Tough Guys

This weekend, I listened to CNN tough guy Jim Acosta use his entire broadcast to ask a series of gue

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  1. Whole lot of $200k+ folks think the families in the <$50k class should go fight in a war. The smart set/pajama class seems to echo this tough guy rhetoric when it costs them nothing. Funny that.
  2. Thank you for making it clear. I knew we didn’t want an escalation, and I knew we had rhetoric flying around everywhere in the airwaves that it could be cut with a butter knife. The sanctions were really impressive, it felt that we needed to keep the momentum going.

    This line is the money shot:

    NATO involvement in Ukraine is the only thing that allows Putin to mobilize Russian public opinion for a wider conflict.

    NOW I GET IT. We did what we could, and we just need to wait. Not everything needs to be done at Twitter speed. By doing more we shoot everyone, including ourselves, in the foot.

  3. I am not Russian but I speak some and my wife and almost her entire family are Russians who fled the country as refugees either in the early 90s in the years immediately following Soviet collapse, or as journalists who pissed off powerful people in the last 5 years. They are very anti-Putin. Some observations.

    1. Putin’s fabrication of an alternate reality has been very successful. At least two close family members still in Russia apparently actually believe the state narrative - that the war is in response to genocide of ethnic Russians in Ukraine, and Putin is trying to “de-nazify” Ukraine (even though their president is Jewish?!). They are apparently being told that the horrific attacks against civilians are being conducted by Ukrainian “fascists.” One of the believers includes someone who makes regular visits to America, and so is not entirely trapped in the Russian alternate reality.

    2. There were differing opinions on whether the sanctions would work. The two closest to the banking industry were far more skeptical. Putin knows the West’s playbook and the Russians are quite proficient at money-laundering and evading sanctions and it will do nothing but impoverish the people. On the other hand, this financial pariah status does seem more extreme. A debate broke out about this at dinner: if the people that are running his regime start to resist because of the financial ruin inflicted them, then maybe it could work. On the other hand, Putin has been so effective at persecuting resistance that most people who have the desire or ability to resist have already fled the country.

    3. My father-in-law estimates a 90% chance that some type of nuclear strike will occur (though not necessarily that it will escalate into a wider nuclear conflict.) Given the lack of preparedness that has become evident in the early fumblings of the invasion, there is now the question of whether Putin is losing touch with reality (perhaps he has started to believe in his own constructed narratives), which had not been questioned up until this point. I am more skeptical of this - he is certainly cruel enough, but surely he must realize that a nuclear strike could easily provoke total ruin of Russia and himself (putting aside what would happen in the wider world)?And he surely cares about trying to avoid that…right? Right?!?

    Honestly, I think (and my Russian in-laws more or less agree) NATO’s best options right now militarily is to do nothing at all with any conventional military, but possibly covertly support an insurgency that turns Ukraine into a second Afghanistan for them Charlie Wilson’s War style over the course of years. This is the only type of conflict with them that can possibly avoid nuclear war. It has enormous risks - including nuclear war, but I think significantly less than direct conflict - not to mention being cruel to the Ukrainian and Russian people. The other problem with this is - who are the factions to support in the insurgency? Similar to Afghanistan, there are probably going to be some bad dudes we have to work with and that could come back to bite us as it did in Afghanistan.

    But I am even more afraid of a world where powers can use nuclear threats to avoid punishment for unjustified aggression. If Putin “gets away” with this in the eyes of the world, will China escalate against Taiwan? China escalate against the US? India vs. Pakistan? Israel vs Iran? What Putin is doing is a total game-changer in the narratives about nuclear deterrence. Nuclear deterrence used to be a defensive notion - Putin has made nuclear deterrence an OFFENSIVE notion. That’s very very not good. So I think the play is to beat Putin without making it look like we were even playing.

  4. Afghan war in the 1980s birthed Taliban and Alqeada.
    Afghan war in 2000s weaponized Alqeada.
    Iraq war in 2000s birthed ISIS
    Libya war in 2010s created Alqeada and affiliatesin north and west Africa.

    Today, western governments are happy to fund and train nationalists like Azov and volunteer regiments in Ukraine. Would today’s freedom fighters become tomorrow’s terrorists?

    Only time will tell.

  5. This is absolutely a risk and that is part of why I do not like to make the suggestion. But I’m worried there is a conflict between short-term and long-term interests presenting itself, where, short and long term interest are opposed, but short-term takes precedence because without protecting short term interests, there might not be a long-term. The long-term interest is in avoiding empowering or even creating evils to deal with later. But the short-term problem is trying to avoid allowing the creation of a world where first-use nuclear strike is considered acceptable, and that’s an existential issue, if I’m not being too hyperbolic.

  6. Noah Rothman over at Commentary wrote a great piece last week (paywalled now) that asked a question nobody had ever imagined two weeks ago: what happens if Russia loses? The prospect of them losing, either short term or long term, is actually more frightening than if they had simply stormed in, taken over, and turned Ukraine into Crimea 2.0. Because had they won swiftly and decisively we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. There would be no talk of NFZ, arming Ukraine, or resupplying Poland as they send MiGs into battle with a fig leaf Ukrainian flag hastily painted on the wings.

    That this has gone so disastrously wrong for Putin probably ends up as less of a stumbling block as it would otherwise be. And it probably results in a lot more casualties. So now instead of the West sitting back while a brief skirmish is followed by regime change, we’re forced to watch a brave and heroic effort by a free people dying in the streets in order to preserve that freedom for a little longer. We’re forced to watch Ukraine slowly bleed out. And that is the thing that opens the door to more Western/NATO involvement. Because on a base level most of us want nothing more than to see F/A-22’s screaming into battle and vanquishing the Reds in less time than it takes for Amazon to deliver us a new toothbrush. We want to see the wicked repelled and then punished for their acts of barbarism. We want some version of justice to be done and for Zelensky to see the day that his people are once again free. We want the pictures of him hugging his kids, not his kids crying at the memorial that’s held a week after he’s assassinated. And the people who want war know this about us. They know what this all feels like for everyone watching. They know how to manipulate us and make ~74% of us say ‘yes’ to a NFZ when a pollster asks us. That feeling you have in the pit of your stomach when you think about what’s happening now, in our lifetime, on ‘our watch’? That’s called impotence. And it’s a powerful motivator (just ask Pfizer!) and it can be used to sway an entire population of otherwise (relatively) rational people to do crazy things…like start WWIII with a nuclear power.

    Doing nothing is unfortunately the right thing, but it still can feel wrong.

  7. Iraq, and Afghanistan, but hopefully not Ukraine.

  8. Ha ha —you said money shot.

    That was the line that jumped out at me as well!

    We need to stop buying their damn energy though. It almost makes one wonder - if the cost benefit analysis was done and negotiated before the invasion even took place.

  9. The hardest thing to do is always to do less. Even a small look at the events of 2014 in Ukraine vis-a-vis the US involvement in the Maidan ‘coup’ is sufficient to convince that the US was complicit. I just can’t see how arming Mexico, Canada, or Cuba by the Russians would not be considered as an existential threat by the US, and yet, our funding the Ukrainians arms is OK.

  10. I’m not sure I buy the arguments that the reasons like “NATO expansion” and “western-backed coup” are anything but pretexts.

    If we are to believe that Putin and other Russian elites actually entertain the crackpottery of Aleksandr Dugin’s geopolitical determinism as expressed in “The Foundations of Geopolitics” - Ukraine was always going to be invaded, sooner or later. Here are some quotes:

    The existence of Ukraine within its current borders and with the current status of a “sovereign state” is identical to delivering a monstrous blow to Russia’s geopolitical security, which is tantamount to an invasion of its territory.

    The continued existence of unitary Ukraine is unacceptable. This territory should be divided into several zones corresponding to the gamut of geopolitical and ethnocultural realities.

    The Ukrainian problem is the main and most serious problem facing Moscow. If the problems of the North and the “polar trapezoid” are connected with the distant future of Russia and Eurasia, if the development of Siberia and the battle for Lenaland are important for the near future, if, finally, the positional strategy of reorganizing the Asian South is relevant for Russia, the geopolitics of the West and the center of this geopolitics, the “Ukrainian question”, requires Moscow to respond immediately, since it is a matter of delivering Russia a real strategic strike, which the “geographical axis of history” simply does not have the right to respond to.

    Given that the simple integration of Moscow with Kiev is impossible and will not give a stable geopolitical system, even if this happens despite any objective obstacles, Moscow should be actively involved in the reconstruction of the Ukrainian space according to a unique logical and natural geopolitical model.

    There also exists the mundane fact of mere cupidity. As I understand it, Russia and Ukraine are both beset, and partially governed by, oligarchs who act as subsidiaries of literal gangsters, who are, in fact, a part of the Russian government. The gas disputes between Russia and Ukraine seem to tell a story.

    A large amount of the gas Russia supplies to Europe flows through Ukraine, and Ukraine has a history of stealing that gas, thereby depriving the organs of state corruption of their full-measure of profits.

    Now, I don’t know what’s going on in Putin’s head, or why he decided to invade Ukraine, or why he thought it was a good idea to do so now.

    But the pursuit of power, strategic control of people and industrial areas, greater control over gas profits, and belief in unifying a greater Russia to deprive other “blocs” from controlling Ukraine are enough reasons for me to doubt the sincerity of Russia’s given reasons for invading Ukraine.

    None of this implies that the US is not hypocritical, or that US and NATO were not arrogant, or that the US and Europe should escalate further.

    But I don’t think the given reasons for Russia’s invasion make a lot of sense.

    I am not an expert on geopolitics or international relations, but I just can’t see how Russia has “legitimate” concerns that had to be solved by military conquest - or, at least not by the values that the “West” professes (even if it does not always practice them).

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