good people. They have suffered more in history, including recent history, than any other major power’s people. They emerged from serfdom—a form of slavery—more recently than any other major power’s people. They are now in the grip of the world’s second most clever, subtle and effective propaganda machine, after our own Fox.

The Russian people need to see, know and understand what is happening in Eastern Ukraine, in their name. When and if they do, there will be a political solution, and this ugly war will end.

When the Soviets withdrew from their conquest and occupation of Afghanistan, a little-known force was partly responsible: Russian mothers. In the midst of Soviet oppression, they mounted an unprecedented (and, in the West, little known) letter-writing campaign. Of course accurate weapons, which shot down Soviet planes and helicopters, helped turn the tide of battle. But it was Russians’ own innate disgust at war—as the world’s most recently battered people—that caused the reversal in policy. That same disgust might have the same result in Ukraine, if only the Russians had accurate news.

When I was in Moscow on a Fulbright Fellowship in 1993, I listened incessantly to Russian-language radio, in order to improve my language skills. As I did, I noticed something extraordinary. The best Russian-language news programs on the air—by far—came from the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.

These Yankee-financed programs excelled in every possible way. Their signals were strongest and clearest. Their audio was most distinct. (In one Russian-broadcast program, one of three interviewees was so far from the microphone that radio listeners could hardly hear his voice.) The format and content of their programming, including music and entertainment, were most interesting and varied.

Most important of all, these stations were devoid of propaganda. The news they offered was straight and true: mere facts, with little or no analysis. The programs’ producers were smart enough to know that Russians, who had been bombarded with propaganda for over seven decades, could spot it a mile away. No one who works at Fox could ever have held a job at Voice of America or Radio Free Europe. (For a recent post on why, click here.)

Putin and some Russians lament the Soviet Union’s fall and dissolution. But empires rise and fall. Putin can no more re-create the Soviet Union than Churchill could re-conquer India after it won its independence.

Nor should he or any civilized Russian want to. If we can make that fact clear to Russians, without threats or propaganda, this crisis will slowly fade away.

Our own big Yankee mistake was to think we “won” the Cold War. No one won it. It was an unmitigated disaster for both sides. (1, 2, 3, and 4)

Perhaps our biggest Yankee mistake was to disband Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, believing they were no longer necessary. There was nothing like them on Moscow’s airways in 1993. Perhaps there is still nothing like them today.

Straight, accurate news is always necessary. It is never more necessary than today, when rising Russian nationalism fed by Putin’s propaganda machine competes with rising Yankee insanity fed by a rogue private propaganda machine called Fox. If anything can bring back the threat of mutual nuclear annihilation that we and the Russians narrowly avoided in October 1962, it is a global clash of nationalistic propaganda. People fed with lies can do insane things; witness Nazi Germany.

So what will get us out of this crisis is neither rashness nor appeasement. Only professionalism will. We need elite, professionals soldiers who, with absolute discipline, can stop the Russian/partisan putsch in Eastern Ukraine without creating yet more refugees or fanning the flames of general escalation. Ukrainian neo-Nazis and former Svoboda partisans need not apply.

We need professional news reporters that can let the Russian people see the suffering that Putin is causing in their name, and how it might affect them and their national legacy. Neither Putin’s state-controlled TV nor our Fox propaganda machine need apply.

We need professional diplomats who will tighten sanctions as needed, but judiciously and wisely, and release them quickly, but only at the right time. “Hit ‘em hard, now!” partisans like McCain and Graham need not apply.

The Allies applied harsh “sanctions” (aka collective punishment) to the loser, Germany, after World War I. What were the results? The Weimar Hyperinflation, the rise of Adolf Hitler, the Holocaust, and fifty million people prematurely dead in war. The Germany of Göthe, Schiller, Brahms and Beethoven morphed, albeit briefly, into the Nazi Empire. We don’t want the same thing to happen to the Russians. We have to be ever conscious of cause and effect.

The Russian people must know and understand that global economic ostracism is not going to make them wealthier, healthier, happier or more respected. But they must not feel so oppressed and isolated that they turn on the rest of the world and entrench a deeply flawed leader. Wasn’t that just what happened with Stalin?

To the extent possible, we should target sanctions at Russia’s defense industry, media sector (aka organs of propaganda), financial sector, energy sector, and pro-Putin oligarchs, while keeping channels of “innocent” commerce as open as possible. Wouldn’t it be great if our banks could provide venture capital to young Russian entrepreneurs while strangling the businesses that foment, support and profit from suffering in the Ukraine?

What we need most of all is not panic or blind fierceness. We need consummate professionalism. We need weapons that are defensive and accurate. We need soldiers with absolute discipline and self-restraint to use them. We need reporters with absolute fidelity to truth to show Russians what Putin is doing in their name and gain their trust. And we need financiers and diplomats with great finesse and delicacy to apply sanctions as needed, release them when the time is right, and bear no grudges. The stakes are far too high for that.

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