Sen Angus King (I-Maine), a member of the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services Committees, noted the danger in Putin’s seeming desperation. “The paradox of this is that the better the Ukrainians do, the more dangerous Putin becomes,” he told me. “As Putin’s options narrow, he becomes more and more threatening.”
This from a Washington Post opinion column by David Ignatius today. If opinion leaders and politicians believe this, perhaps the darkening Russian autumn is a fitting occasion to implement whatever plans they hold to agitate for regime change in Moscow.
This article was originally published at 3QuarksDaily.com.
Russia’s war on Ukraine is realigning geopolitics everywhere you look. The Germans and French want the conflict to end immediately. Others won’t be heartbroken to see fighting continue to degrade Russian capabilities. The UK, Poles and Balts come to mind here. An idea is settling in that the US, too, doesn’t entirely mind fighting Russia to the last Ukrainian. There’s no denying the war is less painful from forty five hundred miles away.
Look north and if Finland and Sweden join NATO, overnight the Baltic Sea becomes the beating heart of European security. The shallow, enclosed Baltic hasn’t played such a heady role since the days of Napoleon. Vilnius and Riga never dreamed of such proximity to power.
In 2019 Mikhail Saakashvili, a previous victim of Russian aggression, predicted Russia’s next attack would come against Finland or Sweden. He was wrong, but he might not be wrong forever. That’s the fear that fuels an astonishing rush toward strategic realignment around the Baltic Sea.
Finnish President Sauli Niinistö is two years shy of wrapping up his second six year term. The 73 year old son of a newspaperman and a nurse from Finland’s southwest coast, Niinistö consistently polls as the country’s most revered figure.
He was in Washington a week and a day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, already working to insure the American administration’s blessing for Finland’s accession to NATO. The Finns hold their president in such regard that his backing of Finland’s coming NATO application should insure the peoples’ approval.
Niinistö put it this way: “Sufficient security is where Finns can feel that there is no emergency and there won’t be one.” Joining NATO, he said, would be “most sufficient.”
Finland comprises a small, homogenous, linguistically unique space of five and a half million people. Its ethnicity is only recently beginning to be diluted, and not without incident, by the humanitarian welcome of mostly Arab and Somali refugees. Finns have a healthy self regard, a certain satisfaction with the place in the world they’ve staked out for themselves and how they’ve done it. A local word, sisu, sums up their perceived self-sufficiency, perseverance and grit.
Opinion there has taken a remarkable, historic and loudly proclaimed turn during the war on Ukraine. Support for joining the NATO alliance stood at a historically consistent 24 percent as recently as four months ago. After the period of “Finlandization,” a pejorative term for Finns, at the end of the Cold War they reckoned they’d worked out a modus vivendi with Russia and saw no need to upset the balance by joining a military alliance. Until now. Two months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, support for joining NATO polls at a historic 68 percent.
Neither Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, which caused the fall of Saakashvili, nor Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea moved Finnish public support for Nato membership out of the twenties. In the 2015 Finnish parliamentary elections, 91% of Social Democrat candidates were opposed to Nato membership.
In January this year, before the invasion of Ukraine, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, age 36, former city councilwoman, bakery worker and cashier in Finland’s second city of Tampere, judged it“very unlikely” that Finland would apply for a NATO membership during her current term. As it turns out, when she and her Social Democrats defend their coalition government in parliamentary elections next April, they all hope Finland will already be a NATO member. She explains the switch by declaring, “Russia is not the neighbor we thought it was.”
“All of a sudden, it seems the Finnish population have decided: there is only one option. It’s a radical change, a huge shift in momentum,” said Charly Salonius-Pasternak, lead researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. It now appears the Finns have convinced themselves that some version of their 1939 Winter War against Russia could happen again.
It is a fateful decision, and not just for the Finns. Finland and its Swedish neighbor have historically made a show of binding their policies about NATO. The Swedes proclaim it explicitly on their government website: “Sweden’s most far-reaching defence cooperation is its cooperation with Finland. The two countries have similar security policies, and they both wish to expand their already extensive defence cooperation.”
Finland is carrying Sweden’s water here. It has always been understood any decision about NATO would be taken together. While Swedish public support for NATO has always run ahead ofthe level in Finland, the Swedish Social Democrats have traditionally been opposed, and they head the current governing coalition.
In a statement Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said “Sweden has not witnessed the same spike in public support, despite traditionally having more public support for NATO than Finland.”
“I do not rule out NATO membership in any way, but I want to make a well-founded analysis of the possibilities open to us and the threats and risks… involved, to be able to take the decision that is best for Sweden.”
Her party held a six-hour meeting in Stockholm on Friday to begin deliberations on whether to change its position. A poll conducted last week by the newspaper Aftonbladet, which is close to the party, showed Swedish support for NATO at 57 percent. Most importantly, parliamentary elections are less than five months away.
Sweden hasn’t been openly at war with another country since the days of Napoleon, and today’s map is straightforward. Since Sweden has no Russian border, joining NATO ought to be easier for the Swedes than for the Finns. Because the Finns have jumped out front, Elizabeth Braw says Sweden has won the NATO lottery.
Americans are pretty proud of our opinions, and being Americans, we expect them to matter a whole lot. Trouble is, U.S. opinion reflects very little of the lived experience of the 65 million people living in the seven countries around the Baltic excluding Germany and Russia.
Here in the United States our idea of freedom, our brashness and swagger and gun culture and concealed carry laws and disdain for those who would protect us with masks, they’re not quite the same idea of freedom our frontline European allies have in this war. Here, freedom comes with standing with a gun and proclaiming it. There, freedom comes from standing with a gun and meaning it.
Where we make noise with fireworks on July 4th, to celebrate Finland’s freedom from Russia every December 6th Finns light candles in their windows. In December it’s dark by 3:30.
In contrast to the rambunctious American version of freedom, Matt Dinan describes a northern view, a view that also prevails in Nordic winter: “In Canada or the snowier parts of New England and the Midwest, winter travel always bears an implied asterisk. This small but meaningful restriction of freedom puts the lie to the dream of unbounded freedom or autonomy.”
Well meaning Americans like that “dream of unbounded freedom,” sort of an unlimited, abstract, all-you-can-eat freedom, but that’s not quite the type of freedom the Baltic nations are after. They want freedom from the very real threat of invasion.
And so in the coming days Finnish Prime Minister Marin will set Finland’s formal NATO application process in motion. On April 15th Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto (Green) told state broadcaster YLE that “if Finland is going to submit an application for membership, it will happen in the next six weeks.” That means by the end of May.
The Finnish constitution endows the presidency with the foreign affairs portfolio. In President Niinistö’s shuttling between NATO capitals he will be asking for swift accession, hoping to forestall Russian belligerence in the interregnum between acceptance of Finland’s application and attainment of Article 5 protection.
How fast can they get it done? There’s no exact precedent, but Montenegro took about 18 months in 2017/2018, North Macedonia took 14 months in 2020 and Croatia and Albania, who joined together in 2009, took twelve.
None of these cases are entirely analogous to Finland’s prospective membership; Finland“boasts a higher degree of interoperability with NATO allies and a longer track record of partnership. Given the current exceptional situation, the process could be remarkably quick.”
Until it is done, Finnish political leadership is trying to inoculate the public against inevitable Russian sabre rattling. Dmitri Medvedev declared that “There can be no more talk of any nuclear–free status for the Baltic – the balance must be restored.”
Finnish Foreign Minister Haavisto was dismissive. “Russia’s position on Finland and Sweden joining NATO has been common knowledge for a long time, and the reaction is therefore predictable and expected,” he said.
Besides, that really is all just so much bluster inasmuch as nuclear weapons have resided in Kaliningrad for at least several years. And Finland’s Santa Claus village near the Arctic Circle at Rovaniemi, which welcomes around half a million tourists each year, is something like 250 air miles away from the Gadzhiyevo naval base on the Kola Peninsula, “likely Russia’s most important location for naval strategic nuclear forces.”
The Foreign Minister’s “nothing to see here folks” stance doesn’t entirely calm the conspiracy-minded Nordic heart, though. Unsettling things do happen. Stories abound in communities in Finnish Karelia and Savo, near Russia, about suspicious Russian land purchases and general perfidy. The Carnegie Endowment has a list: “Mock attacks by Russian bombers in the middle of the night. Mysterious mini-submarines appearing in the waters outside Stockholm. A small private island in the southern Gulf of Bothnia bristling with satellite antennae and a heliport.”
Finland punches above its weight in part because it’s a small country with a largely homogenous population (like Sweden), that can act with more solidarity that a fractious, larger US or, say, France. This plays to its advantage in times of stress. It also has a certain national pride. It thinks it’s done pretty well as a small country unavoidably adjacent to a stifling giant.
Finland will be unique from other Russia-facing NATO forces. It has demonstrated performance as a cohesive defensive force, it has no legacy of aging former Warsaw Bloc equipment and no legacy of former Soviet training.
The three Baltic NATO members and the former Warsaw Pact NATO countries are all undermilitarized for a real conflict and rely on symbolic US forces as tripwires. For example, through a rotating NATO group called Atlantic Resolve, before the Russian invasion of Ukraine there were 1867 American troops in Poland, 1134 in Romania, 77 in Hungary, 55 in Estonia, 22 in Bulgaria, 18 in Lithuania, 15 in Czechia, 14 in Latvia and 12 in Slovakia.
Compare that to “The Warsaw Pact’s more than 3 million troops — most of them Soviet — [who] never fought their Cold War NATO adversaries, and the chief action they saw was in crushing popular anti-Communist movements inside member countries” as the Washington Post put itin a 1990 article marking the Warsaw Pact’s dissolution.
We came to see the state of those Soviet troops as underfunded and desperate. As Warsaw pact troops pulled out, M. E. Sarotte writes that “Soviet forces smashed barracks, ripped out telephone lines, set off unannounced explosions, and left an environmental ‘mess’ including leaking oil barrels. They also started selling their weaponry, ‘including tanks,’ on the black market.” Such was the state of play from which Hungary, Poland,Czechoslovakia and Romania were left to build their own sovereign defenses.
In the soon to be Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania the task was more grim. I remember personally the head-shaking disgust with which newly sovereign Estonians described how retreating Russian soldiers pulled out and ran off with all the wiring in their barracks, to sell the copper at home.
From those desperate beginnings these impoverished newly independent states had to stand up their own armies, none of which have ever had to defend their countries against an assault, in contrast to the state of high readiness in Finland today.
For all that, there still comes the military question whether all NATO member governments would be keen to introduce 833 miles of new Russian border to the alliance. One argument is that “Unlike many NATO allies … Finland did not significantly reduce its emphasis on territorial defense in favor of expeditionary capabilities abroad.” Finland says it’s ready.
Viewed from some remove, it’s a bold and admirable thing that Finnish politicians are doing, audacious given their unique place in history, casting their lot loudly and publicly with democracy at no small physical risk to themselves and their people. That it is courageous there is no doubt. Whether it’s a profound mistake has yet to be seen.
Let us reflect on what Vladimir Putin has done with his invasion of Ukraine. With a future accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO, he will have caused an expansion of the alliance by 300,000 square miles (an area almost twice the size of California) on 833 miles of his border. NATO will add 280,000 Finnish soldiers, Finnish artillery (the biggest artillery force in Europe), 200 Swedish jet fighters, 65 from Finland, and the Baltic Sea will become NATO’s inland sea. Says the Guardian, “by Nato’s Madrid summit in June, Nato will be on course to expand its population by 16 million, its GDP by €800bn and its land mass by 780,000 sq km.”
Putin’s actions have motivated interested parties he can’t control, whose own actions are already busy reshaping European security. Without solving the question of whether NATO is part to blame or whether Russia has brought all this on itself, we can be sure that the resulting sanctions, boycotts and the European decision to wean itself from Russian energy will wound Russia deeply. Here may be a more critical long term worry, peril from the wounded and howling giant. In time, who created a paranoid nuclear state may become less important than what to do about it.
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.
Trouble’s brewing around the borders of Ukraine. People who don’t make eastern Europe a daily concern need context, and maps help. It’s beginning to look like we’ll be talking about Ukraine for some time to come, so to help orient yourself, and get briefed up on what may be the coming storm, here are a few maps. First, Ukraine itself:
Ukraine borders Russia to its east, Belarus to its north, and to its west, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova. Russian troops occupy the Donbass region in the east and Crimea in the south.
Here, Ukraine and its northern neighbors:
Note Kaliningrad, between Poland and Lithuania. It’s an exclave of Russia, a heavily armed artifact of WWII. The short border between Poland and Lithuania is called the Suwalki Gap, an area of vulnerability for NATO, as a Russian move to close that gap between Kaliningrad and Belarus would cut off the NATO Baltic states.
Belarus is increasingly a satrapy of Russia and as of the week of January 17, Russian troops have been moving into Belarus. The presence of Russian forces in Belarus is ominous not only for the Suwalki Gap, but also because Russian troops are taking positions along the Belarus/Ukraine border, ahead of coming war games with Belarusian troops promised for February 10 – 20.
Here is a map from the Belarusian Ministry of Defense showing the locations of the planned war games. Note in particular that the tank maneuvers anticipated in Belarus’s west (arrow) border the Suwalki Gap:
As you can see in the map below, the border area Russia occupies in Ukraine’s east, the Donbass, is much farther away from the Ukrainian capital Kyiv than is the Belarusian border. Kyiv (this is the spelling in the Ukrainian language. In Russian it’s Kiev) is mostly on the west bank of the Dnieper River, so an incursion from Belarus would allow Russia to avoid having to cross the river, although they’d likely to go around to the west of Chernobyl. Nevertheless, the travel time between Kyiv and Chernobyl is scarcely more than an hour.
Now here is Ukraine’s south and the Black Sea:
Russian landing craft recently set out from the Baltic Sea Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. These are now apparently en route to the Black Sea, having been escorted out of the Baltic Sea on Wednesday, January 19th. Transit time to the Black Sea, estimates are plus or minus eight days.
Besides in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region there are three so-called “frozen conflicts” around the Black Sea where Russia has troops:
Chances are we’ll refer back to these maps in the days to come.
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. In the knowledge that all this may be overtaken by events next week, here are some observations today. Please add your thoughts.
Today is 7 April, 2020:
• It is remarkable how self-evident it is that the entire intellectual framework that ran our economic world until last month was wrong.
• We’ve all seen the photos, clear waters instead of used condoms in Venetian canals and so on. The virus shakes politicians by the shoulders considerably more starkly than the scolding teenaged Swede (bless her just the same). Perhaps the virus can help the planet self-correct, if just a bit. Or at least incrementally slow its death march.
“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, and the continuing fear of another epidemic may motivate calls for national self-sufficiency.”
• Tomas Sedlacek says we might as well try to take advantage of a situation we can’t do much about anyway. There are advantages to disadvantages. Like, in his case, Prague without the tourists.
• Winners: hands, and dogs. Neither has ever had as much attention.
Hungary’s legislature has approved measures granting Prime Minister Viktor Orban power to bypass parliament, put people in jail for “spreading false information” about the coronavirus – and cancel elections.
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, we can give it a go. Please add your thoughts.
Today is the first day of Thursday, 26 March, 2020:
• Something I’ve been wondering, once leaders of the western democracies see how easy it is to rule by fiat, for example summarily ordering their publics off the streets, how willing will they be to return to the status quo ante? Anne Applebaum writes about it way better than I can. James Holmes has a theory
“that demographic stress makes a society more like itself. In other words, it reinforces the society’s basic character. When trouble strikes, the society’s members reach for familiar ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. They respond in ways tested in, and seemingly verified by, past experience. Stress drives discourses about diplomacy and strategy toward extreme versions of these familiar ways, and action follows that trend.”
If he’s right, the next couple of years will speak volumes about European and North American leadership.
In addition to the growing COVID-19 pandemic, several countries in East Africa are battling the worst locust infestation in 70 years. Ideal breeding conditions in countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia could enable locust populations to swell by a factor of 400, which could devastate crops across the region. The agricultural industry in East Africa accounts for approximately one-third of the gross domestic product and nearly two-thirds of jobs. The economic impact of the locust swarms has been compounded as restrictions are implemented by countries trying to contain COVID-19. Additionally, reduced trade demand from China could further compound economic losses, and it may be even more difficult for affected countries to identify supplemental trade partners as more national-level restrictions are implemented by countries around the world.
“The coronavirus will have geopolitical second- and third-order effects in countries such as Iran, Iraq, Russia, Nigeria and Venezuela, whose social peace relies on oil and gas, the prices of which have sharply declined, partially due to the coronavirus.”
“It does defy belief to imagine that many countries will take on the burden of renationalizing industry or, as (Zachary) Karabell puts it, “make trillions of dollars of global investment worthless.”
• An essay by Justin E. H. Smith in The Point titled It’s All Just Beginning makes the argument, if not the prediction, that the virus should bring the time of “wanton delectation” to an end:
“The pangolin cult of the Congolese Lele people, as described by the great social anthropologist Mary Douglas, both celebrates and fears the taxonomic peculiarities of this animal, which has scales, but gives live birth, and, like human beings, births only one offspring at a time. Do they kill it and eat it? Yes, they kill it and eat it, but they know that in so doing they are knocking the cosmos out of joint, and the only way to bring it back into joint is through a fair amount of ritual catharsis. Walter Burkert points out that in ancient Greece there was no meat sold in the public market that was not ritually sacrificed: a recognition that to spill an animal’s blood is a violent and transgressive thing, and even if we must do it, we must not allow it to become profane, banal, unexceptional. Such a view lives on vestigially in the halal and kosher rules of slaughter of familiar Abrahamic faiths, but for the most part the metaphysics of meat, like the metaphysics of viruses, remains the same as it was in 1918 and indeed for some centuries before: exotic or domestic, endangered or commonplace, an animal’s meat is ours to be eaten, for we are the lords of this planet. I am not saying the current pandemic is retribution for our sin, but I will say that the Lele understood something about the pangolin that we have not, and that we are paying dearly for now: that it cannot be lightly killed for no better reason than our own delectation. That era—the era of wanton delectation—is over now, I hope, for those who had been taken in by the reckless culinary adventurism of an Anthony Bourdain as much as for the customers of the wet-markets of Wuhan.”