The War In Ukraine – A Frenchman’s Eyewitness Report – Bernard-Henri Levy

Bernard-Henri Levy: Poroshenko’s visit with death in Kramatorsk before fateful meeting with Putin

Feb. 15, 2015, 12:31 p.m. | Op-ed — by Bernard-Henri Lévy – from Kyiv Post – Ukraine’s leading English-language newspaper.

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A handout picture taken and released by the Ukrainian presidential press service shows Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (2nd R), standing next to French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy (R), looking late on Feb. 10 at an unexploded rocket in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk in Donetsk Oblast. Fighting in Ukraine has killed at least 45 people in the last 24 hours, Kiev officials and rebel authorities said, ahead of a four-way summit in Minsk to thrash out a peace deal.
© AFP

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map from Google

The meeting was scheduled for that very evening—the evening before the Minsk summit this week—in Petro Poroshenko’s office at the presidential palace in Kyiv.

But the moment my colleague Gilles Hertzog and I arrive at the Kyiv airport and step on the tarmac, my phone rings.

It is Valeriy Chaly, the Ukrainian president’s deputy chief of staff, who is already in Belarus for the summit.

“Stay where you are. Whatever you do, don’t go into town. I can’t tell you anything on the phone. Protocol is coming to pick you up.”

We sit in a deserted waiting room where a converted duty free is selling bad coffee and bars of the Roshen chocolate, ubiquitous in Ukraine, on which Petro Poroshenko made his fortune.

After two hours, the security ballet begins—men in black, headsets in the ear, long, ultra-slim briefcase in hand, a routine that several decades in the planet’s hot spots have taught me signifies the imminent arrival of the Boss.

From there, everything moves quickly. The men in black assume battle stations as we charge back onto the tarmac, where a jet sits with its twin engines running. We scramble up the ramp at the rear. A security man leads us to the forward cabin, where Poroshenko is waiting. The Ukrainian president is barely recognizable in his khaki T-shirt, camouflage pants and military boots—but mostly because of an almost worrisome pallor, something that I have not seen on him before.

“Sorry about all the mystery, but except for him,” Poroshenko gestures to Gen. Viktor Muzhenko, the Ukrainian army’s commander in chief, who is also in uniform—“nobody knows where we’re going. Security reasons. But you’ll see. It’s awful. And I want you as witnesses.”

The flight, headed southeast, lasts an hour.

We are headed to Donetsk Oblast, where, the president tells me, vicious shelling of a civilian area has just claimed several dozen victims.

The conversation turns to the summit in Minsk, Belarus, where the leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine will meet.

“Tomorrow at this time you’ll be face to face with (Russian President Vladimir) Putin. What are you going to say to him?”

“That I will yield on nothing,” Poroshenko replies. “That neither Ukraine’s territorial integrity nor its right to Europe are negotiable.”

“And if he persists? If he won’t abandon his idea of federalizing the areas now in the hands of the separatists?”

“Then I’ll walk out and submit the question to public opinion and to the United Nations. We are not Ethiopia in 1935 or Czechoslovakia in 1938 or one of the little nations sacrificed by the great powers at Yalta. We’re not even your friend [Alija] Izetbegovic, who accepted the partition of Bosnia in Dayton.”

I tell him that the difference this time is that France, under François Hollande, is with him. He says he knows that.

I remind him that Germany contracted an ineradicable debt with respect to Ukraine (seven million dead in World War II alone) and that Chancellor (Angela) Merkel cannot fail to honor it. He nods as if to say that he knows that, too, but is a little less sure of it.

In any event, he feels strongly that his country has paid too dearly for its freedom and independence to accept any form of diktat. “I am hoping with all my heart for a peace agreement, but we are not afraid of war. Didn’t your General (Charles) de Gaulle say that great people, in dark times, have no better friends than themselves?”

We spend the rest of the flight discussing the formal statement that he will make at the opening of the summit, where the fate of his country will be hanging in the balance. It is a little after 10 p.m. when we land in Kharkov.

About 30 armored vehicles are waiting for us near the plane.

And off we go in convoy across the deserted plains of the Dnieper to Kramatorsk. After three hours of fairly easy going, the last 30 miles are a frozen track rutted by military convoys.

No lights to be seen.

Not a soul stirring.

The chilling atmosphere of a dead city.

And then, suddenly, a clutch of poor people warming themselves around a fire.

Here, the middle of the city had been the target of a Smerch rocket fired from a distance of more than 30 miles in the early afternoon.

Here, and within a radius of about 900 yards, the giant antipersonnel weapon released its rain of minirockets, killing 16 people and wounding 65.

And here I discover another Poroshenko: no longer the military leader from the plane; still less the billionaire president that I accompanied to the Élysée Palace a year ago; but a ravaged man, livid in the floodlights illuminating the scene. He listens as survivors recount the hellish whistle of the rocket, the women returning from the market who were mowed down by the deluge of pellets, the panic in the streets as people rushed for shelter, tripping over bodies, the brave mother who covered her child with her body and was killed, the arrival of rescuers, the anguish that another rocket could follow.

“What a disaster,” he groans.

He repeats it several times: “What a disaster . . . We are kilometers from the front. There’s no one here but civilians. This isn’t war—it’s slaughter. This isn’t a war crime; it’s a crime against humanity.”

And then, standing at the edge of the crater formed by a rocket that had failed to explode, Poroshenko—suddenly immense and strangely colossal because of the bulletproof vest that his aides had him don under his jacket—points at the engine of death as if it were his personal enemy and adds: “A monster of that size, outlawed by the Geneva Convention, the separatists don’t have those. That could only be the Russians.”

He repeats, a grim smile freezing his features. “The Russians. When I think that the Russians will be there in Minsk tomorrow and will have the audacity to talk about peace . . .”

A doctor, his arms bare even though the temperature is well below zero, approaches to escort us to the nearby hospital emergency room.

The president lingers at the bed of each of the injured, sometimes asking questions, sometimes offering sympathy, sometimes, with the hardiest, trying to joke. I think I even see him give a quiet blessing to an old woman as she hands him the fragments that had been removed from her legs, saying, “Here, Petro, you give these to Putin. Tell him they’re from Zoya in Kramatorsk.”

We make a last stop, far from the city, at the military headquarters of the general staff of the Donetsk region. In a vast building entirely covered with camouflage net are dozens of officers, helmeted Herculeses, their faces furrowed and exhausted, some asleep on their feet with their backs to the wall, still clutching their weapons. And there Poroshenko resumes the role of war leader. He disappears into the map room with his top officers, where he gives orders for the counteroffensive that will have to be launched if the Minsk summit fails.

It is 3 a.m.

Military intelligence fears the launch of another rocket attack. In any event it is time to go. We take the same route back, though it seems even more desolate.

Once we return to the plane, I tell Poroshenko that I had dinner the night before in Paris with a former ambassador to Ukraine who is advocating deliveries of weapons—and who believes that the Ukrainian armed forces are in a tough spot, especially in the Debaltsevo pocket, where thousands of troops are menaced on three sides.

“He’s not wrong there,” Poroshenko responds with a smile, digging into the cold cuts that the flight attendant has just brought to him. “But make no mistake: The time is long past when the navy at Sebastopol and the barracks at Belbek and Novofedorivka gave up without firing a shot. That’s the only advantage of war: You learn how to wage it.”

I also tell him that many in the U.S. and Europe doubt the capacity of his soldiers to make good use of the sophisticated weapons that eventually may be delivered to them. At this, he guffaws and, after exchanging a few words in Ukrainian with his chief of staff, says:

“Well, tell them, please, that they’ve got it wrong. We would need a week, no more, to take full possession of the equipment. Know that, because we had no choice, our army is about to become the best, the bravest, and the most hardened force in the region.”

From that point on, he darkens again only when I mention the uphill battle that his American friends will have to fight before any equipment can be delivered: Congress will have to reapprove the Ukrainian Freedom Support Act that it first passed on Dec. 11. It is an appropriation bill to release the $350 million in military aid that was approved. Final approval will be needed from President Obama, whose tendency to procrastinate in such matters is well known. And a decision will need to be made about whether the equipment can be taken from existing stocks or will have to be manufactured, which would take even more time.

“I know all that,” Mr. Poroshenko mutters, closing his eyes. “I know. But maybe we’ll get a miracle. Yes, a miracle.”

That reminds me that Poroshenko is a practicing Christian, a deacon in civilian life. On the presidential campaign trail last year, in Dnepropetrovsk and elsewhere, before every meeting, I watched him find the nearest church and take a moment to kneel and pray.

***

The idea also crosses my mind that the skilled strategist that he has become—the civilized man whom circumstances have obliged to join the admirable club of reluctant heroes who make war without wanting to—is possibly thinking that what he most needs now is to gain time. Perhaps gaining a few weeks would be the chief advantage of the accords that, without for an instant trusting Vladimir Putin’s word, he is going to sign.

Minsk. Is it a fool’s bargain?

Will the agreement he signs be a false one that, like last September’s, stops the war for just a month or two?

Of course. Deep down, he knows it. His statement after the signing of the accord was simple: “The main thing which has been achieved is that from Saturday into Sunday there should be declared without any conditions at all a general cease-fire.”

For the time being, the nightmare will recede a bit.

It is nearly dawn when we finally land in Kyiv. And Poroshenko has only a few hours to make it to that summit where, one way or another, he has a rendezvous with history.

Bernard-Henri Lévy is one of France’s most famed philosophers, a journalist, and a bestselling writer. He is considered a founder of the New Philosophy movement and is a leading thinker on religious issues, genocide, and international affairs. His 2013 book, Les Aventures de la vérité—Peinture et philosophie (Grasset/Fondation Maeght), explored the historical interplay of philosophy and art. A play, Hotel Europe, performed in Sarajevo, Venice, Odessa, and Paris in the latter half of 2014, is a cry of alarm about the crisis facing the European project and the dream behind it. This article was translated from French by Steven B. Kennedy.

 

Michael Kinsley Weighs in on “The New Republic” Controversy

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photo – getty images

             The New Republic Magazine, a 100-year-old liberal publication was purchased recently (two years ago) by the young co-founder of Facebook ( worth $700 Million) who now wants to turn the company into a digital media company after initially announcing that he wanted to maintain the magazine’s legacy as a provider of in-depth journalism. Michael Kinsley, who was the managing editor of the New Republic for nearly twenty years had this to say about the development as he was interviewed by The Times:

“Michael Kinsley, who did two stints as editor of The New Republic and then rejoined the magazine in 2013 before leaving in January for Vanity Fair, cautioned against rushing to judgment about the new regime. “We don’t know, or at least I don’t know, what their plans are,” he said. “Have they said anything about what they’re going to do except in these vague and cliché-ridden terms?”

Mr. Kinsley is no longer on the magazine’s masthead. But if he were, he said, he wouldn’t join the protest. “We live in a capitalistic society, and that’s something that The New Republic has historically stood for,” he went on. “It’s his magazine, and if he wants to wreck it, he can.” From the New York Times article below.

The New York Times  – JONATHAN MAHLER and RAVI SOMAIYA: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/08/business/media/revolt-at-the-new-new-republic-.html

More articles about the controversy:

Real Clear Politics – Joe Nocera: http://www.realclearpolitics.com/2014/12/09/the_new_republic039s_rebellion_347288.html

The New Yorker – George Packer : http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/real-crisis-journalism-new-republic

The Washington Post – Dana Milbank: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/dana-milbank-the-new-republic-is-dead-thanks-to-its-owner/2014/12/08/ae80da42-7ee0-11e4-81fd-8c4814dfa9d7_story.html

RAVI SOMAIYA – The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/27/business/media/the-new-republic-is-sold.html?_r=0

Garry Wills – American Thinker & Iconoclast

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Photograph by Gasper Tringale.

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(photo – Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune)

Mr. Wills is the foremost literary journalist and thinker of our time. This article is a tribute to this iconoclast, one who has followed his own path to understanding America with intelligence, tenacity and grace.

The American Mind

The historian Garry Wills has written better than anybody else about modern America

by Sam Tanenhaus / March 11, 2013 
Published in March 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine

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Wills is an outsider: a practising Catholic, a proud midwesterner, a cheerful iconoclast who has infuriated friends on both the left and right © Gasper Tringale

Sooner or later, anyone who writes about America must reckon with Garry Wills. Not that it’s easy to do. The books are demanding enough—not the prose, which is graceful and elegant—but the arguments, which are unfailingly original, often provocative, occasionally subversive and, now and again, utterly perverse, yet stamped every time with the finality of the last word.

In his 50 or so books, a handful of them masterpieces, Wills has ranged further than any other American writer of his time, covering much of the western tradition, ancient and contemporary, sacred and profane. His subjects include Jesus, Paul and Augustine, American presidents old and new (Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, Reagan, the second Bush), Shakespeare and Verdi, the outrages of American militarism, the glories and delinquencies of his beloved-despised Catholicism and—why not?—John Wayne (Wills is a devotee of John Ford’s Westerns.) For diversion, Wills extrudes densely learned articles in the New York Review of Books, the august journal that since the 1970s has been the main stage of his brutal dismantlings of inferior—that is to say, other—minds. To be reviewed by Wills, I can attest, is to feel like a vagrant caught urinating in the master’s hedges: after the initial panic, one experiences a strange, penitential relief. God, or at least one of His retainers, really is watching.

On a dour Sunday morning in December, I visited Wills, who is nearing 79 but looks 20 years younger, at his large three-storey house in Evanston, a prosperous suburb to the north of Chicago. For 30-odd years Wills has been affiliated with Northwestern, the excellent liberal arts university a few blocks from his home. Remarkably, given his proximity to the University of Chicago, that citadel of serious thought has never tried to recruit him for its faculty, despite his Pulitzer Prize, his membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, his National Humanities Medal (awarded by Bill Clinton the same week Wills urged him, in Time magazine, to resign over the Monica Lewinsky dalliance).

The snub pays silent tribute to Wills’s singularity. The University of Chicago favours upholders of tradition like Saul Bellow or the culture critic Allan Bloom. Wills might seem to fit. He has a PhD in classics from Yale. His Latin is still good, and he reads French and Italian. But he puts all this to heretical purposes. He is America’s best living explainer, exposing the nation’s most cherished myths, which he approaches in the manner of a holy blasphemer. He has become an invaluable guide to the modern United States, connecting the present, in all its strangeness, to the nation’s imprisoning history, the patterns of behaviour unchanged since the earliest days of the republic: the convergence of individualistic licence and submission to authority, of “free-market” avarice cloaked in the language of spiritual quest. More incisively than any other thinker he bracingly answers the questions that most puzzle outsiders: why is religion such an enduring force in American politics? Why is there such popular mistrust of government? Why can’t Americans give up their love affair with guns? And he has done all this as an outsider himself—a practising Catholic, a proud Midwesterner who avoids the literary scene, a cheerful iconoclast who has infuriated friends, and presidents, on both the right and left.

It was Wills who saw, long before it became accepted dogma, that Richard Nixon, the bête noire of American liberals, was himself the “last liberal,” ferociously clinging to the national myth of “the self-made man.” It was Wills who cleared away the nostalgic mist surrounding John F Kennedy and exposed him as the originator of the modern “insurgency presidency,” addicted to reckless “covert actions” that paralleled his illicit bedroom adventures. “For the longest time I couldn’t figure out why Wills hates Kennedy,” a political scientist and adviser to Kennedy once told me. “Then I got it. Wills is the good Catholic, and Kennedy was the bad Catholic.”

A good Catholic who nonetheless has declared war not only on church elders but on the Vatican itself. When the sex abuse scandals erupted a decade ago, and others writhed in torments of apology or denial, Wills coolly explained that what seemed like desecrations of the faith were in reality outgrowths of its most hallowed rituals. “The very places where the molestation occurs are redolent of religion—the sacristy, the confessional, the rectory… The victim is disarmed by sophistication and the predator has a special arsenal of stun devices. He uses religion to sanction what he is up to, even calling sex part of his priestly ministry.”

To a non-Catholic like me, Wills was performing a heroic civic deed, prizing open the dank closet of alien experience. He had come not to condemn but to explain. But many believers were outraged, not least because Wills is “perhaps the most distinguished Catholic intellectual in America over the last 50 years,” as the National Catholic Reporter has put it. In his new book, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, Wills is at it again, cataloguing church hypocrisies, false teachings, the litany of bloody crimes. “The great scandal of Christians is the way they have persecuted fellow Christians,” he writes, “driving out heretics, shunning them, burning their books, burning them.”

Wills himself came very close to entering the priesthood—indeed, he had to be released by Rome from his vows when he decided to be a writer instead. He attends Mass on Sunday and still says the rosary every day. These early and continued devotions, more than anything else, set him apart from almost every other major American intellectual—“somewhat outside the national mainstream, ready to look inside without going there,” as he has written. For Wills, to think hard is a vocational exercise, and it has given him the confidence to ignore the provincial Manhattan “scene,” with its publishing events and circuit of media parties that reinforce a brutal pecking-order.

It has also given him something even more valuable: rare access to everyday experience, real and felt, in what remains the most religiously devout of all the advanced western democracies. Unlike other presidential historians, Wills immerses himself in the interior religious worlds of his subjects—the sacred texts, the Sunday-school dogma. He knows how close all this lies to the pulsing life of the nation. He knows too that the farm and the village square, nostalgically mourned today—vanishing features of our giant landscape—incubated American democracy, with its evangelised politics, its tightly sealed repressions and sudden violent outbursts, its nightstand with a handgun tucked in a drawer alongside the family Bible. Not all great American writers have understood this. Henry James didn’t. Neither did Edith Wharton. But the outsider “primitive” Walt Whitman did. So did Mark Twain, reared on the banks of the Mississippi. And HL Mencken, the sage of Baltimore who seldom left that sleepy overgrown town. And of course the college dropout William Faulkner, with his arsonist Snopeses and swampland aristocrats.

Each of these native geniuses was essentially self-taught but was also steeped in regional lore, custom, and habit. Each knew the American dream has been handed down in its original pastoral rhythms. Wills is the great living heir of this America of the mind, a man of the middle west—born in Atlanta, raised in Michigan and Wisconsin on either side of Lake Michigan, the fresh-water immensity, shaped like a giant finger, that starts just south of Chicago and extends all the way up, almost 500km, to Canada, its shoreline touching four Midwestern states.

It is this background, as much as his mastery of religious history, that enabled Wills to see in his book Under God—published in 1990, 10 years before the advent of George W Bush’s “faith-based” politics and the mad “Bible Belt” campaigns to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools—that every American generation struggles anew to absorb the facts of secular reason and to swallow the bitter truth that all nations, even republics founded (or, as Wills puts it, “invented”) on abstract principles, come with expiration dates and no claim of “American exceptionalism” can hold the dogs at bay.

Wills—with his boxy spectacles, his Midwestern locutions (“not a one”)—declines to be the great man of letters in the kingly manner of, say, Edmund Wilson, Robert Penn Warren or even the Harvard-tooled heart-lander John Updike. It’s not a question of modesty. Wills is supremely self-assured. He has written two memoirs, the second of them a catalogue of his encounters with presidents, activists, mentors, professional American football players, the opera singer Beverly Sills, each evoked with uninflected precision. In conversation too Wills inclines toward the taxonomic, for instance when he recalls the “Integralist Catholic Church-State Caesaro-Papists” who formed a small renegade faction at National Review, the conservative journal-cum-hothouse where he got his start as a 23-year-old prodigy in the 1950s.

All these years later, Wills’s indifference to his cultural standing seems the hard-headed calculation of a combatant wary of the perils of growing soft. Argument is his nutriment and has been since his teens, when he was an accomplished schoolboy debater at the Jesuit high school he attended in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. For Wills to argue is not to quarrel, accuse, or even opine. It is to state a hypothesis and then work through it with Euclidian rigour and arcane examples. “People tell me I should read Hilary Mantel’s novels,” he says, “but I’m not interested in the writer’s imagination of history. I want to see the evidence!”

He himself drains vats of it. “I require many hours for reading,” he says, and when he can’t grab a book—in the car, for instance—he listens to the audiotapes he keeps in ready supply. It all goes into closely reasoned assertions, one after another, marching across the page in the stern ranks of Jesuitical logic.

Wills has lately been blogging for the New York Review—sending forth not “posts” but miniature essays, tiny epics on the American mind (“The south,” he wrote in January, “escaped one of the worst character traits of America, its sappy optimism, its weakness of positive thinking.”) His gleeful post-election swatting of Mitt Romney (“Things he was once proud of—healthcare guarantees, opposition to noxious emissions, support of gay rights and women’s rights, he had the shamelessness to treat as matters of shame all through his years-long crawl to the Republican nomination”) brought a rush of web traffic, yet another brave new world for a scholar-journalist-provocateur who until recently drafted his manuscripts in longhand and declined to purchase a computer until his students forced him to. “They were angry that they couldn’t email me,” he says.

It’s no longer a problem. Fed up with academic politics—squabbling over hires, trudging through unpublished dissertations—Wills voluntarily gave up tenure, although he still teaches, and supports himself by combining books with related lectureships. He lives in a large yellow house, near the Great Lake, with his wife, Natalie, whom he met in 1957, when she was a flight attendant, and then married in 1959. “[She is] the only person with whom I have ever had sex,” he has written, one of the more curious boasts in recent literary annals.

* * *

When I visited Wills, it was a relief to see how robust he still looks, despite a health scare last summer, so serious that obituarists at the New York Times, where I work, were poised to “update”—they had to mention all those new books!—while bulletins came in from Wills’s daughter Lydia, a literary agent in Manhattan, and Robert Silvers, the editor of the New York Review. When Wills recovered, I sent him a note. He ignored it, characteristically, and now brushes the episode aside. “I had a gall bladder operation and got an infection in the hospital, so I spent about three weeks in the hospital.” He is now fully recovered, though he has other ailments. “I’ve got a bad back. I’ve got a little gout—everything you’ve got when you’re old. But I’m mobile and I work all day, one way or another.”

The house, purchased after the Wills’s three children were grown, is arranged for maximum comfort. The living room, which looks toward the lake, is gracious and spare, with a grand piano Wills tinkers at. These comforts provide cover for trouble-making: “Be regular and orderly in your life,” Flaubert counselled long ago, “that you may be violent and original in your work.” For Wills ordinariness comes easily. He confesses to being “a conventional person,” “square,” “middle class,” “so unnoticeable that I have trouble getting waited on in stores.” Raised by not especially educated people—his father was an appliance salesman and college boxing coach—Wills belongs, for all his bold intellectual exploits, to the obedient, respectful “silent generation” that came of age after the second world war. His boyhood was spent in classrooms and churches—and sneaking in reading on the bleachers at American football and basketball games. He himself resembles a youth sports coach, burly and bland-featured, and he dresses like one too: pullover, plaid shirt, soft-soled shoes. He speaks in the ageless tones and, much of the time, the diction of a regular Midwestern guy.

All this too is camouflage. Wills came into his selfhood by tangling with tough-minded elders—his father, who forced him to watch boxing matches (Wills has called for the sport to be banned), the “fathers” who drilled him in the church teachings he now demolishes, the department chairman at Johns Hopkins who long ago warned Wills he would not get tenure, ostensibly because he was doing too much outside writing, but actually, Wills believes, because of his association in those days with National Review, the conservative journal, and his friendship with its editor William F Buckley.

That was in the early 1960s, before Wills was radicalised—jailed for protesting the Vietnam war (he was an ally of the Berrigan brothers, radical priests hunted by the FBI after they napalmed draft files) and keeping company with civil rights activists. In thrall to Martin Luther King, Jr, Wills flew to Memphis the morning after King’s assassination in 1968 and was one of the very few whites, all journalists, present at the funeral. The mourners were black. “All were, absolutely all,” he says, still shocked. One wall of his study has a framed photo of King in his coffin signed by the Life magazine photographer Art Shay.

The other adornment—also honouring a national martyr—is an “absolute facsimile” of the Gettysburg Address, a gift from the Library of Congress in recognition of Wills’s book Lincoln at Gettysburg, about the 272 words that “remade America,” summoning it forward out of slavery toward “a new birth of freedom.” One of Wills’s signature achievements, it combines literary and historical detective work, and moves from a learned discussion of classical rhetoric to a brooding meditation on Lincoln’s mind and character, his profound yearnings and hard calculations, his romantic-melancholia, his obsession with death. “Slavery is not mentioned, any more than Gettysburg is,” Wills writes of the great speech. “The discussion is driven back and back, beyond the historical particulars, to great ideals that are made to grapple naked in an airy battle of the mind. Lincoln derives a new, a transcendental, significance from this bloody episode.” And yet, “by turning all the blood and waste into a hygienic testing of an abstract proposition [ie, all men are created equal] he may have ennobled war, the last thing he wanted to do in other contexts.”

Wills is a pacifist and this formed the basis of his tense exchange with President Barack Obama that led to much gossip afterward. This was in June 2009. Obama, newly in office and acutely aware of his place in history, wanted to hear what experts had to say. Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose Team of Rivals Obama drew on when he assembled his cabinet (the book also inspired Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln) arranged for eight historians to join Obama and a few staffers for dinner in the White House. The guest list included, among others, Robert Caro (the legendary biographer of President Lyndon Johnson), Robert Dallek (biographies of Kennedy and Johnson), and inevitably, Garry Wills. “It’s a strange thing,” one of the group told me afterwards. “You imagine you have a lot to tell the president. But as soon as you’re with him, all you can think to do is tell him how great he is.”

* * *

Not Wills. When Obama professed surprise at all the hostility he was getting from supporters on the left, Wills recalled, “I said you’re going to get more if you keep doing signing statements”—that is, issuing policy orders directly from the White House circumventing Congress or adding his own interpretation to approved legislation. Wills, an authority on the constitution, is one of many who think these orders violate it. Obama once did too, in his Senate days when George W Bush used the statements to slip items past Congress, just as Obama has been doing. Now Obama finds himself falling into the trap of the imperial “insurgent” presidency—and not simply on matters of domestic policy. Three months before the dinner Obama had announced he would send 4,000 more troops to Afghanistan, and there were strong hints of further escalation to come. At dinner’s end, Wills recalls that Obama “went around [the room] and said, ‘Before you leave if you have one more thing you’d like to tell me…’ That’s when I said if you get back into Afghanistan you’ll never get out. You can’t put that country together.”

The lessons of Vietnam could not be avoided. That war had destroyed the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, whose vision of a “Great Society” Obama hoped to build on. Wills was not alone in making this point. But he was the most emphatic, though it was to no avail. At the end of the year Obama announced another 30,000 troops would be sent in—a “surge” like the one George Bush had ordered in Iraq. In the spring of 2010 the total number of “boots on the ground” reached 100,000. “Obama need not wonder about his legacy, even this early,” Wills blogged in July 2010, almost exactly a year after the White House dinner. “It is already fixed, and in one word: Afghanistan. He took on what he made America’s longest war and what may turn out to be its most disastrous one.”

“Everyone else at that dinner was invited back,” Wills told me. “I was not. Most of [the others], by the way, were very sycophantic.” He says this evenly, though with a touch of wounded pride. But in the end, Wills was vindicated. Obama has been quietly whittling down the US “presence” in Afghanistan and early this year announced 34,000 troops will come home by January 2014.

In any case, snubbing Wills was a mistake. When Obama summoned the historians a year later, worried now about the Tea Party, Wills could have told him more than all the others combined. His book A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government, published during the Clinton years, is even more timely today, as the Republican party lapses into retrograde obstruction. The bigger irony is that Wills has written admiringly on Obama and has compared him more than once to Lincoln. But Wills is no longer infatuated. Asked recently what book Obama should read, he replied, “Garry Trudeau’s Signature Wound, to see what damage Obama has done to thousands of our young people with his stupid wars.” Wills might have chosen Thucydides or Machiavelli or Tolstoy. Instead he chose a collection by the left-wing Doonesbury cartoonist who remains a hero of American youth culture.

That same culture informs Wills’s greatest work, Nixon Agonistes, still the one indispensable primer on modern American politics après le déluge of the clamorous 1960s, part Mencken, part Aristotle, part Moby Dick. It is an eyewitness account of the 1968 presidential election, the most tumultuous in modern times—two assassinations (Martin Luther King, Jr, Robert F Kennedy); riots in the cities (Chicago and Miami) where the parties held their nominating conventions.

Others wrote about it, but it was Wills alone who foretold that the next phase of American politics would be shaped not by campus protest and black revolt, but by the threatened and angry middle class—Republican delegates, the Sun Belt physicians and small-town bank presidents, “gladsacks, as it were,” who crowd Miami Beach’s resort hotels, their main topic of conversation the exorbitant prices, even as they are unsubtly bullied by the hotel management. “No one is presumed to know the rules of tipping: a note in each room gives the ‘suggested gratuity’ for maid service.” Later, Wills finds a taxi and crosses the bridge in Miami proper, where a riot has broken out between blacks and the police, with looters running wild. “There were no signs of fires, no report of guns, so the driver dipped down onto city streets, and we followed the path of wreckage in toward the centre of things—a weight machine thrown through a store window, the cash register wrestled to the floor, the window of a wig shop broken and stripped, ladies’ heads bowled here and there in bald disgrace.”

Published in 1970, when he was 36, Nixon Agonistes is above all the record of Wills’s transit from right to left; from bright young conservative to man of the left. (It also earned him a place on one of Nixon’s “enemies lists,” because, among other offences, of its unflatteringly detailed portraiture.) A few years later, when Watergate destroyed Nixon’s presidency, Wills’s book was read as a kind of prophetic decryption. It remains the most encompassing of all electoral campaign writing, a journey into the tangle of American excess and equally into the deep tangle of modern liberalism. Wills’s prose seethes with taxonomical fervour as he pins each specimen to the wall: “Henry Kissinger, who looks like a serious Harpo Marx, haunted the outskirts of power in Kennedy’s day, but was too dour and Germanic for Camelot. In Nixon’s sombre capital he has the reputation of a wit—elfin, sly, a bit of a ‘swinger.’” There is also the raunchy Alabama populist George Wallace: “He has the dingy attractive air of a B-movie idol, the kind who plays a handsome garage attendant.”

Amid the character sketches are summary cadences that might have come from writing on the Peloponnesian war. Thus Wills on the anxieties of the early cold war: “The bomb and its control, peace terms and new alliances, divided-occupation duties, the UN, ominous little bristlings against Russia at the Paris peace talks… Truman had seized the railroads and threatened to draft the workers… The war had ended without ending—and who was to blame? No one, of course. History. The gods.”

This wasn’t political journalism. It was tragic drama. We’re still living with the consequences. Obama is too. Yet Wills seems curiously free of the history he has told better than anyone else.

At the end of my visit—after the crabcakes Wills had promised, and the delicious soup, and the wine I spilled in a torrent on the dining room table—Wills offered to take me to a hotel in Evanston where I might get a taxi to O’Hare Airport. On the short drive I told him I am one of the many who discovered politics in the pages of Nixon Agonistes. I recited the terse sequence quoted just above, about blame, history, and gods. Did he remember writing that? He shook his head. “No. But I remember the Thomas Nast cartoon.” Every schoolchild is taught (or used to be) about Nast, whose muckraking caricatures of Gilded Age satraps helped expose the corruption of urban “machine“ politicians. Did Wills mean to say Nixon’s villainy is comic? Grinning, Wills, without quite taking his hands off the wheel, crossed his arms over his stomach and pointed a finger in either direction.

Back in New York I looked up the cartoon, a classic from 1871, “Who Stole the People’s Money?” (above). Unsavoury waist-coated thugs, pockets bulging, form a great circle. Each points to the man beside him. The caption reads “’Twas Him.”

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Ukraine – Summing Up – And the Role of the American Press

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An excellent story from N + 1, showing some of the roots and political forces of the Ukraine conflict. Given the history of the Ukraine as it is told here, it is clear why simple violence can cut through the web of historical entanglement that refuses to get clear for a life in the present. The editors then give the US intelligentcia a tongue lashing for helping to bring back cold war practices part of which is accomplished by demonizing Putin, accompanied by reflecting negatively on each move the Russians make. The article ends by admitting that Putin is a scoundrel and that we should be kinder and gentler.

THE EDITORS – N + 1 Magazine

Ukraine, Putin, and the West

Putin walks into a bar . . .

Published in
Issue 19: Real Estate
Publication date
Spring 2014

IN NOVEMBER OF LAST YEAR, a spirited protest took place in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv after the country’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, declined at the last minute to sign an association agreement with the European Union. The agreement would have been a very small first step toward a still hazy, far-off EU membership, but it had major cultural and symbolic significance, and its sudden rejection, under clear pressure from Russia, brought people to the streets.
The initial protest, on central Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Independence Square, has since been estimated at around a thousand people—hardly impressive, especially in a country where since independence the citizenry has been willing to take to the streets. The difference this time was the surprising ham-handedness of the authorities, who first ignored the protest, then tried violently to disperse it. This, to many people who’d been growing weary of a corrupt and incompetent regime that had imprisoned political opponents and enriched itself and its friends while the country’s economy stagnated, was too much, and they too came out into the streets.
The massive, sustained, courageous protests that followed were anomalous for the post-Soviet space in that they did not revolve around rigged elections, as did the successful 2003 and 2004 protests in Georgia and Ukraine (the Rose and Orange “Revolutions,” respectively), as well as the large, ultimately unsuccessful protests in Moldova in 2009 and Moscow in December 2011. They were also anomalous in that Yanukovych, bad as he was, was a typical post-Soviet leader: a man who’d used his ties to the old nomenklatura and the rising criminal-capitalist class to consolidate power, often through the use of violence. Yanukovych would have been very much at home as a regional governor in Russian Krasnoyarsk or Irkutsk. And yet here were people, formerly docile and frightened and cowed, out in the streets against him.
In the American press, the protests were initially greeted as “pro-Western”—as were the earlier Georgian and Ukrainian protests, and protests in Lebanon, Iran, and Egypt. The protesters, the story went, were people who wished to pull Ukraine into a 21st-century European future, rather than back toward a 20th-century Soviet past. We’re not saying we saw it personally, but if no one wrote an exuberant article about the use of social media on Maidan, we will eat our laptop.
Eventually the picture became more complicated: Svoboda, a small but rising nationalist political party (10 percent of the vote in the 2012 parliamentary elections) and the Right Sector, a gang of right-wing street fighters, were taking the lead in some of the violent confrontations with police, and so it was reported that the protest did include some “extremist right-wing groups,” though just as often it was reported that there were “extremists from both the right and the left.” There were leftist activists on Maidan, but when, early on, they tried to set up an organized presence, they were attacked with knives by the right-wing groups. After that they kept their presence low-key.
As the protests stretched on, despite the freezing cold, some supporters began to worry that talk of right-wing groups was giving Maidan a bad name. A group of Ukrainian, Russian, and Western scholars circulated a strange petition urging Western media outlets to stop talking about the right-wing groups. In the US, this campaign was taken up by the Yale historian Timothy Snyder. In a series of articles and posts in the New York Review of Books, Snyder insisted, misleadingly, that the right-wing groups had a marginal presence at the protests, and that to say otherwise was to toe the party line being issued from the Kremlin, which was, it’s true, filling the national airwaves with talk of Ukrainian fascists. Snyder was answered by Stephen Cohen of the Nation, who argued that the American media was simply taking its usual anti-Russia line, regardless of the content of the protests. As usual, Cohen went too far, suggesting that rather than criticize Vladimir Putin, the US should be grateful to him for all he’s done. Snyder answered that Cohen, a noted historian of the anti-Stalin opposition, was giving aid and comfort to the enemy. And on it went.
THERE’S A REASON Ukraine is at the heart of the most significant geopolitical crisis yet to appear in the post-Soviet space. There is no post-Soviet state like it. Unlike the Baltic states, it does not have a recent (interwar) memory of statehood. Nor, unlike every other post-Soviet state aside from Belarus, does the majority population have a radically different language and culture from the Russians. In many cases, for these countries, the traditional language suggests a natural political ally—Finland for the Estonians, Turkey for the Azeris, Romania for the Moldovans. These linguistic and cultural affinities are not without their difficulties, but they do give a long-term geopolitical orientation to these countries.
Ukraine has this to some extent in its western part, formerly known as Galicia, which has cultural and linguistic affinities with Poland. But the country’s capital, Kyiv, has much stronger ties to Russia: Russians consider Kievan Rus, which lasted from the 9th to the 13th century (when it was sacked and burned by the Mongols), to be the first Russian civilization. Russian Orthodoxy was first proclaimed there. Most people in Kyiv speak Russian, rather than Ukrainian, and in any case the languages are quite close (about as close as Spanish and Portuguese). On television, it is typical for any live broadcast—whether it’s news, sports, or a reality-TV show—to go back and forth seamlessly between Russian and Ukrainian, with the understanding that most people know both. Russians all too often assume that these cultural affinities mean that there is no such thing as a separate Ukrainian people. There is. But the closeness of the two peoples makes forging an independent path for Ukraine extraordinarily difficult.
Adding to this difficulty has been the Soviet legacy, which in Ukraine as everywhere else is always and everywhere visible. The Ukrainian historian Giorgy Kasianov has written that Ukrainians are forced to exist in several historical and semantic fields simultaneously: the roads they drive on, the factories they work at, the social relations they engage in—all are part of the Soviet heritage. As in the rest of the former Soviet Union, including Russia, this heritage is crumbling, but in Ukraine in particular it remains formidable.
As a result, Ukraine has essentially been frozen in time since independence. Nationalist and pro-Russian political parties (each bankrolled by a handful of oligarchs) have passed the presidency back and forth between them, neither getting much done while they ruled. The country’s two countervailing forces—Ukrainian-language nationalists in the west, and Russian-language nationalists in the east and Crimea—have ensured that neither maintains the upper hand. Because of this, Ukraine has consistently had a better, more lively public sphere than most of its neighbors—more freedom of speech, more freedom of assembly, more diverse political actors. Ukraine was also distinguished by the repeated, and usually peaceful, transfer of power from one party to another (something that post-Soviet Russia has still not achieved more than two decades in). And yet these positive democratic indicators did not, as contemporary dogma would predict, lead to positive economic results. Instead, Ukraine, a country that in 1991 had hope that, left to its own devices, it could flourish—with its highly educated workforce, proximity to Europe in the west and the Black Sea to the south, and many industrial enterprises inherited from the USSR—has instead lagged miserably behind its neighbors. Its per capita GDP is half of Russia’s, one fifth that of the US. Its economic performance is worse than that of its authoritarian neighbors Kazakhstan and Belarus. It is a country about as poor as El Salvador. And the poorest regions are in the west, which sends many undocumented migrant workers farther west, to Europe, and north to Russia. It is the disjuncture between Ukraine’s solid democratic performance and its miserable economic one that provided the protests with much of their pathos and durability.
The issue of Ukrainian nationalism must be treated separately. Two major 20th-century events play into contemporary Ukrainian nationalist conceptions. One is the Holodomor, or “hunger famine,” unleashed in the early 1930s by Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture. The other is the Second World War, during which a group of paramilitaries in western Ukraine, known as the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, collaborated with the Germans to clear the region of foreign (Polish, Russian, Jewish) influence.
That these events of the past are not dead and buried was revealed most vividly by the presidency of Viktor Yushchenko, the man brought to power on the waves of popular protest known as the Orange Revolution. Yushchenko, whose wife is from the Ukrainian American diaspora that kept alive the flame of Holodomor consciousness, spent much of his political capital and time raising the issue of the Holodomor. The goal was nation-building on the example (diaspora theorists had made this clear) of the Holocaust, so that the death of millions of Ukrainians could do for Ukraine what the death of millions of Jews had done for Israel in solidifying national identity. The problem was twofold. First, a terrible famine is not the best basis on which to build a new, modern nation; second, Stalin’s “hunger famine,” while a massive crime, was directed not at Ukrainians as such but at the Soviet peasantry—much of which was in Ukraine, but large portions of which were also in southern Russia, where they died just as horribly as their Ukrainian counterparts. For Stalin, the destruction of Ukrainian culture and its attendant nationalism was a bonus in the war against the peasantry, nothing more. And so to shape this into a specifically national story Yushchenko and his historians had to twist the truth. They had to insist on the Russians’ genocidal intentions, and implicate by extension the people who were often charged, in the Soviet 1930s, with carrying out collectivization: Ukrainian Jews working for the NKVD.
The second aspect of Yushchenko’s concept for a Ukranian national narrative focused on rehabilitating the memory of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (the Ukrayinska Povstanska Armiya, or UPA). The leaders of the UPA remained active after the end of the Second World War, and were hunted down and assassinated by Soviet agents. Soviet propagandists then worked assiduously to remind citizens that small-nation nationalism (as opposed to Great Russian nationalism) led to fascism, as demonstrated by the collaboration of the UPA with the Wehrmacht. Soviet propagandists loved this story. The Chechens, Ingush, Volga Germans, and Crimean Tatars had all been accused by Stalin of working with the Germans, but with the UPA it was actually true. The Soviets loved this story so much that they couldn’t leave it alone; where necessary, they forged documents to prove the UPA’s guilt. The result was a multilayered story that changed depending on who was telling it and how much they knew; it was like that episode of The Simpsons where the family gets kidnapped by aliens, who may or may not be planning to eat them, and Lisa and the aliens take turns blowing dust off an old cookbook, which seems to say, with each bit of dust removed, How to Cook Humans, then How to Cook for Humans, then How to Cook Forty Humans, then How to Cook for Forty Humans. When Yushchenko was told that the UPA had committed massacres in western Ukraine, he responded that this was KGB propaganda. And some of it was! But some of it, unfortunately, was not. This, too, set Yushchenko against and alienated him from his neighbors to the north. (Not coincidentally, this argument paralleled the later argument about the presence of the right wing on Maidan. The protests were massive and varied and full of ordinary people with either no political affiliations or a commitment to “democracy,” which, however vague, they were willing to defend with their lives; but there were also groups raising the red-and-black UPA flag and chanting the old UPA slogan, “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to heroes!” Nonetheless, ideological defenders of the Maidan protests repeatedly pointed to overheated Russian propaganda as proof that allegations of a right-wing presence must be false.)
As all this was being argued about in the West, not always in good faith, and as Russian and Ukrainian leftists engaged in much more honest self-criticism about the lack of a leftist presence in the protests, events in Kyiv continued to develop. In mid-January the Ukrainian parliament, controlled by the ruling party, passed a draconian law to punish the protesters, including sanctions against driving in a motorcade, wearing a helmet, setting up a tent, refusing to block access to internet services (for ISPs), “blocking access to personal property,” et cetera. In response, protesters overran administrative buildings throughout western Ukraine, where police refused to intervene. Yanukovych meanwhile managed to squander his significant advantages—the fact that he was a legitimately elected president, for one thing, and that he controlled the army, for another—through a mixture of indecision and stupidity. Sometimes it seemed he was brilliantly waiting out the protesters—and it was very cold out—until suddenly he would send the riot police to try to clear the square again. Activists began to be kidnapped and tortured and sometimes killed. The determination of the protesters hardened. What had once been a crowd with iPhones was transformed into men in battle fatigues, balaclavas, orange construction helmets, welder goggles, knee pads, shin pads, greaves, metal shields, and all sorts of improvised weaponry—two-by-fours, Molotov cocktails, flails, the occasional hunting rifle, sticks, and rocks. They looked like some army of the damned, out to fight zombies—but in fact they were facing down their own police.
FIGHTING DIED DOWN in early February, as the Rada worked toward an agreement to amnesty the protesters. As a gesture of goodwill, the protesters agreed to clear out some of the government buildings they occupied in Kyiv; when one group of right-wing protesters refused to leave the Ministry of Agriculture, another group of right-wing protesters forced them out anyway.
But the cessation in hostilities did not hold. On February 18, during a vital session of the Ukrainian Rada, a large column of protesters headed for the parliament to voice their support for the parliamentary opposition. The march led to fierce clashes with police, with the latter opening fire on the protesters. People fell, wounded, some of them dead. The crowd fired back. Some policemen were also killed; on Maidan, the occupation held.
The situation had reached unprecedented levels of violence, and the international community stepped up its pleas for a peaceful resolution. Yanukovych, too, seemed frightened by what had occurred (and possibly by his inability to clear the square) and agreed to talks. At the end of this process came an agreement between Yanukovych and the opposition leaders, witnessed by the foreign ministers of Poland and Germany, as well as a Russian representative, to hold early presidential elections and guarantee amnesty to the protesters. It seemed like finally the standoff was over.
But things had gone too far by this point, and the agreement did not hold. Events began to develop very rapidly. It was reported that Yanukovych and his cronies were trying to flee the city, whether because (as Yanukovych later claimed) his car had been fired on, or because it was clear that their situation was hopeless. In response, thousands of people blocked the road to the airport. Yanukovych fled the city anyway; this became clear when his palace, just outside the city limits, was left unguarded. Curious, people started going in. Yanukovych had left in a hurry—papers clearly showing massive corruption were left in his office. The internet was soon flooded with photos of the luxurious estate; one showed the self-defense forces of Maidan—in their weird outfits, with helmets, unshowered—trying to play golf on the presidential course.
The parliament assumed power and quickly appointed a new government. Yanukovych was laughed out of Ukraine—unable to leave on a chartered plane because he lacked the proper documents, he was reduced to heading for Crimea, where he was able to board a Russian military vessel and be spirited to the friendly neighbor to the north.
Less than a week later, in gross violation of the conditions of their long-standing lease on Crimean territory, Russian troops left their bases in Crimea and began to take up positions around the peninsula, disarming Ukrainian troops where they could. More Russian troops arrived, and the Putin administration began to make noises that this was just the beginning; that Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine—ten million people, give or take—could also, perhaps, use Russian protection from Ukrainian nationalists.
How did it come to this? If there was one thing everyone agreed on just five years ago, it was that, say what you would about post-independence Ukraine, it was a country. “Ukraine exists,” was the understated but undeniable election slogan of the (failed) 2010 Yushchenko presidential campaign. Crimea, Ukraine’s most restive and most beautiful area, was finally settling in for the long haul—better to be a strange, anomalous, mostly Russian-speaking Ukrainian appendage than to be inside a paranoid, authoritarian Russia. That the revolution against Yanukovych, a triumph of human fortitude, should result in the loss of territorial integrity is sad but comprehensible. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and here is this one.
WHAT ROLE HAS the American intellectual community played in this saga, if any? Certainly we failed to prevent it. But there is more. For the past two years, since Putin reassigned himself to the Russian presidency, we have indulged ourselves in a bacchanalia of anti-Putinism, shading over into anti-Russianism. We turned Pussy Riot into mass media stars. We wrote endless articles (and books) about how Putin was a mystery man, a terrible man, a KGB ghoul who lived under your bed. It got to the point where Western journalists in Sochi for Putin’s overpriced Olympics were cheered like heroes for tweeting about how the curtains in their hotel rooms were falling down. It was funny, but it was also not funny. Should Putin, the president of a country with inadequate hospitals, schools, and housing for its 150 million people, have spent $50 billion to host the Olympics? Absolutely not—especially when a third of the money was apparently expropriated by various officials. But the gleeful complaints about Olympic conditions seemed mostly bent on humiliating Russia in toto.
It’s hard to know how much of what gets written in various places leads to American policies. Does it matter what’s in the Nation? What about the New York Review of Books? The New Yorker? It’s impossible to say. And the media or publishing game has its own rules, irrespective of politics. Evil Putin is just going to get more airtime than Complicated Putin or Putin Who Is Running a Country in a Complex Geopolitical Situation.
Perhaps the way to put it is that an intellectual mistake was turned into a political mistake. The intellectual mistake was to fixate on Putin as the bad man who came along and suddenly undid the good work of Boris Yeltsin. (Bill Clinton’s Russia hand Strobe Talbott the other day tweeted an inadvertent reductio ad absurdum of this position: “Putin has for years been systematically reversing reforms of Yeltsin, Gorbachev & Khrushchev, whose gift of Crimea to Ukraine he’s nullified.”) But as the Russian left has been telling us for years, Putin has not gone back on the Yeltsin-era reforms. In most spheres of Russian life, he has continued them—undoing the Soviet safety net and replacing it with nothing. That he has become an authoritarian ruler while doing so is a result of the fact that these reforms are cruel and unpopular.
An obsession with Putin—shared, by the way, by the Russian liberal opposition, which continues to pine for Yeltsin and refuses to admit the destruction he wrought on the country and its populace—was the intellectual mistake, and it created a political atmosphere. Why did Obama refuse to meet with Putin at the G20 summit in St. Petersburg last summer? Was it because the Russians had been intransigent and unhelpful on various foreign policy questions, or was it because Evil Putin had become such a media fixture in the US that meeting with him would have been politically poisonous, a “sign of weakness”? No doubt it was both.
And it was this atmosphere, too, of blind rage against one man, through which the events in Ukraine were filtered. Were there right-wing militants among the protesters? Not if the Kremlin says so! Should the Western ambassadors, formal and informal, so eager to give the Ukrainian opposition advice, counsel them to keep in mind the sensitive Russophone population of eastern Ukraine and Crimea? No—that would only give comfort to the Russian enemy. If the protests nonetheless remained pluralistic, committed to democracy, often in its most direct form, it was not because of any advice from the US, which tended, as usual, to be focused on zinging the Russians.
Putin has a habit of talking tough. In televised interviews, and in the strange staged televised cabinet meetings he likes to hold, he sometimes seems like he’s talking through clenched teeth. It’s irritating—to Russians more than anyone—but the American political establishment, and the American intellectual establishment right behind it, got dragged into it. If the US were truly strong—or rather, if the US understood that it is strong, much, much stronger than Russia in every conceivable way—would it not have found a way to placate this tough-­talking man and his proud but troubled country, and direct Russia’s energies somewhere useful? If a man who is weaker than you walks up to you aggressively in a bar, what do you do? Do you humiliate him? Do you write articles about how scary and mysterious he is? As is, Putin talked tough, and so the American media and then American politicians decided to talk tough, too. And now we find ourselves plunging, perhaps, into a protracted period of international standoff—a “new cold war”—with increased military budgets, decreased understanding and interaction, and once again the kinds of restrictions of movement that we thought we’d left behind. As for Russia’s fledgling opposition, both liberal and left, which could not help but be inspired by the courage and persistence of the Ukrainian opposition regardless of its political makeup—it will not be strengthened if Russia becomes, as it will inevitably, even more aggressive and paranoid during a period of intense reaction and retrenchment. The opposition may even be destroyed. The same goes for Ukraine, which, now partly occupied by a foreign power, is likely to shift politically toward its nationalist right.
None of this is to say that Putin doesn’t have a lot to answer for. Under his leadership Russia has failed to demonstrate, to its own citizenry and even more so to its neighbors the Ukrainians, anything positive, anything admirable, anything that they would want to gravitate toward except, occasionally, some cold hard cash. No, Putin, who lost whatever democratic legitimacy he may have enjoyed when he returned for a third term, is to blame. But did we on our side do everything we could to avoid this scenario? The answer, obviously, is no.