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.”

Two More Years of High Noon?

I’ve been trying to think how it would feel to be Liz Truss or Kwasi Kwarteng. In the past, when I have (vanishingly rarely, of course) been a wee bit obnoxious in public and realize it, I’ve always just wanted to crawl under a blanket and disappear. By comparison, it is quite a feat to embarrass not just yourself but your entire country.

Yet the current iteration of the Tory party could continue to inflict its brand of humiliation on the country for two more years.

Woe Is Kent

In his weekly newsletter for The Independent, Simon Calder laments Brexit’s contribution to the state of travel in England:

Ashford International station in south-east Kent has a problem. It is not international, unless you count the Eurostar trains that whizz past at 186mph. The same applies to Ebbsfleet International in north-west Kent. 

Both stations have cavernous halls for international passengers en route to Paris and Brussels. But the Channel Tunnel train operator closed both stations at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Even though travel demand has returned, only the London St Pancras hub remains open. The Transport Select Committee wanted to know why such valuable infrastructure has been mothballed, reducing the travel horizons of the good people of Kent. So the chair, Tory MP Huw Merriman, asked Eurostar’s chief executive, Jacques Damas, to explain.

In his two-page reply, Mr Damas did not hold back on explaining the forces ranged against the train firm. Perhaps the fact that today is his last day in the job before retirement helped his pen flow more freely. While financial pressures and engineering issues have contributed to Eurostar’s woes, the main problem is Brexit. The British insisted on becoming “third country nationals” after leaving the EU. That means border officials must carry out extra passport checks. “The stamping of British passports by Continental police adds at least 15 seconds to individual passengers’ border crossing times,” he wrote. “Even with all booths manned, St Pancras can currently process a maximum 1,500 passengers per hour versus 2,200 in 2019.”

 Cutting capacity by 30 per cent and pushing up fares, he wrote, may not look the greatest business strategy, but it has stifled demand and prevented St Pancras becoming entangled in absurdly long queues as Dover was earlier this year. Opening the Kent stations would spread resources even more thinly and add demand that cannot be met. So they will remain disconnected from Europe until at least 2025. “Eurostar cannot currently pursue a strategy of volume and growth. We are having to focus services on those core routes which make the maximum contribution per train and to charge higher prices to our customers.”

Transport expands the sphere of life; Brexit has shrunk it. And the new government has also shrunk your pounds. Having bought an expensive Eurostar ticket, your problems are only just beginning. Last Monday morning, as sterling plunged to its lowest value ever against the dollar, the bureau de change at St Pancras was charging almost £109 to obtain €100, valuing the pound at less than 92 euro cents.

 

 

One Big Thing

The trouble is, everything’s wrong, all at once.

At the beginning of Covid, Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog ruled by daily bludgeon. One big thing was wrong, and kept being wrong day after dreary winter’s day. Now you drink your tea or coffee, or carrot, celery and ginger detox, you stare at your screen and you see that you cannot win. The Fox has filled up the internet with insurmountable odds.

Late capitalism, wicked, insidious inflation, rents you can’t afford, yes yes yes, all that. Quick! Raise interest rates! Stop this damned moment when workers dare to jostle for an edge. Kill jobs and that will show them. But feverish rent- and profit-seeking is a problem we’ve had for a time.

Populism going mainstream? Silvio Berlusconi was first elected Prime Minister eighteen years ago, so bring me your Trumps, Bolsanaros and Melonis and tell me what else is new.

But a land war in Europe(!) you say? Even that has been going on for over half a year now, a baldly ignorant geopolitical move that somehow, 144 million Russians who can’t make it to queue in the Caucasus mountains can’t be troubled to denounce.

The melting of Antarctica? Ditto that. What’s a foot or two of coastal flooding – maybe even while you’re still alive – among Instagram users?

No, never mind about all that. Here is what is really important, an epochal change that is happening in this month, in this year. The real one big thing: September 2022 is the last month in the history of the world when people will pay much attention to England. Or the United Kingdom, Great Britain, the British Isles, you choose what to call that confused island set before it winks out before the eyes of the rest of the world.

Though the unending self harm of Brexit provides fresh reasons to sneek a peek through your fingers at the horror show (and shows every sign of doing so for a long time to come), the death of the queen marks the moment with perfect symbolic resonance.

God save the King is a pretty odd thing for any nation of well-educated grownups to say, and mean, in this century. Give it off to collective dynamics. Maybe. Still, they did it all very, very well, and I bow, curtsy and genuflect as best American guy can. Never again shall we see the chills-producing majesty of that awesome (in that word’s true meaning) march down the 2.64 mile, 360 plus year old Long Walk to Windsor Castle. The anachronism of the British monarchy went out with a perfectly choreographed flourish. And that is this month’s true and enduring historical event.

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.

They’re Not Making It Easy

The Covid AVDaily newsletter reacts to the UK’s “green list” of countries approved for travel without the requirement for travelers to quarantine on their return. They’re unimpressed.

They note that “it includes a number of remote islands such as South Georgia, as well as countries that are right now not welcoming tourists (e.g. Australia, New Zealand and Singapore).”

Then there is talk of passengers facing immigration queues of up to seven hours. The newsletter opines that “Governments like the UK are sending signals that they’d rather people didn’t travel. One of the most revealing parts of Friday’s announcement was when … Paul Lincoln from the UK Border Force (talked) about significant border delays. Lincoln said that each officer would be taking up to ten minutes to check every passenger … listening to him talk the message seemed to be ‘these are the consequences of you choosing to travel.’

Nobody needs that. So we’ve routed ourselves through Amsterdam Schiphol for our July visit to Finland. 

 

Fits and Starts

Here it comes in fits and starts, the return of travel. Beginning in late June a British cruise line will send out a ship capable of holding 3,647 passengers  and … just sail around, not stopping anywhere. More wandering than cruising.

China says it is processing visa requests from vaccinated individuals, but only from those who have been vaccinated with a Chinese-made vaccine, which are not available or approved in much of the world.

And the Icelandic government announced today that from tomorrow, visitors who can prove vaccination will be welcomed into the country with no test or quarantine. If you time it right, just before the coming big volcanic eruption, maybe you can trade where you’re stuck now for being stuck in Iceland.