Monday, February 21, 2022: My brief opinion, modestly offered, because I think today is a historic day:
This is not Reagan v Grenada, Bush v Panama, Clinton v Serbia or Reagan or Obama v Libya. None of those men became known as wartime presidents. Even with Iraq, George W. Bush isn’t primarily remembered as a wartime president, but rather as the president at the end of the Cold War. This is the United States and NATO versus Russia in a war over territory in Europe. Blue collar Joe Biden has become a wartime president.
When Covid began no one expected the extent of disruption it would still be causing, now beginning year three. As Russia’s gambit to upend the European chessboard begins, we may fairly expect death, hardship, refugee flows, displaced people, redrawn borders and a whole roster of Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns.
Talking shops have spent entire careers talking over the last thirty years. For now they are talked out. Misery will ensue. I still have a hard time imagining the drafty old National Philharmonic Hall down near the Dnieper River in Kyiv, where my wife and I enjoyed an all Russian classical music concert three summers ago, ever being under assault by MIG fighters.
Unless there is an assertion by China, the European security question will predominate for years to come. The system of government – democratic or autocratic – that comes out on top in the battle for primacy beginning tonight will make gains worldwide and for years to come.
Autocrats will strive to make gains in the immediate meantime (looking at you, Beijing, Pyongyang, the Sahel). Either the post Cold War order will be patched together to hobble along for a little while longer or it will yield to the rise of an entirely new ordering of the world. Starting right now.
One man has made the calculation that he can reset the European security conversation. However successful his pursuit of war turns out to be, he is surely right about that.
Saturday, February 19th, 2022. Far more important real events actually happening in the world have hijacked my attention for now from my comfy online home here, this blog about travel.
During what I think is a really fateful period with import not only for Ukraine but for the broader world, and for the long term, I’ve assembled a list of about 100 Ukrainians, officials, ambassadors, OSINT sources, people from think tanks, people from neighboring countries, reporters and others that I find useful in following events in Ukraine, and you might, too.
Ukraine is surrounded by 100,000-plus miserable, freezing, foot-stamping Russian soldiers who are Chekov’s gun on the table in Act One of our new post-Cold War epic. We’ve moved from “surely he wouldn’t?” to “he’s really going to, isn’t he?” It’s the moment when Wile E. Coyote has run off the cliff but not yet begun to fall.
Two years ago Covid crowded out every thing but the most immediate, every body but family. Shocked by the viral invader’s audacity, we scrambled around in a new, unfamiliar world. Everything was frightening. We had precious little time to reflect.
Now comes the malign intent of a real-life invader. Unlike Covid, Ukraine isn’t exactly appearing out of nowhere. Russia has been moving toward military aggression for months. The US president has had time to commit high profile gaffes about any U.S. response. Russian landing craft have moved clear around Europe from the Baltic Sea to threaten Ukraine in the Black Sea. We’ve had ample opportunity to reflect.
So far the west has performed a pretty nifty feat – defying physics. Specifically Newton’s third law, the one about for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.Only now, at last, comes a grudging rumble from the big American reaction machine.
If a Quisling-in-waiting sleeps in Russkiy Mir tonight, if Russia installs a Minsk-style puppet in Kyiv, if Russian military hardware further enters and remains in Ukraine, it will be the design of a violent nationalist leader. Threatening sanctions is the response of a technocrat, but at least it’s a response.
Everybody is playing the Vladimir Putin ‘will he or won’t he’ parlor game and opinion is genuinely divided. Those who think this is all elaborate Russian respect-seeking may be right, but I’m skeptical, and here’s why. Watching battle gear arriving from as far away as Khabarovsk (on the Amur River border with China), Ulan Ude (east of Lake Baikal) and Primorski Krai (which is eight time zones from Kyiv and borders North Korea), and then a perfectly timed and well scripted further deployment across Belarus for ‘exercises’ involving 200 trains moving hardware day and night,persuades me that going to all this trouble is more than just saber rattling. If all this is just standing shaking a fist and shouting stay off of my lawn, what’s at stake could turn out to be one mighty costly lawn.
Russia has been moving hardware for weeks. Those hoping this is all a great feint say what’s lacking, if they really mean t0 do it, is field hospitals. During a pandemic, even an autocrat may find it hard to pull medical personnel from civilian hospitals for a training exercise, they say. But over the weekend it was widely reported that the military buildup now includes “supplies of blood along with other medical materials that would allow it to treat casualties.” That sounds real.
After weighing Talleyrand’s advice to Napolean that “My Lord, you can do anything you like with bayonets, except sit on them,”the U.S. president, who has plenty of bayonets, having taken his precious time surveying his options, has begun to fulfill the basic Leader of the West job description, maintaining dialogue, mustering allies, bolstering defenses, polishing strategies.
(And oh lordy don’t you know Jens Stoltenberg is the most relieved man in the house. The NATO chief’s number one mission has to be, don’t be the hapless Nordic fellow who lost Europe. And the most relieved woman must be Ursula von der Layen, the face of the thoroughly sidelined E.U., who as German Defense Minister never met a crisis she couldn’t evade.)
Germany’s new coalition has yet to declare quite how much of a Putinversteherit wants to be, but the answer looks like pretty much. Sympathy is due to new Prime Minister Olaf Scholz, whose government is only fifty days old. His SDP party’s greatest hit is ‘Ostpolitik,’ working with Russia, after all.
Signs are not good. Last week von der Layen’s successor, the new German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht, declared that Germany “will deliver 5,000 helmets to Ukraine, as a very clear signal, we stand by your side.” As full of élan and camaraderie as it may have looked on the minister’s keyboard, Ms. Lambrecht’s tweet hasn’t exactly been taken as a token of undying solidarity. Yet even that was too much for some German politicians:
Translated, that’s roughly “Delivering 5,000 safety helmets to Ukraine is a bad sign. Germany must play the role of mediator and must not side with one another in a biased manner. The federal government is wandering around aimlessly in terms of foreign policy – stop this saber-rattling!”
With chalk poised above a blank slate, Scholz’s government has so far squandered the opportunity to set the table for its leadership role in a 2020s Europe.The UK disdainfully shook its metaphorical head and simply flew around Germany to deliver anti-tank weapons to Kyiv rather than be held up by paperwork.
Memories of the Soviet Union are aging but they’re not gone yet. Americans of a certain age will remember civil defense markings on the AM radios in their cars. In the event of, say, a Cuban missile crisis, children would duck and cover and drivers would tune to the triangle on their car radio for guidance. When my wife and I spend summers in Finland, we still hear the civil defense test sirens, sounded at noon on the first Monday of every month.
Civil preparedness is mostly a memory for many of us. But consider lived experience in the new NATO Baltic states. Because Estonia, Latvia and Lithuana were Soviet republics into the 1990s, much of the population speaks Russian and watches Russian TV.
Latvian journalist Kristaps Andrejsonssays while“clowns such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky—the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party and a well-known figure in Russia’s ‘controlled opposition’ who has called for the immediate bombing of Kyiv—might be ignored in the Western media, in the Baltics, he and people like him are watched closely.”In the same way that even Donald Trump finds supporters, Russia finds support in the Baltics, because if you live in the Baltics, the threat of war is already in your house.
Consider lived experience in Ukraine right now. American former soldier and Kyiv resident Nolan Petersonwrites:
“If an attack is imminent, Kyiv’s air raid sirens will alert residents to tune in to emergency service announcements. Cars equipped with loudspeakers will also patrol the streets to announce important information.
“The Kyiv City Council has posted an interactive online map, which shows the locations of the roughly 5,000 official locations where residents can shelter from a military attack.
“(For example) From ground level, a nondescript metal door opens into a staircase that descends multiple stories underground. The shelter has a special air ventilation room (originally intended to protect against radioactive fallout) and is connected to the city’s water main…. Daily deliveries of food and medical supplies would sustain occupants in the event of a drawn-out Russian bombardment or siege.
“Known as dual-use facilities, the remaining 4,500 shelters include basements, underground parking lots and passageways, as well as Kyiv’s 47 metro stations.
“Should Russian forces target Kyiv … city officials will order a mass evacuation. To that end, a citywide evacuation commission has already been established, as well as regional evacuation commissions in each of Kyiv’s administrative districts.
“Each citizen should prepare an “emergency suitcase” ahead of time…. This should be a backpack with a capacity of at least 25 liters, a little more than 6.5 gallons, containing ‘clothing, hygiene items, medicines, tools, personal protective equipment, and food.’ The service also recommends carrying important documents and cash in the backpack.”
Russiais forcing a conversation the US doesn’t want to have, at least not right now and not on Russia’s terms. If Russia strikes further into Ukraine, one way or another, as with Covid, the world will change. The first day of renewed conflict will be a fateful, life-changing day for entire nations. Its effects will last the rest of many peoples’ lives. When we look back here from two years on, today may look less complicated, even quaint. I invite you to pause and enjoy the good old days.
Should conflict come, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania could, like Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, become frontline border states. Russian malign intent will have to be be assumed.
Russian troops already occupy Moldova’s border with Ukraine in a region called Transnistria. Depending on Russian intent, Moldova may face existential questions, but in any case it will acquire a newly threatening neighbor. Any military move in Transnistria will be meant to intimidate not only Moldova but neighboring NATO member Romania as well.
A fundamental geopolitical realignment is hurtling our way that won’t simmer down for years. By spring, tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees – or more – could be storming the borders of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, and how can those countries, how could they hold them back? Across those borders Russia, or it’s newly installed Ukrainian puppet, will try to stare down four new NATO neighbors.
Current NATO borders in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Norway will be reinforced, and depending on the depth of the next couple of months’ ill will, Finland’s Russian border may be too. With sudden new face-to-face NATO/Russia exposure, all sides will want substantial, fortified borders. Each country will surely want its own sovereign border backed by its own conventional forces. Here come concrete barriers, anti-vehicle trenches, mesh fencing, electronics, guard towers, barbed wire, electronic and other defenses. Suddenly, it’s a good bet that Schengen’s best days are behind it.
Once we’ve had time enough to consider the longer term, we may find ourselves in a new, raw standoff across conflict-embittered battlefields. Russia v NATO eye-to-eye across borders bristling with weapons and evil intent will be a sight to see. Once again.
Doomsday warnings are cheap for hand-wringing punditry, that’s true. But if some of this stuff does come to pass, world changing ramifications follow. As Sweden’s FM Ann Linde says, “it can still go completely to hell.”
As Covid darkness drew across the world in the early weeks of 2020, I thought, ‘remember this, hold on to this moment, the way things are right now, how good you have it, in case this thing gets out of hand.’
The last two years haven’t been years to love. But now I wonder if we might stop to appreciate even early 2022 the same way. Here we may be, in the twilight moments just before the great mid-twenty-twenties European realignment. Remember these fleeting good old days, while our grasping at the remnants of democracy is not quite yet a wry memory.
The U.S. embassy in Kyiv ordered American family members to leave the country on Sunday.
The Department of State authorized the voluntary departure of U.S. direct hire employees (USDH) and ordered the departure of eligible family members (EFM) from Embassy Kyiv due to the continued threat of Russian military action. https://t.co/esXkJ6h0Nt
Realization shifted last week from “surely he wouldn’t?” to “he’s really going to, isn’t he?” This is that moment when Wile E. has run off the cliff but not yet begun to fall.
Two years ago Covid crowded out everything but the most immediate, everybody but family. The viral invader’s audacity shocked us. We scrambled to adjust to new facts, all unfamiliar. We couldn’t turn away from the ugly, daily blow-by-blow. Everything was frightening. Events gave us little time to reflect.
This week we see the malign intent of a different, non-viral, real-life invader. Except unlike Covid, Ukraine is not exactly appearing out of nowhere. Russia has been moving toward military aggression for months, and today the majority of all Russian Battalion Tactical Groups surround or are nearing Ukraine. There’s been enough time for the US president to commit high profile gaffes about Ukraine. Russian landing craft are halfway around Europe en route from the Baltic to threaten Ukraine in the Black Sea.
The moment we’re in this week, our current reactive moment, will pass. It won’t even last long. We’ll muster allies, defenses, polish our strategy, ready our readiness. Today the US is floating new troop deployments to Europe. We’ll react, and one way or another, as with Covid, the world will change. When we look back here from two years on, today may look less complicated, even quaint. I invite you to pause and enjoy the good old days.
If Russian military hardware enters and remains in Ukraine then Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania will join Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as frontline, newly hostile border states. Russian troops already occupy Moldova’s border with Ukraine, a region called Transnistria. Depending on Russian intent, Moldova may face existential questions, but in any case it will acquire a newly threatening border.
A fundamental geopolitical realignment is hurtling our way that will not simmer down for years. By spring, tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees – or more – could be storming the borders of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, and how can they, how could they hold them back? Across those borders Russia, or it’s newly installed Ukrainian puppet, will try to stare down four new NATO neighbors.
Current NATO borders in Estonia, Latvia and Norway will be reinforced, and depending on the depth of the next couple of months’ ill will, Finland’s border may be too. With sudden new face-to-face NATO/Russia exposure, all sides will want substantial, fortified borders. Each country will surely want its own sovereign border backed by its own conventional forces. Here come concrete barriers, anti-vehicle trenches, mesh fencing, electronics, guard towers, barbed wire, electronic and other defenses. Suddenly, it’s a good bet that Schengen’s best days are behind it.
Once we’ve had time enough to consider the longer term, we may find ourselves in a new, raw standoff across war embittered battlefields. Russia v NATO eye-to-eye across borders bristling with weapons and evil intent will be a sight to see. Once again.
As the Covid darkness drew across the world in the early weeks of 2020, I thought, ‘remember this, remember how things are right now, hold on to this moment, to how good you have it, in case this thing gets out of hand.’
Now I wonder if we might not ought to stop and appreciate early 2022 in the same way. Here we are in the twilight moments just before the great mid-twenties European realignment. Remember these fleeting good old days, when our grasping at the remnants of democracy is not quite yet a wry memory.
As long as we’re shut in with time on our hands, here is another installment of a sort of rolling diary to consider consequences of the virus. It’s true that with a virus that spreads exponentially, each day’s events seem like a week’s worth. Here are some observations. Please add your thoughts.
“tasked each of the oligarchs with overseeing a specific region where they have assets: Rinat Akhmetov will be responsible for the Donbas and western Ukraine, Kolomoisky for Zaporizhia, Victor Pinchuk for Dnipropetrovsk, and so on.”
• Digital Congress. Not a prediction, just part of a lengthening wish list. As Ethan Zuckerman writes,
“this is a great time for congresspeople to return to their districts and start the process of virtual legislating—permanently. Not only is this move medically necessary at the moment, but it has ancillary benefits. Lawmakers will be closer to the voters they represent and more likely to be sensitive to local perspectives and issues. A virtual Congress is harder to lobby, as the endless parties and receptions that lobbyists throw in Washington will be harder to replicate across the whole nation. Party conformity also might loosen with representatives remembering local loyalties over party ties.”
To expand a bit, the idea I was after was redundancy. We don’t need tariffs and trade barriers for spiteful reasons of base nationalism, but in case other countries place restrictions on supply chains, restrict exports, shut down ports and such, as we are seeing today.
And a local note:
Fannin County, Georgia is around 100 miles north of Atlanta in the southern Appalachian mountains. My wife and I own property in adjoining Union County. Indeed, our last redoubt would be a cabin there, and to reach it we’d want (but not have) to drive through Fannin County.
Whether or not officials in Fannin County can prohibit people from using their own properties, it looks like they’re game to try. It’s medieval, pulling up the drawbridge, the stuff of a dozen apocalypse tales. And not surprising.
Seems to me it represents a fundamental fracture in the US’s secular worship of property and wealth. Attempting to deny the right to use someone’s property is kind of shocking in a US context, possibly appropriate, but as I say, not surprising. What is surprising is how quickly the thin veneer of civilization begins to come off.
As long as we’re shut in with time on our hands, here is another installment of a sort of rolling diary to consider consequences of the virus. It’s true that with a virus that spreads exponentially, each day’s events seem like a week’s worth. Things we speculated a week ago now look naïve. Still.
Today is the first day of Monday, 23 March, 2020:
• Everything about the novel coronavirus is novel. Branko Milanovic points out that here we have a problem of both supply and demand. Expanding on a thought in Virus Diary II, he injects time as a variable. “If national governments can control or overcome the current crisis within the next six months or a year, the world would likely return to the path of globalization….” But if not, not.
“The longer the crisis lasts, and the longer obstacles to the free flow of people, goods, and capital are in place, the more that state of affairs will come to seem normal. Special interests will form to sustain it….”
• If nature is exacting revenge for human-induced climate change, as some suggest, it’s doing it in an odd way, chasing people away from public transportation.
• Christine Wilkie writes that “the ‘us vs. them’ approach to Washington and the federal government, on which the president has built his political brand” in fact, his entire public persona is gone. Entirely undermined.
I think if we’re all in this together, down the road a few beneficial changes will be hard to deny, like the prohibition of tax buy backs. Our pro-business president supports the idea, and I’m guessing even the most pro-business congresspeople can be shamed into it. More medium-term goal: worker representation in the boardroom. Over the horizon: replacing some of the more craven aspects of healthcare for profit with real, straight-up needs-based care.
“I urge everyone to do the right thing; follow the government advice and please do not travel here. If these warnings are not heeded and people need to be stopped from travelling, then I am afraid that is what will have to happen. Those in camper vans please go home!”
• We’re all Social Democrats now. For the moment. Today,
“France’s relatively generous welfare state and the state’s broad authority to enact pressure on employers appear far more like advantages than deficiencies — as signs of modernity, not outdatedness.”
“’For the first time in our history, the government is going to step in and pay people’s wages,’” the British chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak,
As long as we’re shut in, with time on our hands, let’s have a go at this thing, record our thoughts as they occur, a sort of rolling diary of predictions. Please join in and once we bust outta here, we’ll see how much holds up over time.
Today, St. Patrick’s Day, 17 March, 2020, a few ideas to start:
• The Johnson/Cummings U.K. Tories coopted Labour and Lib Dem anti-austerity (at least as campaign rhetoric) to resounding electoral effect. Democratic candidates Biden and Sanders, in being tentative, leave an opening for President Trump to embrace the Universal Basic Income proposal of Andrew Yang and many others on the left.
• As an unexpected side effect, the virus will hasten the eventual adoption of UBI.
• The virus undermines the commercial real estate market. When it becomes apparent how many more functions can be carried out remotely, companies will wonder why they need all those buildings.
• It’s notable how, so far, only our physical selves are constrained. Our online world continues to flourish.
• Suddenly Amazon acts almost as a utility, prioritizing sales of items for the public good over the discretionary. Probably not a position they’d have chosen.
• This is more of a milepost than 9/11. As time goes on we’ll measure everything as B.C. and A.C. Before Coronavirus and After Coronavirus.
• A strong, skillful domestic response, still a possibility, could arrest American decline.
If you have any thoughts, please contribute.
Update, 18 March: Nice to see Tom Friedman is a CS&W reader, even if he is an idea thief. His column the day after my original post.
American Chargé d’ Affaires to Ukraine William B. Taylor, characterized by the White House as a “radical unelected bureaucrat,” testified before the House Intelligence Committee today and I read his opening statement tonight. Remarkable. I’d just suggest that when John Bolton is the adult in the room, we are in an entirely new American foreign policy universe.
It came during remarks with the Secretary General of NATO, the defense collective the United States set up after the second world war, of which President Trump, a hotel owner accused of profiting from the presidency, is the de facto leader.