Cold War II


Attention Americans! Yes, you should know where Ukraine is (and that’s just the beginning of where you should be informing your opinion)

Here now is a classic moment of why I started this website.  Americans, apparently, have stereotypically fuzzy knowledge of where Ukraine is.  If they can’t even figure out where the fuck the place is, how can they decide if it’s worth starting World War III over?  (Interestingly, the more ignorant, the more likely to support war.  Go figure).

So here we go.  A simple guide to all the Americans out there that may lack some of the most basic info on Ukraine.

It’s in Europe.

Specifically, Eastern Europe.  It was once part of the Soviet Union, which you may or may not be old enough to remember.  On the most basic of levels, the fact that it’s close to Russia makes it important to Russia.  Just as Canada is important to the U.S., Russia cares about who is in charge of Ukraine.  That’s common sense; you want to know thy neighbor.

It’s a medium-sized but poor country.  It’s corrupt, and its politicians have a nasty record of stealing taxes.  That’s made the people of Ukraine understandably pissed at government.  Some of them blame Russia for this corruption; others blame people within Ukraine.

Hi there! I’m the Red One!

So if it’s in Europe and its close to Russia, why then should you care?  You don’t give a shit about a weekend in Kiev.

Fair enough.  Ukraine is far away from your country and you most likely won’t have much interaction with products from there, people from there, or even pornography from there.  Why should you bother getting your head filled up with facts about such a place?

The most basic reason: no other country on Earth should be more powerful than yours.  We’ll get to why later.  But power is pretty easy to understand: it’s measured in land, population, size and equipment of militaries, and wealth.  But you can’t be the richest country on Earth and be the most powerful.  Just ask Qatar.  Nor can you have the biggest military and think you can do whatever you want.  You have to have all four in place to be considered Top Dawg.

By grabbing little Crimea, Russia has increased its land, population, and wealth.  By itself, that doesn’t matter.  Crimea is tiny.  So again, why care?

Because nobody knows if Russia is done.  Russia under Vladamir Putin wants to bring Russia closer to its old Soviet status of #2 most powerful country in the world.  To do that, he must increase all four measurements.  And he’s just bumped the rankings up a little.

Yeah, and?  Why should you bother being afraid of the Russians?

You shouldn’t be afraid.  There’s a big difference between FREAKING OUT OH MY GOD LET’S GET THAT SHELTER GOING AND MAYBE I’LL FINALLY ASK THAT HOT GIRL DOWN THE STREET OUT SINCE WE’RE ALL ABOUT TO DIE and “Oh, hey, that’s not good.  Perhaps we should send some F-22s to a Baltic republic?”

Russia should be slowed or even stopped from increasing its power as much as possible short of going to war.  Sometimes, that means acting like your country will go to war.  That sounds dumb because it is, and it’s a result of people in general being dumb by having created nation-states to begin with. Like much in life, however, the alternative to our bad system is worse.  I dare you to think it’s a good idea to bring our previous system of kings and emperors.

There’s a lot of reasons for nation-states being dumb, but the general rule is this: as soon you organize people in groups, they compete with one another.  Eventually, on a long enough timeline, they’ll fight each other, especially when they think they can get away with it.

No matter how hard we try, we won’t be doing this.

But what’s so bad about letting Russia have a go as superpower?  Isn’t America a horrible place full of fat people?

It’s a fun stereotype, but a world under Russian domination would be considerably worse than the current one under America’s.  Life is not about perfect places doing perfect things; it’s about flawed places doing as little harm as possible.

A world under Russia would be poorer, more corrupt, more violent, and generally rougher than the current one under U.S. domination.  (For a general take, see A World Without America.)  This really has nothing to do with culture or morality, the two things we focus on most when we try to slag off a country.  Rather, it has everything to do with ability.

Because it’s #1 in the four pillars of power, America can maintain an expensive military system that has helped prevent World War III or a return to imperialism.  I think we can agree those things were bad.  Remove America from the system, and the likelihood of one or the other happening  goes up.  This is the natural result of people being organized into nation-states.  Nation-states compete; sometimes, they compete violently.  And every there and again, a nation-state comes along that thinks it can end this competition for all time by having a massive throw down of violence in a world-shattering war.

What peace does America keep?

People slag off the U.S. as the “world’s policeman” quite often.  But just as saying “Fuck da police” doesn’t mean your neighborhood would be safer sans Da Police, neither too does saying “Death to America” mean that America has served no useful role in the world.  Thanks to American military might, both Germany and Japan have exited the world stage as dangerous powers.  That’s a huge deal; typically in human history, states dealt with threats by killing as many people as possible.  America may have dropped the bomb on Japan – twice – but then had the sense to rebuild it once the war was over.  That’s leaps and bounds ahead of what other hegemons have done.  Again – not exactly ideal to nuke people to make them into your allies.  But preferential over what the Romans did to the Gauls, the British (and later Americans) to the Native Americans, or the Russians to the Germans of Prussia.  When your options for permanent peace are limited nuclear war or outright genocide, you choose limited nuclear war.  It’s fucked up, but it has worked.

Okay, so just let Russia (and maybe China) run the show while those dogs in Washington whimper on home

This comes back to ability.  If America voluntarily gave up and withdrew worldwide, neither China nor Russia within the next decade could fill the gap.  China lacks military power; Russia lacks the right sized population and economy.  (China’s huge population is if anything a drain on its military spending, since more and more resources need to go towards modernizing its 1.1 billion+ people).  Neither could effectively lead a peacekeeping mission in Africa, or set up Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, or prevent Iran and Saudi Arabia from divying up the Persian Gulf states, simply because they don’t have the power to do so.  (China may someday, but that has yet to be seen).

If they could do this, they would be.  The fact that they’re not trying to do much more than complain about the U.S. is proof in the pudding that they aren’t up to the job of keeping the nastiest, most horrible wars under wraps.

This would also translate to trade.  Prices for just about everything would go up if America decided to stop interfering with planet Earth.  America’s navy keeps trade lanes open, ensures vital resources are as freely traded as possible, and organizes relief efforts for disaster-struck regions.  When the 2004 Asian tsunami hit, it was American warships that were a big part of the relief effort.  Take those ships away and more people would have died that year.  The irony of a ship built to kill saving lives shouldn’t be lost on you; but the world is not black nor white.

People who are trained to kill people using machines designed to kill people instead helping people. The world is weird, but beautiful.

But it just doesn’t feel right

Much of that is the natural result of people wishing they had complete control over their lives.  We all wish that.  But it’s not the case.  I challenge you to find one thing in the room you’re sitting in that you had complete control over as it was produced and sold.  You make compromises all the time; you trade off on price vs. quality with nearly every decision you make.

The U.S. is the best deal right now.  That doesn’t make it moral.  It doesn’t mean it’s infallible.  But like a third generation smart phone you buy second hand, sometimes it’s acceptable to have something that does the job.

Which brings us back to caring about Ukraine

In and of itself, if Russia swallows the whole of Ukraine back into its borders, the system won’t change much because there’s not enough land, people, and resources to change the balance.  Russia would still need to rebuild all the borders of the Soviet Union to get itself competitive.  But Ukraine is a massive first step because of all the ex-Soviet republics, it’s the biggest and most complicated.  From Ukraine, Putin could siphon up Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Armenia comparatively easily.  By the end of the decade, a much larger and more assertive Russia would be busy causing trouble in many more places.

The best way to ensure peace is to nip what can be nipped now.  Nobody should be calling for war; Russia has nukes and that will kill us all.  But everything short of that needs to be used to make Russia’s conquest as painful as possible.  If Russians can get the sense to throw Putin out in the next election, all the better.  But to sit back and not care at all is not a responsible thing to do.

As the citizens, soldiers, and voters of the only nation on Earth that can be responsible for a problem like Ukraine, it falls to Americans specifically to be best informed – and not to do something dumb, like ride an atomic bomb into a Russian airbase.  Use the Internet; listen to some of the media and ask questions.  Find those answers on your own, and write to your leaders to support actions that keep Russia from further growth.

Someday, as cultures grow and generations mature, we can have a brotherly discussion with a new Russian government about what we can cooperate on.  But such a government is not in power in Moscow today.  Letting it get away with things will only make our world more dangerous.

The Advantages and Limits of Seeing Putin As Hitler

If you’ve done your job right as a world leader, someone has, at one point, compared you to Hitler.  The comparison is super lazy; mostly, opposition groups mean to slander somebody by saying they are the Most Evil Ever, and since nearly all of us agree Hitler was bad throwing his moustache on a photo is a pretty effective way to do it.  Few leaders ever actually behave like Hitler, and to make the Hitler slur even harder to stick, no leader has ever been caught dead with that moustache since the war.  (Well, except this guy).

But every once in a while, the comparison gets more traction because a leader is acting the dick on the world stage and ends up making us think of the last time someone went land grabbing.  With Russia now in de facto control of Crimea, and with Ukraine pulling out, calling Putin a 21st century Hitler feels closer to the mark than just a few years ago.  But first, some basics.

There’s got to be a whole industry of people who make these kind of signs.

History does not repeat itself, except when it does

Okay, okay.  That does sound all zen and shit, but it makes perfect sense.

2014 will not be 1938 because, well, it’s 2014.  That means next year Putin will not follow Hitler’s timeline, find his Poland, and start World War III.  Moreover, it also means that Crimea isn’t even Putin’s Sudentanland.  You’ve got to draw a line between comparisons and understand that standing in a different time and a different place does mean your analogy that Putin = Hitler is nonsense.  Nobody but Hitler is Hitler and drawing a funny picture of a modern day leader with a swatstika on his arm just isn’t accurate.

But you can use history to understand human behavior and establish certain principles.  If the environment makes a man hungry, he will seek to eat.  This is true today, was true in 1938, and will be true in 2114.  But a man in 1938 may have chosen to eat his whole family; that doesn’t mean in 2014 the same circumstances will push a similar man to make the same choice.  Rather, the hungry man of 2014 will, if anything, look at the cannibal of 1938 and use those past decisions to inform his own.  Later on, the hungry man of 2114 will look back at 2014 and see if he too can make a better call.  It doesn’t change the underlying rule that a hungry man will seek to eat.

From history we can pull some simple lessons from the idiosyncratic decisions made in the past to apply to what’s happening today.  From Hitler’s story, we got these:

  1. Humiliated countries will seek to be less humiliated in whatever ways they can
  2. Bad economies make people more willing to take big, dumb risks, including starting wars or giving power to crazy leaders, if they think it’ll improve their situation
  3. Both conditions lead to more aggressive leaders, who will be more likely to gamble and take high-risk decisions
  4. Failure of other powers that are equal or greater in stature to counter those high-risk decisions encourage these aggressive asses to keep on being aggressive
  5. Eventually, their aggression crosses some international red line and an alliance must either destroy them or put them into a more manageable geopolitical position

These are the conditions we must be looking at when we start to say, “Putin is Hitler!”  And this is where history is useful.

Condition #1 is satisfied

Russia in the 1990s was prostrate and in tears over the loss of the Soviet Union.  It stumbled through a badly-led war in Chechnya and lost control of the republic for a few years.  Its economy crumbled and its enemies grew stronger as NATO pushed eastward.  One of its few European allies, Serbia, begged for help against NATO back then but got all of dick from a Russia that could not afford to support it.  That was a low point.

It was made worse during Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Once upon a time Saddam looked to Russia for protection.  In 2003, he got all the support Russia could muster – a UN veto.  The United States ignored it and invaded anyway.  Saddam ended up being dragged from a hole, put on trial, and executed.  To what remained of Russia’s allies, Russian protection was not terribly reassuring.

Reflected in all of this was a collapse in Russian society.  Crime shot up, birth rates dropped like a rock, and people died left and right from alcoholism, violence, and other dumb causes.

Condition #2 too is complete

Russia’s economy was in the shitter in the 1990s.  Boris Yelstein drank his way through government while the ruble crumbled.  As NATO grew in stature, Russian standards of living dropped while a handful of ex-communists got rich as fuck.  It was inevitable that Russians would elect someone who promised to reverse the country’s fortunes.  That man was Vladimir Putin.

“I feel pretty fucking cool. Do you guys feel cool, too? Let’s get our wives pregnant and reverse Russia’s demographic decline.”

And thus you got condition #3

One of Putin’s first acts was to invade Chechnya and put it back in its place.  The war was fought badly and ruthlessly, but the end result was the Russian tricolor back in Grozny and a whole lot of dead civilians.  Russian military pride was salved.  As for ordinary Russians, they could at least take solace knowing the terrorists who in the early 2000s were bombing Moscow with horrific regularity were either on the run or dead.  Putin became the aggressive leader willing to tie his reputation to military success.  This all culminated in 2008 when Georgia attacked the breakaway region of Ossetia.  What should have been a civil war almost immediately turned into an international one as Putin threw down the gauntlet and invaded Georgia.  His army won and the West did nothing.

Which leads us now to condition #4

Putin got away with his assault on Georgia and thus knew that he could avoid direct confrontation with Western powers under certain circumstances.  When he ordered forces into Crimea last month, no doubt the lessons of Georgia were all part of the discussion.  “We did it once; we can do it again,” must have been the consensus.  This time around, however, he’s taking a further step to test the limits of Western patience by actually taking over territory.

And which points us towards condition #5

In the 1930s, Europe was prepared to live with an enlarged Germany.  The red line was the conquest of Poland, which would have put Germany into an unassailable geopolitical position as the most powerful nation in Europe.  What, now, is NATO and America’s red line?  That’s up for debate.  Perhaps the alliance itself doesn’t know.

But the game is quite different from 1938 because, well, the world has nukes

In 1938, a conventional war was a disaster but not necessarily annihilation.  Today, war between NATO and Russia is just that.  Nobody has forgotten Mutually Assured Destruction.  Instead of World War III, the doomsday scenario is Cold War II.

Putin doesn’t want such a thing.  Russia has too many investments and economic stakes in Europe to get cut off in another long fight.  A second Cold War would close its access to just about every market it needs for its energy exports and leave it with only Belarus and Central Asia.  If Cold War I couldn’t have been won by a much stronger, larger, and economically competitive Soviet Union, then the reduced, energy-export-reliant Russian Federation has no chance in fuck of winning Cold War II.  If I can read Forbes, so can Putin.

Moreover, Putin has an authoritarian democracy, but a democracy nonetheless. He’s not Der Fuerher with absolute power; witness Pussy Riot and the anti-war protests last week.   Putin’s United Russia can still technically lose elections, and thus he can’t march Russia into stupid oblivion unchallenged as Hitler once did.

For Putin, disaster is condition #5 coming to fruition.  He’s read his history, too, and so he must find ways to divide both the EU and NATO against itself.  Invading and conquering all of Ukraine will cause his enemies to immediately close ranks, strengthen NATO, and start Cold War II that he’ll eventually lose.  So he’ll stop short of that.  The fact that the Crimean conquest has been bloodless helps here.  Having new killing fields in Europe once more increases the likelihood that an anti-Putin alliance forms and defeats him.

And I’m spent. If Russia tries to match America’s defense bucks, it will lose.

What’s next?  Well, more of condition #4 until condition #5 comes along

Russia has won Crimea and everyone suddenly loves Putin again.  Break this down into your local situation – if you have a friend who wants your candy bar and then throws a fit to get it, your response is key.  If you give them the bar, you encourage them to throw a fit again later on.  Putin’s been rewarded by the one thing that, for him, matters – the Russian public.  What the rest of the world does is irrelevant so long as it doesn’t start Cold War II.  You can bet that Putin will find another crisis in the next few years to exploit or, failing that, he’ll create one.  Meanwhile, he will continue to stand up for Assad to show off how strong he is and push for Russia to remain key in both North Korea and Iran’s nuclear talks.  All of this is about prestige building and will continue until he finally finds the still-unknown red line for NATO.

It is entirely possible that Putin retires from politics an old man and that he never does reach condition #5.  Truly successful leaders have done that time and time again.  Putin doesn’t have to be an idiot, but powerful forces within Russia are propelling him to be so.  George Friedman of Startfor believes that Russia won’t be able to help itself in starting a second Cold War that it eventually loses.

Geopolitics is not destiny, but it points in certain directions.  Gird yourself, kids – the 2010s just fell victim to that old Chinese curse.