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 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.



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