History Lessons.

            In 1917, the Bolsheviks seized power in major Russian cities in a coup not supported by the majority of the Russian people.  They fought and won a bloody civil war.  Famine savaged the people.  The new government repudiated the debts to foreign investors in Tsarist government bonds and seized foreign property.  The new regime sought to export revolution all around the globe.  As a result, Communist Russia spent many years as a pariah country among the nations.  The new Soviet Union had little trade, no foreign investment, and constant harassment of its foreign operations.  Then came the collectivization of agriculture, more famines, and the purges.  Then Nazi Germany attacked.  A commonly-accepted estimate is that the war killed 20 million Russians.  Nevertheless, by the end of the war, the red flag flew over the Reichstag.[1] 

            It’s certainly possible that the Russian people have gone soft in the decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Perhaps failed hopes for a swift victory, hundreds of combat deaths, tough—but not complete—economic sanctions, near-universal moral condemnation, and scathing satire on late-night television will bring Russia to its knees.  Or perhaps the badly out-gunned Ukrainians will suffer grave defeats, many additional millions of refugees will flood across the border into the European Union, and Russia will confiscate Western businesses and turn off the gas to Europe as further bargaining chips. 

            The peace settlement following the First World War left many people disappointed or unhappy.[2]  Germany suffered territorial losses, had to agree to pay heavy reparations, and had its sovereignty limited by disarmament.  At Versailles, “Meester Veelson” and other progressives denied Italy the territorial gains promised to it in exchange for entering the war in 1915.  Japan found its wartime efforts at empire-building in China checked.  Russia lost vast chunks of territory through the Western-sponsored triumph of national self-determination.  While German grievances won substantial redress during the Twenties, Italy and Japan remained dissatisfied. 

            The Great Depression transformed international relations, just as it did in domestic matters.  The conventional economics of the time commanded budget cuts and military spending suffered.  Democracies turned toward domestic reforms, or became paralyzed, or just collapsed wherever it had failed to sink strong roots.  In the decidedly un-capitalist Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin had seized to power in the late Twenties.  The Depression brought Adolf Hitler to power in Germany, while the government of Japan increasingly fell under the control of imperialist soldiers.  Italy’s Benito Mussolini ranked as the senior dictator in the group, although he had little yet to show for his tenure in terms of expansion.   

            The democracies were hard put to deal simultaneously with three open and one covert aggressors.  In the Thirties, the United States turned from partial engagement in international affairs to a deepening isolationism.  France’s interests and resources were almost entirely European.  Britain had the means to fight one war, but faced enemies in the Far East, the Mediterranean, and Central Europe.  Things had to get much worse to change policies. 

            Today, Russia, radical Islamists in the Middle East equipped—or almost—with nuclear weapons (Iran, Pakistan), and China all can be counted as dissatisfied powers.  Where to start? 

[1] Nicholas Riasanovsky, A History of Russia (1977) is cold and comprehensive. 

[2] Raymond Sontag, A Broken World, 1919-1939 (1971) remains a valuable guide. 

Understanding Ukraine for Dummies-Like-Me.

On the theory that no one really has more than a few hours to get some additional background on the present crisis, here are some recommendations.

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia. Vivid memoir of fighting in an improvised army in a war between an over-matched kinda-sorta democracy and an authoritarian rebellion.

Isaac Babel, Red Cavalry. Collection of short stories (based on his own experiences) about Red Army troops fighting in Ukraine during the Russian Civil War (1918-1921).

            Both of the above books are a fast read.  Unless, you know, you find yourself lingering over particular passages, or you later feel the need to go back and read the book again even though the present unpleasantness has passed and it’s a sunny day when you should be doing some yard work. 

Andrzej Wajda’s movie “Katyn.” In Polish, but with English sub-titles. What happened in Poland in 1940 happened all over the USSR (especially in Ukraine) for a longer period. It’s on Youtube for the moment. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=taVdIFONkCw

            NB: The guys in the blue hats are NKVD.  This was the successor to the OGPU, which was the successor to the Cheka.  It was the predecessor to the KGB, which was the predecessor to the current FSB.  Doesn’t matter.  A leopard can’t change his spots.  Vladimir Putin started out as a KGB officer. 

Anne Appelbaum, “How Putin and His Cronies Stole Russia,” https://www.anneapplebaum.com/…/how-he-and-his-cronies…/

Ukraine Is a Fork in the Road.

  1. We can disagree about the details—even important ones—of economic policy.  Still, there is a more basic question: do you think that the open world economy and the free market economy of the “West” is better than the state-controlled systems of Russia and China? 
  2. Recent times have been a lamentable period for democratic government.  Still, do you think that the clown show of Western democracy is better than the Ice Capades of the Russian and Chinese dictatorships? 
  3. Are we out against two systems or are we out against two leaders (Putin and Zi)? 
  4. Nobody wants the Russian invasion of Ukraine to turn into a shooting war for the West, let alone a nuclear war.  So we need to assess the quantity and quality of our military forces if we want to deter further aggression. 
  5. Both the United States and the “West” more generally have a bunch of problems.  Foreign policy and military policy aren’t the only policies.  It would be useful to try to solve the most important problems.  Shouting and accusations will accompany any such effort.  That’s probably one of the important problems. 
  6. As I write, it appears that a stand-up comedian is striving to be a stand-up guy.  So might we all. 

What If?

Historians should stick to post-diction, not engage in prediction. Still, an American citizen is free to wonder about things that are going on or might come to pass.

President Donald Trump openly disparaged the European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In his view, they didn’t fulfill their agreed levels of defense spending and tried to involve the United States in petty conflicts of interest only to Europeans. Susan Rice, the Ambassador to the United Nations during the Obama administration, has been quoted as telling the British and French ambassadors to the UN that “You’re not going to drag us into your shitty little war [in Libya].”

American President Joe Biden came into office pledging to repair the damage done by his predecessor to American leadership in NATO.

Russian President Vladimir Putin keeps massing Russian military forces around the frontiers of Ukraine. They are engaged in training exercises, now in co-operation with Belarus.

President Biden keeps warning Putin that a Russian invasion of Ukraine will trigger massive economic sanctions.

Putin keeps announcing that he has no intention of invading Ukraine, but that he insists that Ukraine never become a member of NATO.

President Biden’s spokespeople keep announcing that intelligence sources reveal that a Russian invasion is imminent.

Ukraine President Volodomyr Zelensky seems to believe that the Russians are doing something other than preparing to invade.

What does Putin get out of holding these military exercises without invading?

Well, President Biden has made it clear that the United States is not going to fight Russia over the independence of Ukraine. Instead, the United States will plaster Russia with economic sanctions.

President Biden has made it clear that the United States will do all it can to prevent completion of the Nord Stream energy pipeline from Russia to Germany.

The European Union (EU) has been suffering strains in recent years. Brexit is one sign of those strains. British prime minister Boris Johnson seems closely aligned with the American position.

The tensions between the more economically-developed and solidly democratic EU members in Western Europe and the less developed and allegedly less solidly democratic EU members in Eastern Europe have bubbled along for several years. Germany and France seem less enthusiastic than is the Biden administration about confronting Russia over Ukraine, or more skeptical about Russia’s readiness to invade Ukraine.

Arguably, what Putin gets out of the present crisis is two things. First, he is making it clear to Ukraine that no one is coming to save them. They will have to make a deal with Moscow at some point. One knock-on effect of that might be the eventual disintegration of Ukraine between its eastern and western areas.

Second, he could be promoting the dissolution of NATO and even of the EU. The crisis may be forcing an eventual choice for Europe between Russia and the United States over energy supplies. It could be forcing a discussion over whether NATO and the EU have expanded too far, too fast to the East.

Certainly this is just idle speculation by an ill-informed school teacher. Still, one question leads to more questions.

Are the projected sanctions strong enough to harm Russia to the point where they would actually deter an invasion through the fear of unrest inside Russia?

Can the United States guarantee the European Union affordable long-term access to alternative energy supplies if the Nord Stream is not completed?

Can the European Union sort out it identity issues in a timely fashion?

NATO and Ukraine.

            Back in 1949, the eastern half of Europe languished in slavery to the Soviet Union.  Not wanting Western Europe to end up in the same boat, the United States and its allies formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).  As part of the propaganda war, NATO declared that any European country could join.  However, a unanimous vote the member-states had to approve each new admission.[1] 

In one of the great triumphs for humanity, the Soviet system and empire finally collapsed of its own grave defects.  Subsequently, many of the former “puppet states” joined NATO.  They also joined the separate, but closely over-lapping European Community (EC).  In both cases, they had to meet specific standards covering a wide range of social, economic, and political issues.  The former German Democratic Republic became a member in 1990 when it merged with the German Federal Republic; Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined in 1999; Bulgaria, Rumania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) joined in 2004.  All of these countries wanted both safety and prosperity. 

Seen from the Russian perspective, NATO (i.e. the United States) had taken advantage of Russia’s period of post-Soviet weakness and disintegration to push forward its frontline right to the borders of historical Russia.  Indeed, the admission of the Baltic states added a first chunk of the lands won for Russia by Peter the Great.  In 2008, President George W. Bush got NATO to declare that Ukraine and Georgia would join NATO at some future point.  Who knows what further, ever-farther-from-the-Atlantic additions might follow?  Russia began punching back. 

Subsequently, people came nearer to their senses.  NATO has dragged its feet on presenting a plan of work to the two countries.  Both France and Germany have shown themselves wary of admitting Ukraine.  In 2014, the Obama Administration did little of substance to bolster Ukraine after the Russians re-took the Crimea and fomented rebellion in two heavily ethnic Russian administrative divisions (“oblasts”) of Ukraine.  Given the unanimity requirement, there is little chance that Ukraine could join NATO in the foreseeable future. 

            Here’s the thing: neither Russia nor the West wants Ukraine in NATO.  One reason the West doesn’t want Ukraine in NATO because of the intractable barriers to entry.  For one thing, it has been through a number of revolutions and doubtful elections.  It hardly meets the definition of a stable democracy.  Then there is a good deal of buyer’s remorse inside the EC and NATO over the admission of Hungary and Poland.  Why add one more questionably-democratic country to a community already threatened by disintegration?  For another thing, Ukraine is a “kleptocracy.”[2]  It also has a bad record on honest dealing with post-Soviet Russia. 

Another reason is that it could well involve fighting to defend Ukraine.  It is unlikely to involve a direct military confrontation.  More likely would be a Russian-directed campaign of subversion and insurrection.  There is no reason to think that the army of Ukraine is any more robust than were the armies of Iraq when ISIS attacked or the Afghan National Army when the Taliban went on its final offensive.  No Westerner wants another quagmire. 

Perhaps “neutralization” on the Finnish or Austrian model might work?   

[1] Edward Wong and Lara Jakes, “Why the Members of NATO Won’t Let Ukraine Join Anytime Soon,” NYT, 14 January 2022. 

[2] Transparency International ranks Ukraine 117th on a list of 180 countries. 


Vladimir Putin was born in 1952 in Leningrad. He had impeccable Communist credentials; his father was a manual laborer, his mother was a school teacher. He studied law in university (like Mikhail Gorbachev), then took a job with the KGB. (See: irony.) Here he was an intelligence officer, operating in East Germany. When the USSR began to withdraw its forces from its East European empire Putin came home to Leningrad. Here he worked for a number of politicians in the new democracy. One of these was Boris Yeltsin.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 had not thrilled the Russians. Street crime and white-collar crime exploded, while the economy decayed, and Russia fell from the status of a superpower. People around Yeltsin piled up immense fortunes by seizing control of Russia’s natural resources, banking, and media. Mikhail Khodorkovsky got control of the Yukos oil company, which established a virtual monopoly on Russian oil production and exports. Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky created media empires. Generally, nobody paid taxes. A few people got rich while most suffered.

In 1998 Yeltsin appointed Putin to run the FSB, heir to the KGB. Two years later in 2000, when the ailing Yeltsin left government, Putin ran for President of Russia. During the campaign someone bombed an apartment building in Moscow, killing 200 people. The suspected bombers were Chechen separatists. Putin promised to wipe them out. He won the presidency.

In power, Putin turned on the “oligarchs” who had risen up during the Yeltsin era. Khodorkovsky went to jail and Yukos Oil was nationalized, Berezovsky and Gusinsky fled abroad. Taxes got collected. Street crime got squashed. Putin’s nationalization of Yukos Oil coincided with a sharp increase in demand for oil around the world. By 2007, Russia was earning about $170 billion a year from oil exports. Prosperity returned to Russia. Putin has distributed favors on a far more prudent basis than Yeltsin ever did. He uses them to build support for himself without harming the interests of the Russian people. At the same time, Putin has been ruthless in dealing with critics: he has used control of the media to prevent opposition candidates from getting out their message; and he is suspected of having prompted the assassination of dissidents Anna Politkovskaya and Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. In the December 2007 elections voters had to mark the ballots in public view—of soldiers. This is a lot like mid-19th Century elections. Not exactly the Australian ballot. Still, it seemed to work. Public opinion polls showed Putin enjoying a 70 percent favorable rating among ordinary Russians. In December 2007 Putin’s United Russia party won 400 of 450 seats in the Russian parliament (the Duma).

Where is he headed? He appears to be aiming at a restoration of Russian power. He has begun a $200 billion rearmament program. He has tried to block the extension of an American anti-missile system into Eastern Europe. He has challenged the idea of America as the sole super-power. He is still fighting the Chechen war. He turns off the flow of oil to the Ukraine whenever it seems too independent. Then there’s the Crimea.

The question is not whether Russia could have been held down permanently after the collapse of Communism. It could not. But could Russia have become a Western-style democracy? Is a collision inevitable between a reviving Russia and the West?

“Why Russia Loves Putin,” The Week, 21 December 2007, p. 11.