Don’t bet on Russia in Ukraine

So parts of eastern Ukraine now belong to Russia, forever, or so Vladimir Putin tells us.

Nice expanded country you have there, Russia. Now let’s see if you can keep it.

It’s perfectly okay for these new areas to be part of Russia though because the citizens there voted to join. Of course, about two thirds of them left when the war started, mostly westward. The Russian army’s main task this week has been to force residents there, sometimes at gunpoint, to “vote”. So it’s not surprising that they did. Who knows whether 98% of them actually voted to join Russia or not but it clearly wasn’t a fair election. These areas are unlikely to be recognized as part of Russia by many countries.

No vote was held in Kharkiv though because Ukraine forces routed the Russians from the area in a surprise offensive they easily won. Now reportedly Ukraine also controls the city of Lyman in Donetsk, supposedly now part of Russia.

Russia’s hold on these territories is fragile at best. Thanks to the courage of Ukrainians and tons of western armaments, Ukraine has shown it has the determination and ability to retake its country through a grinding war of attrition. Russian forces have proven inept for the most part, and succeeded only in pulverizing urban regions with artillery. Oh, I guess they’re also good at war crimes, according to many reports. You don’t want to be a woman in an area of Ukraine occupied by the Russians.

Here’s a good bet: this war is already lost and the Russians have lost it. Whoever has the most will and money wins these things. It’s why the United States was doomed in Vietnam. The best Russia can hope for is that in some nebulous future “peace talks” they keep a sliver of the area they occupy now.

Putin thinks that by mobilizing 300,000 new reservists he can turn this thing around. He threw his best forces at the Ukrainians when the conflict started. These new “forces” will be draftees for the most part and will likely be sent in with minimal training and arms. Much of the arms there have been destroyed, and withdrawing Russian forces have left lots of what remained behind when they hastily withdrew.

The news is reasonably censored in Russia, but it’s not completely censored. YouTube and the Telegram app is available, and they provided Russians who wanted to know the real story with the information they needed. Many of these men are beating hastily retreats outside of Russia if they can. They know if drafted they will just be fodder for Putin’s slaughter machine.

Naturally, Putin is busy raising the threat levels, threatening to use nuclear weapons if necessary. It’s not clear how he could “win” such a war with nuclear weapons. It would kill a lot of people and most of the animals in the area, even if only low yield weapons were used. The radiation levels would likely be toxic to his own forces nearby, or will be when the wind shifts. It’s unclear what value a devastated and depopulated land would be to anyone, even Russia.

Ukraine’s latest tactic is to apply for NATO membership. It’s unclear if they would be admitted, but they’ve proved to be tenacious fighters. Since Russia started this war, Finland and Sweden are likely to be admitted to NATO, making them effectively unconquerable by Russia. Ukraine is sort of part of NATO already, in that they are getting tons of aid and guidance from NATO countries. NATO forces just aren’t actually engaged in any combat.

Effectively, Russia’s worst enemy has turned out to be Vladimir Putin. His tactics have completely backfired and his latest bluster looks more like the actions of someone backed into a corner. At this point, most of his own people aren’t fooled by how badly he botched his invasion.

The one area where he may change some minds is by cutting off supplies of gas and oil to Europe. We’ll see after one winter after a lot of people are freezing if they will endure a second one, with Russia’s pipelines so conveniently nearby. Largely due to the war, inflation is going through the roof in most European countries, and efforts to get new energy supplies from elsewhere may take years to affect. When spring happens, we’ll have a better idea of how effective this policy has been.

But Putin’s 300,000 soldiers will mostly be on paper. There simply isn’t the capacity to quickly replace the lost armaments needed to wage a war. It’s unclear if these new soldiers can even be properly fed. Many of these soldiers are highly vulnerable. There are only a few bridges from Russia into the region still standing. They could be easily be taken out by long range artillery or fighter jets, effectively trapping Russian forces inside of it. That’s probably part of Ukraine’s strategy to route the Russians. They are waiting for the opportune moment. Most likely though with mud season beginning, we can expect little change until the ground hardens again.

We do know that in the interim the Ukraine army can be resupplied and that Western commitment to provide the funds and expertise needed for them to keep going seems endless. It’s the Russians who will have the serious logistical problems.

Putin though appears to prefer to live in his surreal fantasies instead. Real life should have informed him of his real options. His choice to ignore reality will only continue to draw Russia deeper into debacle and folly.

Russia isn’t a superpower and won’t be one again

Russia’s war in Ukraine has been ghastly but also illuminating. It’s illuminated just how broke and dysfunctional its military is and how endemic the corruption is within it. But it’s also illuminating that the country is no longer a superpower, and likely won’t ever be one again.

There are a number of reasons for this.

First, it’s a corrupt state. If oligarchs can siphon off much of the money that would otherwise go to the state, it deprives the state of the resources it needs to be effective. This is evident in the condition of Russia’s military in the Ukraine war, where much of it equipment is breaking down. Their hardware is generally shoddy because a whole chain of people got kickbacks instead of insisting the stuff they were buying was of quality. Much of their military is corrupt too, but even if they wanted to be otherwise, senior leadership won’t allow them not to be corrupt. You succeed in Russia’s military by being a toady but remaining far enough down in the hierarchy where you won’t be held accountable.

Second, its military is badly managed. Its recruits are for the most part of low caliber and they don’t get the training they need to effectively do their jobs. There is little delegation of authority, meaning local commanders can’t adapt to changing conditions. The pay is poor too and conscripts are rarely of high quality. They also haven’t figured out how to run a military logistics chain properly. And their troops seem to lack many of the basics needed to be effective, like gas for their tanks, regular resupplies and secure phones for communications.

Most importantly, they’ve been priced out of the superpower field. This is essentially how we won the Cold War in the first place: we outspent the Soviet Union because our GDP allowed us to do it. To some extent Russia held on by being clever, such as by developing more effective tactical weapons. But with a GDP less than ten percent of the United States, they simply didn’t have the means to compete forever.

Effectively, China has replaced them as the world’s new superpower. They did it by embracing capitalism, utilizing its abundance of cheap labor and a growing highly skilled workforce that embraced education. This created double digit economic growth year over year, giving them a GDP that is now rivaling that of the United States. This also gave them the resources to expand their military, build aircraft carriers, improve their ballistic missiles and create the infrastructure needed to support a first class military.

Russia embraced corrupt capitalism after it lost the Cold War. It helped improve their dismal GDP, but not enormously. Capitalism was concentrated in assets it already had, like oil and gas, rather than in new and emerging technologies. It did not reinvest its profits in things that matter like China did: infrastructure and education. To the extent Russia can wield political power, it depends on aging technology. Its nuclear warheads are one of its biggest assets, but hardest to wield effectively.

All this is not to suggest the United States is home free. Our political polarization brings lack of unity, which adds to our own governmental dysfunction. We effectively have our own oligarchy in the United States too, and it is creating huge inequality and poverty. The Republican focus on taxes as being bad also means less investments in the future. With enough disunion, the United States can be broken apart. The same is true with many countries rife with sectarian struggles. Russia might succeed in a way through our failures. So far though we keep funding our defense establishment lavishly, and our military remains one that is highly trained and effective.

Obviously, Russia is still capable of causing a lot of conflict, misery and death. But its military mindset is still stuck in the 20th century. It can perhaps nuke Ukraine into submission, but it has forever lost the hearts and minds of its people. It can only succeed by brute force, if it can find the resources to do so, but it is doomed to eventually fail. The war has proven catastrophically unwinnable for them, and any victory would be pyrhhic at best. In the process, it is turning the country into an outlaw state, further depriving them of the resources they will need to thrive in the future.

This war, which is likely to drag on for years, will likely be seen as the biggest boondoggle of the 21st century, at least so far.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine proves land wars are so 20th century and democracies are valuable

A week ago, when Russia invaded Ukraine, I remember going to bed feeling upset and morose. I didn’t sleep well. It was a strange reaction to events half a world away, but it’s good to know I was not alone. Lots of Americans are feeling the same way. The invasion of Ukraine has permeated American society the way few events do. It’s woken up pretty much all Americans and they don’t like what they are seeing.

So far Ukrainians have surprised the world by resisting the invasion extraordinarily well. Thankfully, the world is rallying to their side. Almost nobody is rooting for Vladimir Putin, with Donald Trump perhaps being the exception. A lot of Republicans are probably rooting in secret, but it quickly became toxic for Republicans not to support the Ukrainians.

I detected a bit of racism in Americans’ support. There was a lot less concern for the indiscriminate bombing by the Russians in Syria, likely because it’s not a predominantly White country. In Ukraine it’s a war of Whites against Whites.

Part of the reason I didn’t sleep well though was because I understood its magnitude. We thought we had won the Cold War in 1991 when the USSR fell, but this feels like it’s back on again. But the real reason for my disquiet was because this was the first major war in Europe since World War II. I literally was not alive during the last one. Like it or not, we’re in a whole new ballgame.

The world’s reaction to the invasion has been heartening. Russia is virtually alone because really there was no valid justification for it. The pretexts for the invasion were laughable: it was to go after Nazis in Ukraine. And Ukraine’s president is a Jew!

When even Switzerland is thinking of sanctioning Russia, you know just how upset most countries are at Putin’s action. It’s hard to see how Putin wins this. He may succeed in occupying the country for a while, but he can’t keep it. Ukrainians won’t allow it and the rest of the world will provide the resources to make sure they can keep at it. If their goal was to keep NATO in check, it’s much likelier now to expand it.

Moreover, the Russian Army has proven staggeringly inept. Their equipment is old, they can’t seem to maintain supply lines and the resources they need to keep it going are being cut off. Much of its army consists of conscripts and clearly many do not have even minimal training. The Russian Army has clearly degraded and is beginning to resemble a Potemkin village.

The invasion has also paradoxically breathed new life into flagging democracies. When they can see on their TV exactly what it means to be ruled by an autocrat, most people accept the systems of government they got. At least it’s familiar.

Until the invasion, Putin has projected the illusion of competence and tenacity. The invasion proves he is incompetent, as it was obviously a fool’s errand to invade in the first place. In the 21st century, it’s almost impossible to win a conflict through military means, and a win is almost always an illusion and temporary. It’s why we finally got out of Afghanistan last year and our war with Iraq proved such a debacle. You can’t win a conflict where you can’t win the vast majority of hearts and minds. The last conflict we won convincingly was World War II, in part because Japan was an autocracy, and the word of its emperor was enough to end the conflict. These conditions largely don’t exist anymore.

Democratic values are values increasingly not cherished here in the United States. But this horrible invasion may provide an opportunity for Americans to stay with democracy, despite its flaws. No system of government is more stable than one that represents the view of those who are governed. Through gerrymandering we’ve managed to turn our country into one that resembles Russia’s oligarchy. Unlike Russia though we have an opportunity to change course, if we are smart enough to learn from Putin’s unfolding debacle.

What is Putin afraid of on Ukraine?

About a hundred thousand Russian troops are amassed along Russia’s border with Ukraine, ready to invade the country on Vladimir Putin’s command. Whether this actually happens is problematic and it may amount to a lot of saber rattling.

Since 2014, when Ukraine peacefully elected a democratic leader and legislature, it has petitioned to join NATO. It’s choice of democracy was worrisome; but its desire for NATO membership is what Putin is really worried about. Over the decades, Russia’s formerly closely-aligned states on its west have mostly aligned themselves with the West and joined NATO.

His worry about Ukraine joining NATO is not too hard to figure out, as there is more than a millennium of history that shows Russians and other empires can and will invade Eastern Europe and leave behind a lot of death, misery and carnage. Borders in this area of the world are quite fungible. Countries like Prussia and empires like the Holy Roman Empire controlled large swaths of these countries in the past. They are gone, but instead of Mongrel hordes, it’s now mostly Russia which is the threat. Russia likes satellite states on its west to act as a buffer between it and the republics of Europe.

You may have heard of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Back then the United States was acting a lot like Russia is now. When a foreign threat got too close to our shores, it became unacceptable. The Soviets then wisely withdrew after a tense standoff, and Cuba went back to being officially communist but not a real threat to our national security. Short range nuclear missiles in Cuba though were a real threat for which there was almost no time to react.

Subsequent U.S. presidents have remained exceptionally paranoid. Ronald Reagan’s CIA replaced freely elected governments in Central America with mostly despotic banana republics that we controlled. Reagan eventually sent in the Marines to occupy Grenada in the far West Indies because its citizens had some socialist leanings. Grenada is about 1500 miles from the United States mainland.

From Russia’s perspective, the West is encroaching on it. Since 2004, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia have joined the European Union. All these countries are on or near Russia’s borders. Most of these countries also now belong to NATO. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are no longer Russian buffer states. Basically Belarus and Ukraine are the only ones left for Russia. Imagine if Mexico, the Bahamas, Bermuda and most of the Caribbean were socialist or communist states. We’d be just as alarmed as Russia, if not more.

Ukraine though is culturally and ethnically very tied to Russia; much the way Canada feels tied to the United States because we (mostly) share the same language and dominant ethnicities. If Canada became a communist state, we’d probably feel what Putin is feeling now. We’d be deeply alarmed. Eastern European states want to belong to both the European Union and NATO because they want protection from Russia, which has a history of invading or controlling them. They also like the taste of freedom that comes from being democratic states.

So it’s not surprising in the least that Putin is very alarmed. He wants assurances that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO. If it is, there’s no reason short range missiles can’t be placed there, able to lob missiles at Russia before it can do much in the way of responding to them. He’s feeling cramped in.

Here in the West we wonder what all the fuss is about. I doubt very much that Joe Biden wants to change Russia’s system of government, which is a de-facto autocracy with the illusion of free and open elections. He wouldn’t mind if it happened, but Russia is too big an entity to invade. If it happens, it will happen from within. The United States though is in favor of stable and democratic governments, well, at least some of us are. The Republican Party is of course working hard to subvert democratic government here because demographics are turning against them. Republicans are now completely comfortable with autocracy, providing they are in charge, and many don’t want to lift a finger to help Ukraine.

Putin doesn’t want real democracy in Russia. They tried, sort of, after the end of the Cold War, but communists were quickly replaced with oligarchs. It’s no wonder our Republican party seems so friendly to Russia as it is effectively a party captured by oligarchs. It’s no wonder that Donald Trump wanted to align the United States with Russia, as he felt much more comfortable with autocrats and oligarchs. The whole idea of representative democracy has never agreed with him and, increasingly, with the bulk of his party.

Putin’s interest is likely mostly self-serving. He’s an oligarch worth at least tens of billions, but if Russia were to become truly democratic, it’s likely his wealth and status as an oligarch would go as well. But he likely does read Russia correctly, in that it’s a generally deeply conservative country. Democracy is not likely to fit it well, or at all.

As for what Russia will do, my betting is that no troops will invade Ukraine. But I do expect we’ll see some low level cyber warfare instead, which can probably be attributed to Russia but will mysteriously be missing the electronic footprints to prove it. The United States and its allies are likely to respond in kind.

Figuring out that Trump is guilty is not too hard

And so our national nightmare continues. At least last week we learned for a fact that not only did the Russian government interfere in the 2016 elections, but also that doing so is a crime. Special counsel Robert Mueller released a slew of indictments, mostly against Russian citizens who will likely never be held accountable for breaking our laws. In doing so though he demonstrated that crimes did in fact occur, something Trump can no longer deny. Instead, Trump says “no collusion!” However, if someone colludes with an illegal intent, collusion becomes conspiracy, which is illegal.

Most likely this is just the tip of the iceberg that Mueller (if he hangs around long enough) will expose. Trump is being premature in his ludicrous claim that this exonerates him. If anyone in his campaign knowingly helped the Russians in these efforts, they are guilty of conspiracy. Remember that during the campaign Trump said that he hoped the Russians were breaking into Hillary Clinton’s email server. By hoping they would do so, he was cheering the Russian government on, tacitly endorsing acts that are illegal. It’s not conspiracy, but the non-lawyer in me suspects this could be construed as providing moral support to the enemy. If it’s not a crime, perhaps it should be.

The title of my blog suggests its principle topic is the application of Occam’s Razor. I rarely talk about the razor, but I do today to state what by now should be obvious. The most likely reason that Trump is giving the Russians the pass is that he is being blackmailed. No other reason makes even the remotest sense. Moreover, Trump is taking extraordinary steps to give the Russians a pass. For example, he is required by law to impose additional sanctions on the Russians, in part due to their election meddling. Over 95% of the Congress voted for these sanctions. The Trump administration though has refused to impose any sanctions. His rationale seems to be that what we are doing is working so well. So well in fact that Russians haven’t been deterred in the least. As I write they are working hard to influence our 2018-midterm elections.

Mueller’s indictments reveal the scope of Russia’s information warfare against the United States. It’s pretty breathtaking and sophisticated. In today’s Washington Post, we learn that in a building in St. Petersburg, Russia hundreds of Russians are working around the clock to spread disinformation and inflame our partisan tensions just on our social networks. From the indictment we’ve learned this included sending Russians to America to stake us out (in violation of their visas). Their budget for this exceeds $1M a month. It was used to pay for things like a cage to place in a pickup truck to hold a fake Hillary Clinton in prison garb, to emphasize the need to “lock her up”.

The Russians have extensively analyzed the vulnerabilities of our social networks. Working with psychologists they have figured out ways to hit our psychological triggers. It’s all quite sophisticated. I doubt our government is doing anything similar. Its scope is pretty breathtaking, not that the Russians have had a chance to catch their breath. Their effort continues apace, nonstop. But Trump could care less. He has taken no actions in response. He of course won’t impose any new sanctions on the Russians. It’s not hard to imagine Republicans in Congress looking the other way too. Implicitly anything that lets them retain control of Congress, or limit their losses, is good in their eyes.

What Russians are doing though is not the least bit subtle. They are trying to further divide us with the ultimate goal of breaking us as a nation. Governments rarely fall from invading armies. Rather they rot from within. So anything the Russians can do to further the rot and accelerate it from their perspective is good. It is so much better to take over a country where the infrastructure is at least still in place. So much better the spoils of war. It’s so much cheaper too.

And our IT companies are at least unwittingly abetting them. One of the downsides of a capitalist system is that its weaknesses are easily exploited. Facebook and Twitter are powerful social networks, but they are principally in the business of making money. Making sure content is legitimate and from verified posters is expensive and time consuming. It’s so much easier to take the money and run, which they did. I am on Facebook and I have probably seen some of their targeted efforts, as have you. Facebook’s witting or unwitting willingness to foster this behavior has led my brother to leave Facebook altogether. He cannot support a company that supports our enemy. Arguably any true patriot should ditch Facebook, Twitter or any other company that helped accomplish the Russians’ ends. I may have to join them.

Also arguably these companies didn’t know that sophisticated schemes were underway to leverage our social networks in illegal manners. You can bet though that they were quick to take the money of whoever offered it to them. In the Russians’ case, it came principally through fraudulent PayPal accounts. Thus Elon Musk (whose Falcon Heavy rocket made the news last week) is also tied up in all this.

As for Trump, he is trapped. The Russians obviously bated him long ago by catering to his usual vices: beautiful women and money, skills the Russians have long excelled at. I expect that the Mueller team will report in time that much of the money that propped Trump up these last ten years or more came through Russian sources via Deutsche Bank. I expect in time we will see that a lot of money laundering from Russian sources paid for a lot of Trump’s lifestyle too. When you sell lots of $500K condos for $1M, 5M, $10M and $20M, when similar condos in the market don’t command that price, it’s a sign of money laundering. When these condos that are often left unoccupied and where buyer is some shell corporation you are probably laundering money.

Trump knows that Mueller cannot indict him. At least in the short term, all Mueller can do is report his findings to Congress, which can choose to impeach and/or remove him from office. Once he is removed however it is possible that he could be held to account for any crimes uncovered.

A more rational lawbreaker would be working on a plea deal. In Trump’s case maybe it would be agreeing to resign if Mueller agreed to not indict him on any criminal charges. Trump though is not thinking this through rationally. When you have a case of toxic narcissism like he has, you close your mind to such thoughts. Instead you do everything in your power (and he has plenty of power now) to keep the dogs at bay.

We don’t have to speculate about whether he’d use this as his strategy. Based on having people like his lawyer buy the silence of those women he’s had affairs with (like Stormy Daniels), it’s clear which methods he prefers. Only sometimes it comes to bite you. Putin likely has the goods on him. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the alleged pee tape does exist and Putin is holding its release over Trump like the Sword of Damocles. Putin likely has a lot more than that.

So what you see is an ever more frantic and unhinged Trump. While he rages and tweets though, Russia continues its sophisticated cyber attacks on our country making many of us its ultimate victims.

Review: Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie

Some books you cannot put down, some you plod through half heartedly, some you put down after a few pages and some you read for a while, put down for a long time, then strangely pick up again and actually finish. Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie fell into the last category for me.

This was in part because the book was a gift. My wife knows that I like histories, and as usual this came from a recommendation by one of her friends. I’ve plodded through all sorts of unlikely histories. I enjoy the occasional history about a famous woman, such as my review of a book on Queen Elizabeth I. Catherine the Great came along about a hundred and fifty years after Queen Elizabeth I. She ultimately does make for an interesting read through the pen of historian Massie. First you must plod through a whole lot of backstory, and I got stuck in the middle of it.

Catherine ruled Russia from 1762 to 1796, a remarkably long span of time for a monarch of her age. Her story is interesting because she was an unlikely monarch. To start with, she wasn’t even Russian. She was born in Prussia, now Germany, as Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg. She did have noble blood in her, but just barely. In many ways by today’s standards her upbringing was quite middle class. Her second cousin was Peter III, a man she widely detested but was convinced to marry. This was because Prussian Emperor Frederick II needed a more lasting alliance, of the biological kind, between Prussian and Russia. Peter was distantly related to Empress Elizabeth and Catherine to Frederick II. Her conniving aunt helped arrange the marriage.

Catherine at least knew to make the most of opportunities. Married to Peter there was at least the prospect that she would become an empress. If not, living a life in a Russian court beat being married to some minor nobleman back in Prussia. She and Peter, who she barely knew, moved to Russia at Empress Elizabeth’s urging and her aunt’s insistence. Empress Elizabeth, the successor and daughter of Peter the Great, made sure they quickly were married. Her goal was grandchildren, but in that sense Peter III was a failure. He was completely clueless on how to consummate a marriage, and Catherine remained clueless as well. Moreover, Catherine detested Peter, who drank heavily, bore pox marks, hated Russia but admired the Prussian military. Upon reaching Russia, Catherine went right to work learning Russian, reading widely, and making friends at court. Catherine was not only unusually intelligent but she was socially gifted as well, agile enough to keep out of the way of the domineering Empress Elizabeth, but clever enough to make the contacts and demonstrate a key grasp of affairs and to win admirers in Elizabeth’s court.

Nonetheless, her primary value was not intelligence but her breeding value. Both she and Peter eventually had to be taught by others how to make love. It’s unlikely that she and Peter actually ever had sex, but she produced an heir nonetheless, courtesy of one of the many lovers during her life.

Those who like a sexy historical romance will find plenty to enjoy in this biography. For once Catherine learned the art of love, she quickly mastered the art of lovemaking. Her royal status allowed her to be quite particular with her lovers. As empress, she had a steady stream of favorites. Her favorites were men who were basically her exclusive lovers. Screwing the empress was not necessarily as fun as it sounded since in addition to putting out like a stud, you basically served as her constant companion as well. Having lovers was by no means scandalous. She was hardly alone among European royalty. In fact, most of the monarchs, male or female, had a steady stream of favorites and consorts that amused them and provided bedroom delights. These lovers also produced children, children she bore and largely did not see.

What had me stop reading the book for many months were the many pages devoted to her husband Peter III. He was, to say it kindly, a most unusual man. Mostly he was a very annoying person: insensitive, thoughtless, ugly, persecuted and incurious but given his backstory and the cruel way he was raised, it was not surprising. You get to see him through Catherine’s eyes and the view is not pretty. Their life, such as it was together, is hard to read. When Empress Elizabeth finally died of a stroke, Peter III ascended to the throne, but only for about six months. He was so detested that his suspicious death after Catherine took over as monarch in a coup was likely from poison. His death was also completely understandable, as he seemed interested in surrendering Russia to the Prussia he felt at home in. Catherine at least knew how to govern as a Russian and work in the best interest of the state.

For her time, Catherine was amazingly progressive. She believed in monarchy but many things about Russian society appalled her, including the conditions of serfs, who were basically slaves. She tried quite hard to institute a constitutional government in Russia by calling together all classes of Russian society to draft such a document. It proved futile and certain things like the relationship between nobility and serfs proved institutionally impossible to change. In most other ways though she governed with amazing aptitude. Russia expanded its territory in wars against Prussia and Turkey. She did not believe in capital punishment, although one exception was made for a traitor. During her reign Russia became about as enlightened as the rest of Europe, a major feat. She opened hospitals in a country that had virtually none, staffed them, set up a system to take care of homeless mothers and orphans, and through trusted aids like Grigory Potemkin managed to turn large parts of Russia, which resembled the Wild West, into peaceful and prosperous territories. She even won Russia a warm water port on the Black Sea.

And yet she was a passionate woman, not just in bed, but also in temperament. She worked long hours, liked to hear differences of opinion and ruled with unusual enlightenment for her time. She wrote of her own foibles to intimates. She was also not infatuated with herself. This was probably due in part to her humble upbringing, and the way that it grounded her in real life.

Catherine turned out to be the last empress Russia would ever have. Many did not approve of Peter the Great’s decision that each monarch could choose their own successor. That is how his daughter Empress Elizabeth got the crown. The men who would follow her, including those who were assassinated like her son, would prove generally inept in a way she was not.

Readers can be forgiven if they skip over many of the chapters involving Catherine’s husband Peter III. If you like history though this is informative. This is my first exposure in any significant depth to Russian history. If the rest of Russian history is as interesting as Catherine’s life and her time as monarch, I’d gladly become a Russian history enthusiast. Moreover, if you are fascinated by examples of great women in power, it is hard to find a better example of a wise and beneficent ruler than Catherine the Great.

The Cold War Returns

It is now looking like The Cold War did not so much end as it was postponed.

It sure looked like it ended back in 1989. For those of us of a certain age, the images of the Berlin Wall being torn down brick by brick (with many of the bricks being carted off as souvenirs) are indelible. Sometime in the early 1990s, I remember going to sleep with the realization that for the first time in my life, there was virtually no possibility of our country being attacked by nuclear missiles. No country had a reason to lob one at us. We were safe at last!

Over the last ten days or so, we have seen what sure looks like an opening salvo in The Cold War, Version 2. Russia and Georgia have been having a little tiff. It started over the largely ethnically Russian province of South Ossetia in Georgia. It was allowed quasi-independence from Georgia because Georgia feared Russia, its big brother. Who started this war? It is hard to say for sure, since there were plenty of skirmishes on both sides leading up to it, as The Washington Post cataloged yesterday. It looks like the Georgian army was the first to tip the apple cart by brazenly sending its troops into South Ossetia to show them who’s boss. To Georgia it was, “Well, excuse me for reclaiming my territory.” To the residents of South Ossetia it was, “Hey, I thought we were independent! Russia! Help!!” To Russia, it was “Let’s squash those Georgian buggers and send a signal that the Bear is back”.

Moving troops into South Ossetia was a spectacularly stupid move by Georgia, but one that was probably inevitable at some point. Disputed regions never remain disputed indefinitely. Eventually one side gets into a big enough huff and moves their chess piece. The Russian Army showed that Georgia’s forces were paper tigers. This left Georgia to squeal to its Western allies to help negotiate a cease-fire. Maybe Russia will withdraw, maybe not. Point made.

This war is not really about South Ossetia or neighboring Georgian territories under occupation by the Russian army. Telling this to the thousands of civilians who appear to have died because of this conflict is doubtless of no comfort. No, the roots of this event go back to that day in October 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell and the subsequently poor job the West did integrating Russia into the free world in the years since. Unsurprisingly, much of the blame can be laid on the Bush Administration, who have proven ever anxious to push its ideological saber when it could. This administration believes that possession is nine tenths of the law. That is why it never thought twice about suspending Habeas Corpus. If you have power, you should use it, whether earned or not. So of course we were going to overtly and covertly do everything we could to encourage Russia’s neighboring states to adopt our values. We needed an enlightened approach toward Russia. What we got was ideology.

In 1962, when the Soviet Union put mobile missile launchers in Cuba, the United States nearly became engulfed in a nuclear war. The result was the well-known and truly scary Cuban Missile Crisis. Today, just because we can, we are pressing new NATO states like Poland and the Czech Republic to accept our missiles as a “defense shield”. We are doing this supposedly to protect them from rogue states like Iran that might want to lob missiles at them. Of course, we are not doing it because Russia sits right next to them and has a habit of making sycophant states out of Eastern Europe. Why, we even invited the Russians in to check it the missile’s guidance systems. See, they’re not targeted at you. Never mind that in a couple minutes, they sure as heck could be targeted at Russia. Never mind that Iran has zero interest in lobbing missiles at the Czech Republic or Poland anyhow.

With the retirement of Boris Yeltsin and the rise of Vladimir Putin, the Russian government gave up governing by vodka. With Putin, smart leadership was back. His methods were hardly democratic, but he was a man of practical action. He knew he could leverage the power and greed in the West for Russia’s own aims. Democracy became inconvenient toward a more powerful goal shared by most Russians: wiping away the stain of humiliation over their defeat in the Cold War. Russia has enormous amounts of land and natural resources. Western capitalism became the means to reinvigorate their economy. Naturally, we in the West and elsewhere were more than happy to earn some fast bucks. Communism is gone, as it is pretty much in China as well. What is not gone is the tendency on both sides toward hegemony. And the bad news is that while America is now just coming off its energy high having consumed much of its most valuable natural resources, Russia has what is likely the largest natural resources in the planet, much of it untapped. It also has all sorts of metals and oil reserves needed to run a first world country. Moreover, we greedily facilitated the process by providing it with the technology and expertise.

Nuclear missiles, which used to be relatively far away in places like West Germany, may be but a relative stones throw from Russia if the West succeeds in putting these missiles in places like Hungary and the Czech Republic. In other words, 2008 looks very much like 1962 did to us, which is why recently one Russian general remarked if missiles go into Poland, it could be subject to Russian attack. Maybe this sort of delayed karmic experience is inevitable, but it did not have to be this way. It required the West, and the United States in particular, to act in a more enlightened manner instead of an ideological manner. Russia’s reaction to these new threats was entirely predictable. Consequently, they were wholly avoidable.

What would have been a more enlightened way to deal with Russia? Some ways were attempted. Russia was invited to attend the G-7, which became the G-8. We sent over venture capitalists and some that tried to teach America’s style of democracy, which proved to be a culturally imperfect fit. What was really needed was a slower and lower key approach. Eastern European countries had good reasons to want to become NATO and European Union members. Living under Russian occupation or its dominion was rarely a happy circumstance. What was also needed was a more respectful attitude toward Russia. If you want to avoid paranoia, you need to set up circumstances that reduce paranoid feelings. A slower and gentler approach toward helping emerging democracies would have been better. Providing military aid and advisors to neighboring countries like Georgia do nothing but inflame paranoia that the United States has motives beyond spreading freedom.

And so both sides are continuing their games of geopolitical chess which if we had acted in an enlightened manner we might have ended forever in 1989. Instead, the Cold War is reemerging unnecessarily, and doubtless its costs will be at least as high as they were during the last go around. Communism vs. democracy is no longer its animus. On the surface it appears to be about things like oil, free trade and keeping vital shipping lanes open. What is really going on is that the United States senses that it is an empire in decline, much like the British a century earlier. We also see Russia as a true empire for the first time. This time Russia is not saddled with the ideology that made it so inefficient. Our hope is that by sponsoring emerging democracies like Georgia, and by making sustaining friendships with strategic trading partners like Saudi Arabia the weight of these alliances will counter the newly unshackled Russian and Chinese states.

The effect of these changes is a new Cold War that in some ways is not that much different than the old one, and may well be scarier. The USSR is replaced by Russia, which is smaller, but by being more ethnically-pure may be more united. China is still China, but having embraced capitalism is also stronger. Then there is the United States. We thought we were the world’s only remaining superpower, but we were deluding ourselves. The United States is both stronger and weaker, both enabled and hobbled by being continents apart from the competition.

It remains to be seen how the emerging powerhouses of India, Indonesia, South Korea and Iran will fit into all this. It does appear that many more chess pieces are now in play and the game will get more complex from here on. All sides have studied the board for a long time. Russia’s invasion of South Ossetia is Pawn to King 4.