Discover more from PREVAIL by Greg Olear
Index: Putin's Invasion of Ukraine
As usual, Russia is the aggressor. Will the West continue its policy of appeasement?
For weeks, Russian forces have been mobilized along Ukraine’s border—no small feat, as Ukraine is the largest country in Europe—as the world waited for Vladimir Putin to make a decision.
The over-Botoxed Russian president had two options:
1/ Putin could invent some bullshit pretext to further invade—as Hitler did in the Sudetenland and in Poland, in 1938 and ‘39 respectively—dragging his country into an unnecessary and unpopular war of aggression made on false pretenses. (Note: Russia already invaded Ukraine when it occupied and annexed the Crimea in 2014.) His shit-faced, covid-riddled battalions would meet significant resistance from the Ukrainian armed forces, and many, many people, Russians and Ukrainians alike, would die needlessly in what would likely be another Afghanistan. This would also unleash unprecedented financial sanctions by NATO and the European Union (and possibly China, too) that would completely cripple the Russian economy, see the vast wealth of its oligarchs parked overseas seized by the Western powers, and make life in Putin’s Russia a misery for even those citizens who do have indoor plumbing.
2/ He could turn tail, send his tanks and his infantry units home, and leave Ukraine the fuck alone.
In either scenario, Putin would lose. The world, within Russia and without, would know that he is the cause of all this hardship and strife. No one would be fooled. He would face utter humiliation, and his legacy—already a tale of selfishness, cruelty, and greed—would be irredeemably doomed. Billions of people around the world would jump for joy when he died.
President Biden has used every trick he could come up with, short of appeasement, to convince Putin to opt for #2. It was a noble and clever effort, but it did not work.
Yesterday, in a deranged and delusional speech, Putin made his decision. As usual, he chose aggression. As usual, he chose to harm his own people to make himself seem like less of a feeble, weak-ass old man.
By recognizing two oblasts in Eastern Ukraine as independent nations—the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR)—and ordering troops to “aid” those newly-formed “countries,” Putin has (once again) invaded Ukraine. Fundamentally, this is no different than Moscow recognizing Texas and Florida as separate sovereign nations and immediately sending Russian troops to Austin and Tallahassee.
What happens now is anyone’s guess. Will Putin content himself with those two oblasts? Will the West further appease him, as Chamberlain did with Hitler in 1938? Will the Russians attack Kyiv? One thing is certain: Putin has zero concern for loss of life, and will commit hundreds of thousands of his own troops to death without a second thought. Whatever Tucker Carlson and the Putin-apologist GOP might tell you, Russia is very much in the wrong here. The free world stands with Ukraine, as it must.
As we await the West’s response, here are some pieces on Ukraine and Putin that ran previously on PREVAIL:
Ukraine: The History
To make sense of the situation playing out in the geographical center of Europe, we must understand the history of, and between, Ukraine and Russia. As the latter has spent the last century and a half in a concerted, systematic attempt to erase the history of the former, this is not always easy.
The popular conception of Ukraine—one carefully crafted by Putin, the Soviets, and the Romanovs—derives from four fallacies:
Fallacy #1: Ukraine is “Little Russia,” a spin-off of the original—Frasier to Russia’s Cheers.
If anything, it’s the other way around. As Victor Rud writes in his superb 2014 piece “Russia’s War on Ukraine,” published in Accuracy in Media, Ukraine
is the land, wrote English historian Norman Davies, through which most peoples passed on their way to settle the rest of Europe, and to become the nations and countries that we know today.
In the Middle Ages, the Kyivan Rus’ (not Kyivan “Russia”—more below) Imperial Dynasty was the largest political entity in Europe. Following Kyiv’s adoption of Christianity from Byzantium, the precursor of modern Ukraine became a powerhouse of intellectual discourse, religion, and cultural life. In its size, grandeur and advancement of education (mandatory for women), in its equal rights for women, in the arts and the sciences, Kyiv eclipsed other European cities such as Paris and London. European kings and the English monarchy married into the Kyivan Dynasty. Among them, King Henry I of France married Princess Anna of Kyiv; she signed her name to the marriage document, he used an “X”. . . .
“Russia” at that time did not exist, and had as its antecedents Finno-Ugric tribes that separately evolved into scattered principalities in the north that rejected Kyiv’s dominion. Most telling was their sacking and rejection of Kyiv in 1169 that was not matched until the city’s destruction by the Mongol Horde a hundred years later. The Kyivan Rus’ Empire collapsed with the latter onslaught, but in the process shielded the rest of Europe from the same fate.
In other words, the political and cultural seat of power in Europe transferred from Rome to Constantinople to Kyiv, before migrating West. Moscow was never more than an outpost, lagging behind, struggling to keep pace with its more accomplished neighbors.
Fallacy #2: The name “Russia” derives from the “Rus’” peoples of Kyiv.
If the names are similar, it’s to intentionally confuse everyone. Until the reign of Ivan the Terrible in the late sixteenth century, what we now call Russia was known as “Muscovy.” Different place, different history, different people, different culture. The early tsars appropriated the “Rus’” name, hoping to doll up their ho-hum pedigree—like how Norma Jean Mortenson took on the surname of a former president, to borrow some of James Monroe’s class.
Fallacy #3: Ukraine was historically a territory of Russia.
Nyet. In the days after the Kyivan Rus’ fell to the Mongols, Ukraine was for half a millennium part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Russia had no dominion over Ukraine for most of recorded history. Ukraine is no more a part of Russian than Normandy is a part of Great Britain. These are яблука and апельсины.
Fallacy #4: Russia and the Soviet Union are the same thing.
We conflate the two names all the time—“we,” meaning Americans in general, and “we,” meaning American lawmakers and presidents and foreign policy advisers, who should know better.
Russia is the territory around Moscow. The Soviet Union was a totalitarian empire that occupied and conquered Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Ukraine. Russia is merely one of 15 former Soviet “republics.”
Practically, what this means is that Putin has no more right to the Crimea than Germany has to the Sudetenland, or to Bohemia-Moravia. Russia’s occupation of Ukraine’s sovereign territory in the Crimea is no different, fundamentally, than Nazi Germany annexing Austria. That the West allowed this naked conquest to happen is shameful.
Ukraine: Russia’s Aggression
Russia did not become the colossus that it is, enveloping an entire one-third of Asia, by defaulting to bourgeois rules. Its imperial DNA denies the compromise we worship. In the 1890s, the Russian General Staff conducted a study of Russia’s military campaigns, concluding that between 1700 and 1870, Russia fought 38 wars. Only two were defensive. Yet Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power lauds “Russia’s proud history of standing up to imperialist powers.”
What do last year’s Russian constitutional amendments, and its earlier withdrawal from the 1949 Geneva Convention, portend? One commentator summarized: “The Russian Federation has shown the entire international political community that law is not something written for it.” Russia is aggressive and targets stability. Russia acts, America reacts. Russia disrupts, America seeks to stabilize. Russia has a goal. America has . . . ?
The U.S. contributes 25 percent—and with the rest of NATO and other democracies, accounts for more than half—of the world’s economy. Russia comes in at three percent. Do we understand how a solitary country, held together with duct tape, can induce a mortal arrhythmia among thirty countries of NATO and the rest of the “Free World?” No, we do not.
Putin is not just a killer. He short-circuits our synapses with the same aplomb as he short-circuits our infrastructure. On our end, seven years of bon mots are an ode to a failure of will. To be sure, it is Europe’s failure as well. No surprise, then, that the “international system is coming apart at the seams.” It’s vertiginous.
Kyiv: The Capital City
In 2014, after the Maidan Square protests, I interviewed an old friend of mine who has lived in Kyiv for years. This is his description of the city:
Kyiv is a beautiful European city of about four million people. There’s an interesting mix of buildings built by the sugar barons in the 1800s, Soviet-style monstrosities, and modern construction. It’s a two-hour flight from most major European cities.
Kyiv also has a great vibe: the people, generally, are friendly and relaxed. It’s a very green city, and there’s even a river with beaches running through the middle of it. Only in the past few years, though, has Kyiv begun to consider itself as a tourist destination, so it’s kind of been off the map for a lot of people.
Vladimir the Terrible
From the days of Ivan IV in the late sixteenth century, Russia’s leaders have been extraordinary ruthless about the application of terror to maintain power. The first secret state police, called the oprichnina, was devised by this first tsar, whom history knows as Ivan the Terrible. Black-clad patrolmen on black mounts descended on towns and villages, like a scene from J.R.R. Tolkien or Washington Irving, leaving death and destruction in their wake. The Okhrana, its spiritual successor, was formed to protect the royal family after unsuccessful attempts to assassinate Alexander II in 1868; it did not prevent the assassination of Alexander III in 1894—or, for that matter, the execution of the last tsar, Nicholas II, in 1918—but it did terrorize generations of Russians, and played a leading role in the Bloody Sunday Massacre of 1905, when peaceful protesters outside the Winter Palace were shot by police.
The Soviets, meanwhile, were veritable butchers. Lenin advocated coaxing troops into battle by shooting at them from behind. The Cheka, the state police established in 1917 by Felix Dzerzhinsky, was infinitely more wicked than its antecedents. Stalin was responsible for more loss of life than Hitler, including over five million Soviet citizens who perished in Ukraine and Kazakhstan during the Soviet Famine of 1932-3. Subsequent leaders were less brutal than Stalin, but not exactly Nobel Peace Prize nominees, while the mobsters who now hold sway over that country make Stalin seem calm and measured. In Russia, alas, life is cheap.
Vladimir Putin was still toiling for the mayor’s office in St. Petersburg when Dudayev was assassinated, but his rise to power—remarkable, swift, out of nowhere—began just three months later, when Yeltsin named him Deputy Chief of the Presidential Property Management Department in June 1996. This gave Putin access to the books, and the power to move around money and other assets. He formally joined the Presidential Staff in 1997, ascended to first deputy in May of 1998, and a month later, was named the head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB, the organization he’d worked at for most of his career. Putin’s influence over Yeltsin was enormous. Clearly his years with the KGB taught him how to roll drunks.
As the millennium approached, tensions with the Chechens continued, and Yeltsin’s health was deteriorating rapidly. For Putin and the fledgling Russian Federation, the pendulum was swinging the wrong way. But then, on 4, 9, and 13 September 1999, a series of apartment bombings befell the Russian cities of Buinaksk, Moscow, and Volgodonsk, killing 300 and injuring a thousand more. These were reported by Russian media to be the work of Chechen separatist terrorists. But compelling evidence suggests that the terrorist attacks were the work of the FSB, which Putin oversaw until 9 August 1999—just a month before the bombings—when he left to be First Deputy Prime Minister.* Galvanized by his capable response to the attacks, and endorsed by the still-popular Yeltsin, Putin became Acting Prime Minister later that month. He’s been in power, under a variety of titles, ever since.
Putin: Hitler’s Playbook
Putin has clearly been studying the Nazi playbook. He saw how Hitler improbably rose to power (and eliminated his rivals when he got there) and did the same. Now, the Russian strongman is doing in Ukraine what Hitler did in Austria and the Sudetenland in 1938—and banking on Joe Biden to make like Neville Chamberlain.
This is not to suggest that Putin is equivalent to Hitler. Hitler was singularly, uniquely evil—a genocidal madman—while Putin is, in the words of Rep. Elissa Slotkin, “a fraud and a thug.”
But there are too many parallels for this to be mere coincidence:
RISE TO POWER
Adolf Hitler becomes chancellor of Germany. The president, Paul von Hindenburg, the relic of an older generation, remains the nominal head of the country.
Vladimir Putin becomes acting prime minister of Russia. The president, Boris Yeltsin, the relic of an older generation, remains the nominal head of the country.
Fire destroys the Reichstag building. Hitler blames the Communists, although he is responsible. He uses the crisis as a pretext to seize more power.
A series of apartment bombings terrorize Moscow. Putin blames Chechen separatists, although he is responsible. He uses the crisis as a pretext to seize more power.
The Enabling Act gives Hitler dictatorial powers, effectively ending democracy in Germany. He will remain in power until his death in 1945.
Putin is named acting president, the first step toward ending democracy in Russia. He has been in power ever since.
To consolidate power, Hitler has his political rivals executed, including Ernst Röhm, Gregory Strasser, and Kurt von Schleicher, in what is later called the Night of the Long Knives.
To consolidate power, Putin has his critics executed, including investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya and former FSB organized crime task force head Alexander Litvinenko. (This comes three years after the humiliating trial and imprisonment of Russia’s wealthiest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, gives the other oligarchs pause about crossing him.)
Germany hosts the Olympic Games, a coup for Hitler.
Russia hosts the Olympic Games, a coup for Putin.
Germany annexes Austria. There is little outcry in the West.
Russia annexes Crimea. There is little outcry in the West.
Claiming that German-speaking citizens in the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia are being mistreated by Prague, Germany occupies the Sudetenland. The Allied powers, led by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, decide to appease Hitler, allowing him to keep the territory in exchange for a promise not to invade Poland. Hitler begins amassing troops on the Polish border.
Claiming that Russian-speaking citizens in the Donbas region of Ukraine are being mistreated by Kiev, Russia infiltrates the region, with the obvious objective of finding a pretext to invade. Putin begins amassing troops on the Ukrainian border.
This is where things stand today.
Photo credit: The Kremlin. Putin signs executive orders on recognizing the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics, as well as treaties on friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance.