Not worth the effort

Switzerland has managed to stay out of the war since Napoleon’s time. Their secret is simple. They are not worth the effort.  Switzerland is a mountainous country with few natural resources. Every man in the country is trained as a soldier and has a weapon. Conquering Switzerland would not be worth the effort.

There are other countries that are likewise not worth the effort, although their enemies sometimes realize it only too late. Afghanistan has been the death of the British, Soviet and perhaps American empires. Napoleon and Hitler should have avoided war with Russia.

I like to think that is now true as well of Ukraine.  Putin would be stupid to invade.  Now, how stupid is he?

War has changed in several ways over the past century.  The most obvious is the atomic bomb, the doomsday machine.  Any country that truly feels that its back is against the wall could decide that it had nothing to lose by nuking its opponent.  Once thinkable atrocities, such as the Nazi plan for a Ukrainian genocide to form “lebensraum,” or the Soviet’s actual murder of about six million in the Holodomor, have become unthinkable because of the possible retribution. 

A more subtle change has been the vast growth of world trade.  The Soviet Union could afford to ignore world opinion because it was entirely self-sufficient.  Russia, on the other hand, depends on the export of natural resources.  They import equipment, technology and even technologists to support their energy businesses.  Putin’s aggression in Ukraine has forced hard decisions in many places, first of all Russia, as countries reassess doing business with unreliable partners.  Economic isolation will be expensive.

Information binds the world even more tightly than trade.  Barbarism even in remotest Africa elicits worldwide condemnation.  We not only hear about acts of savagery, we see them on film and see interviews with the perpetrators.  Groups like Boko Haram and the Lord’s Resistance Army are international pariahs.  The United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia’s wars in Georgia and Ukraine, and China’s uprisings among the Uighur and Tibetans create significant PR headaches.  Being perceived as a bad world citizen carries very real costs, among them a government’s reputation among its own people.

Unfortunately, not every despot is fully capable of assessing his own self-interest.  Napoleon and Hitler’s miscalculations about Russia cost not just vast carnage, but their empires.  Ukraine and the Baltics emphatically do not want to become Russian again.  Lenin himself explained why back in the 1920s: 

The proletariat cannot but fight against the forcible retention of the oppressed nations within the boundaries of a given state, and this is exactly what the struggle for the right of self-determination means. The proletariat must demand the right of political secession for the colonies and for the nations that ‘its own’ nation oppresses. Unless it does this, proletarian internationalism will remain a meaningless phrase; mutual confidence and class solidarity between the workers of the oppressing and oppressed nations will be impossible.

The Ukrainians have had enough of being “Little Russia” and “New Russia.”  No, they want to be Ukraine.  They demonstrated as much as they threw off Putin’s puppet Yanukovych in Maidan, and they defied Putin’s meddling in the recent elections.  The evidence is that they will be more trouble than it is worth if Putin makes yet another attempt to make them Russian.  Let’s hope he is smart enough to see that.


Notes from a lecture by Timothy Snyder on Ukraine

I greatly enjoyed Timothy Snyder’s 2010 book Bloodlands and have followed his commentary on the Maidan Nezelezhnosti demonstrations and the subsequent Russian invasion of Ukraine.

An observation I had not heard before is that Poland experienced a Renaissance. Never part of the classic world, it was not a rebirth of anything they had known, but the same currents ran through Poland as through Western Europe. The Renaissance even affected Ukraine.

Ukraine is located between East and West, and has always suffered on that account. From the mid-1500s it was dominated by the grand Duchy of Lithuania, putting it firmly in Europe. A century later the Cossacks rebelled against their Polish -Lithuanian masters and wound up siding with Muscovy, putting Ukraine firmly in the Russian Empire.

While in the Russian Empire, they tended to look at the Poles as representative of Europe, in Europe as the enemy, although they flirted with European ideas themselves. Ukraine was ready to join Europe before the red Army established its grip in the early 20s.

The Soviets initially attempted to bring that Ukraine into the Soviet Union through a system of inducements. Ukrainian intellectuals were fêted in Moscow, and Ukraine enjoyed a measure of independence. This ended in 1930 with forced collectivization, which Ukraine resisted strongly. After that followed the Holodomor and the great patriotic war, making Ukraine the deadliest place on earth for more than a decade.

Snyder said that the 1970s were the most significant era in recent Ukrainian history. Ukrainian born Brezhnev attempted to integrate all levels of academic, scientific, and commercial activity using the Russian language throughout. Ukrainian was no longer taught in school.

Since independence Ukraine has been pulled alternately east and west, depending on the short-term calculations of the oligarchs in charge.  Only with Maidan did they make a decisive move towards the west, one which impelled Russia to a countermove.

Snyder speaks extensively about a Eurasian union without ever defining it.  A Google search shows something less than grand – the customs union of Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia.  Russia was trying to get Yanukovych to get Ukraine to commit to it, but he never succeeded.  Whatever the case, a “Eurasia” composed of such weak parts could never be a counterweight to the west.

Russia’s economy is roughly the size of France. It cannot challenge the European Union in economic terms. He says that Putin’s strategy is to undermine the European Union, bringing it down rather than building Russia up.

The part of the strategy is to support the nationalist parties in Western Europe. He names the United Kingdom Independend party, the national front in France, Jobbik in Hungary and others. He says it is a supreme irony that Russia on one hand rails against fascists in Ukraine, of which there are none, and supports the right-wing parties everywhere else in Europe.

He says that the aim of the right-wing parties in Europe is to fragment, to split their countries. In this I disagree with him. The nationalist parties of France and England are truly conservative in their desire to return to the national character of those places prior to the European Union. The European Union has brought massive levels immigration from the Third World, and massive levels of public debt. The conservatives want to return to the former national character, when the average Frenchman was a Frenchman rather than an African.

My observation is that the European Union and the United States have favored immigrants over the native stock. It is a question of northern European altruism and idealism run amok – turned against itself. In a reversal of classic standards of free speech, it has become impossible to open one’s mouth to question the wisdom of admitting said flood of Africans and Arabs.  President of Finland Matti Vanhanen felt compelled to apologize that his father, intelligence researcher Tatu VanHanen, published a book to the effect that the immigrants simply do not have the intellect required to succeed in Europe.

The immigrants, and the native stock’s lack of fertility, are leading to a demographic and a financial disaster. Government spending is unsupportable and will become more so as the native born workers retire and the immigrants continue to fail to acquire the education and skills that would be needed to take their place.

Snyder observed that Putin that not have any articulated plan. He is simply an opportunist, taking advantage of Europe’s apparent weakness. Snyder is disappointed at how evident that weakness appears. Europe is unable to unite in the face of this threat. Snyder also observed, and I totally agree, that the Russians are masters of propaganda. He calls it postmodern, in the sense that they can continue the propaganda despite glaring contradictions among their claims. As an example, they call the Ukrainian government fascist, while Russia itself supports the most right-wing elements in governments throughout the rest of Europe. While preparing for the lecture I had planned to attend today, I ran across this striking piece of propaganda that includes most of the threads to which Snyder was referring.

I would ask that Snyder answer for himself what is the appeal of the right-wing parties in Europe? They have been growing quite rapidly, and certainly doing so without Putin’s help. My short answer would be that they represent the white man. Putin also represents the white man and traditional values. It’s a pretty powerful, gut level argument.

The European bureaucrats represent unlimited immigration, untraditional sexuality, unsustainable levels of debt, and suppression of free speech by anybody who would question the above. Given the choice, Putin apparently does not look so bad to some large fraction of the citizenry. It may be time for Europe’s leadership to reconsider its own values, and bring them back in line with the common people.

Spy vs. Spy

Why do bullies act the way they do?  Because they can.  This week’s edition features audacious exhibitions from both East and West.

In the East, we have Vladimir Putin.  He has infiltrated soldiers and activists over the unguarded Ukrainian border – they probably came by car, as tourists – to raise hell and push to separate the Southeastern regions from Ukraine and unite them with Russia.

He does this with impunity.  The Ukrainian military cannot stop him.  As Putin has the huge logistical advantage of being next door, NATO forces would be foolish to oppose him.  The drama unfolds as a very well planned, well-orchestrated effort.  If only somebody, perhaps the NSA, had been able to read their mail and see it coming.

Alas, the NSA is too busy reading my email to bother with hard cases like Vladimir Putin, who presumably knows something more about secure communications than I do.  It is easier to read my Facebook posts, so that is what they do.  The NSA conducts their dragnet in the name of stopping terror, although I participate in no terror whatsoever and feel terror mainly of the omnipotence of my own government. 

The most chilling point about Edward Snowden’s book is how ineffective the NSA’s efforts have been in stopping actual terror and war, but how effective they are at stifling dissent.  We are all looking over our shoulders… afraid to say what we think.   If they have unlimited power to read our mail, they presumably have equal power to create mail in our name and frame us for any crime they want. 

My objective is just to raise a sane child, one who will give me grandchildren.  I want him to be able to investigate, know and talk about the truth.  Honest communication is the foundation of a successful democracy and commerce-based society.  The future looks dicey.  The first book I reviewed this week, A Troubled Inheritance, lays out the facts that our government and related institutions do not want told about human evolution, and the lengths they went to keep this author, Nicholas Wade, from speaking the truth.  The second, Snowden’s Nowhere to Hide, describes that same government’s incredible ability to invade our privacy.

Now, what do I tell my son?  Grow up like a Soviet citizen, afraid even to be exposed to the truth, much less to speak it?  That is not a world I would want for myself.  When it comes to a choice between abandoning truth and not having grandchildren, I’ll reluctantly go with the latter.  Alas.  Whether under Putin or Obama, I have to ask if it makes any difference.

The Russians are flooding libertarian web sites with propaganda

The Soviets were notorious for their use of propaganda.  Lenin coopted a great many “useful idiots” such as the New York Times bureau chief Walter Duranty to spread Soviet propaganda. American liberals sang the “Internationale” and demonstrated for Cuba when I was a kid.  This time they are using the American right to spread their message. Can this be a surprise?

The relentless propaganda broadcast by all Ukrainian media in support of the Yanukovych regime up until February was ultimately unpersuasive: the internet told the truth.  The new government has no time to put together a PR shop capable of getting any message out.  The propaganda war is totally one-sided.  A few anti-Yanukovych publications such as the Kyiv Post survived.  They are vilified as partisan, but they have established credibility over more than a decade in operation.  And, they are all there is.

How can you identify Russian propaganda?  It is professionally done, and the average reader cannot check the facts. There are some commonsense controls that anybody can apply.

1. Does it make historical sense?  Ukraine was controlled by Putin ally Yanukovych until February.  Yanukovych is a native Russian speaker whose Ukrainian is embarrassingly bad.  If there had been any fascists, anti-Russian language activists, one would be sure that he would have rooted them out.

2. Does it make geographic sense?  Look at a linguistic map of Ukraine, available online, and you will find that at least half the country speaks Russian. More than half the books published here are in Russian.  Russian speakers are not persecuted.  They are not even a minority.

3. Listen to the tone of the propaganda. Russians are arrogant, condescending to Ukrainians, treating them as uninformed pumpkins. This has been the Russians stance to toward Ukraine for centuries.  Only by regarding them as sub-humans could they have justified staving millions to death.

4. Examine the bloggers’ posts on the Internet.  See if they have been in cyberspace for any length of time, and see if they post on other subjects.

5. Look for hypocrisy.  Russia is busing in uneducated thugs from Russia and Transdniester to foment trouble. One has to look no further back than the demonstrations in Maidan to witness Yanukovych busing in thugs called titushki. Yet, Russia constantly blames the thuggery on the Ukrainians.

6. Look for motives. Why would Ukrainians want to stir up trouble? They are attempting to put together a nation. It would be extremely stupid to offend the Russian speakers. Russia’s motive, on the other hand, is transparent: conquest.

7. Do they change the subject?   Do they respond with how awful the CIA is when you accuse them of spreading propaganda?  The issue is the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  It has nothing to do with the US.

The strength of Russian propaganda is in its slick preparation, relentless repetition and emotional appeal.  Subject it to analysis, and it falls apart.