Archive for August, 2022

Putin’s war – VI

[update below]

At the six month mark, give or take a few days, of Russia’s war on Ukraine, I am linking to a must-read article that was posted on The Atlantic website on March 26th, but which I missed at the time, “Putin is just following the manual: A utopian Russian novel predicted Putin’s war plan,” by Dina Khapaeva, director of the Russian-studies program at Georgia Tech’s School of Modern Language. The piece begins:

No one can read Vladimir Putin’s mind. But we can read the book that foretells the Russian leader’s imperialist foreign policy. Mikhail Yuriev’s 2006 utopian novel, The Third Empire: Russia as It Ought to Be, anticipates—with astonishing precision—Russia’s strategy of hybrid war and its recent military campaigns: the 2008 war with Georgia, the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the incursion into the Donetsk and Luhansk regions the same year, and Russia’s current assault on Ukraine.

Yuriev’s book, like Putin’s war with Ukraine, is an expression of post-Soviet neo-medievalism, a far-right, anti-Western, and antidemocratic ideology that assigns “Russian Orthodox civilization” a dominant role over Europe and America. Yuriev, a businessman and former deputy speaker of the state Duma who died in 2019, was a member of the political council of the Eurasia Party, which envisions an essentially feudal social order overseen by a political class that rules through fear. Putin and Yuriev knew each other. The Third Empire is rumored to be popular and highly influential in the Russian leader’s circle; one Russian publication described it as “the Kremlin’s favorite book.”

I was made aware of the article from a post in Claire Berlinski’s excellent Substack site, The Cosmopolitan Globalist, in which she advised: “If you read only one article today…make it this one.” Further on, Claire remarked: “If John Mearsheimer and his coterie were aware of this book, perhaps they would have thought twice about confidently advancing the thesis that NATO’s expansion provoked Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

N.B. It takes far less than this article to lay waste to Mearsheimer’s nonsensical Russia-apologizing arguments—the latest his dumb August 17th piece in Foreign Affairs. On the canard of NATO expansion, I highly recommend setting aside 70 minutes of your time to listen to the informative lecture by historian Mary E. Sarotte of Johns Hopkins-SAIS on her book Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate (Yale University Press, 2021), which she delivered on March 23th via Zoom (YouTube link here) to the Kyiv School of Economics.

Regarding those of the Mearsheimer bent, Anatol Lieven, who is normally smart—more so than Mearsheimer, that’s for sure—published a not-very-smart piece last week in Responsible Statecraft, the online magazine of the Quincy Institute, “Six months after Russian invasion, a bloody stalemate, a struggle for peace: The time for settlement is now — before tens of thousands more die and Ukraine has suffered still greater harm.” John Judis favorably posted the piece on his Facebook page, with this comment:

I agree with Anatol’s argument for negotiations, and would only emphasize the point more. Neither the US, nor Europe, nor Ukraine will benefit from the war’s continuation. Probably not the Russians’ either. The Biden administration should have been continually talking to the Russians, but they have made their unwillingness to do so very clear. It’s a complete dereliction of duty.

I responded:

What precisely is the Biden administration, not to mention the Ukrainians, supposed to negotiate with the Russians about? Trying to talk seriously with Vladimir Putin right now, if ever, is akin to calling for negotiations with Germany and Japan in December 1942. Anatol Lieven and those of his POV are bizarrely disconnected from reality on this. The fact is, the only thing to negotiate with the Russians, after their unconditional withdrawal (or expulsion) from territory occupied after February 24th, is the timetable for their departure from the Donbass and Crimea, after which one can talk about the size of their reparations bill ($1 trillion is a good starting point). If negotiations are to proceed on a basis other than this, please enlighten me.

After joking that “[t]here’s an assistant to the deputy job waiting for you in the National Security Council”—to which I joked back that “[i]f I could work remotely from Paris, I’d consider the offer”—Judis replied:

I don’t think the US can “negotiate” at present with the Russians except over Britney Griner, but I think they should have been talking to them all along to see if there were an opening for negotiations. Instead, after assuming the Russians would take Kiev, and then seeing they were repulsed, they indulged this fantasy that Ukraine would “win,” or at the least would knock the Russians out of the top tier of military powers. Biden called Putin a “war criminal,” they made statements that basically turned the war into the US vs. the USSR again. Macron has been much the better diplomat than Biden, but he has no power. Biden’s team is a throwback to Clinton’s initial ineffectual combination of Lake and Christopher, only worse, e.g. Afghanistan withdrawal worse than Somalia.

My riposte:

Biden gratuitously trash talking Putin was indeed not helpful but so long as he continues to flood Ukraine with the weapons it needs, I’ll say he’s doing the right thing. On talking to the Russians, about what apart from drawing red lines and advising them against issuing threats on going nuclear? And Macron’s diplomacy: what did his time-wasting meetings and phone calls with Putin accomplish other than pissing off the Ukrainians and EU frontline states, provoking ridicule in the Russian media, and making him look ineffectual at home in France?

I assume one read or heard late last month about Vogue magazine’s cover story on Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska and the brouhaha that followed, including the inevitable Twitter storm. An insidious son of a bitch artist and educator named Adam Broomberg posted this ill-tempered reaction on his Facebook page:

This is everything that is wrong with the world and how dangerously photography can intersect with it. The idea of a conflict zone as a backdrop for an @annieleibovitz shoot for @voguemagazine is vile. Posing the “First Lady” against a destroyed airplane in which people presumably died. Depicting a politician as an iconic hero without any nuanced understanding of their function and complicity in this 155 day old brutal war. A superficial glossy depiction of a hero in the Hollywood mould. The whole way this conflict has been covered (from the hierarchy of empathy we witnessed in the way white refugees were embraced) to the “cowboy and Indian” genre analysis of the actual conflict. Somehow deep down I think these pictures confirm our need for for a binary understanding of the world as good and evil, for an outdated model of male heroes with their female enablers. All the while the faceless and for now nameless youth die daily. Don’t get me wrong I’m not in any way supporting Putin but this shoot feeds into all the toxic heteronormative patriarchal ideas that make war inevitable.

Editor and writer Idrees Ahmad struck back with this excellent response, also on Facebook:

I’ve seen more than a few sharing posts like [Adam Broomberg’s], so I feel compelled to speak.

The “professor” whose post has gone viral is one of the many tankies, Trumpists and edgelords more outraged by a photoshoot than by the wholesale destruction of Ukraine by an invading force. He finds these pictures “vile” because he believes they don’t acknowledge Zelenskyy’s “function and complicity” in the invasion of his own country. (What?) He is also troubled by the moral clarity with which most people have denounced Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine. More interestingly, he ends by suggesting that while Putin is bad, wars are really caused by “toxic heteronormative patriarchal ideas” represented by photos like these. (What?!?)

Now to the pictures. These are part of a photoshoot Annie Leibowitz did of Ukraine’s first family for a story about Olena Zelenska’s courage. If you have any doubts about the Zelenskyy’s courage, read Simon Shuster’s detailed report in Time magazine about the first days of the invasion, when a forty-mile long Russian invasion force was at the gates of Kyiv and western intelligence had warned Zelenskyy that an assassination team had been dispatched to take him out. But the Zelenskyy’s—both husband and wife—defied their own advisors and resisted pressure from foreign allies asking them to flee. They stayed in Kyiv, and remained at the presidential palace. The symbolism was important. Zelenskyy understood the devastating effect his flight would have on the country’s morale. Since then, Zelenskyy has made repeated forays to the frontlines to boost morale and show gratitude.

People are blaming the Zelenskyy’s for doing photoshoots while the country is burning. What they don’t get is that it is precisely Zelenskyy’s media strategy that has kept Ukraine from dropping off news coverage. Audiences in the west find it hard enough to maintain their interest in conflicts their countries are directly involved; to most of them Ukraine is a remote place. And attention is of the essence for Ukraine, whose military resources are limited, unlike Russia’s. Zelenskyy has been translating that attention into tangible military support. He has excellent military leaders handling the war; his role is to ensure they have the means to resist a superior invading force. For this he has used every available avenue to lobby for support. He has kept world attention from flagging. Through his personal courage and a clever media strategy, he has turned what everyone had predicted would be a quick rout into a disaster even bigger than Afghanistan for Russian forces.

So there is nothing—I repeat, nothing—wrong with these photos. And yes, Zelenskyy and his wife have set an example of leadership that should be celebrated.

Excellent, like I said.

UPDATE: The Portside website—whose subtitle is “Material of Interest to People on the Left”—has a partial response to the comment below by my friend Pythéas Frog (not his actual name, bien entendu), “How will the war end? A precise answer requires precise questions,” by Boris Kagarlitsky, a Moscow-based Marxist theoretician and sociologist, and who was a political dissident during the Soviet era.

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