Kasparov: “No Time to Go Wobbly on Russia”

Set forth below is a link to an opinion piece published earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal by Garry Kasparov, former Russian World Chess Champion and among the sharpest critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In his essay, Mr. Kasparov asserts that “… isolating Mr. Putin and responding to him with strength is the only way to make lasting progress,” and asserts that Mr. Putin’s dictatorship ” … is shaking for the first time.” He asserts that the only way for the West to save Ukrainian lives is to “arm Ukraine with every weapon that [Ukrainian] President Volodymyr Zelensky wants as quickly as possible.” He cautions against the West’s negotiating for a cease-fire, which he fears would lead to what he calls a “frozen conflict” that he asserts would enable Mr. Putin to consolidate and rearm his forces.

I follow relatively few people on Twitter, but I do follow Mr. Kasparov. While he sounds bellicose and NATO administrators do need to be mindful of the potential for Russian escalation to weapons of mass destruction, my sentiments align with those of Mr. Kasparov; given current battle conditions and the continuing general Western unity against Russia, I fear that any half-loaf settlement would have extremely dangerous long-term consequences for both Ukraine and the democracies.

I’m not sure how the Journal limits access to non-subscribers; hopefully, anyone following these pages who wishes to access Mr. Kasparov’s piece will be able to do so.

A War of Miscalculation: Part III

[I apologize for the length of this note to those with the fortitude to undertake it; since my time to post remains limited, when I get the opportunity, it seems best to just … put it all out there at once.  🙂 ]

Some say that the mind never sleeps.  Although my opportunities to delve deeply into detailed accounts of the Russian invasion of Ukraine have remained limited, the electronic media reports of indisputable Russian atrocities have been sickening, while those of Ukrainian bravery and martial effectiveness on the one hand and Russian battlefield futility and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s consequent embarrassment on the other – recently culminating in the sinking of the Russian Black Sea Flagship Moskva — have been exhilarating.  I must think about the struggle at night; despite the Ukrainian military success to date – which would not have been possible without American and NATO unity and assistance fostered in significant measure by President Joe Biden – over the last couple of weeks, I’ve awakened several mornings with the same notion, the piece of advice that I would impart to Mr. Biden if I could: 

Don’t underestimate this man.  He is literally fighting for his life. 

“… Vladimir Putin … will make good on every promise or threat.  If Putin says he will do something, then he is prepared to do it, and he will find a way of doing it, using every method at his disposal. … In short, Vladimir Putin is a fighter and he is a survivalist.  He won’t give up, and he will fight dirty if that’s what it takes to win.  … He won’t give up in Ukraine or elsewhere in Russia’s neighborhood. …If [his opponents] are prepared to fight, and he is outweighed or outgunned by his adversaries, then he will look for unconventional moves to get around their defenses so that he can outmaneuver them. … Putin knows unexpected events can and will blow things off course in domestic and foreign policy.  The key to dealing with the unexpected is to anticipate that there always will be setbacks.  This means he focuses on contingency and adaptive planning to deal with them.  Putin has consistently shown that he can learn from his own policy or tactical mistakes at home and abroad.  [Emphasis in Original].”

  • Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy, 2013:  Mr. Putin.  

“I have watched over the years as Putin has stewed in a combustible combination of grievance and ambition and insecurity.”

  • U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director and former U.S. Ambassador to Russia William J. Burns, April 14, 2022.

There has been so much comment about the conflict; what follows is what has surprised me:

As effective as the reactive American and NATO approach has been to this point, it won’t win.  Western diplomats should forget trying to give Mr. Putin an “off ramp”; not only isn’t he looking for one, there are none at this point that will provide lasting European stability.  While I understand why the Biden Administration has heretofore been “curating” – Defense Department Press Secretary John Kirby’s word — its increases in aid to Ukraine to match escalating Russian aggression – such restraint has maintained the support of some NATO allies who might otherwise have been skeptical of too pronounced a response against Russia too soon – I would submit that we now need to get ahead and stay ahead of Mr. Putin.  It’s time to discard the diplomatic fiction that because NATO and the U.S. have not deployed troops to Ukraine, Mr. Putin somehow doesn’t consider himself to be at war with NATO and the U.S.  He does.  Holding back any materiel including aircraft (save nuclear weaponry) because we don’t want to “provoke” Mr. Putin is simply silly.  (Russia’s recent threat of “unpredictable consequences” if the U.S. and NATO continued to supply Ukraine simply underscored what was already glaringly obvious regarding Mr. Putin’s view of the West’s participation in the war.)  Any continuing attempt at this point to label any type of aid – be it materiel, intelligence, or whatever – as “offensive” or “defensive” is pure sophism.  Our (albeit unspoken) definition of success should be to drive Mr. Putin from power via implosion.  Our approach should involve an effort to strangle Russia – quickly — using all means to create enough pressure on and within Russia to precipitate regime change.

As Russia and Ukraine each mass forces in the eastern Donbas region for what will reportedly be a “traditional” open-field battle of large troop contingents and heavy equipment, it feels like we’re about two weeks behind in providing the type and weight of assistance that Ukraine needs to compete.  Hopefully, continued Russian military ineptness will enable us to catch up.

I don’t know if there are any more meaningful economic sanctions that we can impose.  If there are, we should impose them.  Now.

The West’s response to Russia’s potential use of chemical and/or tactical nuclear weapons has hopefully already been decided.  This is a binary analysis.  If the Ukrainians (with the West’s assistance) fail to defeat Russian incursions, Mr. Putin won’t use such weapons; if Ukraine continues to largely successfully repel Russian advances — which is the West’s goal — at some point he will.  Any thought to the contrary is dangerous fantasy.  Since they undoubtedly know Russia’s capabilities, NATO and the U.S. need to know before Mr. Putin authorizes the use of such weapons what they will do when, not if, he does.  If counseling the Administration, I would recommend planting a question in Mr. Biden’s next press conference to enable him to say that the West is taking no options off the table if Russia deploys chemical or nuclear weapons.

I have more sympathy for Germany’s concerns about a European embargo of Russian natural gas than one might suspect, given the pugnacious nature of these posts.  The overriding explicit or implied maxim in every piece by every foreign policy analyst that one will ever read:  a nation will conduct its foreign affairs based upon what it perceives to be in its own best interest.  The first responsibility of any democratic government is to safeguard the wellbeing of its people.  It’s easy for us the U.S. to harrumph about the need to cut off Russian revenues; it will be the Germans that freeze next winter unless they have sufficient access to energy.

I have seen commentary that the true “winner” of this conflict is China; that the Russian invasion has “diverted the West’s attention” and enabled Beijing “to assess America’s likely response” if it seeks to invade Taiwan.  I don’t see it.  Notwithstanding any outward expressions of support for Russia, I suspect that whether or not they were initially, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his advisors are now both angry and frustrated about the ramifications of the invasion.  I think that during his trip to China during the Olympics and prior to the invasion, Mr. Putin gulled Mr. Xi into figuratively getting into the boat with him, and that Mr. Xi is now painfully aware of it.  [I noted in these pages a while back former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s report that an eminent Chinese official once told him that the only strategic mistake Chinese Communist General Secretary Mao Zedong ever made was acceding to Soviet Communist General Secretary Joseph Stalin’s request that China actively support North Korea in the Korean War, because the Chairman’s decision ultimately brought about America’s firm commitment to Taiwan’s defense, thereby postponing (in the Chinese official’s view) the Mainland’s takeover of Taiwan for a century.  By getting Mr. Xi to indicate that China’s relationship with Russia had “no limits” before the invasion, another Chinese leader has arguably fallen for a similar Russian ploy.]  Mr. Putin’s barbaric tactics have left China appearing to be at least an acquiescing co-aggressor and made a world already uneasy about Chinese advances – in Hong Kong, in the South China Sea, through its Belt and Road initiative, and obviously most importantly, through its bellicose attitude toward Taiwan – doubly suspicious.  In a call with Mr. Biden a few weeks ago, Mr. Xi reportedly “expressed the wish that the war was not happening [for once, an undoubtedly completely true statement from Mr. Xi 😉 ].”  In response to the Russian invasion, the western powers have unified ideologically and militarily in a way that Mr. Xi probably did not anticipate.  How China proceeds will depend upon Mr. Xi’s view of China’s strategic interest.  If he sees China’s interests most furthered by buttressing another autocracy [after all, a Russian failure might be a falling domino (to use the old phrase) facilitating a challenge to the Chinese regime], he will aid Russia, endure the ramifications to his own economy, and – most important for the long term — accept that China’s opportunity to wield influence throughout the globe will be sharply curtailed for years if not decades; it will be politically inexpedient for leaders of European economic powers to deepen ties with China.  Most importantly, in Asia, China’s area of greatest strategic concern, his adversaries (Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand) and those seeking to maintain friendly yet arm’s length relations with China (Vietnam, the Philippines) will be on guard, and even less likely to entertain Chinese overtures than they are now.  (A seemingly little-noted but I would submit significant event happened in South Korea since the Russian invasion:  Yoon Suk-yeol, a conservative urging a stronger stance against North Korea and closer ties to the U.S., won the nation’s presidency by .8% of the vote, upsetting the incumbent South Korean Democratic Party committed to warmer relations with North Korea and balancing the U.S. and China.  It is tenable that in such a close contest, the Russians’ invasion of Ukraine influenced a decisive number of South Koreans to seek a firmer stance against their own rogue enemy.)  On the other hand, if Mr. Xi believes that the geopolitical trajectory he considered to exist before the invasion – Chinese ascendency and American decline – can be preserved if the world determines that China is providing Russia more lip service than actual assistance, he will tactfully avoid any collaboration with Russia that will impede the “China Dream” to any greater extent than that which has already inevitably occurred. 

Autocracies, like democracies, are stronger united and weaker divided.  Mr. Putin may have given the democracies a wedge to at least weaken the bonds of the autocracies.  While there is relatively little the Biden Administration can do to influence China’s behavior, its primary strategic objective in this context should be to tacitly encourage any emerging gap between China and Russia.

For a while, I have been puzzled by the approach that Saudi Arabia has taken to the conflict.  In rejecting America’s request that the Saudis pump more oil to alleviate the global energy crisis and attendant cost increases brought on by the Russian invasion, Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (“Prince MBS”), the Saudi de facto leader, seemed to me to be as short-sighted as he is arrogant, willful, and malign.  While the Prince has no love for the Biden Administration – due to major actions by the Administration with which I entirely agree, and some personal snubs of the Prince that were deserved but perhaps diplomatically unwise – and by pumping more oil Saudi Arabia would violate its OPEC+ arrangement that supports and benefits Russia, it nonetheless appears that when the Ukrainian conflict ends, Russia will, from a practical standpoint, have less capability to project its power in the Middle East or serve as an intermediary between Saudi Arabia (its OPEC+ partner) and Iran (its Syrian ally).  I thought that the Prince would recognize that he needed America as counterweight against the Iranians, who are, one-on-one, simply tougher than the Saudis and who are probably just as pleased to see the Russians fall on their faces in Ukraine as they would have been to see Russia succeed (with America out of Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran doesn’t need Russia to control Assad and Syria, meddle with Iraq and Afghanistan, or bedevil Saudi Arabia from Yemen).  On April 20, the Wall Street Journal ran a detailed account of the breakdown in U.S.-Saudi relations, which I did have the opportunity to read.  What I hadn’t been considering was that in addition to his personal pique against the Biden Administration, it is likely that the Prince considers America an unreliable partner given both its continuing attempt to resurrect the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran (the Iran nuclear deal) and its withdrawal from Afghanistan.  In what could ultimately have serious consequences for us in the Middle East, I surmise – the Journal didn’t state so specifically – that given Russia’s presumed degradation, the Prince may well see China – to whom he now sells a lot more oil than he does to America – taking Russia’s place as a more reliable partner and intermediary between Iran and itself than the U.S.  If true, a dangerous turn.

It is, perhaps … what it is.  Despite what seems to have been a bit of recent unbecoming groveling by the U.S, as this is typed it appears unlikely we’ll get any help with energy pressures from Saudi Arabia any time soon.  My Roman Catholic viscera is pleased that we have taken the moral stands we have with regard to Prince MBS and Saudi Arabia; at the same time, I’m enough of a realpolitik student of former President Richard Nixon and Mr. Kissinger to believe that we have to live and operate in the real world, and accordingly rue our loss of influence with a strategic and longtime – albeit terribly flawed — ally in a very volatile region.

When possible, I intend to enter a note on the other primary challenge I consider to be facing President Biden related to the Ukrainian crisis:  time.

A War of Miscalculation: Part II

It happens that during the most momentous American foreign policy challenge since 9/11, a number of personal circumstances, many of them delightful – we welcomed our first granddaughter; an unexpectedly heavy (but welcome) time commitment to a volunteer opportunity – have prevented (and for a period into the future, may well prevent) much contribution to this site.  I am confident that no one following these pages has felt the loss very keenly; there has been enough commentary about the Ukrainians’ struggle to repel the Russian malefactors to suit any appetite.  I had a number of notions about Part II of this note when Part I was published; given the lapse of time, it has been recast.  A few current impressions:

President Joe Biden and his team have thus far done a masterful job.  While I agree with those who cringed when Mr. Biden called Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal and later uttered his declaration that Mr. Putin should not remain in power, these are relative nits; the President simply said out loud what all can see:  there will be no European stability nor Russian vitality while Mr. Putin remains in power.  On the important matters, Mr. Biden has rallied formerly squabbling and diverse NATO allies, mostly maintained the support of an otherwise sharply-divided American public, kept China largely on the sidelines, and (so far) avoided a nuclear conflict while slowly degrading (by facilitating Ukrainian resistance) Russia’s and Mr. Putin’s standing on the world stage.  In Part I, I asserted that America and its NATO allies should ship the Ukrainians all materiel they wanted short of nuclear weapons; much has been done; I join those that assert more can and should be done.  While I did and do disagree with Mr. Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, I can’t think of another major American politician on either side of the aisle who could have achieved in the Ukrainian crisis what he has through his manner, experience, and relationships.  He’s been close to spot-on.

The magnificent resistance of the Ukrainian people and their President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to Russia’s malign invasion has shown the world how a free people will fight to retain their freedom.  From the geopolitical perspective, the invasion to this point has clearly been a Russian military humiliation and a strategic debacle.  Credible reports indicate that Russian President Vladimir Putin is isolated and perhaps misinformed.  At the same time, while all who saw President Zelenskyy’s speech to the U.S. Congress found it compelling, I thought Mr. Zelenskyy also sounded desperate.  He is obviously acutely aware that despite his bravado, his people’s bravery, and Western aid, each day his people are dying, and his country is being pulverized by Russian missiles.  Mariupol is rubble.   The possibility that Mr. Putin is becoming unstable is a terrifying prospect given the nuclear and chemical weapons at his disposal.  At the time this is typed, negotiations between Ukraine and Russia are in progress.  While most NATO observers understandably doubt Russian good will, and there is a tendency, from across the ocean, to urge Ukraine to keep the fight going, to press home its seeming current advantage, it is the Ukrainians – not us — who are suffering and it is their country that is being destroyed.  I wouldn’t like it, but I would understand Mr. Zelenskyy’s acceptance of peace terms that included a confirmation of Ukrainian neutrality and Russian acquiescence to a robust defense pact between Ukraine and a U.S. – European consortium in exchange for Ukraine’s formal cessation to Russia of Crimea and the parts of the Donbas and Luhansk regions (not the entire regions) that were already under Russian separatist control when the conflict began.  (Realities being what they are, such concessions by Mr. Zelenskyy would, borrowing a phrase from former U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz, simply be giving Mr. Putin the sleeves from Mr. Zelenskyy’s vest.)  Even so:  this is not the time for the Ukrainians or NATO to ease up, even in the unlikely event that the Russians are serious.  They must continue to apply all military, economic, and other means to tighten the international vise on Russia until any settlement is achieved. 

There is a delicate word that at least I have yet to see raised anywhere – a word that I would suggest is even more explosive and challenging to prospects of peace than declaring Mr. Putin a war criminal or seeking his removal from power:  reparations.  Mariupol is the easiest example:  Who is going to rebuild it?  With what?  How about other severely damaged Ukrainian cities?  If a peace settlement is reached, who is going to remove the remains of destroyed Russian materiel strewn across Ukraine?  With what?  How is provision going to be made for Ukrainian families who have lost bread winners?  I have heard reported that $300 billion of Mr. Putin’s supposed war chest has actually been frozen by the West (not great planning on his part).  Do western democracies simply confiscate the sums they have frozen and provide them to the Ukrainians to rebuild?  A related issue:  What Russian agreements will be sufficient for the relaxation of Western sanctions?  These are sensitive issues.  If Russia is willing to pull back – a prospect truly to be doubted at this point – negotiators will need to address recompense for Ukrainian losses while being mindful that demands too punitive upon Russia, while warranted and even if accepted on paper, may – as the severe peace terms imposed on Germany by the Allied Powers at the end of World War I – simply breed future conflict.

As noted above, U.S. and NATO sources have publicly stated this week that Mr. Putin may not know the truth about the extent of the reverses Russia has absorbed and the losses it has sustained because his advisers fear for their own safety if they tell him the truth.  The New York Times has reported that Mr. Putin seemed “genuinely unaware” that Russian conscripts are being killed in Ukraine.  I view these statements and reports from two perspectives:  while they may, as some commentators claim, “play with Mr. Putin’s head” and might cause him to reconsider any unrealistic expectations about the invasion’s success that he may still hold, I fear that they also may also expose and endanger the source(s) which the U.S. has clearly placed very close to Mr. Putin.  It’s a calculated gamble as to whether the potential benefits of these statements and reports outweigh the risk to and of losing such a valuable intelligence source(s).  

Mr. Putin has made clear that he views Ukraine as part of Russia and Ukrainians as Russians.  All biographies of Mr. Putin establish that he is an avid reader of Russian history.  He has undoubtedly thrilled to the accounts of the manner in which Russians, due to sheer toughness and love of their Motherland, persevered through unspeakable hardship to ultimately repel France’s Grande Armee in 1812 and Nazi Germany’s Wehrmacht in 1942.  Mr. Putin’s greatest miscalculation in launching his malign offensive may ultimately prove to be his failure to understand that while the Ukrainians have Russian grit and tenacity, they do not consider Russia their nation.  They see Ukraine as their homeland.  Perhaps, prior to the invasion, Mr. Putin should have conducted a séance to hear from M. Bonaparte and Hr. Hitler how well an attacking force fares against a people with Russian spirit and pain threshold when they are defending their Motherland.

As the war continues, I would submit that the Biden Administration’s foreign policy opportunities are likely to expand at the same time that its domestic challenges may mount.  More on these as time allows.

On BR-319

While the international community’s attention is properly riveted on the atrocities being wreaked upon the people of Ukraine, other challenges and dangers across the globe continue unabated.  For those able to access the Washington Post, a piece just published by our favorite journalist.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/interactive/2022/brazil-amazon-deforestation-highway-br-319/?itid=hp-top-table-main

A War of Miscalculation: Part I

[Note:  hopefully, those following these pages won’t find this merely a rehash.  While I have watched media accounts of the Russian invasion over the last week, other life pursuits have precluded a close reading of the accounts of credible newspapers, which I consider an American citizen’s definitive sources.  Unless directly attributed, what follows – whether useful or misguided — occurred to me without outside prompting.]

“No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main enemy forces.”

  • Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, 1871.

The conflict in Ukraine has thus far been much a war of miscalculation.  Russian President Vladimir Putin has, at least to this point, seemingly miscalculated strategically the most woefully, apparently believing as he ordered Russia’s invasion:  that the bulk of Ukrainians wished to be reunited under Russian rule; that any Ukrainian resistance his forces met during their invasion would be minimal and readily dispensed; that Russian conventional forces were highly competent; that the NATO alliance would be unable to sustain itself in the face of a direct challenge; and, probably most crucially, that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy lacked the resolve and inspirational qualities required to lead his people against a Russian onslaught.  Given its pointed efforts to shore up NATO borders and defenses in the months before the invasion, it would appear that prior to the assault, the Biden Administration had similar misconceptions regarding the Ukrainians’ resolve and military effectiveness, Russian conventional military competence, and Mr. Zelenskyy’s leadership capabilities.  I would venture that both sides believed that if Russia chose to endure the international condemnation that would accompany its attack, it would be a quick conflict in which Russia would secure Ukraine, establishing Russian control over a key part of the former USSR — which was its strategic objective; while the United States, after making all the gestures it could before the invasion to dissuade the advances of the Russian bear, viewed any Russian conquest of Ukraine as a sacrifice on the chessboard of Europe that would so terrify the rest of the continent that it would result in an energized, unified, and financially-committed NATO alliance – which was its strategic objective.

Mr. Zelenskyy’s leadership, his people’s grit, and the savage nature of the Russian assault have changed all that.  I would submit that the conflict now provides the United States strategic global opportunities not imaginable before the invasion if it acts wisely — and decisively.    

Before going there:  the courage and heroism of the Ukrainian people cannot be overstated.  I tend to look at foreign policy problems from the “Realpolitik” perspective I absorbed in my imprinting days from the works of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.  There is nothing wrong with this perspective – in a world run by humans and not saints, a great power does its citizens a disservice if it does not objectively determine and protect its own best interests – but such a viewpoint, alone, overlooks the terror and suffering Ukrainians are enduring right this minute to preserve their freedom and culture.  Hopefully, their struggle is searing into our national and personal psyches how precious freedom is and how it must be cherished — not diddled away wrangling over absurdities such as vaccine mandates and whether one should have the right to own military assault weapons.

150 years ago, Herr von Moltke was suggesting that victory in any struggle will go to the side that best adapts to changed circumstances.  I would submit that the Biden Administration should recognize that at this point, with all the destruction and ignominy that Mr. Putin has brought upon himself and his nation, he cannot and will not go back.  Even if he ultimately physically conquers Ukraine, he has lost strategically.  The personal and national respect he craves is gone.  His enemies are united and determined.  In the larger sense, this has become a struggle not for Ukraine but for Russia’s and Mr. Putin’s own future.  As long as Mr. Putin leads Russia, it will be viewed as a rogue nation – feared for its nuclear might, loathed for its barbarism, compared to Nazis.  That said, while the media has made much of the Russian people’s protests and the influence that Russian oligarchs allegedly have with Mr. Putin, I entirely discount these internal Russian factors; Mr. Putin can do as he wishes with each.  On the other hand, any dictator’s influence relies on military support and I suspect that Mr. Putin’s top military command has come to the uneasy realization that Russia will be an economically-hobbled pariah as long as Mr. Putin remains at the helm – an unease that, ominously, a man as aggrieved and paranoid as Mr. Putin is undoubtedly monitoring. 

The Administration – although President Joe Biden cannot say so out loud; such a statement itself could trigger a nuclear war – should set the stage for Russian regime change while the opportunity presents itself.  If counseling Mr. Biden, I would advise that the Administration proceed on three fronts:

Militarily:  We should ensure that we are taking every step to get the Ukrainians, either directly or indirectly, as much materiel as they want of whatever kind that they want, short of nuclear weaponry.  In other words:  “Every weapon system on the planet, that we can send to Ukraine,” as asserted by former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul.  (Mr. McFaul has gained credibility with me by being critical of the Obama Administration’s reticence to confront prior Russian aggressions, since he was part of the Obama Administration.)  Last week, the U.S. rejected a Polish plan to provide Ukraine MiG-29 fighter jets that Ukraine has requested.  There is reportedly bipartisan Senate support for providing the planes.  Our reluctance is incomprehensible.  I have no way to judge what the logistical challenges are, or whether the Ukrainians can actually make effective use of the aircraft; but we should let the Ukrainians decide what they need and can use.  Any fear we have of “provoking” the Russians is nonsense.  I am confident that Mr. Putin already considers himself at war with NATO; Russians have now begun shelling sites in western Ukraine where NATO is providing materiel to Ukraine.  Our purpose should be to help keep Russia back on its heels.  I would suggest that those talking heads chortling over the last couple of weeks about Russian military ineptitude have been whistling past the graveyard.  Even from incomplete reports, the conflict has seemed to me akin to a bout between a lumbering heavyweight boxer and a skilled lightweight.  Through skill and determination, the lightweight has done much better than expected in the early rounds; but the fact remains that if the heavyweight is able to land a decisive punch or two, the overt military conflict will be over.  If Russian forces are advancing – and they are – Ukraine is losing.

A related point:  the safety of President Zelenskyy.  By dint of bravado and determination, he is the Ukrainian resistance.  He has been compared to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.  Inspirationally, I agree; but I would actually give him more credit when it comes to raw courage.  Throughout WWII, Mr. Churchill was mostly in a bunker deep underground, with the British Navy and the English Channel between him and the Nazi Wehrmacht; in Kyiv, Mr. Zelenskyy has a relatively few miles and some amateur soldiers between him and the Russian army.  The Russians presumably consider killing or capturing Mr. Zelenskyy the single most devastating morale blow they can land on the Ukrainians.  Mr. Zelenskyy, who has rallied the world through his own derring-do, cannot be seen to have abandoned his post, while Ukraine cannot afford to lose him.  It is extremely dangerous.  This is the one area in which I would clandestinely insert American soldiers into Ukraine if such was necessary to safely transport Mr. Zelenskyy to western Ukraine (if and when he was willing to go).

To make at least a mild attempt to hold these notes to manageable length, the other two “fronts” that I would advise Mr. Biden to consider as the Russian invasion continues will be held for the remainder of this note.

The Joy of Income Taxes

These pages have two main purposes:  to provide another perspective on the matters it addresses for those who care to consider it, and to discipline me to refine my own ideas through the exercise of writing them down.  I am 100% confident that no one cares what I’m doing on a day-to-day basis.

That said:  this weekend, I’m doing our income taxes.  I’ve always done ‘em.  Don’t use tax software, but do ‘em old school:  by reading the hard copy Instruction Booklet and filling out the forms longhand.  It’s obviously a tedious endeavor requiring concentration, although I have never particularly minded it.

This year, I’m absolutely looking forward to it.  The task will necessarily distract me for a number of hours from what is happening in Ukraine – the killing of innocents, the irretrievable upheaval of lives, the destruction of structures and institutions, the usurpation of one nation by another more powerful … just because it can.  As I get lost in the IRS’ arcane world and the numbers flow by, my outrage will dissipate, at least for a while.

In the eyes of the Almighty, there is no difference between what is happening in Ukraine today and what has happened and is happening in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, parts of Africa, and so on, and so on, and so on.  We are just seeing the obliteration of Ukraine’s society and culture more clearly due to its proximity to Western media.  I am having trouble putting it aside.

Have a good weekend.  As I get engrossed with taking this number or that from this worksheet or that and entering it onto this line of the return or that, I hope I will.

The State of the Union

If counseling President Joe Biden on the strategy for tonight’s State of the Union address, I would advise that he focus on the primary challenge facing the future of global democracy:  the poisonous partisan divisions within America eating away at our national core.  That said, such would have to be done obliquely.  He should seek to leverage Americans’ overwhelming support for Ukraine in its struggle against Russia by devoting more than half of the speech to the Russian invasion, and assert that the attack is on the freedom of all democracies, an assault on all free peoples.  As I suggested in an earlier note, he must make it “real” for Americans:  what Russia is doing is the same as if Canada simply decided to take Alaska; I would remark that I had seen a commentator compare Ukrainians’ toughness to Texans, and note what would happen if somebody tried to invade Texas – intentionally invoking the support of two of our states politically inhospitable to him.  I would quote Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s declaration, “I need ammunition, not a ride.”  He should note how he and his team have worked with our NATO allies to stand up to a ravenous aggressor.  He should note how the Western nations’ combined economic sanctions are crippling Russia, and that we are shipping Ukraine all the military equipment we can.  Then – creeping up on the point – he might declare that no matter where an American might stand on gun rights, abortion rights, vaccines and masks, or whatever, these are differences of opinion that a free people can have – as contrasted with the Ukrainians’ fight for actual freedom:  that they’re throwing themselves under Russian tanks to slow the Russian advance; that they’re ready to die rather than be swept back behind the Iron Curtain; that they want real elections, not Russian mockeries.  I would recommend that he be so bold to declare that anyone that defends Vladimir Putin or the Russian actions is providing aid and comfort to tyrants.  He should tell our citizens that he was going to talk straight with them:  that although his Administration will do all it reasonably can to soften the impact of inflation – and call on Congress to suspend the federal 18-cent gasoline tax through the remainder of 2022 — it is likely that while this battle rages inflation could worsen.  We cannot commit soldiers to the Ukrainians’ struggle for freedom, but we can do this.

While he should make references to his Build Back Better Plan, to COVID, to Climate Change, to his recent nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, he shouldn’t dwell on these or other domestic issues.  He needs to evoke Americans’ visceral feeling for freedom.  If he can keep the majority of Americans on his side on this critical point, it creates a rallying point, something for all of us to be against – Russian aggression — that we desperately need.

Fiery, inspirational speeches are obviously not Mr. Biden’s forte.  Frankly, I’d have him spend the last hour before the speech watching clips of John F. Kennedy’s delivery and of President Zelenskyy’s recent speeches from bunkers.

I have no illusions that this crisis or even the best speech of Mr. Biden’s life will be a panacea for what besets us; our partisan divisions are too deep.  Even in much more congenial times, George H. W. Bush was defeated for re-election after a term that saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and a resounding military victory in Desert Storm.  That said, if Mr. Biden can use this moment to get at least some of our people to recognize the difference between real freedom and the faux freedom now at the center of our domestic strife, and to focus us as a people on a common and true enemy, it’s a start.

On Volodymyr Zelenskyy

As this is typed, the Russians are bombing Kyiv, Ukraine’s capitol.  CNN is reporting that the United States is urging Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Russia’s primary target, to leave Ukraine and set up a government in exile.  As of this minute, Mr. Zelenskyy is remaining in Kyiv to fight for a free Ukraine.  CNN has reported his response to the American offer: 

“I need ammunition, not a ride.”

A Question of Strategic Interest

As this is typed, Russian troops are advancing across Ukraine at the order of Russian President Vladimir Putin.  I don’t speak Russian, but from reports understand that Russia, the world’s second-mightiest nuclear power, has claimed both that it is acting because it feared an attack by underpowered Ukraine, and that its invasion is necessary to “de-Nazify” a Ukrainian government led by President Volodymyr Zelensky — who is Jewish.  It is obviously the most naked violation of another nation’s sovereignty that Europe has seen since 1940.  I doubt Mr. Putin believes his own lies.  It is cruelly ironic that his pretext for Russia’s advance actually echoes Nazi Germany’s usurpation of other sovereign nations’ territories and freedoms prior to World War II in the name of Lebensraum (“Living Space”).  There are those, including me in a December post, who wanted the Administration to be more forthright in signaling America’s resolve to deter Russian warmongering.  I concede that any such overtures, had they been undertaken, would probably have been fruitless.  It now seems apparent that Mr. Putin is obsessed by a visceral need to answer the insults and to rectify the injustices he perceives to have been visited upon Russian sovereignty by the Western powers at the fall of the Soviet Union – compulsions ominously reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s obsessions and railings at the Western powers for the insults and injustices he considered to have been visited upon Germany at the conclusion of World War I. 

In President Joe Biden’s Thursday speech in response to the invasion, he was as firm in tone as he is capable of being (it is not within him to radiate the menace from the podium that Ronald Reagan could).  I don’t know much about international financial systems, but the financial sanctions that will be imposed on Russia sounded harsh.  That said, they don’t sound like much of a deterrent, but rather like measures that Mr. Putin has foreseen would be imposed if Russia commenced the invasion.  Perhaps more importantly, it does appear that the Administration has forged cohesion among a lot of disparate nations to stand against the Russian aggression, which was seemingly its overarching strategic goal (more on this below).  At the same time, I was disappointed in three aspects of Mr. Biden’s speech.  First, he made no mention of shipping Ukraine additional military aid.  Although Ukraine’s need for humanitarian aid will come, right now its people need all materiel we are willing to send them to check Russia’s advance.  Second, I would offer that Mr. Biden wasn’t very effective at making this foreign policy challenge real for Americans, certainly not for those with isolationist tendencies (we’ve had isolationists wishing to ignore what was going on “over there” as long as we’ve been a nation).  I would have liked to see him “bring home” the Ukrainians’ endangered freedom by observing, “How would we like it if Canada had the military strength to simply grab Alaska and take away Alaskans’ freedom merely because it borders Canada?  That is what Putin is doing.”  Finally, I found the President’s attempts to assure Americans about their gas prices too apologetic; he impliedly took responsibility to keep gas prices down.  I submit that what he should have said – what former President Donald Trump, given his COVID track record, undoubtedly would have said – is that gas prices and some other prices were probably going to go even higher due to the Ukrainian conflict, and that increased prices were Vladimir Putin’s fault (with such point to be hammered home with every Administration communication in the coming months).  If a majority of Americans accepted that higher prices were exacerbated by Vladimir Putin’s unjust invasion and our attempts to aid Ukrainian freedom, the Administration would be in good stead politically on inflation, at least for a while.  Mr. Biden entirely whiffed on the opportunity.   

So what is our strategic posture at this point?  A passing remark by a pundit during the week before the invasion has nagged at me ever since: 

Ukraine [in and of itself] is of no strategic importance to the United States.

While some of us chafed at the Biden Administration’s seemingly slow response to the Russian buildup at the Ukrainian border, there is no question that Mr. Biden and his team used the evidence and duration of the Russian buildup to forge a much higher level of unity, consensus, and resolve among NATO and European Union members against Russia than at least I would have considered achievable last Thanksgiving.  The NATO allies, clearly alarmed, have cooperated to reinforce each other’s borders vulnerable to a Russian advance.  At the same time, aside from providing materiel to the Ukrainians – with whom they have no mutual defense pact – they have appeared to be conceding Ukraine to Mr. Putin, like a square on the chess board, if he wanted to take it. If Ukraine’s primary significance to the United States is to occupy a hunk of land serving as a buffer between Russia and our NATO allies, and otherwise has little value to the United States (as contrasted, for example, with our vital concern in keeping Cuba free of enemy nuclear weapons in the 1960s and ensuring the flow of Middle East oil in the 1970s), at this point, what is our overarching strategic interest?  (If Ukraine has a greater objective strategic value than I’ve indicated here, I’m hoping that someone reading this note will enlighten me via comment; but let’s assume the negative for the moment.)

I’ve been writing a post on and off for months about a comprehensive foreign policy framework that I believe that we should employ, but will give away the punchline here:  we can’t go on as we have since 1945.  We can no longer be everywhere and do everything; even aside from our internal partisan divisions, our burgeoning domestic obligations mean we can’t afford it.  We need emotionally and financially committed regional allies across the globe to withstand hostile and able autocracies.  Mr. Biden, by his rhetoric and actions during this crisis, is evidencing that he sees this.  He doesn’t want the Ukrainians to lose their nation, and have their freedoms extinguished by Russia, to the point that to deter Russia he perhaps to some extent compromised the secrecy of some of our intelligence apparatus, sources and methods to leak as much as the Administration had about Russian intentions; but what he seemingly believes that we primarily need to achieve out of this confrontation is an awakened, energized, and unified NATO to stand as a European bulwark against further Russian incursions.  If so, he has succeeded.

If Ukrainian freedom is our primary objective, we (hopefully as part of a NATO force) should deploy troops to Ukraine.  If it is the strengthening of the NATO alliance itself, we probably shouldn’t.

So what is our overarching interest?  Again, assuming arguendo that Ukraine has little objective realpolitik value to us, is maintaining its people’s freedom against a malign aggressor, in and of itself, a strategic interest for a nation that calls itself the “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave?”  In June, 1963, President John F. Kennedy stood in West Berlin and declared, “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, “Ich bin ein Berliner.”  In West Berlin, in June, 1987, President Ronald Reagan spoke of freedom and famously called on Russian General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev:  “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”  Yet neither man risked nuclear war and American casualties by sending troops to free the subjugated.  Mr. Putin, who, perhaps most unnervingly, now seems not only consumed with grievance but a bit unbalanced, has alluded to his willingness to use nuclear weapons if confronted too aggressively.  How Chinese President Xi Jinping and his cabinet might integrate their interpretation of our response into any initiative they might be considering against Taiwan must also be factored in.  Eisenhower Administration Secretary of State John Foster Dulles once observed in connection with America’s policy of Soviet deterrence, “The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art.  If you cannot master it, you inevitably get into war.  If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.”   

Television accounts and my tiny Twitter feed are overflowing with declarations lauding the Ukranians’ courage and expressions of support.  Mr. Biden said in his address yesterday that “America stands up to bullies. We stand up for freedom. This is who we are.” Yet, Mr. Zelensky said from an undisclosed location last night that he has asked all 27 NATO members why Ukraine can’t be a member of NATO, and has gotten no response. I haven’t seen anybody advocating for the deployment of either NATO or American forces into Ukraine.  Absent that, all this talk … is just talk.

If I was advising Mr. Biden and there was general consensus among the foreign policy team that the Russian aggression had enabled the Administration to unexpectedly strengthen the strategic NATO alliance against Russian manipulation and that Ukraine itself had no value other than as a buffer between Russia and NATO, would I advise that he commit American troops to protect Ukrainians’ freedom – perhaps risking the threat of a nuclear escalation, and inevitably resulting in the death of American soldiers?

The President isn’t the Pope, concerned with the protection of all humankind; s/he works for the American people.  Yet – with the exception of the period from January, 2017, through January, 2021 — the President of the United States has since 1941 been the leader of the Free World.  Viewing clips of Messrs. Kennedy’s and Reagan’s Berlin speeches (linked below) lean me in one direction.  Even putting aside the risk of nuclear escalation, the thought of Americans attending funerals of their husbands and wives, their fathers and mothers, their sons and daughters, as a result of a conflict over land arguably without strategic value – as we have too frequently in the last 60 years — leans me in the other.

In this situation, where is the “brink” Mr. Dulles referred to? When push came to shove — as it has — I’d probably counsel Mr. Biden to maintain the policy he has adopted, perhaps with more aggressive provision of materiel to Ukraine.  I’d move – as he is – to reinforce our NATO allies’ borders with a marked influx of American soldiers and materiel.  (I’d also make sufficient movements in Asia to let Mr. Xi know that we haven’t forgotten about him.)  Otherwise, I’d sit tight, waiting for the inevitable denouement in Ukraine. 

All the same:  these echoes from the past probably wouldn’t let me sleep.