On the Road: Back Home

Here’s my most recent column as published last week at 3QuarksDaily.com. I do a column there every fourth Monday. Here are my past columns.

On The Road: Back Home

by Bill Murray

In spring the pandemic lurked. Boris Johnson was Ukraine’s new best friend, Russia’s domination of Ukraine appeared imminent and the UK basked in the queen’s platinum jubilee. I’ve been away since spring. Have I missed anything?

Andriyivska Church (St. Andrew’s Cathedral), Kyiv, Ukraine.

The war continues. Many who caution they can’t get inside Vladimir Putin’s head proclaim from in there that his scheme is to split and outlast a freezing western alliance this winter. We operate from that premise this fall, while minding an added pinch of Kremlin nuclear horseplay.

Putin must now fulminate over his mobilization. Timothy Snyder thinks this war was meant to be played out as a Russian TV event  “about a faraway place.” But as the birches fade in Moscow, the fight creeps ever farther into the Motherland.

A month ago I was convinced mobilization wasn’t in the cards, because by the time call-ups got even the most basic training it would be that muddy time of year when the weather constrains fighting vehicles to the roads and the great European plain becomes a great big mess.

So to hell with basic training.

Novaya Gazeta Europe, now operating from Riga, reports that a “hidden article of Russia’s mobilisation order allows the Defence Ministry to draft up to one million reservists into the army,” which may or may not be Putin’s intent. But finer legal points have a distinctly irrelevant feel now, as Commander Putin appears to be personally running the war these days.

Surely he will do whatever he thinks he can get away with while eyeing the discontented stirrings of his domestic population. Which is one more thing to wait out. While waiting for the Europeans to fall to squabbling this winter he now has to placate the home folks. Pesky, that. Alexei Venediktov, the longtime editor of Ekho Moskvy, which Putin censored off the air in March, wrote in the Financial Times that “It’s unclear what collapses first — Putin, or everyone else.” Let’s watch.

Europeans surely will howl over energy prices this winter, but we’ve learned by now that the EU thrives only in crisis. Only around a threat does it cohere. The view from October suggests a fraught winter when anything might happen.

One safe bet: The shifty, on-paper-only Russian land grab in four of Ukraine’s regions won’t lead to a renaissance on either side of the purported new border. Novaya Gazeta Europe published the obvious: “The country’s economy will fail to reconstruct the facilities in the occupied territories due to the sanctions and general economic isolation.”

Despite aid from an impressive list of countries, Albania to Vietnam (the US’s contribution as of early October surpassing seventeen billion dollars), prewar Ukrainian territory on either side of Russia’s occupation lies in ruin.

“The Ukraine Rapid Damage and Needs Assessment – August 2022”, a report from the World Bank, the Government of Ukraine, and the European Commission, shows catastrophic damage. Here’s a summary: 

World Bank chart

Then there are human needs. The UN counts 7.6 million Ukrainians displaced, some seventeen percent of the country, with a quarter million uprooted Ukrainians living in Warsaw alone. Most are women and children, a percentage of whom are destined never to return to the domestic circumstance they enjoyed before the war because either their husband or their home will be gone. A further percentage of those who do will resume their relationship with a husband suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

At the very beginning of this war the atrocities at Bucha chased away all the Ukrainian doves. Whether or not Putin ordered war crimes, he has condoned them and he is evermore complicit in their shame. Ukrainians know this viscerally and will offer him no way out. So we get quotes from advisers to President Zelenskiy like Mykhailo Podolyak, who told Reuters Ukraine will not be deterred even by a nuclear attack.

The fight goes on.

Coda: What about the strange case of the missing Russian air force? “(O)ne of many unanswered questions is why Russia has launched a military campaign at huge cost with maximalist objectives, and then declined to use the vast majority of its fixed wing combat aircraft.” This quote, from Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, came on the fifth day of the Russian invasion, and remains true 231 days later. Surely it’s the strangest element of how this war has developed. Is the Russian military holding back in case of having to fight NATO? Has it already raided every microchip from all those imported dishwashers?

•••••

 

Moscow, USSR, 1986

On August 30th Mikhail Gorbachev died. His legacy depends on whom you ask. Margaret Thatcher? Gorbachev was a Soviet leader she could do business with. A Berliner? Gorbachev acquiesed to reunification of their city. But ask a 1990s supporter of Lithuanian independence. Gorbachev’s armored personnel carriers seized the TV tower in Vilnius, killing 13.

(If you can hunt one down, buy the still-thrilling book of contemporaneous accounts of the Soviet collapse, the New York Times’s The Collapse of Communism.)

Ironically, Gorbachev’s halting moves toward easing repression in the 1980s led to disdain from the people of the Soviet empire (an early anti-alcohol campaign didn’t help). Newly granted freedoms allowed the Soviet fringes to beg for, then demand more, turning the Soviet ship toward Putin’s “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

Twenty-five years out of office Gorbachev used the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster to finger it as a turning point in the Soviet collapse, claiming he came to think about time in pre-Chernobyl and post-Chernobyl terms. “The Chernobyl disaster,” he wrote, “opened the possibility of much greater freedom of expression, to the point that the system as we knew it could no longer continue.” 

Having first visited Moscow three months after the Chernobyl catastrophe, I became interested, studied the disaster closely and subsequently visited Chernobyl. It may serve the former General Secretary to see the collapse of the USSR on his watch as brought on by cataclysm, by an event with effects far beyond the control of a mortal leader, but the truth is, Gorbachev didn’t grant the “much greater freedom of expression” Chernobyl set in train. It rode in on the shock tide of the government’s dismal opacity with vital health information. Soviet citizens were appalled and disgusted.

Radiation was mysterious, menacing, personal and permanent. Before, most people were good Soviet citizens in the same way you might be a good American, Brazilian or Filipino. Only dissidents were dissidents, there weren’t many of them, and nobody thought they were very important.

Chernobyl’s fateful reactor four

But Chernobyl made things personal. Now there was radiation in your little girl’s milk. They said the government mixed irradiated cow meat with uncontaminated beef and sold it across the land, to dilute all the contaminated meat, and people believed it. Now your government was trying to poison you.

Behind the monolith lurked only mortals, panicked and mendacious. Chernobyl punched holes through the Soviet ramparts and facts poured out. Like Nixon in Watergate, Gorbachev changed the subject. He took his road show to Havana in April 1988. Fidel Castro stroked his beard and declared, “Perestroika is another man’s wife. I don’t want to get involved.”

The empire reeled, and at every extremity. In February 1989 Lt. General Boris Gromov’s fortieth army, untold columns of troops, tanks and armored personnel carriers slunk back across the Friendship Bridge into the Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan, bringing to a close a nine year occupation of Afghanistan that cost 15,000 lives.

The Soviet Union’s Eastern European satellites were wobbling out of orbit and by autumn they fell from the Soviet sky. Gorbachev the traveling salesman visited Helsinki. His spokesman Gannadi Gerasimov made weak light of the situation. “You know the Frank Sinatra song, ‘I Did It My Way’?” he asked reporters. “Hungary and Poland are doing it their way.”

Two weeks later the Berlin Wall was down and now the Soviet republics themselves were afray. Soviet fighting vehicles dispersed a demonstration, killing 20 in Tbilisi. Azerbaijani villagers beat Armenians and Armenians ejected Azeris, igniting the Nagorno-Karabakh War that lasted six years and killed some 30,000. And by then it was too late. Political prisoners were out of the gulag, the cat was out of the bag and the whole shabby thing fell down.

While Gorbachev failed in the end to reform his own system, as Mark Galeotti says, he was “a failure for all the right reasons,” and his troubles did begin the Cold War’s demise. Last Wednesday, just a month and a half after his death, the Biden administration’s new National Security Strategy, bookended the Gorbachev era by declaring “the post-Cold War era is definitively over.”

•••••

Vladimir Putin’s accomplishments, so far.

In spring both Finland and Sweden were in a froth about NATO and in a great frenzied hurry to get in there. I only have first hand knowledge from Finland, but there at least, they’re still in a hurry. Polls reflect historic support for NATO, and although everybody is pretty sure Russia has its hands full in Ukraine, online Finnish groups this summer urged visitors to bring a radio, in case cyberattacks took the utterly wired Nordic countries off the grid, and during our yearly visit in July, potassium iodide pills commanded a bounty in eastern Finland, when they could be found at all.

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö has declined to rule out allowing nuclear weapons on Finnish territory. Speaking at the inaugural Helsinki Security Forum three weeks ago, he said “We don’t have any particular requests or reservations that we would be setting as preconditions for our membership.”

Coming from the taciturn Finns, this is astonishing, because it sets up the possibility of nuclear weapons 600 miles from Moscow and 250 miles from St. Petersburg. On the other hand, Russian nukes have long been scarcely a hundred miles away from Finland and Norway, in and around Russia’s Arctic submarine bases near Murmansk. Mainly right now, first things first. Finland just wants in.

Hungary and Türkiye were always expected to be the biggest obstacles and they still are. All the other NATO countries have approved Finland and Sweden’s membership. As to Hungary, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto says “this will take a while. But (Haavisto’s counterpart, Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó) said that they are dealing with Finland and Sweden together, and that they don’t foresee any obstacles.”

The public reason for Türkiye’s objection is the Nordics’ refugee policies, through which some pro-Kurdish agitators have been granted asylum and even citizenship. Ironically, Sweden was the first Scandinavian state to recognize the Turkish Republic in 1923, and Stockholm has always supported Türkiye’s EU bid.

Both countries are straining to accommodate the Turkish President. In June both countries agreed to “address Turkey’s pending deportation or extradition requests of terror suspects expeditiously.” Last month Sweden’s Inspectorate of Strategic Products reversed a ban against exporting military equipment to Türkiye (though it hasn’t said what equipment is moving), and a flurry of meetings continues.

President Erdoğan’s objections are plausible enough, as far as they go. But behind the refugee issue lie a couple of less public considerations, namely the perilous state of the Turkish economy, and Erdoğan’s poll ratings, both of which beg Erdoğan to puff out the Presidential chest and play to anti-western nationalism.

Erdoğan’s Shaky Prospects

Emmanuel Macron’s new talking shop, the European Political Community, afforded an opportunity for a flurry of face to face meetings in Prague early this month. There, Erdoğan tried to pry the Nordics apart: “As long as the terrorist organizations are demonstrating on the streets of Sweden, and as long as the terrorists are inside the Swedish parliament, there is not going to be a positive approach from Turkey towards Sweden,” he said.

On the other hand, “The relations with Finland are quite different in nature than those between Sweden and Turkey,” Erdoğan said. “Finland is not a country where terrorists are roaming freely.”

The Finns weren’t having it, the Finnish Prime Minister emphasizing Finland and Sweden would stand together or the NATO bid would fall apart. “I think it’s important for Finland and Sweden to join NATO at the same time because it’s a matter of security in northern Europe,” Sanna Marin said. Her Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto reinforced that idea last week, telling the Finnish national broadcaster YLE, “This is bad news, because it is very important that Finland and Sweden join NATO at the same time, including with regard to NATO’s defence planning.”

And that is where we are at the end of summer: Türkiye remains unsatisfied with Sweden’s amnesty policies and continues to push for extradition of people it calls terror suspects. As to Hungary, “[Putin] loves the idea that he has a buddy inside NATO who is his spoiler, who makes things difficult,”” says “András Simonyi, Hungary’s first ambassador to NATO.

Sweden held a general election last month which has resulted in a change in government. Parliament is scheduled to vote today on the Prime Ministership of Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson, who, for the sake of getting this done, will leave the outgoing government’s NATO negotiator in place. I wonder whether in the end Erdoğan’s aim is to emerge from his Levantine negotiating bazaar with US F-35 aircraft.

Should the Nordics eventually accede to NATO, non-aligned European countries will comprise a dwindling European club. Austria, for one, is feeling a little lonely. Its Defense Minister looks on the bright side, hoping maybe someday Cypress, Ireland, Malta and Austria can use their good offices as mediators. “At some point, not at the present time — but at some point, this day will come,” she says.

•••••

Four weeks ago we participated in a world moment we will never see again, the pageantry and spectacle of laying the Queen of England in the ground. Paul Kingsnorth called it “a rolling, dense mat of symbolism,” and only the hardest-hearted thought it anything but moving and flawlessly done.

In the distant political past of last month, most of us who view monarchy as anachronism found it appropriate for the moment to praise the queen rather than criticize the institution, withholding tacit rights to criticize the monarchy later. As the royal death set a fleeting moment of magnanimity swelling in the breasts of us all, I felt it fair to give Liz Truss a break. Her agenda having been entirely derailed right out of the gate was none of her fault. (I’d have counseled, girl, it gives you an extra ten days to polish up all the stuff you’re going to do.) I mean, Elizabeth II died just two days after Truss took office, for goodness sakes.

Now that we’ve seen her agenda, to hell with magnanimity. Time has left the ruling Thatcherite rump of the Tory party behind and everyone can see it but the ruling Thatcherite rump of the Tory party, and even they are looking over their shoulders. Forty-one days on there are no shortages of eulogies for Truss’s Prime Ministership.

Side question: Who wrote Truss’s Downing Street eulogy? “The rock on which modern Britain was built?” Really? Eh. All the eloquence of seventh grade.

•••••

One last thing: Mickey Dolenz, Monkees drummer and singer of (I’m not your) Steppin’ Stone, sued the FBI last month, seeking release of a dossier it kept on the Monkees. A previously released excerpt reads “During a Monkees concert, subliminal messages were depicted on the screen which, in the opinion of” an agent whose name is redacted “constituted ‘left-wing innovations of a political nature’ including video footage of ‘anti-US messages on the war in Vietnam.’”

Also last month the FBI declassified its file on Aretha Franklin. It is a 270-page document, noting “Franklin’s performances for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, of which (Martin Luther) King was president. The FBI labeled these shows, held in Memphis and Atlanta in 1967 and 1968, as ‘communist infiltration’ events.”

Russia’s Border Problem with Georgia

We’ve been seeing videos of desperate fighting age Russian men mobbing Russia’s border with Georgia, and I must say, I don’t remember that border quite that way.

Some sixteen years ago I visited that border as an inadvertent part of a trip through the Caucasus, and stayed in the village of Kazbegi. We stayed at a guest house called the Stepansminda.

Just to be there in the first place, traveling up the spectacular Georgia Military Highway from Tbilisi toward the majestic Mt. Kazbeg (16,581 feet), wasn’t straightforward. So I went back to look up what I wrote at the time:

Besides us, the Stepansminda apparently had no overnight guests except Chris Adam, a man from Raleigh, North Carolina. Chris was dark and slight, well conditioned, and wore the look of a man who had been here too long. He had a personal driver and a personal translator at work. He was here to build the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-engineered border post with Russia, a few miles up the road along the river.

Borderpost

We drove up to see him. Inside his office, a metal shed, we saw fantastic blueprints, which foresaw a fanciful, modern outpost of civilization right here on this spot, unlike anything vaguely in actual evidence here. Chris’s driver sat inside, a hairy Georgian who was always on his cell phone. He sat over a laptop and I asked, astonished, if they had the internet out here and he smiled, no, it was movies.

One month later the border, the only proper border between Russia and Georgia, was closed. After a week of back and forth provocations in Russian-occupied South Ossetia, the Russians closed it with two hours notice on the pretext that their side needed “repair work.”

In confirming that, Chris gamely e-mailed that “now I do not need to worry about vehicle and pedestrian traffic.” 

Here is the original 2006 article with links to other things I wrote at the time about Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Autumn in Russia

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.

Sea Change

This article was originally published at 3QuarksDaily.com.

The Finnish Capital

I

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.

The Swedish Capital

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 of  the 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.

II

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.

The Finnish Capital

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.”

III

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 Resolvebefore 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 it in 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 borderNATO 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.

Where We Are Now

Helmuth von Moltke is right again. His quote that “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy” holds true. Russia underestimated Ukrainian resistance. It also hasn’t displayed much logistic finesse. But the West also made some bad assumptions. First, it overestimated the Russian military. A month ago we all engaged in speculation whether Russia would form a land bridge to Crimea, or perhaps take Ukraine right up to the Dnieper, and any of that seemed more or less plausible.

Something else the West got wrong. It underestimated its own populations. The West prepared sanctions to punish Russia but the various countries’ individual populations, in a synergy with and admiration of Ukraine’s population, got out ahead of Western politicians and showed they wanted steps taken, not just to punish Russia, but to win the war.

Tentative early bets: Russian military leadership is replaced for lack of logistic finesse (traffic jams), failure to motivate troops. Still unclear is whether they’ll be cleaned out by the current or future political leadership. Russian military hardware itself may be non-trivially degraded too. Surely shoulder mounted weaponry must be pouring across Ukraine’s open western border to jam up that extraordinarily long column of Russia hdardware northeast of Kyiv. Leaving that west border so open may thus be seen as a further tactical error by Russian military leadership.

Finally, there is a Vladimir Lenin quote, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” The very idea that Germany ever even considered it would be all right to build a pipeline around Ukraine for itself, with all of seven days of hindsight, looks utterly self-centered and wildly haughty. The realization that that’s so apparent now is one measure of how much the world has changed.

It’s a very dynamic situation after week one with the West far more deeply engaged that they’d thought. Precedents have been set – the EU sending arms, dramatic German engagement, sanctioning of the Russian central bank. This one in particular wasn’t even on the agenda. Central banks are institutions that until now had been thought of as sovereign, like embassies are on foreign soil. 

Tonight it looks like we’re approaching a siege of Kyiv. I think it’s a good time to pull back from the blow by blow for a couple of days and listen to smart people (there are brilliant podcasts out there. One I recommend right now in particular is Ukr World). Meanwhile I’ll continue to curate the Assault on Ukraine Twitter list of Ukrainians, Officials, Ambassadors, OSINT, Think Tanks, Neighboring Countries, Reporters and others. It provides constant updates from actively engaged actors.

It’s here: https://twitter.com/i/lists/1467909429534380034

Live Ukraine War Coverage

I’ve assembled a Twitter list you can follow for constantly updated news from Russia’s war on Ukraine. Click see the latest news, and if you’re on Twitter, please retweet the list.

Here’s What I Think

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.