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‘The Street Sense to Recognize a Gangster’
Did Biden bait Putin into a disastrous error? Should Ukraine bow to the inevitable about Crimea and Donbas? Readers explore the implications of a Russia-hand's assessment.
This post is a selection of responses that (well-informed) readers have sent, about the post on Monday by Thomas S. Fallows—who is a long-time Russia expert, and is also my brother. I’ve sent them to Tom, and I include his replies. I am grateful to him and to everyone who has read the piece, and for these enlightening messages.
1. ‘Surrender once and for all Crimea and Donbas’
From a reader in the US, raising a point echoed by other readers: why should Ukraine, fighting for its independence, bow to any Russian claims, including those imposed by force eight years ago over Crimea and Donbas?
Appreciate the first hand account from someone who's immersed in the history of the region. Would like him to expand on this:
".. wise people of the West will have to convince Zelensky of Ukraine to surrender once and for all Crimea and Donbas. They are not 'worth it' to remain in Ukraine. Russia controls them, and Ukraine should formally acknowledge this to gain the Peace."
This is a different take than what we're hearing about the "principle" of self-determination fundamental to any nation's decision to join NATO and can’t be compromised. Would like to know how author reconciles this view with current destruction and Western analysis that Russia's unprovoked aggression ushers in a post-post Cold War era?
Thomas Fallows’s reply:
Everyone is entitled to his/her personal opinion. I am taking the view of pragmatism, arguing that this "principle" is important, but at the expense of how many lives and worldwide destruction?
The point goes back to "how to stop Putin?" The more direct way to do so is to send in US airplanes, missiles, tanks and boots on the ground. For (I believe) good reason, our leaders have shied away from that since the times of Truman (Berlin Airlift yes, but we did not bulldoze a highway through East Germany to get there), Eisenhower (Hungarian Invasion of 1956), Kennedy (Berlin crises early 1960s), LBJ (Czechoslovakia in 1968), Reagan (Polish martial law with Solidarnosc) and George W Bush (Georgia).
So either the war can continue and drag on until Putin has destroyed a country and left more than 5 million refugees and brought the whole world Into a huge crisis, or we use direct US military force (which wisely we won't do), or…what?
Pragmatically (and realistically), I think this "principle" is an important sacrifice to save lives and destruction, in order to recognize something we already lost in 2014. Ukraine can survive without Crimea and Donbas (as it has already demonstrated for the last 8 years).
2. ‘I fail to see why we should recognize Crimea annexation.’
On a related theme, from a reader who has been a senior European official:
A splendid piece. One remark:
The author writes *I believe that eventually, the wise people of the West will have to convince Zelensky of Ukraine to surrender once and for all Crimea and Donbas. They are not 'worth it' to remain in Ukraine*
I fail to see why we should recognize Crimea annexation. Even the Chinese are not doing so. A Taiwan model may suffice i.e. tacit acknowledge of status quo.
About Donbas. Yes, if the writer thinks of the areas now occupied by separatists, but definitely not if he envisages the whole provinces where as far as I know the majority of those living west of the front line do not want to be in Russia.
About Ukraine ‘neutrality’. Yes, but it should be guaranteed by all five members of UN security council. Otherwise, it would not be worth more than the 1994 agreement.
From Thomas Fallows
Ukraine's neutrality was already protected indirectly by the Budapest Treaty guaranteed by Russia, the UK and the USA, which was the deal to get Ukraine to give up its nuclear weaponry.
The idea of constitutional neutrality (like Austria after World War II and Finland) is a good idea. But I don't think that is sufficient to stop Putin.
3. ‘Biden baited Putin into making a historic error’
From a reader in Canada who has worked as a criminal prosecutor. He says that when he looks at Putin, he sees a familiar type—and that Biden may have seen the same thing:
One thing that I think that everyone has missed, and I suspect they will continue to miss, is that President Biden baited Putin into making this error of historic proportions.
I am nobody. A low level, about to retire, in the trenches criminal prosecutor. I don’t know a lot. Most of the times I have made a big decision in my life, I’ve been wrong. But I have seen a lot of criminals. And a few real gangsters.
They live by intimidation and they don’t back down. I suspect that President Biden also understands gangsters. An honest politician would absolutely have to, to make as far as he has and not to sell out to them. And so he understood and understands Putin.
The logical thing for Putin to do was to bluff and bluster and threaten until he got control of a corridor down to Crimea. But for some reason he took a step into…madness. And invaded Ukraine. Why?
I believe it’s because President Biden dared him to and goaded him into it. And Putin couldn’t resist. And that Biden understood that as a gangster he wouldn’t be able to walk away from the dare.
I can’t remember Biden’s exact words, but essentially Biden said: we’re not giving in; and Putin’s got that big army there, so I guess he’s just got to invade.
I really think Biden knew what he was doing and understood who he was dealing with. He dared Putin to invade. He said that he just had to. The angry gangster couldn’t control himself. And he attacked. And overreached.
Of course this all has a ways to go. And things could go wrong. In almost unthinkable ways.
But Biden, unlike Obama or the Bushes had the street sense to recognize a gangster . I’m convinced of it. And unlike Clinton or Trump, he was prepared to stand up to him and call him out.
And he is about to change the world like no president since Roosevelt has. (In a good way, I hope!) And almost no one seems to appreciate what happened or why.
Thomas Fallows replies:
Bravo! I agree.
I was personally very surprised by Biden's low-key offhand remarks in that press conference (before Christmas I believe). "Yeah, I think Putin is going to invade". Really gutsy comment, and something that exposed him to another political diatribe about Sleepy Joe being incoherent in public speaking. But that whole "early intelligence unmasking", of the US announcing what they have seen in intel on Russia, broadcasting in live time, must have really got under Putin's skin. As the writer mentions, this probably was the provocation to a thug or gangster, and Putin took the bait.
4. What about a tax credit?
From a reader in the US:
Thank you and your brother for this informative and thoughtful commentary. Very helpful history.
Agree on sanctioning all Russian oil and gas exports, including steps immediately to help Germany and others get alternative supplies.
How about a temporary, sizable, refundable (prepaid) tax credit, phasing out at some sensible income level, to offset the impact on family budgets of higher energy costs? Consumers would also be rewarded for energy efficiency and substitution of lower carbon impact capital goods.
From Thomas Fallows:
Good point. I think the important thing is to assure Western Europe (Germany) that we could come up with alternative energy supply.
The US embargo is important more as a moral gesture than a new instrument in economic war. The energy sanctions have to come out of Europe to really bite.
5. Where’s the logic, in trying to deter a madman?
A prominent figure in the technology world asks how strategic logic can apply to an irrational foe:
I read your brother’s thoughts with great interest.
One thing stood out to me. He appears to propose two things that may be in conflict:
Best strategy is to concede Donbas and the expanded Crimea occupation to end the war
Putin is now crazy and committed to a strategy that will ultimately fail
Did I read this correctly?
Several Ukraine experts I know believe that there is no way to appease Putin, that efforts to do so will only encourage him. Their view is that Putin embarked in 2014 on a campaign to destroy democracy and the liberal order, and that Ukraine is merely the latest step. They think he miscalculated, that he is too isolated to change course, that his economy is far too small to occupy Ukraine, and his army too corrupt to overcome the current level of resistance without insane levels of war crimes.
Their view is that the west should supply Ukraine in the hope of stretching out the campaign another few months, at which point the Russian army and/or economy may collapse. Like your brother, these people have spent careers studying Ukraine and Russia. (The only reason they talk to me is that I know something about internet platforms, which have played a central role in Russian strategy since 2014.)
I am in no position to evaluate the situation, but I seek out authoritative voices, including your brother’s. It is super clear that the Russian army has structural issues. They have lost more than 800 heavy vehicles, including more tanks that the British Army has in total. They have lost a surprising number of aircraft. And the evidence – e.g., the stalled convoy – is that their remaining equipment is not suited to the environment of norther Ukraine at this time of year.
Putin may be the central figure in the recent explosion in right wing authoritarianism around the world. It is not hard for me to imagine that there may be no equilibrium between the interests of liberal democracies and those of Putin.
From Thomas Fallows:
Good thoughts. I just think that dragging things out for months will take us to the same conclusion where we are today: Russian forces in control of the south and east.
6. Listening to Ukrainian folk songs
An academic who has frequently visited the region tells about a multi-week working trip in the 1990s:
Our trip to Ukraine was co-sponsored by the Russian and Ukrainian academies of science. So, our entourage was half Russian and half Ukrainian, about 40 in total.
We had a long drunken lunch at a forestry cooperative northeast of Lvov. At least two hours of toasting and eating. I faked it and didn't drink but most people consumed a liter of vodka and half a liter of brandy.
The lunch was followed by Ukrainian folk singers. Half the table was singing and clapping and dancing and the other half was sitting and scowling, as only drunken Russians can, and saying nothing.
Through our translator, I asked our bus driver what was going on (the three of us conspired and drank water shots during the toasting). He said all Ukrainian folk songs involve torturing and killing Russians in the most grotesque ways possible.
I am not asking Tom Fallows to respond to this. Thanks to him, and to the many readers.