For a few years before the actual Covid pandemic materialized, the public was treated to a spate of movies about global devastation by a virus that turned people into zombies. The plague in one of these movies, “World War Z”, moves across the planet, touching down in potential war zones: zombies overwhelm a US Army base in South Korea, then the city of Jerusalem in Israel, then a Belorussian passenger jet. But at the end science comes to the rescue with a vaccine: the doctors who invent it work for WHO in the UK and the hero who inspires them and then takes the serum to Nome, as it were, is a ruggedly independent American intelligence officer.
Cut to reality and fast forward two years from the outbreak of the real pandemic. Tanks and other vehicles of the Russian invading army in the Ukraine today are marked with the Latin letter Z (in Cyrillic, the corresponding letter would be confused with the number 3, and besides, a zigzag is easier to paint). The Putin régime, apparently unaware or indifferent to the association of the letter with the undead in American entertainment culture, has made Z a patriotic symbol: Russian billboards portray the black and yellow commemorative ribbon of World War II folded to form the letter. You can buy a Z tee shirt.
It is illegal in the Russian Federation to call this war a war, which goes one better on Orwell I think. It is at present a “special operation”, though at the time of this writing there is speculation afoot that Putin will rename it a war on Victory Day, May 9th. Russians, long inured to the Kafkaesque, have risked arrest by going outdoors and holding up mock title pages of Leo Tolstoy’s Спецоперация и Мир (“Special Operation and Peace”) and taking selfies. The régime also has a propagandistic hashtag, #Своих не бросаем, which translates roughly as “We leave nobody behind”. There is a similar, and equally mendacious, slogan in the US about improving grade-school education, which gets worse every semester. Again, Putin’s public relations team were probably oblivious to the comic possibilities of the No Child Left Behind Act.
In the United States, where the mainstream media, long obsessed with the manufactured hysteria of Russophobia, are all gung ho for fighting this war to the last Ukrainian, one oft-heard mantra is that no matter what happens, no matter how much or how often the Russians warn about the potential dangers of escalating foreign involvement, we won’t let it turn into World War 3. Okay, let’s not use the number that looks like the Cyrillic letter, then. Since this wholly avoidable conflict came on the heels of the global pandemic so conveniently anticipated by Hollywood— the panem et circenses arm of the US establishment— let’s thumb our noses at both Putin and Biden and call the monstrosity what it is. It looks fair to become World War Z.
I hope World War Z won’t be a thermonuclear Armageddon. But whatever is on the other side of it will be a world you would not have imagined back in the halcyon days of 2019, when that was just the name of a titillating disaster flick.
1. The sanctity of borders: a useful fiction.
How did we get here? It will take some discussion of modern history, particularly the history of Europe following the First World War, to answer that question, or, better, tentatively to propose an explanation. Many of these issues are debated and I do not pretend to have the final answer. But to offer any useful answer at all does require looking at the beginnings, the causes, of present problems.
The Biden administration, which is evidently not concerned at all about the integrity of our own porous southern frontier, nonetheless preaches incessantly, when it comes to the faraway Ukraine, about the sanctity of international borders. What does that mean? In Scripture, the Master of the Universe promises His people that ve-shavu vanim le-gvulam, “the Children (of Israel) shall return to their border” (Jeremiah 31:17) but that means the Holy Land defined and given by the Lord, not a line drawn in the ground by men and delineated by a fence, passport control, and a customs shed. It was only with the Treaty of Westphalia, in the mid-17th century, that the principle of respect for state sovereignty within recognized borders was established. Borders as we know them are a recent convention, not a hoary sacrament. They are not sacrosanct and even a cursory examination of history will show that they never have been.
Nowadays, one tends to think of borders as defining and dividing nations, with their distinct languages and cultural traditions: the French and the language of Voltaire and Rimbaud to the west of a recognized demarcation line, Germans and the poetry of Goethe and Heine to the east of it. But even that was not the original character of the frontiers instituted nearly three centuries ago. Up until the end of World War I, borders generally defined the territories of multiethnic and multilingual empires, not nation states per se: the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, and so on. German, for instance, was spoken in a number of different states all across Europe, from the Baltic principalities of the far northeast down to Italy in the south, and from Alsace in the west to Bessarabia and the Ukraine. Though there was sentiment in favor of a pan-Germanic polity, the very multinational character of empires ensured the viability of minorities in the status quo, to some degree.
After 1918, though, the international order underwent a paradigm shift. At Versailles, the victorious allies redrew much of the map of the world, parceling the defeated Ottoman Empire and the Central Powers into a patchwork of smaller countries generally defined by a dominant national or ethnic group. It is only since around 1920, then, that the integrity of borders has been generally understood as an aspect of national sovereignty. (That is, when one wants to understand them that way and except when they aren’t, all of which we’ll get to.)
In some cases, though, the lines European diplomats drew on their maps at the end of World War I did not even correspond to the newly enfranchised lands of distinct national entities at all. In the predominantly Moslem world, for instance, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Transjordan, Saudi Arabia and so on replaced the old Caliphate ruled by the Ottoman Sultan. Lebanon was supposed to be the homeland of Arabic-speaking Christians, though its charter of proportional representation doomed that laudable aim to eventual and catastrophic failure. Most people in those new Mideastern states, most of which had not existed before, were Moslems and spoke dialects of Arabic, a language with a fixed literary form but with numerous and often mutually incomprehensible spoken dialects. Many Arabs, both Christian and Moslem, regarded the countries defined by Britain and France as ersatz— why should a Syrian or Jordanian feel different from an Iraqi?— and theorized about a state founded on Arab or Moslem unity that would transcend, and eradicate, the borders drawn by Western diplomats.
Some of you will have noticed there is no Kurdistan or Armenia on my Near Eastern list. The Kurds and Armenians, as well as other ethnic groups not regarded as a priority, were left out of the postwar international order to fend for themselves as minority populations without any guarantees of rights. Or the issue, in the case of the Jews in the Land of Israel, was framed with deliberate vagueness and Britain kicked the can down the proverbial road— to 1947, to be precise, when the nascent UN tackled the problem. The new political map of the Near East generally suited the transient interests of the victors in the Great War in Paris and London more than it reflected the enduring realities of the defeated or the governed on the ground in Damascus and Baghdad. We live to this day with the sanguinary consequences of that artificiality: the Boston University historian, David Frumkin, aptly titled his book on the post-Versailles Middle East A Peace To End All Peace.
In Central Europe, the peace of Versailles likewise proved not to be a solution of the conflict just ended but a blueprint for inevitable future war. The vanquished Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved into a tiny German-speaking Austria, a truncated Hungary, and the conglomerate new states of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia; while additional pieces of the former Dual Monarchy of the Hapsburgs were parceled out to Romania in the south and a reconstituted Poland in the north. Germany, which had not suffered decisive military defeat but capitulated anyway, lost territory, especially to victorious France, and endured the further humiliation of a crushing, punitive reparations debt— as though it alone bore the entire weight of responsibility for the war just ended. Many Germans found themselves a second-class minority in the patchwork of new countries, notably in the Sudetenland, now a region of Czechoslovakia. The Slav population of Czechs and Slovaks had long chafed under Hapsburg rule and disliked Germans particularly, though Roma, Jews, and Hungarians were not popular either. German irredentism in the Sudetenland was a plum, ripe to fall into the future Führer’s lap.
Postwar Germany saw civil war and economic chaos, but by the mid-1920s the Weimar Republic had become a laissez faire democracy in which there was greater social liberalism than most anywhere else and there were astonishing experiments and advances in art and science. Nonetheless many Germans were deeply resentful and sought unity with Germans ruled by alien nations; and nationalist irredentism and deep-seated hatreds were among the factors that led to the rise of Hitler.
The ruling elites of the Western democracies offered little opposition to Hitler, who claimed that his strong new fascist order would stand as a bulwark against what he called “Judeo-Bolshevism” in the East. Hitler became popular in Germany because he could tap legitimate resentment. True, ordinary Germans found his racialist madness agreeable to an unsettling degree; but down to 1939 most of them neither wanted nor expected war. Britain, France, and the rising power across the sea— America, the world’s creditor at the end of the Great War— did nothing to check Hitler’s ambitions when they were still easily able to do so. They figured the Nazis could be used to contain the Soviet Union. Thus, when Hitler and Mussolini fought a proxy war against the Spanish Republic in the mid-1930s, the US officially declared non-intervention and neutrality, but unofficially allowed Standard Oil of New Jersey to fuel the Luftwaffe planes that carried out the terror bombings of Madrid and Guernica. You’ll have seen Picasso’s painting of the latter. But surviving American veterans of the loyalist International Brigades faced blacklisting as “premature antifascists” upon their return home.
How about those “Judeo-Bolsheviks”? Let’s turn eastwards.
2. The Russians.
The capital of Rus, as ancient Russia was called, was Kiev, where Prince Vladimir was baptized into the Orthodox Christian faith in 988. As the center of power shifted east to the newer city of Moscow, the old heartland came to be known as Malorossiya, “Little Russia”, or Ukraina “the Borderland”. It was the borderland between the Orthodox East and the Catholic West, between Slavyane (Slavs, i.e., people of renown) and Nemtsy (Germans, literally, people with no human language at all). Catholic Poland and Germanic Sweden both attempted to control this borderland; but the growing Russian Empire displaced them by the mid-18th century. Russia went on to seize the Crimean peninsula from the Turks and to the west of it built the great port city of Odessa, called by its people Odessa Mama, where Russians, Jews, Greeks, Romanians, Armenians, Little Russians, Frenchmen, and sailors of every hue under the sun traded, fornicated, played the violin, wrote poems, and got drunk. Pushkin liked the city. It has been estimated that through the 19th century the Russian Empire grew by fifty square miles per day: Russia gained control of Finland and the Baltic principalities, to the north; the Transcaucasus (Georgia, eastern Armenia, and Azerbaijan) to the south; and Central Asia to the east.
Russia’s meteoric rise alarmed the unipolar power of the day, Great Britain: the rivalry between land-based Russia and maritime England in the relatively courtly 19th century came to be known as the Great Game. The image comes to mind of a civilized croquet match played by gentlemen; and at least neither player insisted too tiringly often that he occupied the moral high ground. Tsarist Russia championed downtrodden eastern Christians but confined Jews to the Pale of Settlement in its western regions (this included hoary Kiev and cheerful Odessa); Victorian England fostered civil liberties and democracies at home but did not practice them in its colonies, and did not flinch from taking the side of the ailing Ottoman Empire, which persecuted Christians, when the rivalry with Russia made it opportune to do so.
Imperial Russia’s unexpected and crushing defeat in the war with Japan of 1904-1905 sent shock waves of revolution through its empire; and the country’s losses in the First World War only a decade later spelled the end of the three-hundred-year-old Romanov dynasty, though not of authoritarian government. Kerensky’s short-lived bourgeois revolution of March 1917 promoted democratic institutions but, fatally, kept Russia in the war. The Communist leader, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, returned to the Motherland promising Peace, Bread, and Land. After the October Revolution, Russia withdrew from the fighting, making good on the first promise at least, to the consternation of its erstwhile western allies. Germany took advantage of the chaos and invaded Poland and the Ukraine from the west; Finland and the Baltics gained independence; and the three Transcaucasian nations proclaimed themselves republics: in all three, nationalist parties took power and disenfranchised each other’s ethnic groups on their sovereign territories. The interregnum was brief: the Red Army, founded by Leon Trotsky, liberated German-conquered territories in the west; and Communist revolutionaries in the Caucasian and Central Asian regions staged successful rebellions against the local bourgeois governments. The briefly independent states were dissolved, and in 1922 the multi-national Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was founded, with Russia its principal member and Moscow its capital city.
With the advent of the socialist system and the overt support of the Moscow-based Third International for world revolution, the western powers’ old rivalry with Imperial Russia had now attained the aspect and fervor of an ideological crusade against Communism. The west supported the Whites in the Russian Civil War against the Reds, and the US military invaded Soviet Russia. Winston Churchill intoned, “This baby must be strangled in its cradle.” Bread in the new Russia was in short supply; and Land was soon to be taken away from under the peasants by a new form of serfdom, collectivization.
But the stranglehold of armed intervention and the privations of the birth pangs of socialism didn’t kill the sturdy Red toddler. So the capitalist powers attempted to erect a cordon sanitaire around the young Soviet Union. A decade later, as we’ve noted, the west cautiously welcomed Hitler, hoping he might be made a useful tool against the Reds. But when the Nazi dictator proved to be an uncontrollable menace to all, the same western politicians who had anathematized Stalin as the Antichrist grudgingly admitted the Russian leader as a temporary ally. “Were Hitler to invade hell,” Churchill explained, “I should be certain to make favorable mention of the Devil in the House of Commons.”
During the Second World War, the Nazis advanced to the gates of Moscow. In the lands they conquered and despoiled, they found ready collaborators in the nationalist parties who hoped to free their nations from Stalinist rule. Thus, the present, post-Soviet government of Lithuania celebrates Jonas Noreika as a hero. He was a local Nazi who took a proactive role in the Holocaust. Stepan Bandera, likewise honored by the Ukraine, did the same. Ukrainian and Lithuanian advocates of such revisionist history invoke Stalinist repression and the mass deaths of collectivization to argue that Soviet rule was just as bad as Nazi occupation. It is a disingenuous and self-serving argument, a nationalist cover-up.
I am an Armenian scholar, and spent many happy days of my life in the Armenian SSR, so Armenia’s role in all this interests me. Garegin Nzhdeh and Dro Kanayan, military heroes of the first Armenian republic who were associated with the anti-Soviet Armenian Revolutionary Federation, the Dashnaks, formed a unit to fight for Hitler. Some Red Army prisoners of war joined it to get out of German concentration camps, where they faced certain death. Some of these soldiers defected back to the Soviet lines when they could. Hitler disliked and mistrusted Armenians: he admired Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and approved of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, which indeed served as a source of inspiration for his own plans. Most Armenians remembered the Genocide all too well and understood they had no future under Hitler.
It is estimated that a quarter of a million citizens of the tiny Armenian SSR gave their lives to win the Great Patriotic War, as Soviet people call World War II. In my youth, an elderly Armenian greeted me on a Yerevan street, seeing I was a foreigner, and invited me to his home, where his wife served us cool drinks. He was a Red Army veteran and showed me his photo album of the war: he had marched, on foot, all the way from where we sat to Prague, Czechoslovakia, which he helped liberate.
The past is complex, it has gray areas, and the Nazi period can and is manipulated by propagandists. Putin has declared as a war aim, I mean, a special operation aim, the “denazification” of the Ukraine. That is nonsense; but it is equally nonsensical to insist, as the controlled western press does, that just because the Ukraine’s president, Vladimir Zelensky, is Jewish there is no significant neo-Nazi, fascist strain in Ukrainian politics. Another case. During the Karabagh war last year, Azeri propagandists went out of their way to flood the Jewish and Israeli press, notably the online highbrow ragTablet, with stories about pro-Nazi Armenians. It was barefaced lying; and when I offered the Tablet a more balanced and informed view, the editors rebuffed me with a curt rudeness I have never encountered before as a writer and scholar. Here is the truth: the Nazis were pro-Azerbaijan and would have enabled the Azeris to exterminate the population of Soviet Armenia, had they the chance. The late Professor Anahit Perikhanian, a famous specialist in the languages of Ancient Iran who was a girl in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, during the war, told me once how the Luftwaffe flew over the city scattering leaflets telling the local Azeri Turks to sharpen their knives: the Germans would soon arrive, the message promised, to help them finish the job begun in 1915.
I return to the larger picture now of the world in 1945. At the end of World War II, nearly all the European part of the Soviet Union was in ruins and about thirty million Soviet citizens lay dead, but for the western powers it was back to business as usual: hostility towards Russia. Several US generals and diplomats proposed that the western allies should press on immediately to destroy Moscow, while we prosperous Yanks had the A-bomb and the enfeebled Soviets didn’t. That did not happen. Instead, the anti-Soviet “defensive” alliance NATO was formed; and the USSR, reeling from its losses in the war, was excluded from the Marshall Plan. Then the US and its satellites, and the USSR and its, fought the Cold War.
America won and Russia lost. NATO endured, and the countries of the now-defunct, Soviet-controlled Warsaw Pact cheerfully and immediately defected to the winning side. On Christmas 1991 the Hammer and Sickle flag was hauled down from the Kremlin, the USSR itself disbanded, and its fifteen Republics became independent states. Russia and the Ukraine were the largest.
Many of the previous Union Republics reverted to their status circa 1920: nationalist parties like the Dashnaks resumed power in the Caucasus where they had left off three generations earlier, and Armenia and Azerbaijan went back to war with each other. Factions with an unsavory wartime collaborationist past entered the mainstream of political life in the independent Ukraine and the Baltic states. Russian-speakers, who constitute a large minority in the latter, especially the Ukraine, discovered almost overnight that their native tongue had no official status. Without passing a language exam in Latvian, a difficult and ancient tongue spoken only in Latvia, Russian speakers born in the cosmopolitan capital, Riga (where till a generation earlier the language of culture and learning had been German) were told they could not vote. In Central Asia, an under-reported civil war between Islamists and secular, pro-Russian factions in Persian-speaking Tajikistan claimed around a quarter of a million lives; and the mad dictator of Turkmenistan renamed the calendar after his mother and erected a heliotropic gold statue of himself in the capital, Ashkhabad. In Kazakhstan a former Communist Party official, Nursultan Nazarbayev, became president. The country’s main institution of learning is Nazarbayev University, which is situated, unsurprisingly, in the spanking new capital city of, what else, Nursultan.
In the Ukraine, skinheads paraded under the banners of ultra-nationalist units that had participated in the Nazi Einsatzgruppen. Up went statues of the fascist leaders Semyon Petlyura and Stepan Bandera. In 1992, while teaching at the Hebrew University, I read with amusement the entry on Jerusalem in a new Ukrainian encyclopedia, and learned that King David’s city was founded and named by, yes, Ukrainians, who belonged, of course, to the “Aryan race”. A fanciful etymology of the city’s name was helpfully provided. This sort of thing was common. As Goya said, the sleep of reason breeds monsters.
Russia itself dissolved into chaos. The president, Boris Yeltsin, a drunken buffoon, and his hatchet man Arkady Gaidar hired a gang of Ivy League and Chicago economists to privatize the economy. The quack physicians went home with fat checks; but the snake oil— shock therapy— they prescribed very nearly killed the patient. Thousands of factories and other enterprises were cannibalized and shut down. Below a thin, unsightly crust of oligarch scum seethed an underclass of tens of millions reduced to abject poverty as jobs, pensions, and what was left of the Soviet social welfare system vanished into thin air. The northern Caucasus, especially Chechnya, became a no-man’s-land ruled by Islamist militant groups: terrorist attacks became an everyday problem in once-orderly Russian cities whose streets were already resounding to shootouts between gangs.
The Americans after World War II had treated vanquished Germany and Japan with magnanimity and foresight, assisting their recovery and reintegrating them into the world’s economy and civil society. In the early 1990s and later, though, America lacked statesmen and diplomats of character and caliber. That deficiency, together with an abiding anti-Russian animus, led the Americans to kick their opponent after he was already down, re-purposing NATO as an anti-Russian rather than anti-Communist alliance and then breaking a promise to the Russians not to expand it eastwards. The Americans now swear they never made any such promise. The Warsaw Pact countries were welcomed into NATO, then the three Baltic states that had been part of the USSR itself. Georgia wanted to join, too: Russia responded by attacking Georgia and lopped off its restive Abkhaz and South Ossetian regions. The Ukraine wavered between close relations with Russia and the urge to reorient the country westwards. Ukrainian nationalists with open US support staged a coup d’état, overthrowing the Russia-friendly president in 2014. This is called by the western media the Maidan revolution and is celebrated as a triumph of democracy.
Putin and others saw it more in the way Nancy Pelosi and her colleagues view the far less violent demonstration of January 6th, 2021 at the US Capitol— as sedition and insurrection, instigated by a distant, intractably hostile foreign power. There was a new border encroaching on Russia: that of NATO. It was neither sanctified nor static: it had been moving eastwards for two decades.
Russia since the Soviet collapse had been leasing the home port of the Black Sea fleet, the storied city of Sevastopol in the Crimea, from the Ukraine. Nikita Khrushchev had transferred Crimea from the RSFSR (now the Russian Federation) to the Ukrainian SSR when I was a little boy. It didn’t mean that much, then, when the USSR was a single country, but Putin now felt uneasy about the arrangement, given how things were going, and seized the Crimea. Russia also offered support to separatist movements in the largely Russian-speaking Lugansk and Donetsk provinces of the Donbass. The war that began there in 2014 simmered for eight years, claiming tens of thousands of lives. There are no borders there, not even a ceasefire line.
The second- and third-largest cities of the Ukraine, Kharkov in the northeast and Odessa in the southwest, are mostly Russian-speaking; Kiev, the capital, has a significant Russian population. Kharkov is a short drive from the Russian border; and Kiev is only a little farther from the frontier of Belarus. Those borders were drawn by Soviet leaders within the Soviet Union. They were arbitrary, and not of great significance when there was one country but were accepted when the Union disbanded thirty years ago. I used to take Amtrak back to Boston, where I worked, from home visits to New York. If you knew where to look from the speeding train, you could make out the road sign announcing you’d left Rhode Island and entered Massachusetts. That’s how important the border between the Ukrainian SSR and the RSFSR used to be. Now fortify it with barbed wire and declare different official languages on either side.
The RI-MA frontier is, as far as I know, pretty much unchanging. But let’s now talk about a border, that’s as unstable as Humpty Dumpty and as evanescent as the Cheshire Cat.
The largest city in the extreme west of the Ukraine, Lviv, near the western border, with Poland, has a Ukrainian majority population at the moment. But between the World Wars it did not, for that city was officially Lwów and was a part of Poland: most of its people were Poles and Jews. Many of them were educated in German: before World War I the city had had another official designation, Lemberg, and was in another state, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Its celebrated Central European architecture stems from that Austrian heritage. As it happens, some relatives of my father’s hailed from a city near Lemberg, Brody. One of them, a lawyer, sat down one afternoon, and drew a line round the edge of a dinner plate placed face down on a capacious sheet of Austrian imperial legal paper, which had a flap on one side which he smoothed out. He then copied in the circle, in a perfect spiral and from memory, the Hebrew text of the Book of Esther. Little survived the Holocaust but that enchanting manuscript did; and as a boy I imagined chestnut trees, documents filed at work, caloric Austrian dinners, lights twinkling in synagogues, gold watch chains on starched bellies, heavy silver coins with the profile of the good Emperor Franz Josef, and peace and calm that should have lasted forever.
Lemberg also had a large and vibrant Armenian population. Though most Armenians there were converted to Catholicism over time, they have left architectural monuments and a literary heritage in their own language and in Kipchak Turkish in Armenian script. As you can imagine, drawing a border on ethnic lines would seem to be impossible for such a place. The great Polish science fiction writer Stanisław Lem, as his surname suggests (Lem, Lemkin, Lemko— Lemberg!), grew up in Lwów. Many of the classmates of the author of Solaris were Jews, like him, and most of them were murdered by local Ukrainian collaborators in one of the more sanguinary pogroms of the Nazi occupation. Down the street from the Lem family lived Raphael Lemkin, also a Jew, who moved away and grew up to become an international lawyer in the US. Lemkin coined the word “genocide”, specifically to afford precise legal nomenclature to the mass murder of the Armenians, which he and most of his contemporaries understood for what it was— the blueprint and precedent for the Nazi Holocaust then consuming his own family across the ocean.
Lemberg thus became Lwów after World War I, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as you will recall, vanished from the map and borders were redrawn. In 1939 Stalin signed a pact with Hitler and invaded Poland, redrawing the border and annexing Lwów to the Ukrainian SSR. It was renamed Lviv, and Hitler invaded it in 1941. By the end of the war there were few Poles and fewer Jews left. Why were there fewer Poles? Because during the Nazi occupation the Ukrainians and Poles massacred each other: 200,000 victims is the general estimate. After the war, the map was redrawn yet again. Stalin added to the Ukraine the Hungarian town of Munkacs, now renamed Mukachevo. Before the war, many of the residents of Munkacs, including relatives of my father’s, were Hasidic Jews. They are all gone, and Mukachevo is now a border crossing, through which hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have passed this spring in their westward flight.
Toponyms were Ukrainianized under the Soviets and, with a vengeance, after them. So you will hear the American mainstream media call places within the sacred and unchanging borders of our newest champion against evil Russia by their pure, primordial Ukrainian names. Kiev is Kyiv; Lvov, Lviv; Kharkov, Kharkiv; Nikolayev, Mykolaiv; Dnepropetrovsk, Dnipro; and Odessa, Odesa (one “s”, please: Texans take note). Why stop there? Virtue signalers are competing once more, to see who’s more pro-Ukrainian. Let’s rename London, Lindin; and Boston, Bistin— in solidarity with the Ukraine, whose Azov Battalion, which at this writing is holding out in the tunnels of the Azovstal metallurgical plant in Mariupol, is the only officially and authentically White Nationalist, swastika-tattoo-sporting military formation in any army in the world today. But never mind that.
3. The war till now.
Nobody in the Ukraine, not even president Zelensky, seems to have believed Putin would actually invade. They thought his military buildup was a bluff, a bargaining chip to use in diplomacy. But the American elite did not want diplomacy and did everything in their power to subvert it. They were sure of war. Please don’t be so sure, or at least don’t say it so loudly, Zelensky pleaded. Nope, there’s gonna be a war, they insisted. They were counting on it, and did everything in their power to make it happen, to enrage the Russians, to back them into a corner. All of Putin’s demands over last winter— that NATO roll back offensive weapons from Eastern Europe, that the Ukraine definitely NOT be allowed to join NATO— were met with a derisive, resounding NO. President Macron alone tried to negotiate seriously, but it was too late. The unthinkable happened, and the Biden administration and its Democrat managers, with their relentless, decades-long anti-Russian witch hunts, saw their prophecy fulfilled and have to bear their fair share of the blame.
That is not to exculpate Putin’s kleptocratic autocracy, or to excuse or justify in any way his resorting to violence. You can provoke me all you like, but if I throw the first punch it’s assault and battery and try to tell the judge otherwise. Over the nearly quarter century of Putin’s ascendancy, almost all the freedoms introduced in the post-Soviet era have vanished. Nemtsov was bumped off by paid assassins almost under the Kremlin walls. Navalny languishes in prison: his kangaroo show trial was sickeningly familiar, a Made In The USSR production. No free media are left in Russia. Papers and websites in disagreement with the Kremlin have to post a warning similar in appearance to that on a pack of cigarettes, warning the user that he’s about to read the words of a foreign agent. And calling the war a war can land you in jail.
The Russian army was as poorly prepared for this war as for the attack on Finland, the “Winter War” in the runup to World War II. What it lacked in supplies, materiel, morale, and planning it has made up for in strategic bungling, wanton destruction, and horrific savagery. Nearly everything that could go wrong, has gone wrong. The torture and mass murder of innocent, helpless men, women, and children by Russian forces constitute war crimes. The hatred for Russians this war has caused will doubtless endure in the Ukraine for generations, the honor and good name of the Russian people themselves have been besmirched, and for this damage, shame, and betrayal Putin’s name will go down in infamy. That is a certainty, if the world survives. If the war spreads and escalates, there is a real danger of thermonuclear war, and then the world will not survive. Will it become such a war to end wars, in the most pessimistic sense of that hackneyed cliché?
4. World War Z.
To sum up, we live in a world where borders have been drawn for different purposes, for different kinds of political entities. They are often established arbitrarily, and they fluctuate. Invoking the sanctity of borders is not a principled stance but a political tool; and the victor that emerged from the Cold War has manipulated that tool in a cynical and hypocritical way, worse, provoking thereby an increasingly enraged dictator into the present war. Borders are lines drawn by diplomats, circumstances change, and borders shift— hopefully through careful diplomacy but regrettably often through armed conflict when diplomacy fails. This war is about borders of alliances and of spheres of influence. Perhaps it might have been averted by diplomacy. I do not believe American diplomacy simply was tried but failed, even though this administration and its bureaucrats are themselves inept failures. As it seems to me, diplomatic efforts were disingenuous. They were never intended to succeed; and compromise was never contemplated.
At first, Putin’s invasion came from all directions save the west, but the offensive in the north stalled and he has now focused on absorbing the Donbass and, perhaps, on cutting off the Ukraine from the Black Sea. The conquest of the littoral of the Sea of Azov seems assured; north of the Crimea, Russian forces have taken Kherson, ensuring the supply to Crimea of water from the Dnieper river. The question at the time of this writing is whether Putin’s forces will risk the storming of the large and well-armed port of Odessa. That is inevitable if they want the whole coastline. It would make the Ukraine a landlocked state, barely viable, a no-man’s-land on a tense and changed map.
Till recently, the west contented itself with sending the Ukraine what it described as defensive weaponry. In recent days, though, American policy has changed significantly in three ways: first, offensive weapons will be supplied henceforth. Second, the aim of the war has been redefined accordingly: it is now not to preserve an independent Ukraine but to defeat Russia and degrade its ability to wage war. Third, Biden announced a billion dollars’ worth of arms for Ukraine, and two days later upped that figure twenty-fold.
It is not possible to tell yet how much of an effect the west’s unprecedented sanctions are having on the Russian economy. The Russians are historically inured to wartime privation of a kind Americans cannot comprehend, and the cessation of trade works both ways. Long before this war, many Russians already felt ill-treated and unjustly ostracized. The sanctions will surely exacerbate this feeling, which can become desperation. But I do not think sanctions will break the Russians and make them give in. There could be a palace coup to unseat Putin, but that could usher in a смутное время, a “Time of Troubles”, rather than peace, and, possibly, more danger. Factions and warlords divvying up the nuclear arsenal, civil war. It’s happened before, albeit without the new peril of strategic weapons.
Added to the sanctions, the three new shifts in policy signify an escalation of the conflict into something new, different, and dangerous. The western media cater to an impatient public with a short attention span and prefer to report on short wars with dramatic results; but Russia is different and it could wage a long and stubborn war, and if that war is dirty, so be it: the outside world is unfriendly anyhow. But Putin could respond to increased isolation and military escalation by resorting to the use of battlefield low-yield nuclear weapons.
Neither the USA nor Russia wants to be the first to use nuclear weapons; but neither country has committed itself to no first use. Back in the 1980s it was hypothesized that the superior ground forces and armor of the Warsaw Pact could attack in the course of a crisis, say over Berlin, break through NATO’s front lines and advance deep into Western Europe through the Fulda Gap in Germany. The US and its allies, gamers figured, might at that point employ tactical nuclear weapons to stop the Russians. After that, either cooler heads might prevail and a ceasefire and build-down of forces be achieved; or the conflict would escalate to thermonuclear war and mutually assured destruction.
The issues— sanctity of international frontiers, national identity, the encroachment of NATO, etc.— would in the event of nuclear confrontation become, instantly, as irrelevant as the exact location of the Austro-Hungarian border with the Russian Empire east of Lemberg in August 1914. That is World War Z: all cities everywhere reduced to rubble, the environment poisoned for tens of thousands of years to come, and the history of the human species at an end.
Such a war, which few seem to be worrying about or trying to forestall, might be the end of the alphabet for life on the planet, its letter Z. But if you have read a single word of the foregoing essay you will have understood, I hope, that the world war we may face soon— in a month, three months hence, this coming winter— is a continuation of World War A, of the beginning of the alphabet. It may go back— and I think it does— in a continuous and linked chain to the very first murder, just outside the gates of Eden, of a young farmer by his brother, a shepherd. But it would certainly be the last battle of World War I. All the same issues are there, nothing has been resolved, it is the same thinking, the same causes in the sense of ideologies, the same causes in the other sense of the word as that which produces effects. Only the capacity to cause destruction has been enhanced. Technology has advanced but humanity has not. And until we do, it seems we have doomed ourselves, like a sleepwalker in a nightmare, no, like the mechanical soulless undead, to stumble through the trenches and barbed wire as the explosions grow bigger and louder, till the last great mushroom cloud. World War Z it is, but I fear that we as a society, as a world, are not the few intrepid, living, embattled people, no, we ourselves are fast becoming the zombies.
The situation is bad and the recent changes I have described make it worse. But there is a way to forestall Armageddon. It is diplomacy, which for various reasons the Americans have seemed unable or unwilling effectively to employ in this crisis. Diplomats draw borders and agree on spheres of influence. They can change them. The stakes are so great that it is imperative that there be shuttle diplomacy between the parties, cease-fires, and an agreement of arms embargos and non-intervention, and direct peace talks. This process should begin in earnest and without delay, with or without American participation, and, if necessary, circumventing the Biden administration entirely. France and India, for instance, are major powers that are not US satellites and can act comparatively freely as mediators. Other countries will join them once the process is moving and is starting to work, particularly if there are incentives to peace. If Washington remains recalcitrant, if it does try to hamper or blackmail that peace effort, then the truth our media assiduously suppress will at least be clear beyond a doubt; and then, right here, it is up to the American people to do some long overdue housecleaning, starting with the midterm elections. And if the Republicans, too, turn out to be just as mortgaged as the Democrats are to that old boss, the military-industrial complex, why then we’ll have to take another look at the Declaration of Independence. But that’s another story; and if we want even the chance to tell it, first we have to stop World War Z.
Categories: Chronicle of Current Events