Courage is defined in strange ways. On February 24, 2022, 13 Coast Guard Ukrainian soldiers on the small island of Zmiinyi (Snake Island) held their ground against aggression by Russian warships: the cruiser Moscow and the frigate Vassily Bykov. As part of the Black Sea Fleet, these two warships were ordered to take the strategically located island in proximity to Odessa, and a few miles from Romania by force. Zmiinyi gives Russia a direct and uninterrupted shipping channel that further isolates Ukraine. The 13 troops were ordered to lay down their arms and surrender or get killed. In an audio recording obtained by Anton Geraschenko, advisor to the Ukrainian Internal Minister, the Ukrainian soldiers were heard telling the Russians to “go f— yourselves”. The rest is predictable. They were killed when the ships opened fire.
Those among us who lived through the Cold War never for one moment doubted that an ex-KGB thug in a suit would be anything more than a thug. Doing business with Putin is like doing business with Don Corleone. Kiss his ring or face the inevitable kiss on the cheek and cement shoes at the bottom of the Hudson. Thugs like Putin never change. Under the Armani suit is still a KGB operative. The problem didn’t manifest itself a few days ago, or six weeks ago, or even a year ago. The problem has been systematically nurtured since the dissolving of the Soviet Union. Putin’s objective was never nebulous. He yearned for another Soviet Union, another superpower. He wanted and still wants his “old” Russia back.
Putin was inaugurated as President of Russia on 7 May, 2000. His predecessor Boris Yeltsin resigned in December 1999, leaving Putin acting president. A 2019 transcript by Professor Jim Goldgeier, professor, and former Dean of the School of International Service (SIS), American University, Washington, DC and Kay Summers of SIS chronicles the rise of Putin and his methodology in carving a place in history and in re-shaping Russia to its present state.
The 1990’s were not kind to Russia. The collapse of the Soviet Union left the Motherland in super inflation and economic collapse. Boris Yeltsin was president of Russia at a time when the US was aggressively urging the country toward western market-oriented democracy. The road to hell is paved with good intentions we are told, and this road was long on good intentions and short on foresight.
The jubilant west led by the US envisioned a capitalistic Russia with less government controls and more privatization. But privatization requires money. A short road to avarice was created for those in political circles who became the first private investors and eventually the new Oligarchs. The disintegration of state-run factories put regular people on the streets and out of work. The state was no longer taking care of anyone. But wealth continued to accumulate for the few, the new Russian elite.
During this upheaval and inevitable collapse of the Soviet Union, a young KGB officer Vladimir Putin was busy shredding documents in his Dresden KGB office. It is alleged that at this time, young Putin became angry at the collapse of the Soviet Union, especially at the loss of East Germany. He returned to Russia, working his way up from assisting the Mayor of St. Petersburg to the Kremlin and eventually as side kick to Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin a renown drunk, made use of Putin’s KGB credentials to protect himself and his cronies. When in 1993, Yeltsin’s own parliament went against his agenda, he ordered the military to open fire. A misguided US supported Yeltsin’s actions which led to a growing mistrust and growing cynicism against the US in Russia.
The Clinton Presidential Library declassified several memorandums of conversations between Yeltsin and then President Clinton. On Yeltsin’s last day in office in December 1999, he called Bill Clinton and introduced the new acting president, Putin as “one of you. He’s a Democrat.” When Clinton asked about elections and who would be running and probably elected, Yeltsin immediately replied “Putin”. It was in the bag. There was a good reason that Yeltsin chose Putin.
The trajectory of Putin’s rise into power was determined by Western politics, mainly the US. Putin saw the US as trying to neutralize Russia’s power and standing on the world political stage. He allegedly was not against a market economy, but he was definitely not invoking US-style government or politics. According to Goldgeier (2019), Putin envisioned a Russia with its own political system and void of foreign interference. His KGB background made him suspicious of any and all US and western initiatives toward privatization, human rights, and other social issues which he mentally translated as CIA-led initiatives to regime change. Paranoia? Maybe. But in 2008, then President Bush made the decision to leave the ABM treaty prohibiting missile defense. Putin took that as an excuse to weaken Russia’s super power status.
NATO’s public intentions in gathering former Eastern Bloc countries into its fold didn’t go unnoticed by Putin either. In 2007, at the annual Munich Security Conference, Putin admonished the US for attempting to “dictate what the rest of the world should be doing.” His speech took aim at the expansion of NATO into former Eastern Bloc countries and blatantly accused NATO that it’s expansion was a direct act of aggression against Russia. “What’s that directed against? It’s obviously directed against us.”(Goldgeier, 2019) Putin’s anger simmered when during the 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest, NATO discussed the eventual entry of Ukraine and Georgia into the organization. In August of that year, Putin waged war with Georgia.
Russia with or without Putin has always been the enemy we love to hate, but we’ve also bent our rules on democracy and rights when oil and gas were concerned. When in 2014, Putin invaded and eventually took over Crimea, the world, just as now, showed indignation, slapped sanctions, while Europeans gently made under the table agreements for oil and gas distribution. Even now, this resource has not really been discussed transparently. Russian presence in the Middle East is silently tolerated. Most of the region has remained relatively silent.
In Europe, decades of ultra-environmental angst by environmental lobbyists reduced clean nuclear energy to a non-starter and reverted to fossil fuel dependence which Russia provides in abundance and willingly. The recent push for electric vehicles which still require energy for charging, is a good example of inanity that compels the Europeans to make deals with the devil.
In the meantime, the military in Europe, except for the US presence is quasi irrelevant and unprepared for conflict. Germany just woke up to the realization that sending helmets to Ukraine isn’t going to do much against Russian aggression, and that the conflict is too close for comfort. Consequently, in a change of heart, the Bundestag just approved providing equipment and military aid. The German military has long been gutted by political coalitions spending millions on climate initiatives and very little on defense which included NATO. It takes a war on one’s doorstep to knock sense into stupid.
Why did Putin choose now to invade Ukraine? Why not sooner, a few years ago, last year? Recently I answered that question and was accused of partisanship and “typical” military bias. I take umbrage with the former but wear the latter like a badge of honor. My assessment was that Putin smelled political and military weakness in global waters.
Weak US military and political leadership demonstrated through a botched Afghan retreat, NATO bickering rather than committing to its financial obligations, two years of government lockdowns self-imposed panic, and economic upheaval: all were enough to distract the west into apathy and inadvertently give Putin the initiative to move forward. While the US military was debating vaccine mandates, Russia’s military was training, and while Europe was debating climate change, Russia’s navy was building up in the Black Sea. While the West was determined to be kinder and gentler, Russia became militarily ready and more aggressive. A “Chamberlain” moment and testimonial to the cliché that “history repeats itself”.
Ukrainians have displayed an unprecedented show of defiance and courage not seen in decades. The young once comic turned President Volodymyr Zelensky, a Jew whose grandparents were killed in the Holocaust, has been the most inspiring and courageous leader of our time. He didn’t hide nor run. He stood and still stands defiant urging his people to pick up arms and fight. He has a different perspective to aggression. It’s staring him in the face. He knows that diplomacy with Putin is as futile as chewing on water. Leaders like Zelensky is what the world needs today. They are hard to come by. Few have skin in the game. I think that Putin is beginning to realize that courage and the stamina to remain free is not easy to crush. Did Putin miscalculate Ukraine’s power to resist?
This has been a wake-up call for the new world order that had softened into “woke” clichés and irrelevancy. There are evil people in the world. They do not play by the same rules. They do not follow the same philosophies, and they definitely do not aspire to the same social justice equivalents that we expect them to. Putin has never changed. Putin has never pretended to be other than what he was and is, an ex-KGB agent bent on redefining Russia into the superpower it once was during the Cold War. His intentions were and still are very clear. It’s the West that has been in the fog. Pretending that the invasion of Ukraine is somehow surprising perplexes most of us who watched his military move toward the border in strategic precision.
The threat of sanctions does little to a guy like Putin. We still have sanctions in place for the 2014 invasion of Crimea. Sanctions normally hurt ordinary people rather than the rich. The rich remain rich, they have ways to hide assets. So, what’s next? Someone suggested blockades rather than sanctions. Isolation militarily and economically. Blocking Russian investors and companies from trading on international markets would reduce Russia’s dependence on the sale of oil or gas to irrelevancy. At least temporarily. But as Christine Romans opined, sanctions will hurt the US and Europe more than Russia, especially since Europe gets a third of its energy from Russia. Russia has also been known to launch cyber attacks against utility companies and banks. Economic sabotage from the light bulb to the neighborhood ATM. Are we prepared for this?
We all have our two cents of opinion to contribute, but the ante is high. Nobody wants another war in Europe. At this point it is a watch and wait situation. NATO is compelled to defend its member states and troop build up on borders sends a message to Putin that aggression is not recommended. I personally doubt that Putin wants to start a European war, but I also doubt that he will go to the negotiation table easily without something in return. He wants Ukraine. Rich in Titanium, Lithium, oil, gas, wheat, and other resources. What do we offer in return? What will compel this pseudo despot to relent and compromise? He doesn’t seem to care that he is the world’s pariah and villain.
Ukraine is outmatched, out gunned, and outnumbered but the will of Ukrainians to remain free seems to give this country a surprising edge on defending itself against Russian forces. Russia has overestimated its might against ferocious determination of a people who want to remain free. Yes, courage is defined in many ways. Courage is unfolding before of our eyes. Right now courage is being defined as the people of Ukraine.