Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Assad's Doing It Again

Many people breathed a sigh of relief when the US worked out a deal with Russia and Syria over Assad's use of poison gas in the Syrian civil war. Instead of launching an airstrike against Syria in retaliation, we would simply remove the remaining chemical weapons.

I did not breathe a sigh of relief; I though it was a bad deal. Given the lack of enthusiasm for an airstrike in Congress and in public opinion, this may have been the best the Obama administration could get. But I think that's because the issue got framed wrong in the public debate.

Here, for example, are some things the airstrike was not supposed to achieve:

  • Destroying Assad's remaining chemical weapons;
  • Involving the US in the war on the side of the rebels.

Here are some things the airstrike was supposed to achieve:

  • Deterring Assad, and every leader of any army anywhere, from using chemical weapons in the future;
  • Reducing the killing of civilians in Syria.
Clearly, removing Assad's chemical weapons does not accomplish those goals. It's not a deterrent to tell someone, "If you ever write another check, I'll take away the checkbook." There's nothing to lose by writing a check, and you might get away with it. And there's nothing for any future leader to lose by using poison gas. But the threat of an airstrike against Assad's air force is a deterrent; if carried out, it would significantly weaken him in his war. Quite likely, that would make the price of using chemical weapons too high in the future, for Assad or anyone in a similar situation.

As for protecting civilians, removing Assad's chemical weapons has not discouraged him in the least from using his air force against civilians. Whether through depraved indifference or conscious policy, thousands of civilians have died in air attacks. Many of those people might have been saved by anything that weakened his air force.

Now come credible reports that Assad's air force has dropped bombs containing chlorine gas. Chlorine was the first lethal gas used in warfare. It has common industrial uses (municipal water treatment, for example), so it was not among the banned chemicals now being removed from Syria. But its use in warfare is clearly illegal and a war crime.

Assad obviously has not been deterred. In fact, not to take it too personally, he is thumbing his nose at us. This is not good for world stability and maintenance of civilized norms.

We need to respond with an air strike against Assad. Obama must do what for some reason he hates to do, which is go on TV and explain to people why we should do this.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Ukraine: Calling It What It Is

In a very interesting scoop, a New York Times reporter talked to members of a pro-Russian militia in Ukraine. A soldier named Aleksey commented, “In western Ukraine, they showed their faces: Nazis, fascist. They destroyed monuments to Lenin, attacked our history. Living on one land with them is senseless for us.”

Fascists? Lenin? Is socialism still alive in Russia? In a word, no.

The basic  internal conflict in Russia, since at least the 19th century, has been between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles.  The Slavophiles believe that Russians, and the Slavs in general, have unique spiritual strengths that the West lacks. In the article, another soldier "speaks of what he sees as unbreakable cultural, economic and religious ties to Russia and his ideal of a greater Slavic world, which he says is threatened from outside." Somehow, though, these brother Slavs always end up being dominated by Russia. My impression is that Russians are much more enthusiastic about the whole idea than other Slavs are.

The Bolsheviks, like other socialists, were Westernizers: they were followers of German revolutionaries and hostile to traditional institutions like the Tsar or the Russian Orthodox Church. But when Stalin perceived a threat from Germany, he revived traditional Slavophilia. See, for example, the famous 1938 film Aleksandr Nevsky, in which the simple, virtuous Slavs defeat the baby-killing Teutonic knights.  World War II is referred to in Russian as the Great Patriotic War, that is, a war for the Fatherland, not for socialism.

What's a bit weird is how completely Slavophiles have now assimilated the Soviet past. Lenin the Westernizer is now, as Aleksey noted, a symbol of Russian history. May Day  (originally celebrated as International Workers' Day) is now a patriotic holiday, apparently with no mention of socialism. The Soviet Union becomes the latest iteration of the Russian Empire, one whose sphere of influence once extended all the way to Berlin.

In this story, one of the great triumphs of the Soviet empire was the defeat of fascist Germany. As indeed it was; the cost to Russians in terms of suffering was enormous. Note that in the story, the war was fought against the fascists, which is simply the Russian term for Nazis, and not against the Germans, some of whom became allies of the Soviet Union, and therefore good guys. Smilarly, there were fascist Ukrainians, who helped the Nazis, but the good Ukrainians, the allies of Russia, triumphed. Now it appears to Russians that the good Ukrainians are out; therefore the bad Ukrainians must be back.

Of course, it looks quite different to the Ukrainians. True, Ukrainians had a long history of violent antisemitism, and some of them were notably brutal concentration camp guards. But Aleksey may not be aware that somewhere between 2.4 and 7.5 million Ukrainians starved to death as a result of deliberate policy decisions by Stalin in the 1930s, and that some consider it one of history's great genocides. So it's not hard to understand why a lot of Ukrainians are not fans of Lenin,

Putin has clearly placed all his chips on the Slavophiles. We are better than these Westerners, he says, with their chaotic "democracy" and their decadent tolerance of homosexuality. In effect, Putin has assumed the mantle of Tsarism, with the Russian Orthodox Church as his strong supporter. (It was no accident that Pussy Riot staged their anti-Putin protest in a Russian Orthodox cathedral.)

And Putin's goal is pretty clearly the restoration of the Russian/Soviet empire. It is absurd to say, as some have, that this is all happening because Putin felt threatened by the enlargement of NATO. Putin knows perfectly well that Latvian or Bulgarian membership in NATO is not a threat to Russia. But it is a threat to Russian dominance of Latvia or Bulgaria. That's the whole point.

It's time to call this what it is, and what no one is calling it: Russian imperialism.