Bob Schwartz

Tag: Ukraine

The Ukrainian Favor

Ukrainian Contingent Ends Iraq Mission

Commander of the Ukrainian contingent in Diwaniya presents a certificate and gift to
a member of the Qadisiya Province Iraqi Police, during an end of mission ceremony
at Camp Echo, Dec. 9, 2008.

“Are you asking as a friend or calling in a chit? A friend would not ask me to do this.”
“A friend just won’t hold it against you if you don’t.”
Adapted from Suits, USA Network

In 2008, Ukrainian troops officially left the U.S.-instigated Iraq War. Since 2003, 5,000 Ukrainian troops had served there (the third largest contingent in the multinational force) and 18 soldiers had died. No service or sacrifice can be minimized, even if these numbers pale in comparison to the American investment. Ukraine answered the call with honor and valor, as it had in other international conflicts, presumably because there are principles at stake, including the principle that modern internationalism means a commitment to mutual trust and support.

At the ceremony marking the end of the Ukrainian mission, Maj. Gen. Michael Ferriter, deputy commanding general for operations, Multi-National Corps-Iraq, said:

We know that violence is at its lowest level in five years, and the Iraqi Security Forces, partnering with Coalition forces, will take the lead in defending their country. And soon, the Iraqi people will vote in the future of their country in the provincial elections. These changes were not brought about naturally, but were instead brought about by the dedication and the hard work of the men and women from the nations such as yours. You helped create the Iraqi Security Force and instilled in them a solid foundation of skills essential to the future security and prosperity of Iraq.

To Iraq’s benefit, and through Ukraine’s efforts, you have helped ensure a higher quality of life for the people of Iraq. Ukraine forces made contributions that enabled all Coalition partners to be successful here, but it has not been without cost. A precious 18 Ukrainian Soldiers have died here.

Ukraine is asking for help from anyone to hold their country together. Under the circumstances, that is going to be difficult and may not be possible.

Are they asking as a friend or calling in a chit? If we don’t provide adequate or effective help, will they hold it against us? Should they?

Putin and the Little Engine That Could

Vladimir Putin - Little Engine

The pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine, and the Russian warnings to stay away and out, are not surprising. A fifth-grader doing a Social Studies assignment (if there is still Social Studies) had this one figured out.

So obviously did the American intelligence and foreign policy experts. They can’t tell us they know because that would give something away, even if that fifth-grader has already guessed. The other reason it isn’t officially talked about is that, officially, few are sure what to do next.

Vladimir Putin is well set up, for something. He can take little bites out of the region, or if Ukraine should erupt in instigated civil war, he can enter on the pretext of assuring the stability and security of a neighboring country. There is plenty of historical precedent for this strategy, and for this strategy working.

We—and this includes those who claim to know him—are not sure exactly who Putin is: cunning statesman, cowboy, sociopath? Whether he has himself killed people, up close, is a matter of conjecture, but many have no trouble believing it. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in Communist East Germany and knows him, suggests that he is out of touch with the realities of the situation. Former U.S. President George W. Bush just displayed his painting of Putin, which picture says as much about W. as an artist as it does about the Russian President.

Putin is not out of touch with reality, any more than those people who believe that visualizing an outcome will ultimately make it so. He is under no delusion that realizing his reality will be cost free. He is just willing to pay the price, or allow others to chip in, maybe profoundly.

The U.S. may have the most distorted view of war in history. It isn’t that great sacrifice or valiant service haven’t been made. The U.S. didn’t just participate in some of the most significant defenses of human freedom; it helped freedom prevail. But for a few generations, there has been a lot of blood and treasure sacrificed in a sometimes well-meaning, sometimes self-serving fog. The source of the confusion is that for more than 150 years, the U.S. has not experienced national war on its soil. Regional conflicts and shocking, fleet- and building-destroying hostilities, but not a national war, inside or on our borders.

Whatever the list of solutions to international problems and provocations, war shouldn’t just be at the bottom of the list. It should be in some strategic sub-basement, below the last resort. At this moment, war in Europe is where it should be: unthinkable. But if something is unthinkable, then everything else has to be more thinkable, more discussed. Right now, the U.S. body politic is fascinated with other matters major and minor, because we need a break.

But trust this: Putin doesn’t give a care for what happened to a plane that has been at the bottom of the Indian Ocean for weeks. He is single-mindedly like that favorite American children’s book The Little Engine That Could, chugging along: I think I can, I think I can.

We don’t have to be concerned about Ukraine or we can be concerned. We don’t have to take action or we can take action. We don’t have to go to war or we can go to war. What isn’t optional is talking about it in the public square, in a conversation led by the President and others. This is not jumping the gun. It is a sensible prelude to an emerging situation, which could at any moment escalate from blah-blah-blah to something more active and serious.

The U.S. has not been very good at sensible preludes. The run-ups to recent wars have been filled with hyper-drama, fueled by the occasional exaggeration or lie. Ukraine, Europe, and the world need something else. Putin thinks he can. Who knows what we think?

Afghanistan Loves Russia

Hamid Karzai - Congress

Karzai and Putin sitting in a tree

In 1979, Russia invaded Afghanistan. The U.S. supported the insurgents who eventually chased Russia out of Afghanistan. In 1989, Russia left Afghanistan.

In 2001, al-Queda attacked the U.S on September 11. That same year, the U.S. sent troops to Afghanistan to remove the Taliban from power and to eliminate their safe haven for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

In 2004, Hamid Karzai was elected President of Afghanistan. That image above shows him addressing a joint session of Congress on June 15, 2004, with Vice President Dick Cheney and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert applauding.

In 2011, the U.S. found and killed Osama bin Laden. Plans were made to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, but not before thousands of U.S. and other allied troops died, in the longest war in U.S. history.

In 2013, negotiations began with President Karzai for an agreement that would allow some U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan in a support role after withdrawal. President Karzai, not wanting to appear to be in friendly partnership with the U.S., has so far failed to reach such an agreement.

Today, President Karzai announced that he supports the Russian position in Crimea, putting him in the same league as Syria, North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela. We still have troops in Afghanistan. The troops who died on behalf of President Karzai are still dead. The Afghans who died at the hands of the Russians are still dead. There are no reports yet about whether Dick Cheney or Dennis Hastert are still applauding.

There are no words to make sense of this. So instead, here is the Afghan flag, along with an explanation of the flag from the ever-authoritative CIA Factbook. Note especially the part about the Afghan flag having more changes in it than any other national flag in the 20th century. As always, a funny old world.

Afghanistan Flag

Three equal vertical bands of black (hoist side), red, and green, with the national emblem in white centered on the red band and slightly overlapping the other two bands; the center of the emblem features a mosque with pulpit and flags on either side, below the mosque are numerals for the solar year 1298 (1919 in the Gregorian calendar, the year of Afghan independence from the UK); this central image is circled by a border consisting of sheaves of wheat on the left and right, in the upper-center is an Arabic inscription of the Shahada (Muslim creed) below which are rays of the rising sun over the Takbir (Arabic expression meaning “God is great”), and at bottom center is a scroll bearing the name Afghanistan; black signifies the past, red is for the blood shed for independence, and green can represent either hope for the future, agricultural prosperity, or Islam Afghanistan had more changes to its national flag in the 20th century than any other country; the colors black, red, and green appeared on most of them.

Ukraine: Adolf Hitler and William Faulkner

Adolf Hitler - William Faulkner
The term lingua franca means a language that is understood across cultures. It literally means “Frankish language,” referring to a hybrid language that was used for commerce and diplomacy during the Renaissance. Today, one might call English a lingua franca, since unofficially and officially (as in air transport), it is the one universally used and understood.

In contemporary history, the person who comes up most often as an historical analogy is Adolf Hitler. For good reason. Others may have killed more. Others may have conquered more territory. But Hitler did it all, ignited world war, and did it in our times, in living memory, and in ways that shaped the world—and thus shaped our thinking and conversation now and for generations to come. He is the historical persona franca.

A previous post pointed out that Putin’s post-Olympics invasion of Ukraine bested Hitler’s annexation of Austria in March 1938. Hitler waited almost two years after his self-promotional 1936 Berlin Olympics before the Anschluss; somewhat bizarrely, even though Putin politely waited for two days after the Paralympics in Sochi closed, the annexation of Crimea was effectively done while the Olympics were still being held.

When Hillary Clinton mentioned in a speech that Putin’s actions were reminiscent of Hitler, she was shushed up by her supporters and her detractors. Talk like that was deemed premature, alarmist, undiplomatic, and, in Hillary’s case, unpresidential. And yet as events have sped along, the mentions increase. Just today, the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia had to admit that we have not seen an event like the annexation of Crimea since…the 1930s. And whether Hitler is a persona franca or a trump card, Putin uses it himself, claiming that the Ukrainian ouster of Yanakovych was orchestrated by Nazi thugs who are now in power.

History matters, and Hitler matters in history, whatever use he may be in thinking about the critical issues developing in Ukraine. This year is the centennial of World War I (also known as THE World War and the War to End All Wars, before there was a second one). So maybe take a little time to learn a little more about Europe in the period from 1914 to 1945—a mere thirty years or so in which there were two world wars, one of the most evil men in history, an attempt to eliminate an entire people from the earth, and the development of an apocalyptic weapon that gives God a run for his money.

Why learn this history? Because literally everything that is in the news about Russia and the Ukraine is joined with it. Because history never goes away, particularly in Europe. Or anywhere. As William Faulkner wrote, having lived in the American South where history never goes away, where understanding history is the only way to understand today, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Ukraine: What’s Happening on the Weak Side?

The weak side in basketball does not suggest weakness. It is the part of the court away from the ball. This doesn’t mean that the players there are weak or that the action there is unimportant. On the best teams, there can be almost as much happening on the weak side as there is on the strong side. Players may be running around, positioning themselves to take advantage, either by scoring or by taking away the ball. On the lesser teams, weak side players sometimes seem to drift aimlessly, or just stand around, depending on someone else to somehow work it out. If you don’t have the ball, what else is there to do?

We know exactly where the ball is in the current Ukraine crisis. And we know exactly who has the ball. The question is what the players on the weak side are doing. Are there plays carefully diagramed by the coach, practiced for just such a situation? Is there a player away from the ball, away from the basket, just waiting to heroically steal and drive all the way down court? Or are the weak side players drifting, trying to remember plays they once learned or improvise new ones?

The shot clock is running.

Ukraine Sanctions: Who Is Poking Which Bear

The most interesting message about this morning’s U.S. sanctions to protest Russian actions came from one of those sanctioned. The travel bans and freezing of U.S. assets are aimed at a handful of Putin advisers and others complicit in the Crimean takeover, but not at the highest level (including Putin) or at any businesspeople.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who is being sanctioned, tweeted this:

“Comrade Obama, and what will you do with those who have neither accounts nor property abroad? Or didn’t you think of that?”

On this day when a prominent Russian television journalist, with an atomic mushroom cloud as background, pointed out—correctly—that Russia is the only country that can reduce the U.S. to “radioactive ash,” the tweet from Comrade Rogozin is most telling.

The U.S., even more than our allies, is being poked. Taunted. “Is that the best you’ve got? You can do better than that!” The U.S. and Europe can of course do better (meaning: more severe) than that, from big business sanctions to military intervention, all of which threaten global instability.

This is the point in every fight when power has to be harnessed in the service of strategy. Russia wants nothing more than any excuse to throw away the rulebook they don’t believe in anyway. They aren’t so much bringing guns to a knife fight as brandishing guns to bring out the other guns and look like the victim. The aggressor victim.

Let’s hope or pray for our leaders to be strong, wise, unselfish, non-partisan, and honest (with us and with themselves), who can interpret the language of pokes, and can act appropriately.

Beyond Anger: How to Hold On to Your Heart and Your Humanity in the Midst of Injustice

Beyond Anger
The crisis in Ukraine is deepening, and with that lots of thought, opinion, and calls for action. It may seem like the wrong time for self-awareness and contemplation. Enough talk. This is a Nike world, so let’s just do it.

Whether it is about the Russian invasion of Ukraine or about unfairness in our own nation, our desire for justice and aversion to injustice is a good thing. But it can be so powerful and overwhelming that we easily get lost. It isn’t that we shouldn’t act decisively; it’s that in our zeal, we can be confused or overly certain about what the right decision is.

Last summer, in the face of terrible killings in India that had profound implications for Buddhist communities, Shambhala Publications published a free book you can get, Beyond Anger: How to Hold On to Your Heart and Your Humanity in the Midst of Injustice.

The publisher explains:

In July 2013, multiple bombs exploded in Bodh Gaya, India, in and around the holiest Buddhist pilgrimage site, the Mahabodhi temple that marks the spot where the Buddha attained enlightenment. In response, Shambhala Publications offers this free eBook consisting of excerpts from some of our books from a variety of Buddhist traditions that encapsulate values of love and nonviolence, which we can all practice ourselves.

You may not be a Buddhist, or care about Buddhist philosophy. You may or may not be angry about what is going on around the world, or about what some people say about how to solve the problems. You may believe that you have a better way, and you may be right. It’s just that no matter what, a different perspective can always be helpful.

In a section of the book called Conflict Resolution: Anger Is the Problem, The Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje talks about Global Conflicts, Global Solutions:

When bigger and more powerful nations step in to offer guidance to other nations, many of the same principles apply as when individuals intervene to resolve interpersonal conflicts. A sincere motivation is absolutely key, and on top of that, the intervention must be done with sensitivity and skill.

In this small world we live in, nations coexist interdependently. The actions of one country affect others deeply. Countries with more power have the potential to influence others more. I believe that with this power comes a great deal of responsibility, and that includes the responsibility not to exercise one’s power over others in pursuit of the private interests of one’s own nation….

Before you approve the actions proposed, you should be confident that they are in the best interest not only of your country, but of the world as a whole. To be a responsible, conscious citizen, it is important that you think for yourself, and take universal peace, stability, and well-being into account. Use your discernment and take a stand that serves the whole world, not just one corner of it.

Even when we are sure that the motivation to contribute positively to the well-being of the world is sincere, we also have to scrutinize the means used to pursue that aim. For example, in the name of bringing freedom to other countries, weapons are produced and wars are waged. As powerful countries themselves expand their arsenals and wage more war, the peace and stability of their own country and of the world are both placed at risk.

Again, a pure motivation needs to be applied with wisdom. I feel very strongly that war and fighting are not an effective means to bring about peace or prosperity, stability or freedom. I am certain that history will demonstrate war to be ineffective and counterproductive in the long run.

I have met many people from powerful countries who are deeply unhappy with how their leaders wield their power internationally. This seems especially common when people have failed in their efforts to urge the decision makers to pursue a more compassionate and skillful course. Some of these people become angry at their own governments. In other cases, people direct their anger at the governments of other countries.

If you find yourself angry at any government, please recollect how harmful anger is to yourself and others, and steady yourself with a firm resolve. Make an unwavering commitment to yourself that you will not allow your mind to become perturbed. Be immovable—unshakable from a peaceful state of mind.

Putin’s Bizarro World: Simultaneously Defending and Attacking Jews

Babi Yar Momument Kiev
In the last few days, Vladimir Putin has represented himself as the enemy of anti-Semitism and therefore the friend of Jews. He says, with a selective bit of truth, that among the many constituencies who deposed former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych were ultra-nationalists and neo-Nazis who are themselves anti-Semitic. By this logic, Putin claims that his intervention in Ukraine is in part to restore Yanukovych and deny power to those anti-Semites.

In those same last few days, synagogues in the Ukraine have been vandalized and attacked, according to Russia by those same ultra-nationalists and neo-Nazis. Few believe that. Instead it is widely believed that Russia is responsible for this anti-Semitic mischief, which conveniently fits the Russian story line.

Jews have had a tough time in Europe, in Eastern Europe, in Russia, and certainly in Ukraine. In September 1941, about 33,000 Jews were rounded up by the Nazis in Kiev, and along with tens of thousands of others, massacred in a ravine known as Babi Yar. Say what you will about the execrable, pathological and murderous Hitler, he knew how to play the strategic blame game. He regularly blamed the Jews for just about everything, but he rarely blamed someone else for hating and attacking the Jews. That was something he wanted full credit for.

So the suggestion for Putin is this: leave the Jews out of this particular rationale. The Jewish community in Ukraine is small, and it is true that in the just-evolving democratic regime, Jews will be uncomfortably standing side-by-side with people who don’t like them. Democracy makes for strange bedfellows, or at least that’s the lesson in America. Jews have enough problems without Putin as their friend and defender. Because with friends like that…

Putin About to Win Post-Olympics Invasion Competition

Putin Olympics
In August 1936 Adolf Hitler hosted the Olympics in Germany. In March 1938 he invaded Austria. He waited about 18 months.

In February 2014 Vladimir Putin hosted the Olympics in Russia. Just a few days after the closing ceremonies, Putin is hosting ousted Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych. Putin is also engaging in rhetoric and military movements that reasonably look like a prelude to some sort of Russian intervention in the Crimea region of eastern Ukraine, or he is at least engaging in bullying and sabre rattling.

Putin is on his way to winning the gold for post-Olympics invasions, moving Hitler down to the silver. Well done.