The pickle

My good friend Jack Walker is a hell of a writer and a hell of a guy. He's got these thoughts on what's happening in Ukraine. They're worth reading.

Putin has been clear that his lifelong goal is to reconstitute the Soviet Union under his dictatorship. Subduing Ukraine is a necessary first step. The annexation of Crimea was merely a test case, and the Western democracies failed the test. He won, we lost. Now he wants to gobble up the rest of Ukraine. He must do so lest he lose his internal authority and legitimacy. He is all in.

Here's the logic, which I have gleaned from Russia experts like Fiona Hill, Mike McFaul (Obama's ambassador to Moscow), and (especially) Gary Kasparov. They have persuaded me that we are in a real pickle. 

1. Putin cannot allow a prosperous, democratic, Western-leaning Ukraine to sit on Russia's doorstep. He sees it as a cancer that highlights his failures at home and encourages color revolutions in other former Soviet countries. (Sidebar: This clarifies why China is so obsessed with Taiwan and Hong Kong.)

2. The NATO extension issue is not his main concern. It's a symptom, not the disease. 

3. Russia provides 30% of Europe's energy needs – but only 3% of Britain's! This is why Britain is more engaged than, say, France and Germany.

4. But, and this is important, Europe provides 90% of the demand for Russia's oil and gas. (So who has the leverage – if not the political courage?) 

5. Putin has amassed direct control of at least a trillion dollars, and will spend it to achieve his goals. Having driven oil prices to an 8-year high, he is daily adding to his trove. 

6. Putin has captured the Russian press, which now is fully obsessed with Ukraine and American/European perfidy. That is the only news story in Russia now. Putin has almost fully suppressed internal dissent through jailings, torture, poisonings, etc.

7. Putin and his klepto-cronies have systematically seduced and corrupted a generation of European political and cultural leaders by direct and indirect means, from cash transfers to supporting charities and soccer leagues. Same story in the middle east, including Saudi Arabia.

8. Putin has some secret kompromat (blackmail leverage) over Trump. We will probably never know what it is, because once it's known, it loses its power. Trump's ongoing assault on American democratic systems to advance his personal power is a direct result of Putin's blackmail.

9. Putin believes the western democracies will find it impossible to develop a united front against his Ukraine aggression, for the reasons cited above and because personal, selfish ambition is the engine of democratic politics. He knows that China, Iran, and the other America-haters will cheer him on. And he is fully aware that America has lost its appetite for foreign military adventures. That is to say, he believes he can ignore international opinion.

10. Gary Kasparov, formerly the world's chess number one, is a very smart man. He grew up in the belly of the beast. We need to pay attention to him.

Russia is a desperately poor country. Its economy is barely larger than the economy of Los Angeles County! South Korea has a larger GDP. And it is based on oil and gas almost exclusively. Its budget supports a huge, overextended military, a nuclear arsenal, a massive internal security force, a space program, on and on. Potemkin lives! Putin is desperate to distract attention from Russia's woes – to wag the dog. Whatever – this is not going to end well or soon.


  1. I’m reading “Strongmen” by Ruth Ben-Ghiat — sobering indeed.

    It’s possible to overlearn the “lesson of Munich” and refuse to engage and negotiate with adversaries to the point where you are worsening the situation yourself with paranoia.

    On the other hand, it’s also easily possible to convince yourself (because it’s more comforting) that the lesson of Munich doesn’t apply when it absolutely does. I think this is the latter situation. Garry Kasparov is right and has been right for years on this: the West (both NATO and non-NATO democracies) needs to take a hard stand in defense of the people of Ukraine, whether we care much (or know much) about them or not —- because we care about ourselves. We should basically be returning the Russian oligarchs to the status that the Bolsheviks after WWI, with no ability to trade and no currency anyone would accept.

    And that’s going to mean going after a lot of shady folks like the Trumps and all the others who have been laundering money for the oligarchs, and following up on all the crooks revealed in the Panama Papers and the other exposes by the Navalny forces. The world is basically watching a hostage drama, with a sociopath holding a gun to the head of people unlucky enough to have been born in the sociopath’s neighborhood.

    1. All that would be required to put Russia in its place is for Europe to carry its share of the burden. Their economy dwarfs Russia's and their military would too if they spent money on it. But they don't do that. The French are always about ... France. Nothing wrong with that, if they were honest and stood outside the alliance structure. The Germans mouth platitudes while putting their money in Nordstream II instead of in meeting the 2% GDP target they agreed to in 2014. Aside from the Brits and French, the only NATO members in Europe who have met the commitment are front line states like Poland and the Baltic states.

      Also worth noting that the only sanctions on an enemy that have truly succeeded are the sanctions on Japan in 1941. We got a Pacific war out of that. If we actually freeze the oligarch's accounts in Western financial systems and freeze the Russians out of the SWIFT transaction system, don't be surprised if the response is violent, perhaps in some unexpected ways. Might be hard going if all the pipeline controls suffer a mischief like Colonial did last year, for example. Might want to prepare for that.


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