The Political Marble: BlaiseP reads the Ukraine entrails

HankP says US foreign policy and security policy is still engaged in self-defeating Cold War tactics. As a veteran of an intricate proxy war waged under the larger rubric of the Cold War, I don't share his opinion. But there's lots to agree with in his diary: there are no Good Guys in this squabble, as there were none in mine.

Anciently, there were two ways to be Russian, centred on Kiev or Moscow. Yaroslav the Wise would break free of the decaying Byzantine world to become the first truly Russian ruler and it was he who wrote the first Russian laws. Yaroslav ruled from Kiev and with his death, the Kievan Rus fell into internecine warfare and eventual suzerainty of the Grand Duchy of Moscow.

These are not mere factoids. Let's not concentrate on irrelevant issues of sovereignty in the Ukraine. This is a struggle for identity involving both Kiev and Moscow. The current definitions no longer work: new ones must be devised from far older models than the Communists or the Tsars. Putin has become a new prince in the terribly old model of Yaroslav the Wise.

Put a political marble on the floor of eastern Europe and it will roll toward a cathedral. Ukrainian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Catholic - might as well amend that statement to say the marble might roll toward a mosque, for there are Muslims to consider, even within Ukraine. Neither the Ukrainians nor the Russians of the area like to admit it, but they've been ruled by Muslims for many centuries, first by the Tatars, then by the Ottoman Empire.

Stalin exacted a terrible revenge on the Tatars, ethnically cleansing them out of the Crimea. Stalin systematically starved millions of Ukrainians in the Holomodor. If the subject of fascism is to enter this discussion, the Third Reich starved more people to death than ever died in the designated Death Camps. Stalin learned a thing or three about how to manage rebellious subject peoples. The Russians are not universally beloved throughout the Ukraine, shall we say.

Hank observes the West merely wants to fleece the region and plunder its resources. Here is the reality: both Russia and the Ukraine have been fleeced and plundered by their own wretched leadership. The West was complicit in all of it, bowing and scraping before the wealthy New Boyars of Russia and Ukraine, stashing their ill-gotten wealth in European banks. Mansions in Belgravia, great yachts in the Mediterranean, Gulfstream jets taxiing up to private airports in Switzerland and Lichtenstein, disgorging suitcases full of cash and diamonds: the New Boyars strutted and preened in their garish splendour while their servile European accomplices and toadies unloaded those suitcases. The West was never clever enough to do a proper job of plundering, nor did they need to: the Russians and Ukrainians handled it all themselves. The West merely needed to provide safe haven for the loot.

Forget the military implications of this mess. The Russian military is a paper tiger, good enough for a bit of bullying and occupation but its navy lies rusting at anchor in Sevastopol, more a pollution hazard than a military threat. Russia's air force is a dismal thing, its infantry and armor equally so. This is a war for hearts and minds. If someone calls himself a Russian and another Ukrainian, these are not statements of political identity: the political marble rolls toward the cathedral, not some bit of Soviet-era architecture.

Sevastopol is Russia's equivalent of Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. As the US would never relinquish its hold on the tip of Cuba, so Russia will never retreat from Sevastopol. Nor will the Ukrainians put up much of a fight for the Crimea. It will most likely become yet another Russian quasi-state, think Belarus or Transnistria, Moldova and the like. A flag, a song and a petty duke, reporting to his emperor in Moscow. There you are, gentlemen and ladies, the future of Crimea.

The Ukraine won't contest the Crimea. But Putin has already shown he isn't willing to fight for the rest of the Ukraine. Look at him, too ashamed to send in uniformed troops, sending in a handful of Spetsnatz / GRU as he has done in Syria, also without uniforms.

Putin has his foot in a bear trap he set for others. Putin tolerated the excesses of Yanukovich for too long. Now the Europeans have frozen the bank accounts holding those ill-gotten gains. Seems the aforementioned servile accomplices and toadies weren't quite as servile as all that.

Putin now blusters (always a sign of weakness) about seizing Western assets in Russia. Which assets, precisely? A few economic zones? The West did not loot Russia nor is that loot in Russia. That loot is in Western banks and investment houses. It is an empty threat.

Try doing business in Russia, you'll find out you must deal with proxies. For Russia is asymptotically corrupt and Putin does not control all that corruption. Oh, he might periodically murder or exile anyone who might threaten his cabal. But Putin can only stay in power while he can reward his enforcers. But really, Putin is not a tsar on the model of Ivan Grozny nor yet a vicious autocrat in the model of Stalin. Putin is a recapitulation of the ancient Russian kings, who ruled through personal strength of will, not by any mandate granted him by the rule of law. Look at him, flexing his muscles, all that bare chest Rambo BS, wrestling wild animals and wild women. Thus did the kings of old. This is the 21st century, Vladimir Vladimirovich. The era of the nation state is coming to an end. The European Union will have no dealings with a petty oligarchy such as Russia. Quit living in the 15th century.

Russia can't even control Chechnya or Abkhazia or even Georgia, for all that. The tighter Putin squeezes his fist, the more dirt falls out of it. If Putin is not a stupid man, he is a man lost in the fog of history, as were most of the tsars before him. But Putin has an option here, one which seems to have occurred to nobody: allow the political marble to roll to Moscow, as it has always done, throughout the centuries.

If another such marble rolls to Kiev in the Ukraine, Kiev is only a Local Minimum on a far larger landscape, one Putin controls reasonably well, one he has assiduously cultivated, the spiritual landscape of Russia. Putin is a fine wrestler by all accounts. He should know his political judo well enough to understand how to lever his opponents' force to his advantage. So what, Ukraine enters into the EU. But Putin controls the gas pipelines. Ukrainian nationalism is a stupid thing. Hank's right, there's a whole lot of ignorant and ur-fascist talk being bandied about in Kiev. But there's a good deal of lying propaganda coming out of Russia, especially Russian state media denying the utterance of this fart about how Russia doesn't have troops in the Crimea. It does and there's no good reason to deny it, Russia has the right and the need to use the port of Sevastopol.

There are good guys in this equation, none at all. Petty, greedy little creatures, each intent upon enriching himself, herself (Tymoshenko the supposed heroine of Ukraine, grown fabulously wealthy on Russian gas deals) - now waving flags about, singing songs, whipping up the mobs. If the Russians are thugs, and they are, the Ukrainian mobs have pissed in the soup of their own revolution.

As for Hank's charge of US connivance in the Ukrainian revolution, our Department of Agitprop is as useless as the Russian Navy. Couldn't find its own buttocks in the dark with a map and a flashlight. Yes, the USA backs all sorts of interest groups, hopefully backing some winners, instilling in them a few American principles about how such struggles are to be won. But our Department of Agitprop kinda forgets the basic principle of democracy, that it can't be transplanted. It must arise from the consent of the governed and isn't always helped along from the outside. Thus the USA failed in Iraq and Afghanistan both.

Gogol, one of the wisest and funniest writers Russia ever produced, wrote a book called The Inspector General, generally accepted as the best caricature of Russia ever written. In it, Gogol said "The more destruction there is everywhere, the more this reveals the influence of the town authorities."

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HankP Was Right.

mmghosh's picture

"People here respect power, the oligarchs are wealthy, well known and well respected. They are seen as guarantors of stability," says local journalist Denis Tkachenko.


Many of Ukraine's oligarchs, an elite club of around a dozen billionaires, amassed their wealth following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Rich in natural resources, Ukraine's east became a battleground for influence as a new generation of entrepreneurs vied for ownership of lucrative factories and coal and steel mines.


Tkachenko agrees: "It's a smart move to bring in the oligarchs – their business interests are here and they will fight to protect the region because of this."

freedom is a fundamental value that does not need to be justified in terms of some other value like efficiency

Putin needed those oligarchs. He lost them all.


By allowing this situation to degenerate so far, Putin's hopes for a greater sphere of Russia-centric economic cooperation, the Eurasian Economic Community, has just imploded.  Putin has already lost the war.  He still has a few battles to fight but he's lost the war.  Flags and speeches and songs and torchlight parades do not fill stewpots.

One fun fact is that no country will willingly give up nukes

mmghosh's picture

from now on.  If Ukraine had held on to its nukes, maybe there would be no intervention in the Crimea.

freedom is a fundamental value that does not need to be justified in terms of some other value like efficiency

Yep. "Nonproliferation" is starting to sound like another


word for imperialism. Refusing to protect to sovereign integrity of non-nuclear states is probably the worst thing we could possibly do long-term if we really want a nuclear free world. 

"Hell is truth seen too late." --Thomas Hobbes

Heh. The Ukrainian kleptocrats would have sold those nukes


if given half a chance.  Do you realise Ukraine's economy is half the size it was in 1991?  Poland's has doubled, Ukraine has halved. 



But, freeeeeedom!

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” -George Bernard Shaw

Now this is why I keep coming


Now this is why I keep coming back here...  A unique POV.  I can read the party line stuff anywhere.

That cheers me up tremendously.


I've been trying to avoid political blogging but the Crimea thing was too much provocation.  I was writing elsewhere and getting dumb comments by the truckload.  So I'm back for a while, to get this latest bunch of thinking out of my system, in a forum where the dumbassery is at least attenuated somewhat.  Though it might not get as many hits, I'd rather write for a few smarter people, as once I did more regularly here.

Overall, Nice Read


I differ mainly in that our "department of Agit Prop", as you call it, is considerably more effective than you think.


At least, it's effective in starting these things, as it has in many countries over the past few years. I'll admit, if that's your argument, that it is far less capable of controlling the results of these frankenpolitical experiments. But it can get the ball rolling, for sure. In any case, if the strategic resource contracts are signed in the right way, and the debt is levered up to assure compliance, the department doesn't really care if the result is a democracy. Of course they know it cannot be transplanted. But ultimately this is of little importance in the overall scheme of things, of business.


The truth of it lies somewhere between yours and Hank's depictions. It has little to do with the fiction you can find in the Times, let alone Fox.

This was clear enough to Larkin, whose patriotism rested on the notion that England was the worst place on earth with the possible exception of everywhere else.

The USA is always a-meddling, pushing its fingers into orifices


best left unexplored. Ukraine is a failed state in every way. We did nothing to help these erstwhile Soviet Socialist Republics when they really needed such help. Fact is, our attention was distracted by other little brush fire wars, most of which arose from just such US amateur proctocology. Central America. Meddling with Iraq, conniving with Saddam in Iraq, Mubarak's Egypt, those intransigent billionaires in Saudi Arabia, always something, somewhere. The US has connived with every tinhorn dictator in modern history, a point I've made before here and elsewhere.

At some point, the US must make up its mind: either interfere constructively or don't interfere at all. Our friends and enemies alike despair of our Half-o'-this and None-o'-that and broken promises. I may not agree with all HankP has to say but there's rather more truth than error in him saying it puts the lie to the whole "but we only stand for freedom and democracy" crap that you'll read in a variety of places when discussing US foreign policy.

The USA is a republic. We delegate powers to our leaders for fixed periods of time, giving them mandate, threatening them with Trial By Re-Election should they fail to do the will of the people. We have thus engineered a long-term view out - and indecisiveness and intellectual flabbiness into our executive branch: our leaders come and go whereas our enemies remain in power for many decades. They can outwait one president and his fractious, self-centred Congress. We're all about appearances, not about substantive reforms, even within our own national constructs. If our enemies are warlords and petty tyrants, our politicians are whores and honest people do not seek high office.

But that's the problem

HankP's picture

the foreign policy establishment doesn't get cleaned out every time the label switches from D to R or vice versa. I don't see that the views of a war criminal like Kissinger are different in any meaningful respect from what we heard under the Bush administration or what we hear now from the Obama administration. The presentation may be different but the underlying strategies and methods haven't changed. In real terms, Bush may have been pro-war in Iraq and Obama may have been anti-war in Iraq, but what actual differences are there in results? No matter who was elected President we would have been out of Iraq in a few years (and no sooner), Obama may have managed to push up the date a year or two, but that's not what I consider a huge, meaningful change in policy. Hell, look at what's going on in Ukraine right now, I don't see that a D or R after a President's name would have materially affected what we did and how we did it. This isn't something that was planned in the last year or two, it's part of an ongoing process that's been underway for at least 20 years.


You say we don't retain a Cold War view of international relations, but what else is the constant desire to encircle Russia with NATO?


You say the west has already fleeced the Ukraine, and it's true that we're happy to deposit dirty money in our banks, but there are always more opportunities when you eliminate the middleman. That's what I think is going on right now.


I blame it all on the Internet

If only we did have a coherent, stable FP community, Hank...


Look, from what I've seen, there's a thorough purging of State Dept upon the arrival of every new SecState, who mostly do the bidding of their master in the Oval Office.  The reason you don't see any difference between Nixon and Bush43 is because Kissinger's fingerprints are all over both administrations, as they are in most Republican administrations.  Zbig's policies were radically different from Scowcroft and Allen.  It may well be there's a certain amount of institutional inertia at State but these people reflect the Administration at all times and all places. 


If America's wretched foreign policy is ever to improve, it will be when ambassadorships are filled by worthy people, not by cretinous political donors.  Obama has made both sorts of appointments, both worthies and sycophants alike.  His nomination of Beecroft as ambassador to Iraq was pretty good, his godawful nominees to Iceland and Norway and Argentina were not.  But Obama kinda violated the old 70-30 rule wherein 70 percent are decent State veterans and 30 percent are unfit political hacks.  Obama has nominated about 50-50.   That translates to incoherent foreign policy all round, disrespect for our nation in general and gave Obama's enemies plenty of ammunition.


The Cold War was a chess game, just two major players, the USA and the USSR.  NATO's mission and mandate has substantially changed over time.  This ain't Zimmermen Long Telegram stuff.  We now share real estate on the International Space Station with the Russians.  They shuttle our astronauts up and down from there.   Our two nations have far too much in common, especially common enemies, to ever allow our relationship to degenerate into a shooting war.  It's the erstwhile Warsaw Pact states who want our missiles on their territory (Poland) and we're not going to provoke the Russians by putting those missiles there.  Obama got a mortal case of the ass, said he would strike Syria, Russia intervened in Syria and pulled Obama's bacon out of the fire.  Had Obama gone in with guns blazing, I can assure you it would make our Wars in Iraq look like a Sunday School picnic.  You think Al Qaeda is bad?  Well, yes it is bad.  But it pales in comparison to Hizb'allah's ability to inflict a world of hurt on the West.   It's more complex than the Cold War.  NATO isn't Russia's enemy and Putin knows it.  The Islamists are Putin's most troubling enemy, also our most troubling enemy.  Russia has been fighting a war on Islamic terrorism since the era of the Ottomans.  If American history featured 400 years of subjugation at the hands of Muslim overlords, you'd think like Putin, too.  


Putin and Obama are only guys left standing at the end of the firefight, looking across the battlefield at each other, unwilling to fire another shot.  Putin's trying make something of Russia.  Obama's trying to make something of his nation.  Putin won't tolerate a handful of Ukrainian nationalists pushing Russians around.  Nor will he tolerate any interference in Sevastopol.   Nor should he, all those treaties about Ukrainian borders notwithstanding.  If ever there was an incident of Poking the Bear, this is it.  Yanukovich fled the Ukraine after Putin basically sacked him.  Wretched, greasy little man, I'm surprised Putin allowed him to live.  If the Ukraine had any sense at all, (and in the current furore, none has been exhibited), they'd have invited Putin down for a visit and profusely thanked him for taking Yanukovich off their hands.  Reassured Putin they have no intention of doing anything stupid like assert primacy over Sevastopol, not for the mean time anyway.  You know, act like Putin had a point about the ethnic Russians.  Would have been so much better. 


Everyone hates the way America's behaving, perversely, not because we're being abusive but because we're not being tough enough.  We say one thing and do another.  But there's no pleasing everyone and when all is said and done, more is said than done.  I have every reason to believe Putin and Obama are realistic enough, or put it this way, sincerely convinced this situation must not be allowed to degenerate into a shooting war, that this will all work out fine.

I don't think there will be a shooting war either

HankP's picture

and I agree that this is just another case of poking the bear. But I think you confuse the political appointments at State (and other bureaucracies) with cleaning out the career people, which is a totally different area. The career people are the ones who present options and explanations to the political appointees, and as a random viewing of any episode of Yes, Minister shows it's pretty easy to present the options and explanations you want to guide them (and also that the bureaucrats are usually quite a bit smarter than their political bosses). Obviously you can't get rid of all the career people, but once they settle on a belief system it's pretty damn hard to change. From what I can see the deep belief in Russia as an existential enemy hasn't changed in many areas.


I'm pretty sure after all the invasions of the past 20 years there are very few observers who think the US isn't tough enough. Stupid, sure, but I don't think anyone thinks we're not warlike enough. I'm guessing it's quite the opposite.


I blame it all on the Internet

So many missionary kids end up at State or CIA


I can say that's the dominant culture in the long-termers, kids like me who grew up in other countries.  From what I hear, and I've heard it a lot over the course of my life, for I've kept up with these people, they don't present the options or the explanations.  They deal with the routine, humdrum business of visas and extradition, lost passports, lots of custody disputes.   It's not that they don't have opinions, they do.  But nobody in power listens to them.


Nobody at State, I dare say nobody in the US government, seriously believes the Russian Federation is an existential enemy.   I don't know where you're getting this stuff.

Then why

HankP's picture

do we keep trying to expand NATO right to their border? Why is so much anti-Russian propaganda spoon fed to the press? I'm pretty sure we don't treat most countries that way.


I blame it all on the Internet

If NATO were such a threat, why aren't there nukes in Poland?


Why are we on the ISS with the Russians?  Why was Jackson-Vanik disarmament such a success?  The Russians have always been more afraid of us than we were of them, and with good reasons, historically.  NATO isn't against the Russians, any more than we are, here in the USA.  NATO has been on Russia's borders - or their proxy states - since it was first proposed.  Then, the USSR were engaged in a dozen proxy wars against the West.  They aren't, any more.  The Russians are reduced to a regional power, with regional concerns.  They made bad friends, they've lost the last few go-rounds for geopolitical influence - hey, the USA hasn't covered itself in glory in Iraq or Afghanistan, either.  Our influence in the world is diminishing, too.  Ukraine's had some serious issues with Russia, historically.  The Russians have never owned up to the Holomodor or their ethnic cleansing of the Tatars out of Crimea.


This wasn't our problem, Hank, not until Yanukovich cracked down on his protesters.  Putin had to sack him and did.  Who is feeding all this anti-Russia propaganda to the press, if not the aggrieved Ukrainian citizenry?   There are people alive today who survived the Holomodor and Stalin's tender mercies.  A generous portion of WW2 was fought over the Ukraine, a three-way war of Wehrmacht, Ukrainian partisans and the Red Army.  Millions died.


Who else is flacking against Russia?  By my reckoning, it's people with genuine axes to grind with the way Russia has treated them, historically.  I don't believe there's any country quite like Russia.  Russia lashes out at any perceived provocation, it's lashed out at the EU, too.  Angela Merkel, a woman who speaks fluent Russian, doesn't believe Putin's living in the real world.  The anti-Russian agitprop is being cranked out within Russia itself.  What did old Goering say?  Tell folks they're being attacked and they'll do anything you say.  That's Putin's game and I'm surprised you're buying into all this paranoid ranting, as if anyone in the region, much less the US State Department, actually viewed the Russian Federation as an existential enemy.

Merkel growing up in GDR must have had an effect

mmghosh's picture

don't you think?

freedom is a fundamental value that does not need to be justified in terms of some other value like efficiency

Growing up has an effect.


Of course, /not/ growing up also has an effect, on those around you.  Putin is living in the shadow of his past, some of that past spent in DDR.


Do you know Angela Merkel actually worked in a Department of Agitprop?  They actually existed, you know.

Stain or Stalin, either works for me ;)

Bird Dog's picture

Nice piece, Blaise.

"Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency."

--Barack Obama, January 2009

Heh. Thanks for the correction.


Been thinking about this for a good long while now. Years ago, I predicted Sevastopol would be a flash point, maybe even here on Forvm, though I'm not sure.