Friday, March 14, 2014

Putin, just another Krushchev?

I wrote earlier that I could understand, at least a little, Putin's thinking in Ukraine - he wants the old USSR border countries under his control as a military protective border zone, and he sees himself as an important historical figure setting the course of history between east and west.  

But really?  Didn't the collapse of the USSR mean anything to him?  If we were to observe just Putin we would think that authoritarian rule is an intrinsic part of Russia.  Following in the footsteps of the old USSR he is closing down the free press, imprisoning and killing political opponents, and invading neighboring countries.  I guess he misses the good old Cold War where Russia, or more importantly Russia's leader, was really, really important.

The idea when the Soviet communist empire collapsed was that the world was no longer under the threat of crushing totalitarian Communist tyranny.  So, now, Putin wants the world to be under the the threat of crushing Putinist tyranny.

I just finished the book "Ike's Bluff", a history of Eisenhower's foreign policy in the '50s.  It was clear that his Russian adversary, Krushchev, was a weak man in charge of a weak country who used bullying and threats to dominate.  All Krushchev really had was nukes and a lot of military, but the rest of his empire was unsound and weak.  Indeed, Krushchev did everything he could to keep scrutiny out of the USSR because the weakness of his hand would be exposed.  

I think it is much the same for Putin.  He is a weak man ruling a weak country who has to strut around with his shirt off and frighten people.  He doesn't want anyone to look behind the curtain to see how vulnerable and disfunctional Russia is.  

I've got an idea.  Why doesn't Putin decide to live in peaceful harmony with his neighbors?  Then he wouldn't have to assert control over the former USSR border countries as protection from attack.  

And who knows?  That would make him a really important historical figure.

Monday, March 10, 2014

A nihilist discovers that love and light runs the universe

The TV series "True Detective" had its season finale last night. It has been a very fascinating series, highlighted by wonderful performances by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, written by Nic Pizzilatto.  It drew me along for the ride, but it was primarily the performance of McConaughey that kept me going.  In the end, I want to say thank you to the writer for the journey.
Read no further if you haven't seen the series, spoilers ahead.
McConaughey's character was a burnt out, alcoholic drug addicted philosophically inclined detective who was nihilistic and profoundly depressed.  He was also a very good detective.  Harrelson's character was much less self aware but also self destructive in his own ways who destroyed his marriage along the 17 year arc of the story.  He was also a very good detective.  The story was about these two solving the ritualistic murders of children performed by deranged satan worshipers in Louisiana.  
But, what counted to me was the arc of the McConaughey's character in the end.  He is almost killed by the psychopath.  When he recovers he tells his partner, Harrelson, about his near death experience, where he dropped down into the darkness until his definitions of himself dissolved and the only thing that was left was the experience of the love of his deceased daughter and there was no separation between them and everything.  He awoke back into this life and didn't know why he had come back.  
Harrelson's character tries to comfort him by reminding him that when he was younger, living in Alaska, he used to look up at stars at night and make up stories about them.  McConaughey's character said all the stories came down to one eternal story, light versus dark.  Harrelson's character looked up at the night sky and said there was a lot more dark than light.  
But then, we finally get to the heart of the story that Pizzolatto told: 
 But then he reconsiders—and this is Pizzolatto's only twist. In the last seconds of the season, the nihilism and misanthropy that have characterized Rust's worldview soften, however briefly, as he realizes that maybe he is here for a reason.
"You're looking at it wrong," Rust mutters. "The sky thing."
"How's that?" Marty replies.
"Well, once there was only dark," Rust says. "You ask me, the light's winning."
And the story comes to a completion wherein a nihilistic man who saw the world as hopelessly twisted and dark found that love and light were at the heart of the universe.  I thought it was a spectacular ending to a fascinating story.  I look forward to the next season and a new story with new actors.  This one will be hard to top.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

What Russia needs in Ukraine

It is easy to look at Putin’s actions in Ukraine and see it as the strange actions of a power mad tyrant.  But, why is Putin threatening Ukraine?

George Friedman of Statfor predicted Russian show of force in Ukraine a few years back in one of his insightful books connecting geography to world history.  His basic point is that Russia has long unprotected borders and has always needed to find some way to protect itself from attack across its borders.  Since there are no physical barriers between Europe and Russia, like difficult mountains to traverse, their only alternative is to annex countries on its borders so that if countries try to invade they have to go through other countries first.  Napoleon and Hitler came across open plains into Russia so the Russians have historical reasoning on their side for the necessity of buffer countries to protect it.  Ukraine is one of those buffer countries.  Indeed, the ideal map from a Russian military safety point of view is the old USSR where Russia is surrounded by buffer countries under its control.

Plus, of course, Ukraine is the portal to the Black Sea which is the only way Russia has access to the sea for its navy during the winters.

Another view is expressed by David Brooks who writes of a sense of destiny that Putin has expressed that dates back to Russian philosophical writers.  That view is that Russia is the link between the east and the west, and it has a destiny to counter the corrupt materialism and moral weakness of the west, and to bring the east and west together with Russia being the midwife of that union.  In that light, the anti-gay laws of Russia and Putin make sense in that they see acceptance of gay sex as a subset of the overt and corrupt moral weakness of promiscuity and immorality of the west. 

So, Putin’s actions can be seen as both rational and moral from a Russian point of view.  That is perhaps why he is doing what he is doing.

The idea that Putin is just on the "wrong side of history", as Obama said, assumes that this is about Putin stomping on the necks of people wanting to be free to rule themselves, and looks like it is a tragic misreading of Russia's actual motivations.

I would hope that negotiations can be successfully undertaken that guarantees Russian access to the Black Sea as a minimum.  And it seems pretty clear that Putin sees European economic incursions into the “border” countries as an incursion of the west into Russia’s security and culture and makes it vulnerable. That fear needs to be addressed as well.

I don’t know how to convince Russia that it has nothing to fear from Europe, which has almost no military at all at this time, but the arc of history is long, and memories of Napoleon and Hitler are long too.